Author's Note: This was written after I read all the other fan fic about what happened to the Riders in the first 5 years after the show and just couldn't agree with the results. I had to put in my own 2cents worth. With the exception of changing the date of one battle (so far) everything written in this story about the Civil War, Hickok and Cody is accurate.

Prologue: Last Run (November 1861)

Louise, Lou, McCl.oud leaned against the wall of the bunkhouse at the Rock Creek way station, waiting for Kid to return from his last run for the Pony Express. Russell, Majors and Waddell had decided to shutdown the mail delivery operation the month before. The completion of the transcontinental telegraph in Salt Lake City had spelled the end of transporting mail via horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Within a few days, the last mochila would arrive in California and the adventure of a lifetime would be over, not just for Lou and Kid, but for hundreds of riders across the continent. Many had already moved on. Only a few, like Kid, still had a run to finish.

It was a bittersweet day for Lou. It meant she would no longer have to stand this lonely vigil, praying for Kid's safe return. The last month had been hard, watching Kid ride off without her. He'd promised she'd never have to watch him leave again.

She knew all too well the dangers he faced when riding the 75 mile route, switching horses at relay stations every 5 to 20 miles before handing the mochila off to the next Rider. Up until a month ago, Lou too had been one of the courageous Riders, flying across the country with but one mission, to get the mail through.

Eighteen months ago she'd disguised herself as a boy in order to use her riding skills to earn the Company's exorbitant $125 a month paycheck. It had been her best chance to earn enough money to buy a spread for herself and her orphaned brother and sister.

Little had she realized, when she'd signed the Rider's Oath and accepted the job, just how much it would change her life. She'd found a family, met Kid, fallen in love and, last month, quit her job as a Rider so she could marry Kid.

Unfortunately, what should have been some of the happiest moments of her life were overshadowed by the tolling bells of war.

"Rider comin'!" Teaspoon Hunter, Rock Creek's Station Master yelled. Running Buck Cross, a half-breed Kiowa, came running out of the bunkhouse and jumped on his horse, saddled and waiting to catch the mochila from Kid. Lou grabbed the halter near the horse's nose to keep it calm and looked up at her friend and adopted brother before returning her gaze to the silhouetted figure cutting through the sunset toward the bunkhouse.

Kid came skidding up on his beloved paint, Katy, and tossed the last mochila to Buck as Buck kicked his horse into a running start and raced off into the gathering dusk. They would see him again in a couple days. If he decided to come back after this last run. He could just keep on riding.

With the end of the Pony Express there would be little left for him here. Jimmy and Cody had already both left, shortly after Noah's funeral. James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok had returned to visit his family in Kansas before moving on to join the Union Army in Missouri as a teamster and sometimes scout. William F. Cody had also signed on as a teamster, with the Union's new 7th cavalry in Kansas. The last anyone had heard of Jesse James he was back in Kansas with his brother Frank, riding with secessionist bushwhackers. As soon as the way station closed next week, Teaspoon was headed back to Texas, although he hadn't yet decided what he planned to do when he got there. The family they'd built was falling apart, just like their nation.

"Ride safe!" Teaspoon yelled after Buck.

Kid jumped off Katy and Lou flew into his arms, hugging him tightly. She'd missed him the three days he'd been gone and was glad they wouldn't have to be separated again. She stared up into her beloved's eyes as they both silently mourned the end of something that had meant so much to them.

After a moment Teaspoon cleared his throat and took Katy's reins.

"I'll take care of Katy for you, son," he sighed. "Go on in and get cleaned up. Rachel's got some stew warming for you."

Kid nodded silently to the grizzled Station Master who'd become an adopted father to both him and Lou. Then the two former Riders turned, arm in arm, and silently entered the bunkhouse.

Chapter 1: Headed East (December 1861/January 1862)

Lou and Kid

Lou stole quick glances at her still newly minted husband by the fire while gathering wood to keep it burning through the night. Kid was staring pensively into the flames while waiting for the rabbit on the spit to finish roasting. She wondered what he was thinking about. After all this time, she knew better then to pester him about it. She'd learned, the hard way, to trust him to tell her, when he was ready. In the meantime, she'd practice some patience.

She hurried back to the fire and dropped her load of wood near their bedrolls. She was shivering in the harsh wind rolling across the Nebraska plains. December had just begun and while there wasn't any deep snow, yet, the cold had definitely set in. Not the best of times to be traveling.

At least she didn't have to deal with those pesky skirts. They let the cold in way too easily for comfort. And, despite the fact they were still officially honeymooners, she was back in her disguise as a boy. Not a problem in the middle of the wild plains tonight, but they'd have to remember to be careful the next time they came to a town. It had been a while since they'd had to act as if they were just two friends, not lovers.

But the return of her disguise was the only way. She wondered if that was what was bothering Kid. He hated to see her in danger and where they were headed danger was all they could expect. If both of them survived this war it would be a miracle.

Kid had decided to wait for the Pony Express to completely shut down before heading back to Virginia to join the Confederate Army. It wasn't that he believed in slavery, but he couldn't leave his birthplace, his home undefended. He wasn't alone in his feelings. Even General Robert E. Lee, who'd been offered the command of the Union Army in the war, had expressed similar sentiments when turning down the assignment. He'd then left Washington, D.C. and joined the Confederate Army.

Kid had hoped by waiting the war would be over before he had to make a decision. Unfortunately, a war many had expected to end nearly bloodlessly in weeks, if not days, was instead turning into a protracted, bloody conflict. So, Kid had packed up and prepared to ride back to Virginia.

But, when they'd gotten engaged, Kid had also promised Lou he'd never leave her behind again when riding into danger. That meant only one thing. She was headed to war, too, even if it wasn't her Cause. She would rather have stayed in Nebraska Territory, bought a spread with their savings and settled down to raise her brother, sister and any children she and Kid had. But that wasn't to be. Not yet.

Kid sighed as she settled down next to him, then turned and gathered her into his arms.

"Cold?" he asked.

"Not now," she whispered tilting her head up to receive his kiss.

"Make sure you eat plenty of that rabbit, it'll help keep you warm," he said as he ran his hands up and down her back. "I'll never be able to thank Buck enough for that buffalo robe he gave us at our wedding. It'll sure help keep us warm in the next few months."

"I'm more grateful for the medicines he gave me," Lou responded as she began stripping the meat off one of the rabbit's legs. "I have a feeling we're going to need them in the coming fight."

"I know," Kid sighed. "I still wish you'd stayed in Rock Creek with Rachel, or even gone to Fort Laramie and stayed with Emma and Sam. You'd have been safe there, with your brother and sister."

"Kid," Lou snapped, "we've been over this. I love Jeremiah and Teresa with all my heart. But, they'll be safe. Sam and Emma will take good care of them. But you won't be. I know where I have to be."

"I'm sorry, Lou. I know I promised and I'll keep my promise. But this is hard. It's nice having you with me now. But knowing that in a few days you'll be in danger, because of me, is tearing me apart. And, I'm not looking forward to having to pretend you're my brother!"

Lou snorted. "You think I am? Now, come here and warm me up, cowboy."

She smiled at him seductively while dragging him down for a kiss.

"I don't know about you, but I'm a newlywed and I plan to enjoy that status for as long as I can. Now, are you coming to bed? Or are you going to sit here brooding some more?"

The devilish glint she loved so much returned to his eyes as he quickly followed her into their snug double bedroll. Even in the worst of times, they're "dancin'" had always cheered him up.

The next morning, Lou and Kid packed the last of their dishes into their saddlebags, kicked dirt over the dying embers of their fire and mounted. They were headed east. But, to get to Virginia to join the Confederate Army they had to cross thousands of miles of war torn territory, evading capture by Union troops and dangerous vigilantes on both sides of the fight along the way. It was going to be the longest ride of their young lives. And that was just the beginning of this trip into hell.

Buck and Teaspoon

The lonely Kiowa half-breed sat on the bunkhouse porch brooding. Teaspoon had officially closed the way station the day before. The only true family Buck had ever known had flung itself to the four winds. If they met at all during the coming war years, it would be over the barrel of a gun. That was a thought that pained him so deeply he didn't know how to handle it. So, he tried not to think it. His impassive face was already creased with too much sorrow, after the deaths of his two best friends and adoptive brothers.

First, Ike McSwain had been killed trying to protect his love from herself. It was a loss Buck had never recovered from. Then, Noah Dixon had been killed in one of the first unofficial battles of this war. He hadn't even been in the blue uniform he'd so longed to wear. The Union Army hadn't let him join because he was a negro. Maybe if they had, he wouldn't have been killed in the skirmish with Pearson's Raiders.

Buck had no idea what to do with himself now. The folks of Rock Creek had treated him well enough, despite his "red skin", but he just couldn't see himself staying here. Not with the rest of his Pony Express family gone or leaving. He had no idea where to go. The previous year he'd made the permanent decision to live as a white man, not an Indian. But right now, that left him with few options. All he knew for sure was that he needed some time to think.

The door behind him clattered shut as Teaspoon exited the bunkhouse tying on his gunbelt.

"Buck, the invitation's still open. You can come with me to Texas. I'd love to have you along, son," Teaspoon said, laying a hand on the indian's shoulder.

"I can't Teaspoon. I just can't. I've lost too many of you already. I can't face the idea I might end up shooting at my brothers in a battle."

"Well, any ideas what you're gonna do instead? You can't just sit here. The place is sold. The new owners are coming tomorrow."

Buck sighed. "I think I'm going to head into the hill country. Do some thinking. Pray. Ask the Spirits for guidance and protection. When the war's over, I'll come back here. I know that's what Lou and Kid are planning, too. Just to see. Maybe Jimmy and Cody will forgive them and come back, too."

"That's an awful big maybe, son," Teaspoon sighed. "Those boys have a lot of grief and anger in them right now and this war ain't going to help 'em cool off."

"I know Teaspoon. But I've gotta have hope. It's all I've got left right now."

"Hmph," Teaspoon harrumphed, patting Buck on the shoulder again. "I know what ya mean, Buck. I know what ya mean. I can promise ya this. I survive the fight and I'll be back."

With that the grizzled and greyed former Texas Ranger, U.S. Marshal and adoptive father of the Rock Creek Pony Express Riders picked up his saddlebags and hopped off the edge of the porch. He ambled over to his horse, checked the saddle straps and mounted up.

He looked at Buck as if he were about to say something else, then harrumphed again and wheeled his horse toward the south, taking off at a gallop.

Buck watched him leave with what to some would have seemed no emotion. But if they'd looked closely enough they'd have seen the sheen of tears in his eyes.

Once Teaspoon's form had disappeared over the horizon, Buck slowly climbed to his feet and walked into the bunkhouse. For a moment he felt older than Teaspoon. He started to pack up his belongings. He'd say goodbye to Rachel, who was staying on as the full-time teacher at the Rock Creek schoolhouse, then head into the Rockies.

Cody

The normally exuberant William F. Cody sighed and shifted on the bench of the wagon he was driving. He hated the slow pace and the constant view of the horses rears in front of him. And he didn't just mean the four legged animals pulling his wagon. He was an experienced scout, skilled horseman and excellent marksman with the buffalo gun resting on the wagon's bench beside him. This was the best use the U.S. Army could find for him?

He sighed again. As frustrated as he was with doing nothing but driving a wagon all day, then loading or unloading it, at least he was contributing. After Noah's death he'd had to do something. He couldn't just walk away from the fight for his country's life and for the rights of all Americans to live free. He just wished it would be a little more exciting.

At least this meant he probably wouldn't be shooting at Kid and Lou, or Teaspoon, who'd all said they were going to join the Confederate Army. It seemed strange that just a few weeks ago they'd been celebrating Lou and Kid's wedding. Then, right there on the church steps, everything had fallen apart.

"Private, be prepared to pull up at the next river crossing. We'll be stopping there for the night before heading on into Fort Leavenworth in the morning."

"Yes, sir!" Cody flashed a flamboyant salute to the Lieutentant. The Lieutentant grimaced and return the sloppy, exaggerated salute with a West Point sharp one then rode off to inform the next wagon in the train.

Cody shook his head as he watched the fresh-faced Lieutentant ride off. That man was so fresh faced and new he squeaked. And if he didn't learn to go with the flow a bit more he wasn't going to last out here in the bloody states of Kansas and Missouri.

Then Cody glanced down at the young man, boy more like, riding alongside him. He already felt protective of the slender youth, probably because the kid reminded him so much of Lou in those early days. Cody's eyes narrowed as he thought about that and carefully searched his companion's face. No. It couldn't be. Not again. Or could it? If Lou had thought of it, surely other women had as well. He knew many women felt just as strongly about the war as he did.

He mentally shrugged and returned his eyes to the horizon, searching for bandits. Even if his suspicions panned out, so what? As long as he, she, whatever, did the job he'd, she'd…. argh! Cody groaned to himself. He'd have to figure out fast just so he'd know what to think to himself. But he wouldn't say anything to anyone as long as the job got done.

"Stay sharp," he warned his companion. "We're too close to Missouri for my tastes. Quantrill and his raiders have been acting up lately. Normally they wouldn't attack an actual Army convoy, too many guns for their taste, but…"

Just as his voice trailed off a volley of gunshots rang out from the trees ahead and the hills behind. Cody slapped the reins into young Thatch's hands and grabbed up the buffalo gun at his side. Thatch slapped the draft horses into a run, not something they could maintain for long with the heavy weight they pulled. Cody and the other armed teamsters starting shooting back.

Cody's first shot made the raider directly in front of the wagon duck. Thatch then ran the man over. Cody quickly looked around for another target and saw a raider about to shoot the guard on the wagon behind him. It was a long shot, but long shots were Cody's specialty. If he could clear the path ahead, then maybe they could outrun the main body of the raiders behind them. He carefully sighted down the length of his rifle, took a slow breath, held it and squeezed the trigger. With a soundless shout the second raider dropped to the ground. Cody let out his near trademark yip of success before looking for another target.

The jangle of multiple bridles and the pounding of hooves coming from the south caught his attention. He turned, ready to start shooting again, but quickly noticed the blue uniforms.

"Reinforcements!" he yelled. "Coming from the south!"

That's when he noticed the young Lieutentant looking around frantically, trying to figure out what to do. Cody jumped from the still rapidly rolling wagon, rolled himself a few times before gaining his footing and ran to the man.

"Sir, I think we should circle the wagons until the cavalry gets here!"

"Good idea, private. Thank you." Lieutentant Daniel Holmes took a deep breath, then let out the call, "Circle up!"

Hickok

James Butler Hickok was just as bored as his erstwhile friend Cody had been. But he had more patience. At times he thought he should've stayed with Rosemary Burke and helped her with her abolitionist movement. But something about that idea had just stuck in his craw. Maybe it was the sneakiness of it all when outright war had broken out. Maybe it was the fact that because of her foolhardy actions his friend Noah had died. He didn't blame her, exactly, for Noah's death but he couldn't quite forgive her either. So, he'd headed back to Missouri and joined up.

At least driving horses was something he knew how to do, though he'd rather be riding them. He already missed his days as a Rider with a longing that was stronger than anything, except maybe his love for Lou. But, Lou was married to his best friend, Kid, now. So, riding and shooting would have to suffice.

It was a good thing Hickok not only liked to shoot but was good at it. He was driving ammunition and supplies to Wilson's Creek where a major offensive was planned against the secessionist Missouri State Guard, led by Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch. Fighting would commence any day. Jimmy wasn't sure if he wanted to be a part of it or not. But, he was ready to shoot, when called upon to do so.

He slapped the reins against the horses rears to chivvy them along, "Come on boys, let's get a move on. There's a war waitin', don'cha know?"

Kid and Lou

Kid gazed down at the pixy features of his beloved wife. Awake or asleep, she was the most beautiful woman alive in his eyes, even with her freshly re-shorn hair. He fingered the few strands lying across her forehead and almost cried. She'd been so proud of her hair as it had started to grow out. That she'd sacrificed it, and so much more, for him made him want to rip something apart. Or maybe shoot something, like his adoptive brother Jimmy would've done. But he couldn't. They'd both had their say and this was the only compromise they could both live with.

Gently he began to shake her awake, then changed his mind. Kid leaned down and began to kiss his way from her forehead, across her face, down the side of her neck. Suddenly she started squirming and gasping beside him.

"Kid! Stop that. You're ticklin' me!" Lou demanded, gasping for breath between giggles.

"I love waking up to the sound of your voice," he whispered in her ear. "I wish we could just lie here forever, but it's time to get up, sleepy head."

"Not just yet, Kid. We've got time to take a few moments for ourselves," Lou replied, pulling his head back down to hers for a slower, deeper kiss. "The train doesn't leave until noon, anyway."

They'd camped outside St. Joseph, Missouri, last night, after making their way through raider, bushwhacker and outlaw infested Kansas. Today they'd catch the noon train east, headed for Richmond, Virginia and a date with the war.

Chapter 3: Back in Pants/Joining Up (January 1862)

Cody

"Man, I hope there's something good for supper. I'm starvin'," Cody muttered, half to himself.

"Don'tcha ever get full?" Thatch grumped. "You've already eaten enough for three men today."

"Yeah, my friends back in Nebraska Territory were always tellin' me that. What can I say, I've got a hollow leg. Or two. There's our stop. Pull up in front of that building, so's we can unload this thing and get some grub," Cody smiled at his young companion. He still hadn't figured out if anything fishy was up or not, but he was watching Thatch with an eagle eye.

Thatch brought the big freight wagon to a lumbering halt in front of a warehouse in the center of Fort Leavenworth. The other freight wagons in their convoy pulled up alongside. While Thatch hopped down and began tying the giant draft horses to the hitching post, Cody sauntered around to the back of the wagon and opened up the gate. He stared at the piles of boxes waiting to be unloaded and sighed forlornly.

"What's'a matter?" Thatch asked as the youngster walked up beside Cody.

"It just looks like an awful lot of hard work and I'm hungry now!" Cody whined.

A couple hours later, after stacking all the boxes of food, guns and ammunition in the various parts of the warehouse, then taking care of the horses and wagon, the pair headed toward the 7th Cavalry's mess tent. Each carried their own tin plate, spoon and cup.

Upon arrival Cody automatically headed toward a water pump just outside the tent and started to wash up. He pulled off his shirt and dumped a bucket of water over his head, before scrubbing as much of the accumulated trail dirt off his face and hands as he could. As he was drying his face on the inside of his buckskin jacket he happened to catch a glimpse of Thatch's face. Thatch was watching Cody with a look equal parts astonishment and envy. Cody just looked at the youngster and shrugged.

"First Emma, then Rachel, they'd never let us come in to eat without washin' up first. Didn't matter how long we'd been on the trail. Guess it's just a habit now. "

Thatch didn't say anything, just followed Cody into the mess tent.

Lou and Kid

"Careful, Kid, the horses are a mite jumpy with all the noise the engine's makin'," Lou warned as she maneuvered her mount into the train's boxcar in St. Joseph, Missouri.

"Ok," Kid replied as he followed them up the ramp with his own horse. "Are you sure you want to ride in the boxcar with the horses? It's not too late to get tickets for the Pullman car. You know we can afford it."

"No thanks. I'd rather just travel with the horses. It's not only cheaper, but it's easier to go unnoticed back here. And that's what I need to do now."

Kid nodded, not happy but understanding of Lou's decision. Now that they were boarding the train this trip was starting to seem a little too real for his comfort, but it was too late to back out now. They pulled their saddles off the horses and tied the animals up at one end of the boxcar with plenty of hay and a bag of oats each. Then they placed their saddles against the opposite wall of the boxcar, along with their saddlebags and other gear. They would use the saddles as seat backs and pillows throughout the rest of the train trip.

Once everything was settled in place, Lou and Kid sat down, side by side, in the open door of the boxcar, waiting for the train to leave the St. Joe station, headed for Springfield, Illinois. There was no direct route south. They'd have to travel east into Illinois first, before heading south to Cairo. Then they'd have to hit the trail again, riding across the dangerous Mason Dixon line into Confederate territory before they could catch a new train in Columbus, Tennessee, that would eventually take them all the way to Richmond, Virginia. The trains moved an average of eight miles an hour, so the 1400 mile trip should take about eight days, assuming there were no delays.

Lou dangled one leg out the side of the boxcar and stuck the end of a piece of hay in her mouth to chew on. Kid leaned up against the open door of the boxcar next to her. They gazed out at the city that had been the end point of the Pony Express for them and held many memories, including the first time Kid had ever seen Lou in a dress. There'd been good times here, but they were leaving all that behind.

The train jerked beneath them as the engine picked up steam and started chugging down the track. The whistle sounded, indicating their departure for points east.

Later that evening, Kid was dozing, propped up against his saddle, with Lou stretched out at his side. They'd just eaten the last of the sandwiches they'd bought in St. Joe. Tomorrow it would be back to cold canned beans and hardtack, at least until they reached Springfield.

Lou stiffened at his side as the rising sound of horses galloping neared the train. "Riders comin'," Lou murmured, reaching to pull her sixshooter out of its holster. She jabbed Kid in the side with her elbow to make sure he'd heard her.

Suddenly, the train started jerking to a stop, causing the horses to stumble and throwing Lou and Kid halfway across the boxcar. They could hear the riders outside yelling and yipping for all they were worth. Then, the gunfire started. The couple looked at each other in concern, then took up nearly identical posts on the opposite sides of the partially opened boxcar door, peering out into the gathering dusk.

From the passenger car ahead they heard the trampling of boots followed by the bellow, "Quantrill's Raiders are takin' up a collection fer the Cause Ladies 'n' Gents. Donate generously, or we'll donate fer ya!"

"Lou, hide the money! Quick!" Kid hissed. "If we're gonna get robbed, let 'em take the money pouch I'm carryin'. It ain't got near as much in it."

Lou nodded and scrambled to hide the second money pouch under the wrappings she used to bind her breasts flat, part of her disguise. Even if Quantrill or his men searched her, they wouldn't feel anything, under all that cloth.

They could hear the raiders getting' closer. Then, a slender form peered into their car. A pair of very familiar clear, penetrating blue eyes met first Lou's then Kid's from over the cloth covering his mouth and nose. The trio froze in instant recognition. He'd grown a few inches since the last time they'd seen him just a few months ago, Lou thought bemusedly.

"Anybody in thar, Jesse?" a disembodied voice yelled.

"Naw, Frank. Just a coupla nags in here. Not even worth shootin' 'em fer meat," Jesse responded, laughing. He turned back to the couple in the boxcar and hissed quietly, "You'll be safe. Tell Cody, if ya ever see him again, I coulda, coulda took him out last week out by Leavenworth, but didn't. Tell him," he paused and swallowed, "tell him, that was fer Noah."

The slender youth they'd considered a younger brother just weeks ago turned and disappeared into the darkness.

Teaspoon

Aloysius "Teaspoon" Hunter could feel his age with every step of his horse. What on earth had ever made him think this was a good idea, he asked himself. He didn't like the cold. He didn't like the long days on the trail. He didn't like sleeping on the ground. He missed his comfortable chair back in the Marshall's office in Rock Creek. And Rachel's cooking. He was too old for this. Yet, he couldn't, quite, make himself turn back. Maybe, somehow, he could still make a difference.

He hunkered down in his slicker as his horse continued trudging south, toward Texas.

Buck

Buck breathed deeply of the sharp, cold mountain air. He was walking up a steep incline, leading his horse. It was too steep to expect the horse to carry him. He looked around, taking in the incredible beauty of the majestic Rockies. This was the right thing. This was where he needed to be at the moment.

A snow flake fluttered out of the sky and landed on his eyelashes. He blinked the quickly melting snow out of his eyes as he glanced up at the gathering clouds overhead. He'd need to find shelter soon, though. A storm was coming and in the Rockies that could mean being snowed in for days, if not weeks or months, on end.

An hour later he noticed a thin stream of smoke rising into the sky slightly south and west of his current position. It would be a hard climb, but if he didn't ride both he and the horse could make it. The smoke had to mean shelter of some sort and Buck was starting to get desperate. It would be nightfall soon and the storm clouds were closing in on him rapidly.

He made his decision and quickly altered his direction.

He'd been right. It had actually taken less than an hour to reach the source of the smoke. It was a small, one room cabin nestled against the side of the mountain. There was a lean-to out back with at least one mule sheltered inside.

Buck paused at the edge of the cabin's clearing and called out, "Hello the house! Anyone here?"

Despite the smoke still trailing from the cabin's chimney there was no response to his hail. After a couple more tries, Buck dismounted, ground tied his horse, drew his revolver and crept slowly up to the cabin. There were only two openings, the front door and a small window on one side. Buck slowly and quietly peeked into the window. There was someone inside, underneath a mound of furs on the bed, tossing and turning. Buck cursed, holstered his weapon and made a mad dash into the cabin.

Kid and Lou

"You two can park your horses over there, while you're waiting for your connection to Columbus," the conductor told them.

"Thanks mister," Kid responded with a grin. "It'll feel good to just walk around town for a while without the ground moving beneath us!"

The pair tied their horses up at a hitching post outside the train station, underneath the shelter of some trees. It wasn't as cold as it had been out on the plains, but it had already started to snow here in Illinois, and didn't look to be stopping anytime soon.

"So, besides walkin', watcha wanna do while we're here?" Kid asked Lou. It was only 10 in the morning and their southbound train wasn't scheduled to leave until six that night.

"I could use some decent food," Lou responded with a grin.

"Ok, Cody!"

Lou playfully punched her husband in the gut for the teasing comment and the pair headed off in search of a good tavern where they could get something to eat.

"Hey, let's try this place, The Globe Tavern," Lou suggested. "That sounds fun. I always wanted to travel the globe."

Laughing, the couple entered the tavern. As their eyes adjusted to the dim lighting inside they enjoyed the sudden warmth. Kid shrugged out of his coat, but Lou, after glancing around at the room full of men, chose to keep hers on. They found a recently vacated table at the back of the room and quickly slid into the seats.

They each looked longingly at the offerings of steak, fish and other dishes before deciding on a simple bowl of Irish potato soup and a pint of ale in order to save money. Once the barmaid had brought them their food they tucked in quickly. Neither said much, content to people watch.

A tall, lanky young man about their age suddenly walked up with a similar bowl of soup in his hands, already slurping away.

"Mind if I sit with you fellows?" he asked. "There aren't any other seats open."

"Sure," Kid smiled at the young man. "We weren't using that seat."

"I'm Robert," the young man introduced himself between hasty slurps, "Robert Lincoln."

Kid's open smile shuttered a bit as the youth mentioned his last name. Then Kid mentally shook himself and relaxed. "Nice to meetcha. Folks call me the Kid. This is Lou."

"You two new to town? I haven't seen you before," Robert questioned them casually.

"Uh, we're just passin' through," Kid answered.

"Just waitin' for the evenin' train," Lou added.

Robert nodded in understanding as he slurped up the last of his soup, cleaning out the bowl with the hunk of bread in his other hand. "Headed home for Christmas, hunh? I'm off to join my family tomorrow. Just in town for a few days to make sure all's taken care of at the house here. With the war on, it doesn't look like any of us will be making it back here anytime soon."

Lou and Kid nodded in commiseration. They knew the feeling of missing their home with no hope of a quick return.

Robert shook his head as if to rid himself of the morose feelings and asked, "So, got any plans for what to do while you're here?"

Lou and Kid looked at each other for a moment, then Kid turned back to Robert and shrugged. "Not really. Figured we'd just wander around town, see what there is to see and all."

Hickok

Jimmy stood on the back of his freight wagon, having just finished offloading all the ammunition. He surveyed the Union troops encamped around him at Springfield, Missouri. He supposed maybe more people lived in St. Joe, but he'd never seen so many all in one place before. He couldn't believe the scope of the camp. And this was just a small portion of the numbers of men heeding the call, on both sides, to fight in this war. Sighing, he jumped down and headed over to the command tent to find out what his next orders were.

After passing the sentry, Jimmy pulled open the flap and ducked into the tent. At least it was a little warmer inside. The weather had taken a turn for the colder last night.

"I know we're outnumbered, but we're organized, they're not, yet. And we have a moral imperative to ensure this state stays in the Union," Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon sighed. "We must stop Sterling Price and his men here and now. We cannot let them take the capital."

"Sir, they've got 12,000 men to our 7,000. Even with the reinforcements from Kansas and Iowa, we'll never take them," argued Colonel Franz Sigel.

"The plan isn't to take them, it's to stop them. With organization, we can do that."

"Remember the old adage Colonel, quality over quantity," added Major Samuel Sturgis. "We've got trained soldiers. They've got mostly volunteers and irregulars, raiders. Hell, half of 'em are barely more than outlaws themselves."

"So, General, what's the plan?" Sigel asked.

"Here's what I'm thinking, gentleman," Lyon said and the whole group leaned in over a map spread out on the table between them.

A half hour later the meeting started breaking up.

"Remember Colonel, surprise is our ally in this plan. You must, absolutely must, hit the main rebel body from the south at dawn," Lyon said, slapping Sigel on the shoulder as he walked to the tent entrance.

"Don't worry, Sir," Sigel responded, returning his cap to his head. "We'll be there on time." He ducked out of the tent, dropping the panel closed behind him.

Jimmy remained standing near the door and the General finally noticed him.

"Mr. Hickok, good to see you, son," Lyon enthused. "I've got a job for you."

Cody

Where had young Thatch hidden, Cody asked himself. He'd been searching the camp for the youngster for half an hour now. Thatch had disappeared from the mess tent after gulping down supper in a matter of minutes. Cody hadn't noticed. He'd been too busy flirting with the young ladies helping the camp cook. Dang it! He cursed himself. He'd meant to keep a better eye on the kid. Maybe Thatch had headed to the latrines.

Cody found Thatch hidden behind a tree, staring in horror at the latrines. The latrine, it was almost a joke to dignify it with such a proper name, was nothing more than a ten foot deep trench, about 50 feet long. The men just squatted over it and did their business. The mess was covered over three times a day with dirt and lime. When the contents were within two feet of the top of the pit, new latrines would be dug elsewhere. Cody had learned the hard way that maintenance and re-digging of the latrines was usually used as a punishment detail. Between the stink and the absolute lack of privacy, they were a horror.

Cody tapped Thatch on the shoulder and said, "If you want a little more privacy, come with me."

He turned and headed for the edges of the military camp. After a few moments he heard Thatch running to catch up with him.

"How'd you know I'd follow you?" the kid asked breathlessly.

"I could tell they weren't up to your standards, anymore than they're up to mine."

"So, where're we going?"

"There's a wooded area just outside of camp where we can do our business," Cody responded lifting a small hand shovel to eye level so there'd be no doubt what business he was talking about. Thatch reddened and ducked a beardless chin into the collar of a worn calico shirt.

A few minutes later Cody exited the wooded area whistling to find young Thatch stretched out on the ground staring up at the stars. He paused a moment and scanned the youngster from head to toe. There was no longer any doubt in his mind, Thatch was a girl. Her form was clearly outlined against the night sky. He walked up to her and dug a handful of cloth out of his pocket. He'd found an old sheet and torn it into strips, just like the ones Lou used to wear. Now, he dropped those strips on Thatch's belly.

"You might want to use this to hide your, er, ah… form… a little better," he advised gruffly.

"What are you talking about?" Thatch nearly screeched as she flew up off the ground and tugged her coat more closely about her.

"Let's just say you ain't the first young lady I've met who feels it's her business to do a man's job."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Thatch began defensively, "I am not a lady."

Cody help up his hand to stop her. "I don't care if you're a boy, a girl or somethin' in between, so long's you do your job. And you've been doing that right well enough. But… if I figured out you ain't a boy within 24 hours of you joinin'us, just how long do you think it'll take everyone else?"

Thatch just stared at him and gulped in fear.

"Hell, it took Kid three weeks to crack Lou's disguise. And then he only figured it out 'cause she got shot. The rest of us never did figure it out. We had to be told," Cody laughed quietly at the memory. Thatch's fear was turning to curiosity as she watched the tall blond man who'd apparently taken her under his wing.

"So, do ya want some help learning how to be a boy? Or do ya wanta go home?"

Thatch looked at Cody for a long moment without saying anything. Then she held up the wad of cloth he'd dropped on her and asked, "So, what am I supposed to do with this?"

Now it was Cody's turn to blush red. He ducked his head and stammered, "Well, ya… ah…well… they're for hiding yerself. You know, you wrap 'em around to flatten…. stuff."

Lou and Kid

It had been a surprisingly pleasant day, despite the growing cold and snow. Robert had showed them the state capitol building, even going so far as to sneak them inside to the office his pa had once used there. Lou had never seen a building so big and fancy before, though Kid had back in Virginia. They'd both felt a bit out of place in their travel-stained duds, but had enjoyed seeing the sights.

Robert had nattered on about how Springfield had been settled by trappers and traders some 40 years ago. They'd originally named the city Calhoun, after South Carolina's Senator John C. Calhoun. But in 1832 the town residents had decided to rename the city Springfield, after a town in Massachusetts known for its industrial innovation. They'd hoped the town's prosperity would come along with its name. They looked to have been right, for Springfield was a booming town, a county seat, a state capital and now the home of the nation's newest president.

Robert even told them how he'd been born in the very tavern the three had met in. His parents had been living there while trying to find a permanent home in Springfield. Now they were walking down Main Street just admiring the shops. Kid would stop and look at the dresses and jewelry in shop windows, saying things like, "Don'tcha think Ma would love that one!" He knew Lou loved to look at the pretty things but wouldn't feel daring enough to do so while in her disguise as a boy. So he did it for her.

Lou knew what Kid was doing for her. It just made her love him even more. For all the fighting she'd done over the last couple of years to keep him from coddling her, sometimes it was nice to have someone who cared so much about you. She smiled secretly up at Kid. He was finally learning there was a difference between over protecting someone and just doing for them.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a body flying out of the door of the next shop. It was a woman, screaming. She was followed by a couple of Union soldiers, dressed up in their fancy blue uniforms. They were obviously drunk and bent on trouble.

"Aw, come on, missy," the taller of the two whined. "We just wanted to talk to ya."

"Leave me alone," the woman gasped, before high tailing it down the road and disappearing into another building.

"They're from Camp Butler, just outside of town. The Army soldiers are constantly causing a ruckus here. Nobody seems to be able to control them," Robert whispered to Kid.

The two soldiers made as if to follow her, but Kid and Robert quickly stepped into their path. Kid grabbed the taller one by the shirt and pushed him up against the door frame, roughly. "The lady said to leave her alone!"

Robert stayed on Kid's heels and glared at the soldier. "I do believe you need to be heading back to Camp Butler before I call your commanding officer and have you arrested!" he spit out through gritted teeth.

Neither Kid nor Robert noticed the second soldier starting to sneak around behind them. Lou punched him in the nose while simultaneously sticking out her foot and tripping him. As he fell to the ground she drew her six shooter and cocked it. "I'd stay right there, if I were you," she threatened.

Robert looked back, startled, but Kid never took his eyes or his hands off the taller soldier. "You got everythin' under control, Lou?"

"Just fine, Kid," she answered, shaking out the hand she'd used to punch the soldier.

"Good."

"The little shite broke my nose," the soldier on the ground moaned.

"Don't care." Kid said. "Now,here's what y'all are goin' to do. You're going to walk, quietly, down the middle of the street, until you get out of town. We're going to be watchin' so don't think yer goin' to be able to sneak back. If you do we'll knock yer heads together and drop y'all off at the Marshall's"

"Uh, Sheriff's," Robert quietly corrected.

"Right, Sheriff's office for being drunk and disorderly. You got me?"

The two men nodded mutely. Kid stepped back, picked up the soldier's hat, which had fallen on the ground in the scuffle, and slapped it sloppily back on the man's head. "Now, git!"

The two men looked back and forth between Lou and Kid, paying no attention to Robert whatsoever, then skedaddled down the street just as fast as they could go without making it look like they were running. Robert stared after then, bemused.

"How'd you do that, Kid?" he asked.

"Nuthin' special. Ya just gotta mean what ya say and say whatcha mean," Kid answered. "That's what Teaspoon taught us."

"Who's Teaspoon?" Robert asked curiously.

"He was our boss, back at the Pony Express," Lou answered, still shaking out her hand. Kid walked over to her and took her hand in his, carefully examining it.

"You're bleedin', Lou."

"I'll be fine, Kid."

"Why don't we head over to my family's place and find something to put on that hand,"

Robert offered. "It's starting to swell a bit."

Buck

The fevered form on the bed in front of him was in bad way. Buck had no idea who the man was or what was wrong with him, but he wasn't sure if he would live through the night. He certainly wouldn't without some help.

Buck ran back to his horse, quickly unsaddled it and hobbled it so it couldn't take off then set it free to graze. He dropped his tack off in the shed then headed back into the cabin with his saddle bags thrown over his shoulder. He dropped them on the floor in front of the fireplace. After digging through them for a moment, he pulled out packet of what looked like twigs. He placed the willowbark in a pot of water and set it over the fire. As soon as it boiled he'd try to get some down the man's throat.

Meanwhile, he pulled the sour smelling furs off the man, despite his weak protests and tossed them outside. He'd have to burn them later. A shame, but they'd been ruined by the man's illness. Then, he brought in a bucket of ice cold water from the nearby mountain stream and began dipping his handkerchief in it and wiping the man down. He sighed. It was going to be a long night.

Hickok

Jimmy huddled under his rain slicker, cursing the weather. Not only had a cold front come through, freezing near everything in sight, but it had brought a frigid, freezing rain with it. At least one good thing had come from the storm. As far as he could tell, all Price's men had stayed huddled in their tents, rather than brave the elements. Even the sentries were barely doing their jobs. Good news for the Union troops sneaking this way. Jimmy had other news for General Lyon, too. Whether it was good or bad, he didn't know but it was time to make sure he got it back to the General.

Jimmy slowly backed out of his hiding place in the trees and headed back to his horse, the same palomino that had been his favorite during his Pony Express days. He mounted up and slowly walked the horse away from the enemy camp. A mile down the road he felt safe enough to nudge the horse into a gallop. Despite the icy terrain, he felt an urgent need to get this information back to General Lyon.

Riding in freezing rain was no picnic. Jimmy knew that from experience. He'd had to do it more than once during the previous winter to get the mail through. But that made him uniquely qualified for this run, he thought smugly. No one had a better chance of getting back to camp with this information than him.

That didn't stop him from taking a couple spills along the way and he was limping from a bruise on his hip when he entered the General's command tent and pulled off his cold, wet rain slicker and coat.

"Pierce is no longer in charge, Sir," Jimmy reported. "General Ben McCulloch has taken command."

"Wonderful news, son!" Lyon enthused. "Just wonderful! I can out think that old Texas Ranger with both hands tied behind my back. Give the order men, let's march!"

At General Lyon's request, Jimmy had stayed with the command unit on the long, cold march back to Wilson Creek. He was to be ready to ride out at a moment's notice as courier or scout and to act as the General's bodyguard as needed. The march back had been even worse than the icy run earlier in the night. Now, dawn was approaching and when the sun rose, the Union troops would attack.

Kid and Lou

"Come on in," Robert announced, holding the back door open for Lou and Kid. "I ain't got much. Remember, I'm here to shut the house up for the next few years. But, what I've got is yours."

Lou and Kid looked around curiously. They couldn't quite believe they were in the kitchen of the President of the United States. A man whose election had led to the war they were headed to fight in, against him. It all seemed so surreal. The walls were plain whitewashed, while the doors and cupboards were a dark, burnished wood. Lou knew Rachel would've killed for a stove that nice. The transfer-print ironstone dinnerware was sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and made the table look real elegant. Lou hoped she and Kid might have a kitchen this nice someday.

"Here, Lou," Robert said, pulling out a chair in the corner so it sat next to the big cast iron stove. "Have a seat while I put some water on to boil. We'll get you cleaned up in no time. Kid, there's some ice still left in the icebox there by the door. Why don't you get that and put it on Lou's hand. That should stop the swelling."

Kid hurried to follow Robert's instructions and was soon wrapping a handful of ice onto Lou's hand, using his handkerchief.

"Ow! That's cold, Kid," Lou complained, trying to pull her hand away from him.

"It's supposed to be, Lou. Now, would you stop fightin' me!"

"The way you two argue sometimes, there's no doubt you're brothers," Robert commented as he prepared to put some coffee on to boil alongside the water for washing. "Even if you don't look a thing alike!"

Lou and Kid laughed a little uncomfortably at the comment.

"You're lucky this war isn't pulling you two apart the same it has so many other brothers in our country," Robert mourned. "If my pa'd known what his election was going to do to this country he might never've run. Then again, he feels so strongly about his principles he might've just gone and done it anyway."

Lou looked at the young man in sympathy. She could well imagine what his whole family was going through. Heck, the whole country was going through the same anguish right now.

"It ain't his fault, ya know," she offered in consolation.

"How can you say that, Lou," Robert asked bitterly. "It was his election that made the southern states start seceding from the Union. And the way he feels about secession he could never let that stand. The only possible result was war."

"Robert," Lou said quietly, "we've been headin' toward this war since we kicked the British out. States rights, slavery, those were the same things the Foundin' Fathers fought over when they was forming this country. That's why it took us so long to get a Constitution. The Articles of Confederation were pretty much the same as what the Confederates have now. The ties weren't strong enough to keep us together."

Lou looked at the Kid, almost feeling guilty for what she was saying, but having to say it anyway.

"All that's happened since then is, we've tried to ignore the issue so's we could keep on being a country, a family. But it's like you're pa said, a house divided cain't stand. We've gotta figure out which way we're gonna go, if we're ever gonna be able to rebuild our country, our family."

Lou looked at Kid as she said the next part, completely forgetting Robert was in the room.

"It's like the difference between when Cody and Jimmy would fight and when you and Jimmy would fight, Kid. Cody'd say somethin' that would bug Jimmy. Jimmy would haul off and hit him and that'd be the end of it."

Kid smiled in gentle remembrance of better times.

"But, when something was gettin' 'tween you and Jimmy you'd both try to bury it. Pretend it didn't exist. 'Til you just couldn't anymore. Then, you'd haul off and beat the livin' tar out of each other," Lou smiled. "That's when me an' the boys would hide yer guns, so's ya wouldn't kill each other."

Lou turned back to Robert. "This country's been actin' like Jimmy and the Kid, tryin' to hide from problems, 'sted of dealing with 'em. Well, now, things have gotten so bad they cain't hide no more and they're ready to start beatin' on each other. 'Ceptin',there ain't nobody around to hide the guns from 'em until they get all that anger outta their system. I don't care what nobody says, this war's gonna be long and it's gonna be bloody. But, when it's over, we'll still be a family, and we can start rebuildin'."

The three sat there, quietly looking at each other.

Finally, Robert said quietly, "I'll have to tell my pa that. It'll comfort him mightily."

Hickok

Jimmy pushed a lock of his sopping wet hair out of his face and peered cautiously around the stump he was hiding behind. The fighting had been going on for several hours now. General Lyon's men had taken the rebels by surprise and quickly gained the advantage of possession of the crest of a hill near the creek. The fighting had been so bad, Jimmy had already heard the men referring to their post as "Bloody Hill". General Lyon had been wounded twice.

Jimmy sighted down his gun and fired three rapid shots, taking out two rebels trying to sneak up on a group of Union soldiers. The Union troops had fought well, but Jimmy didn't know how much longer they could last. The stench of wounded and dying men was almost unbearable. He could hear the moans coming from every direction, along with pitiful cries for mothers, wives and sweethearts. He knew most of the wounded would die on the field. There was no way to evacuate them and no doctors to treat them even if they did. Jimmy had gotten so used to hiding his emotions he didn't realize how cold his face looked at that moment. Cody would've teased him about trying to out-stoic Buck, if he'd seen Jimmy. All Jimmy knew was, he had to keep fighting. It was the only way to stay alive in this hellhole.

"Retreat! Retreat!" The call came from several of the officers scattered along the hill. Jimmy wasn't surprised. Colonel Sigel's pincer move, to trap the rebels between two Union forces must not have worked. They hadn't seen or heard anything about him all morning.

Jimmy started moving backward, toward his horse, firing as he went in an effort to cover the retreat of the soldiers around him. When he arrived back at his horse, hitched near the command circle he couldn't find General Lyon anywhere around. He'd been detailed to act as General Lyon's bodyguard in the case of a retreat and hurried up to Major Sturgis.

"Sir, where's General Lyon?" Jimmy panted.

Sturgis gave him a pained look. "I'm sorry, Private Hickok. General Lyon was killed in action a bit over an hour ago. I'm in command now."

Jimmy gulped, then asked, "What do you want me to do, Sir?"

"We've accomplished our goal. We've stopped the rebels from making any further progress toward Jefferson City. This state will stay in the Union, now. So, it's time for us to get out of here."

Lou and Kid

"It was nice meeting you two," Robert said as he escorted Kid and Lou back to the train station. They'd already collected their mounts and were ready to board the train. "You certainly livened up my last day in Springfield."

They all grinned at that.

"So, where are you headed?"

It was a topic all three had avoided throughout the day.

"We'll be joinin' the war effort after Christmas," Kid offered without going into details.

"I wish I could join you," Robert said, "but my pa says it's more important I finish my education. Don't know what being a lawyer is going to do to help this country, but…" He let his voice trail off.

"This country's going to need at least a few people who love it but aren't scarred by the fightin' once the war's over," Lou said softly. "You'll be one of the one's who'll help rebuild what we're helpin' tear down."

She held out her hand to shake Robert's, then turned and boarded the train, followed closely by Kid.

Chapter 2: Going to War (January -June 1862)

Buck

"I don't know how to thank you, son," the grizzled old trapper said to Buck from his bed. After a week of caring for him, the man was finally lucid for more than a few moments a day. Today had been his best day yet. He'd woken this morning knowing who and where he was and he hadn't lost that sense of self yet.

The first night, the old man had been so sick Buck had thought he wouldn't live to see the dawn. But, by some miracle he had. And the man had kept right on living. Buck was relieved. He'd been to enough funerals in the last couple of months to last him a lifetime. If the man's health continued to improve, Buck planned to climb to the peak of this mountain in the morning to offer thanks to the Sun and the Sisters for their protection and ask for guidance on what he should do next.

Buck got up and brought a cup of fresh water to the old man, lifting his head to help him drink. "You don't owe me anything. I was here. I knew what to do. If I had walked away I could not have called myself a man."

The man had identified himself to Buck as Dyami, meaning Eagle. Buck thought it was odd that this apparent white man would introduce himself with a Kiowa name. But, he'd seen and heard stranger things in his lifetime.

"Here," Buck said, "try to eat some of this venison stew I made. It's not much, but it's all we have for now. Your provisions had gone bad." He continued talking as he helped Eagle down the nourishing food. "As soon as the storm breaks, I'll go hunting for more meat. There should be some elk or mountain sheep herds in the area, if nothing else."

"The Spirits will honor you for this, my child."

"I'm not looking for any honor, old man. I just need to be able to live with myself. Find time to heal."

Eagle watched the young Indian with eyes as sharp as his namesake. He knew this young man had much on his heart and many wounds to heal. Eagle's body might be failing, it was doubtful he would live until spring, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He determined to help young Running Buck find his destiny before time ran out.

A few days later the snow finally stopped. Buck gathered his supplies and left the cabin hours before dawn. He would need the time to reach the summit of the mountain before the sun rose. It was a hard, cold climb, but the exertion felt good after so many days cooped up in the small 10 by 10 foot cabin. Upon reaching the peak, Buck paused for a moment to gaze toward the sacred direction of East and watch the first glimmers of the Sun rise over the horizon. He took a deep breath of the cold, crisp air and felt a measure of peace he hadn't felt since Ike died. This was what he needed.

Then, Buck turned and quickly began to set out his supplies. First he used several large stones to create a sacred Medicine Wheel to protect him during his prayers. The wheel consisted of one small circle of stones set inside a larger circle of stones. Four lines of stones connected the two circles, pointing to the four sacred directions, East, South, West and North. The four directions plus the inner circle and Heaven Above and Earth Below added up to the sacred number seven, the Creator's number.

Buck started a small fire inside the inner wheel, using sweetgrass as tinder to make the fire holy. Before entering the circle, Buck purified himself by scrubbing his entire body with clean snow, then "bathing" himself in the smoke from the sweetgrass scented fire. Finally, he entered the circle.

First, he faced the East and the rising Sun. Raising his arms over his head, he began in a high descending pitch, using every breath in his lungs. Then he started over, again and again, with the same urgency each time.

"Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee," he begged, "Earth Creator, help me to understand. Why am I here? Why did You bring me my Pony Express family, the only place I've ever been happy, only to take them away again? Why? Why did you take Ike, my brother? Why did you take Noah? Why did they have to die? Why? Why? I plead for understanding!"

Turning to the South, he started again.

"Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee, Earth Creator, help me to see your world through a child's eyes. Please, help me to understand and accept what has happened in my life and to see the path I am to follow for all my tomorrows."

Facing the West, he prayed, "Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee, Earth Creator, help me to understand what is happening in this world. Why do my brothers have to fight each other in this great White Man's war? Why does my Kiowa brother Red Bear have to fight just to feed his family in this land of plenty? Why cannot my Kiowa family and my Gantonto family peacefully share this land You made? How can I help my families survive these deadly days?"

To the North, he prayed, "Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee, Earth Creator, I beg of You, help me to be the warrior You need me to be. Help me, please, to understand Your wishes and the direction You would have me take. Help me to help both my families through these dangerous years. I beg of You, send me word of Your desires. I will sacrifice whatever You wish, to save the rest of my family."

In tears, Buck once again turned to the East and started the round of prayers. He continued to follow the same pattern for several hours. Around noon, he finally began to lose strength. His voice was hoarse. He could barely lift his arms to Heaven Above anymore. He made a final turn to the East and closed his prayer.

"The Creator shows me the road. The Creator shows me the road," he chanted. "I went to see my friends. I went to see my friends. I went to see the dances. I went to see the dances."

He lowered his arms to his side and sat down in the center of the Medicine Wheel to wait. He'd had nothing to eat or drink for more than 12 hours now. He would not have anything until his vision quest was completed. Now, was the time to show patience and perseverance, so Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee knew his requests were in earnest.

Nightfall came and Buck shivered in the gathering dark, but he remained seated and bare-chested in the center of the Medicine Wheel. He continued to chant prayers just under his breath throughout the cold night, pausing only to feed more wood and sweetgrass into his small fire.

As the first slivers of dawn began to peek over the horizon, Buck saw a young male deer wander into the clearing. His eyes eagerly followed the unusual looking animal. It was pure white from the tips of its horns to the ends of its dainty hooves. It ran around the clearing at top speed seven times, then stopped right in front of Buck, blocking the sight of the rising Sun.

The young buck simply stood there, staring into Buck's eyes for endless moments. Then, it suddenly turned and began bounding off into the woods. Suddenly, it impaled itself in the chest on a low hanging branch. The branch pierced from one side of the chest to the other. The young deer seemed to dance on its four tiny hooves, its eyes raised to the Heaven Above, until the skin and muscle holding the branch in place broke free. The buck turned and began to make another seven circles around the clearing, before seeming to pass between two herds of deer, one red and one white, to disappear over the edge of the mountain.

Buck closed his eyes and began to pray, "Thank You."

Hickok

Kansas. Jimmy couldn't believe he was back in Kansas. Again. Why did this keep happening to him? He'd gone to Missouri to join the Army for a reason. Apparently he hadn't gone far enough because here he was, right back where he started. At least this time it was supposed to be only a quick hit and run visit, just long enough to pick up supplies and run them back to the Union troops in Missouri to carry them over the winter.

Jimmy glared gloomily at the horses pulling the long line of freight wagons. At least this time he wasn't seated on one of those god-awful hard benches. He was mounted on his palomino. He knew he wasn't keeping a proper watch out for raiders, but right now he just couldn't care. He was in Kansas. Not that it really mattered anyway. The wagons were running empty this trip.

After the Battle at Wilson's Creek Jimmy had been promoted to wagonmaster and tasked with going to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to pick up food supplies. The good news was he could see Fort Leavenworth just on the horizon. It wouldn't be long now.

Cody

"Jimmy'd been walking around for near a week with that stinking bag of medicine Teaspoon had given him and it hadn't done a lick of good. Finally, Emma tol' us to get him to the dentist, or else! Lemme tell you, you don't argue when Emma says to do somethin',"

Cody grinned in memory.

"Anyway, it took three of us to push, pull and drag Hickok into that dentist's office. Now, keep in mind, this dentist was a tenderfoot, fresh from the east. He had all sorts of weird ideas about his job and even weirder equipment. When he tried to use that drill on Jimmy's sore tooth, smilin' the whole time, Jimmy just naturally pulled his Colt on 'im. That there tenderfoot just keeled right over in fright!"

Thatch joined Cody in gales of laughter at this latest story of his antics with his Pony Express family. Her favorites always involved Jimmy Hickok. She sure wished she could meet him. Not that that was likely to happen in this man's war. Finally, she caught her breath enough to ask, "So, what happened to the tooth? Did it just heal up on its own?"

"Naw! Jimmy eventually gave in, tied it to a door handle and slammed the door shut to pull the tooth. To tell the truth, us boys had been betting on whether he'd just shoot it out!"

The comment sent Thatch into another gale of laughter.

"Okay, kiddo. Time for us to get back to work. Go get the horses fed and groomed. I've gotta run an errand and then I'll meet you at the mess tent for some grub."

"Cody," Thatch smiled in her new, gruffer voice, "you're always thinkin' 'bout and plannin' how to take care of your stomach!"

Cody just smiled at the familiar refrain and tipped his hat to her before taking off for the sutler's. As he was rifling through the offerings in the sutler's tent he thought he heard a familiar voice.

"Get those wagons lined up properly, dammit! How many times do I have to tell y'all?"

Cody dropped what he'd been looking at and ran out the front flap of the sutler's tent. "Jimmy? Jimmy Hickok, is that really you?"

"If it ain't Billy Cody, hisself. Shoulda guessed I'd run into ya here, avoidin' work like always!" Jimmy joked as he crushed Cody to him in a giant bearhug. "What have you been up to, you lazy buzzard?"

"Mostly just driving freight wagons from one place to another. Pretty boring work, most of the time. Except when we run into Quantrill's Raiders or other groups of armed rebels."

"What happened to the scouting gig you signed up for?"

"Turns out once you're in the Army, you do whatever they tell you to do. When the Captain I signed on with got shipped back East, I got left behind. The new commander of the 7th Cavalry decided I was too young to be a scout and made me a teamster instead."

"Listen, Cody, I've got to get these wagons lined up for loading. We're taking a shipment of food back to the troops in Missouri. Why don't I meet you at the mess tent in, say, 20 minutes. We'll catch up while I grab a bite to eat before headin' back."

"Can't wait to get outta Kansas already, Jimmy?" Cody joked. "Sure, I'll see ya there."

"Knew you wouldn't be able to resist the food!" Jimmy shouted after him.

Twenty minutes later, Cody sauntered into the mess tent with a package under his arm. He quickly scanned the tables, looking for his old friend. Jimmy was seated with his back to the tent wall, a habit he'd picked up after that danged Marcus had written those dime novels about him and gunfighters started crawling out of the woodwork with their sights set on Jimmy. He was shoveling food into his mouth hand over fist. He must really be in a hurry, Cody thought.

"So, Jimmy, how's that hair trigger of yours doing?" Cody asked as he plopped down in a seat next to his friend. "Betcha it's been getting' a real workout over there in Missouri. I've heard the fightin's been pretty fierce."

"You've no idea, Cody. No idea. I thought I was prepared for war," Jimmy answered slowly, "after everything we went through with the Express. Lord knows I'd killed enough men already. But that was nothin' like this. All those bodies."

Jimmy stopped as if the emotions of his thoughts had gotten to be too much for him and he'd had to batten down the emotional hatches. Noticing his friend's discomfort, Cody changed the topic.

"Have you heard from any of the others?"

"No. And I'm not likely to any time soon. Not unless it's over the barrel of a gun on a battle field."

Cody nodded somberly. "It won't come to that. That's why we scattered in so many different directions. At least that way we, hopefully, won't be shootin' at each other."

Hickok just grunted as he swallowed the last of his food and then leaned back to really look at Cody. Noticing the package Cody had set down on the table next to his elbow, Jimmy grabbed for it, asking, "Something pretty for your latest sweetheart?"

"Not… exactly," Cody demurred. "It's just something' for the kid I drive with. He's real green. Got a lot of the same problems our Lou had to begin with. But good with the horses and a quick learner."

Jimmy looked at Cody quizzically for a moment, then let out a loud guffaw. "So, you're tellin' me you're playin' nursemaid? I never thought I'd see the day! You ain't exactly got Kid's patience, my man!"

"It ain't the same thing atall. I'm just helpin' him learn the ropes. Figure out how things work. Same as I'd do for any new rider," Cody defended himself, unconsciously falling back into the lingo of their Pony Express days. "And Thatch is shaping up to be a right fine rider. Might even give Lou a ride for his money!"

Hickok just shook his head as he stood up. "I'd love to stay and meet this kid, but I've gotta hit the road. The wagons should be loaded by now."

Cody followed Hickok out of the mess tent and back to his horse, hitched near the lead wagon in the convoy. Jimmy mounted up and looked down at his friend, "Ride safe, Cody."

"You too, Jimmy. You too." He watched his friend ride down the line of wagons, making sure everyone was ready to head out, then turned back to the mess tent.

"There you are. I've been looking all over for you," young Thatch exclaimed on finding Cody seated morosely at the same table he'd just shared with Jimmy. She noticed he was just picking at his food, not really eating it. "What's the matter?"

"Nothin'," he said glumly. Then he tossed the wrapped package to her. "Here, these are for you."

"What are they?"

"Shirts."

"Shirts?"

"And a new pair o' pants."

"What's wrong with what I've got on?" she asked, a bit offended.

"They fit you."

"Now that makes total sense."

"I was watchin' you work this mornin' and noticed your clothes fit too well," Cody began explaining. "It made me think of somethin' Lou once told us. We asked why his clothes always looked two sizes too big for him. He said he liked it that way. It was more comfortable and it made it easier."

"Made what easier?"

"Hidin'…. stuff," Cody responded, gesturing vaguely at Thatch.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, suddenly holding the package of shirts in front of her chest.

Teaspoon

Teaspoon was finally back in Texas and he wasn't sure how to feel about that. It had been his goal for weeks now, but he felt conflicted about his return. He still hadn't decided what he was going to do. He had just finished packing up camp after his morning coffee when he heard gunshots. He quickly mounted up and rode in the direction of the noise. The lawman in him wouldn't let him ignore the sound.

As he topped a rise, he saw several scruffy looking young men sacking a large farmhouse. Two held a young lady, not much older than Lou, trapped on the porch. The rest were digging through things in the house and dumping them out in the yard. One was stuffing anything of value into saddlebags.

Teaspoon looked around and realized there were several good hiding places along the edges of the farm from which he could get good shots. If he took out enough of them, fast enough, maybe the rest would flee. Quickly, he put his half-baked plan into action.

He jumped off his horse as it came flying up to the first vantage point, a shed that overlooked the yard in front of the house. He already had his gun out and cocked, ready to start firing. He took careful aim and downed one of the raiders coming out of the house with an armful of loot. He took out two others in quick succession before the rest of the raiders even realized what was happening.

As they started seeking shelter and looking for the shooter, Teaspoon was already running hunched over to a wooded area about a third of the way around the yard from his first hiding place. He hit the ground and crawled forward on his elbows, thinking to himself, I'm gettin' too old fer this!

Two more shots and two more raiders injured. Then, as Teaspoon was heading for his third hiding place, the rest of the raiders took the hint and started hitting their saddles and running for it. They laid down a covering fire behind them as they left.

That's when Teaspoon made his mistake. He came out from behind the pig pen he'd been firing from and stood tall, shooting at the fleeing raiders, right up until one of them hit him in the knee. He grunted in pain but refused to let himself fall. If he fell, not only he, but the young lady on the porch would die also.

As the last of the raiders disappeared over the horizon, he finally let himself stagger, grabbing his knee as he went. The young lady from the porch came running to help him.

"Oh, thank you so much, sir!" she gushed. "They were planning to do such things to me!" She spoke in a dulcet voice with the tones of the deep south. "Ah don't know what ah would have done if you hadn't saved me."

"Just get me in the house," Teaspoon nearly growled at her.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "You're hurt. Here, let me help you."

Together, they managed to limp their way back to the house. She helped him onto a couch in the sitting room just inside the front door. Then she stood back and started wringing her hands. Teaspoon looked at her. Lordy, lord, lord, he thought, this one's helpless as all get out.

"There a doctor near here?" he asked gruffly, starting to feel faint from the pain.

"No, sir," she answered. "Just about every man in these parts has left to fight in the war. Except for those too old, too young or too frail. But Ah refused to leave my home! Ah won't!" she finished, stamping her foot on the wooden floors.

"I take that to mean you ain't got no folks around here?"

"It was just me and my husband. We came west to start a horse ranch. Things were going well, until the war started. He took off to join up, then all the ranch hands disappeared, along with all the money he left me. Now, Ah'm all alone," she finished, nearly in tears.

"Alright, no use getting' all fretted up over things you can't change," Teaspoon said, trying to calm her down. "Can you bring me some alcohol, anything, and bandages?"

With a little direction from Teaspoon the frantic young lady was able to bandage his wounded leg. Best he could figure, the bullet had gone straight through, shattering the knee cap. The good news was, that meant the risk of infection was actually fairly low and nobody was going to have to start digging around in his leg. Teaspoon'd been shot often enough to know about that sort of thing. But, he'd never walk without a major limp again, and riding might well be extremely painful. He could only wait and see.

The young lady finally remembered her manners enough to introduce herself as Savannah Herrington, originally from Georgia. Teaspoon managed a faint, "Folks mostly call me Teaspoon, ma'am," just before losing consciousness.

The next morning he woke up with a headache and a mouth that felt like it was stuffed with cotton. For a moment, Teaspoon thought he was back in Rock Creek and had gone on a bender the night before. Then, he remembered all that had happened.

He slowly looked around him. Mrs. Herrington had placed a beautiful wedding ring quilt over him and left him to sleep on the sofa. He pushed the blanket off him and carefully got to his feet. He had to grab suddenly at the back of the chair next to the sofa as he slowly lurched forward.

"Mrs. Herrington," he called. "Mrs. Herrington, where are you?"

"Ah'm in the kitchen Mr. Spoon," she replied. "Do you like grits for breakfast?" she asked as she came back into the sitting room. "Ah'm afraid that's about all ah've got right now. Those raiders killed all my chickens and stole the last of the bacon."

"Grits would be fine, ma'am," Teaspoon said, startled at her misunderstanding of his name. It reminded him of Emma a powerful lot. "And it's Mr. Hunter. Teaspoon Hunter."

"Oh," she murmured, blushing in mortification. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hunter."

"No need to be sorry. It's rather difficult to get a proper introduction when one of the introductees is conkin' out on the affair!"

"Here," she said, "let me help you to the kitchen table."

She came to his side and put his arm over her shoulder to help guide him to the kitchen. As he sat down he sighed in bliss to be off his feet again. Then, he looked at her and said, "The first order of business, I think, is to find me somethin' I can use as a crutch. I can't keep leanin' on you!"

"There might be some wood you can use out in the barn, Mr. Hunter, if you can make the crutch yourself."

"That will do just fine. But, you'll have to bring me the wood and a knife for carvin'."

"I can manage that much," she said as she placed a bowl of the porridge made from boiling coarsely ground hominy corn with salt.

"Now that that's settled, Mrs. Herrington, I've got a question for you. Do you know how to shoot?"

"Heaven's no, Mr. Hunter. My husband would've died of mortification if Ah'd ever asked to shoot his gun. Why, the very idea simply scares the stuffing out of me."

"Then, that's the next thing on our to-do list. Teach you to shoot."

Savannah Herrington simply sat there and stared at his strange old man who'd saved her. She had no idea what to make of him.

Kid and Lou

Lou was seated at the side of the boxcar, eagerly looking at everything they passed. She couldn't believe how different the countryside was. No more flat plains with the Rocky Mountains carving up the distant horizon. Instead, the countryside was rolling hills and gentle slopes. And the trees! Lou had never seen so many trees in her life. It was an incredible sight, even if they were all bare limbed for the winter. She bet this was the greenest place on earth, come summertime. And the weather. Sure, it was cool and damp, but nothing like the bone chilling cold she'd ridden through the winter before for the Pony Express.

Over the last ten days their train had passed through most of Tennessee and now Virginia. The trip was supposed to have only lasted a little over seven days, but with several breakdowns along the way it had lengthened to ten. Lou hadn't minded the delay. It had meant more time with Kid to herself and more time to absorb everything she was seeing.

Suddenly, the train chugged around a bend and there it was. Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy in all its glory. She could see row upon row of white houses lined up along tree lined streets. Kid said in the last census there'd been more than 37,000 people living there. She'd never seen so many houses or people in one place. That was one thing she'd noticed in the last few days, even in the 'country' here in the East, there was no breathing room. Everyone was living right on top of everyone else. There was no way she could've ridden at a full gallop straight for 75 miles here without running into someone's home or property. While she was amazed at all she was seeing, she decided she definitely preferred the wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

Lou looked up at Kid and wondered what he was thinking. He'd gotten quieter and quieter the closer they'd gotten to Richmond. She thought about telling him it wasn't too late. They could always turn around and go home right now. But she didn't think it would do any good, so she held her peace. She just reached up and held her hand out to him, as she'd done not so long ago after the funeral of his childhood sweetheart, Doritha. And just as he'd done on that sunny afternoon he reached out and encircled her small fingers with his large hand. She'd learned she couldn't always fix things between them. Sometimes she just needed to let him be him, let him do his hard thinking while making sure he knew she was there for him. There was a lot to learn about this marriage thing, she thought with a smothered grin, not just the 'dancing'.

As the train began slowing down in preparation to stop at the Richmond -Petersburg Depot, Lou and Kid began saddling their horses. They'd decided to get a hotel room for the night before searching out the Confederate Army in the morning and signing up. It would be one last night for just the two of them.

The train chugged over a final bridge on entering the depot. Lou shivered as they passed over hundreds of thousands of solid shot cannon balls piled up in readiness below the bridge. It felt like someone was walking on her grave. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the awful sight, until the train jerked to a stop and Kid laid a hand on her shoulder.

"It's time, Lou," he said quietly. She nodded and together they began leading their horses off the train.

The first order of business was to find a place to stay. They wandered down several broad, tree-lined streets before settling on a boardinghouse that didn't look too fancy for them. Even so, they received several pointed looks as they walked in the front door in their travel stained clothing.

After securing a room for the night, Lou and Kid decided to wander town a bit. They knew this might be their only chance to sightsee. Downtown was a wonder to Lou, though Kid had seen it before. He'd passed through Richmond when he'd headed west six years ago.

Eventually, they found themselves outside the Confederate White House, as it was already being called. It was the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family. It was also the social and political center of the Confederacy. With its broad front porch, columns stretching two stories into the afternoon sky and whitewashed walls it was the most beautiful building Lou had ever seen, rivaled only by the statehouse in Springfield. The couple just stood outside the fence, watching it, much as they'd used to stand at the corral fence watching the horses, and thinking their own thoughts.

Eventually, Lou gently punched Kid in the arm and said, "Let's get somethin' to eat, Kid."

The next morning, Lou and Kid found themselves lined up with hundreds of other eager, young recruits ready to sign up to fight. While they'd arrived early in the morning, it wasn't until noon they reached the front of the line.

"Name?" the sergeant at the desk asked briskly.

"Kid McCloud. This is my brother, Lou." Kid so hated his own name, they'd decided to use Lou's last name instead. "We're here to sign up for the cavalry."

That got the sergeant's attention. He raised his eyes from the paper he was writing on and scrutinized Lou and Kid from head to toe.

"You got a horse?" he asked.

"Yes. Good hardy Indian ponies. Well trained. Bought off the Pony Express."

The sergeant raised his eyebrows at that. "Can ya shoot while ridin'?"

"Ever heard of Wild Bill Hickok?" Kid asked. "I'm as good or better than him. Lou's not quite that good, but certainly better than any of these farmboys here. We've survived outlaws and Indians in the Wild West riding for the Express for going on the last two years now. I doubt any of the plantation sons' who make up the cavalry could keep up with either one of us."

"Mite full of yerself, ain't ya, son?"

"Nope. Just know what I can do and what I can't."

"What's the matter with the little 'un. Can't he talk?"

"I can talk just fine, when I'm of a mind to," Lou retorted gruffly, crossing her arms over her chest with her hands up under her armpits. "Just didn't see the need's all."

"You know it costs about $50 each to outfit yourselves with the appropriate uniform," the sergeant warned. "Can y'all afford that?"

"We'll manage," Kid said.

"Alright then, put your mark here," the sergeant said skeptically, pointing to a line in a smaller book than the one all the other volunteers had been signing. "And, welcome to the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment, Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart commanding. You can get your uniforms at the sutlers down at 8th and Dobbins. You'll report for duty by 6 am tomorrow morning at Camp Ashland, just outside of town."

An hour later the couple found themselves walking out of the sutler's tent with their new uniforms in packages under their arms. The uniforms were made of a plain homespun grey cloth. The jackets stopped at the waist, something which did not please Lou, and were decorated with black bars sewn in horizontal rows across the front. They also had black epaulets, sleeve trim and belt loops. The whole concoction was topped by a broadbrimmed black hat with a black plume. Kid wondered just how long those funny looking feathers would last in battle.

It was easy to tell the uniforms had been designed by aristocrats with more time and money then sense, or experience on the trail. Lou and Kid had just about died laughing at each other as they'd tried on the uniforms. At least they wouldn't have to actually wear them in public until tomorrow.

The next morning Kid and Lou trotted up to the front gates at Camp Ashland. It had taken them longer to reach than they'd expected based on the directions they'd been given. Luckily, they were used to delays and had gotten an extra early start to make sure they arrived on time. Lou glanced at Kid out of the corner of her eye and smothered yet another giggle. She hated the way she sounded when she giggled, so girly. It was a definite threat to her disguise. But the uniforms were so foolish.

They reined their horses in as they reached the gate. Kid reached inside the jacket of his uniform to pull out their paperwork and hand it over.

"Ah," the sentry said. "Y'all must be the new recruits they was tellin' us about last night. Welcome to Camp Ashland. You've been assigned to Company G, the Amelia Light Dragoons. You'll find them camped out in the barn, there at the end of the main roadway, right by the racetrack."

"Thank you," Kid said, taking back the paperwork and waiting for the gates to the camp to be opened. The sentry turned and watched the pair trot off into the camp, scratching his head. There was something off about them, he just couldn't quite figure out what.

At the entrance to the barn, Kid and Lou dismounted and walked into the dimly lit interior, leading their horses. "Anyone here?" Kid called.

"Depends on who's askin'," a cultured voice responded from the dark to their left. Kid and Lou turned toward the sound of that voice.

"We're supposed to report to Company G of the 1st Virginia Cavalry," Kid explained.

"Ah, y'all must be the two newest recruits. That'll bring us up to full strength again," the man said, entering a shaft of light from a barn window high overhead. "I'm Lieutenant Virgil Price, of the Richmond Prices, at your service. And you might be?"

"Most folks just call me the Kid," Kid answered, then pointed at Lou with his thumb. "This is my brother, Lou McCloud."

"What kind of a name is Kid?"

"It's a family thing," Kid shrugged.

"I don't know any McClouds. Where y'all hail from, Kid?"

"I was born down Manassas way," Kid answered. "But Lou and I've spent the last several years out west. We came back to help defend Virginia."

"That's mighty patriotic of ya," Virgil said skeptically. "You can stable your horses in the third stall on your left. We'll figure out where to bed y'all down after breakfast, which is in precisely 10 minutes. So, I'd hurry if I were y'all."

Then he placed his plumed hat on his head with a flourish and turned sharply on his heel to walk out of the barn.

Ten minutes later, Lou and Kid joined the other members of Company G, lining up for breakfast. As they reached the front of the line, they saw the cook was an older black man. He was serving biscuits with a white gravy and sausages for breakfast. As they found a place to sit, Kid let out a satisfied sigh.

"Oh man, I haven't had biscuits and gravy like this in years!" he exclaimed as he began tucking into the food. Lou looked at the mess on her plate and wrinkled her nose. It didn't look all that appetizing to her. After swallowing a few mouthfuls she couldn't force herself to eat anymore and handed her plate to Kid.

"I'm gonna go get the horses and give them a better brushing down," she said. "Join me when you're done eating." As Lou walked back to the barn, Virgil and another young cavalryman walked over and joined Kid, squatting on their heels to eat their breakfasts.

"So, you're the last recruits for this company," the new man said. "I'm Thomas Ewell, up from Petersburg way."

"I'm the Kid, that's my brother Lou," Kid responded as he continued to shovel the food into his mouth while pointing out Lou with a thumb over his shoulder.

"I hear y'all are from Manassas. I've got an uncle lives over there. Used to visit him a lot in the summers. Never heard of no McClouds, down that way," Virgil added.

"My folks just had a small dirt farm. That's why I headed west, when I did," Kid shrugged, not wanting to get into anymore details about his background.

"How'd you learn to ride well enough to join the cavalry, then, boy," Virgil asked, annoyed.

"Spent the last couple years riding for the Pony Express," Kid shrugged. "What I didn't already know, they taught me. Ain't no better riders in all this country," he couldn't help boasting.

"Yeah, right," Virgil smirked. "I'd like to see you beat my prized Arabian in a race."

"Virgil, leave the Kid alone," Thomas finally cut in. "Not every good rider's going to come from the plantations. And we need every good rider we can get our hands on in this war, so you're just goin' to have to deal with it."

Virgil looked at Kid, then Lou, again. "I'll grant you, Kid here looks like he can handle a horse well enough, I suppose. But that little 'un over there… I don't know. Seems to me we should send him back to his mammy 'til he's done a little more growin'," he sneered.

Lou hadn't been participating in the conversation, but she'd been close enough to listen in. So far she'd figured Kid would ask for her help if he wanted it. But now that they'd turned their derision on her, she couldn't let it stand. She turned and glared at the group.

"I'll have you know I can out ride and out shoot the lot of ya," she yelled, before throwing her curry brush at Virgil and using both hands to vault herself onto her unsaddled horse, right over his hindquarters. She landed high on his withers, gathered two fistfuls of his mane and clicked in his ear, urging him to leap into a gallop. She ducked her head and yelled over her shoulder, "Catch me if you can, boys!"

Kid continued calmly eating the last of Lou's breakfast and wondered if he could get more. He snorted as he watched Virgil running for his horse, eager to take up Lou's challenge. Lou'd been the fastest rider the Express had had. These foolish boys had no chance of catching her. It kind of reminded him of their early days with the Express, when Lou had gotten all riled up over Teaspoon calling her 'puny' and shown them all up with a quick race around the way station.

Kid got up and sauntered after the riders as Virgil and three other members of Company G came bursting out of the barn, hot on Lou's trail. He stopped and grabbed a couple more biscuits from the black cook before heading to the edge of camp, to catch the show.

As Kid arrived at the edge of camp, he could see Lou sailing over the latrines making for a nearby wooded area. The last of the riders chasing her missed the footing for the jump and ended up sailing into the latrines instead of over them. Kid just kept munching away at his biscuits.

Just as Virgil, obviously the best rider of the southerners chasing Lou, started to close in on her, she took a sharp turn to the left and started back through camp, weaving her way at a gallop through the tents. At one point she even hopped off one side of the horse to avoid having her head taken off by a low hanging porch roof. Then she swung right back onto the horse's back. This maneuver caused another of her chasers to drop out of the pursuit, rather than run over the gathering bystanders.

It was obvious the Arabians most of Lou's pursuers were riding were actually faster than her Indian pony. But, they weren't trained to maneuver the way the former Express ponies had been. They weren't used to making sharp turns in one direction, spinning completely around to head the opposite direction, climbing up obstacles to go sailing over others. There was no doubt that Lou had the advantage.

Kid kept heading toward the edge of camp. He was pretty sure he knew where Lou was headed. When he saw her rounding the bend, headed toward the creek that ran outside the camp near the railroad, he knew he'd been right. By now the race had been on for more than 10 minutes. Another of Lou's pursuers pulled up rather than chase her down into the creek's gully and back up. His horse was blowing hard and he'd decided it wasn't worth it to continue the chase. That left just Virgil on her tail.

Now, Lou changed her tactics, spinning her horse on a dime to come at Virgil head to head. As she drew abreast of him, she leaped off her horse onto Virgil, taking him off his. As they landed in the dirt she punched him square in the nose, before running to catch up with her still running horse and leaping back onto its bareback using nothing more than a handful of mane in her right hand to brace herself. She took off at a race back toward where Kid's horse was still standing, waiting to be brushed down.

Kid slowly approached Virgil, who was still lying on the ground holding his now bleeding nose and trying to catch his breath. Kid popped the last bite of biscuit into his mouth and carefully chewed and swallowed before squatting down to look Virgil in the eyes.

"Broke yer nose, didn't he?" Kid asked. "I forgot to mention, Lou was the fastest rider we had at the Express. Got chased, a lot, by Indians, outlaws and other unsavory types. They never did manage to catch him, 'less he wanted to be caught. Oh, and he's got a temper. Might want to watch out for that."

Kid straightened to his full height, brushed his hands off on his pants and turned to follow his wife back to camp. Virgil just stared after them.

Buck

Eagle watched as Buck moved around the small cabin, preparing the evening meal. It looked to be more beans. They were out of meat. Buck was much calmer, more centered, since his day of prayer at the mountain's summit. Eagle wondered what Buck had seen that day. But he didn't ask. The results of vision quests were generally considered private, unless the seeker chose to share. Buck was showing no such inclination at the moment.

"Things look pretty clear tonight. If it stays this way tomorrow I'm going to go out hunting," Buck said as he brought Eagle his meal. "Don't know about you but I'm getting pretty tired of a diet of beans, beans and more beans."

Eagle humphed a soft laugh. He knew a way he could help Buck with his hunt. Shortly after Buck left early the next morning, Eagle crawled out of his nest near the fire. He pulled an old, worn buffalo robe over his shoulders and headed out to the clearing in front of the cabin.

After a few moments of searching, he found a couple of small branches, no thicker around then a child's wrist, of an even length. He seated himself on the ground and began a slow chant, drumming on the ground with the branches in accompaniment.

"Come here my pretty ones. Elk, deer, mountain goats. Let me see if you can dance," he chanted. "Come out of your hole, small and large. Come on everybody, make a circle around me and I will sing and make music, but you must close your eyes while you dance."

"Elk, shake your tails as I sing. I beat the ground with my sticks as I sing," he chanted, repeating the verses naming all the possible animals Buck could find this day. Eagle continued his drumming and chanting throughout the day.

Buck wondered at his luck hunting. He'd expected to have to spend long hours searching high and low, mostly low, to find any prey. But he'd barely left the clearing when a mountain goat jumped right out in front of him. It had looked almost as if it were dancing with its eyes closed. Buck quickly took aim and downed the goat with his bow and arrow. After a prayer thanking the animal for its sacrifice, he field dressed it and hung it from the upper branches of a nearby tree. With his early success, Buck now hoped to find a little extra he could smoke to keep him for a little longer through this cold winter.

It wasn't much later that an elk seemed to wander right onto the path in front of him, appearing to dance with its eyes closed. Again, Buck quickly took the animal down with a single arrow, thanked its spirit for its sacrifice and field dressed the animal. He stood back and considered. He'd never thought to have such good luck hunting so quickly. It was only noon and already he had enough meat to last him and Eagle for several weeks. He'd planned to spend all day hunting, perhaps even camping out and not returning to the cabin until the morning. But, already he'd need to build a travois for his horse to pull if he was going to get all the meat back. After thinking it over for a moment, Buck decided it would be wasteful to continue hunting.

As he walked his horse back into the cabin's clearing pulling the travois which carried the elk and mountain goat, he heard a strange chanting and drumming sound. I wonder what the old man is up to now, he thought to himself.

At the moment he walked through the tree line at the edge of the clearing, the words Eagle was chanting suddenly became clear to Buck's ears.

"Elk, shake your tails as I sing. I beat the ground with my sticks as I sing."

"Sendeh!" Buck whispered in wonder and not a little fear. This man who'd introduced himself as Eagle was actually Sendeh, the Kiowa trickster. All tribes knew of him, though they called him by many names, the most common being Coyote. To the Kiowa he most often appeared as a man, though it was known he could appear in any shape he chose. Eventually, Buck was able to force his legs to keep moving, the words of an old con artist friend of Teaspoon ringing in his ears, "You can't con a man who doesn't want something from you in the first place."

Eagle heard the slow clopping of the horse's hooves as Buck entered the clearing and stopped his chanting. He looked up at the young man followed by the horse pulling a travois. "Good hunting, my young friend?"

"Yes," Buck answered.

"Good, I'm hungry. Here, I'll hold the horse while you get the meat into the cabin. Then we can chop it up properly. How about I make some stew tonight, while you get the rest of the meat in the smokehouse?"

"Okay." Buck was afraid to say too much to this man. As he started to walk toward the travois behind the horse, the old man spoke again.

"Don't worry, Buck. I may be a trickster, but I'm also a good friend to those who are a friend to me."

Buck paused for a moment before nodding and continuing on his way to the travois. He never turned around to face Eagle.

Later that night, as they were eating the stew Eagle had made, Buck finally gathered the courage to ask the question that had been bothering him all afternoon and evening.

"How'd you end up out here?"

"Oh, I got a little too frisky with the beautiful young daughter of a Taime priest," Eagle responded with a lecherous grin. Buck returned the grin with one of his own. The man in front of him was known as much for his lusty opportunism as for the cons he pulled. "Anyway, the priest put a curse on me. I'm doomed to age and die. This time. Don't worry, I'll be back. I'm always back. Eventually. But I won't last out the winter in this body."

The old man laughed as if his impending death were a hilarious joke. Maybe to him it was, Buck though bitterly. To the rest of the world, death was a tragedy.

"In the meantime though," Eagle continued, "I plan to return the kindnesses you've shown me these last few days."

Cody

This had been a long winter for Cody, filled mostly with waiting for something to happen. There really wasn't much for a teamster to do when the wagons couldn't go anywhere. Instead he'd spent the last several weeks teaching young Thatch how to act like a boy. Now, she stood leaning against the side of a wagon in a stance any of the boys from the bunkhouse would've recognized, arms crossed over her chest, hands tucked into her armpits.

She was watching Cody show off his skills with the lariat, twisting and swinging, tossing and twirling the rope for all he was worth. Ok, so he hadn't stopped with teaching her how to act like a boy. Once she'd learned those lessons well enough, almost too well for his peace of mind, he'd moved on to other skills. They'd worked on trick riding and acrobatics. Now, they were moving on to roping. She was a quick study.

Just as Cody was twirling the rope into his grand finale, his commanding officer walked into the circle of firelight. The surprise caused Cody to get tangled up in his own rope and fall on his face. Thatch laughed long and loud. Even the commander chuckled.

"Sorry to interrupt your concentration, son," he said. "I was just coming to ask if you'd like to go hunting. Some scouts found a whole herd of buffalo a few miles west of here. We could use the meat and hides to shore up our provisions for the rest of the winter."

"Sir, I'd love to!" Cody eagerly agreed. "When do we leave?"

"First thing in the morning, so get your sleep."

"No problem there, Sir," Thatch offered. "The only thing Cody loves more than food and showing off is sleep."

"Why, I oughta," Cody began. Too angry for words, he just started to take off after the already fleeing Thatch. The commander just watched them go, laughing to himself at their antics. Those two sure livened up the winter camp.

Late the next morning, Cody found himself hunkered down on the ground, hidden behind some tall prairie grass, overlooking the herd of buffalo. None of the other Army hunters had found the herd yet. Thatch was next to him. She was learning fast with a six gun, but was still no good with the long distance rifles, so she was going to be his loader on this trip. Cody was determined to prove his worth to the unit. Maybe he'd get out of boring teamster duty and into something a little more exciting.

He sighted down the long barrel of his rifle carefully and squeezed the trigger. The lead bull of the herd bellowed and fell to its knees. The other buffalo lowed anxiously and started milling around. By hitting the lead bull first, Cody had managed to keep them from stampeding immediately. Oh, they would eventually, but the longer it took them, the more he'd bring in.

Once the herd did the inevitable and stampeded over the horizon away from Cody's deadly barrage of bullets, there were thirty dead buffalo littering the ground. Cody stood up and grinned proudly. The noise had gotten the attention of the rest of the hunters and they were coming up just as Cody finished cleaning his gun.

"Dang, Cody! Didn't you leave anythin' fer the rest of us," one man complained.

"Whatcha complainin' about, Dewey, he went an' did the hard work fer us," another responded. "Heck, Cody, how many are down there?"

"By my count, thirty," Cody answered, shoulders thrown back in pride. "All shot within fifteen minutes."

"Son, I can't rightly go on callin' you Billy after this," the commander of the unit said. "From now on, I'll call you…. Buffalo Bill! That's it, Buffalo Bill."

"Buffalo Bill Cody," the blond-haired young man mulled over the new moniker. "Buffalo Bill Cody. That's got a right nice ring to it." And he flashed his blinding white grin at the crew. A nickname. A real nickname. Cody couldn't have been more pleased with the day's work. He'd wanted a real nickname ever since Marcus had dubbed Jimmy as Wild Bill Hickok. Now, he had his own. Things were really going his way lately.

"But, let's not stand here jawing. We need to get all those animals dressed and loaded into the wagons to take back to camp," Cody added, feeling the need to take the lead, again.

Several hours later, hot, sticky with drying blood and tired, Cody looked around again. It had been a fruitful day's labor. They had enough meat to feed the entire camp for a few weeks now and he'd earned his own nickname. But he didn't like what he was seeing right now. With all the buffalo hides loaded on one wagon and the choice pieces of meat loaded on the others, there were still piles of buffalo lying all over the place. It wouldn't rot immediately in the February chill, but it was certainly being wasted by the Army men. This seriously bugged Cody's conscious.

Finally, he walked up to the commander of the unit and asked, "Sir, we're not just going to leave all this lying out here, are we?"

"What do you expect us to do with it, son?" the commander asked kindly. "It's not like we can use any of it, or transport it for that matter. Thanks to your good shooting, the wagons are filled to overflowing."

Cody thought for a moment, then asked, "Well, Sir, if we're not gonna use this, do you mind if I ride out and find the nearest tribe and tell them about it? It'd be a real good peace gesture from the Army."

"I suppose that's alright, son. But we need you back at Fort Leavenworth in four days. If you don't find anyone before then, this lot rots. You understand?"

"Yes, Sir!" Cody flashed his characteristically exuberant salute and headed for his horse. Thanks to Buck, Cody was pretty sure he could find Red Bear's band of Kiowa within the day. They wintered not too far away from here.

Lou and Kid

Training at Camp Ashland hadn't been anything like what either Kid or Lou had expected. They'd figured they'd be spending their days learning new riding tricks, how to evade the enemy or sneak up on him, much as Teaspoon had taught them during their first weeks with the Express. Instead, it had been day after day of drill, drill and more drill. All followed by even more drilling. The duo was bored stiff.

On the other hand, personnel matters had gotten a mite interesting. After Lou had shown Virgil up in their impromptu horserace, he'd become their virtual shadow. So, Kid had taken to showing Virgil some of the tricks they'd learned on the trail the last couple of years. He was an avid student.

"So, to mount from the side, without using the stirrups, you grab the saddle horn in your left hand. Then, bracing your left arm against your mount's neck you swing your right leg up and over the horse's back." Kid quickly demonstrated what he meant.

Virgil looked from Kid, now sitting tall on horseback, back to his own mount and its saddle. "Uh, Kid, what if I don't have a saddle, horn did you call it?"

Kid looked at Virgil's saddle more closely. He'd known it was different, much smaller and lighter than the saddle he used. But, he hadn't realized it lacked this piece of, to his mind, vital equipment.

"Well, Buck used to do the same thing by just wrapping his hand in his horse's mane," he finally commented. "Lou uses a similar technique when riding bareback. But he's so much smaller. I guess you could try that and see if it'll work."

Kid dismounted and headed for the barn, leaving Virgil to try to figure out the trick mount on his own. Kid found Lou in the stable assigned to their horses, vigorously brushing down her mount. He knew this was Lou's way of finding thinking time. He wasn't surprised to find her here, after seeing her walk away disgustedly from Thomas Ewell.

Things hadn't quite turned out as expected. At first Virgil had seemed to be their biggest hurdle to acceptance in the unit, while Ewell had seemed to be their ally. That had certainly changed over the last several weeks. They'd learned Ewell was Isaac's master. Isaac was the company's black cook. He'd been forced to come to the war because his owner had demanded it. He spent his days cooking and, apparently hiding, from Ewell. Ewell was the worst of all things southern and if he'd been the only type of person fighting for the Confederacy, Kid would have happily helped her burn.

Lou had it even worse. Like Buck and Ike, she'd always felt like something of an outsider, much more so than Kid, Cody or Jimmy ever had. And those three had formed a particularly strong bond with Noah when he'd joined the riders. Every comment Ewell made about the inherent inferiority of negros and every attack he carried out on Isaac just drove thorns into the injury left by Noah's death. Kid placed a sympathetic hand on Lou's shoulder, only to have her roughly dislodge it while ducking under the horse's neck. He sighed. Maybe he should just leave her alone.

A sharp bugle call they'd learned to recognize over the last few weeks, pierced the early March air. Kid and Lou looked at each other, then exited the barn at a run, responding to the musical command along with the rest of the members of Company G.

As the men gathered in the central area of their campsite, Kid looked around. Not everyone was rushing to the formation. Two of the cavalrymen were lugging a side of beef over to Isaac's cook station. Isaac himself was parching coffee in a pan over the fire, stirring with a big camp knife. Yet another man was placing the unit's dinnerware, all good solid tinware, on a table with complete settings. Kid grinned to himself. Even in the middle of a war, his fellows were determined to eat a 'civilized' meal. Finally, the crowded men quieted enough to hear what Captain Irving had to say.

"Men, the wait is over," Capt. Irving announced. "General McClellan has made his move. He's begun an attack on Virginia, in an attempt to take Richmond. It will be our job to help stop him. Pack up tonight, boys. We move out in the mornin'. That'll be all."

Irving turned and left the area to the cheers of his men. He'd spend the rest of the evening in a command conference with Gen. Stuart, determining exactly where they were headed tomorrow. Kid glanced at Lou and whispered, "And so it begins."

Buck

Buck looked at the older man across the fire from him. After weeks of sharing a fire with Eagle, or Sendeh as Buck had come to think of him, the young half-breed had lost most of his fear of the living legend. It helped that even as he continued to obviously weaken, Eagle had been frenetically teaching Buck all he knew about medicine. Buck took a deep breath, mentally bracing himself for the question he was about to ask.

"Can you interpret visions, Sendeh?"

The old man looked at Buck, startled yet pleased by the question. This was the first time Buck had ever asked anything of him. He'd begun to despair of being able to help the young man.

"Yes, Buck," he answered slowly. "I know it's not in the stories, for a reason, but I can and do occasionally interpret spirit visions. "

"Will you tell me what mine means?"

"You know I will, son."

Buck began to relate his experiences on the mountain top, telling Sendeh of the snow white young male deer and its antics. The old man watched Buck closely throughout the tale, smiling slightly. When Buck finished, he sat back on his heels, both relieved to have finally shared the moment and terrified of finding out what his vision meant.

But Sendeh did not begin to immediately tell Buck what he was waiting to hear. Instead, he dug into his haversack, pulling out a plug of tobacco. Chanting something just under his breath, he lit the tobacco in the fire and began spreading its smoke to the four winds. Then, he stood and 'bathed' Buck and then himself in the smoke, before setting the last of the tobacco into the fire to finish burning. Then, he sat back and smiled at Buck.

"I'm surprised you really need me to tell you this, Buck," he began. "The young deer is you."

"But it was all white. Does that mean I have to go back to living in the white world?"

"Patience, my young friend, patience." After a few more moments of quiet contemplation, barely tolerated by the now anxious Buck, Sendeh began to speak again. "The deer is you. It is white for two reasons. The first is to indicate that it is a messenger from the Earth Creator. The second is to indicate that, yes, your future does lie with the white man."

"Tell me, Buck, did the deer's injury not remind you of anything?" Sendeh asked.

As Buck sat back and thought about it for a moment, enlightenment suddenly entered his eyes. "The Sun Dance," he breathed.

"Yes. You asked the Spirits for guidance and promised them any sacrifice. They've told you what they require. Now, it is up to you to decide if you are willing to make the sacrifice. If you do, they will show you how to lead your people down a path to peace with the white man. It will not be a comfortable peace, by any means. But it will mean that your Kiowa family will survive. And, it will be through the help of your Gantonto family that you are able to do this. Tell me, Buck, this is not the first time that you've been touched by the Spirits, is it?" Sendeh asked quietly.

Buck looked surprised for a moment, then shuddered in memory. "No," he answered shortly. "I had to fight an evil Spirit once in order to save my friend Little Bird from possession."

"Do you think you would have been chosen for the fight, if you were not destined for much more?"

"I just figured I was chosen because I was close to Little Bird."

"It is a universal truth, my young friend, that the Spirits put anyone they plan to bless well through a trial by fire, first."

Teaspoon

The warmth of spring came early to Texas. That was one thing he was glad for, Teaspoon thought as he walked down the row of southern belles, old men and boys. They were all cleaning and putting together a variety of different guns.

As soon as Teaspoon had felt up to hobbling around on the crutch he'd carved himself, he'd begun teaching Mrs. Herrington how to shoot and care for the rusted old Hawkins rifle he'd found in her barn. These days she was a more than fair shot and no longer feared raiders.

Some of that had to do with the others lined up along the barn's western wall. Many women left on their own had chosen to gather here with Mrs. Herrington for mutual protection. Some came just to learn how to shoot and do other chores the men had generally taken care of before leaving for war. Once they'd learned what Teaspoon had to teach, they'd headed home again to keep things going until their menfolk returned. If they returned. Others had come with nothing to go back to. Those had stayed and now were helping to pass on their hard won new skills to the latest newcomers.

Teaspoon sighed in satisfaction. He had found his calling for this war. Fighting was a young man's call. He was no longer that young man. Instead, he would help those left behind survive the struggles of day to day life caused by the war.

Kid and Lou

Lou stuffed the last of their hardtack, beef jerky and beans into her haversack, an oil cloth satchel that could be worn over one shoulder, or tied to the saddle. They were lucky to have had enough money to afford the larger haversacks, capable of carrying three days worth of supplies. Kid had already finished packing his and was now checking their tent and bedding. Their tent was a simple A-frame canvas affair, with a closed back and a closable front. They also had their bedrolls which consisted of an oil cloth to keep water from seeping through, one wool blanket each and, in Kid's pack, the buffalo robe Buck had given them at their wedding. Compared to what they'd carried on Express runs, they both felt extremely overloaded. But, there would be no waystations or relay stations on this ride. This time, they had to carry everything with them that they'd need to survive.

"Mount up!" came the call. Almost as one the 100 men of Company G slipped into their saddles. Lou batted, annoyed, at the silly saber she had to wear. It was part of the uniform, but she failed to see its usefulness. Mostly it just got in her way while riding and annoyed her.

Unlike the Express runs both Kid and Lou were used to, this ride was mostly long, slow and boring. Kid was longing to just let loose and gallop down the trail at top speed, even though he knew it would be foolish. By the look on Lou's face, she was thinking much the same thing.

Kid wondered when, if ever, they would actually see action. Right now, they were headed to the Virginia Peninsula, in southeast Virginia. They were supposed to join up with General Joseph E. Johnston's army as it harried the invading Union troops. It took Company G three days to find and join General Johnston. At first, he didn't seem to know what to do with the mounted unit. Then, he used them as screening units, sending them out in groups of five to harry the Union Army and slow its advance.

Despite all their bravado, the Confederate Army had been steadily ceding territory to their blue-coated adversaries. Tonight, Company G was camped near Fort Magruder, which straddled the Williamsburg Road from Yorktown. They were exhausted. They'd spent the last two days skirmishing with Union cavalry, fighting a rearguard action to protect the main body of General Johnston's army as it tried to escape. Kid and Lou hadn't even bothered to put up their tent. They were simply too tired. Instead, like most of their squad, they'd chosen to sleep under the stars.

Volleys of rifle fire broke the pre-dawn stillness, startling the cavalry unit awake. Lou looked at Kid and they both started scrambling for their guns. They quickly packed up their bedrolls and were mounted before half the other members of their squad were even fully awake.

"I'll go see what's up," Kid said. "You make sure the rest are awake!" Then he wheeled his horse around and galloped off in the direction of the gunfire.

"Damned gloryhound!" Lou muttered before hopping back off her horse to make sure the rest of the unit was mounted and ready to fight.

It wasn't long before General Longstreet, who was in charge of the portion of Johnston's army camped at Fort Magruder, was using the cavalrymen as messengers, racing back and forth along a series of rifle pits and smaller fortifications that extended in an arc southwest from the fort with orders for the various units.

The first Union attack was repelled and nearly overrun by mid-morning and spirits among the Confederates were high. But, as the main body of the Union regulars began to arrive, the Confederates dug in for what looked to be a more protracted fight. At one point, Lou could have sworn she heard a band marching up and down a nearby road playing Yankee Doodle. She laughed under her breath at the absurdity. Who brings a band to a gunfight?

After hours of ducking for cover and riding up and down the front lines ferrying messages back and forth, the order finally came to retreat. Now, the cavalry's real work would begin. As the soldiers began to crawl out of their shelters and head down the road away from the Union Army, it was up to Lou, Kid, Virgil and the other members of Company G to slow down the advancing enemy long enough for the rest of the soldiers to make good their escape.

Lou looked at Kid then pointed at a series of trees set at the top of a hill a half mile down the road. Kid nodded and they took off, closely followed by Virgil.

"What are we doin'?" he asked, curiously. Once Company G had joined the fight, Virgil had quickly realized Kid and Lou were the most experienced fighters in the unit and attached himself to them even more tightly than he'd already been.

"We're goin' to set up an ambush in the stand of trees," Kid said as they galloped down the road.

"It provides good cover for us and will let us slow down the first advancing troops," Lou added. "Plus, it has the advantage of backing up to a hill we can disappear behind before they get too close."

"Sounds good to me," Virgil grinned. "Lead on." The other two young men in their squad followed gamely after them.

The ambush worked almost exactly as Kid and Lou had predicted and their entire squad escaped safely. As they retreated over the hill, Lou turned at the sound of hoofbeats behind her. She saw a young Union soldier advancing doggedly toward her on an old farm horse. She was just going to escape over the hillock until he raised his gun and took aim at Kid's back. Lou quickly pulled her revolver and shot the young man in the heart. He fell from his horse and landed on the ground with a dull thud that seemed to reverberate in her ears. He'd never once made a sound. She turned and fled after her brothers in arms.

Their unit continued to attack the advancing Union troops, then flee, repeating the process several times throughout the day. That was their job. By nightfall, they'd caught back up with the main body of General Johnston's army and were able to finally get some rest.

Buck

Buck wondered why he wasn't sadder on this crisp June night. The man he'd been caring for for months, and who had become a close friend, had died in his sleep the night before. After a day of mourning and preparations, Buck was ready to send him on his way with a grand funeral pyre. Given the timing, Buck almost wondered if Eagle, Sendeh, his friend had chosen the moment of his death.

If Buck were to make it to the great summer gathering of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho in time for the Sun Dance, he needed to leave now. But, he would never have left his friend to die alone. Tonight, he would light Sendeh's funeral pyre and pray as his spirit moved on. Tomorrow he would leave for what might be the most difficult thing he'd ever done.

As he watched Sendeh's funeral bier burn through the night, Buck pondered why the Kiowa Creator would have asked him to make a Sun Dance sacrifice of this type. The Kiowa Sun Dance was more of a celebration and Thank You dance than a dance of sacrifice. The Spirits had been clear though, they wanted Buck to complete the more rigorous Sun Dance performed by their neighbors, the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux.

The next morning, Buck packed the last of his supplies onto the travois behind his horse. With the knowledge that he would be partaking in the Sun Dance this summer, Buck had been hard at work creating things to offer at the give-away that closed every Sun Dance. Now, the travois was piled high with soft furs from his winter's hunting, beautifully decorated bows and arrows and stone knives. Buck would not embarrass his Kiowa family by giving too little this summer. After making a last check that all the lashings were tight, Buck mounted his horse and headed east, for the northern plains.

It took him nearly a week to find the location of this year's Sun Dance gathering. Now, he was arriving in the giant camp. While most white men could not tell the difference between one tribe and another, it was readily apparent to the denizens of this camp, that Buck was not a normal participant. But, he ignored the adults' curious stares and the children's curiouser questions as he rode straight to the center of camp. There he made his way to the tipi where all the medicine men were gathered, to put his name in the list of those who wished to dance this summer.

"Are you sure you wish to make this sacrifice, my brother," the elderly chief medicine man asked him. "You are not one of us. This is not your Sun Dance."

"This is what the Spirits demanded of me through many visions this winter, father," Buck answered respectfully. "I can do no less."

"Then go to the House of the Supplicants and begin your purification."

Buck nodded and started to turn away, but then turned back with a request. "Father, might I ask that you, or someone in your clan, watch over my horse and belongings. As you stated, I am a stranger here and have no family to care for them while I am dancing."

"I will honor your request myself," the chief medicine man nodded in understanding. "Your courage will do your family proud," he added in the traditional blessing upon aspiring dancers. Buck nodded in thanks, then turned and walked away.

At the House of the Supplicants, Buck washed himself thoroughly, before entering a sweatlodge to fast and pray for the next four days. All activities involved in the Sun Dance came in sets of four, to mimic the seasons. During this time he would eat nothing and drink only a special tea prepared by the medicine men and former dancers supervising this year's dance.

The last night of this vigil, Buck joined the other dancers in bathing himself again. Then, they began to paint each other's bodies in designs the Spirits had shown them during the last few days of prayer. Clothed only in a breechclout, Buck painted one half of his face white, the other red. Then, on his chest, he added a stylized white deer and on his upper back a red horse with a hand print, indicating a messenger. Then, along with the other dancers he began to chant a prayer that would continue until the dawn.

As the sun pinkened the eastern sky, all the dancers lined up and slowly began dancing their way through camp. Their dance circled the camp four times before piercing its center to end at the Sun Dance Circle. There, a tall tree trunk had been sunk into the ground, shorn of all its branches. But, tied to the top were several long sinew ropes that dangled to the ground. It looked similar to a Maypole Emma had shown him in a book once, Buck thought inconsequentially. The dancers circled the tree trunk four times before coming to a stop in a circle facing it.

Then, the medicine men entered the Sun Dance Circle, dancing in the opposite direction while chanting prayers. They too danced around the circle four times before coming to a stop, but facing away from the tree trunk. Each medicine man had stopped in front of one dancer. Buck's eyes widened in surprise to note that it was the chief medicine man who'd stopped in front of him. But, he didn't let his surprise alter his continuous chanting prayer or dancing feet.

Just as the Sun burst forth over the tipis to the east, each medicine man reached forward with a sharp knife and sliced through the skin and muscle of the left chest of a dancer. Buck flinched, but did not alter his chanting or dancing, as the medicine man inserted a skewer into the hole he had sliced in Buck's chest. Then he tied the skewer to one of the sinew ropes attached to the tree trunk in the center of the Sun Dance Circle. The chief medicine man repeated the process on the right side of Buck's chest. Then, chanting their own prayers, the medicine men slowly shuffle danced backward until they reached the center of the circle. There, they sat down to keep vigil and pray.

As the medicine men sat, the dancers began to really move. They would dance and chant prayers and sing, twisting and turning their bodies for the next several hours, until they managed to pull the skewers free of the skin and muscle holding them attached to the Tree of Life at the center of the Sun Dance Circle.

Even as he danced and prayed, Buck was able to marvel in some quiet corner of his brain at the fact that he wasn't screaming in pain. He didn't even feel the desire to do so. He'd expected the experience to be excruciating. But, apparently, the four days of preparation had done their job. While he was aware, at some level, that this did indeed hurt, it was almost as if he were watching someone else go through the ceremony. He was pleased. The Spirits would have the sacrifice they'd wanted. He continued to dance and sing and pray as the Sun rose higher in the sky.

Lou and Kid

Kid sighed. He was tired and he was sure Lou was even more exhausted. After their successes at the Battle of Williamsburg, as the events at Fort Magruder were now being dubbed, their unit had been detailed to join the regiment commander, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart on a special mission.

Robert E. Lee had personally asked Stuart to find out if the right flank of the Union Army was well protected. They'd spent the last several days sneaking around the edges of the Union Army, taking potshots when they could, stealing horses and supplies, even capturing a few men. But, the need to be constantly on alert, seeing as how they were behind enemy lines, was exhausting. And, Lou had had the worst of it. Being the smallest, quietest and fastest rider in the force and being able to write, Stuart had used her to sneak the closest to Union lines and take down information on numbers, locations and provisions.

Kid looked down at her sleeping face and sighed. Right now she was catching a few moments of sleep, head pillowed on his shoulder, while they waited for Virgil and Thomas Ewell to return from their last reconnaissance mission. As soon as they got back, the whole force would complete its circumnavigation of the Union forces and return to Richmond. Kid was happy Virgil and Ewell were a little late getting back. It gave Lou a few more minutes to sleep.

He wasn't happy however, when they came galloping into camp, yelling at the top of their lungs about Yankees on their tails. Their horses slid to a stop in the center of the waiting Confederate cavalry as their brothers in arms closed ranks around them. Three blue coated soldiers came trotting into the woods behind the riders, intent on capturing them, only to find themselves surrounded by hundreds of Confederate cavalrymen, all with loaded weapons cocked and aimed in their direction. They quickly surrendered.

"Lou, wake up!" Virgil joshed, as they trotted away a few minutes later. "We're all about to be heroes."

"Don't wanna be a hero," Lou muttered. "Wanna be asleep."

Virgil laughed at what he thought was a joke. Little did he realize, Lou was being completely honest with him.

In the long run, Virgil was right. They were heroes. They were welcomed back to Richmond by an impromptu parade, complete with marching band and flower petals being tossed at their feet. And that night, all the men got a good night's sleep in comfortable beds, donated by grateful Confederate citizenry.

"I'm sure looking forward to a night in a real feather bed," Lou sighed.

"I don't care what the bed is made of as long as the lady in it with me is soft as a pillow," Virgil joked, elbowing Ewell who was at his side.

Ewell grinned back at him. "I might want a feather or two, as well, though I don't know that I'll be doing much 'sleepin' with it. I've got better things to do with my time in a comfortable bed in the city."

The two men wandered off, happily contemplating their earthly rewards for their efforts to defend this fair city.

That night, Kid stared down at Lou wrapped in his arms. He wished she hadn't been so tired, so they could've taken better advantage of this opportunity to spend some time alone in a comfortable bed. But, between their fear of their hosts hearing something inappropriate and Lou's exhaustion, there hadn't been a whole lot of 'dancing'. Kid hugged Lou closer to him. He was so proud of her and the hard work she'd done the last few days. He didn't think he could ever explain it to her. And now, he was happy just to beable to hold her in his arms and watch her sleep.

Chapter 3: Two Brothers/Divided Loyalties (January -June 1862)

Buck

"I don't know how to thank you, son," the grizzled old trapper said to Buck from his bed. After a week of caring for him, the man was finally lucid for more than a few moments a day. Today had been his best day yet. He'd woken this morning knowing who and where he was and he hadn't lost that sense of self yet.

The first night, the old man had been so sick Buck had thought he wouldn't live to see the dawn. But, by some miracle he had. And the man had kept right on living. Buck was relieved. He'd been to enough funerals in the last couple of months to last him a lifetime. If the man's health continued to improve, Buck planned to climb to the peak of this mountain in the morning to offer thanks to the Sun and the Sisters for their protection and ask for guidance on what he should do next.

Buck got up and brought a cup of fresh water to the old man, lifting his head to help him drink. "You don't owe me anything. I was here. I knew what to do. If I had walked away I could not have called myself a man."

The man had identified himself to Buck as Dyami, meaning Eagle. Buck thought it was odd that this apparent white man would introduce himself with a Kiowa name. But, he'd seen and heard stranger things in his lifetime.

"Here," Buck said, "try to eat some of this venison stew I made. It's not much, but it's all we have for now. Your provisions had gone bad." He continued talking as he helped Eagle down the nourishing food. "As soon as the storm breaks, I'll go hunting for more meat. There should be some elk or mountain sheep herds in the area, if nothing else."

"The Spirits will honor you for this, my child."

"I'm not looking for any honor, old man. I just need to be able to live with myself. Find time to heal."

Eagle watched the young Indian with eyes as sharp as his namesake. He knew this young man had much on his heart and many wounds to heal. Eagle's body might be failing, it was doubtful he would live until spring, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He determined to help young Running Buck find his destiny before time ran out.

A few days later the snow finally stopped. Buck gathered his supplies and left the cabin hours before dawn. He would need the time to reach the summit of the mountain before the sun rose. It was a hard, cold climb, but the exertion felt good after so many days cooped up in the small 10 by 10 foot cabin. Upon reaching the peak, Buck paused for a moment to gaze toward the sacred direction of East and watch the first glimmers of the Sun rise over the horizon. He took a deep breath of the cold, crisp air and felt a measure of peace he hadn't felt since Ike died. This was what he needed.

Then, Buck turned and quickly began to set out his supplies. First he used several large stones to create a sacred Medicine Wheel to protect him during his prayers. The wheel consisted of one small circle of stones set inside a larger circle of stones. Four lines of stones connected the two circles, pointing to the four sacred directions, East, South, West and North. The four directions plus the inner circle and Heaven Above and Earth Below added up to the sacred number seven, the Creator's number.

Buck started a small fire inside the inner wheel, using sweetgrass as tinder to make the fire holy. Before entering the circle, Buck purified himself by scrubbing his entire body with clean snow, then "bathing" himself in the smoke from the sweetgrass scented fire. Finally, he entered the circle.

First, he faced the East and the rising Sun. Raising his arms over his head, he began in a high descending pitch, using every breath in his lungs. Then he started over, again and again, with the same urgency each time.

"Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee," he begged, "Earth Creator, help me to understand. Why am I here? Why did You bring me my Pony Express family, the only place I've ever been happy, only to take them away again? Why? Why did you take Ike, my brother? Why did you take Noah? Why did they have to die? Why? Why? I plead for understanding!"

Turning to the South, he started again.

"Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee, Earth Creator, help me to see your world through a child's eyes. Please, help me to understand and accept what has happened in my life and to see the path I am to follow for all my tomorrows."

Facing the West, he prayed, "Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee, Earth Creator, help me to understand what is happening in this world. Why do my brothers have to fight each other in this great White Man's war? Why does my Kiowa brother Red Bear have to fight just to feed his family in this land of plenty? Why cannot my Kiowa family and my Gantonto family peacefully share this land You made? How can I help my families survive these deadly days?"

To the North, he prayed, "Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee, Earth Creator, I beg of You, help me to be the warrior You need me to be. Help me, please, to understand Your wishes and the direction You would have me take. Help me to help both my families through these dangerous years. I beg of You, send me word of Your desires. I will sacrifice whatever You wish, to save the rest of my family."

In tears, Buck once again turned to the East and started the round of prayers. He continued to follow the same pattern for several hours. Around noon, he finally began to lose strength. His voice was hoarse. He could barely lift his arms to Heaven Above anymore. He made a final turn to the East and closed his prayer.

"The Creator shows me the road. The Creator shows me the road," he chanted. "I went to see my friends. I went to see my friends. I went to see the dances. I went to see the dances."

He lowered his arms to his side and sat down in the center of the Medicine Wheel to wait. He'd had nothing to eat or drink for more than 12 hours now. He would not have anything until his vision quest was completed. Now, was the time to show patience and perseverance, so Dom-oye-alm-daw-k'hee knew his requests were in earnest.

Nightfall came and Buck shivered in the gathering dark, but he remained seated and bare-chested in the center of the Medicine Wheel. He continued to chant prayers just under his breath throughout the cold night, pausing only to feed more wood and sweetgrass into his small fire.

As the first slivers of dawn began to peek over the horizon, Buck saw a young male deer wander into the clearing. His eyes eagerly followed the unusual looking animal. It was pure white from the tips of its horns to the ends of its dainty hooves. It ran around the clearing at top speed seven times, then stopped right in front of Buck, blocking the sight of the rising Sun.

The young buck simply stood there, staring into Buck's eyes for endless moments. Then, it suddenly turned and began bounding off into the woods. Suddenly, it impaled itself in the chest on a low hanging branch. The branch pierced from one side of the chest to the other. The young deer seemed to dance on its four tiny hooves, its eyes raised to the Heaven Above, until the skin and muscle holding the branch in place broke free. The buck turned and began to make another seven circles around the clearing, before seeming to pass between two herds of deer, one red and one white, to disappear over the edge of the mountain.

Buck closed his eyes and began to pray, "Thank You."

Hickok

Kansas. Jimmy couldn't believe he was back in Kansas. Again. Why did this keep happening to him? He'd gone to Missouri to join the Army for a reason. Apparently he hadn't gone far enough because here he was, right back where he started. At least this time it was supposed to be only a quick hit and run visit, just long enough to pick up supplies and run them back to the Union troops in Missouri to carry them over the winter.

Jimmy glared gloomily at the horses pulling the long line of freight wagons. At least this time he wasn't seated on one of those god-awful hard benches. He was mounted on his palomino. He knew he wasn't keeping a proper watch out for raiders, but right now he just couldn't care. He was in Kansas. Not that it really mattered anyway. The wagons were running empty this trip.

After the Battle at Wilson's Creek Jimmy had been promoted to wagonmaster and tasked with going to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to pick up food supplies. The good news was he could see Fort Leavenworth just on the horizon. It wouldn't be long now.

Cody

"Jimmy'd been walking around for near a week with that stinking bag of medicine Teaspoon had given him and it hadn't done a lick of good. Finally, Emma tol' us to get him to the dentist, or else! Lemme tell you, you don't argue when Emma says to do somethin',"

Cody grinned in memory.

"Anyway, it took three of us to push, pull and drag Hickok into that dentist's office. Now, keep in mind, this dentist was a tenderfoot, fresh from the east. He had all sorts of weird ideas about his job and even weirder equipment. When he tried to use that drill on Jimmy's sore tooth, smilin' the whole time, Jimmy just naturally pulled his Colt on 'im. That there tenderfoot just keeled right over in fright!"

Thatch joined Cody in gales of laughter at this latest story of his antics with his Pony Express family. Her favorites always involved Jimmy Hickok. She sure wished she could meet him. Not that that was likely to happen in this man's war. Finally, she caught her breath enough to ask, "So, what happened to the tooth? Did it just heal up on its own?"

"Naw! Jimmy eventually gave in, tied it to a door handle and slammed the door shut to pull the tooth. To tell the truth, us boys had been betting on whether he'd just shoot it out!"

The comment sent Thatch into another gale of laughter.

"Okay, kiddo. Time for us to get back to work. Go get the horses fed and groomed. I've gotta run an errand and then I'll meet you at the mess tent for some grub."

"Cody," Thatch smiled in her new, gruffer voice, "you're always thinkin' 'bout and plannin' how to take care of your stomach!"

Cody just smiled at the familiar refrain and tipped his hat to her before taking off for the sutler's. As he was rifling through the offerings in the sutler's tent he thought he heard a familiar voice.

"Get those wagons lined up properly, dammit! How many times do I have to tell y'all?"

Cody dropped what he'd been looking at and ran out the front flap of the sutler's tent. "Jimmy? Jimmy Hickok, is that really you?"

"If it ain't Billy Cody, hisself. Shoulda guessed I'd run into ya here, avoidin' work like always!" Jimmy joked as he crushed Cody to him in a giant bearhug. "What have you been up to, you lazy buzzard?"

"Mostly just driving freight wagons from one place to another. Pretty boring work, most of the time. Except when we run into Quantrill's Raiders or other groups of armed rebels."

"What happened to the scouting gig you signed up for?"

"Turns out once you're in the Army, you do whatever they tell you to do. When the Captain I signed on with got shipped back East, I got left behind. The new commander of the 7th Cavalry decided I was too young to be a scout and made me a teamster instead."

"Listen, Cody, I've got to get these wagons lined up for loading. We're taking a shipment of food back to the troops in Missouri. Why don't I meet you at the mess tent in, say, 20 minutes. We'll catch up while I grab a bite to eat before headin' back."

"Can't wait to get outta Kansas already, Jimmy?" Cody joked. "Sure, I'll see ya there."

"Knew you wouldn't be able to resist the food!" Jimmy shouted after him.

Twenty minutes later, Cody sauntered into the mess tent with a package under his arm. He quickly scanned the tables, looking for his old friend. Jimmy was seated with his back to the tent wall, a habit he'd picked up after that danged Marcus had written those dime novels about him and gunfighters started crawling out of the woodwork with their sights set on Jimmy. He was shoveling food into his mouth hand over fist. He must really be in a hurry, Cody thought.

"So, Jimmy, how's that hair trigger of yours doing?" Cody asked as he plopped down in a seat next to his friend. "Betcha it's been getting' a real workout over there in Missouri. I've heard the fightin's been pretty fierce."

"You've no idea, Cody. No idea. I thought I was prepared for war," Jimmy answered slowly, "after everything we went through with the Express. Lord knows I'd killed enough men already. But that was nothin' like this. All those bodies."

Jimmy stopped as if the emotions of his thoughts had gotten to be too much for him and he'd had to batten down the emotional hatches. Noticing his friend's discomfort, Cody changed the topic.

"Have you heard from any of the others?"

"No. And I'm not likely to any time soon. Not unless it's over the barrel of a gun on a battle field."

Cody nodded somberly. "It won't come to that. That's why we scattered in so many different directions. At least that way we, hopefully, won't be shootin' at each other."

Hickok just grunted as he swallowed the last of his food and then leaned back to really look at Cody. Noticing the package Cody had set down on the table next to his elbow, Jimmy grabbed for it, asking, "Something pretty for your latest sweetheart?"

"Not… exactly," Cody demurred. "It's just something' for the kid I drive with. He's real green. Got a lot of the same problems our Lou had to begin with. But good with the horses and a quick learner."

Jimmy looked at Cody quizzically for a moment, then let out a loud guffaw. "So, you're tellin' me you're playin' nursemaid? I never thought I'd see the day! You ain't exactly got Kid's patience, my man!"

"It ain't the same thing atall. I'm just helpin' him learn the ropes. Figure out how things work. Same as I'd do for any new rider," Cody defended himself, unconsciously falling back into the lingo of their Pony Express days. "And Thatch is shaping up to be a right fine rider. Might even give Lou a ride for his money!"

Hickok just shook his head as he stood up. "I'd love to stay and meet this kid, but I've gotta hit the road. The wagons should be loaded by now."

Cody followed Hickok out of the mess tent and back to his horse, hitched near the lead wagon in the convoy. Jimmy mounted up and looked down at his friend, "Ride safe, Cody."

"You too, Jimmy. You too." He watched his friend ride down the line of wagons, making sure everyone was ready to head out, then turned back to the mess tent.

"There you are. I've been looking all over for you," young Thatch exclaimed on finding Cody seated morosely at the same table he'd just shared with Jimmy. She noticed he was just picking at his food, not really eating it. "What's the matter?"

"Nothin'," he said glumly. Then he tossed the wrapped package to her. "Here, these are for you."

"What are they?"

"Shirts."

"Shirts?"

"And a new pair o' pants."

"What's wrong with what I've got on?" she asked, a bit offended.

"They fit you."

"Now that makes total sense."

"I was watchin' you work this mornin' and noticed your clothes fit too well," Cody began explaining. "It made me think of somethin' Lou once told us. We asked why his clothes always looked two sizes too big for him. He said he liked it that way. It was more comfortable and it made it easier."

"Made what easier?"

"Hidin'…. stuff," Cody responded, gesturing vaguely at Thatch.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, suddenly holding the package of shirts in front of her chest.

Teaspoon

Teaspoon was finally back in Texas and he wasn't sure how to feel about that. It had been his goal for weeks now, but he felt conflicted about his return. He still hadn't decided what he was going to do. He had just finished packing up camp after his morning coffee when he heard gunshots. He quickly mounted up and rode in the direction of the noise. The lawman in him wouldn't let him ignore the sound.

As he topped a rise, he saw several scruffy looking young men sacking a large farmhouse. Two held a young lady, not much older than Lou, trapped on the porch. The rest were digging through things in the house and dumping them out in the yard. One was stuffing anything of value into saddlebags.

Teaspoon looked around and realized there were several good hiding places along the edges of the farm from which he could get good shots. If he took out enough of them, fast enough, maybe the rest would flee. Quickly, he put his half-baked plan into action.

He jumped off his horse as it came flying up to the first vantage point, a shed that overlooked the yard in front of the house. He already had his gun out and cocked, ready to start firing. He took careful aim and downed one of the raiders coming out of the house with an armful of loot. He took out two others in quick succession before the rest of the raiders even realized what was happening.

As they started seeking shelter and looking for the shooter, Teaspoon was already running hunched over to a wooded area about a third of the way around the yard from his first hiding place. He hit the ground and crawled forward on his elbows, thinking to himself, I'm gettin' too old fer this!

Two more shots and two more raiders injured. Then, as Teaspoon was heading for his third hiding place, the rest of the raiders took the hint and started hitting their saddles and running for it. They laid down a covering fire behind them as they left.

That's when Teaspoon made his mistake. He came out from behind the pig pen he'd been firing from and stood tall, shooting at the fleeing raiders, right up until one of them hit him in the knee. He grunted in pain but refused to let himself fall. If he fell, not only he, but the young lady on the porch would die also.

As the last of the raiders disappeared over the horizon, he finally let himself stagger, grabbing his knee as he went. The young lady from the porch came running to help him.

"Oh, thank you so much, sir!" she gushed. "They were planning to do such things to me!" She spoke in a dulcet voice with the tones of the deep south. "Ah don't know what ah would have done if you hadn't saved me."

"Just get me in the house," Teaspoon nearly growled at her.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "You're hurt. Here, let me help you."

Together, they managed to limp their way back to the house. She helped him onto a couch in the sitting room just inside the front door. Then she stood back and started wringing her hands. Teaspoon looked at her. Lordy, lord, lord, he thought, this one's helpless as all get out.

"There a doctor near here?" he asked gruffly, starting to feel faint from the pain.

"No, sir," she answered. "Just about every man in these parts has left to fight in the war. Except for those too old, too young or too frail. But Ah refused to leave my home! Ah won't!" she finished, stamping her foot on the wooden floors.

"I take that to mean you ain't got no folks around here?"

"It was just me and my husband. We came west to start a horse ranch. Things were going well, until the war started. He took off to join up, then all the ranch hands disappeared, along with all the money he left me. Now, Ah'm all alone," she finished, nearly in tears.

"Alright, no use getting' all fretted up over things you can't change," Teaspoon said, trying to calm her down. "Can you bring me some alcohol, anything, and bandages?"

With a little direction from Teaspoon the frantic young lady was able to bandage his wounded leg. Best he could figure, the bullet had gone straight through, shattering the knee cap. The good news was, that meant the risk of infection was actually fairly low and nobody was going to have to start digging around in his leg. Teaspoon'd been shot often enough to know about that sort of thing. But, he'd never walk without a major limp again, and riding might well be extremely painful. He could only wait and see.

The young lady finally remembered her manners enough to introduce herself as Savannah Herrington, originally from Georgia. Teaspoon managed a faint, "Folks mostly call me Teaspoon, ma'am," just before losing consciousness.

The next morning he woke up with a headache and a mouth that felt like it was stuffed with cotton. For a moment, Teaspoon thought he was back in Rock Creek and had gone on a bender the night before. Then, he remembered all that had happened.

He slowly looked around him. Mrs. Herrington had placed a beautiful wedding ring quilt over him and left him to sleep on the sofa. He pushed the blanket off him and carefully got to his feet. He had to grab suddenly at the back of the chair next to the sofa as he slowly lurched forward.

"Mrs. Herrington," he called. "Mrs. Herrington, where are you?"

"Ah'm in the kitchen Mr. Spoon," she replied. "Do you like grits for breakfast?" she asked as she came back into the sitting room. "Ah'm afraid that's about all ah've got right now. Those raiders killed all my chickens and stole the last of the bacon."

"Grits would be fine, ma'am," Teaspoon said, startled at her misunderstanding of his name. It reminded him of Emma a powerful lot. "And it's Mr. Hunter. Teaspoon Hunter."

"Oh," she murmured, blushing in mortification. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hunter."

"No need to be sorry. It's rather difficult to get a proper introduction when one of the introductees is conkin' out on the affair!"

"Here," she said, "let me help you to the kitchen table."

She came to his side and put his arm over her shoulder to help guide him to the kitchen. As he sat down he sighed in bliss to be off his feet again. Then, he looked at her and said, "The first order of business, I think, is to find me somethin' I can use as a crutch. I can't keep leanin' on you!"

"There might be some wood you can use out in the barn, Mr. Hunter, if you can make the crutch yourself."

"That will do just fine. But, you'll have to bring me the wood and a knife for carvin'."

"I can manage that much," she said as she placed a bowl of the porridge made from boiling coarsely ground hominy corn with salt.

"Now that that's settled, Mrs. Herrington, I've got a question for you. Do you know how to shoot?"

"Heaven's no, Mr. Hunter. My husband would've died of mortification if Ah'd ever asked to shoot his gun. Why, the very idea simply scares the stuffing out of me."

"Then, that's the next thing on our to-do list. Teach you to shoot."

Savannah Herrington simply sat there and stared at his strange old man who'd saved her. She had no idea what to make of him.

Kid and Lou

Lou was seated at the side of the boxcar, eagerly looking at everything they passed. She couldn't believe how different the countryside was. No more flat plains with the Rocky Mountains carving up the distant horizon. Instead, the countryside was rolling hills and gentle slopes. And the trees! Lou had never seen so many trees in her life. It was an incredible sight, even if they were all bare limbed for the winter. She bet this was the greenest place on earth, come summertime. And the weather. Sure, it was cool and damp, but nothing like the bone chilling cold she'd ridden through the winter before for the Pony Express.

Over the last ten days their train had passed through most of Tennessee and now Virginia. The trip was supposed to have only lasted a little over seven days, but with several breakdowns along the way it had lengthened to ten. Lou hadn't minded the delay. It had meant more time with Kid to herself and more time to absorb everything she was seeing.

Suddenly, the train chugged around a bend and there it was. Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy in all its glory. She could see row upon row of white houses lined up along tree lined streets. Kid said in the last census there'd been more than 37,000 people living there. She'd never seen so many houses or people in one place. That was one thing she'd noticed in the last few days, even in the 'country' here in the East, there was no breathing room. Everyone was living right on top of everyone else. There was no way she could've ridden at a full gallop straight for 75 miles here without running into someone's home or property. While she was amazed at all she was seeing, she decided she definitely preferred the wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

Lou looked up at Kid and wondered what he was thinking. He'd gotten quieter and quieter the closer they'd gotten to Richmond. She thought about telling him it wasn't too late. They could always turn around and go home right now. But she didn't think it would do any good, so she held her peace. She just reached up and held her hand out to him, as she'd done not so long ago after the funeral of his childhood sweetheart, Doritha. And just as he'd done on that sunny afternoon he reached out and encircled her small fingers with his large hand. She'd learned she couldn't always fix things between them. Sometimes she just needed to let him be him, let him do his hard thinking while making sure he knew she was there for him. There was a lot to learn about this marriage thing, she thought with a smothered grin, not just the 'dancing'.

As the train began slowing down in preparation to stop at the Richmond -Petersburg Depot, Lou and Kid began saddling their horses. They'd decided to get a hotel room for the night before searching out the Confederate Army in the morning and signing up. It would be one last night for just the two of them.

The train chugged over a final bridge on entering the depot. Lou shivered as they passed over hundreds of thousands of solid shot cannon balls piled up in readiness below the bridge. It felt like someone was walking on her grave. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the awful sight, until the train jerked to a stop and Kid laid a hand on her shoulder.

"It's time, Lou," he said quietly. She nodded and together they began leading their horses off the train.

The first order of business was to find a place to stay. They wandered down several broad, tree-lined streets before settling on a boardinghouse that didn't look too fancy for them. Even so, they received several pointed looks as they walked in the front door in their travel stained clothing.

After securing a room for the night, Lou and Kid decided to wander town a bit. They knew this might be their only chance to sightsee. Downtown was a wonder to Lou, though Kid had seen it before. He'd passed through Richmond when he'd headed west six years ago.

Eventually, they found themselves outside the Confederate White House, as it was already being called. It was the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family. It was also the social and political center of the Confederacy. With its broad front porch, columns stretching two stories into the afternoon sky and whitewashed walls it was the most beautiful building Lou had ever seen, rivaled only by the statehouse in Springfield. The couple just stood outside the fence, watching it, much as they'd used to stand at the corral fence watching the horses, and thinking their own thoughts.

Eventually, Lou gently punched Kid in the arm and said, "Let's get somethin' to eat, Kid."

The next morning, Lou and Kid found themselves lined up with hundreds of other eager, young recruits ready to sign up to fight. While they'd arrived early in the morning, it wasn't until noon they reached the front of the line.

"Name?" the sergeant at the desk asked briskly.

"Kid McCloud. This is my brother, Lou." Kid so hated his own name, they'd decided to use Lou's last name instead. "We're here to sign up for the cavalry."

That got the sergeant's attention. He raised his eyes from the paper he was writing on and scrutinized Lou and Kid from head to toe.

"You got a horse?" he asked.

"Yes. Good hardy Indian ponies. Well trained. Bought off the Pony Express."

The sergeant raised his eyebrows at that. "Can ya shoot while ridin'?"

"Ever heard of Wild Bill Hickok?" Kid asked. "I'm as good or better than him. Lou's not quite that good, but certainly better than any of these farmboys here. We've survived outlaws and Indians in the Wild West riding for the Express for going on the last two years now. I doubt any of the plantation sons' who make up the cavalry could keep up with either one of us."

"Mite full of yerself, ain't ya, son?"

"Nope. Just know what I can do and what I can't."

"What's the matter with the little 'un. Can't he talk?"

"I can talk just fine, when I'm of a mind to," Lou retorted gruffly, crossing her arms over her chest with her hands up under her armpits. "Just didn't see the need's all."

"You know it costs about $50 each to outfit yourselves with the appropriate uniform," the sergeant warned. "Can y'all afford that?"

"We'll manage," Kid said.

"Alright then, put your mark here," the sergeant said skeptically, pointing to a line in a smaller book than the one all the other volunteers had been signing. "And, welcome to the 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment, Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart commanding. You can get your uniforms at the sutlers down at 8th and Dobbins. You'll report for duty by 6 am tomorrow morning at Camp Ashland, just outside of town."

An hour later the couple found themselves walking out of the sutler's tent with their new uniforms in packages under their arms. The uniforms were made of a plain homespun grey cloth. The jackets stopped at the waist, something which did not please Lou, and were decorated with black bars sewn in horizontal rows across the front. They also had black epaulets, sleeve trim and belt loops. The whole concoction was topped by a broadbrimmed black hat with a black plume. Kid wondered just how long those funny looking feathers would last in battle.

It was easy to tell the uniforms had been designed by aristocrats with more time and money then sense, or experience on the trail. Lou and Kid had just about died laughing at each other as they'd tried on the uniforms. At least they wouldn't have to actually wear them in public until tomorrow.

The next morning Kid and Lou trotted up to the front gates at Camp Ashland. It had taken them longer to reach than they'd expected based on the directions they'd been given. Luckily, they were used to delays and had gotten an extra early start to make sure they arrived on time. Lou glanced at Kid out of the corner of her eye and smothered yet another giggle. She hated the way she sounded when she giggled, so girly. It was a definite threat to her disguise. But the uniforms were so foolish.

They reined their horses in as they reached the gate. Kid reached inside the jacket of his uniform to pull out their paperwork and hand it over.

"Ah," the sentry said. "Y'all must be the new recruits they was tellin' us about last night. Welcome to Camp Ashland. You've been assigned to Company G, the Amelia Light Dragoons. You'll find them camped out in the barn, there at the end of the main roadway, right by the racetrack."

"Thank you," Kid said, taking back the paperwork and waiting for the gates to the camp to be opened. The sentry turned and watched the pair trot off into the camp, scratching his head. There was something off about them, he just couldn't quite figure out what.

At the entrance to the barn, Kid and Lou dismounted and walked into the dimly lit interior, leading their horses. "Anyone here?" Kid called.

"Depends on who's askin'," a cultured voice responded from the dark to their left. Kid and Lou turned toward the sound of that voice.

"We're supposed to report to Company G of the 1st Virginia Cavalry," Kid explained.

"Ah, y'all must be the two newest recruits. That'll bring us up to full strength again," the man said, entering a shaft of light from a barn window high overhead. "I'm Lieutenant Virgil Price, of the Richmond Prices, at your service. And you might be?"

"Most folks just call me the Kid," Kid answered, then pointed at Lou with his thumb. "This is my brother, Lou McCloud."

"What kind of a name is Kid?"

"It's a family thing," Kid shrugged.

"I don't know any McClouds. Where y'all hail from, Kid?"

"I was born down Manassas way," Kid answered. "But Lou and I've spent the last several years out west. We came back to help defend Virginia."

"That's mighty patriotic of ya," Virgil said skeptically. "You can stable your horses in the third stall on your left. We'll figure out where to bed y'all down after breakfast, which is in precisely 10 minutes. So, I'd hurry if I were y'all."

Then he placed his plumed hat on his head with a flourish and turned sharply on his heel to walk out of the barn.

Ten minutes later, Lou and Kid joined the other members of Company G, lining up for breakfast. As they reached the front of the line, they saw the cook was an older black man. He was serving biscuits with a white gravy and sausages for breakfast. As they found a place to sit, Kid let out a satisfied sigh.

"Oh man, I haven't had biscuits and gravy like this in years!" he exclaimed as he began tucking into the food. Lou looked at the mess on her plate and wrinkled her nose. It didn't look all that appetizing to her. After swallowing a few mouthfuls she couldn't force herself to eat anymore and handed her plate to Kid.

"I'm gonna go get the horses and give them a better brushing down," she said. "Join me when you're done eating." As Lou walked back to the barn, Virgil and another young cavalryman walked over and joined Kid, squatting on their heels to eat their breakfasts.

"So, you're the last recruits for this company," the new man said. "I'm Thomas Ewell, up from Petersburg way."

"I'm the Kid, that's my brother Lou," Kid responded as he continued to shovel the food into his mouth while pointing out Lou with a thumb over his shoulder.

"I hear y'all are from Manassas. I've got an uncle lives over there. Used to visit him a lot in the summers. Never heard of no McClouds, down that way," Virgil added.

"My folks just had a small dirt farm. That's why I headed west, when I did," Kid shrugged, not wanting to get into anymore details about his background.

"How'd you learn to ride well enough to join the cavalry, then, boy," Virgil asked, annoyed.

"Spent the last couple years riding for the Pony Express," Kid shrugged. "What I didn't already know, they taught me. Ain't no better riders in all this country," he couldn't help boasting.

"Yeah, right," Virgil smirked. "I'd like to see you beat my prized Arabian in a race."

"Virgil, leave the Kid alone," Thomas finally cut in. "Not every good rider's going to come from the plantations. And we need every good rider we can get our hands on in this war, so you're just goin' to have to deal with it."

Virgil looked at Kid, then Lou, again. "I'll grant you, Kid here looks like he can handle a horse well enough, I suppose. But that little 'un over there… I don't know. Seems to me we should send him back to his mammy 'til he's done a little more growin'," he sneered.

Lou hadn't been participating in the conversation, but she'd been close enough to listen in. So far she'd figured Kid would ask for her help if he wanted it. But now that they'd turned their derision on her, she couldn't let it stand. She turned and glared at the group.

"I'll have you know I can out ride and out shoot the lot of ya," she yelled, before throwing her curry brush at Virgil and using both hands to vault herself onto her unsaddled horse, right over his hindquarters. She landed high on his withers, gathered two fistfuls of his mane and clicked in his ear, urging him to leap into a gallop. She ducked her head and yelled over her shoulder, "Catch me if you can, boys!"

Kid continued calmly eating the last of Lou's breakfast and wondered if he could get more. He snorted as he watched Virgil running for his horse, eager to take up Lou's challenge. Lou'd been the fastest rider the Express had had. These foolish boys had no chance of catching her. It kind of reminded him of their early days with the Express, when Lou had gotten all riled up over Teaspoon calling her 'puny' and shown them all up with a quick race around the way station.

Kid got up and sauntered after the riders as Virgil and three other members of Company G came bursting out of the barn, hot on Lou's trail. He stopped and grabbed a couple more biscuits from the black cook before heading to the edge of camp, to catch the show.

As Kid arrived at the edge of camp, he could see Lou sailing over the latrines making for a nearby wooded area. The last of the riders chasing her missed the footing for the jump and ended up sailing into the latrines instead of over them. Kid just kept munching away at his biscuits.

Just as Virgil, obviously the best rider of the southerners chasing Lou, started to close in on her, she took a sharp turn to the left and started back through camp, weaving her way at a gallop through the tents. At one point she even hopped off one side of the horse to avoid having her head taken off by a low hanging porch roof. Then she swung right back onto the horse's back. This maneuver caused another of her chasers to drop out of the pursuit, rather than run over the gathering bystanders.

It was obvious the Arabians most of Lou's pursuers were riding were actually faster than her Indian pony. But, they weren't trained to maneuver the way the former Express ponies had been. They weren't used to making sharp turns in one direction, spinning completely around to head the opposite direction, climbing up obstacles to go sailing over others. There was no doubt that Lou had the advantage.

Kid kept heading toward the edge of camp. He was pretty sure he knew where Lou was headed. When he saw her rounding the bend, headed toward the creek that ran outside the camp near the railroad, he knew he'd been right. By now the race had been on for more than 10 minutes. Another of Lou's pursuers pulled up rather than chase her down into the creek's gully and back up. His horse was blowing hard and he'd decided it wasn't worth it to continue the chase. That left just Virgil on her tail.

Now, Lou changed her tactics, spinning her horse on a dime to come at Virgil head to head. As she drew abreast of him, she leaped off her horse onto Virgil, taking him off his. As they landed in the dirt she punched him square in the nose, before running to catch up with her still running horse and leaping back onto its bareback using nothing more than a handful of mane in her right hand to brace herself. She took off at a race back toward where Kid's horse was still standing, waiting to be brushed down.

Kid slowly approached Virgil, who was still lying on the ground holding his now bleeding nose and trying to catch his breath. Kid popped the last bite of biscuit into his mouth and carefully chewed and swallowed before squatting down to look Virgil in the eyes.

"Broke yer nose, didn't he?" Kid asked. "I forgot to mention, Lou was the fastest rider we had at the Express. Got chased, a lot, by Indians, outlaws and other unsavory types. They never did manage to catch him, 'less he wanted to be caught. Oh, and he's got a temper. Might want to watch out for that."

Kid straightened to his full height, brushed his hands off on his pants and turned to follow his wife back to camp. Virgil just stared after them.

Buck

Eagle watched as Buck moved around the small cabin, preparing the evening meal. It looked to be more beans. They were out of meat. Buck was much calmer, more centered, since his day of prayer at the mountain's summit. Eagle wondered what Buck had seen that day. But he didn't ask. The results of vision quests were generally considered private, unless the seeker chose to share. Buck was showing no such inclination at the moment.

"Things look pretty clear tonight. If it stays this way tomorrow I'm going to go out hunting," Buck said as he brought Eagle his meal. "Don't know about you but I'm getting pretty tired of a diet of beans, beans and more beans."

Eagle humphed a soft laugh. He knew a way he could help Buck with his hunt. Shortly after Buck left early the next morning, Eagle crawled out of his nest near the fire. He pulled an old, worn buffalo robe over his shoulders and headed out to the clearing in front of the cabin.

After a few moments of searching, he found a couple of small branches, no thicker around then a child's wrist, of an even length. He seated himself on the ground and began a slow chant, drumming on the ground with the branches in accompaniment.

"Come here my pretty ones. Elk, deer, mountain goats. Let me see if you can dance," he chanted. "Come out of your hole, small and large. Come on everybody, make a circle around me and I will sing and make music, but you must close your eyes while you dance."

"Elk, shake your tails as I sing. I beat the ground with my sticks as I sing," he chanted, repeating the verses naming all the possible animals Buck could find this day. Eagle continued his drumming and chanting throughout the day.

Buck wondered at his luck hunting. He'd expected to have to spend long hours searching high and low, mostly low, to find any prey. But he'd barely left the clearing when a mountain goat jumped right out in front of him. It had looked almost as if it were dancing with its eyes closed. Buck quickly took aim and downed the goat with his bow and arrow. After a prayer thanking the animal for its sacrifice, he field dressed it and hung it from the upper branches of a nearby tree. With his early success, Buck now hoped to find a little extra he could smoke to keep him for a little longer through this cold winter.

It wasn't much later that an elk seemed to wander right onto the path in front of him, appearing to dance with its eyes closed. Again, Buck quickly took the animal down with a single arrow, thanked its spirit for its sacrifice and field dressed the animal. He stood back and considered. He'd never thought to have such good luck hunting so quickly. It was only noon and already he had enough meat to last him and Eagle for several weeks. He'd planned to spend all day hunting, perhaps even camping out and not returning to the cabin until the morning. But, already he'd need to build a travois for his horse to pull if he was going to get all the meat back. After thinking it over for a moment, Buck decided it would be wasteful to continue hunting.

As he walked his horse back into the cabin's clearing pulling the travois which carried the elk and mountain goat, he heard a strange chanting and drumming sound. I wonder what the old man is up to now, he thought to himself.

At the moment he walked through the tree line at the edge of the clearing, the words Eagle was chanting suddenly became clear to Buck's ears.

"Elk, shake your tails as I sing. I beat the ground with my sticks as I sing."

"Sendeh!" Buck whispered in wonder and not a little fear. This man who'd introduced himself as Eagle was actually Sendeh, the Kiowa trickster. All tribes knew of him, though they called him by many names, the most common being Coyote. To the Kiowa he most often appeared as a man, though it was known he could appear in any shape he chose. Eventually, Buck was able to force his legs to keep moving, the words of an old con artist friend of Teaspoon ringing in his ears, "You can't con a man who doesn't want something from you in the first place."

Eagle heard the slow clopping of the horse's hooves as Buck entered the clearing and stopped his chanting. He looked up at the young man followed by the horse pulling a travois. "Good hunting, my young friend?"

"Yes," Buck answered.

"Good, I'm hungry. Here, I'll hold the horse while you get the meat into the cabin. Then we can chop it up properly. How about I make some stew tonight, while you get the rest of the meat in the smokehouse?"

"Okay." Buck was afraid to say too much to this man. As he started to walk toward the travois behind the horse, the old man spoke again.

"Don't worry, Buck. I may be a trickster, but I'm also a good friend to those who are a friend to me."

Buck paused for a moment before nodding and continuing on his way to the travois. He never turned around to face Eagle.

Later that night, as they were eating the stew Eagle had made, Buck finally gathered the courage to ask the question that had been bothering him all afternoon and evening.

"How'd you end up out here?"

"Oh, I got a little too frisky with the beautiful young daughter of a Taime priest," Eagle responded with a lecherous grin. Buck returned the grin with one of his own. The man in front of him was known as much for his lusty opportunism as for the cons he pulled. "Anyway, the priest put a curse on me. I'm doomed to age and die. This time. Don't worry, I'll be back. I'm always back. Eventually. But I won't last out the winter in this body."

The old man laughed as if his impending death were a hilarious joke. Maybe to him it was, Buck though bitterly. To the rest of the world, death was a tragedy.

"In the meantime though," Eagle continued, "I plan to return the kindnesses you've shown me these last few days."

Cody

This had been a long winter for Cody, filled mostly with waiting for something to happen. There really wasn't much for a teamster to do when the wagons couldn't go anywhere. Instead he'd spent the last several weeks teaching young Thatch how to act like a boy. Now, she stood leaning against the side of a wagon in a stance any of the boys from the bunkhouse would've recognized, arms crossed over her chest, hands tucked into her armpits.

She was watching Cody show off his skills with the lariat, twisting and swinging, tossing and twirling the rope for all he was worth. Ok, so he hadn't stopped with teaching her how to act like a boy. Once she'd learned those lessons well enough, almost too well for his peace of mind, he'd moved on to other skills. They'd worked on trick riding and acrobatics. Now, they were moving on to roping. She was a quick study.

Just as Cody was twirling the rope into his grand finale, his commanding officer walked into the circle of firelight. The surprise caused Cody to get tangled up in his own rope and fall on his face. Thatch laughed long and loud. Even the commander chuckled.

"Sorry to interrupt your concentration, son," he said. "I was just coming to ask if you'd like to go hunting. Some scouts found a whole herd of buffalo a few miles west of here. We could use the meat and hides to shore up our provisions for the rest of the winter."

"Sir, I'd love to!" Cody eagerly agreed. "When do we leave?"

"First thing in the morning, so get your sleep."

"No problem there, Sir," Thatch offered. "The only thing Cody loves more than food and showing off is sleep."

"Why, I oughta," Cody began. Too angry for words, he just started to take off after the already fleeing Thatch. The commander just watched them go, laughing to himself at their antics. Those two sure livened up the winter camp.

Late the next morning, Cody found himself hunkered down on the ground, hidden behind some tall prairie grass, overlooking the herd of buffalo. None of the other Army hunters had found the herd yet. Thatch was next to him. She was learning fast with a six gun, but was still no good with the long distance rifles, so she was going to be his loader on this trip. Cody was determined to prove his worth to the unit. Maybe he'd get out of boring teamster duty and into something a little more exciting.

He sighted down the long barrel of his rifle carefully and squeezed the trigger. The lead bull of the herd bellowed and fell to its knees. The other buffalo lowed anxiously and started milling around. By hitting the lead bull first, Cody had managed to keep them from stampeding immediately. Oh, they would eventually, but the longer it took them, the more he'd bring in.

Once the herd did the inevitable and stampeded over the horizon away from Cody's deadly barrage of bullets, there were thirty dead buffalo littering the ground. Cody stood up and grinned proudly. The noise had gotten the attention of the rest of the hunters and they were coming up just as Cody finished cleaning his gun.

"Dang, Cody! Didn't you leave anythin' fer the rest of us," one man complained.

"Whatcha complainin' about, Dewey, he went an' did the hard work fer us," another responded. "Heck, Cody, how many are down there?"

"By my count, thirty," Cody answered, shoulders thrown back in pride. "All shot within fifteen minutes."

"Son, I can't rightly go on callin' you Billy after this," the commander of the unit said. "From now on, I'll call you…. Buffalo Bill! That's it, Buffalo Bill."

"Buffalo Bill Cody," the blond-haired young man mulled over the new moniker. "Buffalo Bill Cody. That's got a right nice ring to it." And he flashed his blinding white grin at the crew. A nickname. A real nickname. Cody couldn't have been more pleased with the day's work. He'd wanted a real nickname ever since Marcus had dubbed Jimmy as Wild Bill Hickok. Now, he had his own. Things were really going his way lately.

"But, let's not stand here jawing. We need to get all those animals dressed and loaded into the wagons to take back to camp," Cody added, feeling the need to take the lead, again.

Several hours later, hot, sticky with drying blood and tired, Cody looked around again. It had been a fruitful day's labor. They had enough meat to feed the entire camp for a few weeks now and he'd earned his own nickname. But he didn't like what he was seeing right now. With all the buffalo hides loaded on one wagon and the choice pieces of meat loaded on the others, there were still piles of buffalo lying all over the place. It wouldn't rot immediately in the February chill, but it was certainly being wasted by the Army men. This seriously bugged Cody's conscious.

Finally, he walked up to the commander of the unit and asked, "Sir, we're not just going to leave all this lying out here, are we?"

"What do you expect us to do with it, son?" the commander asked kindly. "It's not like we can use any of it, or transport it for that matter. Thanks to your good shooting, the wagons are filled to overflowing."

Cody thought for a moment, then asked, "Well, Sir, if we're not gonna use this, do you mind if I ride out and find the nearest tribe and tell them about it? It'd be a real good peace gesture from the Army."

"I suppose that's alright, son. But we need you back at Fort Leavenworth in four days. If you don't find anyone before then, this lot rots. You understand?"

"Yes, Sir!" Cody flashed his characteristically exuberant salute and headed for his horse. Thanks to Buck, Cody was pretty sure he could find Red Bear's band of Kiowa within the day. They wintered not too far away from here.

Lou and Kid

Training at Camp Ashland hadn't been anything like what either Kid or Lou had expected. They'd figured they'd be spending their days learning new riding tricks, how to evade the enemy or sneak up on him, much as Teaspoon had taught them during their first weeks with the Express. Instead, it had been day after day of drill, drill and more drill. All followed by even more drilling. The duo was bored stiff.

On the other hand, personnel matters had gotten a mite interesting. After Lou had shown Virgil up in their impromptu horserace, he'd become their virtual shadow. So, Kid had taken to showing Virgil some of the tricks they'd learned on the trail the last couple of years. He was an avid student.

"So, to mount from the side, without using the stirrups, you grab the saddle horn in your left hand. Then, bracing your left arm against your mount's neck you swing your right leg up and over the horse's back." Kid quickly demonstrated what he meant.

Virgil looked from Kid, now sitting tall on horseback, back to his own mount and its saddle. "Uh, Kid, what if I don't have a saddle, horn did you call it?"

Kid looked at Virgil's saddle more closely. He'd known it was different, much smaller and lighter than the saddle he used. But, he hadn't realized it lacked this piece of, to his mind, vital equipment.

"Well, Buck used to do the same thing by just wrapping his hand in his horse's mane," he finally commented. "Lou uses a similar technique when riding bareback. But he's so much smaller. I guess you could try that and see if it'll work."

Kid dismounted and headed for the barn, leaving Virgil to try to figure out the trick mount on his own. Kid found Lou in the stable assigned to their horses, vigorously brushing down her mount. He knew this was Lou's way of finding thinking time. He wasn't surprised to find her here, after seeing her walk away disgustedly from Thomas Ewell.

Things hadn't quite turned out as expected. At first Virgil had seemed to be their biggest hurdle to acceptance in the unit, while Ewell had seemed to be their ally. That had certainly changed over the last several weeks. They'd learned Ewell was Isaac's master. Isaac was the company's black cook. He'd been forced to come to the war because his owner had demanded it. He spent his days cooking and, apparently hiding, from Ewell. Ewell was the worst of all things southern and if he'd been the only type of person fighting for the Confederacy, Kid would have happily helped her burn.

Lou had it even worse. Like Buck and Ike, she'd always felt like something of an outsider, much more so than Kid, Cody or Jimmy ever had. And those three had formed a particularly strong bond with Noah when he'd joined the riders. Every comment Ewell made about the inherent inferiority of negros and every attack he carried out on Isaac just drove thorns into the injury left by Noah's death. Kid placed a sympathetic hand on Lou's shoulder, only to have her roughly dislodge it while ducking under the horse's neck. He sighed. Maybe he should just leave her alone.

A sharp bugle call they'd learned to recognize over the last few weeks, pierced the early March air. Kid and Lou looked at each other, then exited the barn at a run, responding to the musical command along with the rest of the members of Company G.

As the men gathered in the central area of their campsite, Kid looked around. Not everyone was rushing to the formation. Two of the cavalrymen were lugging a side of beef over to Isaac's cook station. Isaac himself was parching coffee in a pan over the fire, stirring with a big camp knife. Yet another man was placing the unit's dinnerware, all good solid tinware, on a table with complete settings. Kid grinned to himself. Even in the middle of a war, his fellows were determined to eat a 'civilized' meal. Finally, the crowded men quieted enough to hear what Captain Irving had to say.

"Men, the wait is over," Capt. Irving announced. "General McClellan has made his move. He's begun an attack on Virginia, in an attempt to take Richmond. It will be our job to help stop him. Pack up tonight, boys. We move out in the mornin'. That'll be all."

Irving turned and left the area to the cheers of his men. He'd spend the rest of the evening in a command conference with Gen. Stuart, determining exactly where they were headed tomorrow. Kid glanced at Lou and whispered, "And so it begins."

Buck

Buck looked at the older man across the fire from him. After weeks of sharing a fire with Eagle, or Sendeh as Buck had come to think of him, the young half-breed had lost most of his fear of the living legend. It helped that even as he continued to obviously weaken, Eagle had been frenetically teaching Buck all he knew about medicine. Buck took a deep breath, mentally bracing himself for the question he was about to ask.

"Can you interpret visions, Sendeh?"

The old man looked at Buck, startled yet pleased by the question. This was the first time Buck had ever asked anything of him. He'd begun to despair of being able to help the young man.

"Yes, Buck," he answered slowly. "I know it's not in the stories, for a reason, but I can and do occasionally interpret spirit visions. "

"Will you tell me what mine means?"

"You know I will, son."

Buck began to relate his experiences on the mountain top, telling Sendeh of the snow white young male deer and its antics. The old man watched Buck closely throughout the tale, smiling slightly. When Buck finished, he sat back on his heels, both relieved to have finally shared the moment and terrified of finding out what his vision meant.

But Sendeh did not begin to immediately tell Buck what he was waiting to hear. Instead, he dug into his haversack, pulling out a plug of tobacco. Chanting something just under his breath, he lit the tobacco in the fire and began spreading its smoke to the four winds. Then, he stood and 'bathed' Buck and then himself in the smoke, before setting the last of the tobacco into the fire to finish burning. Then, he sat back and smiled at Buck.

"I'm surprised you really need me to tell you this, Buck," he began. "The young deer is you."

"But it was all white. Does that mean I have to go back to living in the white world?"

"Patience, my young friend, patience." After a few more moments of quiet contemplation, barely tolerated by the now anxious Buck, Sendeh began to speak again. "The deer is you. It is white for two reasons. The first is to indicate that it is a messenger from the Earth Creator. The second is to indicate that, yes, your future does lie with the white man."

"Tell me, Buck, did the deer's injury not remind you of anything?" Sendeh asked.

As Buck sat back and thought about it for a moment, enlightenment suddenly entered his eyes. "The Sun Dance," he breathed.

"Yes. You asked the Spirits for guidance and promised them any sacrifice. They've told you what they require. Now, it is up to you to decide if you are willing to make the sacrifice. If you do, they will show you how to lead your people down a path to peace with the white man. It will not be a comfortable peace, by any means. But it will mean that your Kiowa family will survive. And, it will be through the help of your Gantonto family that you are able to do this. Tell me, Buck, this is not the first time that you've been touched by the Spirits, is it?" Sendeh asked quietly.

Buck looked surprised for a moment, then shuddered in memory. "No," he answered shortly. "I had to fight an evil Spirit once in order to save my friend Little Bird from possession."

"Do you think you would have been chosen for the fight, if you were not destined for much more?"

"I just figured I was chosen because I was close to Little Bird."

"It is a universal truth, my young friend, that the Spirits put anyone they plan to bless well through a trial by fire, first."

Teaspoon

The warmth of spring came early to Texas. That was one thing he was glad for, Teaspoon thought as he walked down the row of southern belles, old men and boys. They were all cleaning and putting together a variety of different guns.

As soon as Teaspoon had felt up to hobbling around on the crutch he'd carved himself, he'd begun teaching Mrs. Herrington how to shoot and care for the rusted old Hawkins rifle he'd found in her barn. These days she was a more than fair shot and no longer feared raiders.

Some of that had to do with the others lined up along the barn's western wall. Many women left on their own had chosen to gather here with Mrs. Herrington for mutual protection. Some came just to learn how to shoot and do other chores the men had generally taken care of before leaving for war. Once they'd learned what Teaspoon had to teach, they'd headed home again to keep things going until their menfolk returned. If they returned. Others had come with nothing to go back to. Those had stayed and now were helping to pass on their hard won new skills to the latest newcomers.

Teaspoon sighed in satisfaction. He had found his calling for this war. Fighting was a young man's call. He was no longer that young man. Instead, he would help those left behind survive the struggles of day to day life caused by the war.

Kid and Lou

Lou stuffed the last of their hardtack, beef jerky and beans into her haversack, an oil cloth satchel that could be worn over one shoulder, or tied to the saddle. They were lucky to have had enough money to afford the larger haversacks, capable of carrying three days worth of supplies. Kid had already finished packing his and was now checking their tent and bedding. Their tent was a simple A-frame canvas affair, with a closed back and a closable front. They also had their bedrolls which consisted of an oil cloth to keep water from seeping through, one wool blanket each and, in Kid's pack, the buffalo robe Buck had given them at their wedding. Compared to what they'd carried on Express runs, they both felt extremely overloaded. But, there would be no waystations or relay stations on this ride. This time, they had to carry everything with them that they'd need to survive.

"Mount up!" came the call. Almost as one the 100 men of Company G slipped into their saddles. Lou batted, annoyed, at the silly saber she had to wear. It was part of the uniform, but she failed to see its usefulness. Mostly it just got in her way while riding and annoyed her.

Unlike the Express runs both Kid and Lou were used to, this ride was mostly long, slow and boring. Kid was longing to just let loose and gallop down the trail at top speed, even though he knew it would be foolish. By the look on Lou's face, she was thinking much the same thing.

Kid wondered when, if ever, they would actually see action. Right now, they were headed to the Virginia Peninsula, in southeast Virginia. They were supposed to join up with General Joseph E. Johnston's army as it harried the invading Union troops. It took Company G three days to find and join General Johnston. At first, he didn't seem to know what to do with the mounted unit. Then, he used them as screening units, sending them out in groups of five to harry the Union Army and slow its advance.

Despite all their bravado, the Confederate Army had been steadily ceding territory to their blue-coated adversaries. Tonight, Company G was camped near Fort Magruder, which straddled the Williamsburg Road from Yorktown. They were exhausted. They'd spent the last two days skirmishing with Union cavalry, fighting a rearguard action to protect the main body of General Johnston's army as it tried to escape. Kid and Lou hadn't even bothered to put up their tent. They were simply too tired. Instead, like most of their squad, they'd chosen to sleep under the stars.

Volleys of rifle fire broke the pre-dawn stillness, startling the cavalry unit awake. Lou looked at Kid and they both started scrambling for their guns. They quickly packed up their bedrolls and were mounted before half the other members of their squad were even fully awake.

"I'll go see what's up," Kid said. "You make sure the rest are awake!" Then he wheeled his horse around and galloped off in the direction of the gunfire.

"Damned gloryhound!" Lou muttered before hopping back off her horse to make sure the rest of the unit was mounted and ready to fight.

It wasn't long before General Longstreet, who was in charge of the portion of Johnston's army camped at Fort Magruder, was using the cavalrymen as messengers, racing back and forth along a series of rifle pits and smaller fortifications that extended in an arc southwest from the fort with orders for the various units.

The first Union attack was repelled and nearly overrun by mid-morning and spirits among the Confederates were high. But, as the main body of the Union regulars began to arrive, the Confederates dug in for what looked to be a more protracted fight. At one point, Lou could have sworn she heard a band marching up and down a nearby road playing Yankee Doodle. She laughed under her breath at the absurdity. Who brings a band to a gunfight?

After hours of ducking for cover and riding up and down the front lines ferrying messages back and forth, the order finally came to retreat. Now, the cavalry's real work would begin. As the soldiers began to crawl out of their shelters and head down the road away from the Union Army, it was up to Lou, Kid, Virgil and the other members of Company G to slow down the advancing enemy long enough for the rest of the soldiers to make good their escape.

Lou looked at Kid then pointed at a series of trees set at the top of a hill a half mile down the road. Kid nodded and they took off, closely followed by Virgil.

"What are we doin'?" he asked, curiously. Once Company G had joined the fight, Virgil had quickly realized Kid and Lou were the most experienced fighters in the unit and attached himself to them even more tightly than he'd already been.

"We're goin' to set up an ambush in the stand of trees," Kid said as they galloped down the road.

"It provides good cover for us and will let us slow down the first advancing troops," Lou added. "Plus, it has the advantage of backing up to a hill we can disappear behind before they get too close."

"Sounds good to me," Virgil grinned. "Lead on." The other two young men in their squad followed gamely after them.

The ambush worked almost exactly as Kid and Lou had predicted and their entire squad escaped safely. As they retreated over the hill, Lou turned at the sound of hoofbeats behind her. She saw a young Union soldier advancing doggedly toward her on an old farm horse. She was just going to escape over the hillock until he raised his gun and took aim at Kid's back. Lou quickly pulled her revolver and shot the young man in the heart. He fell from his horse and landed on the ground with a dull thud that seemed to reverberate in her ears. He'd never once made a sound. She turned and fled after her brothers in arms.

Their unit continued to attack the advancing Union troops, then flee, repeating the process several times throughout the day. That was their job. By nightfall, they'd caught back up with the main body of General Johnston's army and were able to finally get some rest.

Buck

Buck wondered why he wasn't sadder on this crisp June night. The man he'd been caring for for months, and who had become a close friend, had died in his sleep the night before. After a day of mourning and preparations, Buck was ready to send him on his way with a grand funeral pyre. Given the timing, Buck almost wondered if Eagle, Sendeh, his friend had chosen the moment of his death.

If Buck were to make it to the great summer gathering of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho in time for the Sun Dance, he needed to leave now. But, he would never have left his friend to die alone. Tonight, he would light Sendeh's funeral pyre and pray as his spirit moved on. Tomorrow he would leave for what might be the most difficult thing he'd ever done.

As he watched Sendeh's funeral bier burn through the night, Buck pondered why the Kiowa Creator would have asked him to make a Sun Dance sacrifice of this type. The Kiowa Sun Dance was more of a celebration and Thank You dance than a dance of sacrifice. The Spirits had been clear though, they wanted Buck to complete the more rigorous Sun Dance performed by their neighbors, the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux.

The next morning, Buck packed the last of his supplies onto the travois behind his horse. With the knowledge that he would be partaking in the Sun Dance this summer, Buck had been hard at work creating things to offer at the give-away that closed every Sun Dance. Now, the travois was piled high with soft furs from his winter's hunting, beautifully decorated bows and arrows and stone knives. Buck would not embarrass his Kiowa family by giving too little this summer. After making a last check that all the lashings were tight, Buck mounted his horse and headed east, for the northern plains.

It took him nearly a week to find the location of this year's Sun Dance gathering. Now, he was arriving in the giant camp. While most white men could not tell the difference between one tribe and another, it was readily apparent to the denizens of this camp, that Buck was not a normal participant. But, he ignored the adults' curious stares and the children's curiouser questions as he rode straight to the center of camp. There he made his way to the tipi where all the medicine men were gathered, to put his name in the list of those who wished to dance this summer.

"Are you sure you wish to make this sacrifice, my brother," the elderly chief medicine man asked him. "You are not one of us. This is not your Sun Dance."

"This is what the Spirits demanded of me through many visions this winter, father," Buck answered respectfully. "I can do no less."

"Then go to the House of the Supplicants and begin your purification."

Buck nodded and started to turn away, but then turned back with a request. "Father, might I ask that you, or someone in your clan, watch over my horse and belongings. As you stated, I am a stranger here and have no family to care for them while I am dancing."

"I will honor your request myself," the chief medicine man nodded in understanding. "Your courage will do your family proud," he added in the traditional blessing upon aspiring dancers. Buck nodded in thanks, then turned and walked away.

At the House of the Supplicants, Buck washed himself thoroughly, before entering a sweatlodge to fast and pray for the next four days. All activities involved in the Sun Dance came in sets of four, to mimic the seasons. During this time he would eat nothing and drink only a special tea prepared by the medicine men and former dancers supervising this year's dance.

The last night of this vigil, Buck joined the other dancers in bathing himself again. Then, they began to paint each other's bodies in designs the Spirits had shown them during the last few days of prayer. Clothed only in a breechclout, Buck painted one half of his face white, the other red. Then, on his chest, he added a stylized white deer and on his upper back a red horse with a hand print, indicating a messenger. Then, along with the other dancers he began to chant a prayer that would continue until the dawn.

As the sun pinkened the eastern sky, all the dancers lined up and slowly began dancing their way through camp. Their dance circled the camp four times before piercing its center to end at the Sun Dance Circle. There, a tall tree trunk had been sunk into the ground, shorn of all its branches. But, tied to the top were several long sinew ropes that dangled to the ground. It looked similar to a Maypole Emma had shown him in a book once, Buck thought inconsequentially. The dancers circled the tree trunk four times before coming to a stop in a circle facing it.

Then, the medicine men entered the Sun Dance Circle, dancing in the opposite direction while chanting prayers. They too danced around the circle four times before coming to a stop, but facing away from the tree trunk. Each medicine man had stopped in front of one dancer. Buck's eyes widened in surprise to note that it was the chief medicine man who'd stopped in front of him. But, he didn't let his surprise alter his continuous chanting prayer or dancing feet.

Just as the Sun burst forth over the tipis to the east, each medicine man reached forward with a sharp knife and sliced through the skin and muscle of the left chest of a dancer. Buck flinched, but did not alter his chanting or dancing, as the medicine man inserted a skewer into the hole he had sliced in Buck's chest. Then he tied the skewer to one of the sinew ropes attached to the tree trunk in the center of the Sun Dance Circle. The chief medicine man repeated the process on the right side of Buck's chest. Then, chanting their own prayers, the medicine men slowly shuffle danced backward until they reached the center of the circle. There, they sat down to keep vigil and pray.

As the medicine men sat, the dancers began to really move. They would dance and chant prayers and sing, twisting and turning their bodies for the next several hours, until they managed to pull the skewers free of the skin and muscle holding them attached to the Tree of Life at the center of the Sun Dance Circle.

Even as he danced and prayed, Buck was able to marvel in some quiet corner of his brain at the fact that he wasn't screaming in pain. He didn't even feel the desire to do so. He'd expected the experience to be excruciating. But, apparently, the four days of preparation had done their job. While he was aware, at some level, that this did indeed hurt, it was almost as if he were watching someone else go through the ceremony. He was pleased. The Spirits would have the sacrifice they'd wanted. He continued to dance and sing and pray as the Sun rose higher in the sky.

Lou and Kid

Kid sighed. He was tired and he was sure Lou was even more exhausted. After their successes at the Battle of Williamsburg, as the events at Fort Magruder were now being dubbed, their unit had been detailed to join the regiment commander, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart on a special mission.

Robert E. Lee had personally asked Stuart to find out if the right flank of the Union Army was well protected. They'd spent the last several days sneaking around the edges of the Union Army, taking potshots when they could, stealing horses and supplies, even capturing a few men. But, the need to be constantly on alert, seeing as how they were behind enemy lines, was exhausting. And, Lou had had the worst of it. Being the smallest, quietest and fastest rider in the force and being able to write, Stuart had used her to sneak the closest to Union lines and take down information on numbers, locations and provisions.

Kid looked down at her sleeping face and sighed. Right now she was catching a few moments of sleep, head pillowed on his shoulder, while they waited for Virgil and Thomas Ewell to return from their last reconnaissance mission. As soon as they got back, the whole force would complete its circumnavigation of the Union forces and return to Richmond. Kid was happy Virgil and Ewell were a little late getting back. It gave Lou a few more minutes to sleep.

He wasn't happy however, when they came galloping into camp, yelling at the top of their lungs about Yankees on their tails. Their horses slid to a stop in the center of the waiting Confederate cavalry as their brothers in arms closed ranks around them. Three blue coated soldiers came trotting into the woods behind the riders, intent on capturing them, only to find themselves surrounded by hundreds of Confederate cavalrymen, all with loaded weapons cocked and aimed in their direction. They quickly surrendered.

"Lou, wake up!" Virgil joshed, as they trotted away a few minutes later. "We're all about to be heroes."

"Don't wanna be a hero," Lou muttered. "Wanna be asleep."

Virgil laughed at what he thought was a joke. Little did he realize, Lou was being completely honest with him.

In the long run, Virgil was right. They were heroes. They were welcomed back to Richmond by an impromptu parade, complete with marching band and flower petals being tossed at their feet. And that night, all the men got a good night's sleep in comfortable beds, donated by grateful Confederate citizenry.

"I'm sure looking forward to a night in a real feather bed," Lou sighed.

"I don't care what the bed is made of as long as the lady in it with me is soft as a pillow," Virgil joked, elbowing Ewell who was at his side.

Ewell grinned back at him. "I might want a feather or two, as well, though I don't know that I'll be doing much 'sleepin' with it. I've got better things to do with my time in a comfortable bed in the city."

The two men wandered off, happily contemplating their earthly rewards for their efforts to defend this fair city.

That night, Kid stared down at Lou wrapped in his arms. He wished she hadn't been so tired, so they could've taken better advantage of this opportunity to spend some time alone in a comfortable bed. But, between their fear of their hosts hearing something inappropriate and Lou's exhaustion, there hadn't been a whole lot of 'dancing'. Kid hugged Lou closer to him. He was so proud of her and the hard work she'd done the last few days. He didn't think he could ever explain it to her. And now, he was happy just to beable to hold her in his arms and watch her sleep.

Chapter 4: At War and At Peace (June 26 - November, 1862/Seven Days Battle)

Lou and Kid

Lou looked at the men, most barely more than boys, sprawled around the merrily dancing flames of the campfire. They hadn't had many nights like this in the last few months, with time to just sit back and relax. It seemed like they'd been on the move constantly. But, the last couple weeks they'd been allowed to rest a bit and had set up a more permanent camp, complete with tents, just outside of Richmond. The Peninsular Campaign, as Kid had told her the Union was calling it, had almost been defeated last month at the Battle of Seven Pines. If only the Union reinforcements hadn't arrived just when they did. Now, Company G was camped along the Richmond defensive works, near the extreme southern end of the 30 mile long defensive line at Chaffin's Bluff.

Tonight, they were celebrating. For the first time in weeks, they had real meat. The cavalry had been subsisting on salt pork and hardtack, as their maneuvers often took them out of reach of their supply lines. By the end of the last stretch, Lou had barely been able to force herself to eat the last of the hardtack. The flour and salt biscuits had been more mealworms than meal. Lou looked down at the warm, fresh baking powder biscuit in her hand. She'd already downed three. This one though, she was savoring, for now just enjoying the feeling of its warmth in her hand and the smell that teased her nose.

While a few were savoring the last remnants of the night's filling meal, others were settling in for the evening's relaxation. Several of the men were writing letters home to parents, wives, sweethearts. Leaning against a tree across the way, Virgil was writing a letter for one of the newer recruits, who couldn't read or write. Others were busy repairing equipment in preparation for the next ride.

Lou was considering going back to their tent to get paper and pencil to write a letter to Emma or Rachel when, on the other side of the campfire, Ewell piped up, "Hey, Louie, how 'bout some tunes?"

Young Louie had joined the cavalry as its bugler the month before, after the previous bugle boy had been shot down by an enemy sniper. As a rider, he often struggled to just stay on his horse, but as a musician there was none his better and Company G wouldn't give him up for anything. He nodded and ran to his tent to get his mandolin. Lou smiled. That mandolin. Louie wouldn't give that up for anything. On their arduous ride around the Union troops a couple weeks ago, the men had been jettisoning anything they could to lighten their loads. But Louie had refused to part with that mandolin, cradling it in front of him on his saddle like a baby. And, oddly enough, no one in the Company got upset about it.

Soon, Louie was seated back at the fire, softly strumming the four stringed relative of the guitar, with a teardrop shaped body, humming to himself as he tuned the instrument. Then he looked up and asked, "What shall I play, boys?"

Numerous suggestions rang out from the emotionally deprived men. The favorites included "Dixie's Land", "Virginia, Virginia, Land of the Free", "God Save the South" and "The Bonnie Blue Flag". But Louie finally began strumming the opening bars to what had become the Company's unofficial anthem, "Riding a Raid." A cheer went up around the fire as the men realized which song Louie was playing. Kid looked at Lou and smiled, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out his harmonica to join in on the melody. He really had improved with that thing, Lou thought.

Just as Emmett Caldwell, one of the older men in the unit at 30 with a wife and four kids at home, broke into the first lines of the song, Ewell let out a screeching, ululating shout. The others smiled in appreciation of the Rebel Yell that had spooked so many Union soldiers so far this war. Caldwell just started over again.

"'Tis old Stonewall, the Rebel, that leans on his sword,
And while we are mounting, prays low to the Lord;
Now each Cavalier that loves honor and right,
Let him follow the feather of Stuart tonight."

As the first verse wound down, the entire Company joined in heartily on the chorus.

"Come tighten your girth and slacken your rein;
Come buckle your blanket and holster again;
Try the click of your trigger and balance your blade,
For he must ride sure that goes Riding a Raid."

"Now gallop, now gallop, to swim or to ford!
Old Stonewall, still watching, prays low to the Lord:
Good-bye dear old Rebel! The river's not wide,
And Maryland's lights in her window to guide."

Lou smiled as Caldwell continued with the next verse. It was nights like these that she felt most at home. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine herself back at the bunkhouse with the rest of the riders. There was the poet, Ike, the protector, Buck, the braggart, Cody, the hair trigger temper, Jimmy, the fighter and idealist, Noah, and her best friend and partner, Kid, by her side as always. But, she didn't let herself go down that road very often. It was too hard on her when she opened her eyes again and Kid was the only one there. Kid smiled at her gently over his harmonica, well aware of where her thoughts had wandered. The song ended with Caldwell singing one last verse, then a rousing round of the chorus from all the men.

"There's a man in a white house with blood on his mouth!
If there's Knaves in the North, there are braves in the South.
We are three thousand horses, and not one afraid;
We are three thousand sabres and not a dull blade."

"Then gallop, then gallop, by ravines and rocks!
Who would bar us the way take his toll in hard knocks;
For with these points of steel, on the line of Penn,
We have made some fine strokes-and we'll make 'em again."

"It's time to call it a night, men," Captain Irving said. "Reveille will sound early in the morning."

"One more song to send us to bed," one of the men begged. Captain Irving nodded his assent and suggested, "How about 'God Save the South'?"

Louie nodded and transitioned his strumming into the slow hymn now sung throughout the Confederacy, sure that God was on their side in this epic battle. Lou and Kid slowly walked back to their tent, the furthest from the fire they could get. What they gave up in warmth, they made up for in privacy, something far more precious to the couple. Kid followed Lou into the tent, letting down the door flap behind him and latching it tight. It didn't take them long to bed down, simply stripping to their longjohns and laying down on their bedrolls, not even bothering with their wool blankets. It was already too warm for that. It wouldn't be long before they'd be forced to give up what little privacy they had by opening the tent flaps at night to catch the odd breeze. But for now, once the camp lights were extinguished, they felt safe enough to fall asleep holding hands, if not in each others arms.

"I love you, Lou," Kid whispered in her ear as they listened quietly to Louie's sweet music and someone in the camp singing the song of protection.

"God save the South, God save the South,
Her altars and firesides, God save the South!
Now that the war is nigh, now that we arm to die,
Chanting our battle cry, Freedom or death!
Chanting our battle cry, Freedom or death!

God be our shield, at home or afield,
Stretch Thine arm over us, strengthen and save.
What tho' they're three to one, forward each sire and son,
Strike till the war is won, strike to the grave!
Strike till the war is won, strike to the grave!

God made the right stronger then might,
Millions would trample us down in their pride.
Lay Thou their legions low, roll back the ruthless foe,
Let the proud spoiler know God's on our side.
Let the proud spoiler know God's on our side."

Buck

Buck opened his eyes to watch the shadows of the firelight dancing on the wall of the tipi overhead. He wondered where he was. He'd brought no tipi with him, and even if he had he'd never had a chance to erect it. A humming on his right caught his attention and he slowly, carefully, turned his head in the direction of the sound. A beautiful young woman, about his age, was squatted next to the fire in the center of the tipi, stirring something in a pot. He wondered who she was and what she was doing here. He could slowly feel his mind settling back into his body, although the fit did not feel as comfortable, as normal, as it had before the Sun Dance.

A shaft of bright light suddenly broke the gloom of the interior of the tipi, causing Buck to wince and press his eyes closed.

"Ah, I see you're awake," he heard. Upon opening his eyes again, Buck saw the old medicine man who'd been his protector and guide during the Sun Dance staring down at him. "How are you feeling, son?"

"I'm not sure," Buck replied carefully. "How should I be feeling?"

He heard a soft giggle from the woman by the fireplace, but kept his eyes on the elder looking almost searchingly at him. The old man grinned and shook his head. Then, turning to the young woman by the fire said something in Cheyenne Buck couldn't understand. She nodded and stood, brushing off her hands, then exited the tipi. Buck looked questioningly at the elder by his side.

"You're the last of the Dancers to awake, son. She's going to tell the others to prepare for the giveaway tomorrow night."

Buck nodded in understanding.

"Do you think you can sit up?" the old shaman asked.

"Yes," Buck grunted as he started to try sitting up on his own. The elder quickly put an arm behind Buck's back to help him. Once he was fully seated upright, leaning against a brightly decorated woven willow backrest hanging from a tripod at the head of the bed of furs, Buck looked at the old man at his side and asked, "What should I call you? I cannot continue to call you The Old Medicine Man as I have in my thoughts."

"No, I suppose you cannot," the old man laughed outright. "My people call me Hoo'kôhevenehe, Rain in the Face. You may call me Rain. Speaking of which," Rain continued, moving away from Buck toward a leather drinking pouch and pouring a cup of water, "You need to break your fast. Start with this water."

Buck gulped down the cool water quickly before handing the cup back, indicating he'd like some more. About that time the young woman returned to the tipi, entering quietly and moving around the fire to the left, as protocol required of women. She did not speak, but moved to the fire and scooped some stew out of the pot into a wooden bowl and brought it to Rain, who took the bowl and handed it to Buck.

"It is only meat broth, young Running Buck. It is best to break your fast slowly. Eat this and in a bit Standing Woman will bring you something more substantial to chew on. You must regain your strength for tomorrow night."

Buck did not respond immediately as he was too busy slurping down the broth. Afterward he felt drowsy and, as Rain and Standing Woman both left the tipi, soon fell into a healing slumber.

That night, as he was eating his first solid food in nearly a week, Buck looked at his hosts. Custom demanded that as a guest he wait for Rain, his elder, to initiate any conversation. Standing Woman had to wait for either Rain or Buck to speak to her before she could join the conversation. So far, no one had spoken, so all had concentrated on eating. Finally, Rain set his empty bowl to the side and looked at Buck.

"So, my son, what did you see during your Dance that had you sleeping so long? You were the last to break free of the Tree of Life and the last to awake. Ma'heo'o, the Creator, must have had a great deal to share with you."

Buck nodded slowly, swallowing the last of his stew. "To be honest, I do not understand all I saw and what I can comprehend scares me. Tell me, were there Eagles flying overhead during the Dance?"

"No," Rain responded, not surprised by the question. "Did you see Eagles?"

"Yes, I saw many birds during my Dance. They seemed to be Dancing with me. But the Eagles appeared to be directing their dance. First, came the Eagles. They circled overhead, in the direction of the Sun, seven times. As they continued to Dance, a small flock of Red-tailed Hawks joined them, Dancing also in the direction of the Sun. Then, a flock of White Pelicans joined the Dance. There were so many I could not see the end of them. They did not follow the same pattern, but seemed to fly every which way, often getting in each other's path and fighting. The Eagles, with the help of the Red-tailed Hawks, kept trying to show the White Pelicans how to fly together, so as to live peacefully. This went on a long time."

"That is a very interesting Dream, young Running Buck. You must meditate on it much to discern the true meaning, though we can both guess some of it."

"May I ask you a question, father," Buck asked hesitantly.

"Of course."

"Why did you choose to be my Dance Guide? It was a great honor. But, I do not understand why you would choose a half-breed outsider over a respected member of your own tribe."

Rain smiled at Buck before answering. "The first time I met you, when you entered camp ignoring all distractions, when you asked me to watch over your possessions, I could tell you had been deeply touched by the Spirits already and as such needed my Guidance more than any other man at this year's Dance."

Rain paused before continuing, "And my son, I don't know how it is with the Kiowa, but among the Cheyenne we do not see everything in terms of The People versus the Wasicu, the pale faces. You are a member of The People based on your actions. Those of mixed blood show us where and how they wish to live and we accept their decisions. Even those of so-called 'pure' blood sometimes choose to live another life, and that is their choice. I think perhaps your experiences with your own tribe are not quite exactly as you remember them. You might wish to meditate on that also. Perhaps my daughter, Standing Woman, will sometime tell you of her choice," he ended, smiling at the young woman. "Her mother was a Wasicu who chose to live as one of The People."

Buck looked at Standing Woman more closely in surprise. In the dim light of the tipi he had earlier missed the reddish highlights in her hair and the lighter hue of her dusky skin, marking her as much a half-breed as he. She looked up as he studied her and their eyes met. That's when he noticed she had the most startling grey eyes, eyes that could have been Ike's. Buck sucked in a surprised breath, then let it out slowly, smiling in growing joy at this young woman.

Cody

"Buffalo Bill" Cody swatted irritably at a mosquito buzzing near his ear. He so did not like Mississippi! It was hot, humid and full of bugs. But, that's where Army life had taken him and the rest of the 7th Cavalry. He looked at the kid next to him and felt bad. Unlike Cody, Thatch couldn't strip off extra layers and she looked to be almost completely wilted. And in this wet heat he couldn't exactly dump a bucket of water over her head as he'd used to do for Lou occasionally. It wouldn't do any good. Not that Lou'd ever thanked him for it, he thought with a grin.

The 7th Kansas Cavalry had been ordered to Mississippi earlier in the month, to provide armed escort for work parties of the Mobile & Ohio railroad. Both the U.S. and Confederate Armies had quickly realized how useful railroads were in the movement of men and were working feverishly to not only improve their own track system but to destroy their enemy's tracks and engines.

Cody glanced at the work crew riding in the back of the freight wagon. They'd been tasked to repair a section of the railroad near Corinth that rebels had pulled up the day before. The Mobile & Ohio railroad ran from Mobile, Alabama, to Columbus, Kentucky, and had just barely been completed when the first shots of the war had been fired. Now, both sides wanted to use the line and were constantly fighting over it. The U.S. Army had control, for the moment, and that meant rebel units were spending their time destroying the track so the Union couldn't use it. Meanwhile, the Union was continually repairing the track so it could be used. The entire situation could be reversed next week, depending on the fortunes of war.

A nervous scan of the surrounding countryside showed nothing suspicious, as the horses plodded on. But, that didn't mean anything, Cody thought. In this country raiders could be hiding around every corner and just over the top of every hill. There were a lot of corners and hills here. Mississippi might not have the cold winters of the northern plains but, so far as Cody was concerned, they could keep their sweltering summers and crowded landscape. Give him wide open spaces where he could see for miles, and dream even farther, any day.

After delivering the workers to the area of ripped up track, it was up to Cody, Thatch and the other members of the 7th Kansas Cavalry to ensure no one interrupted the work. Cody and Thatch, a recognized team by now, had found a hiding spot in the branches of a tree on a hill overlooking the worksite. Seated with their backs to each other they could watch all available approaches from several directions. It also allowed them to talk, something they both enjoyed doing.

"I want to work in a circus someday," Thatch said. "I saw one when I was little. I think I fell in love with the idea of performing when I saw the clowns making everyone laugh."

"Did I ever tell you about the time I joined an acting troupe?" Cody asked.

"Yep. And about the time you helped entertain all those rich ol' geezers from back East. I think you've told me just about every story there is to tell about your life. Why don't you tell me some more stories about the other Riders," Thatch begged.

"Lemme guess, ya wanna hear about Lou? Or maybe it's Buck?" Cody teased.

"Come on, 'Buffalo Bill', tell me another story about Jimmy."

"Well, I gotta think a minute here. Jimmy's such a quiet fella, there ain't much to tell."

Thatch slammed her elbow into Cody's ribs for that comment.

"All right, all right. Did I ever tell ya 'bout the time Jimmy took Lou out dancin'?"

Thatch almost turned around in shock at that comment, but Cody felt the movement and pushed her back into position. "What?!?" she almost screeched.

"Not that kind of dancin'," he hastily corrected. He'd long since clued her in on the Rider's code word for intimate relations. "Just, regular dancin'."

"No."

"Well, see Kid and Lou were on the outs. They did that a lot. To say their courtship was rocky would be a gross understatement. The type of exaggeration I am incapable of! And, Jimmy's best friends with both of them. At least, he was before this danged war broke out. Anyway, Teaspoon decided to get Lou out of the bunkhouse before she drove the lot of us plumb loco, so he sent her and Jimmy on an extended run. Well, when they got there, turns out the return pouch wasn't ready. Wouldn't be 'til the next day. So, Jimmy got Lou to buy a dress and took her out on the town. Had dinner at a fancy restaurant, went to see a magic show, took her dancing in the middle of the street. To this day, Jimmy swears he was just tryin' ta cheer her up. I don't know though, there's something gets in his eyes when he talks about that trip. Personally, I think he fell in love with Lou."

"Aw, Cody, why'd ya have to go and tell me that story," Thatch whined.

Cody grinned. He knew Thatch was half in love with Jimmy from all the stories he'd told her, even if she'd never met the volatile rider. That's precisely why he'd told her the story.

"Just consider it a friendly warnin', ok. Jimmy, he loved Lou, almost as much as Kid did. But, he never fought for her. Think about it. Why would he just let her go without fightin' for her?"

The sound of the work whistle signaling the end of the day interrupted their talk. They both shimmied out of the tree and headed over to hitch up the horses to their wagon. It was time to ferry the railroad workers back to camp for the night.

Kid and Lou

"Wakey, wakey, sleepyhead," Kid whispered quietly into Lou's ear. Lou was a sound sleeper and always had trouble waking up. Luckily, Kid had always been an early riser and enjoyed waking her up. He'd had to do it on a daily basis for nearly two years now, since even before he'd known Lou's secret. Teaspoon had assigned all the bunkmates to act as each other's alarm clocks their first week at the Express, after Lou had overslept and missed morning chores. Lou hadn't appreciated it, but had needed the help more than the others.

Kid grinned as she snuggled closer into his arms. He enjoyed these few moments every morning, but would have to bid them adieu in a few days. As the summer heated up, they'd have to give up closing the tent flaps at night for privacy. Already, they were the last tent to do so and had taken some teasing over their 'prissy sensibilities.' But, when they started sleeping with the flaps open and the sides of the tent rolled up, they'd have to start sleeping head to head like they did when camping under the stars instead of side by side as they'd been doing in their tent. For some reason, no matter how far apart they were when they fell asleep, Kid always seemed to wake up with Lou in his arms.

Noticing his gentle attempts to wake her weren't working, Kid started flexing his fingers along her sides. Soon she was squirming away from him.

"Alright, already. I'm up, I'm up!" Lou grumped.

"Reveille will be in a few minutes, Lou. Better hurry if you want some privacy at the necessary." The two quickly exited their tent, ready to start this day, the 25th of June.

"Lou! Kid! We've got new orders!" Virgil came running up to the couple a few minutes later as they returned to camp. "Straight from the General."

Although there were a lot of Generals in this man's war, anytime someone from the 1st Virginia Cavalry referred to 'the General' they meant only one man, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Louie walked up and added, "We're to pack up camp. All the tents and food stuffs are to be loaded on the supply train. We're riding light!"

"We ride for Camp Ashland at noon," Thomas Ewell finished.

Kid and Lou glanced at each other apprehensively. The orders to 'ride light' meant only one thing, they were about to do some hard riding with little chance to rest.

The next morning, the entirety of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, reinforced with members of the Jeff Davis Legion and the 4th Virginia Cavalry, headed out to provide screening for General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson's infantry along its left flank. The only evidence of the enemy they saw that morning as they trotted along Pamunkey River Road outside Richmond, was a Union picket at Taliaferro Mill. But, the picket skedaddled as soon as it saw the Confederate Cavalry.

Later that day, as the 1st Cavalry waited for General Jackson to catch up with them, General Stuart had a special order for Company G. They were to ride ahead and take possession of the bridge at the Totopotomoy.

With Captain Irving in the lead, it wasn't long before Company G arrived at the creek. "Ok, men," Irving said, "let's spread out. Price, you take twenty men and head north, don't go more'n a mile or so. Ewell, you take another twenty men and head south along the creek. That bridge's supposed to be somewhere hereabouts. We must protect that bridge at all costs, so Jackson and his men can use it to cross the creek and attack those damned Yankees. I'll set the rest of the men up here in patrols, making sure no Yankees can get through before the rest of our men get here."

"Yes, sir!" both Virgil Price and Thomas Ewell responded quickly.

Lou and Kid ended up following Virgil and heading north. Knowing their skills at tracking, Virgil had them ride along the very banks of the creek, looking not only for any sign of the bridge, but also for any sign of the bluecoats. As they trotted around yet another bend in the twisted creek bed, really more of a small river, Kid pulled up short on his reins, causing his mount to almost rear and Lou to complain, "Kid, watch it!"

"Look!" was his simple reply. Upon coming alongside, Lou groaned. As they retreated, Union forces had ripped out the bridge, leaving nothing but debris scattered along the creek's banks.

"We better head back and let Captain Irving know," she said. "Good thing we've got those engineers riding along. Looks like we're gonna need 'em."

"Yep," Kid sighed and turned his horse back in the direction they'd come.

Only a couple hours later several members of the Corps of Engineers had arrived at the Totopotomoy creek and begun repairing the bridge. Despite what had looked like complete chaos to Lou and Kid, it took the engineers only half an hour to put things to rights. Now, the members of Company G stood guard along both approaches to the bridge as the main body of General Jackson's infantry tramped across.

In the break from riding, Lou dug in her haversack and pulled out a bag of goober peas, or peanuts. It was one of the few staples still in plentiful supply in the South and a common trail food amongst the cavalry. Virgil lifted an eyebrow and she showed him what she was munching, offering him a handful. He sighed and accepted with a grimace. As he tossed the goober peas in his mouth one at a time, he began singing a short song in between bites. The infantry marching past quickly picked up the refrain, obviously familiar with the sentiment.

When a horseman passes, the soldiers have a rule
To cry out at their loudest "Mister, here's your mule!"
But still another pleasure enchantinger than these
Is wearing out your grinders, eating goober peas!

Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas!
Eating goober peas!
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas!

Lou nearly choked on the goober peas she'd been munching as Virgil's antics made her laugh. Sometimes this job wasn't too bad. If you could just forget the fact you were preparing to shoot and kill other Americans.

When the last of the infantry finished crossing the bridge, Company G wheeled into formation and followed them down the road toward the crossing of Beaver Dam Creek. Ewell, riding beside Virgil, leaned over and said, "It's starting to get late. Think we're going to stop anytime soon?"

"Naw, man. We're just gonna keep ridin' 'til our horses collapse under us."

"I bet we stop the other side of Beaver Dam Creek," Louie piped up. He came from the area and knew it probably better than any of the other men in the unit. "There's a great place to camp, just over the bridge."

"How long, do ya think?" asked Emmett Caldwell, the eldest in their band of brothers.

"Oh, least another hour or two," opined Louie.

Young Louie really knew what he was talking about. Almost exactly two hours later the last of the Company G squads rode into the now burgeoning camp near Beaver Dam Creek. Right now, General Jackson's bivouac was larger than Richmond itself, with some 80,000 men in camp tonight. Kid whistled softly at the sight.

It didn't take them long to find their supply train, where Ewell's slave Isaac was busily preparing a supper of beans and mash. The men were too tired from the long day's ride to set up their tents and simply laid their bedrolls under the stars. Just as they were settling in for a little rest, a courier rode into their camp waving new orders.

"What now?" Kid muttered. Lou shushed him as she stood to find out what was up.

"Ok, men, looks like our work isn't done for the night," Captain Irving announced. "We've been tasked with providing screening patrols along the camp's left flank. Seems there're some 120,000 Federals not 10 miles away and the General wants to make sure the infantry gets a good night's sleep before attackin' in the mornin'. Squads one and two, y'all'll take first watch. Three and four, you've got second. Five and six, you're on third watch. Squads seven thru twelve, consider y'alls'selves on deck for tomorrow night."

Kid, Lou, Virgil and the other two members of squad four groaned. This meant they'd get some sleep, but it would be interrupted by three hours standing watch and trying to stay awake. Virgil turned to the others and said, "Might as well turn in now, then. Gotta sleep while we can."

The others nodded in agreement and quickly bedded down.

Hickok

"Call," Hickok said, laying his cards down on the table in front of him. "Full house, tens and sevens. Read 'em and weep, folks."

The other players disgustedly tossed their cards face down on the table while Jimmy raked in his winnings. He stood up, shoving the money in a pocket. "That does it for me, boys."

"Aw, come on, at least give us a chance to win our money back," one soldier complained.

"Sorry, I've had enough of cards for the night. Some other time," he promised, walking away from the table. That was the understatement of the century, Jimmy thought, as he exited the mess tent where he'd been playing poker, again, with several members of his unit. All I ever do is play cards and drive wagons. This is not what I signed on for, he muttered to himself as he walked down the dirt road between large white tents. He kicked at a stone in the road as he headed back to his quarters.

Maybe he'd practice his reading a bit, or even try writing a letter to Emma or Rachel. His thoughts shied away from the other woman he used to share all his thoughts with. She was out of reach. Even if he could bring himself to write her a letter, he had no idea where to send it. He missed having both his best friends around to talk to and fight with, almost as much as he missed the excitement of riding for the Express.

The last action he'd seen had been the Battle of Pea Ridge back in March. Jimmy hated battle but at least it meant something to do other than sitting around and playing cards. And Pea Ridge had been exciting. For once outnumbered by the rebels, the U.S. Army had nevertheless managed to hold off the Confederates, cementing their control of Missouri. Jimmy doubted there would be any more serious rebel activity here, despite the number of slaveholders in the state. But, once again, that had left him with nothing to do but sit on his arse and twiddle his thumbs, not something Jimmy was good at.

As he entered his tent, his hand brushed against one of the pearl handled Colts still strapped to his thighs. Maybe he'd get some target practice in, he thought with a grin. Shooting things always made him feel better.

Lou and Kid

Lou leaned over the creek, using her handkerchief to wipe the sweat off her face and dribble water over the top of her head. Man it was hot around here. July had entered just as sweltering as Kid had warned her it would be. Lou didn't think she'd ever felt a heat like this. Shade provided no relief, neither did sweat. Anything wet just stayed wet. There was so much water already in the air, sometimes it felt like she was drowning with every breath. It was no wonder Southerners tended to move so slowly, she thought with a grin.

Not that anyone had been moving slowly over the last week. The fighting that had begun seven days ago at Beaver Dam Creek had continued, unabated, the next day at Gaine's Mill, then at Garnett's Farm, Golding's Farm, Allen's Farm, Savage's Station, White Oak Swamp and, yesterday, Glendale. Today, they were headed back from running reconnaissance around someplace called Malvern Hill.

"Hey, Lou," Virgil yelled. "You 'bout done over there. I need to get some water, too."

"Coming," Lou replied, standing up and putting the cap back on her refilled canteen. She returned to the other members of her squad, guarding several Federal prisoners captured just a ways up the road.

"Thanks, Lou!"

Lou looked over at the prisoners. They looked as miserable as she felt. Kid and the other native Southerners, though sweating, did not appear to be as miserable. Hunh, Lou sniggered to herself, maybe you had to be born here to find this kind of weather comfortable.

After all the members of the squad had gotten a good drink and refilled their canteens, they allowed the captured Union cavalry members to get a drink before chivvying them on down the road.

"Hey, Kid, how many do you think this makes?" the newest member of their five man squad asked. The cavalry took fewer casualties then the infantry, but that didn't mean they were untouched.

"Don't know. Lost count a few days ago," Kid replied laconically. "Virgil, you still countin'?"

"Naw. Don't care. They keep showin' their faces in my state, I'll keep takin' 'em prisoner. If I don't shoot 'em first."

Lou grimaced. They'd spent all day collecting prisoners and abandoned weapons and shuttling them back to the main forces. It was exhausting work, but at least nowhere near so bloody as the battle royale the day before at Malvern Hill. The cavalry's arrival in the last hour of the battle, sounding like a much larger force than they'd actually been, had scared the Union forces into thinking they were a major reinforcement, leading to the rout that had ended the slaughter. But the field… Lou shuddered at the memory. It had looked like the floor of a slaughterhouse. You couldn't walk three steps without slipping and sliding in the pooled blood from all the dead. The smell of the dead bodies had been the foulest odor she'd ever scented.

As the squad handed off their prisoners to another unit, Louie came bouncing over on his old plowhorse. "Captain says to come join the rest of us. The General's sending Company G on a special mission," he enthused.

"What are we doing?" Lou asked.

"We're supposed to escort a unit of Captain Pelham's men. They're taking a howitzer down to Westover, so's we can shell any of those Yankee divils who try to make an escape down the river road tonight."

"Well, we'd better be about it, then," Kid said. And the squad wheeled back into motion.

Buck

Buck sat before the fire in front of Rain's tipi, wondering what he was going to do now. The night before he'd given away his every last earthly possession, with the exception of the clothes on his back, the hunting knife in his boot and the medicine pouch around his neck. His generosity had brought great honor to himself, his host Rain and his tribe, the Kiowa.

But now, he once again had no idea what to do next. The healing wounds on his chest itched mercilessly, but he steadfastly ignored them, determined not to show any discomfort in front of others. A soft hand rested gently on his shoulder and he looked up into those precious grey eyes. The more he got to know Standing Woman, the more she reminded him of Ike.

"What are you thinking?" she asked softly in English. It was the only language, besides Indian sign, they shared. It also allowed them to speak to each other almost completely privately even in the midst of a great crowd.

"Right now, I'm wondering if there's any truth to a story Teaspoon read us once." She nodded in understanding. He'd already told her all about his Pony Express family. "It came from a place called India. He said we're called Indians 'cause some white man got lost and thought he'd landed in this India. Anyway, they have a religion there that believes when you die, you're just born again in a new body."

"Ike?"

"Yeah," Buck sighed.

"I hope I remind you of him in a good way," she said.

"Oh yeah, the best."

"So, what are your plans now? With the giveaway over all the bands are breaking up and heading out to do their summer hunting."

"I just don't know."

"Why don't you pass the summer with us?" Rain suggested, appearing suddenly at the entrance to the tipi. "You'll need the help to reprovision after the giveaway and, I think, it would do you some good to spend some more time learning about the Spirit world. I get the feeling you didn't contemplate it much during your childhood."

"No," Buck agreed, grinning. "I was much too interested in hunting and riding to sit at the feet of the Taime priests listening to old stories."

"Then stay with us, recover, replenish and learn."

"Please," Standing Woman added her own soft request.

After looking back and forth between his two hosts for a long, silent moment, Buck finally nodded his assent. He would stay with this band of Northern Cheyenne, for now.

The next morning, Buck was up early, helping Rain and Standing Woman dismantle their tipi and pack everything up. The day was bittersweet for him. He had a place that accepted him and where he was welcome for the foreseeable future. But, after this, he would no longer be staying with Rain and Standing Woman. All tipis and their accoutrements belonged to the women of the tribe. And, as an unrelated bachelor who was now nominally healthy, it was no longer proper for him to stay in Standing Woman's tipi. On the trail, he would sleep by the fire, and the next time the band made camp, he would join other young men who were not living at home in a tipi belonging to one of the warrior societies. Several had already issued invitations as well as offered to help him go hunting for a new horse. He would have to capture and train one from scratch to replace the horse he'd given the band's chief. For now, he would be walking with the women.

"Humility is good for the soul, my son," Rain said, as if he had read Buck's thoughts on his face. "Even better then generosity."

"Yes, my father."

"Why don't you take the opportunity to walk with Standing Woman. I'm sure she would appreciate the company," the old man suggested mischievously. Buck grinned back in happy agreement. Standing Woman, who'd been walking around the nearby tipi grinned even more widely, before ducking her head to hide her expression.

Seeing her walking toward the travois with arms full of baskets containing all her family's possessions, Buck quickly leapt to her side. "Can I help you with that?" he asked solemnly.

"Yes," she breathed with a growing grin.

Kid and Lou

Kid sighed in pure sybaritic enjoyment as he sank back down into the tub. The water was lukewarm, in concession to the late August heat. But it didn't matter. It just felt so good to be clean again. He could barely remember the last time he'd had a good bath. A banging on the door reminded him there were a dozen other men waiting to use the tub. With a sigh, this one of the reluctant variety, Kid sat back up and quickly finished scrubbing himself clean.

Soon, he was out of the tub, leaving it to Virgil, and headed back to camp to finish getting ready for the night's festivities. Ever since the end of the Seven Days Battle and its successful defense of Richmond from Yankee aggression, anyone wearing the grey uniform of a cavalry officer was in high demand at social events. Tonight, Company G had been ordered to put in an appearance at the latest ball at the White House of the South, as Jefferson Davis' residence in Richmond had come to be called.

"Here," Lou said, handing him his shaving kit. She'd already pretended to shave and was almost ready. "But hurry, you need to cut my hair again. It's gettin' too long."

While the rest of the cavalrymen, including Kid, had simply allowed their hair and beards to grow out, Lou had kept hers scrupulously short. Despite some teasing on that front, she'd been more afraid longer hair might give her gender away. She didn't have to worry today. Today, everyone was clean shaven and freshly shorn. They had the pride of the company to maintain.

"Lou," Louie called out, "who you gonna ask to dance first? I'm gonna find the prettiest lady at the ball and ask her to dance."

"Lou don't dance," Kid interjected, trying to hide his sudden fear.

"Well, we can't have that," Virgil said, walking up and shaking his still wet hair all over Kid, Lou and Louie. "Our orders aren't just to look pretty, but to make sure all the pretty ladies have a good time. That means dancing with 'em. We're gonna have to give you a crash course!"

"Virgil, let him be," Kid started to object.

"Hey, Virgil, that's a great idea," Louie said excitedly at almost the same time.

"I guess, if I ain't got no choice," Lou said quietly.

A short time later found Lou and Louie hanging on Virgil's every word as he tried to explain to them how to lead out in the most popular dances of the day. Unfortunately, he was making a hash of his explanation. In exasperation he finally yelled to Emmett Caldwell, who was unlucky enough to have been passing too closely to the group, "Emmett, lend us a hand here. We need someone to be the 'lady', so's I can show these two how to lead properly."

Emmett glanced around, then put one hand on his hip and walked toward the group in a move that could only have been called a flounce. "Well, I do declare," he let out in a falsetto voice, "I don't know which of y'all fine gentlemen to dance with first."

He clutched the edges of an imaginary skirt and swooped into an exaggerated curtsey before holding out one hand in a languid gesture to Virgil.

"That's more like it," Virgil laughed in approval. "Now boys, you take her hand, like this and then…"

Kid couldn't stop laughing over Virgil and Emmett's antics throughout the entire ride to the Davis' residence. That is until he caught a glimpse of Lou's fuming expression out of the corner of his eye.

Company G trotted up the broad lane in front of the White House of the South in perfect unison, as if they'd done nothing for the last several months but drill. The sidewalks were crowded with spectators, there to see who would be visiting tonight. There were several cheers and not a few Rebel Yells as Company G trotted past.

When the men rode up the driveway there was an army of servants in matching uniforms, slaves Lou thought disgustedly, waiting to take their horses. The Company dismounted in unison, handed their horses off to the waiting black men and walked up the broad steps to the front door where President Davis and his wife, Varina, stood greeting the guests.

"Thank you so much for coming," Davis said to each of the cavalrymen as he shook hands with them. "Your country is very grateful for and proud of your service in her defense."

"You're welcome," Lou murmured uncomfortably. She felt even more odd greeting Varina Davis, bowing over her hand and kissing it as the other cavalrymen had. She made a quick escape, following her comrades through the mansion's front door.

Seated at the long white-clothed table covered with sparkling crystal glasses, beautiful porcelain plates and real silverware, polished to a high sheen, Kid was the one now feeling uncomfortable. There were delicate, two handled soup bowls placed precisely in the center of each plate and surrounded by fresh flowers. And there were two forks. Two. One on each side of the plate. How was he supposed to use two forks?

He glanced at Louie, seated across from him and noticed a similar tension in his face and shoulders. Lou, however, seemed much more relaxed, smiling at something her dinner companion was saying. That reminded Kid, he was supposed to keep his dinner companion, a beautiful young redhead, entertained throughout the meal.

"Uh, so where are you from?" he asked nervously.

"Oh, ah'm from Georgia," she answered shyly. "But my father is in the legislature and insisted I come to Richmond to get a little polish."

"And, what do you like to do?" Kid fumbled, trying desperately to think of things to say.

"Mostly I embroider handkerchiefs for our valiant boys in grey," she answered, a little pride showing through her shyness this time.

Oh man, Kid thought to himself, this is gonna be a long night.

After dinner, the ladies excused themselves from the room while the gentlemen enjoyed, or at least pretended to enjoy, an alcoholic beverage and a smoke, for those who chose. But none lingered long. It had been too long since most had spent more than a few minutes around a woman. Soon, they were scrambling, in a dignified manner, into the ballroom. Each man looking for the lady of his choice while the band warmed up for the night.

After dancing with first his dinner companion, then two other young ladies, Kid finally spotted Lou holding up a wall near an open window, chatting happily with Young Louie. Kid grabbed a glass of punch and sipped carefully as he plotted a course around the edge of the ballroom, making his way over to his friends.

"Man, wasn't that the best meal you've had in ages," Louie gushed.

"Oh, I could've kept eating forever," Lou responded. "Especially that fruit cake. It was made with real sugar." She could've used it, Kid thought, looking closely at her. She'd always been slender, but the rough riding they'd been doing recently with little in the way of food had worn her down. Her cheek bones had gotten so sharp they looked like they would break through her skin at any moment.

"What about the coffee? None of that chicory pretend stuff we've been drinking, not for Mr. Davis and his family. Nuh unh."

"Well, they've gotta keep up appearances," Kid interjected, "if we're ever going to get help from France or Britain. But I will admit I wouldn't've minded more of that steak. Haven't had anythin' that good since we left Rock Creek."

"Hey, whatta ya say we sneak down to the kitchens and see if there're any leftovers," Louie suggested impishly. Kid and Lou grinned at each other before nodding to Louie. The three slipped out of the room, abandoning the frenetic frivolity there in search of more food. None of them noticed Thomas Ewell glaring after them.

Teaspoon

"Mr. Hunter, Ah don't know how ah'll ever be able to thank you for all you've done for us," Savannah Herrington drawled. The pair stood on her front porch, watching as the rest of the misfits who now worked her farm brought in the last of the fall's harvest. "Thanks to your help and trainin', we've got enough supplies to last the winter."

"Ah, but my dear, now the real work begins." Savannah turned a questioning look on him and he continued. "Growing and harvesting the crops you need to survive the winter is only the first step. Now, you've gotta process the food so it'll keep. Not to mention protectin' it from predators."

"But, Mr. Hunter, Ah've always bought our supplies from the store in town. I don't know the first thing about turning all this," she waved helplessly toward the barn where the old men, women and early teens were stacking the last of the harvest, "into something we can use. I just assumed we'd take it into town and sell it."

"And just who did you think was going to buy it? Ain't nobody got any money worth anythin' right now. Even if you could sell it, what would you buy? The store shelves have been emptier than a riverbed in western Texas for the last six months. No, we're gonna have to use what we've got."

Savannah looked at Teaspoon helplessly and he felt an instant need to reassure her.

"Don't worry. I'm sure some of the women who've come know how to store the fruits and vegetables for the winter. And the men and I certainly know how to take care of the grain, though y'all may have to do it the ol' fashioned way."

The next day proved just how right Teaspoon was. The ragtag group that had coalesced at Savannah Herrington's ranch-cum-farm had split into two groups. Half the group was out looking for rocks suitable to use for grinding the grain. They'd never find a millstone, so they were searching for smaller stones that could be used as hand grinders. Some were even improvising, using coffee grinders to try to mill the first of the wheat. This as the older men and boys were showing some of the women how to separate the wheat kernels from the straw. They'd keep that to help feed the stock through the coming winter. The second half of the group, including Teaspoon, was in the kitchen to start canning the garden produce.

Teaspoon looked down at the pink frilly apron someone had slipped over his head and wondered how he'd ever gotten himself into this situation. Then he sighed and dipped the long handled spoon in his hand back into the bubbling pot of fruit he was learning how to turn into jam. He sure liked jam, especially on hot biscuits on a cold winter morning. With that thought, he became a bit more enthusiastic about his process. If he could handle his boys, and girl, certainly he could handle learning to make jam.

A couple hours later, sweaty and exhausted, Teaspoon wasn't so sure of his earlier optimism. He gazed at the mess surrounding him. He'd turned out to be so inept at jam making, the women had exiled him to the porch, with the dirty dishes. He looked at the piles of pots and pans surrounding him and sighed, before plunging his hands back into the hot water and scrubbing away. The things a man did for his country, he thought in exasperation. Well, at least he'd get some jam out of all this work, he grinned to himself.

Hickok

This wasn't doing anything to help his country, Hickok thought in angered exasperation. He tossed the remnants of the burned family Bible in his hands back onto the pile of debris that was all that was left of the small Missouri farmhouse. How was he going to get himself out of this jam? he thought with a frustrated grimace.

For the last couple months, despite his title of wagonmaster, Hickok had been acting as a scout for military units trying to hunt down both Quantrill's Raiders, rebel sympathizers, and the Red Legs, union supporters, tearing Missouri apart one farmstead at a time. But, despite all their efforts, they always seemed to be ten steps behind the bushwhackers. Once again they'd arrived too late to do any good. This time, the Red Legs had killed every member of a family of six, for supposedly supporting the South. As far as Jimmy could tell, the family had been doing well just to survive.

He stood in disgust and walked back to the unit's commander. "I'm sorry, Sir. They scattered the stock, so there's no way to track them. They're gone. Again."

"You've done the best you could, son. Better than any scout we had before you," the Lieutenant tried to comfort him, putting a hand on Jimmy's shoulder. Jimmy shrugged the hand off, almost violently, and stalked back to his horse. There was nothing left for him to do here. He mounted up and trotted back to the Lieutenant. "There's nothing more I can do here, Sir. I'll head back to camp and report this to the Colonel."

The Lieutenant nodded unhappily, then watched Jimmy gallop off as if the hounds of hell were after him. That young man was not handling the frustrations of serving in this war torn border state very well. He needed a change in assignment.

The next morning, Jimmy winced as he exited the dim interior of his tent for the bright sunshine of early morning. He straightened the two Colts strapped to his legs then turned down the dirt path toward the camp commander's tent.

"You wanted to see me, Sir?" Jimmy asked almost as soon as he entered the commander's office, a commandeered Sheriff's office.

The man before Jimmy winced at his lack of formality, then relaxed, smiling as this only confirmed the man's decision. "Yes, Corporal. In light of your, ah, unique shall we say?, skill set, I've got a special mission for you."

Jimmy perked up at this. Anything to get out of the mental torture his life had become, constantly showing up too late to do anything to help people. Whatever this mission was, it had to be better than what he'd been doing.

"The first thing you'll have to do is take a discharge from the Army."

Kid and Lou

"Hurry up, Louie," Lou panted as she shoved provisions into her haversack, "Get as much as you can!"

Company G was busily engaged in ransacking the larder of Yankee General John Pope's headquarters at Catlett Station. They were among 1,500 daring troopers on the raid well behind enemy lines. Lou didn't much hold with stealing, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

"Hey, Lou," Louie called holding up something in his left hand, "look at this, real coffee!" He was almost dancing in his excitement.

"Great, pack it up. We've gotta keep movin'!"

"Aw, come on, Lou," Emmett intervened, "the kid's just excited. Let him have some fun!"

"Ain't nothin' fun 'bout cheatin' death," Lou muttered to herself.

Kid ran into the room lit only by the dancing flames of burning buildings and occasional flashes of lightning. "Hurry up, everyone! They need us to go over and help set fire to the bridge."

The destruction of the railroad bridge was the main goal of this raid behind enemy lines. Unfortunately, the ongoing thunderstorm had put a hitch in their plans to just burn the wooden trestle bridge down. And, they hadn't brought any dynamite with them to blow it up. Although that probably wouldn't have worked either, in this storm, Lou thought. After all, you'd still have to light the fuse.

Company G mounted up with their spoils tucked into haversacks, pillowcases and anything else they could carry and headed across the battle torn Union camp for the bridge.

"Anyone got any Lucifers?" someone yelled out, as Company G galloped up.

"Nope," Kid answered grimly. "Used those up months ago. Has anyone tried just pulling the danged thing down?"

"Yeah, but we ain't got enough axes to do much good and this thing's too solid built to pull apart with hands or ropes."

Just then, a wild bugle call signaled the retreat.

"Dang it!" Kid cursed, along with several other men.

"Mount up!" Virgil yelled loudly. "Take whatever you can carry, but don't get left behind! Let's ride!"

And Company G, along with the rest of Stuart's cavalry, headed back for the safety of their own side of the Rappahanock River. Behind them, they left a Union leadership in shatters and a camp in tatters, but a railroad bridge undamaged.

Kid smiled as he thought back to that raid just a few nights ago. It had been about the most exciting time he'd had in the last few months. It had certainly struck a devastating blow to the Yankees' morale, even if they hadn't achieved their objective of cutting Pope's supply line by destroying the railroad bridge.

"Didy'all hear?" Ewell asked, as he swaggered up to the fire they were all sitting around. "General Stuart's holding Pope's fancy dress uniform coat ransom!"

They all laughed at that. The General had been a mite peeved, to put it lightly, when he'd almost been captured by a surprise Union movement just days before the raid at Catlett Station. He'd escaped, but he'd lost his trademark plumed hat in the process. That had really gotten his goat and he'd been itching for a little revenge since then. Apparently, he'd found it in Pope's splendid, flounced, full-dress uniform coat.

"Wonder if Pope'll pay up?" Louie pondered.

"What fer?" Virgil asked. "He's got the General's hat! I'd never trade any old blue coat for my prized plumed hat!"

At that, the betting began. Few of the men had much in the way of money, so they bet on chores, patrol duties, even prized, though rare, desserts.

Lou leaned back against a stump awaiting its turn in the fire and thought about the last few days. After the raid on Catlett Station, Company G had stuck with old Stonewall and helped his men capture Manassas. The supplies they'd found stockpiled at Manassas Junction had put what they'd found at Catlett Station to shame. They'd all stuffed themselves to bursting before taking whatever they could carry with them. They'd been so full they'd barely been of any help with the fighting the next day.

Veterans who'd been fighting longer than Lou and Kid told them the second battle of Manassas had been much worse than the first. One trooper had described the fighting to Lou as "Men standing at arm's length ... giving and taking, life for life, each resolute and determined, ceasing action only from sheer exhaustion, which was complete upon one side as upon the other."

Another had recalled, "the affair seemed to us like a mixture of earthquake, volcano, thunder storm and cyclone. Even now we can hear the . . . howls, growls, moans, screeches, screams and explosions. . . . It might have been a tune for demons to dance to."

Lou shuddered. At least now it was over. After two days of hard fighting, the Union General Pope had retreated, rather precipitously, to Bull Run. It was already being called a great victory for the Confederacy. How anything that resulted in nearly 20,000 dead and wounded men could be called a victory, Lou couldn't figure.

"Did ya find anythin'?" Virgil asked quietly, as he trudged up to her side. Lou nodded her head toward a pile of haversacks, rifles and ammunition near the road. After the fighting was over, they'd been tasked to search the battlefield for any supplies the bluebellies had left behind in their hurried retreat.

"Looks like mostly hardtack and jerkey," Lou said. "The rifles are new though."

Virgil walked over to take a look. "Bully! These are those new Spencer repeating rifles we've been hearing about," he said, holding up one of the nearly brand new rifles to inspect it more closely. "Did ya find any ammo for 'em? These are nice guns, but we can't use 'em if ya didn't find any ammo. They can't take the same bullets we use in our Enfields."

"Yep. Several whole boxes worth. I stacked 'em over there, under the tree," Lou pointed the pile out.

"Great job, kid."

Despite the fact he was actually a year younger than Lou, her disguise made her appear much younger than the others and Virgil had taken to treating her like a little brother.

"I'm just glad I pulled this detail and not hospital duty like Kid and Emmett," Lou grunted.

"Ain't that the truth!"

Hours later, as the last rays of sunshine were disappearing over the horizon, Kid, Emmett and the others detailed to hospital duty trudged back into camp. Kid didn't even bother to grab a bite to eat, just plopping down on his bedroll and pulling his plumed cavalry hat down over his face. Lou placed a hand on his shoulder for a moment, just to let him know she was there, then turned in herself. She knew it would be a long night for him. The job was over, but it would be a long time before he got the images of the dead and dying lying amidst the blood and flies that covered the abandoned battlefield. She knew. She'd pulled hospital duty a couple times herself. She still struggled with the nightmares the memories engendered.

"Lou, you awake?" Young Louie whispered to her through the darkness.

"Am now."

"Can I ask ya a question?"

"Just did, didn't ya?" Lou responded wryly, grinning at the memory of the man she'd stolen the line from.

"What does it mean if my mouth's bleedin'? Am I dyin'?" Louie queried worriedly. He knew the Confederate Army was losing two men to disease for every man killed in battle. Lou figured things probably weren't much better on the Yankee side. They just had more men to start with.

"Lemme see," she said, sighing as she sat back up and moved closer to the watch fire. Louie followed her, baring his teeth and gums in a reddened grimace. She carefully inspected his mouth. "Naw, ya ain't dyin', but you gotta eat more fruits and veggies, Louie."

"But Lou, we ain't got none."

"I know," she sighed. "Listen, tomorrow, we'll go berry huntin'. There should be some good blackberry brambles down near the river. Then, I'll show you how to dry the berries and make pemmican. Looks kinda gross, but it'll help keep your mouth from bleedin' like that."

Louie nodded in happy acceptance, then looked back at Lou again. "What's pemmican?"

"It's a mixture of dried berries, dried meat and pork fat. You form it into little cakes. It's great traveling food and will prevent the problems your havin' right now. Buck taught me how to make it."

"Bully!"

"Now, get some sleep Louie," Lou said, crawling back into her bedroll. "It's been a long day."

The following afternoon found Lou and Kid searching the riverbanks for berry brambles. Louie hadn't been able to come after all. But Lou had decided the entire unit could use the fresh fruit anyway and convinced Kid to join her. They'd wandered quite a ways upstream of the rest of the units and were enjoying the private time.

"Kid, I think you've eaten more berries than you've picked!" Lou scolded with a smile.

"Well, I don't think you've eaten enough. Come here and let me give you a taste," he grinned back.

"Oh, no you don't. You're not staining my only decent clothes with that berry juice all over your mouth!" she squealed, starting to slowly back away from him.

"Wanna bet?" he challenged, taking up the chase. Lou dropped the bucket of berries she'd been picking and ran. She didn't make it far before Kid's strong hands circled her small waist and he lifted her off the ground.

"Kid!"

"Say 'Uncle'!" he demanded.

"Kid!" His fingers started flexing along her sides as he dropped her feet back to the ground. "Uncle!"

"And for that, you get a reward," Kid grinned, leaning in to rub his berry stained lips across hers.

"Ummmm," Lou moaned in appreciation.

"Um-hm."

Lou and Kid both stiffened at the sound behind them and stared at each other in abject fear. Kid quickly jumped to his feet, grabbing for the gun at his side to protect Lou. But, just as he was about to pull the gun out of its holster, Lou's hand on his gunhand stopped him.

"Kid, don't," she said quietly. "It's just Isaac."

Despite her words, her face remained pale as a ghost in fear.

"I'm sorry massa, ma'am," Isaac said quietly, starting to back away, "I's didn't mean to interrupt your privacy."

Now it was Kid's turn to pale. But Isaac held up a reassuring hand. "Doan't worry none, massa. I ain't a goin' to tell. Yore missus ain't the first lady what felt it was safer to not be so ladylike. Lotsa wimmen down at the slave cabins do the same, to avoid catchin' their massa's attention."

Lou walked slowly forward and held out her hand to Isaac, "Thank you. I don't know what else to say."

Isaac looked up at her, surprised, before dropping his gaze back to the ground, where it had been since the start of the conversation. He nodded toward the ground. "Yore welcome, ma'am."

Lou looked at him strangely, then walked up and grabbed his hand in hers to force a handshake. Kid quickly followed and when she dropped Isaac's hand, Kid grabbed it to shake even more vigorously. This pulled Isaac out of his protective downward gaze and his eyes flew up to meet Kid's.

"Massa?" he questioned.

"Please, don't call me that," Kid said. "I don't own nobody and don't hold with owning nobody. There's many of us fightin' for the Confederacy who don't believe in slavery."

Before Isaac could respond, Lou added, "We had a very good friend who was a free black back in Nebraska Territory. We'd like to think you'd be our friend, too."

"I'd like that a lot missus," Isaac said to her. Then he turned his eyes to Kid and added a touch bitterly, "But, massa, if yore fightin' fer the South, doan't matter if ya believe in slavery er not. Yer still fightin' fer it."

Without giving Kid a chance to respond, Isaac turned and walked away. Kid clenched his fists at his side, unable to come up with a response. Lou simply placed a hand on his shoulder, before turning back to collect her berry bucket.

Buck

Buck exited the door of the tipi he was sharing with several other bachelors, all members of the Kit Fox Warrior Society. They'd kindly allowed him to remain as a guest, even though, as a Kiowa, he wasn't a member of the society. But, they'd respected his sacrifice at the Sun Dance and had wished to honor it.

Buck's hands slowly stroked the sides of the buffalo robe blanket he'd draped over his shoulder. It had taken him most of the rest of the summer to hunt and kill the buffalo, then properly cure its hide. Finally, he'd had to find someone who could help him decorate it. But, after weeks of work and planning, Buck was ready to go courting.

Settling himself outside the tipi Standing Woman shared with her father, Buck pulled the courting blanket around his shoulders then placed the flute he'd carved by hand to his lips. The first sweet notes of the courting song he'd composed for Standing Woman floated out into the night air.

As he finished the first song and started a second, the flap of the tipi opened and Standing Woman walked out. She smiled at Buck and sat quietly at his side as he finished playing the second song.

"When did you make all this," she marveled, softly stroking the edge of the soft buffalo robe. "With all the time you've spent training in medicine with Father, I can't figure out when you had time to even go hunting."

"When somethin's important to you, you find the time," Buck smiled at her. Standing, he held his hand out to her, "Would you come walking with me?"

"Yes," she nodded, putting her hand in his.

As they walked toward the edge of camp, Buck pulled the courting blanket up over both their heads. The position indicated to all around that they were courting and were to be left alone, except in the direst of emergencies.

They spent hours that night and the nights that followed, heads together underneath the courting blanket. They talked about their childhoods, their families, their hopes and dreams and fears. They learned not only about each other, but about themselves, who they were and who they wanted to be.

One night, as Standing Woman joined Buck while he was playing her song for her, she shyly handed him package. "Here, I made this for you."

"What is it?"

"Well, open it up and find out."

Inside the loose hide wrapping, Buck found a beautifully decorated medicine bag. The special parfleche was covered in traditional quillwork, instead of the more modern beading.

"I thought you could use it for all the medicines you're collecting with Father," she said quietly.

Buck nodded and grabbed her hand to look more closely at it. Quillwork was done by dying porcupine quills and using them to make designs. The quills remained sharp and were difficult to work with, often cutting the hands of the artist. Which was why most Indian women preferred the beads they got from Wasicu or Gantonto traders. Standing Woman's hand showed the damage done as she'd decorated his gift. This was the sign he'd been looking for. He knew it was time to take the next step.

Cody

"Cody, Thatch, why don'tcha guys give us a show!"

The request was becoming common place as the 7th Cavalry settled into its winter quarters near Memphis, Tennessee. For the last couple months they'd been part of Grant's push toward Vicksburg, taking part in numerous skirmishes and battles across southern Mississippi. Unfortunately, the rivalry amongst the Union generals, repeated Confederate raids and bad weather had doomed Grant's campaign. From what he'd learned about the brusque general though, Cody didn't think he'd given up.

But for now, the troops were settling into their winter camp outside Memphis.

"So, Thatch, which one should we do? The Bear and the Bushwhackers? Or, the Indian Tiger?" Cody asked. In their boredom, the pair had turned many of Cody's Pony Express adventures into short plays. Now, they were often asked to perform around the campfire for the entertainment of their fellows.

"How 'bout, Don't Mess With the Spirits?" Thatch suggested mischievously, knowing this was Cody's least favorite. Afterall, he didn't exactly come off as a hero in this one.

"Fine. But next time I'm pickin'."

After their performance, Cody and Thatch settled down by the fire as several musicians warmed up for the next act. Several members of the Cavalry were of Irish descent and enjoyed playing traditional songs for the others. Tonight, they broke into a tune they called "Garyowen".

"Let Bacchus's sons be not dismayed,
but join with me each jovial blade,
come booze and sing and lend your aid,
to help me with the chorus:

Instead of spa we'll drink down ale
and pay the reckoning on the nail,
for debt no man shall go to jail
from Garry Owen in glory."

Cody leaned toward Thatch and said, "I love that song. It's got a great beat. We should play that when we're underway. It would really help keep all the horses moving to the same beat."

"Personally, I like the lyrics best!" Thatch grinned widely.

Buck

Running Buck Cross was more nervous than he could ever remember being before in his life. He was more nervous than he'd been when he'd left Red Bear's band of Kiowa to live with the Gantonto, more nervous than when he'd first met Teaspoon and the other Express riders, more nervous even than when he'd faced down Neville in revenge for Ike's murder. Finally he understood Kid's wandering around, muttering to himself all those weeks before he'd proposed to Lou, again. And Buck didn't have to actually even say anything.

Once more he walked through the herd of ten Indian ponies he'd collected during several raids on nearby Crow and Pawnee bands the last couple of months. He checked each to make sure it was well groomed, looking its best with beautiful paintings decorating its haunches. Ten was overkill, he knew that. Two to four ponies was the norm for what he was about to do. But, he wanted make sure she knew how much she was worth to him.

Gathering the leadropes to all ten ponies, Buck began the slow, public walk through the Cheyenne camp to Standing Woman's tipi. This was the time when all the camp could inspect his offering and have their say as to whether he was worthy of her. Finally, he arrived at his destination. He tied all ten ponies to a single rope which he left attached to one of the tipi's lodgepoles. Then he walked slowly away, head held up, shoulders thrown back. It was done. Either she would accept or she would not. The choice was hers now.

A sudden gasp from a woman in front of him, slowed Buck. She pointed behind him with her chin, indicating he should turn around. He almost didn't. He was afraid of what he would see. But, taking a deep breath, he turned on one heel to see what was happening.

Standing Woman had already exited her tipi and gathered the leads of the ten ponies together. She was leading them toward the corral where the band's horses were kept.

Buck let out a slow breath in relief. Then started grinning so wide he thought his face might split in two. Normally a maiden would wait a few hours, if not a day or so, before offering her answer. Standing Woman hadn't even waited until he was out of sight. With a leap, he shattered the air with a war cry of jubilation. She'd said, "Yes."

Lou and Kid

Kid looked across the frozen Virginia landscape. The blanket of freshly fallen snow hid the scars of war, making the countryside look as peaceful as it had in his childhood. He took a deep breath, enjoying the crisp feel of the freezing air in his lungs. This was the Virginia he loved enough to fight for. The silver notes of Young Louie's bugle sang through the air, breaking the peace of the late December morning and calling Kid back into camp for an announcement.

"Good news men, for most of ya," Captain Irving announced, once all were assembled. "As we're settled into winter camp and there are no campaigns presently planned, the General has determined that anyone who lives within a week's ride of Richmond will receive a Christmas furlough."

Irving waited, smiling, through the cheers of the men. Eventually, they quieted, to get the rest of the details. "If you don't live that close, you're free to visit with those who do. Or, you are welcome to stay here in camp. The General's planning a special Christmas Ball in your honor. Let the staff sergeant know by tomorrow night what your plans are. Whatever your plans, you are expected back in camp no later than January 4th. Anyone not present after that time had better be dead, 'cause I'll consider him as being on French leave and treat him as the deserter he is!" the captain sternly warned. Then, with a smile, he finished up, "Merry Christmas, men!"

Kid sighed. Though his family had farmed within the week's ride prescribed, there was no one left for him to visit. He wished there were. He'd have loved to have been able to take Lou home and introduce her to his family. But that wasn't to be. He sighed, kicking at a clod of dirt in front of him, hands shoved in his pockets as he started to wander back to his tent.

"Kid!" Virgil ran up, yelling his name. "Thomas and I've been talking. We want to invite you and Lou to come home with us. We're neighbors down south of Richmond. You could celebrate the holidays with my family."

"That sounds great, Virgil. Let me check with Lou, but we'll probably take you up on the offer. We've no place left to visit around here."

The next morning, well bundled against the chill in the air, the four cavalrymen and one slave galloped off into the dawn's early light. By evening, they drew to a stop atop a hill overlooking Berkeley, Thomas Ewell's ancestral home. With a broad gesture of his left hand, Ewell looked at his comrades in arms, "Welcome to Berkeley. Home sweet home."

Smoke curled lazily from the chimney's topping the imposing three story brick mansion. Kid just shook his head in silent admiration, while Lou let out a silent whistle. This place Ewell called home was at least twice the size of the imposing White House of the South. And this time, they weren't visiting for an evening, but spending the night. Even as the group of riders pondered the mansion and grounds, the slight figure of a blonde woman exited a side door. Ewell let out a whoop of joy and spurred his horse into action, racing down the hill. "It's Annabel!"

Kid turned to Virgil in silent query and noticed a strange look pass over the man's face. Virgil shrugged off the look and said, "His fiancée. The three of us grew up together. I wonder what she's doing here?"

"If you're all so close, maybe her family's visiting for the holidays," Lou suggested.

"No," Virgil answered. "Her family headed North when the war started. Her father's fightin' for the Yankees. Didn't rightly expect to ever see her again."

"Well," Kid opined with a grin, "let's get down there and find out!"

The three young riders took off at a gallop. Isaac followed just as eagerly. They trotted up the long curving driveway leading to the front door of the Georgian mansion. Kid watched the joyful reunion between Thomas and Annabel, with Thomas grabbing her up in his arms and twirling her around again and again. Annabel threw her head back and let out a laugh full of love and welcome. Kid felt two warm spots in his back and as he swung off his horse he met Lou's eyes. They both smiled gently, basking in the reflected glow of happiness and remembering similar reunions of their own.

"Boy, take the horses to the barn," Thomas tossed over his shoulder to the black stable man twice his age standing along the edge of the driveway. "And make sure to rub them down good. Those horses get sick 'cause you skimp on your duties and you'll pay!"

Kid stiffened at the command and follow-up threat. "That's ok, Thomas, we'd prefer to take care of our own mounts anyway."

"Kid, you guys are guests. Now, get over here and meet my fiancée, Annabel."

"Please, massa," the slave begged quietly as he grabbed the reins in Kid's hand, "just lemme do my job. Else Massa Thomas' have me whipped."

Kid let the horse go with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Lou glared at Thomas, then turned her deadly gaze on her husband, before turning her back on him and entering the house behind Thomas and Annabel.

As they all sat at the dinner table that evening, just as formally set as had been the Davis' table at the Presidential Ball months earlier, Thomas stood and tapped his silver fork against his cut crystal glass. "I have an announcement to make, folks. Seein's how my beloved Annabel has made her way back to me, I don't aim to let her get away again."

He paused a moment for effect, meeting the eyes of each person at the table. "She's agreed to marry me on Christmas Day!"

"Congratulation's son!" Mrs. Ewell said softly. Her husband stood up and shook Thomas' hand.

Thomas turned to Virgil, Kid and Lou. "I know y'all had planned to continue on to White Hall in the mornin', but I'm hopin' you'll change your plans and stay for the weddin'. We've already sent a rider with an invitation to your parents, Virgil. I'm sure they'll be comin'."

"And ah'm hopin' you'll agree to give me away," Annabel added softly. "Seein' as how my father can't be here." She carefully sidestepped the issue of why.

Only Kid seemed to notice the pain in Virgil's eyes as he nodded his assent. "I'd be proud to stand up with you," he said to Annabel, speaking as if she were the only other person in the room.

The next morning, the entire plantation was in an uproar as everyone tried to prepare quickly for the surprise wedding. The slaves were running to and fro, unearthing precious, hidden supplies of sugar, eggs and flour for the cake. Others were busy adding beautiful white lilies to the Christmas greenery already in place. There was a general feeling of celebration in the air. All except for one person.

Kid and Lou had been trying to stay out of the way of all the bustle, by wandering the gardens behind the mansion. When they turned a corner into a cozy little section of the garden with a gazebo in the middle, they came to a surprised stop. Virgil was sitting in the gazebo, staring morosely at nothing.

"Kid," Lou began.

"I know," he replied. "Why don't you let me talk to him."

Lou nodded quietly and turned to walk back toward the house. Kid started moving forward, climbing the steps to the gazebo and taking a seat next to Virgil.

"You don't seem too excited 'bout this wedding," Kid said.

"He's bad news. He's goin' to hurt her and there's nothin' I can do to stop it."

"Looks like he loves her, to me."

"Oh, I don't mean he'll hurt her physically," Virgil said, finally turning to look at Kid. "But he'll stifle her soul. She's always been quiet, but a free spirit. He doesn't understand that about her. He just sees the perfect southern belle, who'll sit quietly at home, waiting for him, pretendin' not to notice when he takes up with the pretty mulatto slave gals."

Turning back to his examination of the horizon, Virgil continued. "And the hell of it is, she doesn't see his need to control her. She thinks his protectiveness is love. It's not. I've known him too long. It's possessiveness. She'll be his slave, just as much as any nigger on the plantation. That'll kill her."

"And you love her?" Kid asked gently.

"And I love her," Virgil agreed solemnly.

"All I can tell ya, is somethin' a good friend of mine told me, when me and my gal was having some problems over control and protectiveness. She wanted her freedom. I wanted her safe. Jimmy, he tol' me, 'Kid, if ya love her, ya gotta let her go. Give her the freedom to make her own decisions. But be there to catch her if she falls. And let her do the same fer you.' Don't know if that helps or not, but it made a difference for us."

"What happened?" Virgil asked, eagerly hoping for a happy ending.

"Oh, it took us awhile, but she learned to forgive me and learn to trust me to let her go and catch her only if she needed it. We eventually got married," Kid smiled in fond remembrance of the best day of his life.

"She must be somethin'."

"She sure is." Kid got up and slapped Virgil on the back. "I can see ya've still got some thinkin' to do. I'll let ya alone to do it."

Kid started to walk away. Just as he was about to leave the clearing around the gazebo he heard Virgil call softly, "Thanks, Kid." Without turning around, Kid raised his hand to wave in acknowledgement and walked on.

Christmas morning dawned cold and clear. The sunlight sparkled off the ice crystals in the snow. It was a beautiful day for a wedding. That morning, Virgil's parents arrived to join the celebration set for that evening.

Several of the slaves provided the music as Annabel glided across the middle of the living room floor on Virgil's arm. With a warning glare to Thomas, Virgil placed Annabel's hand in his and took a seat next to Kid and Lou on the couch. Thomas' father stood next to him, while Virgil's father, the local justice of the peace, was performing the ceremony. Their mothers were standing next to Annabel. Kid, Lou and Virgil were the only others present.

"Dearly beloved…." Mr. Price began the traditional wedding address.

He droned on, extolling the virtues of marriage and grabbing joy while you can in a world filled with sorrows. Kid shifted in his seat, using the movement to cover a quick brush of his fingertips across the back of Lou's hand. Both were remembering their own wedding over a year ago. So much had changed since then, yet so much still remained unknown.

"You may kiss the bride," Mr. Price concluded.

Thomas took Annabel's face between his hands, delivering a sweet kiss on her lips. She blushed up at him, then both turned to face the small group of spectators waiting to congratulate them.

After the wedding dinner that night, Lou slipped away from the house, needing a moment to catch her breath. Dinner had been just as formal and grueling as when they'd eaten at the Davis' Presidential Ball. And the wedding had had her dwelling on sweet moments that she couldn't afford to think too much about. She crept silently into the barn and headed for the horses. Grooming her horse had always been a way for her to relax and think when things got tough.

"How ya doin' boy," she murmured to the horse. It snorted and munched contentedly on the oats in its feed trough. "Yeah, life's good for ya ain't it. Wish things were as easy for me."

A pair of strong, belovedly masculine hands circled her waist from behind, startling a surprised gasp from her. "Merry Christmas," Kid whispered in her ear as she relaxed back into his arms.

"Merry Christmas, to you too!" She turned in his arms, winding her hands up behind his neck and pulling him down for a deep kiss.

Neither noticed the glaring Thomas standing by the barn door watching them.

Buck

Buck shifted back and forth, from one foot to the other, impatient for today's ceremony to get underway. Today he had traded his white man's clothing for a full set of beautifully tanned buckskins. They'd been so cleverly tanned they were nearly white, and then decorated with traditional quill patterns of a running deer and racing ponies. Standing Woman had made them as a wedding gift. But her presence was the only wedding gift he wanted right now.

Suddenly, he heard the commotion that indicated the procession was nearing his position at the door of the tipi he'd built specially for her. Soon, Rain in the Face appeared around a corner, leading one of the ponies Standing Woman had accepted from Buck. Standing Woman rode tall and proud on its back. Her grin stretched from the Sun to the Moon. Buck was sure his matched.

A couple of the Kit Fox Warriors Buck had been staying with provided a lively tune on flutes to accompany the procession. Rain stopped in front of Buck, handed the reins to the insanely happy young man and turned to help Standing Woman down off the horse's back. He put Standing Woman's hand in Buck's then turned and walked away. Buck led Standing Woman into the tipi and closed the flap behind them. That was the end of the "ceremony" as far as the Cheyenne were concerned. The couple would be expected to remain inside the tipi alone for the next seven days. No one would disturb them except for the most dire of emergencies.

"Hello, wife," Buck whispered as he framed her face with his hands, pressing his forehead to hers.

"Hello, husband," she replied, wrapping her arms around his waist. "Merry Christmas!"

Cody

"Merry Christmas," Cody yelled as they pulled up to the next door. The horses he was driving had tree branches tied to their heads to make them look like 'reindeer.' It had all been Thatch's idea. As they'd campaigned throughout the region, she'd noticed how poor the residents were. And now, they had even less, thanks to the scavenging of two armies trying to survive. So, she'd suggested taking up a collection for the poor from among the men and delivering it on Christmas day.

"Ho, ho, ho!" Cody bellowed as he crawled down off the wagon's seat. The charity drive was a great idea and he was having fun delivering the haul. But, he still wasn't sure how he'd allowed himself to be talked into dressing up like Saint Nick. He scratched at the fake beard tied to his chin and smiled broadly at the kids that came running out of the house in excitement.

"Santa's got presents. Come and get 'em!"

Teaspoon

"…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Teaspoon sat back as he finished his traditional reading of the Christmas Story. The kids gathered around him smiled in sleepy appreciation.

"Ok, boys and girls, now, I know Santa's brought all sorts of gifts and goodies for you. So, dig in!" There was a sudden mad scramble for the assorted gifts piled under the tree.

One little girl escaped her mother's notice and ran up to Teaspoon, holding her short arms up to him. He bent over, gathering her close and she leaned in to whisper in his ear, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Teaspoon."

He smiled in appreciation and handed the girl to her mother. He loved the time he'd been able to spend with all these children the last few months. It had been the most rewarding thing about this decision he'd made to stay here and help on the home front. But, there was something missing this Christmas. Seven somethings to be exact. Two would never see another Christmas. Teaspoon just prayed the other five were safe tonight and hoped he'd see them again soon.

Chapter 5: Surviving/Divided Loyalties (Fredericksburg/Spring of 1863)

Lou and Kid

Kid rode up to the clearing at a brisk trot, his shoulders hunched and chin tucked into the collar of his blue woolen coat. He'd worn it for almost two years now, ever since Lou'd brought it back from Denver as a birthday gift for him. He grinned at the memory of how he'd had to apologize to her for being such an ass when she'd left to purchase it.

He slowed his horse to a walk as he entered the clearing. It was precisely halfway between the winter camps of the Union and Confederate troops. He wondered if there would even be anyone there this time. There'd been fewer and fewer men showing up for these parlays lately. At the beginning of the war it had been common to see dozens of blue and grey uniforms mixing together, sharing news from home and trading food and other supplies, even ammunition. But, as the war dragged on and the hatred grew, fewer and fewer were showing up. He wouldn't have come this time, but he'd promised Lou.

Drawing even with a large oak tree, Kid threw a leg over the horn of his saddle and leaned on it, looking around him. There were a couple of miserable looking Confederate soldiers standing under another tree, but no bluecoats. Not yet. He heaved a sigh, turned his collar up and prepared for a long wait.

His right hand seemed to find its own way into his pocket, fingering the stack of letters wrapped up in a tattered piece of oilcloth. He'd written one himself, but struggled with what to say. Most of them were from Lou, written to Sam, Emma and Rachel. Those three were the only members of the Express family who'd stayed in one place. Even so, getting letters out to them was becoming more difficult by the day. Not that that had stopped either Lou or the others. They kept trying.

Twenty minutes later a young, well fed man in a blue uniform trotted into the clearing, his kepi cap pulled low over his eyes to protect them from the snow that had started falling again. The three Confederates in the clearing quickly converged on him, peppering him with questions.

"Got anythin' for the 4th Georgia Infantry?"

"Can you mail a letter to my Ma in New York?"

"What 'bout the 3rd Alabama Cavalry?"

The young man in blue held up a gloved hand for silence, then reached into his saddlebags. "I've got a packet of letters for someone in the 1st Virginia Cavalry, Company G, and another packet that needs to go on to Richmond."

"I'm with Company G," Kid said, riding up to him and holding out a hand, "I'll be glad to forward the others, as well."

"Got anything to send the other direction?"

"Yessir, letters for Rock Creek and Omaha, both in Nebraska Territory."

"What about you others? Got anything else for me?"

The other grey clad men shook their heads morosely, already preparing to head back to their camps.

"Same time, same place, next week," the Union rider said as he swung his horse around, already headed back to the Union winter camp across the river and a warm fire.

Early the next morning, the call of "Rider comin'!" could be heard rippling through Company G's winter camp like water disturbed by a tossed stone. Lou lifted the flap of their snug tent and peered out blearily into the January air. Her face relaxed, though she didn't allow herself the grin she felt inside, as she saw Kid come galloping into the camp, riding hellbent for leather. He held one hand in the air, waving a packet around and yelling, "Mail call!"

The men of Company G who had relatives north of the Mason Dixon line quickly gathered around Kid's panting horse, eager to hear if they had any mail.

"Emmett Caldwell!" The first name rang out, followed quickly by others as Kid passed out the letters. Finally, he shrugged, grinned and said, "Sorry men, the rest are for my brother and me."

There was some good natured grumbling from those who hadn't received any letters. But they headed back to their fires to warm up, get some chicory coffee and listen in to the letters of those who had gotten news from home today. Virgil walked up and took the reins of Kid's horse. "I'll rub him down for ya and feed him, while you and Lou go read your mail."

"Thanks, Lieutenant," Kid said as he dismounted, headed toward Lou and their tent. He handed the letters to Lou while grabbing some wood to add to the fire. Emmett Caldwell, Young Louie and Virgil soon joined them, to hear the news. Lou, being the better reader, pulled out her glasses and perched them on her nose as she opened the letters and started to read.

The first letter was from Rachel, telling about how all the kids at school were doing. She also wrote a lot about Janusz, the Polish immigrant she'd helped. The two had been spending a lot of time together recently while he helped care for the stock Rachel was keeping for several of the riders. After laughing at the latest exploits of Janusz trying to re-shoe Katy, Kid said, "Wonder how much longer it'll be before we get word those two have gone and gotten hitched?"

"Could be already," Lou said looking at the top of the page. "This letter's dated November last year. The mail sure has slowed since the Express shutdown, despite that danged telegraph."

"You know it's not the telegraph, it's the war," Emmett said softly.

Lou just glared at him over her glasses, as she carefully refolded Rachel's letter and returned it to the envelope. Young Louie turned to Emmett and asked, "Who's your letter from?"

"My wife. I sent her North when I came to join up. She's staying with her sister in Gettysburg, a small town in Pennsylvania. Figured it was safer there then here in Virginia."

"Well, read it!" Virgil, who'd joined the group during Lou's reading, demanded, nearly as impatient as Louie.

"I'm tryin', I'm tryin'," Emmett grinned good naturedly. He was busily turning the letter first one direction then the other. "I've just gotta figure out where it starts! My wife's so frugal she uses every inch of the paper. Once she's covered it writing in one direction, she turns it sideways and writes the other direction, one word between each of the lines going the original direction. Sure makes it hard to figure out where to start! Ah, here we go."

In winter camp, mail call was often the highlight of the men's day. With only a handful getting letters at any one time and several not knowing how to read or write, letter reading had become a communal event. They all knew the details of each other's lives, Lou thought. Well, mostly. A sudden gasp from Virgil brought her back to the present and she furtively looked around the circle of men who now made up the 4th squad. All four faces around her were equally shocked and dismayed.

"I can't believe he did it!" Virgil stormed, standing up and pacing in front of the fire. "What does he think this will accomplish?"

"He thinks it'll win support from the British, for one thing," Emmett said calmly.

"And, it'll certainly shore up support up North if he turns it into a moral fight 'sted of a fight over state's rights," Kid added bitterly.

Lou looked questioningly at Louie, seated next to her.

"What'd I miss?" she whispered, as the other three men began hotly debating something.

"Lincoln's freed the slaves," Louie said quietly. "Remember that Emancipation Proclamation he was talkin' 'bout in the fall? Looks like he's gone ahead and done it. Any slave in any state not back in the Union by January 1st of this year is now officially free, 'cordin' to him. That man's done gone and stirred up a hornet's nest."

Lou nodded. She'd have to make sure to get on kitchen duty today so she could slip word to Isaac. She knew things had been getting harder on the older black man as the war dragged on. Thomas had never been a pleasant man but, despite a short improvement in behavior after his Christmas wedding, lately he'd been getting worse. And Isaac was the one he took his anger out on.

"We've got to keep this from the darkies," Virgil was nearly shouting. "There'll be a slave uprisin' for sure!"

"Calm down, Virgil," Kid placated. "It's not like this 'Proclamation' is going to do any good anywhere the Yanks don't already control anyways."

"The Kid's got a point," Louie piped up.

"Besides," Kid continued a little more slowly, "I don't know that this isn't a good idea. I've never felt comfortable with the idea of one man owning another. Just don't seem right. I've lived with, worked with and been friends with coloreds, black, red, don't matter. And I can tell you, they're just the same as the rest of us. I didn't come here to fight for slavery. I came here to fight for Virginia."

With that proclamation of his own, Kid got up and walked toward where the horses were stabled. Lou knew he'd be spending some time grooming the horses while doing some thinking.

Virgil and Emmett looked at each other as they watched Kid walk off, a little in shock at his pronouncement.

"Well, whatta ya know," Louie muttered in wonder.

Cody

"Get that canvas over here!"

"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying," Cody muttered irritably. If I'd wanted to build houses I'd have joined the Corps of Engineers, he thought. The 7th Kansas Cavalry had been busy preparing their winter camp for the last couple weeks. After spending all summer and fall trooping from one Mississippi town to another, they'd been ordered to winter camp outside Memphis. There, they were in charge of protecting the Memphis and Tennessee Railroad. Because they'd be there for a few months, instead of a few days, they were putting up more permanent shelters.

"Has anyone seen the auger?" Thatch asked from her position astride one of the top logs in the small structure. "I need to drill a couple more holes for these pegs so we can properly tie down the roof."

"Here it is," shouted one of the new enlistees. Unlike so many of the men who'd ended up in the 7th Cavalry, will they nil they, after Lincoln had begun conscripting men, this one at least appeared to care about his job. He tossed the auger up to Thatch, who caught it neatly with one hand and began drilling holes in the top log.

Cody stepped back to admire the work they'd completed so far. They hadn't bothered putting in a stone foundation. It wasn't as if they'd be here long enough to worry about the logs rotting out from under them. So, the bottom row of notched logs lay directly on the ground. The small eight by seven foot structure was intended to house five men for the rest of the winter. Thatch and the Lieutenant were busy putting a tent canvas over the top to act as the roof. Meanwhile, Cody and the others were supposed to be stuffing clay and straw into the gaps between the logs. Chinking it was called. In Cody's opinion, it was just plain boring. Once that was done and had been allowed to dry, they'd cut out a door in one side and build some bunks for the men to sleep in. Cody grinned. It wouldn't be near as snug as the bunkhouse back in Rock Creek, but it sure would be an improvement over where they'd been sleeping.

"Hey, Thatch," he called up to his acknowledge partner in antics, "wanna play some cards, when we get done with this?"

"Why'd I wanna do that? You already owe me two bucks!"

"Aw, come on, Thatch. How'm I ever supposed to win enough money to pay ya, if ya won't play me?"

"Find someone else to lose money ya ain't got to," Thatch called down. "I'm going to read that newspaper that came in last week. It's finally my turn!"

Cody shrugged in minor disappointment and turned to find another mark. Suddenly, his nose started twitching in excitement as he heard the words, "Here's your pies! Buy your pies here!"

"No," Thatch shouted, before he could even ask. "I ain't buyin' you a meat pie. Don't care how many raggedy muffins come a sellin'. I'm savin' my money for somethin' and it ain't no pie. You can just wait 'til suppertime, William Frederick Cody."

"Well, ya ain't gotta sound like my ma 'bout it," Cody grumbled to himself. Though, in all honesty, she'd sounded more like Emma than his ma.

Hickok

Jimmy pulled his horse back to a walk as he entered town. It had been over a year since he'd left Rock Creek. And he hadn't left on good terms with some of his closest friends and family. He just hoped Rachel would forgive him his hotheaded temper. Again.

He continuously scanned the street for trouble, a habit he'd gotten into while working with Teaspoon. He didn't see much that might cause problems. About the only thing he really noticed was just how empty the street was. That might have something to do with it being late on a January evening that felt like it might be turning to a blizzard. But he figured it had more to do with the War.

As his horse walked past the Marshal's office, something caught Jimmy's eye. He turned the horse back and rode up to the wall that Teaspoon had used to hang out wanted posters. Now, it was plastered with lists of those killed and wounded in the war. The latest casualty list from the North was on the left, the South on the right. Jimmy laboriously worked his way through the list, looking for any familiar names, then turned away relieved. No one he knew was on either list.

When Jimmy reached the end of the lane and rode up to the former Pony Express waystation he and Kid had practically built from the ground up, he slowed his horse even more. Eventually, he decided to just go straight to the barn and stable his palomino before crashing in on Rachel.

The opening of the barn doors allowed a blast of cold wind in, causing the horses inside to shift in discomfort. One let out an annoyed whicker. Jimmy led his palomino down the center aisle, not even thinking, but heading straight to the stall he'd always used. As he passed the two stalls just before it, a black horse stuck its head out over the stall door and snuffled softly to him, quickly followed by a beautiful brown and white head. "Katie! Lightning!" Jimmy said in surprise. "What are you two doing here?"

Jimmy walked over to Kid's and Lou's horses and patted each one hello. Could this mean his friends hadn't gone off to war, like they'd planned? Or, had they just left their equine friends behind, in safety, like he was planning to do? He'd find out soon enough.

"Happy New Years, you two. I'll just let you get caught up with Sundancer here, while I go see if I can talk my way into some of Rachel's fine cookin'!"

"Only if jou apologize to her virst," a heavily accented voice warned from the barn door.

"Janusz, is that you? What are you doing here?" Jimmy asked in pleased shock.

"To talk my vay into some of Rachel's vine kookin'," Janus replied with a grin. "But Rachel, she is not happy vith you. You vill haf to to say 'I'm sorry,' und today isn't Sunday."

"For Rachel's cooking, I think I'll break that rule," Jimmy smiled.

The two men exited the barn and headed for Rachel's place.

As it turned out, Jimmy hadn't had to break his rule about only saying sorry on Sundays. Rachel had taken one look at him and gathered him into her arms. She proceeded to baby him in a way he hadn't been babied in years. Jimmy set about enjoying the experience, knowing it would end soon enough.

It wasn't until Jimmy had settled his things into the room Rachel had made up for him at the main house, refusing to let him sleep in the bunkhouse as he'd planned, and he'd worked his way through two bowls of her world famous stew, that Rachel finally asked the question that had been uppermost in her mind.

"How long are you here for, Jimmy? I can't imagine the Army's let you go already."

"Actually, I was discharged last September. Seems the Army couldn't handle my temper as well as Teaspoon," he grinned.

"They never had a sweatlodge," Rachel teased.

"But, I'll only be here 'til the storm breaks, I'm afraid. I'm headed to San Francisco."

"Vhat for?" Janusz asked.

"I'm on a special mission for the Army. Afraid I can't say any more than that," Jimmy replied, leaning back in his seat. "I was hoping I could leave Sundancer with you, Rachel? I don't think he'd take to well to life aboard ship."

"I don't 'spect he would," Rachel grinned. "That's fine. It'll give him time to get reacquainted with Lightning and Katie."

"I saw them out there, when I was stabling Sundancer. I'm kinda surprised, actually. Figured they'd take their horses with 'em." Jimmy carefully avoided saying the names of his two best friends. It would just be too painful.

"They figured it was for the best. Bought a couple of other Indian ponies for the trip and left those two with me," Rachel said, standing and beginning to clear the table. Janusz stood to help her in what had obviously become a frequently practiced dance of domesticity. Jimmy watched the pair curiously, one eyebrow climbing his forehead.

"I exercise zem daily," Janusz said. "Zough soon I'll haf to leave Katie be."

"Why?"

"Katie and Lightning are a lot more like Kid and Lou than any of us would have thought," Rachel laughed. "All goes well, Katie will drop a foal this spring."

"And we all figgered it'd be Lou having the first Express baby!" Jimmy joked. Now that he'd relaxed enough to say the names, he had to ask, "Have you heard from them recently?"

"I get letters ever' once and awhile. Though they're gettin' fewer and farther between," Rachel said as she began washing the dishes. "Last I heard, they'd joined the cavalry in Virginia. Sounds like things are going okay, although both of 'em are plenty homesick and can't wait to come back. You know they can't give too many details, between sending the letters across enemy lines and Lou's secret."

"I don't know how she keeps such a secret," Janusz opined, coming to stand behind Rachel as she sat back down at the table. He placed a hand familiarly on Rachel's shoulder for a moment as he finished, "She vas so obviously a voman."

"Oh, people see what they expect to see, most times," Rachel smiled.

Jimmy was counting on just that to keep him safe through the next few months. "Speaking of secrets, I ran into Cody last year. You'll never believe what he's gotten himself into over in Kansas."

Kid and Lou

Thomas sneered as he watched Kid fuss over his 'brother'. He'd had just about enough of those two catamites. It was time to do something about them. Standing, he called out to his childhood friend, "Virgil, can I talk to you for a moment?"

"What is it, Thomas? I've got these duty reports to finish."

"Well, that's what you get for goin' all high an' mighty on us, Mr. Lieutenant!"

Virgil grinned at the old joke, waiting for Thomas to get to the point.

"Have you noticed anythin' odd 'bout those McCloud boys?"

"Other than the fact they can outride and outshoot the lot of us? Cain't say as I have, Thomas. What are ya gettin' at?"

"Don't they just seem a mite, well, too close to ya?"

"Thomas, if ya've got somethin' to say, just say it. Stop beatin' 'round the bush!"

"I saw 'em sparkin' out in the barn over Christmas," Thomas let out with a grimace. "Dangedest thing I ever did see. We gotta get rid of 'em, Virgil. I cain't hold with catamites, assuming that's all they are and not really brothers."

"Doubt you saw what you think you saw, Thomas. You know yer always jumpin' to conclusions. But even if ya did, so what? We desperately need every man we got, and those two happen ta be the best we got. We cain't afford to lose 'em."

"But I'm tellin' ya, they ain't real men."

"They could be wimmen, fer all I care, Thomas. We need 'em. Just let it go. Ya don't havta pass the time with 'em. Just let 'em do their job and you do yorn."

"It ain't right!" Thomas persisted. "It goes again' ever'thing I been taught. It goes again' the Bible, Virgil."

"Is there anythin' in this blamed war that don't?" Virgil responded bitterly. "Now, git. I got real work to do."

Thomas stared at Virgil as he turned back to his paperwork. Then, let out a huff and turned to stomp off in a frustrated fury. As he entered the center of camp, he saw Lou helping Isaac with the dinner preparations. The pair were talking and laughing like old friends. Enfuriated, Thomas marched up to Isaac and hit him in the face with his quirt.

"You're not here to socialize, boy. Stop wastin' time and get back to work," he growled, ignoring Lou's agonized gasp and Isaac's pained pant.

Isaac bowed his head, with his hand held to his now bleeding cheek and whispered, "Yes, massa."

Thomas nodded and marched off.

"Isaac, are you alright?" Lou asked, running up to him and trying to get a look at his cheek.

"Ise be fine, massa. Ise bettah get back to work," the man said, seeming suddenly twenty years older than he'd looked just five minutes before. He turned away from Lou and back to the pot of beans bubbling over the fire. "You bettah get along, now. Ise shore you've got bettah thangs ta do then stand around lookin' at ol' Isaac."

Lou looked at Isaac with pained eyes for a moment, then turned away and headed back to her squad's area in the camp. Her shoulders slumped in pain for the older man who'd become a good friend to her these last few months.

"He just makes me so mad, Kid. I could punch his lights out!"

Lou'd been ranting and raving at Kid for the last twenty minutes over the incident between Thomas and Isaac. Kid understood how Lou felt, but didn't know what he could do to change things.

"And it ain't just how he treats Isaac, as if that weren't bad enough. He's just as nasty to his horses." Thomas was one of the few men in the unit to have a spare mount. "He rides 'em 'til they're blown then don't rub 'em down good. Heck! He don't rub 'em down at all. Just lets 'em sit there 'til Isaac gets free of cooking and can do it. He's nothing but a no-account blowhard nob!" she spit out through gritted teeth.

Kid just smiled gently and let her rant, hoping she'd get it out of her system and be able to relax some. Though he doubted his feisty Lou would put up with Mr. Thomas Ewell for much longer.

Teaspoon

Teaspoon leaned his chair back onto its rear legs, resting his feet up on the porch railing. With a sigh, he tipped his hat down over his eyes. With all these women folk running around the farm, it was hard to get a good nap in these days.

"Mr. Hunter! Oh, Mr. Hunter, there ya are," Mrs. Herrington's dulcet voice interrupted his pleasant thoughts. "Ah was just wonderin' Mr. Hunter, if ya'd like a taste of this dried peach pie Emily just pulled out of the oven."

Teaspoon tipped his hat up and contemplated the offering. Maybe if he accepted the pie, she'd just leave him alone for a bit. He couldn't believe it, but he was actually getting a bit claustrophobic with all these people around all the time, constantly wanting his time and attention. He missed his office back in Rock Creek, where they only called on him when he was needed, either as a Marshal or to give some good advice. Here, he couldn't get a word in edgewise. All those women talking all the time, telling each other what to do and what not to do. Things had been much simpler when the only women in his life had been Lou and Rachel. And Lou'd been more boy than girl, anyway. Leastways, until she'd finally given in and married the Kid.

With a grin at the memory, he reached out and accepted the plate and fork from Savannah Herrington. "Much obliged, ma'am. Much obliged."

Buck

Standing Woman dished up some buffalo stew and handed it to her new husband. Smiling at her, he grabbed her wrist instead of the bowl and pulled her into his lap along with the food.

"Why don't you just feed it to me?" he whispered in her ear.

"Because if I do, I might end up back in that bedroll we just crawled out of. And whether you are or not, I'm hungry," she said tartly, smacking him on the chest with her free hand. Setting his bowl down on the ground next to him, she scrambled out of his lap to dish out a bowl for herself.

"Isn't that kind of the purpose of this?" Buck said, his eyes twinkling at her mischievously. Even before the wedding, Buck had begun relaxing around Standing Woman, allowing her to see the real him, twisted humor and all. Now, he wasn't holding anything back and it felt good. He hadn't felt this good since before Ike died. "Now hurry up and eat, woman. Your man's starting to get cold over here."

"Well, we can't have that, now can we," Standing Woman smiled at him then tossed a buffalo robe across the tipi into his lap. "Why don't you just wrap up in that to keep warm."

"I think I'd rather wrap myself up in you," Buck said, leaping to his feet and scooping her up in his arms. By this point in their play, all thoughts of food had disappeared from both their minds. Standing Woman placed her hands on Buck's cheeks and pulled him down for a long, deep kiss. There were some things the Wasicu had certainly gotten right, she thought with a wicked grin against Buck's roving lips, and kissing was definitely one of them.

Kid and Lou

"Kid, Lou, y'all up for some horizontal refreshments?"

"Uh, no thanks," Kid muttered, ducking his head and blushing a little, "we've got other plans."

"What, gonna play some more cards? There ain't nothin' to do 'round here but play cards and polish the tack. 'Lessin ya got a little lady tucked away somewheres we don't know 'bout."

The group of men burst out laughing at the joke. They were all spiffed up for a Saturday night 'on the town' with the camp followers.

"Naw," Lou piped up from her position squatting by the fire polishing a boot, "just don't wanna bring home any social diseases."

As the group turned to walk away, Kid noticed a peculiar whispering amongst the men with several looking back toward squad 4's fire. He scratched his head in bewilderment and said, "Wonder what that's all about?" to no one in particular.

"The latest camp canard is that y'all are a couple gal-boys," Louie said, walking up to the fire and squatting down to warm his hands near the flames.

"What?" Kid asked in confusion.

"He means they think we both like men," Lou explained quietly.

"Balderdash!"

"Kid, ya gotta take this seriously. This could mean big trouble for us. It may've been a joke back in Sweetwater, but here it's serious business."

"What do you mean, Lou?" Virgil asked seriously, starting to wonder if there was some truth to the rumors.

"Back in Sweetwater, Kid used that as an excuse to avoid visitin' the local cathouse with our older brother, Jed," Lou explained. "He just didn't wanna cheat on his sweetheart."

"You gotta sweetheart?" Louie interjected excitedly. "That's the first I've heard tell of it. What's she like?"

Kid settled down by the fire, leaning back against his saddle. "Well, she's the prettiest little thing this side of the Atlantic. Real petite, with these big gorgeous brown eyes," he began to lapse rhapsodic about Lou, who simply kept polishing her boots. Each carefully avoided looking at the other. "You can get lost in those eyes."

"I know you tol' me you two got married, but you never get any letters from her," Virgil stated. "What happened?"

"Oh, we kinda put things on hold until after the war," Kid said somberly, one hand sneaking into the interior pocket of his jacket to caress the wedding ring resting there in a velvet bag. "But we plan to buy a ranch near Rock Creek when the war's over. We're gonna breed and train horses."

After everyone had turned in for the night, Lou snuck up to Kid's side and shook him awake.

"We gotta do somethin', Kid," Lou hissed.

"Hunh?"

"I don't care what Thomas thinks, but if there are rumors around camp, we gotta do somethin' to stop 'em."

"What are you suggesting?"

"Maybe we should go down to the camp followers, you know, just to make it look like we're ridin' the dutch gals, not really do it. Or, we could get in a fight. Or, we could do both!" Lou finished happily.

Kid eyed her warily, aware they probably did need to do something but not sure he liked her solution. Reading his expression, Lou hissed, "You got any better ideas? I'm listenin'!"

"Not really."

"Alright then, it's settled. Next week, we'll go down the line with the rest of the men, then slip out the back when no one's lookin'."

"What about the fightin'," Kid asked a little apprehensively.

"Oh, leave that to me," Lou smiled mischievously. "You just have to be yourself."

Now that they had a plan of action, Lou felt she could get some sleep and settled back into her bedroll, pulling her hat down over her face. Unfortunately, Kid didn't think he'd be sleeping soundly again anytime soon.

A few days later, Kid was busily re-shoeing a horse when Lou came stomping out of their tent with murder in her eyes. Several of the men in Company G, who by now were well acquainted with Lou's temper, dropped what they were doing and started following her. They could tell a fight was about to happen and quickly started placing bets on the winner. Lou, despite her small stature was ahead by two to one.

"Let 'er rip, Lou," one man hollered after her.

Kid was whistling away as he hammered the last shoe into place on a rear hoof. Just as he straightened a flying right hook pummeled him in the belly, knocking the air out of his lungs. With a grunt, Kid started to fold forward, only to catch a left jab in the eye. As he fell to the ground, he saw Lou standing over him, hands on her hips.

"You, you no good, uppity, pie eatin' polecat! How dare you! Just 'cause ya promised Rachel and Teaspoon to look out fer me don't give ya the right to suggest I ain't toeing the line," Lou ranted at him. "Just 'cause I'm littler than you ain't give ya the right to treat me like I'm still a kid, Kid!"

Lou followed the rant up with a diving attack at Kid, sending the pair rolling around in the mud. One of the watching dragoons turned to another and said, not so quietly, "Gal-boys, my ass. If those two ain't brothers, I'll eat my boots for dinner."

"Ya might anyways, Tucker. Sam's up to cook tonight!" another responded, sending the whole group into gales of laughter.

Lou landed one last solid whack to the back of Kid's head as she climbed out of the ravine they'd rolled into. "And just stay outta my sight, while yer at it!"

With that parting shot she pushed her way roughly through the spectators and stomped back to the tent she and Kid shared, slamming the flaps closed behind her. She'd had to move fast, before she burst out into gales of her own laughter at Kid's stupefied look throughout the entire 'fight.' But, she figured, that plus their trip to the camp followers this weekend ought to have taken care of any concerns the men had about her and Kid.

"You could've pulled your punches a bit more," Kid complained when he returned to the tent later that day. He rubbed a hand across his jaw where a big bruise was starting to form.

"If I didn't leave at least a few bruises as evidence, they'd never have bought it."

"But did you have to break my nose?"

"Ah, it'll look good on you. Now quit whining, you big baby. I can't take care of you. I've gotta go be 'mad' at ya." Turning her loving smile into an angry grimace, Lou stomped out of the tent, leaving Kid behind to nurse his wounds.

"Yeah, but when do we get to 'make-up'?" Kid wondered quietly to himself.

Hickok

Jimmy walked down the streets of San Francisco, looking for the man in the black bowler hat with a yellow flower tucked into the hatband. That man was supposed to be Jimmy's contact, with the information on where Jimmy was headed next. Finally, he spotted the man buying a newspaper near a café. He crossed the street and walked up next to the short, slightly paunchy man. "The sky's a beautiful shade of periwinkle today."

"Sure is. But I prefer it when it's cerulean," the man replied, never looking at Jimmy. "Meet me at pier 5 tonight at 6," he whispered under his breath, just loud enough for Jimmy to hear him. Then, without another word, he took his newspaper and headed off down the street. Jimmy turned and walked in the other direction.

That evening, after a filling supper, Jimmy wandered down to the docks, slowly making his way toward pier 5. As he paused to stare up at the prow of a large ship, someone suddenly grabbed his arm and pulled him into a warehouse door. The door slammed closed in front of his face as the man pulling on his arm swung Jimmy around to face him. "You're late."

"Sorry. Didn't wanna be early and give the game away by just standing here looking lost," Jimmy said sarcastically.

"Good thinking," the man in black grunted. "We don't have much time. You're to join the crew of the Denbigh tonight as the new quartermaster. At Galveston, you'll leave the ship and join the crew of the Lizzie. The Lizzie will take you to Richmond. There, you'll pose as a gunrunner in an effort to discover the identity of the spy who's funneling weapons development information to the South out of D.C. If you have any information you need to get back to us or if you're ready to be extracted, you're to contact this person," he finished, handing a calling card to Jimmy.

Jimmy looked at the card for a moment, slowly working out the syllables of the name written on it. When he looked up the man in black had disappeared.

A week later, Jimmy was questioning why he'd ever agreed to this, as he lay in his oddly shaped bunk, trying not to lose what little he'd eaten that day. He'd heard the motion of a ship likened to the gallop of a horse. But he'd never gotten sick on horseback, even on the worst gaited horse he'd ever ridden.

With a groan, he lurched out of the bunk, scrambling frantically for the chamber pot, as the sea biscuits he'd gnawed on for breakfast made a reappearance. Two more weeks just to get to Galveston, then another three on the Lizzie to get to Richmond was going to kill him. He was never going to make it. How did he always get himself into these situations? Jimmy asked himself. He flopped back on the bunk and closed his eyes in an effort to escape the living hell his life had become.

Cody

"Here," Cody said grudgingly, shoving something into Thatch's hands. "That's the $2 I owe ya."

"Wow, I, ah, well, I," Thatch stuttered, nearly speechless.

"What's the matter, cat got yer tongue?"

"No. It's just I never expected to see this money," Thatch finally admitted.

"Well, I've learned the hard way, if you don't pay someone what you owe them as soon as possible, you may never get the chance," the normally ebullient Cody said quietly. Shaking off the somber mood, he asked, "So, what are your plans for tonight?"

"There's a circus come to town," Thatch said, her facing lighting up with excitement. "They actually came to visit their menfolk. They all got conscripted last month. But while they're here, the ladies decided to put on a show, make a little money. Wanna come?"

"Hmmmm," Cody pondered a moment, stroking his chin in thought. "A circus made up of all women? I could handle that! I'll see ya tonight!"

Cody slapped Thatch on the back in appreciation of the invitation so hard she stumbled. But he never noticed. He was already halfway down the muddy 'street' between the cabins, making plans to spruce himself up for the ladies. Thatch just watched him go, shaking her head in bemusement.

That night the pair sat in the middle of an excited group of blue-coated soldiers. But while the others hooted and hollered in excitement and wonder at the activities going on in the three rings before them, Cody and Thatch watched in silent wonder.

"Isn't it the prettiest thing you've ever seen?" Cody marveled, watching the horse tricks being performed by a well proportioned young lady.

"It sure is," Thatch sighed in agreement, watching the highwire act in another ring.

When the show ended, Thatch turned to Cody and offered, "I'm going to learn how to walk the tightrope some day. It just looks like so much fun. I do believe I'll run away and join the circus when this war is over."

"I don't know about that, but I definitely want to do something that gets me back on the stage again," Cody said, a tad less enthusiastic then his companion. "Or better yet, I'd like to own a show. You know, I had this idea once of bringing the West to the big cities back East."

The two walked out of the circus tent, feeding off each other's excitement and plans for the future.

Lou and Kid

Kid took careful aim at one of the men loading a Yankee artillery piece up the plank road, squeezed the trigger gently and fired. A moment later the man dropped silently to the ground. Another blue coat quickly stepped into his place and resumed his work. Kid began reloading the Enfield rifle he'd fired. He sighed. He wasn't as good as Cody with the thing, but good enough at these distances. Though that didn't seem to matter. For every Yank he shot, another two seemed to take his place, without pause.

A glance down the line of skirmishers found Lou acting as a medic. She'd run out of ammo earlier in the night. This was the second night of fighting, with no end in sight. Many of the men in the 1st Virginia Cavalry were now down to fighting only when they could scavange ammunition from the dead.

A sudden commotion up the road caught all their attention.

"Riders comin'!" Lou shouted over the din of the firing cannons. A dozen horses galloped around the corner. With all the gold braid, it must be a group of officers trying to get the lay of the land, Kid figured. Then he noticed one horse loaded down with two men, one of whom appeared to be unconscious and bleeding profusely from an arm.

"It's ol' Stonewall," someone gasped down the line.

"They've shot General Jackson!" another outraged voice shouted.

Virgil stood at the end of the line, heedless of the possibility of being hit by the Yanks down the road, and snapped off a salute to his old commander from the Virginia Military Institute.

"God speed, Sir," he shouted. Turning to the rest of the men, he added, "Now get back to work! We've got a battle to win, gentlemen!"

It seemed like only moments before Young Louie's bugle called Company G to mount up and move out.

"Where are we headed, L-T?" Lou asked Virgil. She always got more formal in battle situations, Kid had noticed.

"Orders are to pull back. Stonewall wasn't the only one injured. So was his second in command. That puts the General in charge. We're to join him at H.Q. to figure out what's goin' on!"

The men of Company G whipped their horses into a gallop toward their gallant leader. Upon their arrival, they found the place in an uproar. None of General Jackson's staff was around.

"Dadgummit," Stuart cursed. "How'm I supposed to know what orders to give, when I don't have the slightest idea where my troops even are? All Jackson would tell me, was to use my best judgment!"

Stuart slammed his plumed hat against his thigh, pacing back and forth in agitation. When he caught sight of Captain Irving and the rest of Company G flying into camp, his tension seemed to ease slightly.

"Captain! I've got a mission for ya. I need ya to split yer men up," he said, starting to spit out orders. Company G would serve as his eyes and ears, so he could figure out what to do in this bloody battle. "You!" he shouted at Lou, "Can ya read and write?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"Then you'll stay here. I need ya to act as my clerk. I don't have any staff officers. Plus, that way I can use you as a messenger if need be."

"Sir!" Lou acknowledged the order.

Kid didn't say anything, but was glad to hear Lou might be able to stay out of the way of flying bullets, at least for a little while. Lou however stared after him, pained to see him ride off without her but unable to do or say anything about it.

"What's yer name, son?"

The question startled Lou out of her reverie and she quickly turned back to General Stuart. "Lou. Lou McCloud."

"Well Mr. McCloud, we've got some serious work before us this night. Let's get a move on," Stuart said, clapping Lou on the shoulder as he turned to head back to the table that held a map of the area.

As the reports brought by the men of Company G started trickling in, General J.E.B. Stuart's plan started to take formation. Just before dawn, he turned to the gathered men of Company G and said, "I'm sorry gentlemen. I know yer all tired, but I've got one more run for ya before ya can get a couple hours sleep. There's a packet for each of ya to the various commanders. Ride hard and fast. The safety of Richmond and all Virginia resides in your hands."

With those words, Lou started passing out the packets. After all the men had taken their assignment and headed out to their equally weary mounts, Lou was left standing holding one last packet. "Sir, there aren't enough riders."

"Then you'll have to go, son. I'll miss your help here, but I need ya in the saddle more, right now. Ride safe!"

Lou grinned at the familiar refrain and leapt for her horse, fresh after several hours of rest. It was no accident she'd kept the packet with the orders for the unit furthest away at the bottom of the pile. She was no fool. She'd known the numbers and that she'd end up riding too. This way she, the freshest rider, had the longest ride. It was something Kid would've done for her. But two could play at that game.

She leaned low over her horse's neck, wrapping her hands in its mane, urging it to ever greater speeds. No need to worry about the horse getting blown. She didn't have that far to go. At a flat out gallop she wove her way between the greening trees of spring, jumping the occasional fallen log or stream bed without a pause. A grin crossed her face. For the moment, as she flew across the terrain, she was free again.

Hours later, found all the members of Company G drooping in exhaustion. They'd been racing back and forth, carrying orders for the General since before dawn. But, now it looked like the Confederate Army was going to carry the day. Hours of bloody fighting through a dense wood and several failed charges had not deterred the men in grey. They'd finally taken a key ridge, putting the Yankees under enfiladed fire. With bullets coming at them from two sides, the Yankee troops were losing their nerve.

Kid looked up from where he was near the front line and saw the silhouette of General Stuart, sitting straight and strong on his horse atop the ridge. The feathery plume of his distinctive hat gently waved back and forth in the May breeze. His appearance was giving the Confederate troops just as much courage as it was discouraging the Yanks. Chancellorsville would soon be theirs.

Buck

Buck walked slowly back toward the tipi he shared with Standing Woman. He was very careful to keep his steps measured and steady. After 48 hours without food or drink, he would be reeling as badly as a drunk if he weren't careful. This latest vision quest had been the most difficult since last summer's Sun Dance. But, it had completed his training as a Cheyenne medicine man.

Pulling open the flap of the tipi, he careful bent over to enter the dwelling. But, a slight miscalculation had him tripping over the entrance ledge and falling face forward into the ground.

"Buck!" Standing Woman gasped, running to her husband. "Are you alright?"

"He'll be fine," Rain said, coming up behind him. "He just needs water, food and rest. In that order. Let me know when he awakens. We have a celebration to plan."

Standing Woman smiled at her father as she helped her husband back to his feet. She didn't care so much about that. All she cared about was the safety of her new husband. They'd been married only a few moons and he'd spent most of the time since their honeymoon with her father, instead of her, completing his training as a medicine man. It was like he was driven by demons. She understood why. It was his way of atoning for his past and trying to protect their future and the future of all their families. But now, he'd be able to take a little time for himself.

A week after Rain named Buck an official Medicine Man, or Shaman, of The People, Buck trotted across the northern plains along with most of the capable hunters of the band. It was the first buffalo hunt of the summer. The herd had been sighted two days ride from the camp. Though Buck was not required to ride along due to his new status, he chose to anyway. Standing Woman had decided to come, as well, and trotted beside her husband on her favorite wedding pony.

All the members of the hunting party carried a bow and arrows. Several also carried lances, long heavy spears designed for close up kills. Few had guns and those who did wouldn't waste their ammunition on hunting buffalo.

As they slowly trotted around the edges of the herd, so as not to startle it into a stampede until all were in place and ready, Buck and Standing Woman heard the ululating shout indicating the start of the hunt. They leaned low over their horses and took off at a flat out gallop, each chasing down a pre-chosen buffalo.

Standing Woman quickly caught up with the calf she'd picked out. Its beautiful yellow hide would make a wonderful baby blanket. Buck was chasing down a light colored cow he'd spotted, apparently being protected by several other cows and bulls. He could easily have chosen one of the other buffalo circled around the cow. But, somehow, he knew she was there for him. With a screeched Kiowa war cry, Buck plunged into the midst of the herd, weaving back and forth to avoid the bulls' evil horns. The giant bovines milled around nervously. Soon they would start stampeding and if Buck wasn't clear of the herd when they did, he could easily be trampled. But his entire being was focused on the object of his hunt.

As he neared the light colored cow, he realized she was not one of the occasional animals that retained the yellow coat of youth into adulthood. This was a white cow. They were sacred to all Indians who hunted the buffalo, due to their extreme scarcity. Buck knew of only two that had been taken. Using his leg muscles to lift him high on his horse's back, Buck raised the heavy lance in his right hand high over head. He took careful aim, as he would have only one chance, then let it fly. His horse was moving so fast, he wasn't able to see if he'd hit his target or not, although he heard a pained bellow as he galloped on past. The markings on his lance would identify any kills he made anyway.

Buck exited the herd on the other side just in the nick of time. The buffalo started to stampede away from these strange folk hurting them. The hunters turned their horses to run parallel to the fleeing buffalo and continued their hunt. Pulling out his bow and arrows, Buck targeted two more animals, another adult cow, this one the normal black-brown, and a large bull with a full set of horns. He hit both, though he was unsure if he'd killed them. At least one also had an arrow from another hunter in its side. They'd have to figure out which of them had killed it later. Then, the last of the buffalo disappeared over the rise.

In that one hunt, the tribe had brought down enough meat to last most of the summer. There would be a couple more hunts after the Sun Dance, to provision for the winter. But for now, this was it. Buck turned his horse and trotted back to the killing field. Standing Woman was already beginning to field dress the first of the animals they'd brought down.

Pulling his horse to a stop in front of her he asked, "Have you seen my lance?"

"No," she said, looking at him strangely. "The Dog Soldiers have it."

She pointed with her chin to a group of young men, the best warriors in the tribe, seated on their horses in the near distance. Buck nodded and turned toward the group of elite warriors and hunters. At his arrival, Buck dismounted. None of the Dog Soldiers said anything, simply moving their horses aside so Buck could see his kill. He walked up to it slowly, reverently, before dropping to his knees beside it. He tilted his head back toward the heavens and began singing a song of thanksgiving at the top of his lungs. After a moment, the Dog Soldiers dismounted and came to stand behind him, joining in.

When the song was completed, Buck looked up to see Standing Woman was at his side, a hand on his shoulder, quiet pride in her eyes. Both looked at the now obviously snow white cow lying before them. Buck stood, pulled his knife from its sheath attached to the boot he still wore instead of moccasins. He handed the knife to Standing Woman, indicating she should begin butchering the cow, a great honor.

Standing Woman walked over and cut out the cow's tongue, handing it to Buck. Then, she turned back to the cow, slicing down the middle of the belly to plunge a hand in and cut out first the heart, then the liver. These, too, she handed to Buck. By tradition, as the hunter who'd made the kill, these delicacies were his. He had the choice of eating them himself, immediately, or bestowing the honor upon someone else.

Buck stood, looking down at the meat in his hands, still warm from the cow's body. After several moments of thought, Buck took one bite from each, then passed them on to the other men in the group. All the band's hunters by now had joined the Dog Soldiers, Buck and Standing Woman in the huddle around the cow's body. Each man there took a small, reverent bite then passed the meat on. After all had tasted, the small remaining portions were handed back to Buck.

Someone in the group had begun to hum, then sing a song of reverence and thanksgiving during the ceremonial eating of the cow's internal organs. All the hunters had taken it up and the quiet music served as background for all their actions.

Buck moved a little away from the cow, and began to start a fire. Understanding what he was about to do Standing Woman quickly moved over to help him. No one said a word, but all continued to sing. When the fire was going well, Standing Woman added some sweetgrass to it. Buck pulled out his brand new ceremonial pipe, filled it with tobacco and quietly puffed on it, waving the smoke to the four directions, North, South, East and West, followed by Heaven and Earth. Then, solemnly, he placed the remnants of the cows tongue, liver and heart in the fire.

"Oh great Buffalo Woman, we thank you for this gift," he intoned quietly. "We pray that you provide us with the tongues to speak honestly and peacefully, that our courage will be as great as yours and our hearts as strong in love. We promise to honor you for this gift to the best of our abilities. Your generosity shall never be forgotten."

Lowering his arms to his side, Buck closed his eyes for several moments, allowing those gathered around to add their own, silent, prayers to his. Then, standing, he brushed off the buckskin leggings he was wearing and turned to Standing Woman. With a smile he said, "We'd better get to work! There're a lot of buffalo to be butchered this day."

At that lighthearted signal, the group gathered around broke into cheers, shouts and yips of joy, running off to begin the bloody process of butchering the day's kill. Despite what the Sioux might say, this was a good day to be alive!

Teaspoon

"Listen, Mrs. Herrington," Teaspoon began a little uncertainly, "we're gettin' a little low on supplies and, well, since we didn't manage to sell all our grain and cotton last fall in town, I was thinkin'…"

As he trailed off, Mrs. Herrington looked at the kindly old man and smiled. "Yes, Mr. Hunter? What were you thinkin'?"

"Well, I heard the Confederacy's gettin' kinda desperate for goods. Thought I'd load up a couple wagons, take it all down to Galveston and try to sell there. We'd probably get a better price, in a bigger city anyhow."

"You've been right 'bout everythin' else up to this point, Mr. Hunter. Ah see no reason to argue with ya now."

"Well, I was afeared you'd be worried 'bout me leavin' ya here on yer own for so long. I'll be gone at least a month," he warned.

"Please, Mr. Hunter, have you no confidence in your skills as a teacher? If Ah can't take care of myself by now, there's nothin' else you can do to protect me. Besides," she added, spreading her arms wide to indicate all the activity around them, "it's not as if you haven't provided me with my very own guard."

"Alrighty then, I'll round up a couple of drivers and we'll start loading up. We'll plan to leave day after tomorrow."

Teaspoon grinned as he walked out of the Galveston warehouse, counting the money he'd just gotten for the wheat they'd spent the last three weeks hauling down. Shoving the last of the gold into his pockets, in the midst of a war he'd demanded nothing less, Teaspoon smiled as he gazed out at the docks in front of him.

The smile on his face slowly faded away as he watched a familiar looking young man stroll down the gangplank of the nearest ship. A puzzled expression replaced his earlier joy. He could swear he knew that young man, though he couldn't place how. Teaspoon stood there, scratching his head as he watched the tall young man, with closely shaven light brown hair, walk down the opposite side of the street. He was dressed in a fancy black suit, complete with a silk waistcoat and flounced frock coat. Teaspoon continued to stare in fascination as the man moved on his way.

From the rear, there was something eerily familiar about the young gentleman's stride. Suddenly Teaspoon started, then shook his head in negation.

"Naw! Couldn't be. Hickok might let someone con him outta his hair, but that gent weren't wearing no guns. Jimmy'd never let anyone take away his Colts! You're just missin' your boys, ol' man," he muttered to himself as he turned and continued on his way. "I'm gettin' too old fer this."

Cody

"Sergeant Cody," the Captain motioned Cody toward him, "I need a moment of your time, young man."

"Yes sir," Cody said, hurrying over, Thatch on his heels as usual.

"I've been watching you young man," the Captain began. Cody immediately stretched himself taller and began to grin.

"And, although you're something of a braggart," he held up a hand to forestall whatever it was Cody had been about to say. "Although you're something of a braggart you often have cause to brag. I'm impressed by your riding and tracking skills. How would you like to move out of the teamster unit and become a scout?"

"Would I, Sir? That's what I signed on to do in the beginning, anyway," Cody said. Then he paused for a moment in thought. "But, only if I can take young Thatch here with me. We've been ridin' together since the beginnin', Sir, and I've taught him jest 'bout everythin' I know."

"Sounds fine with me, Sergeant," the Captain said before turning to Thatch. "That alright with you young man?"

"Fine, Sir."

"Then it's settled. I'll have the orders for your transfer processed tonight. You'll move over and join the scouts first thing in the morning. See you then, Sergeant, Corporal." And with that the Captain walked off toward the command cabin.

Cody and Thatch watched the Captain for a surprised moment, then turned to each other with nearly identical grins plastered across their faces. Cody leaned back and shouted out, "Huzzah! Watch out, Johnny Rebs, cause Buffalo Bill's on yer tail now!"

Kid and Lou

Lou squatted by the creek staring at nothing. Ostensibly she was there to refill her squad's canteens. But in the quiet moments she found herself thinking. That wasn't a good thing these days. She could feel her eyes filling with tears of fear and sorrow and quickly wiped them away with her elbow, lest any of the men of Company G happen by and find her crying.

She started when she felt a hand land on her shoulder. She began to turn around and tell the interloper off when Kid's soft voice asked, "Lou, what's wrong? You've been awful quiet lately. That usually ain't a good thing for me."

"Nothin', Kid. Just leave it be," she said brusquely, shrugging his hand off her shoulder and standing up. "I'd better get these canteens back to the boys."

With that she turned and started heading back to where they'd bivouacked the night before. Kid watched her go, confusion on his face, before he put his hat back on and followed her. As he entered the camp area, he saw her brush rudely past Virgil and Emmett.

"What's eatin' him?" Virgil asked.

"Don't know. S'pose he'll let us know when he's ready," Kid answered.

"Well, in the meantime, I've got good news for all of us."

"Yeah? What?"

"Might even improve ol' sour Lou's mood," Emmett added jovially.

"Well, what is it?" Kid asked, starting to get impatient.

"We're all gettin' promotions," Virgil said expansively.

"All of Company G?"

"No, ya fool," Emmett said. "All of the fourth squad!"

"Yep! I'm gonna be the new 1st Lieutenant. Lou's been picked to replace me as second. Kid, you and Emmett, are both being moved up to 1st Sergeants. Even Louie's getting' promoted. He finally gets some stripes, as the unit corporal!"

"Hope it's not gonna be a problem, your little brother outrankin' ya and all," Emmett said kindly.

After a short pause to digest the information, Kid grinned ruefully and shook his head. "Nope. Shouldn't be a problem. I'm kinda used to him tellin' me what to do, anyway."

Virgil and Emmett both guffawed at the jest. Virgil slapped Kid on the back and said, "Congratulations, Tops! Now, I've gotta go let the rest of the unit know what's up. That's part of my new job."

But before Virgil and Emmett could go anywhere the shout went up, "Rider comin'from the west!"

Everyone in camp looked in the direction and watched as a small form came flying into camp on a gaunt horse that had obviously been overridden. A young black boy threw his leg over the front of the saddle and slid to the ground.

"Ise got a 'portant message for Massa Thomas Ewell," the boy panted.

"He's down by the horse corrals," someone shouted. The boy took off in the indicated direction, running as fast as he, and the blown horse, could manage.

Lou, who'd walked up during the exchange, said, "Wonder what that's all 'bout."

"Must be pretty important news from home," Virgil answered. "Come on, let's go find out what Samson's got ta say."

"I'm gonna be a father," Thomas said consideringly, with no small amount of awe in his voice, later that night. In his shocked joy he hadn't even objected to Lou and Kid's presence. "I'm gonna be a father."

"Congratulations, Thomas!" the cry came from all around camp. Nothing made the men happier than news from home, anyone's home. And news like this was the best possible. The timing couldn't have been better, either. Just the day before Company G had received word that General Stonewall Jackson had died of the wounds he'd suffered at Chancelorsville. Though in Kid's opinion he'd more likely died from the doctoring than the wound itself.

"A toast! To the father!" Virgil called out.

"And let us not forget the beauteous mother," Emmett added.

"Hear, hear!"

No one noticed Lou get up and walk away from the impromptu celebration, hands in her pockets, shoulders hunched, kicking at stray stones as she moved away from the fun.

Hickok

Jimmy ambled down the gangplank from the Lizzie. It had been a harrowing ride into Richmond Harbor, being chased most of the way by Union picket boats. But, they'd made it. After the first few days, he hadn't even been that sick. Now that he was in Virginia, the real work would begin.

Chapter 6: War is Hell/A Family Reunion (Summer 1863/Gettysburg- winter at Brandy Station/Spring 1864)

Lou and Kid

"Kid, grab Louie and get some water. Our squad's got KP today," Lou ordered.

"Yes, Sir! Lieutenant, Sir!" Kid grinned, flipping Lou a jaunty salute before heading off to do what he'd been told.

Lou was slowly adjusting to her new status as an officer. It was something she'd never expected. Not in the Confederate Army. Unlike the U.S. Army, officers at the company and regimental level were elected by their subordinates. Not even being from the South originally, Lou had figured she'd finish out the war with the same rank of Private that she'd started with. But, when the promotions became a necessity due to the death of Lieutenant Morgan at Chancellorsville, a quiet word of encouragement from the General along with her willingness to do any job, no matter how dirty or disgusting it was, and her coolheadedness under fire had led to Company G adopting her as a sort of mascot. They all treated her like a younger brother, despite her new rank of 2nd Lieutenant, although none dared disobey her orders. They had had plenty of evidence of her temper, and her ability to follow through on it.

Kid had been her primary worry when she'd first heard about the promotion, Lou thought as she rounded up Emmett and Thomas, who'd been transferred to Squad 4 after Virgil had been moved up to 1st Lieutenant. After all the fights they'd had over him being overprotective of her during their Express days, Lou had feared he wouldn't be able to handle taking orders from his wife. But, apparently, that was just fine with him. He appeared to not only be handling it, but enjoying it. It was almost as if, by giving up all control, he was able to relax, simply be himself and enjoy spending time with her.

The only smudge in her life at the moment was Thomas. She wondered why he'd had to be transferred to her unit. Probably, she fumed, because no one else would take him. He followed orders reluctantly and only when someone was standing over him to make sure he actually did what he'd been told to do. And, he abhorred taking orders from Lou. The man seemed to walk around with a perpetual sneer on his face these days.

Oh well, Lou mentally shrugged. At least she'd get to spend some time working with Isaac today. Kitchen Patrol, or KP as most called it, was her favorite duty. The men hated it, of course, which just made her all the more cheerful when Squad 4 was assigned. Her lighthearted attitude toward any chore was part of what allowed her to order the rest of the men, all except Louie being much bigger than her, around.

"Alright, Isaac, we're here. What do you need?" Lou asked with a smile.

Thomas glowered to hear her speaking to Isaac as if he were a person of authority. While KP was Lou's favorite duty, it was Thomas' least favorite. He hated the fact that even though he ostensibly owned Isaac, he had to do what Isaac said. And, the more time Isaac spent around that nancy-gal, Thomas grumbled to himself, the more uppity he got. He'd have to whip Isaac back into shape soon, or lose a perfectly good house slave.

"If one o' y'alls could peel them potatoes," Isaac said, pointing to a pile of potatoes in a bucket, "that'd be right fine."

Lou looked pointedly at Emmett who pulled out his Arkansas toothpick, as the large knives most of the men wore were euphemistically called, and sat down on an upended log to start peeling.

"What else?"

"Ise could use some more firewood, if Ise gonna make stew tonight," Isaac said pointing to the nearly depleted pile of logs. "And Ise gonna need some more water."

"Kid and Louie are already on that," Lou said. "Thomas and I'll handle the firewood. What's for supper tonight?"

"First Squad brought in a few chickens fer the stewpot," Isaac said. He shrugged. "Don't rightly know as to where they found 'em, and they's awful scrawny, but at least they'll put a bit of flavor in the stew. And Captain Irvin' himself found us them potatoes. They'll help that stew stick to your ribs."

The chicken and potatoes, sparse as they would be, were a treat. Most meals these days consisted of hard tack and beans or beans and hard tack. Except when it was just hard tack.

"And the L-T could really use a little meat on his ribs," Kid teased as he and Louie walked up, lugging buckets of water.

"Like any of y'all are any better," Lou responded with a grimace.

Unlike Union troops, the Confederates were really starting to struggle to keep their men provisioned. The cavalry, especially, could not rely on the supply trains to keep them fed. Mostly, if they wanted to eat, they had to scavenge for it. That was Lou's second least favorite duty, right after Hospital duty.

"Louie, why don't you come pile the wood up for Isaac while Thomas and I chop it," Lou said. "Kid, go help Thomas peel those potatoes. The sooner we get all the work done, the sooner we get to eat!"

Isaac grinned and tipped an imaginary hat to her. "That's right, Suh! And the eatins' gonna be right fine tonight, if'n Ah do say so mahself!"

The entire squad, except for Thomas, laughed at the quip. Thomas just swung the ax harder as he split the next log.

The next day, Company G, along with the rest of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, packed up camp and prepared to head North. In an effort to end the war once and for all, General Lee had decided to take the fighting to the Yanks front door. The Rebels were invading Pennsylvania.

"Lee figures we've got a chance, if we hurry," Captain Irving had told Virgil and Lou after his conference with General Stuart and the other leaders of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. "But that's gonna mean moving fast and hard, with every probability we'll lose our supply train along the way."

"Don't reckon I mind foragin' so much, if I'm takin' the Yanks' food fer a change," Virgil had offered.

Company G had bivouacked near Culpeper the night before, after spending much of the day performing in a grand revue for General Lee. So, most were grumbling at the day's early start as they broke camp. As usual, Thomas was the loudest.

"Don't see why we gotta get up so danged early! It ain't like the blue coats got any idea where we are," Thomas complained. "We could ride right up to 'em and say, 'Boo!', and they'd die of fright."

"Thomas, quit yer gripin'," Emmett said.

"But," Thomas started to add something when Lou jumped in.

"Thomas, we've heard enough. Yes, it's early. Yes, we're tired. Welcome to the Army. If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined."

"Ya know we've got screening duty for the infantry," Kid joined in, "especially as we get deeper into enemy territory."

"That means we've got to get up and get movin' before everyone else." Lou finished. "And that's tough on all of us. Yer gripin' ain't doin' anyone any good, so can it!"

With that, Lou swung into her saddle and trotted off to check on the readiness of the other squads. Thomas glared after her, but knew he didn't dare say or do anything, not with her guard dogs all standing so near and watching him.

A short time later, the entire regiment was mounted and ready to move out. Colonel Munford, in temporary command due to the illness of their regular commander Fitz Lee, was moving slowly up and down the lines, checking to make sure everyone was in proper spit and polish shape.

Lou snorted as Munford passed Company G with a grimace. The Amelias, as the unit was known, might not be the best looking of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, but they were undoubtedly amongst the best fighters.

A mounted messenger came galloping up to the Colonel and his officers and handed them a dispatch. Lou tensed. By the look on the messenger's face, it wasn't good news.

"Look sharp, men," Lou hissed. "We may be fighting soon."

The men began to quietly move about, checking on their ammunition supplies and the condition of their weapons. The men of Company F, immediately next down the line, looked over in annoyance at the sudden spurt of furtive movement. Colonel Munford glanced up from the dispatch he was reading, then said something to the officer next to him, motioning the man toward Company G.

The officer rode over to Lou and Virgil and hissed, "Get your men under control! They are still under review!"

"But…" Lou started to protest, until Virgil laid a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

"Yes, Sir," Virgil said quietly. After the officer had returned to the command circle, he turned and told the men, "Check your weapons and be prepared, but move slowly and quietly. Don't let them catch you!"

Several nods across the ranks indicated understanding of the situation. By now whispers were making their way through the Companies, as those closest to Munford and his men passed on what they were hearing.

"The Yanks have attacked."

"They crossed the Rappahannock before dawn this morning."

"They caught the pickets by surprise!"

"General Jones didn't even have time to get his clothes on. He rode out to fight the Yankees in his longjohns!"

"The General's waitin' fer us to help out 'Rooney' Lee. He's been in the worst of the fightin'."

"The General wants ta know what's takin' us so long to get there!"

The more the men heard, the more restless they became, wondering why they weren't riding out at top speed. After another half hour of standing in parade formation, Munford finally wrapped up his conference and sent his staff officers out with orders. It was time to ride!

It wasn't long before the men of Company G, along with the rest of the 1st Virginia Cavalry, were strung out along the northern flank. 'Sharpshooters' like Kid and Lou were in the front, harassing the now retreating Union cavalry along the road. But Lou noticed something odd about Kid's shooting. He didn't seem to be hitting as many as he could have. And those he did hit were only wounded, not killed.

Hickok

Jimmy looked around the crowded ballroom. Soft music was playing in the background to the accompaniment of quiet conversation and tinkling wine glasses. He'd never expected to be someplace this high-falutin', Jimmy thought to himself. He'd had to watch every move he made, so as not to break his cover as a successful gunrunner.

After months of work in the Richmond area, Jimmy thought he was on to something. But he wasn't sure yet. Watching the crowd, he kept an eye out for his quarry. Henry Dumfries was an apparent bumpkin, but he always seemed to be in just the right place. Jimmy had begun to think Dumfries stupidity was as much an act as Jimmy's polish. Seeing Dumfries glance around then slip out a side door, Jimmy downed the last dregs in his wineglass and placed it on the platter of a passing servant. Tugging his frock coat into place, he smoothly and quietly followed Dumfries.

The door led to an extensive garden covering at least an acre behind the house. Jimmy glanced around, not quite sure which direction to go, and saw the corner of Dumfries vivid green frock coat disappearing into the entrance of the maze that took up a large portion of the gardens. Sighing, Jimmy followed. Jimmy had no idea which direction to go, but figured Dumfries was most likely headed for the secluded seats at the center of the maze. Luckily, Jimmy'd overheard a couple young southern belles talking about it earlier at the ball. The trick, apparently, was to place your right hand on the bushes and never take it off. As long as he followed that hand, he'd end up in the middle of the maze, and be able to get back out again. Eventually.

What seemed like hours later, Jimmy heard voices coming from his left. He slowed his pace and crept along quietly, hoping to hear what the men were talking about.

"She says they're experimentin' with a way to turn the Springfield Rifles into breechloaders," Jimmy heard a man say.

"All Ah need to know is if they'll still use the same ammunition," Dumfries responded.

"She says there's no indication of changing the caliber size. It would still take a .58 minié ball."

"Excellent. That's precisely what I needed to know," Dumfries enthused. Jimmy could almost see the pudgy little man rubbing his hands together in greed. "I've got a gunrunner in town who says he can provide me with 50,000 minie balls of that caliber. Now, I know it's a good deal."

"Glad to be of service. Do you have any messages for me to take back to the Wild Rose?"

"No. Not at this time."

Jimmy quickly backed away into a deeply shadowed corner as the two men left the center of the maze. The unknown man passed within touching distance of Jimmy, but try as he might, Jimmy couldn't make out his features in the night's dark. But that was alright. He had a name now. The Wild Rose. He laughed. Somehow he wasn't surprised it was a woman who'd had the Federal investigators running in circles the last two years.

Before returning to the ballroom, Jimmy quickly scribbled out a note, grimacing at his still childish handwriting, and folded it up as small as he could get it. He placed the note on a tray held by a young black woman as he grabbed a glass of champagne on his way through the garden doors to the dance floor. He never even acknowledged the freewoman holding the tray. She'd chosen to act as Jefferson Davis' servant and had been slipping information on Confederate movements to the Union Army since the firing began. But Jimmy would never endanger her life by even nodding to her.

Kid and Lou

The Battle at Brandy Station had been the biggest cavalry battle of the war to date, Lou thought. She'd finally lost her Indian Pony. The poor thing had been shot right out from under her. Unlike some she didn't have a spare with her and would have found herself relegated to riding shanks mare if she hadn't managed to steal a Union cavalry officer's horse later the same day. She shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. Despite being grateful to have a horse at all, Lou was finding herself pressed to like the animal. It was stubborn as all get out and had the most uncomfortable gait Lou'd ever encountered. Kid thought it was all hilarious. Said it served her right to get a horse so much like herself. Lou grimaced. As much as she disliked the animal, it seemed to have formed some sort of attachment to her. At least she could be certain it wouldn't wander off on her.

"There's smoke coming up over them treetops," Emmett pointed out. "Bet that's a farm."

Lou nodded. "You're probably right. Let's check it out."

They'd been on the march North for a couple weeks now, moving in fits and starts. Virgil had told her military experts said an Army traveled on its stomach, and she figured that was pretty accurate. They could only move as fast as they could find things to eat. That's why Squad 4 was out foraging today. As they moved toward the smoke lazily curling up into the bright blue sky, the men of Squad 4 returned to their discussion of recent events.

"Do ya think they'll court martial 'im?" Young Louie asked.

"Naw. He's got some pretty high placed relatives," Emmett said. "But I doubt Munford'll command anythin' bigger than a baseball team anytime soon."

Lou chuckled along with the others. The General had been more than a mite upset over Munford's delay in reinforcing 'Rooney' Lee at the Battle of Brandy Station. He'd been very civilized and proper about it, but by the time he'd finished reading Munford the riot act Lou was surprised Munford could walk out of the tent on his own two legs.

"I'm just glad Fitz Lee's back in command. He'd never leave us just sittin' there, on parade, missin' out on a great fight," Thomas crowed.

Kid didn't contribute to the conversation. He'd been even quieter than usual lately. Lou wondered what it was he was mulling over so hard. If he didn't watch it, she thought sarcastically, he'd mull it right into the ground.

The five riders broke out of the treeline into a clearing. A small, snug cabin sat back up against the hill. It was a neat little farm, though a bit rundown. Lou figured the men must've all gone off to fight the war and the women hadn't had the skills to keep things up. One woman was standing by a water pump, staring at the cavalrymen in abject terror. As they came to a stop at the edge of the farmyard, she started screaming hysterically and ran for the door of the cabin.

"Rebs! Johnny Rebs! They're here to kill us! Quick, hide the babies! Hide the food!" she screamed.

"Ma'am," Lou said, walking her horse slowly toward the panicked woman, "Ma'am, we ain't here ta kill ya."

Unfortunately, this did nothing to calm the woman, who continued to screech at the top of her lungs. A ragtag group of children and young teens were peering out the windows and around the edge of the door at the goings on. Lou turned to them and asked, "Is there anyone who can calm her down?"

"I can, Sir," said a young boy, maybe 14 years of age, as he walked diffidently out of the barn. Walking up to the woman he grabbed her by the shoulders and gently shook her. When that didn't get her attention, he grabbed her chin in his hand and forced her eyes to meet his. "Ma! Ma! Ya gotta stop screamin'. They ain't here to kill us. Yet. But they might change their minds if we can't talk sensible to 'em."

Slowly the screaming tapered off and the woman seemed to simply deflate as she collapsed on the ground, leaning against her son's leg. He looked back up at Lou and asked, "What do you want, Sir?"

"I'm sorry to tell you we're here to confiscate whatever food stuffs we can carry with us," Lou apologized. She hated this part of the job. "If you'll have everyone on the farm gather here in the yard, my men'll search the place and take what we need. So long as y'all cause no trouble, we'll leave peaceable like."

"Yes, Sir," the boy nodded. Turning to the cabin he yelled, "Mae! Dolly! Grab the babies and get out here. Don't do nothin' funny to get these folks riled up at ya!"

Two pre-teen girls slowly walked out of the cabin door. One was carrying a toddler, the other an infant. Both were leading young children by the hand. They slowly shuffled toward the boy and his Ma, keeping their eyes on the ground. Without looking away from the miserable little group and keeping one hand on her sidearm at all times, Lou motioned behind her to the others. They knew what to do.

Kid and Louie headed for the barn while Thomas and Emmett strode toward the house. Lou heard a lot of squawking, then the bellow of a cow coming from the barn and a few minutes later Kid and Louie came back out. Kid had a pail of milk that he quickly transferred into a waterbag. Louie followed with two struggling chickens in one hand and a basket of eggs over the other arm.

"We left 'em two hens and a rooster, just like ya said, Lieutentant," Louie told her. Lou nodded.

She could hear Thomas and Emmett moving around in the cabin, tossing things around by the sound of it. She hoped Emmett could keep Thomas under control. A moment later, Thomas came stumbling out the door, obviously pushed by Emmett. Thomas had a pie of some sort in his hands and Emmett was carrying a side of salt pork. At the sight, Louie let out a whistle. "Man, we're gonna eat good tonight."

But Lou held up a hand in a signal to hold that thought. "What did ya leave 'em?"

Thomas growled under his breath at the question but didn't dare outright contradict her. Emmett answered, "There's still a couple pounds of bacon in the meathouse and a side of venison. We couldna carried those anyway. I'll go back and get a bag of flour. They's got two."

"Alright then. But hurry up!" Outside of the fact Lou wasn't comfortable with stealing, and that's what they were doing no matter how they tried to dress the matter up, there was always the danger of someone deciding to start shooting. She wouldn't relax until they were well out of sight of this farm.

Within a few moments, the food stuffs were packed onto the horses and the men mounted again behind Lou. She finally, slowly removed her hand from her revolver's hilt and tipped her hat to the boy and the tearful woman. "We're much obliged for the food, ma'am. Sorry for the unpleasantness."

As the squad wheeled their horses and headed for the tree line, Lou heard Thomas muttering, "I still say we should burn 'em out. We oughta burn 'em all out!"

Lou turned to him and glared. "Just 'cause some folk use the war's an excuse to act like savages don't mean we gotta sink to their level. And maybe, just maybe, if we show a little care and compassion to a few folk, someone might show it to us someday, when we need it the most."

"This, from a boy," Thomas said, putting an especially intense form of derision on the word boy, "who admits to not only having worked with but befriended a red savage."

"It's not the color of your skin or where you come from that makes you a gentleman or a savage," Kid spoke up. "It's what you do with what you've got. Teaspoon taught all us boys that."

Cody

"Man, I am so tired of playing hide and seek with them damned Rebs," Cody muttered as he walked into the tent, slapping his hat against his leg to relieve it of some of the dust it had accumulated on this latest ride. "I swear, they've been takin' lessons from Buck. It's like, they're there one minute and, poof!, disappeared the next."

"Uhunh," Thatch agreed, equally exhausted.

They flopped down on their bedrolls and just lay there for a moment. Just as Thatch's eyes started to flutter closed for a well deserved snooze, Cody sprang upright, saying urgently, "Hey Thatch! Wanna have some fun?"

"Nope. Wanna sleep."

"Aw come on. I'm dying of boredom here. If I don't get somethin' to laugh at soon, I'm gonna go plumb loco."

"Too late."

Cody punched Thatch's shoulder for that comment before beginning to urge her once more to wake up and have some fun. Eventually, he convinced her to come outside with him. A half hour later, she deeply regretted her decision. Knee deep in a hole she'd spent the last hour digging, she glared up at Cody who lounged nearby.

"This was your idea, so why is it I'm doin' all the work?" she demanded.

"'Cause it'll be less suspicious that way. Anyone sees me doin' it and they'll know somethin's up."

"Right," she sneered as she climbed out of the hole. "Well, I think it's deep enough. Now what?"

"Now, we gotta haul some water in to fill 'er up."

"And I suppose I gotta do that, too, so's to avoid any suspicion."

Cody just grinned at her. She was beginning to catch on. With a sigh, she turned and headed for the creek.

"Guys, we've spotted a troop of Reb cavalry just outside of Corinth!" Cody shouted urgently to the group of cavalrymen playing cards at the table. "Captain says to mount up quick, we're goin' after 'em."

With that, Cody turned and ran quickly toward the barn where all the horses were stabled. But, as he turned the corner of the sulter's cabin, he slid to a stop and hid behind a barrel across the alley from Thatch. The cavalrymen came charging around the corner after Cody and ran straight into the knee deep hole Thatch had dug and filled with water. The hole was now more mud then water and the four men stood up, howling in anger as they shook mud off their arms and hats.

Their screams of outrage had attracted an audience which seemed to appreciate the sight as much as Cody. They joined in on his howls of laughter at the men, who were now trying to crawl out of the hole. Unfortunately, as one man almost made it out, another would slip and pull him back in. It was a comedy of errors that kept the watching crowd in stitches.

Eventually, the victims of the practical joke cleared the edge of the mudhole and started advancing on Cody with murder and mayhem in their eyes. Noticing the change in their demeanor Cody sobered and started to splutter an apology. However, noticing it was falling on deaf ears, Cody chose the better part of valor and ran for the hills. Now, Thatch was the one laughing so hard tears started rolling down her cheeks.

Cody's little joke had definitely beaten another day on the trail, that was for sure. Now, if she could just steer him in the direction of jokes that would take a little less effort on her part!

Teaspoon

Teaspoon stood from his stooped over position and stretched his aching back. What in tarnation had ever made him think planting one field in cotton would be such a great idea, he asked himself for the millionth time. Oh yeah, that was right. Money. When he'd gone to Galveston last winter to sell their extra wheat, the buyer had mentioned the Confederacy's increasingly desperate need of food for its army. Things had gotten to the point where the government had asked landowners to stop growing cotton in the majority of their fields. This meant the price of cotton had skyrocketed. Several Texans had decided to try selling their cotton in Mexico, taking advantage of the increased prices.

The problem was, Teaspoon thought as he stopped at the end of the row to grab a drink of water from the bucket, all the work it took to grow the cotton and harvest it before they could sell it. He was a lawman, dammit, not a danged farmer.

Heaving a sigh, he turned around and glared at the field while pouring a second scoop of water over his head. Returning the dipper to the bucket, he shrugged and moved toward the next row. Like it or not, this had been his idea so he'd better do his part.

Lou and Kid

"Oh man, I hope General Lee lets us take a day or two off after this," Thomas complained. They were all exhausted after the last week of maneuvers. Lee had sent Stuart's cavalry out to harass the Federal cavalry, which had apparently not gotten the notice they were to be present to be harassed. Despite a week of roaming the Pennsylvania countryside, they hadn't even found enough Yankee manure to start a campfire, let alone any cavalrymen or the horses they rode in on.

Suddenly, the column of horses came to a standstill, amidst many snorts and whinnies of disgust from the surprised animals.

"What the hell?" asked Captain Irving. "Virgil, go see what's going on."

"Yes, Sir!" Virgil pulled his horse out of the line of order and took off for the head of the column. It wasn't a few minutes later he returned with a worried look on his face. "Sir, they're gone."

"Who's gone?"

"General Lee's Army, Sir."

"What?"

"There's nothin' but ashes and debris left where they were camped."

This news worried everyone in Company G. They were supposed to rendezvous with the main body of General Lee's Army before pressing on to either Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. The decision of which city hadn't been made when they'd left on maneuvers.

"Sir," Virgil continued, "the General's asking for Lou and Kid. Says they're the best scouts we got. Wants 'em to find out which direction the Army went. And fast!"

"Well, you heard him," Irving said looking at Lou, "Get your brother and get up there."

With a nod, Lou headed back to the rest of Squad four and grabbed Kid. Soon they were galloping into the horizon.

"Well, there's no doubt about it," Kid said as he mounted back up after investigating the wagon tracks that had carved deep ruts into the ground. "This is the direction the supply train headed off in."

"Let's get back and tell Stuart," Lou said, already swinging her mount in the direction of the mounted cavalry they'd left behind not a half hour ago. Within minutes they cantered up to the group of officers surrounding General Stuart.

"Sir, they headed east. It'll be easy enough to follow 'em. The supply wagons left a pretty clear trail," Lou reported.

"Men, you heard the lad. Let's move 'em out. If General Lee moved on it means he's huntin' Yankees and I don't know 'bout you lot, but I don't wanna miss the fight!" Stuart grinned as his officers scattered to get their regiments back on the trail. "Fine job boys. You may return to your unit and give my compliments to Fitz Lee and Captain Irving."

It took another two days of hard riding to catch up with General Lee's army. Hours before arriving they could hear the booming cannon and popping rifle shots. The noise had all the men in the column glancing nervously at each other and subtly urging their horses to a faster pace. Before they arrived at the battlefield, a messenger from General Lee galloped up to the officers at the head of the column carrying orders.

"We're supposed to turn around back behind these hills and attack the Federals along somethin' called Cemetery Ridge," Virgil told the rest of Company G. "Lee figures the Yank line is about to break and a rear action might be the key."

But they never made it to Cemetery Ridge. A couple miles away they ran into a large group of Union cavalry guarding the road at a small farm.

Company G and most of the rest of the 1st Virginia stayed hidden in the woods behind the farm along with another regiment. They watched in pained anguish as two other companies of skirmishers attempted to take the farm from the Federal cavalry. As the dismounted Confederates moved into the farmyard, the Federals started shooting. An hour later the remnants of the two greyclad companies rejoined their fellows hiding in the woods behind the farm.

"Keep your fool heads down!" Lou yelled for what felt like the umpteenth time. "Or do ya want 'em shot off?"

Emmett ducked back below the top of the stone fence they were sheltering behind, pushing Louie's head down at the same time. Kid just nodded at Lou. No one even thought to check on Thomas. He'd been careful to stay out of harm's way throughout the course of the battle.

The distant thunder of booming artillery was overtaking the whining hornet sound of the flying minié bullets they were all hiding from. Lou snugged her scavenged Springfield rifle a little closer to her side, searching for any threats to her squad. Virgil came trotting out of the fog generated by all the gunfire. At his pointed look, Lou scuttled over to his side, careful to stay out of the line of fire.

"Tell the men to mount up," Virgil said. "The General sees a hole in the Union line. We're to charge between the two lines that've formed and scatter the damned Yanks."

"Yes, L-T," Lou nodded and began heading up and down the fence line, passing along the orders. Soon, the rest of the men had mounted up and were ready.

"Draw sabres!" the order came filtering down the ranks.

Kid looked nervously at Lou. Lou shrugged as she pulled her sabre from its scabbard. She shifted it to her left hand along with her horse's reins and pulled her revolver with her right. She'd gotten to the point where she could use the sabre if she had to, but she'd never become what could be called proficient. It was a good thing the sabres were issued dull. She'd never bothered to sharpen hers, using it more to stab with than slash. Kid on the other hand had had more time to practice and had actually gotten pretty good.

Kid wasn't the only one aware of Lou's deficiencies with the sabre. Soon all four members of her squad, even the normally abrasive Thomas, had surrounded her in a protective stance.

"Forward, March! Double time!" Louie lifted his bugle to his lips and sounded the charge. The ground shook with the thunder of hundreds of pounding hooves as all of Fitz Lee's 1st Virginia Cavalry headed for the gauntlet posed by two rows of Federal cavalry.

Suddenly, a group of Yankee cavalry came racing down the center of the two Federal lines, headed straight for their Confederate foes. At the head of the countercharge rode a maniacally screaming man with long, flowing blond hair. He could be heard shouting, "Come on, you Wolverines!"

As the two forces prepared to meet head to head, Lou raised her right hand and began shooting. In her frantic push forward Lou still had time to notice that Kid, once again, wasn't shooting to kill unless he had no choice. In the back of her mind, she worried. Wounded men could still fight.

When the two forces clashed they came to a standstill as a general melee began. Lou continued firing until she'd emptied her pistol, then holstered it and started stabbing randomly with her sabre through the protective fence formed by her squadmates. As she was pulling her sabre back from a feint toward a Union rider over Kid's shoulder she felt the force of Louie's body pushing her out of the saddle. They tumbled to the ground, the horses somersaulting over their heads.

Pushing Louie off her, Lou started to scramble back to her feet. Standing over Louie in a protective position, Lou faced off against the Yankee private that had been coming after Louie. The Yank had dropped his sword in the fall but was raising his fists, ready to start punching it out. Lou looked at him, then glanced down at the sabre in her hand. As he closed in and threw his first punch, she handily ducked, blessing all the brawls she'd gotten into with the other Riders. While he was still unbalanced from his unconnected swing, she stepped in and knocked him handily over the head with the hilt of her sabre.

"Knew that thing was good for somethin'," she muttered. By the press of horseflesh around her, Lou could tell Emmett, Thomas and Kid had closed in protectively around her and Louie. Looking up trying to see if she could identify her horse to remount, Lou watched as a Union cavalryman sliced straight through Emmett Caldwell's belly, his head and torso falling to one side of his horse as his legs toppled to the other in what felt like slow motion. "Nooooo!" Lou screamed. "Emmett!"

Even as her mind was silently gibbering in anguish, she grabbed the back of Louie's uniform to jerk him back to his feet as well. "Come on! We can't stay here. Get back on a horse! Any horse!"

A bugle's sweet tones pierced through the screams of wounded men and the shouting of those still fighting to sound the call for a retreat. "You heard the call, men," Lou shouted. "Grab what you can and get out of here. Try to stay together, but more important try to stay alive. We'll rendezvous at the Fairfield Inn along the road to Hagerstown in twenty-four hours. Now move! Move!"

"Louie, you take Emmett's horse. He won't," Lou started to choke up at the thought, "he won't be needing it anymore."

"Yes, sir," Louie responded through his pants.

Kid pulled Lou up behind him as they ran for it. She buried her face against his shoulder for a moment to hide her incipient tears and get her bearings.

"What happened?" he asked quietly.

"This damned war," Lou spat, "that's what happened."

Kid nodded somberly in acknowledgement not only of what she'd said but of what she wasn't saying. Squad 4 started the frantic race South. Each rider preoccupied with his own thoughts of grief and distress as they sprinted away from their blue coated tormentors.

As night fell, they paused in a wooded area for a few moments of sleep. The horses, let alone their riders, couldn't keep going forever. Each of the remaining men simply collapsed on the ground, covering themselves with leaves and deadfall to decrease the chances of discovery.

"I'll take first watch," Lou said quietly. "Kid, you're up next. Then Thomas and finally Louie. One hour each, then we hit the road again."

Kid nodded in acknowledgment and closed his eyes. He was tired to the bone. Not just the exhaustion caused by three days of hard riding followed by a frantic fight and flight. Not just the exhaustion from the knowledge they'd lost a major battle and the fear it was the beginning of the end for the South. Not just the fear he'd get Lou killed. The fear he'd made the wrong choice. The fear he should've been wearing blue, not grey that night. All those fears circled and swirled through his brain, chasing themselves through his thoughts, until he slowly slipped into the oblivion of sleep.

******

She was so beautiful. Her face was radiant and full of her love for him. Her grin was the one she got when she was trying to restrain how happy she was. He loved that grin. As she grew more comfortable being Louise instead of Lou, he hoped she didn't lose all those quirks she'd developed to hide her gender. They were part of what he loved about her.

As she glided down the aisle toward him, he couldn't repress his own broad smile. He was barely aware of his brothers, Cody, Buck and Noah, at his side or Teaspoon behind him. His whole world narrowed to this woman who'd finally agreed to spend the rest of her life with him. He knew what she was giving up to do it, and he couldn't be prouder that she thought him worth the loss.

A sudden banging at the church doors had Lou and Jesse turning to see what was going on. The doors flew open, revealing the gory battlefield they'd just abandoned.

"No!" he screamed as he saw cannon balls start flying through the church doors, mowing his friends down. He tried to get in front of them, to protect them as everything in his nature required, but he felt as though every frantic step forward moved him further away from his goal. He watched in horror as Lou looked down at herself, watching her beautiful, white gown turn scarlet with blood. She looked back up at Kid and slowly wilted to the ground.

"Lou!"

He blinked and suddenly he was in the courtyard outside a field hospital, surrounded by the arms and legs doctors had discarded as they rushed through amputation after amputation. Looking at his feet, he noticed a small, feminine hand with a white lacy sleeve to the wrist. Next to it lay Jesse's even smaller arm wrapped in his borrowed black suit coat. Tears coursing down his face, he started to pick-up and toss the assorted arms and legs behind him, frantically searching for the parts that were left of his friends. They'd need those limbs.

*******

The first part of Lou's watch had passed quietly. One Union mounted patrol had trotted past, but hadn't even stopped to check their little copse of trees. Her charges were sleeping quietly behind her.

About 15 minutes before she was planning to wake Kid and get some sleep herself, a sudden bout of moaning and thrashing started behind her. Looking, she saw that Kid was caught in the grips of a nightmare, his face pale and sweaty. Rushing to his side, Lou lay her weapon down and shook his shoulder, trying to wake him up.

"Lou! No! She needs that!" he moaned.

"Kid," Lou hissed, trying not to wake the others, "wake up! It's just a nightmare."

Her voice seemed to penetrate the fog of his dreams and he slowly stopped his thrashing, his hands reaching up to grab hers. As his eyes fluttered open, he dragged her into his arms, crushing her against his chest.

"Kid, what's wrong?" she asked, her voice muffled by the scratchy fabric of his uniform jacket.

"You were dead. They all were. Cody, Buck, Jimmy. Everyone. Torn apart by this damned war," he whispered in a tortured voice. "Oh God! Lou, what have I done?"

Lou pulled back, looking into his eyes searchingly. "You did what you thought was right, Kid. Like you always do."

"But, I think, this time, I was wrong, Lou. So wrong. And that might get you killed."

"Kid, whatever comes, we face it together, remember. We'll be okay. We just gotta stick together."

"Don't leave me, Lou. You can't ever leave me. I don't think I'd survive."

"I'm not goin' anywhere, Kid," she reassured him, settling in next to him, ready to stand his watch with him. They sat there, side by side, watching each other's back for danger. As they'd done for years now. As they always would.

Hickok

"I've got a cargo of 50,000 boxes of .58 caliber minié balls comin' into Richmond next month," Jimmy told Dumfries. The pudgy weapons procurer had cornered him outside a gentleman's club in Richmond and invited him in for lunch. Only after they'd finished the meal, surprisingly good considering the war shortages, had Dumfries gotten to the point.

"Ya must understand, Ah don't like dealin' with new sources, but you seem to be offerin' somethin' no one else has," Dumfries said. "Just why is that?"

"I travel more," Jimmy lied smoothly, avoiding the truth that the ammunition was being supplied by the Federal government and was actually completely worthless, having been deliberately designed to blow up in the faces of those trying to shoot it. Hopefully by that time he'd be well away from Richmond. "It allows me to make more…. connections."

Dumfries nodded sagely at this. "Connections do indeed make business… easier."

"Well, if you'll excuse me," Jimmy said, wiping his mouth with his napkin and setting it down on the table, "I have an appointment I must keep."

"And just what kind of appointment might that be?" Dumfries asked, once again suspicious. "You wouldn't be tryin' to start a biddin' war, now would ya?"

"No, nothing of the sort. It's an appointment with a lady."

"Well now, that's another story entirely. Wouldn't want ta keep the lady waitin'. Our Virignia belles don't appreciate that," Dumfries said, standing to shake Jimmy's hand. Jimmy nodded in silent agreement.

Shortly he found himself back out on the Richmond streets, moving toward a fashionable residential district. Coming to a tall, Victorian style home, heavily shaded by magnolia trees, Jimmy moved up the walk and knocked on the door. Within seconds the door opened and a young black girl looked up at him.

"How's can Ah hep you, sir?" she asked.

"I'm here to see Miz Elizabeth Van Lew," Jimmy said. "Our mutual friend, Mr. Harold Jarvis asked me to drop by and give her my respects."

The girl's gaze sharpened at the mention of Jarvis' name and she quickly stepped back. "Won't you come in, Sir. I'll just let Mrs. Van Lew know you're here."

Jimmy marveled at how the girl's 'slave' accent had suddenly and completely disappeared. She now spoke with a diction superior to his. Leaving Jimmy in a bright, sunlit salon, she hurried off through a hidden door in the wall.

Moments later a woman with elaborately coiffed reddish brown hair glided into the salon, holding out one carefully manicured hand.

"I'm Mrs. Van Lew," she introduced herself in a soft, cultured voice. "And you would be?"

"Mr. Ambrose Merriweather," Jimmy said, taking her hand and bowing over it.

"And just how do you know Mr. Jarvis, Mr. Merriweather?"

"Oh, we met a few years ago," Jimmy said calmly, expecting the probing question. "We bought a brindle bulldog from him for my little brother, Hezekiah."

Relaxing now that Jimmy had used the code words indicating he'd been sent by the Federal government, Elizabeth smiled more naturally. "Well, it's nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Merriweather. Would you like some refreshments?"

"No thanks, Ma'am," Jimmy said. "I just had lunch with Mr. Dumfries. I was actually hoping you might be able to pass on a message to our mutual friend."

"And what might that message be, Mr. Merriweather?"

"Tell him, our quarry is called Wild Rose and he is a she."

That startled a gasp out of the poised Elizabeth Van Lew. "Do you have any proof, Mr. Merriweather?"

"So far, only a couple of conversations I was in position to overhear. But I'm still searching."

"Perhaps, I can be of help to you in your endeavors. It is often possible for a woman to go places a man cannot, Mr. Merriweather," she offered. "That is, of course, if you are not offended at working with a woman."

With a grunted laugh and a soft smile Jimmy accepted. "That's never been a problem for me, ma'am. In my experience, women can do whatever they put their minds to, and quite well at that."

"Then we have a partnership, Mr. Merriweather," she said, holding out her hand for a gentleman's handshake. The two quickly got down to planning their next move in the search of the dangerous Southern spy.

Buck

"But why should Running Man's band have the honor of three Shamans, one of them the holder of a white buffalo robe, when Tower of Skull's band has none," the white-haired elder complained.

Buck sighed and shifted in his seat. Standing Woman next to him patted his knee in a silent admonishment to be patient. He smiled down at her. If he'd realized being a Medicine Man would mean he'd end up spending most of his days at the Sun Dance stuck in the Elders' Council he would have run away screaming. He cast a longing glance at the horses, tethered to the nearby tipis. He wanted nothing more than to hop on his favorite mount's back and speed off into the horizon. Another sigh and he returned his attention to the ongoing debate.

The problem at hand was that Standing Woman had already been an acknowledged Medicine Woman in her own right before they'd met. Her presence with her father had been acceptable to other bands, as she had been his accepted successor. But, her marriage to Running Buck and his subsequent acceptance as a Medicine Man had left their band with what many of the other bands of Northern Cheyenne considered an unacceptable abundance of spirit guides. Now, half the Elders were arguing over who should move to which band. The other half were arguing that all three were members of the same family and should not be forced to split up.

"I still say we cannot count Running Buck as a true Medicine Man as he is Kiowa and may not remain with The People for long," one elder added to the disagreement.

The debate continued for hours with the final decision being, any moves should be up to the individuals. They were representatives of the Spirit Realm here on Earth and they would go where the spirits said they should go.

"We should talk," Buck told his wife. "They were right about one thing, I do not want to live the rest of my life with the Cheyenne."

"Yes, I knew you would want to leave sooner or later," Standing Woman said, taking his hand in hers as they walked. "We discussed this while we were courting. I am ready to go when you are. But which family do you wish to go to?"

"In the long run you know I plan to live with my Express Family. After the Wasicu's war is over, the…" he paused and swallowed hard over the next word, "survivors will return to Rock Creek. That's what we all agreed on, before going our separate ways. But for now I feel the need to visit my brother's band. I've just been getting this… feeling… he needs our help."

"Then we should leave soon."

"I think we can wait until after the Sun Dance before heading south," Buck smiled indulgently. Looking up, he noticed a commotion at the circle of tipis that their band had erected near the horse corrals. "What's going on?"

Following his gaze, Standing Woman gasped and took off running toward the group of women and children milling around.

"Dawn Star!" Standing Woman shouted, waving at another young woman at the center of the group. "Dawn Star! What are you doing here? We didn't expect you this year."

Then, she noticed Dawn Star's appearance. A quick appraisal revealing her ragged hair and arms healing from numerous cuts. "Oh no, Dawn Star! Who?"

"My husband," Dawn Star finally spoke in a voice hoarse from crying. "He was killed by a band of Pawnee last month. That's when I decided to come back here. I could not stay there without any family. We are not Arapaho. We are Cheyenne."

"Oh honey, come here," Standing Woman crooned, taking the other woman into her arms. "Don't worry about putting up your tipi tonight. You and the children can stay with Running Buck and I tonight."

"Running Buck?"

"My husband. We married last winter. He's Kiowa and a Medicine Man," Standing Woman said. "Buck, this is my elder sister, Dawn Star."

Buck nodded politely at the haggard young woman, perhaps two or three years older than Standing Woman.

That night, after Dawn Star and her children had gone to sleep, Buck held Standing Woman close in their bed, whispering to her. "I'll need to go hunting this week. We don't have enough supplies to feed this many people through the rest of the Sun Dance," he whispered in her ear.

"Of course," she smiled up at him. "I'll pack our hunting bags first thing in the morning. We might have to ride several days to find any game. This crowd tends to scare all the animals away."

"No, I think you should stay here. Your sister needs you now and you haven't seen her in two years."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. I'm used to riding alone," Buck answered.

The next morning, carrying several days' worth of pemmican, his bow and arrow and hunting knife, Buck rode out of camp. Standing Woman watched him go with a heavy heart.

"He'll only be gone for a short time," her father comforted her.

"It's not that," Standing Woman said.

"Than what's the matter?"

"I wish I knew," she sighed as she turned back to the tipi to help Dawn Star prepare breakfast for the family.

Lou and Kid

Lou sat staring at the water rushing past her in the creek. A pad of paper sat abandoned on her lap, the pencil twirled absently in her fingers. Silent tears coursed down her cheeks. She'd seen some hard times in her life, but it seemed writing this letter was more than hard. It was impossible.

The sound of soft footfalls behind her startled Lou from her reverie. She quickly swiped a hand across her face to erase the evidence of tears before swinging her head around just as a large hand came to rest on her shoulder.

"Writing condolence letters?" Virgil asked.

"Trying."

"It's probably the hardest part of the job."

"I know. I've done several since the company elected me 2nd Lieutenant," Lou sighed, then paused to gather her composure. "But, they were all young men, with nothing to leave behind. Tragic, but… I can't help thinking of Emmett's kids. They're going to grow up without a father now. How will their mother keep them together? I know what that's like and I know what life has in store for them. I guess… I guess I just wish I could somehow change things with my words."

"Then write that," Virgil said. "Tell them exactly what ya just told me. I think it'll mean more to them than any formal letter of condolence ya might write, simply telling them when, where and how their father died."

Lou nodded. "That's a good idea. Thanks."

"But, you'll have to write it later," Virgil shrugged. "Captain wants everyone to gather for a briefing in 15 minutes."

Lou stood and started packing the letter writing materials into her haversack. Hoisting the shoulder strap of the haversack over her head she said, "I'll go let the men carin' for the horses know and meet ya back at camp."

It took less than 15 minutes for everyone to gather for the briefing. Captain Irving motioned for the men to make themselves comfortable, then climbed atop a stump to begin speaking.

"Men, ya know we got beat and beat bad at Gettysburg. Things ain't lookin' too good for the Confederacy right now, especially for the General."

At this, a murmur of disagreement started running through the men. The Captain held up his hand for silence. "Now, we all know he was doing what he'd been told to do and nothin' that happened was his fault. But there's those that say he took too long coming to the rescue and if we'd'a showed up a day or two earlier we mighta won. Y'all just remind them of what he did at Chancellorsville when he didn't follow orders and that what happened at Gettysburg was 'cause he was followin' orders. I'm just sayin' yer gonna need to be aware of general feelings in the Army of Northern Virginia right now and be prepared to defend Stuart, but I don't want no fightin', ya understand?"

With that, the Captain glared around the group of men who made up Company G. Once he was assured he had the consent, however unwilling, of everyone, he moved on. "Now, I'm also here to tell ya the Yanks' cavalry is gettin' better. Y'all saw what happened at Gettysburg and survived it. Now, we gotta learn from it. We can no longer go into battle expectin' to beat the Yanks when they've got three, four, five men to our one. From now on, we've gotta treat 'em as the equals they've become."

A general growl of disagreement swept through the gathered men. The Captain laughed. "Problem is boys, ya done too good a job killin' off all the stupid Yanks. The one's that are left are smart and they've been learnin' from us. Every time we beat 'em, they got bettah. Now, we gotta assume they're as good as us. When we're scoutin' and run into Yankee cavalry, we gotta stop and think before attackin'. If they outnumber us, I want ya to run the other way. Run, stay alive to fight another day. That's the only way we'll win this war, now. Do ya understand me? Them's orders!"

"Sir! Yes, Sir!" the men shouted in near unison.

"Cap, didya ever find out who that crazy yeller-haired feller was leading the countercharge?" one of the men asked.

"Word is he's a new, up and comin' hero amongst the Yankees. Name of Custer, George Armstrong Custer. Thinks he's God's gift to the cavalry."

"Ain't no good gonna come from that man, that's fer sure. He was one crazy feller."

"Too true, Horace. Too true. Now that we've got that taken care of, here's what we're plannin' next," and the Captain began laying out the plans for setting up defenses against the Yankees return to Virginia.

That night, Lou was just wrapping up her letter to Emmett's wife and kids when she noticed Isaac struggling with a big pot of stew. One of the legs of the tripod the pot was hanging from appeared to have broken and he was trying to keep the food from spilling out all over the ground. Lou jumped up and ran over to help.

"Here, use this to hold onto the pot so ya don't get burned," she said, handing the rag she used to clean her pistol with to Isaac. "I'll prop up this leg to help."

Raising her voice she called out, "Kid, come help get this pot off the fire! Louie! Quick, find another pole we can use to fix this tripod!"

After supper all three stuck around to help clean up the kitchen area, which was still a mess from the earlier accident. Kid was helping Isaac wash the dishes, while Lou and Louie picked up debris from the ground and tossed it into the fire. Kid sighed.

"Wassa mattah, young massah?" Isaac asked.

"Somethin's botherin' Lou, and he won't talk ta me 'bout it. Says it's one o' them problems where I'm a part of 'em," Kid answered forlornly. "I think he's mad at me fer joinin' up. Things ain't been goin' the way I'd thought."

"Yup. I'd say thas so," Isaac agreed. "Youse startin' to come to yer senses and realize this here war ain't 'bout defendin' no homes."

Kid could only nod in agreement.

"But," Isaac continued, "I doan think that's young massa Lou's problem. Why don't Ise talk to 'im. Mebbe he'll feel more comfortable talkin' to me."

"Would ya?"

"Ise y'all's friend, ain't I?"

"You sure are, Isaac," Kid answered, patting the older man on the back as he put the last of the dishes back in the cook wagon.

It took Isaac a bit to find a way to get Lou alone. But when he did, he got straight to the point.

"Kid says somethin's botherin' ya real fierce like and ya won't talk to 'im 'bout it."

Lou nodded glumly, not meeting Isaac's eyes.

"Could ya mebbe talk ta me 'bout it."

"It's kinda embarrassing," Lou muttered, looking down at her hands.

"Wimmen stuff?" Isaac whispered so quietly she could barely hear him. Lou nodded. "Well, ain't no females 'round here, so yer gonna havta make do with ol' Isaac."

"I," Lou stuttered to stop then started again. "I ain't had my courses in more than three months."

"Think yer expectin', hunh?" Isaac asked, eyeing her spare frame from tip to toe. Lou just nodded. "Ise got a question fer ya, have ya had any other symptoms?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, have ya bin unusually tired? Are ya… sore?" he asked, gesturing vaguely at her chest area. "Havin' any trouble eatin' or keepin' food down once ya done ate?"

"No. The only problem I have with eating is getting enough food," Lou said, "just like everyone else."

"Then I doubts yer pregnant," Isaac said, shrugging. "More'n likely ya's got the opposite problem."

Lou looked at Isaac in confusion.

"Yer ain't gettin' 'nuff ta eat and yer gettin' too much exercise. Yer body's shut down and ya cain't get pregnant right now," Isaac said. "Happens sometimes on the worst of the plantations ta the wimmen what work the fields."

"Do you really think?"

"Yep. Ise really do think," Isaac grinned at her, his white teeth shining brightly against his dark face in the gathering evening gloom.

"But, does this mean I'll never be able to have a baby?" she asked in sudden fear.

"Naw. Once ya's gets to eatin' an' sleepin' proper again, yer body'll start doin' it's thin and you'll probly be pregnant before ya even know it!"

"Thank you, Isaac," Lou exclaimed leaping up and hugging the older man around the neck. "Thank you."

Suddenly she pulled back and looked around in fear someone might have seen her emotional outburst. Isaac laughed out loud at the look on her face.

"Mebbe ya bettah go tell Kid what all ya've bin thinkin'," Isaac advised. "He's a mite worrit yer angry and blamin' him fer getting' ya into the war."

"Thanks Isaac, I'll do that," she said already moving away toward camp in her hurry to find Kid. She didn't notice an enraged Thomas coming up behind Isaac as she left.

That night found Kid and Lou in a good mood and looking for a way to leave camp for awhile and get a little time alone. They'd offered to water the horses for the evening, letting a couple of corporals have the night off. After leading the last of the animals down to the creek to drink, they deliberately took their time wandering back to camp. Kid wrapped his arm around Lou's shoulders and watched her watch the stars above. Kid was just starting to lean in for a kiss when they both stiffened at an unexpected sound.

"Did you hear that?" Kid asked.

Lou nodded. "What do you think it was?"

"Sounded like a baby or a wounded animal."

"Not around here," Lou said. She pulled away from Kid and started searching the area, unconsciously dividing it into a grid pattern to make sure she didn't miss any spots. It didn't take her long to stumble across a body hidden in the nearby brush. "Kid, over here!"

"Who is it?"

"I don't know," she began. "Help me turn him over…."

She gasped as her efforts to turn the injured man over revealed Isaac's face. "Isaac!"

"Isaac?" Kid questioned. "What happened?"

Isaac only moaned quietly, not quite conscious. Lou pulled her hand away from his shoulder to push a lock of hair out of her face. Suddenly she stopped and stared intently at her hand, then began frantically inspecting Isaac's back.

"He's been whipped, Kid. He's been whipped bad!"

"What are we gonna do?"

"Run get my medicine pouch Buck made me. We'll have to help him here. We try to take him back to camp and you know Thomas won't let us near him."

Kid nodded and flew through the darkened forest toward their camp. The pair spent the night tending Isaac's wounds. In the morning light they could tell the whipping hadn't been nearly as bad as Lou had first feared, though it had been plenty bad enough. When he healed, Isaac would have a whole new set of scars on his upper back and arms to accompany numerous others already there. And he'd be moving real careful for the next few weeks. But, other than to thank them for their help, Isaac refused to allow his injuries to keep him from heading off with the first rays of the sun to start breakfast. In parting he said only, "Things'd jest get worse iffen I let this keep me from doin' my job."

After he left, Lou and Kid just sat there staring at each other for a moment. Then Kid said, "We're gonna have to do somethin' to help him, Lou."

She nodded. "Thomas is gettin' worse. It used to be just insults, the occasional slap or shove."

"But, the worse the war goes, the worse his attacks on Isaac are getting," Kid finished for her.

"What can we do, Kid? It ain't like the Underground Railroad is exactly operatin' around here."

"I don't know, Lou. But we're gonna have to keep our eyes open and look for the opportunity to do somethin'."

Teaspoon

Teaspoon sighed and shifted on the hard bench of the freight wagon he was driving. The injury he'd taken to the knee when he first got to Texas was acting up. Probably meant it was going to rain tonight, he mused. The weather predicting capabilities of the now healed injury were actually amusing, in their own way. But the fact he could no longer ride a horse for more than a few minutes without being in agony was a loss to which he still hadn't resigned himself. Probably explained why he kept trying.

"Mr. Hunter, where do ya think we are?" one of the earliteen boys he'd brought with him on this expedition asked. Teaspoon sourly noted how easily the boy sat in his saddle as he rode alongside the wagon.

"Mexico."

"I know that, Mr. Hunter. I was there when we crossed the Rio Grande yesterday. But, where in Mexico are we?"

"Well, I can tell ya where we ain't," Teaspoon said with a heavy sigh. "We ain't where we're headed."

"What are we gonna do down in Mexico City?"

"Well, I suppose we'll sell all this cotton we're hauling along on the trip, sonny. Then, we'll buy somethin' nice for all the ladies back at the ranch and head on home."

"When do you think we'll get there?" the persistent young man asked.

"Well, the way I figure it, we'll get there when we get there."

The boy looked at Teaspoon for a moment, his eyes nearly crossing as he tried to figure that out. Then, he snorted in disdain and pulled his horse around to go talk to one of the younger men driving the other wagons. Teaspoon let out his own snort of disdain.

"Young'uns. Gettin' younger and more impatient every day."

Cody

Buffalo Bill, as he now preferred to be called, leaned low over his horse's neck as the animal stretched out into a full gallop. They'd caught the rebels with their pants down in the Alabama town of Tuscumbia and now had them on the run. Guiding his mount with his knees, Cody pulled his pistol and took careful aim. Not that that would do much good. He'd never had the control over a pistol of Jimmy or the Kid, or even Lou for that matter. But, he didn't have time to reload his now empty rifle. Mentally shrugging his shoulders he squeezed off a shot. Maybe he'd get lucky. With all these bullets flying through the air at the Johnny Rebs, one of them had to hit something, sooner or later.

Thatch suddenly came pounding obliquely back toward the chasing cavalrymen.

"Artillery, dead ahead!" she warned, gasping for breath.

Captain Utt, at the head of the galloping cavalry, held up a hand signaling they should slow down for a moment. "Men, you heard the scout, there's artillery ahead. But we've got these seccessh bastards on the run and I, for one, am not in the mood to let them get away. Again. Are you with me?"

A bellowing cheer went up from the panting riders. The Captain nodded, pleased, then ordered, "Check your guns and your saddles boys. We ride for glory!"

Sliding off his horse a few minutes later to take shelter with Thatch behind a well, Cody muttered, "Wonder what happened to all that glory?"

"Went down with Captain Utt when that cannon ball took his horse out from under him," Thatch answered.

"Has anyone managed to get to him?"

"Not yet. And if they don't soon, it won't matter anymore. He'll bleed out."

"Cover me then," Buffalo Bill said boldly, "I'm goin' in!"

Crawling along in his elbows and thighs, trying to stay as flat to the ground as he could, Cody slowly inched closer to the man who'd led his unit in the charge on the booming cannon. So far, Captain Utt looked to be the only casualty and Cody looked to make sure he wasn't a permanent one.

"Captain! Captain! Can you talk?" Cody whispered as he finally reached the man's side.

"Ah! One of my intrepid scouts," the injured man gasped. "I should have known it would be you who would come for me."

"Captain, we've got to get you out of here."

"No, I must stay to see the battle through."

"Captain, don't be stupid. The men have almost completely taken the hill and all the artillery. No sense lying here bleeding to death when the job's already done," Cody pleaded. "Now, come on. Let me help you back to the horses."

"Alright, son," the man finally assented.

"Is he gonna make it?" Thatch asked when Cody finally managed to lug the man back to the well she was sheltering behind.

"Not if we don't get him to a doctor. And soon."

"Here, I'll help ya get him on a horse then go let the Lieutenant know where we're goin'," Thatch said, already suiting actions to her words. After helping Cody pull the Captain up onto his horse with him, she slapped the horse into motion, "Now, get goin'. Don't worry, I'll catch up soon."

Cody was halfway back to the cavalry's base in Corinth by the time Thatch caught up with him. Together they rode through the night, hoping against hope to get the Captain to a doctor in time to save his life. About dawn they rode up to the front of the hospital tent.

"Doctor! We need a doctor!" Cody shouted, as the limp form of Captain Utt dragged him off his horse, nearly flattening him into the ground.

A doctor wearing a blood spattered apron came lumbering out of the tent. Upon seeing Cody barely holding up Captain Utt he yelled over his shoulder, "Recruit! Recruit Price, get out here! We need another set of arms."

A tall, skinny man with a bushy head of already graying hair and an equally gray beard came shambling out of the hospital tent at the summons.

"What is it this time? Another half dead officer?" he sneered. "They're all after the glory and leave us to deal with all the guts."

He guffawed at his own joke as he grabbed Captain Utts legs and helped lift the man's dead weight onto a stretcher. Then, bending down he grabbed one end of the stretcher while Cody grabbed the other. They rushed the Captain into the entry way of the tent, where a base had been set up for stretchers. The entire walk the doctor was peering at the Captain's wounds, moving pieces of fabric around, gingerly fingering various bits of torn flesh.

"How long ago was he injured?"

"About eight hours, Sir," Thatch said at Cody's elbow. Cody jumped in surprise, not having noticed she'd followed him into the hospital.

"I'm afraid there's nothing we can do to save the legs, then. It's been too long and there's been too much blood loss. The best we can hope for is to prevent an infection and save his life," the doctor said briskly. Turning to the recruit who'd collapsed onto a nearby three legged camp stool he said wearily, "Get me the saw."

"Get me the saw, throw away the limb, don't forget to wash your hands," the man muttered sarcastically as he walked away.

"I apologize for ol' Kit Price there," the doctor said. "He's a mite bitter. Joined up last summer, almost immediately got injured at Vicksburg, spent the winter in the hospital recovering only to catch a pleurisy of the lungs. They're going to discharge him for it later this week. Can't do anything else with him in the meantime, so he works here as an orderly."

While speaking, the doctor was efficiently scrubbing his already reddened hands in a mixture of boiling water and carbolic acid.

"Whatcha doin'?" Thatch asked curiously.

"Well, son, one thing this war has done is opened our eyes to a few things. Infection appears to spread less when we doctors wash our hands and our equipment with something like this acid or alcohol before and after treating each patient. And every little bit we can do to save lives is a blessing. We're losing more men to disease and infections than to the damned bullets and cannons."

Finished washing his hands, he took the bone saw from Recruit Price and began scrubbing it down in the same bowl.

"I'm afraid I'm going to need your help boys. Most of my staff just turned in not half an hour ago and I'm reluctant to wake them. Sleepy medics made stupid decisions. So, I'm going to need you two to help hold your Captain down while I take his legs."

"Both of 'em?" Cody gulped.

"Yes son, both of them. They're just too badly damaged. Here, you take this leather strap, place it between his teeth and then hold it down under the table so he can't lift his head."

Turning to Thatch he continued, "You boy climb up on top and sit on him. That'll keep him from bucking too much and I'll be able to get a cleaner, quicker cut. Price, you know how to hold down his arms and shoulders."

Price nodded and squared his shoulders, ready to do his duty.

"Everyone ready?" the doctor asked, meeting the eyes of each of his aides. At their nods he said, "Alright then, take your positions."

Cody grabbed both ends of the leather strap and pulled tight. Thatch climbed up on top of the Captain and sat on his belly, grabbing the stretcher on both sides with two hands. Price just leaned over the patient's shoulders and lay down on him, using his weight to hold him in place.

"Hang on boys, it's like riding a buckin' bronco," Price warned with a grimace.

The doctor took a deep breath and brought the saw into position over Utt's left leg. With the first swipe the saw's teeth tore through the flesh quickly reaching bone. It took the doctor several long minutes to finish cutting through the thigh bone of the left leg, with blood spattering up at him from the severed artery. When the last tattered remnants of Utt's left leg tore free from his body, the doctor tossed it into a far corner of the tent and grabbed a red hot knife in the same motion. He pressed the knife up against the still bleeding stump and held it there for several seconds, until the smell of burning flesh and singed hair permeated the room.

Up until that point, the Captain had been blessedly unconscious. But the pain of the cauterization brought him around and he started trying to get away from the pain, nearly bucking Thatch to the floor.

"You boys better hold on, 'cause I've still got to take that other leg," the doctor warned. The three helpers looked at each other, gulped and hunkered down.

Fifteen minutes later, Thatch and Cody watched in astonishment as Kit Price, who'd been so calm and nonchalant throughout the surgery suddenly rushed out of the hospital tent and began vomiting into the weeds at the tree line.

The doctor finished cleaning his hands and the saw as he watched Price go. "The others around here call him Mean ol' Kit Price because he's got such a mouth on him. But anyone who's gone through surgery knows, his attitude is just a cover. It gets to him. Bad. Hell, it gets to all of us."

A white faced Cody nodded in agreement. He'd thought the battlefield was bad, but he'd take that over this any day. He just prayed he'd never end up on that table, he thought, looking down at the once more unconscious Captain Utt. He'd rather be dead, than have to live through that again.

Lou and Kid

"Lou, get those men around that bend and behind some trees before the Yanks get here! Or the gig's up!" Virgil ordered impatiently.

Lou looked to her left, noticing several of Company G's men had simply stopped their horses halfway around the bend and could still be seen clearly well down the Warrenton Turnpike. Trotting over to them she shouted, "You fools! Ya think the Yanks are blind and stupid? They can see ya a mile away! Now get behind some cover."

The startled men quickly followed her orders, hiding their horses amongst the trees that lined the turnpike. Lou nodded in satisfaction before returning to her own post further up the road. Squad 4, along with two other squads, was detailed to wait until the Federal troops chasing General Lee's men had passed by and sprung the trap further up the road. Then, they were to come in from behind and scatter the bluecoats.

Lou sighed. The last couple weeks had been a series of inconclusive skirmishes. But they'd led up to another major defeat for the Confederates at Bristoe Station. Once again, she and the rest of the men of the 1st Virginia Cavalry found themselves covering Lee's retreat. If only the man would quit moving so fast he outstripped his supply lines. Then again, by now that didn't mean much. Supply was a rumor these days, not a fact.

Kid gently nudged her elbow, motioning toward the turnpike they were supposed to be watching with his chin. Lou looked and nodded. Here came the bluecoats.

On the other side of the turnpike, Louie and Thomas watched the approach, too. Everyone tensed and readied to spring into action at the first sign of fighting once the Federals rounded the bend ahead of them. Squad 4 remained understrength, as did many of the squads left in Company G, after Gettysburg. There simply were no new recruits to replace Emmett and the others killed in battle anymore.

The sound of clanging steel and the popping of fired revolvers brought all the men in hiding to their feet. A rebel yell and they were off.

The ambush had already rattled the Federal troops. The added attackers from the rear had them coming completely unglued. In a matter of moments they were fleeing back down the road, as fast as their horses could carry them.

"Come on, boys!" Virgil shouted. "Looks like they wanna race!"

"Ain't no Yank gonna beat me in a race," Thomas answered, whipping his horse to a faster pace.

Lou shook her head as she stared into the fire. The chase that night had lasted nearly five miles and only ended when the Federal advance troops got too close to their main forces again. The bright spot in the recent string of Confederate losses had quickly been dubbed the Buckland Races, after the Buckland Mills nearby. A slight grin and chuckle escaped her lips. The fleeing Yanks had been funny in their frantic efforts to escape.

"What's so funny, Lou?" Kid asked.

"Nothin'," Lou said, "Just thinkin' 'bout the Buckland Races."

Kid's smile soon matched hers. Any reason to smile these days was worth revisiting as often as possible, he thought. Especially considering their second wedding anniversary was next week and they were still living like brothers. He'd thought those days were over when he'd watched her walk down the aisle, dressed as a woman in front of the entire town.

"Do you think we'll be spendin' the winter here?" he asked quietly.

"Most like. Unless Lincoln decides to launch another offensive, which I just can't see this late in the year. His supply lines are already getting mucked up by the winter weather up North."

"That's good," Thomas said. He rarely joined in the squad's conversations. But lately his nearly constant anger had alienated him from everyone else. Squad 4 had no choice but to put up with him. "Anabel should've had the baby by now. If we stay in one place, one of the nigras should be able to find me with the news."

"What do ya think it'll be?" Louie asked. "A boy or a girl."

"Oh, it'll be a boy," Thomas declared assuredly. "My Anabel would never have a girl first. She's too proper for that."

Lou coughed into her hand to disguise her laughter at his attitude. But all traces of laughter were suddenly strangled in her throat at the sight of Virgil coming toward their campfire with Isaac's young grandson, Samson, trailing forlornly behind him.

"Thomas, we need to speak," Virgil said quietly, taking his friend by the arm and nearly dragging him away from the fire. "Samson, you stay here and get warmed up. Lou, could you find somethin' for him to eat?"

"Sure, Virgil."

Kid patted the ground next to him and said, "Samson, take a seat. We ain't got much, but you're welcome to share."

Samson knelt down wearily on the ground but didn't reach out to take the plate Lou was trying to hand him. She noticed his eyes seemed to stare off into the distance.

"Samson?" she asked, concerned. When he failed to respond, she turned to Louie and said in a tight voice, "Can you go get Isaac, Louie. I think somethin' really bad's happened. Samson seems to be in shock."

Louie flew off into the dark night, only to return a few minutes later with Isaac jogging on his heels.

"Samson! Boy, wassa mattah?" Isaac asked, taking Samson into his arms.

At the sound of his grandfather's voice, the youngster suddenly lost all control, weeping and wailing against Isaac's chest. Slowly those around the fire pieced the story together.

A Yankee patrol out foraging had stumbled upon the Berkeley plantation house. They didn't bother to ask any questions, just attacked. The last Samson had seen, the blue coats had been torching all the buildings, including the barn. The women on the plantation had hidden in a special room they'd built underneath the barn floor. He'd heard them screaming in agony as he'd crept off into the night.

"No!" came Thomas' anguished cry from the nearby darkness, as Virgil told him the tale. "No! Anabel! My son!"

The grieving man came rushing back toward their camp with Virgil hot on his heels. As he neared the group seated about the fire, they could all see he had murder in his eyes. And he was aimed directly at Isaac and Samson.

Isaac pulled the boy toward him and whispered quietly in his ear, "Run, boy, run. And don't look back."

The boy started scooting back out of the ring of light shed by the fire. As soon as he was fully in the dark, he took off at a sprint for parts unknown. Thomas never noticed. His anger was aimed fully at Isaac who'd stepped in front of Samson. He took a flying leap at the older man, tackling him to the ground.

"How dare ya even be alive, when they're not, ya thievin' nigger," he snarled as he began punching and kicking at the fallen man. "Ya stole my son from me!"

Isaac did nothing to stop him, simply putting his hands up protectively over his face.

"Kid! Virgil!" Lou pleaded, "we've gotta stop him or he's goin' to kill Isaac!"

"Virgil," Kid said, "grab Thomas! Get him outta here 'til he calms down."

"Don't know what all the fuss is. Better he take his anger out on him than me," Virgil muttered, but grabbed Thomas, still screaming invectives, and began dragging him off to the other end of camp. He warned, "You better get that man hidden, I won't be able to keep him confined for long."

"We will," Lou said. As Virgil and Thomas disappeared into the dark, she turned to Kid and Louie. "Come on, help me get him up. We'll hide him in Louie's tent for tonight."

"My tent?" Louie asked in surprise.

"Yes, yours. One, ya've got the room since Emmett passed. Two, Thomas'll come searchin' our tent. He won't think to check yours. Now move!"

"Yes, sir," Louie responded automatically to the command tone that had entered Lou's voice at the end.

Buck

Buck yawned as he followed Dawn Star, her two kids and Standing Woman back to their part of the camp. Rain would come along later. The giveaway portion of the evening's celebration was over. While many would continue to visit and dance throughout the night, the Sun Dance had officially come to a close. In the next few days he and Standing Woman would pack up the camp. But this time they wouldn't be heading out with Running Man's band of Northern Cheyenne. They would be heading south, toward Red Bear's band of Kiowa. He hoped their welcome would be warm, but was none too sure of that after their last parting.

As Buck ducked to enter the tipi he shared with Standing Woman he found his young wife sitting on their bed, staring into the fire. Dawn Star had erected her own tipi while he'd been off hunting and was already settling in for the night there with her two children, little Shining Star, of five winters, and baby Sleeps A Lot, just one winter old.

Sitting down next to his wife, he asked, "Do you want to tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"Whatever it is that you've been thinking so hard about the last week."

"I, well," she paused then started again. "Buck, I've got a favor to ask of you. A really big one and you're not going to want to do it."

"What are you talking about, Standing Woman? You know I'd do anything for you."

"Not this."

"You won't know until you ask," he encouraged.

She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then began. "I don't want to go with you to Red Bear's village. Not alone. I've spent a lot of time talking with Dawn Star, Buck, and she was miserable away from her family. I couldn't handle that."

"But…" he started to protest.

Standing Woman placed a finger over his mouth. "Let me finish, Buck, please."

"Alright," he smiled gently at her, kissing her finger.

"At the same time, if you left alone, that would mean neither Dawn Star nor I would have anyone to provide for us while you were gone. Sure, I can hunt, but I couldn't do enough of it to support us properly. That would be putting too much of a burden on the rest of the camp."

Buck nodded, understanding what she was saying.

"Add to that my duties, and yours, as a Shaman. What happens when we have children? You and I won't have enough time to do everything we're supposed to."

"What are you getting at, Standing Woman?" he asked, almost scared to hear what she had to say.

She took a deep breath and blurted out, "I want you to marry Dawn Star!"

"No!" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "Never! I only want one wife. You. How can you ask this of me?"

Standing Woman rose and moved up to him, leaning her head against his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his waist. "I know how you feel, Buck. And I feel the same way. But these traditions exist for a reason. She needs someone to provide for her. I'm her sister. That makes you the logical choice. We need help and we're going to keep needing it."

She looked up into his eyes. "Do you think I want to share you? Even with my own sister?"

Buck's stiff stance softened and he wrapped his arms around his wife, pulling her tight against him.

"No," he whispered, almost inaudibly.

"And who's to say it has to be a permanent marriage? Or even a real one? Right now, Dawn Star isn't ready for a real husband, that's for sure. Even if she were, she's still nursing Sleeps A Lot and will be for at least another year. That means there couldn't be anything between you until then, anyway. By then she may have healed enough to find her own husband," Standing Woman responded hopefully as she took Buck's face between her hands, "and give mine back to me."

"You can't count on that," Buck warned.

"No," Standing Woman said. "Nor can I count on surviving tomorrow. We must take care of today and let tomorrow take care of itself."

"Have you discussed this with Dawn Star?" Buck asked, heaving a deep sigh. "How does she feel about this?"

"Yes, we've talked. She's willing, if you are. For the children's sake, if nothing else."

Buck smiled gently as he thought of the two young ones. He wouldn't mind adopting them, which would be part of any marriage to Dawn Star. He loved spending time with them, taking care of them.

"Well, I guess there's nothing to do but talk to Rain," Buck said. "But tonight I plan to enjoy the wife of my heart."

Running Man's band put off their planned departure to celebrate the wedding of Dawn Star and Running Buck. It was nowhere near as festive as had been his wedding to Standing Woman. All understood it was a marriage of necessity, of survival, not of love. But they wanted to put a good face on it. The band hosted a feast and merrily escorted the groom to his new bride's tipi, where he and Dawn Star would be sequestered for the next seven days, to get to know each other.

Standing Woman watched from the sidelines, holding little Shining Star's hand. She would watch her during the honeymoon period. The baby had had to stay with Dawn Star and Buck because he was still nursing. This was what she'd wanted, she had to keep reminding herself. Her sister would be taken care of and she wouldn't be alone with a strange people. But, it was still hard to watch her husband enter another woman's tipi like that.

A week later Buck followed Dawn Star out of her tipi. He'd spent the last seven nights laying beside her on her bed, staring up at the smoke hole at the top of the tipi. The days he'd spent repairing old arrows, making new ones and getting to know his new son, Sleeps A Lot, better. Yet, despite all that imposed rest, he was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep in his wife's, his true wife's, arms. But, as he looked around, eager for his first sight of Standing Woman in a week, he found her already hard at work dismantling her tipi.

He started to move toward her, but Dawn Star put a hand gently on his arm, holding him back and shaking her head.

"Let me talk to her," she said quietly.

Buck nodded and watched her move off toward her sister while he stood there and waited.

"Good morning, sister," Dawn Star began.

"Morning," Standing Woman grunted.

"Would you like some help with that?"

Standing Woman shrugged as she continued to pull the hide covering off her already emptied tipi. Dawn Star moved in quietly and began to help with the arduous task. Only after the last of the tipi cover was off the lodgepoles and carefully packed away on a travois did Dawn Star speak again.

"Our husband loves you very much."

"I know," Standing Woman answered, barely holding back a sob.

"You cannot punish him for this," Dawn Star said taking her sister's hands in hers. "At least, not anymore than he is torturing himself mentally. Over the last week he spoke of nothing but you!"

"Really?" Standing Woman asked, raising her eyes to meet Dawn Star's with growing hope on her face.

"Yes, really," Dawn Star answered with a sad smile. "And I am glad. He is all the husband I need or want. Someone to help raise my children and provide for our needs. He will not demand of me things I cannot give him."

"Oh, thank you!" Standing Woman exclaimed, throwing her arms around Dawn Star's neck and hugging her tight. "Thank you."

"Alright already," Dawn Star laughed. "Don't hug me! Go hug your husband. He needs to know that you still love him, too!"

"Yes, ma'am!" Standing Woman responded, turning and flying in the direction of her anxiously pacing husband.

Seeing her sudden approach, Buck set little Shining Star, who'd come toddling up to him while her mother was busy, back on her feet. Bending down, he whispered something in her ear. Then, standing, barely managed to brace himself in time to catch his wife in his arms without falling onto his rear. He let her body slide down his, setting her back on her feet while enjoying the physical contact he'd missed so much in the last week.

"Good morning," she whispered almost shyly into his ear.

"Good morning," he answered, bending his head to capture her lips with his, heedless of the improper spectacle they were making of themselves. Hungrily, they began to consume each other, relearning the beloved feel of their spouse. A few moments later, when both came back up for breath, he said, "I was afraid you were angry with me."

"No," she said, pressing her forehead against his chest to hide her shame. "I was angry with myself. I know you only married Dawn Star because I asked you to and to help take care of her. But…."

"But it still felt like a betrayal?" he asked softly.

"Yes," she breathed.

"I know. I felt the same way."

"But now, now I think we'll be able to work this out," Standing Woman said, raising her eyes again to meet his.

"That's good," Buck answered, wrapping his arms more tightly around her waist. "Because I don't think I could survive losing you. I've lost too many important people in my life. Now, let's get to work helping Dawn Star dismantle her tipi, so we can get on the road. I can't wait to introduce you to my brother!"

"You can't wait to introduce me?" Standing Woman asked coyly as he set her away from him, "Or you can wait to introduce your two wives?"

"I plead the fifth," Buck answered with the broadest grin he'd felt on his face in weeks. Things were going to work out, he thought as he happily followed the love of his life to his second wife's tipi to start dismantling it.

Hickok

Jimmy followed Elizabeth quickly out the window of Dumfries office window, slipping beneath the edge of the sill just as Dumfries and a business associate entered through the door on the other side of the room. Jimmy and Elizabeth crouched down below the window, listening in on the conversation. Unfortunately, it seemed to be about legitimate business and wouldn't add to what they'd already found. When they were sure they wouldn't learn any more, the duo slowly crept away through the Dumfries garden and into the alley behind.

"Whew, that was a close one," Jimmy sighed in relief once they were well away from the house. "I thought he had us for sure."

"Ah've had closer," Elizabeth sighed breezily. "And didn't come away with anythin' near as important as this."

She waved a sheaf of papers clutched in her left hand at Jimmy. "We got it! We finally got it! Proof that the Wild Rose is Rose O'Neal Greenhow! We've got her now."

"Only if we can get those papers into the right hands, across the front lines," Jimmy muttered, a tad less enthusiastic. "Findin' them was the easy part."

"Oh, Ah already know how we're goin' to get the information into General Meade's hands, himself," Elizabeth said, heading off toward her own mansion. "You're goin' to inspect the troops that are usin' the Spencers you're providin' the ammunition for. Ah'll come along to bring our good fightin' boys a few Christmas goodies. From there, it's just a hop, skip and a jump into the Union lines. Ah have all the passcodes we'll need to get these papers safely to General Meade from there."

Jimmy just shook his head in admiration of her carefully thought out plan, wondering just how long she'd been working on it.

"Well, what are ya waitin' for?" she called back over her shoulder. "We've got some Christmas bakin' to do."

Lou and Kid

Kid looked up as Lou entered their tent. She'd been off at an officers meeting with Captain Irving. He straightened up as he got a good look at her bone white face.

"Lou?" he asked questioningly.

She looked up from the note she held in her hand, as if suddenly realizing where she was and who else was there. Silently she held the note out to Kid. He looked down and carefully worked his way through the words.

"Mr. Ambrose Merriweather proposes to inspect the troops who are using the captured Spencer rifles to ensure they are being properly maintained before delivering new stockpiles of ammunition for them next month," he read. Looking back up at Lou he repeated the two most unnerving words of the note, "Ambrose Merriweather?"

Lou nodded.

"Bulldog?"

Lou nodded again.

"But… but he's dead," Kid protested.

"Jimmy ain't," Lou said quietly.

At that reminder, Kid suddenly plopped back down on his bedroll as if his legs had lost all strength.

"You know Jimmy's used his name a couple times when he didn't want to use his own," Lou added.

"What are we gonna do, Lou?" Kid asked plaintively.

"Shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" Lou asked meeting Kid's pained eyes. After a moment, he looked away in guilt.

"I can't turn him in, Lou. He's our best friend."

"I'm glad to hear that, Kid. Because I think he can do us a huge favor."

"What?"

"Isaac. We can't keep hidin' him forever. We've gotta get him and Samson outta here. You know Jimmy'll help."

Kid nodded slowly. "Besides, I need to apologize to him for what I said at Noah's funeral."

"Yes, Kid, you do," Lou said softly. "But so does he, and I think he knows it. But all the same, I think I should be the one to approach him first. He may be using another name, but he's still gonna be our Jimmy."

Kid laughed at the smile Lou had as they both imagined Jimmy's probable first response if he saw Kid without warning. "I think you're right, Lou. I wouldn't want to get shot by my best friend after surviving three years of war!"

Jimmy jumped limberly out of the carriage he'd been driving then turned to hand down his elegantly gowned companion. She moved gracefully to his side and looked around the camp.

"Bulldog!"

"Wha..?" Jimmy muttered as he started looking around. Who was calling out to Bulldog? They couldn't mean him. No one here would know about the nickname. Well, except for…. No. Couldn't be. They were out Manassas way, not here by Richmond. Weren't they?

Suddenly, a small, wiry body pounded into his as Lou tackled him. "Bulldog! I can't believe you made it in time for Christmas!"

"Lou?" was all Jimmy could think of to ask, even as he edged between one of his best friends and his fellow spy. "What are you doin' here?"

"We joined up, just like we said we would, silly!" Lou responded, punching him gently in the shoulder. He winced. How'd she gotten stronger since he'd last seen her? "Now come on! Kid's just dyin' to see ya. He was afraid to come welcome ya, after that last spat you two had before you left. But I told him you'd already forgotten it, right Jimmy?"

She paused in her chatter to glance up at Jimmy just long enough to catch his confirming nod, before pulling him along after her. Jimmy looked back helplessly at Elizabeth and shrugged. She smiled and waved him on, clearly not concerned.

"Um, Lou, what…?" Jimmy started to ask, then stopped as she threw a glare his way without pausing in her excited chatter.

"Bulldog, just you wait. You'll never recognize the Kid. He's got a full beard now and his hair's longer 'n' yours used ta be. By the way, what happened to your hair? I didn't think anyone'd ever get you to cut it again."

As she wrapped up this last sentence, she pulled him into a copse of trees at the edge of camp. Once hidden from sight, she suddenly grew very quiet, holding a finger to her mouth indicating a need for silence and pulling Jimmy after her. Fifteen minutes of hiking through the Virginia snow later, she led him into a cave more than a mile away from camp, well hidden by brush and trees.

Once inside, she finally broke her silence. "We need your help, Jimmy."

"Would you mind tellin' me what the hell's goin' on here?" he finally spat out at her, half in amusement, half in anger.

"We're pretty sure we know why you're here, Jimmy," Kid said, walking out of the gloom at the back of the cave, "and we need your help."

"What?" Jimmy said again. "You know I'm gettin' damned tired of saying that word. Would one of you please answer me!"

Kid shrugged. "Usin' the name you're usin', we're pretty sure you're here spyin' for the Federals."

Jimmy started to backpeddle frantically, but Kid held up a hand asking for patience. "Don't worry, we don't aim to stop ya. Thing is, if I could figure a way to get us outta here, without endangerin' Lou's life,"

"Or yours," Lou put in. Kid just looked at her.

"We'd have lit out after Gettysburg," Kid finished. "But this ain't about us. There's no way we could get clear of this war without bein' shot for desertion. We're too well known by now, by too many people."

"But," Lou walked up to stand beside her husband, wrapping one arm around his waist, "there's someone else who can't wait 'til the end of the war. If we don't get him out of here soon, he's gonna git killed."

"What do ya need?" Jimmy asked, ready to talk. After Lou and Kid had explained all about Isaac and Thomas' increasingly brutal beatings, he said simply, "I'll help. But I've gotta talk to Elizabeth, first."

"Elizabeth?" Kid questioned, with a slight smirk.

"It ain't like that!" Jimmy slapped at Kid's shoulder. "She's my contact with the Federals. Been spying on Davis right from his own backyard since before the war started."

"Oh, that lady you rode in with," Lou said.

"Yep. She's the one arranged this little trip. Things were gettin' a mite hot in Richmond. We needed to get out of town for awhile, lay low, and get some important papers North," Jimmy explained. "She'll know what to do to get your friend out of here to safety."

"Why doesn't it surprise me you'd end up ridin' with a lady?" Kid murmured.

"I don't know. Maybe cause you and I always been so much alike?" Jimmy needled back.

"Alright boys, enough," Lou said repressively, leading the way to the cave entrance.

"Good lord, she's gotten bossy the last couple years," Jimmy complained to Kid.

"You ain't guessed the half of it," Kid murmured, following his two best friends back out into the winter sunshine.

"L-T, guess what? We're gonna have a bonafide Christmas dinner tonight?" an excited Louie shouted to Lou as the trio walked back into camp. They'd deliberately circled around so they'd re-enter camp from the opposite side they'd departed it. Lou pushed her glasses up on her nose as she smiled at Louie and said simply, "You don't say."

"Yeah. There's a pork roast with sweet 'taters and apples. And real pumpkin pie!"

Lou laughed at the boy's antics.

Behind their backs, Jimmy turned to Kid and mouthed, "L-T?"

Kid nodded back.

"Third in command of Company G," he said proudly.

"I don't see any Lieutenant's bars on your shoulder, Kid. Does that mean she…." At Kid's warning glare he quickly switched pronouns. "He's your boss?"

"Yep," Kid grinned, enjoying Jimmy's shock.

"Good Lord! You'll never get him to stop takin' risks now!"

Kid just shrugged. Jimmy grunted in acknowledgement of the other man's apparent easy acceptance of the risks his wife now took. This was not the same man Lou'd once called a 'mealy-mouthed coyote' for his overprotective attitude toward her. He asked simply, "What happened?"

Kid knew exactly what Jimmy meant. "This war. It ain't good for much, but it's certainly good for makin' a man think long and hard about his priorities in life. One thing I've learned, Lou's usually right. It's easier to accept risks when we're side by side, then it ever was watchin' him ride off without me. I understand now the promise he made me give back in Davenport."

Jimmy nodded in appreciation. When they reached the center of camp they found Elizabeth supervising the laying out of a snow white cloth over a quickly improvised dinner table. Jimmy grinned. She'd even insisted on bringing out a complete set of silverware. He moved up beside her and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and walked away.

Lou, having finally ditched the excited Louie by sending him over to help Elizabeth, raised an eyebrow at Jimmy. He just smiled at her, indicated everything was fine, and asked, "So, which horses did ya take?"

"Well, we've only got one of the Indian ponies left. Lost the other back in Chancellorsville," Kid said. "He was Ike's favorite. Want to go say hi?"

"Great idea," Jimmy said, glad Kid had picked up on his hint.

"We only took him after Buck left," Lou said, walking between the two men. "We'd both figured he'd take him."

"But, he was the best of the lot when it was time to head out," Kid said.

"Except for Katy and Lightning," Jimmy added.

"Those two were never a question," Lou said quietly. "We weren't going to risk them out here."

"I know. I left Sundancer with Rachel before heading East, too. You know Katy's foaled by now."

The trio disappeared into the barn, discussing horses, like they always did.

That night, Kid sat back and belched. He hadn't eaten that well in months. And it was good to have Jimmy by his side again, and not angry at him. It had been easier than he'd thought to admit he'd been wrong. He was glad Jimmy had understood why they couldn't leave with him. It would be hard to say good-bye, but much easier than it had been to lose him with no word like last time.

Kid and Jimmy both remained carefully concentrated on their conversation with Virgil and Thomas. Lou had ostensibly left with Louie to help with clean-up. But, she'd quickly slipped away from the kitchen area, on the pretense of returning some dishes to the carriage, and never returned.

The plan had been for her to sneak away and help Isaac and Samson hide themselves in the carriage, underneath the emptied dishes. Kid had to stay in plain sight throughout the night. Between his now well-known anti-slavery attitude and the animosity between him and Thomas, he would be the first man suspected when Isaac disappeared. So, Jimmy was making sure he had plenty of alibis.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Lou asked for the umpteenth time. "You two know you're going to have to stay in there and stay absolutely still and silent for several hours."

Isaac smiled as she issued the unnecessary warning. "We'll be fine, missus. We cain't thank ya enough fer all ya done fer us."

"No thanks required," Lou smiled.

"But, yer endangerin' yer own life to help us," Samson piped up from his hiding spot behind Isaac.

"Well, see, I've come to think of you two as family," Lou said gently to the young man. "And as a good man once taught me, family is family. You take care of it, before anythin' else."

Isaac smiled and pulled the thick carriage blanket up over his head to complete their hiding spot. As she made last minute checks to ensure nothing gave the pair away, Lou continued. "Now, don't you two forget to head for Rock Creek and Rachel Dunne's house, soon's you get North. We'll see ya there, when this war's over."

"Yes, missus," came the muffled reply.

Lou sighed, then turned and walked away. When she returned to camp, Virgil and Thomas were saying goodnight. Elizabeth had already bedded down in the barn, well guarded by Young Louie. Kid and Jimmy sat waiting for Lou by the fire outside their tent. That night they lay wedged into the two man tent, side by side, reminiscing about their days with the Pony Express well into the wee hours of the morning.

After Kid fell asleep, Jimmy finally found the courage to ask the question that had been bugging him since he'd first seen her. "Are ya happy Lou?"

"Happy as I can be. It ain't where I expected to be after nearly two and a half years, but we're together. That's all the matters."

Jimmy lay back, quietly digesting her words. He'd made the right decision, not to fight for her, then, he thought. Not if she could be happy with her choices after all this. He gently squeezed the small hand wrapped in his, knowing the other was still tightly wrapped in Kid's, then closed his eyes and went to sleep.

The next morning, Lou had to report for a meeting with Captain Irving, so Kid was left to say goodbye to Jimmy alone. He handed his best friend a packet. "I was hoping you could see your way to mailing these for us."

At Jimmy's questioning look, Kid explained, "They're letters, mostly Lou's, to Rachel and Emma. We ain't been able to get any mail out since January."

Jimmy nodded, pocketing the packet of letters. "Sure thing, Kid. Long as the next time Lou writes Emma you have him tell her, I ain't had nothin' to drink nor been with any fancy women for over a year now."

Kid nodded, grinning in understanding. "She'll be real tickled to hear that, Jimmy. Real tickled."

Teaspoon

For all the trouble the trip to Mexico had been, it had meant good news for the Herrington Ranch. They had enough money to get through the next year, even if they didn't plant a blamed thing in the spring. Not that Savannah Herrington planned to do any such thing. Teaspoon grinned. She was turning into a right fine frontier woman, didn't rightly need him around anymore.

Slapping the reins of the buckboard against the horse's rear to get the animal moving a bit faster, Teaspoon sighed. He was starting to feel useless again. The only reason he stuck around now was because of the increasingly frequent and ever deadlier Indian attacks in the area. With all the soldiers, Federal and Confederate, off fighting this War Between the States, the Indians were taking the chance to win back lands they'd steadily lost over the last few decades.

The wheels of the buckboard bounced along the road beneath him, jarring Teaspoon out of his reverie. He looked up just in time to see an Indian pony go bounding off into the dusk, riderless.

"Now, that don't look good," Teaspoon said to his horse. "Don't look good a'tall."

Pulling the horse to a stop, he painfully climbed down off the buckboard, absently rubbing his aching knee. After taking a moment to get his feet underneath him, Teaspoon started carefully searching the nearby area. It wasn't long before he found an injured Apache brave near the side of the road, unconscious.

It took a lot of grunting and groaning, on Teaspoon's part, to manhandle the young man into the back of the buckboard.

"Wonder what Mrs. Herrington's gonna have to say 'bout this?" he muttered to the horse as they got back underway. "Don't matter. Couldn't just leave the man lyin' there to die. Wouldn't be Christian."

When Teaspoon finally pulled into the yard in front of the Herrington Ranch house people poured out of the door.

"We were gettin' quite worried 'bout ya, Mr. Hunter," Savannah said in quiet admonishment.

"Couldn't be helped, ma'am. Found an injured man along the road and had to get him into the buckboard."

At those words, several of the women rushed around to the back of the buckboard to help. But, upon seeing who the injured man was, they all backed away even more quickly. One woman even let out a short scream, before another shushed her.

"How could you, sir!" demanded one irate older gentleman. "You should have left that savage to die where he was. You know he was hurt killin' other, peaceful, settlers!"

"I don't know nothin' of the sort," Teaspoon began, then stopped as Mrs. Herrington interrupted him.

"Mr. Lewis, if ya cannot abide by the Good Book than ya are welcome to leave any time. As for me and my house, we shall do as the Lord says and 'love our enemies as ourselves.' Just because his kind have killed whites doesn't mean he has. We shall be good neighbors to this man. Mr. Hunter, will you kindly help me get him into the house?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Teaspoon said, pleased at her strong stand. As they carefully maneuvered the injured man up the steps and into the living salon, he whispered to her, "Bully for you, Mrs. Herrington."

"Tweren't nothin'," she said. "Just doin' the right thing."

Buck

Red Bear stood at the edge of his band's winter camp watching the small group of travelers approach from the north. His scouts had alerted him to their presence and the fact this apparent family group seemed to be headed straight for the Kiowa camp. He couldn't help but wonder who this family was.

It was obvious, whoever they were, they were important. At the head of the group strode a slim, confident man wearing a white buffalo headdress. The head of the buffalo had been fully preserved and sat on the man's head, with the body of the robe flowing down his back and over his shoulders. The shadow cast by the headdress obscured the man's features. There was something very familiar about the way he moved. Red Bear just couldn't quite place what. Whoever the man was, he was obviously a very rich and important man, in more ways than one.

A small herd of horses followed the leader of the group, three pulling travois piled high with personal possessions. Two women were mounted on saddled horses along the edge of the herd, keeping the rest of the animals gathered together. One of the women had a cradle board hanging from one side of her saddle. The other had a little girl seated in front of her.

The little girl suddenly squirmed down from the horse and began running ahead toward the man in the white buffalo headdress. She started yelling something to the man, the words losing their distinctness in the distance. The man, however, heard her and stopped, squatting down on his haunches and holding out his arms to the little girl. She flung herself into his arms, wrapping hers around his neck, buffalo robe and all, knocking the headdress slightly askew.

The man stood still holding the little girl in his arms and turned back toward Red Bear. As he resumed his journey toward the Kiowa chief, Red Bear suddenl y gasped. A ray of sunlight illuminated the man's face.

"Running Buck!?!" In growing excitement he yelled to the camp, "Running Buck! It's Running Buck!"

Without realizing what he was doing, the Kiowa chief began an undignified sprint toward his younger half brother. He raced toward him much as the little girl had, with both arms outstretched in warm welcome.

Chapter 7: Wounded (Jan - June 1864, Siege of Petersburg)

Hickok

As Hickok drove the carriage back into the ritzier section of Richmond, where Elizabeth's three story mansion stood, he mulled over the events of the last couple of weeks. He wished Kid and Lou would've agreed to come with him, but he understood their decision. He wouldn't have wanted to risk Lou's life either. Shaking his head to rid himself of these thoughts that were distracting him from the job at hand, Jimmy turned to look at the woman seated next to him.

"Ah think we should visit the nearby Prisoner of War camp," she was saying. "I owe the commandant, Lieutenant Todd… You know he's Mrs. Lincoln's half-brother? Anyway, I owe him some of my famous gingerbread and buttermilk. I'd like to see what we can pick up about the latest troop movements for you to take on to General Meade before you leave."

"I don't think it's a good idea for me to go with you," Jimmy muttered. "Can't see as how there's any reason for a gunrunner to be visitin' a POW camp."

"You might be right," she nodded thoughtfully. "I'll just drop by with my mother tonight. Then you can be on your way tomorrow afternoon."

Jimmy nodded, accepting her plan. It was her city, after all, and he'd need her help to make it out alive.

He pulled the carriage around to the stables at the back of the Van Lew mansion and right into the barn. There, he hopped down and, not slowing to help Elizabeth out of the carriage, hurried straight to the back where he helped Isaac and Samson climb free of the canvas and leftover foodstuffs that had kept them hidden.

"You guys alright?" he asked.

"Yassir," Isaac said. "Though a mite stiff."

"I can bet," Jimmy grinned.

Samson stood next to his grandfather, looking around the barn curiously.

"You two go hide in that back stall," Elizabeth said as she rounded the back of the carriage to join the group. "I'll send my Jemma out to help you get settled in the special room for the night. You won't be able to leave until tomorrow afternoon."

"Afternoon, ma'am?" Samson asked, confused. Isaac tried to shush him, telling him not to interrupt, but to no avail. "Ya mean we ain't gonna wait 'til dark?"

"Nothin' looks so suspicious as movin' about when you're not supposed ta be," Elizabeth said assuredly. "No, y'all'll leave tomorrow afternoon with Mr. Merriweather here. Y'all'll be actin' as his servants in his role as a gunrunner. Ye'll board the Lizzie in Richmond Harbor in broad daylight, like any other legitimate traveler. No one'll ask ya any questions, 'cause ye'll be right where you're supposed to be, far as they're concerned."

As all three men nodded in understanding of her plan, she continued. "Then the Lizzie will sail, supposedly for Cuba. But, once clear of shore and any potential spies she'll turn North instead and deliver you two, Mr. Merriweather and my messages to General Meade and Mr. Lincoln. Messages, by the way, that you two," she paused to point at Samson and Isaac, "will carry, most assuredly not Mr. Merriweather. Even if, by some chance, he should come under suspicion the authorities will never think to search a black servant. What would you know about spycraft?"

At that comment all four burst into laughter.

"I'd better get goin' then," Jimmy said. "I'll need to get my things and pay off my room at the boarding house before leaving in the morning."

"Be here at first light, Mr. Merriweather. We'll have plenty to discuss before you depart."

When Jimmy returned to the Van Lew mansion early the next day he was not ushered into the same brightly lit salon as he'd been brought to on his previous visits. This time the serving girl hurried him down the hall to a hidden room off the kitchen. There, he found Elizabeth slowly writing down a message in an ink that disappeared just moments after she'd finished. Jimmy knew his reading wasn't as good as it could be, but he still couldn't make heads or tails out of what she was writing.

"Is that a foreign language, or somethin'?" he asked.

"No," she said, continued her hurried notations. "It's in code. Only General Meade has the cipher."

"Ah," Jimmy said and settled in to wait until she was finished.

"There," she said as she finished the last note. "Take this and roll it up real tiny. It needs to fit through this pinhole in the egg."

Jimmy looked doubtfully between the piece of paper she'd handed him and the egg she showed him with its insides blown out through two pinpricks, one at each end of the egg. Elizabeth deftly rolled up the first of the slips of paper in front of her and quickly slipped it into the nearest of the eggs. He tried to copy her motions, but no matter what he did, couldn't get the slip of paper slim enough to fit into the egg.

"Oh, give me that," she said, frustrated with his inability to help.

"Sorry," he muttered.

"Don't worry about it," she smiled at him beguilingly. "There are simply some things men are incapable of doing."

After a hurried brunch, Jimmy found himself out on the sidewalk leading what felt like a parade. Isaac followed close on his heels. Hidden in Isaac's new brogan shoes were several stolen dispatches, including the evidence against Southern spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow a.k.a. the Wild Rose. Isaac carried Jimmy's carpetbag and newly acquired valise, full of his supposed business papers for the sale of the 'special' Spencer rifle ammunition to the Confederate Army. Behind Isaac tramped Samson, also in newly acquired clothes. He carried a smaller bag of essentials for him and his grandfather, as well as a bag of provisions. Included in the provisions was a basket of fresh eggs for the 'massah's breakfast.' Half of those eggs were hollow, however, and filled with messages for General Meade, current commander of the U.S. Army.

Jimmy shook his head, unable to quite figure out how he'd found himself at the head of this procession. At least both Isaac and Samson had spent the morning with Elizabeth's maidservant. She'd provided disguises for them that were so foolproof not even Thomas himself would've recognized the pair of escaped slaves. Now, if only all three of their disguises would hold until they were north of the Mason Dixon Line.

Cody

"Mail call," Thatch shouted at the top of her lungs as she flung open the door to the small winter cabin she and Cody shared with five other members of the 7th Cavalry's scouting element.

"Close the danged door," one man complained, pulling a blanket up over his shoulders to shield himself from the chill seeping through the opening.

"Got anythin' fer me?" another man asked.

"Yep," Thatch said. "Ya got a letter from yer sweetheart. And Richie, ya got one from yer ma and pa."

"What 'bout me?" asked a grizzled veteran who'd snagged the bunk the furthest from the door.

"Sorry, Cole," Thatch shrugged. "Don't look like nobody wants ta have anythin' ta do with yer rotten ol' hide."

Everyone in the cabin laughed, even Cole, at that comment.

"Then who's the last letter for?" Cody asked, knowing it couldn't be for Thatch. She didn't have any family who knew she was here.

"You," Thatch said.

"Me?" Cody asked. "Is it from Emma? Or Rachel?"

"Danged, Cody, how many sweethearts you got?" griped Cole. "Cain't ya share?"

"Sorry boys, them's not sweethearts. Just friends."

"Yeah, right!"

"Says it's from a Mrs. General Polk," Thatch said in a questioning tone.

Cody stiffened at the name and snatched the letter from Thatch. He retreated to his bunk where he ripped the envelope open and started to rapidly read. The further he got into the letter, the more color his face lost. When he finished reading the letter he stuffed it inside his buckskin jacket and headed for the door.

"Where ya goin?" Thatch asked from her position by the fire.

"Out," Cody answered shortly, slamming the door closed behind him.

Later that night, Thatch found Cody sitting on a hay bale in the barn just staring at the letter he'd received, still inside the envelope.

"What's it say?" she asked timidly.

"My Ma's dead. Died last November. No one knew 'xactly where I was, that's why it took 'em so long to get me news."

He punched the side of the stall nearest him, sending the horse in it snorting toward the far corner.

"I shoulda been there," he moaned. "I always meant to go back. I only left to earn money to support the family after our Pa died. But, one thing led to another and I just never got back."

"You couldn't've done anythin' to save her," Thatch said quietly.

"That ain't the point. I shoulda been there. Family's family," Cody finished, losing all his steam and wilting back down onto the hay bale with this repetition of Teaspoon's constant refrain. "Family's family."

Thatch stood next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder in silent commiseration.

Buck

Buck ducked out of the door of Standing Woman's tipi and looked around. He was headed for his morning prayers. Standing Woman bumped into him, as she was following him out of the tipi and had been unprepared for his sudden stop.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," he said, then sighed.

"Don't give me that, Running Buck Cross!" she said.

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pull her tight into his side. "No, really. Nothing's wrong. I was just thinking."

"You've been doing a lot of that," she said as they headed toward the medicine wheel he'd set up for their daily prayers outside the camp. "Don't tell me you still feel like an outsider."

"No, it's not that. Rain in the Face was right. Most of the ostracism I thought I'd faced was just me not accepting myself. But, somehow, I still don't feel like I'm home."

"That's because you're not."

Buck looked sideways at her.

"Don't look at me that way," Standing Woman said. "We're just visiting and you know it. You won't feel at home until your Wasicu family is back from their war and you're back with them."

"You know me too well," Buck marveled, shaking his head to knock the slowly falling snow off it, then swooping in for a stolen kiss.

"Stop that," Standing Woman giggled, "or we'll never get back into the warmth."

"At least we'd be alone," Buck grumbled.

"You know you love the kids."

"Yeah, I do," he grinned.

"How'd you like one more?" she asked impishly.

"What?" he asked, coming to a sudden standstill.

"I said, how'd you like another child?"

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"Well, let's just say all that snuggling we've been doing in the bedroll has had a few consequences," she grinned up at him.

Buck let out a whoop of joy, wrapping his arms around her waist and spinning her in a circle. Suddenly he stopped his spin and set her gently down on her feet.

"I didn't hurt the baby, did I?" he asked anxiously.

"No, silly," she said, slapping his chest. "Some great Medicine Man you are. Forgot all your lessons as soon as they applied to you."

"I love you, Standing Woman," he whispered, pulling her in close for a deep, delicious kiss. "I don't know what I would ever do if I lost you."

"Well you aren't losing me today," she said when they finally came back up for air.

"Come on," he said, grabbing her hand and suddenly sprinting toward the medicine wheel. "We've got some special prayers to say today! Then we've got to tell everyone the good news."

She laughed as she stumbled after him through the snow.

Teaspoon

*How ya feelin', son?* Teaspoon asked the Indian brave camped out on Mrs. Herrington's living room floor using the nearly universal Indian sign language Buck had taught them all so they could communicate with Ike.

*I've been better. But I feel good enough to go home,* the man signed back.

Teaspoon nodded. Speaking aloud along with his signs, he said, "I kinda figgered you'd be itchin' to get back, now that you're conscious."

The brave nodded. *My family will be worried. Many will have already decided I died.*

"Well, I won't ask where home is, son. But might I suggest you stick around until this current blizzard passes on?"

The brave nodded his agreement with a wide grin.

*Wouldn't want to ruin all your doctoring by freezing to death,* he signed.

Both men started laughing loudly, then stopped as the front door was flung open by one of the older men who'd joined the haphazard collection of folks at the Herrington Ranch. Quincy Folsum had never stopped being upset about the Apache's presence on the ranch. He'd simply gotten to the point where he ignored the man instead. Walking straight to Teaspoon, acting as if their guest wasn't there, Quincy handed Teaspoon a packet of letters.

"These were waitin' fer ya in town," he said, before turning and stomping back out the front door.

"Now there's a man who could use some time in a sweat lodge," Teaspoon grunted. "Sweat all the mean outta him."

The Apache brave laughed at the joke, as Teaspoon shuffled through the letters. There was one from Emma, another from Rachel and…. he stopped as he recognized the handwriting on the third letter.

"Excuse me, son," he said gruffly, getting up and walking back toward the room Mrs. Herrington had given him on the first floor of her large ranch house. "I think I'd like to read these in private."

The Apache's eyes followed the older man's form with worry as he disappeared through one of the white man's doors.

Teaspoon closed his bedroom door behind him and leaned against it heavily. He stared down at the return address on the third letter. Polly. He'd thought he'd lost her for good, when he'd decided to head South. She hadn't said a word when he'd told her he was going. She'd just turned her back on him and walked toward the saloon she'd bought in Rock Creek. She'd not spoken to him again in the last week he was there, never come to say goodbye when he'd left, never written him. 'Til now, that was. He was afraid to open the letter. Afraid to find out what it was that had gotten her to relent enough to finally write.

After what felt like hours just staring down at the letter, Teaspoon stood and walked to the bed, feeling blindly behind him for it as he sat down. He never once took his eyes off the letter in his hands.

Finally, he slowly slid one finger underneath the sealed flap and pulled out the single sheet of vellum inside. Opening the sheet folded in half, he started to read.

Dear Sugarlips,

I know I was mad at you for leaving. I should have known better. I should have known that's what you had to do before you ever said anything. I'm too old to be making such a fool out of myself. Not to mention too old to be apologizing like this, so don't expect me to do it again.

I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, Sugarlips. I miss you. I can't put it more plainly than that. I need you. Here. And I'm not the only one.

Darlin', the town needs you, bad. Not a single marshal has lasted more than six months since you left. Now, we can't even get anyone to take the job. We'd even be happy with that Deputy Barnett from Sweetwater you kept complaining about. Between the Indians and the outlaws I've had to close down the saloon. I'm staying with Rachel and Janusz for now.

There's a lot of folks that have given up entirely and already headed either back East or further West.

From what Rachel says, sounds like you've taught those folks down there about as well as you taught your Express boys. Don't you think it's time to come on home?

Missing you.

Love, Polly

Reading through the letter a second, then a third, time, Teaspoon sighed. He had some decisions to make.

Hickok

James Butler Hickok took a deep breath as he stepped down off the train in Omaha, Nebraska territory. It felt good to be back where he could breathe the fresh air. He'd had enough of big cities to last him a lifetime. They stank. And that was just the people. The smoke and the refuse were almost as bad.

Isaac and Samson stepped down off the train behind him. After delivering their precious cargo to General Meade and suffering through an extensive debriefing in nondescript building in Washington, D.C., the government had bought the three of them tickets as far as Omaha and sent them on their way.

"Come on," Jimmy said. "Emma and Sam live around here somewhere. Can't be too hard to find 'em."

Isaac grinned at Jimmy's already turned back. "Yeah, right. This ain't Rock Creek, Mister Jimmy."

"I told you not to call me that," Jimmy tossed over his shoulder. By now the long running argument over how Isaac and Samson should address Jimmy had become more of a joke than a disagreement. "Jimmy's just fine."

Isaac harrumphed as he motioned to Samson to grab their bags and trotted off in Jimmy's wake. Jimmy snorted. Isaac wouldn't let him carry his own bags, insisted on calling him 'Mister' all the time and was the most stubborn cuss he'd ever met. He couldn't wait until Isaac ran into Teaspoon. It would be a case of the kettle meeting the pot. The only question was, which one would still be whistling come morning.

Looking around, Jimmy started to slow his stride. He'd never been to Sam and Emma's house in Omaha, but had figured it would be easy enough to find. Unfortunately, Omaha was quite a bit bigger than he'd expected. Now what was he going to do? As he started to look around worriedly, Isaac tapped his arm.

"Yes, Mister Isaac?" Jimmy joshed.

"Sir, why don't you ask at the Marshal's office?" Isaac said, pointing to the sign over a building they'd just passed. It had the image of a marshal's star emblazoned over the words 'Territorial Marshal'.

"That sounds like a good idea," Jimmy grunted. "Be right back!"

Hopping off the boardwalk, Jimmy dashed across the street, weaving in and out amongst the wagons and carriages. On the other side he quickly disappeared into the Marshal's office. Moments later he was being dragged back out by a taller man with a white hat on. The slim, rough edged man looked around a moment until Jimmy pointed out Isaac and Samson to him. Still dragging Jimmy along by the upper arm, the new man repeated Jimmy's hazardous trek across the street. Not letting go of Jimmy, he held his hand out to Isaac.

"Name's Cain. Marshal Sam Cain," he said. "You must be Isaac! I'm pleased to meet ya."

"Sam," Jimmy whined. "Ya can let go of my arm now."

"No, I can't," Sam said. "If Emma finds out you were in my office and I let you get away without bringin' you home for supper she'll have my hide."

"What is it with you married men?" Jimmy groaned, rubbing his free hand across his face as Sam dragged him down the street. "First the Kid, now you. Does saying 'I do' mean you give up your brains or something'?"

"Nope. Just gives us somethin' better to think about," Sam boasted, causing Isaac to laugh. Looking over his shoulder at the older man, Sam said, "You know what I'm talkin' 'bout, don'tcha?"

"Shore do, suh," Isaac answered. "Havin' a good woman to think 'bout shore changes the way a man thinks 'bout most everthin'."

"Well, I just don't get it," Jimmy complained.

"You will one day, son. You will one day."

At that Sam opened the gate of a white picket fence and pulled Jimmy through it, yelling at the top of his lungs, "Emma! Get on out here, woman!"

"Sam Cain, if you don't stop caterwauling like that you'll find yourself sleeping in the garden tonight," Emma grumbled as she walked out onto the porch, wiping her hands dry on her apron.

Jimmy gulped at the emotions the sight brought to the forefront. He'd seen her do that a thousand times back in Sweetwater. But it meant so much more this time. It meant home in a way he'd never thought about before.

"Emma, I've got a surprise for ya," Sam boasted, then stepped aside so she could see the man standing behind him.

"Jimmy!" she exclaimed, racing down the steps of the front porch and wrapping her arms around him. "Jimmy, you came home!"

"Yes, ma'am," was all he could manage to say without losing a control he'd never felt so threatened. Nearly whispering, he said, "I'm home."

That night, Jimmy found himself seated at Emma's kitchen table, sandwiched between Samson and a two year old Sam Cain, Junior. Across from him, Sam cradled his three month old son, Ike, in his arms. Meanwhile Lou's little sister Theresa helped Emma clear the table.

"Uncle Shimmy, Uncle Shimmy," the toddler everyone affectionately called Junior tugged at Jimmy's sleeve. "Mama made my fav'rite."

"Oh," Jimmy said, bending down so he could look the little tike in the eye, "and what's your favorite?"

Leaning over as if to impart a world secret, Junior loudly whispered, "Dessert!"

"I'll tell you a secret," Jimmy said. "Dessert's my favorite, too."

Placing a finger to his lips, he added, "Shhhh. You can't tell now."

The little one shook his head in agreement so violently he almost fell backward off the bench he and Jimmy were sharing.

"So, how long are you staying, Jimmy?" Sam asked. "I'd hate for ya to have to leave before Jeremiah gets back from Sioux City."

"What's he doin' up there?"

"Oh, he finished up his schoolin' last spring and got a job workin' for a freighting company," Sam shrugged. "He's on a run north right now, should be back sometime next week."

"That's too bad," Jimmy said. "I've only got a couple days, then I've got to head back to Missouri. I've got orders to report to the Provost Marshal's office down there. I may've resigned from the Army but they still seem to have a hold on me."

"I could arrange for you to work here, as a Territorial Deputy Marshal, instead," Sam offered.

"That's alright, Sam," Jimmy shook his head. "I'd rather be down in Missouri. I'll be closer to Kid and Lou, if… when they need me."

"Lulabelle?" Emma asked, reaching out to grasp Sam's hand tightly.

"You've heard from her then?" thirteen year old Theresa asked. "I've been so worried. We haven't heard from either of them in more than a year."

"Better than that," Jimmy boasted. "I've seen 'em. We had a nice visit 'bout six weeks ago, just outside of Richmond."

"Now that sounds like quite a story, Jimmy," Sam said, standing up with the sleeping babe in his arms. "Why don't we put these young'uns to bed and you can tell us all about it."

The next morning found Jimmy walking back to the train depot, with Isaac and Samson still trailing after him. It had been hard saying goodbye to Sam and Emma again, but he was glad he'd gotten the chance to visit. Before leaving, he'd handed a teary-eyed Emma Lou's packet of letters. She'd promised to mail Rachel's on to her.

After just a few hours with Emma and Sam, Jimmy felt himself more grounded than he'd felt since the end of the Pony Express. He felt like he could take on the world and everything would be all right.

"All aboard!" came the conductor's call.

"That's you two, Isaac," Jimmy said. "Now remember, once you get to Blue Creek you go to the livery and you ask for Jenkins. He'll take good care of you. It's only a half day's ride from there to Rock Creek. Rachel and Janusz'll be waiting. I wired them this morning."

"We's can't thank ya enough," Isaac began.

Jimmy held up his hand to stop the older man's thanks, yet again. "I've told you before, Isaac. It ain't about the thanks. It's about what's right. Even Kid, stubborn as he is, finally saw that. Once you're in Rock Creek you'll be able to decide for yourself what you want to do."

"We'll be waitin' out the war, suh," Isaac promised. "Gots ta find out how all you Express boys did."

An hour later, Jimmy boarded his own train, headed south for Springfield, Missouri.

Cody

Cody looked up from the horse he was grooming in the depths of the barn at the slamming of the barn's door. At the sight of Thatch wandering in, his mouth tightened. Something was up with her. Lately, she was disappearing at all hours, only to turn up the next day with nary a word about what she'd been up to.

"About time you remember'd ya've got a job, 'round here," Cody grumbled. "I've had to do all my chores and half a your's!"

"Ah, poor Cody," she teased. "You actually had to work for a change."

"This ain't no jokin' matter, Thatch."

"Hey, I ain't scheduled to be on duty until 7:30. I'm ten minutes early," Thatch defended herself. "You're just grumpy 'cause I ain't followin' ya around like a puppy no more."

"It ain't that I mind so much," Cody said to the back of the horse he was grooming. "I'm just worried 'bout ya is all."

"Well don't. I'm not doin' nothin' to get in trouble. I've just found a friend who understands what I'm goin' through a mite better'n' you, if ya catch my drift."

Cody's eyes shot up to meet Thatch's bright eyes over the back of the horse.

"Ya mean…?" He left the question hanging.

"I mean," she responded solemnly, despite the impish glint in her eyes. "Listen, we're headed into town for a bit of sport after duty this evenin'. Wanta come along?"

"Where ya headed?"

"The Silver Spurs. It'll be our last chance to have a blow out before we take off on spring maneuvers," she enticed.

"What the hell. Ain't like I got anythin' better to do," Cody accepted. "But I ain't runnin' interference with the saloon gals, again."

"No problem. Danny's taught me some new tricks."

"He has, has he?" Cody asked. "I can't wait to see this."

Unfortunately, the next morning the only memories Cody had of his night out on the town with Danny and Thatch were the incessant pounding of his head and a tongue that felt like cotton.

"Here," Thatch said, shoving a flask under his nose. "A bit of hair of the dog that bit ya."

"No thanks," Cody said, shoving the flask away. "Teaspoon taught us a long time ago, that don't really work. I'll just go drink some water. Soon's the world stops spinning."

"Better hope it stops spinning soon," Thatch said. "We're supposed to ride out at noon."

"Ugh!" Cody moaned, dropping back onto his bunk from the half sitting position he'd pushed himself into just moments before.

"That's alright, Mr. Cody," the Captain said, pushing his way into the cabin. "You're not coming along."

"What?!" That news was enough to have Cody jumping to his feet in shock.

"You heard me. I just received new orders for you. You're to ride out tomorrow morning for a new posting at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Seems you've been requested personally by General Polk. Must have some friends in high places there son. Gotta say, we're gonna miss ya on the trail."

"Oh man! I'm gonna kill her!" Cody moaned.

"Who?" Thatch asked as the Captain left.

"Mrs. Polk," Cody answered. "She was a good friend of my ma. I'll bet ya anythin' she's behind this gol-danged transfer."

"Ain't much ya can do 'bout it 'til ya get there," Thatch commiserated. "So ya might as well enjoy the extra day of rest."

Cody simply growled and threw his pillow at her as she left.

Teaspoon

"You're sure you won't change your mind?" Savannah Herrington asked for the thousandth time. She was following Teaspoon around the buckboard as he checked the hitchings and made sure everything was tied down properly. "We'll always need your advice, Mr. Hunter."

"You know how to survive out here, now, Mrs. Herrington," Teaspoon answered, as he checked on last lashing. "Better 'n most of those born out here. And with Alchise and his people watching out for ya, it ain't like ya've got ta worry 'bout Indian attacks. Just make sure to keep feedin' 'em any time they show up."

Mrs. Herrington smiled. While a lot of resentment still festered amongst those who'd settled at the Herrington Ranch for the duration of the war, she herself had become quite fond of the young Apache brave they'd been caring for. He'd left to return to his people just a week earlier.

"And, they need me back in Rock Creek," Teaspoon added as he climbed up onto the seat of the buckboard. "Polly needs me."

"And we can't disappoint your Polly," Mrs.Herrington smiled up at the old man who'd done so much to help her over the last few years. "You tell her if she doesn't take good care of you, we'll be comin' up there to discuss the situation."

"Don't think I'll be needin' to do that," Teaspoon guffawed. "But I'll keep that in mind. Y'all take care now."

And, with a wave to the group gathered in the yard between the ranch house and massive barn, Teaspoon urged the horses into motion. He was headed home. For good this time.

Hickok

"Four ladies," Jimmy said, laying his cards on the table. He'd been back in Missouri for a couple of months now, and hated it as much as ever. His job with the Provost Marshal's office was actually fairly boring. He spent most of his time dragging drunk soldiers back to camp and smoothing ruffled feathers amongst the merchants in town. The highlight of his time was the occasional robbery to investigate.

The groans of the other men seated around the saloon table serenaded him as he scooped up his winnings. Good thing, too. Once again the Provost Marshal was late with his pay. But, thanks to Rachel's teachings, he could survive off gambling.

"I think I'll call it a night, gents," he said, standing and pocketing his winnings. Then he straightened his guns and turned to walk out of the saloon.

"Hold up there, Hickok," his fellow Deputy Simon Sutter said. "I'll come with you. I ain't havin' any luck at the table tonight, anyway."

The two men walked out of the saloon side by side. It felt good to have someone to watch his back again, Jimmy reflected. But Simon, good man though he was, wasn't Kid, Lou or any of the other Express riders. From the news in the papers, it didn't look like the South could hold out too much longer. Maybe they'd all be back together again by Christmas.

"Say, Hickok," Simon broke the silence between them as the y walked down the darkened street. "How come you've never taken the Army up on their offer to replace those old '51 Navy Colts with the latest model?"

"Don't see the need to. These work just fine. They hit what I aim at. What else do you need from a gun? 'Sides, these guns and I've been through a lot together. Wouldn't feel right retirin' 'em."

"The newer ones shoot faster and are easier to load," Simon offered.

"Have ya ever seen me need to be any faster, Simon?" Jimmy asked grimly. "I'm plenty fast enough to get all sorts of attention I don't want. What the hell would I do if I got any faster?"

"Maybe not have to worry 'bout the man who thinks he's faster 'en you."

"Naw, man. There'll always be some young whipper snapper who thinks he's faster than me. Don't matter how fast I am. Someday, he may even be right. But that day ain't today," Jimmy ended with a laugh. "Now, let's get some cheese sandwiches at the mess hall and call it a night."

"Sounds good to me," Simon agreed jovially.

Teaspoon

Teaspoon hunkered down into the folds of his sheepskin coat. He prayed he'd find some sort of shelter soon. He kept glancing worriedly at the storm clouds building on the horizon. It looked like an awful blow building in the west. And this time of year, that meant a late spring blizzard.

Shivering in the chill winds that had started picking up about half an hour ago, Teaspoon guided the horses along the wagon tracks he'd been following into a nearby canyon. It should provide a little shelter, he thought to himself. About half a mile into the canyon, Teaspoon allowed his eyes to follow the antics of several large birds playing in the pre-storm winds. That's the only reason he noticed the entrance to a cave about twenty feet up the the canyon wall. There was even a small path leading up to it, meaning he could bring the horses on in too.

As the first flakes began to fall, Teaspoon carefully led the second horse up to the small cave. It was just big enough for Teaspoon, the two horses and a small fire. He'd brought in enough food to keep the three of them alive for several days and anything that even resembled a blanket. Everything else he'd left to the mercy of the elements.

By the time he had a small fire going near the entrance to the cave, with water boiling for tea on top, the storm had set in for good. The winds were howling loud enough he could barely hear himself think. The snow was coming down so fast and heavy Teaspoon couldn't even see the wagon he'd left just twenty feet below him.

Thinking about his close escape from the elements, Teaspoon snorted to himself. He'd survived worse than this, many a time. This would be just a slight bump on his road home. He stared into the flames, dreaming about his reunion with Polly and trying not to worry about his boys, and girl, still off to war.

Kid and Lou

"Damnit, Kid," Lou hissed. "I know how you feel about continue to fight in this war, but if you get yourself killed tryin' not to kill others, I'm gonna kill ya!"

She grabbed a handful of the unspent cartridges in Kid's ammo pack and slammed them into her revolver before turning around to head back toward the post where Thomas and Louie were holding off a squad of General Grant's cavalry.

The fighting around Spotsylvania courthouse had come in fits and starts over the last week as the newly minted commander of the Union forces tried to find Lee's weak spot. Cursing under her breath, Lou raised her gun and carefully sighted down the barrel over the head of the lead rider's horse. Squeezing the trigger, she sent a shot just over the horse's ears, making it rear in fright and dumping the blue coated cavalry officer on the ground.

Kid's lack of fighting will was getting worse. She cursed herself for not trying to talk him into accepting Jimmy's offer to sneak them out. He was fine in camp, but as soon as the shooting started he quit. The Kid hadn't used a lick of ammunition in over a month now. So, she'd found herself shooting twice as much, just to cover for him.

She started to snarl at Louie when he grabbed her elbow, pulling her gun hand down as she was about to target the next rider. "What?"

"Don't shoot it," Louie whispered, pointing at a little brown rabbit that had mysteriously made its way into the midst of the battle field.

Even as he spoke up, Lou noticed the gunshots starting to peter off and quiet beginning to reign on the misty May morning. The rabbit relaxed with the quiet and started to move again, hopping toward a nearby field, weaving its way around fallen horses, men and other obstacles.

Lou jerked in surprise as she heard Kid start cheering the rabbit on.

"Come on! You can make it!"

She turned to stare at her husband, standing up and shaking his fist in the air at the now madly hopping rabbit. Just as she was about to jerk him back down behind some cover, she noticed several other soldiers, in both blue and grey, standing up to cheer the rabbit on its way.

Lou could only watch the surreal moment as both sides in this bloody, seemingly interminable family feud took a moment out of the fighting to yell encouragement to a bunny. It was a moment to cheer on life in the midst of death and destruction.

When the rabbit reached the cover of a series of bushes along the side of the road, the cheering slowly ebbed away. Lou grabbed Kid's arm and pulled him down behind cover just as a shot rang out from the Union forces, narrowly missing his head.

It wasn't moments more before the remnants of Squad 4 heard the Yank's bugle call to move back. Once again, they'd held off Grant's attempts to push toward Richmond.

"Ol' Grant didn't find his weak spot today," Louie commented as he started to clean his revolver.

"I'm just glad we survived," Lou muttered, shooting a dark look Kid's direction. "Again."

"Hey, isn't that Virgil headed this way?" Thomas asked.

Looking up, Kid and Lou eyed the incoming rider. After a moment, Kid said, "Yep. Sure looks like him."

"Wonder what he's doin' over here?" Lou said. "He's supposed to be over t'other side of the courthouse with the other half of Company G."

"Lou, round up the men," Virgil shouted as soon as he was within hearing distance. "The General's ordered us to head toward Yellow Tavern, to get between General Sheridan and Richmond. Double time!"

"Yes, sir!" Lou snapped off her response, already turning her back on the First Lieutenant to begin issuing orders. "Louie, sound the bugle call to round up the men. Kid, as they get here, check on their ammunition status. We'll need to redistribute what we can before we get to Yellow Tavern. Thomas, I want you to ride back toward the supply train and see if you can get us some new provisions, especially ammunition."

With quick nods, the men split off to their various duties and a short time later her half of Company G was headed off in the direction of Yellow Tavern.

That night, as the men of Company G bivouacked near a creek between the Spotsylvania Courthouse and Yellow Tavern, Thomas, Virgil and Louie watched an entertaining act put on by Kid and Lou.

Food lately had been hard to come by. It had been getting scarcer by the day for months now. The South just wasn't growing enough food to provision all its troops. Even foraging wasn't bringing much in these days. All the men were getting extremely skinny from the constant movement and lack of decent nutrition. But Lou was probably the worst. He'd gotten so skinny and fragile looking that sometimes they were afraid he'd break in two if they touched him wrong. But while all the men worried about Lou and took pains to slip him extra food now and again, his brother was the worst. He'd regularly slip half, or more, of his food into Lou's plate when he wasn't looking.

The hilarious thing was, Lou was just as worried about Kid as they all were about him. So, when Kid turned his head for a moment, Lou would start slipping food onto Kid's plate. Both of them were so busy trying to feed the other they never noticed what the other was doing.

All the men enjoyed watching their antics and daily betting on whether one of them would notice what was going on had become the latest fad within Company G. Everyone knew that as soon as one noticed, there would be a no holds barred fight, which Lou was favored to win five to one. Of course, that's cause most everyone figured Kid would just refuse to fight for fear of breaking the increasingly fragile youth. The others figured Kid would win just by sitting on Lou.

"Lou, would you eat!" Kid said irritably as he watched her stare into the fire, seemingly ignoring the food on her plate.

"I'm full, Kid. Why don't you finish it," she said, pushing the plate of unappetizing hardtack, crawling with grubworms, toward him.

"Lou," Kid started in a warning tone.

"Don't say it, Kid. I ain't no worse off than any of the others 'round here," Lou said. "I'm just too tired to eat tonight is all."

With that, she leaned back against her saddle and pulled her tattered hat down over her eyes. At least the danged plume they'd both laughed at so hard two years ago had finally bitten the dust over the winter. Now, it was almost a decent hat, she thought as she closed her eyes, trying to snatch at least a few moments of sleep before they had to ride out in the morning.

Kid sighed forlornly as he watched her, then began picking at the food left in front of him. She was starting to look like a skeleton, he thought. He had to get her out of here, and soon. Though he'd been thinking about it for months now, he still had no idea of how to go about it without risking both their lives. Finally giving up on the internal battle he'd been waging, Kid kicked some dirt over the fire to tamp it down and lay back himself. It would be an early morning for all of them.

About mid-morning the next day, Company G joined and the rest of the 1st Virginia Cavalry and some 4,500 troopers stationed along a low ridgeline beside the road from the Yellow Tavern Inn to Richmond.

Lou spent the time pacing her horse up and down along the line of troopers, making sure all the men under her command had everything they needed. As the noon hour approached, she began ordering the men to take shifts dismounting, eating and taking care of other necessary business. This was her attempt to keep all the nervous men fresh in the growing tension.

The tromping of thousands of horses could be felt in the vibrations of the ground beneath them more than a half hour before the first lookouts caught sight of the advancing Union forces. The 10,000 mounted Yankees had already destroyed several rail cars and the tracks, downed telegraph lines and recaptured some 400 hundred POWs in the last couple of days.

It wasn't long before the columns of blue coated men came down the road like an unstoppable wave.

"Ah, man," Louie moaned, pointing at the men in the lead, "they've all got those danged rapid fire Spencers!"

"You heard him," Lou said, passing the warning on, "look sharp and make every shot count. Don't fire 'til ya see the whites of their eyes!"

Soon the gunfire was coming fast and furious, accompanied by the occasional heavier boom of field artillery being fired. But, despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned, the brave boys in grey were holding out, Kid thought grimly. Sometimes he wished they'd just quit.

"Ahhh!"

At the shout of pain, Kid hurried over to check on the latest wounded man. After the fiasco at Spotsylvania, Lou'd assigned Kid medic duties, loading him down with bandages, healing herbs and twists of willow bark for the injured men to chew on, instead of the usual ammunition. It was almost a relief, but not quite.

Even as he bandaged the arm of the newest casualty of war, Kid's gaze kept being drawn to Lou as she rode up and down along the line, shouting orders and encouragement to the men. There was no doubt she was good at what she was doing, but did she have to take so many risks doing it?

"Keep your fool head down, Thomas," Lou shouted for what felt like the hundredth time that day. "Or are you tryin' to get it shot off."

"Just tryin' to get my fair share of Yanks," Thomas shouted back at her, almost maniacally gleeful.

"Great, one man who won't fight no more, one who won't watch out for his own fool head and a boy," Lou muttered to herself as she kept roving down the line of skirmishers. "How'm I supposed to keep 'em all alive?"

"Incoming!" came the shouted warning just moments before an exploding cannon ball spread flying shrapnel through several of the troopers near Lou.

"Close up this hole!" she shouted, as her horse picked its way through the scattered limbs and other body parts. "And get a medic over here to check for survivors!"

The fierce fighting dragged on for one, then two and finally three whole hours. The once proud men of Stuart's Cavalry were becoming ragged as they took more and more casualties.

"Lou! Round up the rest of the 1st Virginia," Virgil shouted as he trotted up to her side. "The General wants to mount a countercharge against the Yanks advancing on that hilltop over there."

"Yes, Sir," Lou saluted. "You heard him men, let's get those horses ready and pull out your sabres, we're 'bout to ride for glory!"

A dozen full-throated rebel yells answered her call to arms as the men took heart from their General's characteristic bold battle plan. Within moments, hundreds of troopers were prepared for the bugle call to charge and went rushing up the hill toward the Union forces.

General Stuart himself was riding up and down along the side of the charging column, shouting encouragement to the men. "That's the way boys. Put the fear of the South in them Yanks!"

The sudden, unexpected charge from what had appeared to be nearly beaten, inferior forces appeared to unnerve the Union cavalry. Soon the men in blue began to retreat from the coveted hilltop position, down past the point where General Stuart had paused his horse to watch the action.

Lou, glancing back to check on her men behind her, saw the General raise his arm, sabre in hand, and begin to issue his own Rebel Yell. Even as the first strains of the yell began pouring from his throat, she saw a dismounted Union private turn and take aim at the General. She opened her own mouth to issue a warning that died in her throat. It was already too late. The private's shot found its mark, slicing into the Generals' left side and exploding out the middle of his back. Lou watched as he began to slump painfully over his horse's neck.

"Kid!" she shouted, "The General's hit. We've got to see to the General!"

Spurring her horse into action, she galloped to Stuart's side, catching him just as he started to fall off his horse.

"Come on, Sir!" she whispered. "You've got to stay in the saddle, or our boys'll break."

"Wouldn't want that," he gasped. "But, I won't last long. It's bad, Lou."

Lou glanced up at the General, surprised he remembered her from one night of frantic service over a year ago.

"Where's he hit, Lou?" Kid asked, breathless from his frantic ride over.

"Looks like they got him in the stomach, Kid," she said mournfully.

"Well, let's get him away from here. We'll take him over to the other side of the ridgeline to wait for an ambulance."

"Sure, Kid," Lou said. "But we gotta make it look like he's only slightly injured or this 'victory' will quickly become a rout."

It took them several minutes to slowly walk the General's horse out of the way of the waning battle. By the time they reached the other side of the ridgeline, it had become obvious to both of them the General was not going to survive this wound.

"My wife," Stuart gasped. "Call for my wife."

"Here," Kid said, dismounting and reaching up to catch his commanding officer's body. "Let's lay him down in the shade. The next ambulance should be back in a few minutes. They'll take him to Richmond."

"Kid, he ain't gonna survive," Lou said.

"I know that, Lou!" Kid snapped. Then, gathered himself and said, "Sorry. It's just so frustrating. And useless!"

"Sir," Lou asked gently, "do you have any family in Richmond?"

"My brother-in-law," the nearly senseless Stuart finally gasped. "Dr. Charles Brewer."

"Alright, Sir," she said. "We'll make sure the ambulance takes you to him."

With a faint nod, Stuart acknowledged her promise before closing his eyes in pain.

Buck

"Buck," Standing Woman gasped, suddenly standing up from her position by the fire in front of their tipi. "Buck! Get Dawn Star, I think my time's come."

"What?!" a suddenly panicked Buck squeaked. "But, ain't it a bit early?"

"Buck, babies don't come on a schedule. They come when they're ready and it feels like this one's ready. Now go!"

At that command the tall, slender medicine man took off for the center of the Kiowa camp where Dawn Star was helping several other young women cure buffalo hides.

"Dawn Star! Dawn Star!" he started yelling before he was even in sight of the camp center. "Come quick!"

"What is it?" Dawn Star asked, as Buck came to a panting halt near the group of women she was working with.

Bending over to catch his breath, he gasped. "The baby. It's coming!"

Despite the initial rush, Buck spent the next several hours pacing back and forth in front of the tipi he shared with Standing Woman. He'd wanted to stay with her, couldn't believe she was going through this without him. But even she'd agreed to kicking him out when he'd started panicking at the first moans she'd uttered. And his presence had scandalized the other women in attendance. Now, all he could do was wait.

As the hours passed and the sun slipped beneath the horizon, Buck found himself drawn to the isolated spot outside camp where he and Standing Woman had set up their medicine wheel for prayers. That's where Dawn Star found him in the early morning hours, praying earnestly.

"Buck," she said quietly, almost tentatively.

"The baby? Standing Woman?" he asked, jumping to his feet in worry at the look on her face.

"You were right. The baby came early," she began.

"Oh no!" he started to moan.

"No," Dawn Star quickly stopped him. "Your son is fine. He's a strong, strapping boy."

"Then what's wrong, Dawn Star," he demanded. "And don't tell me nothing, it's written all over your face."

"It's Standing Woman," she began, then stopped to reach out a hand toward this husband she hadn't asked for but had begun to care about. His face had blanched to a white she wouldn't have believed possible if she hadn't seen it. Placing her hand on his arm, she stepped closer to him. "She lost a lot of blood. Something must've gone wrong inside, and that's what started the labor. She's asleep now. Well, more unconscious, really."

"But she'll be okay," Buck practically begged.

"We don't know. We won't, not until she wakes up," Dawn Star said, growing quieter with every word. "If she wakes up."

"Nooooooo!" Buck wailed, before turning back to the prayer wheel and falling to his knees. "No! Not again."

"Buck," Dawn Star said gently, coming to her knees beside him and pulling him into her arms to comfort him. "Buck, it'll be alright. The Spirits won't take her from us. We need her too badly."

Needing the human contact in his dazed grief, Buck wrapped his arms around Dawn Star's waist and dragged her tightly against his body. She tucked his head against her chest and they stayed that way for quite some time, each lost in their own thoughts.

Finally, Buck started to turn his head up to say something to her just as she leaned down to whisper something in his ear. His lips brushed across hers softly. But, what started as an accidental touch quickly turned into a hard, bruising kiss as each tried to convince the other the woman they loved, the woman who'd helped save them both, would be okay.

Under the June sky scattered with diamond bright stars, Buck and Dawn Star finally consummated a marriage that was nearly a year old. Their touches and movements filled with the grief both felt they couldn't survive if allowed to blossom fully.

Hickok

Hickok laboriously worked his way through the latest battle reports in The Republican, the local daily newspaper. Today's headline read "Confederate Cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart is mortally wounded." Knowing he was Kid and Lou's commanding officer, Jimmy'd carefully read the entire report. But, there was no word on any other casualties in the battle at Yellow Tavern Inn. Despite felling the man who'd become the bane of the Federal cavalry, apparently the Union General Sheridan had determined he couldn't hold the land he'd taken and withdrawn.

Jimmy sighed. At this point, no word was good news. He'd been carefully reading every article that came out in the paper about the battles going on in Virginia, always on the lookout for any news about the 1st Virginia Cavalry and Company G.

It wasn't like he had a whole lot else to do. His job with the Provost Marshal's office was just as boring as he'd expected. And it had now been more than a month since he'd been paid, with no sign of money coming any time soon. It was a good thing he was capable of supporting himself playing poker.

At the sound of a commotion outside the saloon doors, Jimmy stood and put his hat on, seating it carefully on his head as he walked out to see what the fuss was.

"I ain't too young to have a drink," a boy was shouting angrily as his companions held him back from the saloon doors. "I've been drinkin' longer than y'all've been fightin'!"

"Aw come on, kid!" one of the older teens laughed. "Tell us somethin' we can buy. That ship ain't holdin' no water. You ain't been in a single battle yet. Ya ain't even old 'nuff to shave!"

"Don't have to shave to shoot a gun," the boy shouted angrily. "I've been fightin' since '62 alongside better men than you. Ever heard of Buffalo Bill Cody? He taught me everthin' I know!"

At the sound of Cody's name, Jimmy's gaze sharpened on the young 'lad'.

"Thatch?" he asked. "Is that you?"

At the sound of his voice, the teens holding the youth back started slowly slinking off and disappearing into the night.

"Who's askin'?" she answered gruffly.

"Hickok," he said. "Jimmy Hickok. Cody told me all 'bout you."

Thatch glared at him. "Well, what'd he go and do a dang fool thing like that fer?"

"Most likely he just forgot his mouth was still flappin'," Jimmy joked.

Thatch's stance relaxed as she joined Jimmy's laughter at their mutual friend's expense. "Yep. He sure has a tendency to do that!"

"Well, come on in," Jimmy offered, leading the way back into the saloon. "Food ain't much, but the whiskey's wet."

"Thanks. I'm supposed to meet a friend here," Thatch said, following him indoors.

"Um. Would this friend be of a similar persuasion as you?" Jimmy asked, grinning as he sat back down.

"You might say so."

"Good Lord, Lou, what did you go and start?" Jimmy muttered, hiding a grin behind his raised whiskey glass. "So, what's his name?"

"Danny," Danny said, sliding into the third seat at the table, alongside Thatch. Danny was tall, taller than Jimmy, and skinny with a haggard face. She would never have been considered pretty as a woman, and was completely believable as a man. She pulled a corncob pipe out of one pocket and started to tamp down some tobacco in it. "Who's askin'?"

"Danny, this is one of Cody's friends I was tellin' ya about," Thatch said. "This is Jimmy."

Jimmy settled back in his chair and watched the two women silently. Things are looking up, he thought. He was no longer bored, that was for sure.

"So, what are you two doin' here?" he asked. "Last I heard from Cody you were riding with the 7th Cavalry out in Mississippi and Tennesee."

"We got transferred to General Sanborn's troops," Danny answered.

"And Cody went and got hisself a desk job," Thatch added gleefully.

"He did what?" Jimmy asked in shock.

"Well, see, it all started with…." and Thatch settled in to bring Jimmy up to date on his erstwhile friend's latest shenanigans.

Lou and Kid

"Incoming!"

As they ducked, Lou watched the incoming cannon ball slowly arc up into the air and then explode, sending a dozen pieces of deadly shrapnel flying toward the Cavalry troopers huddled along the road near Haw's farm.

"Be careful, they've brought in the new rifled artillery," she warned the men.

They'd already been fighting the Yankee cavalry troops for most of the day, with the advantage on the field see-sawing between the two sides.

"Sir," Louie yelled, pointing up the road. Lou turned to see what had him excited and sighed at the sight of dozens of fresh blue clad troopers joining the Federal lines.

"Aw, man!" Thomas groaned, catching sight of their blonde headed leader at the same time as Lou. "It's that danged crazy yeller hair again!"

Custer's presence was not a good sign, Lou thought. Her men were hanging on by a thread as it was.

The boom of another cannon firing had Lou and all the men around her ducking for cover again. A shout of pain down the line caught her attention. She quickly motioned Kid in the direction of the wounded man, and stood up to follow him over and check on the man. Just as the two were passing Thomas and Louie, something told Lou to look up. She caught sight of one of the old style solid shot cannon balls bouncing straight toward the members of Squad 4. Even as she opened her mouth to shout a warning, the last bounce pounded the shot straight through Thomas and Louie, leaving them falling limply to the ground.

"Lou!" Kid screamed, tackling her to the ground, saving her from being hit by the rolling shot. He landed on top of her, his weight pushing her face into the soft earth churned up by the hundreds of troopers that had passed over it the last few hours. "Are you alright?"

She grunted and he started to push himself up to relieve her of his weight, then screamed again, this time in agony as a piece of shrapnel from another exploding cannon ball pierced his back. He fell back on top of Lou, hearing a sickening crunch as he landed but unable to do anything about it, unable to even move in his pain.

"Lou?" he whispered, getting only a groan in response. Then, everything went black.

Lou blinked groggily. She could barely breathe. Coughing slightly she turned her head slowly to the side and snorted to clear her nostrils of dirt. Opening her eyes she could tell it was night. What happened, she wondered. The sounds of battle had disappeared. She tried to push herself up and groaned at the pain in her ribs. It felt like she'd cracked at least one of them. But that didn't explain why she felt like she was under a ton of bricks.

After taking a moment to gather her thoughts and her strength, Lou heaved with all her might and managed to rise to her hands and knees.

"Unnnngggh!"

"Kid," she exclaimed, suddenly realizing what it was that had weighed her down. Crawling to where he had rolled when she'd dislodged him, she quickly began checking him for injuries.

"Oh, Kid!" she moaned, as she discovered the large piece of shrapnel lodged in his back. Looking around she quickly realized there was no one around. No one alive that was. Thinking for a moment she decided, "Kid, this is our chance to get out of here. I'm sorry honey, but you're gonna have to help me. I can't carry you."

But despite all her efforts she got no response from her injured husband. Almost in tears from the pain in her ribs and the fear lodged in her throat, Lou collapsed onto her rear and reassessed the situation. Deciding she simply couldn't give up on this chance to get Kid out of the War, she turned back to her insensate husband. Grabbing his arms, she pulled them around her neck and slowly stood up.

Groaning with pain at every step, she slowly made her way to the trees lining the edge of the battlefield. Sweat soon obscured her vision, as she hobbled, nearly bent over, pausing occasionally to get her breath and make sure there were no bodies in the path of her next few steps. Anyone tracking us is gonna think they're following a constipated snake, she thought to herself grimly. It took nearly an hour to travel the thirty feet to her destination. Once there, she quickly hid Kid in brush along the edge of the treeline.

At his groan of pain, she grunts too. "I'm sorry, but I've gotta do this. I'll take care of that wound, soon's I can. Just hang in there, Kid. You promised! No riding off without me!"

Once he was safely hidden away, Lou returned to the abandoned battlefield and began ruthlessly looting the dead soldiers of any gear she thought might be of use. From one she took a sturdy pair of shoes. Another body yielded a nearly full haversack of food and medical supplies. A third was relieved of a nearly brand new woolen coat.

Returning to the Kid's hiding place, Lou began packing the items together for easier transportation. Then, knowing she couldn't carry Kid any further and that they couldn't stay there, she used the knife hidden in her boot to cut two sturdy poles and fashion a travois she could pull. It was nearly dawn by the time she had Kid situated on the travois. She was just bending over to grab the ends of the polls to begin pulling him westward, toward the nearby cave-pocked hills and a suitable place to hide when a familiar whicker caught her attention. Kid's horse pushed its nose through the brush and walked up to her side, nudging her hand in search of a treat.

"Oh, you're a good boy," she whispered in relief and began attaching the travois to the horse's saddle. "Stay with me, Kid. Just stay with me," she muttered.

Having to stop and hide from both Federal and Confederate patrols, not to mention taking breaks to coddle her own injuries, made what should have been a two hour hike into the hills a day long trip.

That night Lou finally pulled Kid into the cave where they'd temporarily hidden Isaac and Samson last winter. Drooping in exhaustion, Lou forced herself to keep moving, starting a fire and settling Kid on his stomach on a bedroll at the back of the cave. Soon, she had all her purloined medical equipment laid out and Kid's back bared.

"Oh, Kid," she moaned. He'd survived a lot of injuries over the years. His body was covered in the scars. But this was definitely the worst of them. She was afraid to pull the shrapnel from his back. It was almost as long as her forearm and pulling it out could start some serious bleeding. But she knew she couldn't leave it there, either.

So, she stuck her knife into the fire and let it heat until it was cherry red. Using a bottle of rotgut she swabbed down the area around the wound as best she could. Then, grabbing hold of the knife handle with one hand and the edge of shrapnel with the other she whispered, "Brace yourself, Kid. This is gonna hurt."

She gave the shrapnel a sharp jerk, pulling it free from the muscle in his upper back. Almost simultaneously she swung her other hand up with the red hot knife and pressed it against the already heavily bleeding wound. The sound of sizzling skin assaulted her ears as she smelled the scent of cooking flesh. She flushed in mortification as her stomach growled in recognition of the smell. After what seemed like forever she removed the knife from Kid's back and examined the cauterized wound. Deciding she'd done the best she could, Lou set the knife down beside her and doused the wound again with the last of the rotgut.

Having done what she could for her husband, Lou collapsed on her own bedroll next to him. As her eyes closed in weariness, she grabbed his hand in her own and prayed with everything she had for his survival.

Chapter 8: Camp Douglas (Aug 1864 - Apr 1865)

Hickok

Thatch looked down at the latest edition of the paper Danny had just handed her. The headline read "Both Sides Claim Victory in Battle That Claims 7,000 Federal Dead in Less Than an Hour."

"Ya'd better warn 'im," Danny said, pointing at the list of those reported missing and killed in action. Her finger landed right below the names Kid McCloud and Lou McCloud. "Before he finds out fer himself."

Blanching as she thought of what he'd do when he found out, Thatch nodded and took off for the Provost Marshal's office.

Bursting through the doors, the paper still clutched in one hand, Thatch saw Simon Sutter sitting behind the Marshal's desk.

"Where's Jimmy?" she gasped.

Seeing the look on her face, Simon sat forward and asked, "What's wrong?"

"Bad news, and it's better if he hears it from a friend."

"Last I heard he was down at the saloon," Simon said, standing up and grabbing his hat. "I'll come with you. If it's as bad as it looks on your face, it may take two of us to keep him out of trouble."

"I'd be grateful for your help," Thatch said, following Simon out of the door.

Jimmy was sitting at the bar of the Diamond Lady Saloon nursing a glass of sarsaparilla and contentedly munching on a cheese sandwich, when Simon and Thatch came in the door. Seeing their faces he surged to his feet. "What's wrong?"

"Jimmy," Thatch began, "why don't we get a table?"

"Just tell me, already," Jimmy said, getting impatient at the delay.

A glance passed between Simon and Thatch. She turned back to Jimmy and said quietly, "It's Kid and Lou, Jimmy."

Jimmy's face went dead as he dropped back onto the bar stool he'd just vacated.

"Tell me," he said in a cold, emotionless voice.

Holding out the paper as proof, Thatch said, "They've been reported killed in action at Cold Harbor back in June. I'm sorry, Jimmy."

He waved off her offer of sympathy and banged his fist on the bar. "Barkeep!"

"I'll get ya another sarsaparilla in a moment, Mr. Hickok," the barkeeper tossed over his shoulder as he finished serving someone at the other end of the bar.

"Make it a whiskey," Jimmy grated out as the barkeeper came down to his end of the saloon. "And leave the bottle."

Despite his best efforts to be unfriendly, Simon and Thatch decided it wasn't a good idea to leave Jimmy alone. Hours later he still sat on that same barstool, gazing emptily into his whiskey glass. They'd done their best to slow down his consumption, with even the barkeeper getting into the game by providing watered down whiskey. But that hadn't stopped Jimmy's bender. Now, he could barely stay upright.

"Itsh all mah fault," he slurred into his glass.

"Now Jimmy, that ain't true," Thatch began.

But Jimmy rolled right over her words, as if he'd never heard them. "Ifn ah hadn't been such an ash… ash…. ass… Kid never woulda gone. An' ifn Kid hadn't've gone, Lou wouldn'ta either. Mah fault, all mah fault."

Suddenly the copious amounts of alcohol he'd consumed that night became too much for him, and he collapsed on the bar unconscious.

"Grab him," Simon muttered, "before he falls and cracks that fool head of his open."

"We'd better get him back to his rooms before he wakes up," Thatch said, wrapping one of Jimmy's arms around her shoulders. Simon nodded and copied her actions on Jimmy's other side. Moving carefully the pair half dragged, half carried their drunken friend home.

Entering his rooms, Simon helped Thatch situate Jimmy on the bed.

"I'll watch over him," Thatch said. "Do you know how to get ahold of his friends?"

"I know about Mrs. Dunne in Rock Creek," Simon said.

"Add William F. Cody in St. Louis to the list. I think we might better send them a telegram lettin' 'em know what's happened and how hard Jimmy's takin' it."

"You're right," Simon agreed. "I'll get right on that."

"Then, get a good night's sleep," Thatch said quietly. "I don't think we can leave him alone for a while, Simon. One or the other of us'll have to keep watch. Maybe I can get Danny to help, too."

"Good plan. See ya in the morning," Simon said as he walked out the door, closing it softly behind him.

Thatch walked over and sat down on the bed beside the passed out Jimmy. She reached out and pulled his hat off, hanging it on the bedpost, then carefully wiped his already lengthened hair out of his face.

"Oh, Jimmy," she whispered to the tall, lanky sharpshooter. Then bent over and pressed a kiss to the forehead of the man she'd started falling in love with from Cody's stories and finished falling in love with in the last couple of months as his friend.

Lou and Kid

"How ya feelin'?" Lou asked, as Kid finished eating the hind leg of the rabbit she'd caught in a snare overnight.

"Better," he smiled at her. "But my back still feels like it's on fire."

"Let me take a look," she said, moving forward and beginning to pull his shirt off over his shoulders. After a short inspection she said, "Looks like it's healing pretty well, though slowly. There's no sign of infection."

"That's good," he grunted, gasping at the pain her probing fingers were causing.

"I'm sorry," she gasped. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"It's alright, Lou," he managed, laying a hand on her arm. "I'll be able to travel soon and we can start heading home."

"Home," Lou whispered. "That sounds good."

They'd been holed up in this cave just north of Richmond for nearly two months now. It had been two weeks before Kid had even regained consciousness. Since then, he'd been slowly regaining his strength and the wound in his back had been healing, though they were both worried about how much use he might have of his right arm after this.

That night, as she'd been doing most nights, Lou headed out to scavenge for food. The items she'd picked up on the battlefield the night she'd evacuated Kid had lasted only a few days. Since then, they'd been surviving off hunting and gathering skills picked up from Buck.

On this night, Lou headed down to the creek and refilled the canteens with water. Then, she checked over the blueberry brambles along the edge of the creek. Seeing that they'd finally ripened, Lou gathered as many as she could carry. She ended her night by checking all the snares she'd set in the area. Unfortunately, on this night she'd caught nothing. Twice though, she'd had to rapidly hide in the undergrowth to avoid detection by passing patrols, one Confederate, one Union.

She finally returned to the cave with her cache of blueberries and not much else shortly

before dawn. As she entered the small, rocky recess her eyes went immediately to the bedroll where she'd left Kid sleeping. She stiffened upon seeing the bedroll empty, then relaxed as Kid walked toward her slowly.

"Thought I'd spend this evening trying to build up my strength," he said as he continued to pace back and forth, occasionally swinging around his arm to stretch his back muscles.

"I only got these blueberries tonight," she said. "We can't stay here much longer. The area's pretty much picked bare, and the patrols are getting thicker. I almost got caught twice."

"Then, how about we plan to head out tomorrow night?" Kid suggested.

"Are you sure you're ready?"

"Won't know for sure until we're traveling, but obviously we can't continue to stay here," he shrugged, then winced as the movement pulled at his wound. "If nothing else, we should get far enough away to escape detection by the 1st Virginia Cavalry."

They smiled sadly at each other, knowing both their lives were on the line. Right now, they were presumed dead. If any Confederate forces recognized them on their trip home, their lives would be forfeit, as deserters.

"Which direction should we go?" Lou asked.

"Due North's probably the safest," Kid answered. "Once we're clear of the fighting, and can get clothes to replace these uniforms, we should be safe enough. Then we can start heading west."

"We'll have to forage, at first," Lou said. "The only 'cash' we have's Confederate script. Won't do us no good up North."

"We've done worse," Kid smiled softly at his ever practical wife. "We'll survive. We really only need to get far enough North we can find a safe telegraph office. We'll wire Rachel and she'll send us the money for train tickets home and provisions."

"Looks like we've got a plan then," Lou said. "Let's get some sleep, so we'll be well rested for the trip."

Putting their meager belongings away in the single haversack Lou had managed to scavenge the night after Cold Harbor, they prepared for bed. Soon they were curled up in each other's arms, Lou's head on Kid's uninjured left shoulder.

"What's the first thing you want to do when we get home, Kid?" Lou whispered.

"Take Katy for a run," Kid teased. At her mock punch into his side, he grabbed her hand and pulled it up to his mouth to kiss it softly. "No, I want to take you out for a steak dinner, with all the fixin's."

"Sounds good," Lou sighed. "Me, I want ta take a hot bath. Maybe two."

"Can I join you?" Kid teased.

"If you're good," she whispered, shyly into his side. It had been nearly a year since they'd been able to have any alone time like this. And since they'd been in the cave, Kid had been too injured to do more than hold hands, and now cuddle close. That day, they fell asleep both dreaming of the better times soon to come.

Shortly after sunset, Lou pulled the haversack's strap over her head and wrapped an arm around Kid's waist.

"Ready to go home?"

"Ready."

Together they walked out of the cave that had been their refuge and headed North, the first leg of their journey home.

Teaspoon

"Giddyup!" Teaspoon shouted at the team of horses pulling the buckboard. He could see the town of Rock Creek rising out of the horizon. It had taken him twice as long as expected to get back, thanks to the spring blizzard he'd run into. But finally, he was here and he was eager to see Polly and Rachel.

"Come on, boys. There's hot oats and mash waitin' fer ya at the barn," he encouraged the horses to pick up their pace.

"Still no word," the postmaster told a disappointed Polly, shrugging apologetically. She'd been by every day for the last two months, looking for a letter from the former Marshal, Teaspoon Hunter. Every time he'd had to tell her no, her face had gotten a little longer and her shoulders had drooped a bit more.

"Polly! Polly!" Rachel came hurrying down the street, shouting for her friend. When Polly turned toward her, Rachel pointed down the road to a buckboard making its way into town. Polly stared in confusion for a moment, before recognizing the grizzled figure in the driver's seat.

"Teaspoon," she shouted, hopping off the boardwalk and running down the middle of the street toward the advancing buckboard, skirts hitched indecorously high above her ankles. "Sugarlips!"

"Whoa! Whoa!" Teaspoon called to the horses, desperately pulling back on the reins and pushing down on the brake with one foot. "Polly? Is that you?"

"In the flesh," she said, clambering up onto the buckboard beside Teaspoon, too impatient to wait for him to get down. Throwing her arms around his neck she planted a big welcoming kiss on his lips, before pulling back and smiling up at him. "Welcome back, Sugarlips!"

"Now that's the kind of welcome that'll keep a man comin' home," Teaspoon smiled at her. Then, he broke out in a fit of coughing that left him breathless.

"Sugarlips," Polly exclaimed. "What's wrong?"

"Got caught in a spring blizzard on the way here," Teaspoon gasped. "Picked up this cough and can't quite shake it."

"Well, let's get you over to Rachel's place and we'll get you fixed up in no time," Polly said, smiling brightly as she reached over to grab the reins Teaspoon had dropped while coughing. She clicked to the horses. "Let's go, boys."

Rachel was waiting at the door to the barn as they pulled up.

"Why didn't you write to let us know you were coming?" she demanded.

"Aw, Rachel, ya know I ain't so good at letter writin'," he cajoled. "The spellin', it always gets me. Besides, figgered I'd get here fast as any letter, so why bother?"

"Well, you didn't," she said as she started to help Polly unhitch the traces.

"Yep," Teaspoon admitted as he climbed down off the buckboard as well. "Wasn't countin'on runnin' inta that spring blizzard."

Another round of coughing interrupted whatever he'd been about to say next. Rachel and Polly exchanged worried looks, then Rachel said, "Polly, why don't you take Teaspoon on into the house and get him settled. I'll take care of the horses and buckboard."

"Right," Polly said. "Come on, Sugarlips. Just you wait 'til you see the room we've rigged up for ya."

"Now there's a scary thought," Teaspoon joked. "I remember the last time someone fixed up a room for me. It was Christmas and the boys thought my space in the tackroom needed a little sprucin' up. I think it was Lou's idea."

Teaspoon grinned at the memory.

"I'd only just found out her little secret a few months before. Anyway, they got me this beautiful new quilt, all full of flowers!" he said in an outraged tone. "And put up curtains in the windows. Pink curtains!"

"Oh my!" Polly gasped. "They didn't."

"They did. And I couldn't do anythin' but say 'Thank you', pretty as you please," Teaspoon said. "Took me another six months to come up with enough ways to undo all their 'fixin'."

"Well, it's nothin' like that," Polly assured him as she led him into the house and up the stairs. "Just a nice room with a comfy bed and warm fireplace."

Opening the door to the first room at the top of the stairs, Polly motioned Teaspoon on inside.

"Looks invitin'," he said.

She moved across the room toward the bed and sat down on it, patting the covers beside her. "Why don't you come on over and sit down for a spell."

Teaspoon sidled over sideways and settled down on the bed gingerly, "Don't mind if I do."

"Teaspoon," she said, suddenly serious, "Why did you come back?"

"I was wrong, Polly."

"So was I. And I won't say it again."

"Neither will I," Teaspoon smiled at her. "Ain't as opposed to 'Sorry's as Jimmy is, but still…"

Polly smiled at him. Then stood and straightened her skirts briskly. "You've had a long trip, why don't you get some rest. Supper's at six."

With that, she walked toward the door, stopping in the doorframe to turn and blow Teaspoon a kiss. "Sleep well, Sugarlips."

Only after she'd left the room and closed the door behind her did Teaspoon answer. He lay back on the pillow, lifting his feet up onto the bed and pulling his hat down over his eyes.

"Best I've slept in years, Polly girl. Best in years."

Hickok and Cody

Cody looked down at the telegram that had just been placed in his hands, re-reading it for a third time.

Lou and Kid dead. Stop.

Jimmy in trouble. Stop.

Help. Stop.

Thatch. Stop.

With only a moment's hesitation, he stood up and headed toward the closed door at the back of the room. A sign on the door read General Polk. Cody knocked and then entered without waiting for permission.

"Sir," he said, "I need leave to return to Springfield."

"Son, my wife worked hard to get you this post where you'd be out of harm's way," Polk said, surprised.

"I know, Sir," Cody said. "But, a friend… no a brother of mine's in trouble and I've got to go help him."

"I thought both your brothers had died, son."

"Jimmy's more like, well an adopted brother, I guess you could say. We ain't related by blood. But all of us that rode for the Express, we became a family."

"And family's that important to you son, that you're willing to risk a promising career for it?"

"Yes, Sir. Family's family and you always stick together, through the good and the bad," Cody answered fervently.

The general nodded and began writing something down at the desk in front of him.

"Sir?" Cody asked. When the general looked back up, he said, "Do I have permission to leave?"

The general nodded and handed Cody the paper he'd been writing on. "Here's a pass that should get you through any military checkpoints. Take as long as you need. But, keep me updated on what's going on and let me know when you're headed back."

"Yes, Sir," Cody agreed gratefully.

"Oh, and please, stop by and let the Missus know what's going on before you leave."

Within the hour Cody was on his horse and galloping southwest toward Springfield.

"So, how's your Jimmy doin'?" Danny asked Thatch, as they cantered across a field north of Springfield. They'd been out on patrol overnight and were headed back into town with the dawn.

"Well, I'm no longer afraid he's gonna use that gun of his on himself," Thatch said somberly. "But he's still livin' on the edge, divin' into a whiskey bottle near every night. He does his job and then drinks the night away."

Their horses picked their way down an embankment toward the last river crossing before town.

"Has he talked 'bout it?"

"Only 'nough to say it's all his fault," Thatch sighed. "I sure hope Cody gets here soon. Maybe he can talk some sense into him."

Suddenly a dark brown equine blur streaked past the riders on patrol, spooking Thatch's and Danny's horses at the front of the column. Both horses reared back, dumping their riders into the swirling river waters.

Thatch surfaced, sputtering and then just stood there in shock. Danny came up out of the waters cursing like a dockhand. Neither noticed at first how the water had plastered their uniforms to their bodies. Not until they looked up at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.

"Cody!" Thatch shouted. "Why can't you ever watch where you're going!"

"Um, Thatch," Cody said diffidently. "You might want to, uh, put a coat on, or somethin'…" his voice trailed off.

Looking down she finally noticed how her summer weight uniform had suddenly become formfitting in a way not good for a woman trying to hide her gender. Horrified, she raised her eyes to look at Danny and find she was in the same condition.

"Oh, shit!"

"Would you like to explain this to me, Corporal Thatcher? Daniels?" their commanding officer demanded as he pushed his way toward the front of the group of gaping troopers.

"Well, uh, sir…. No," Thatch said. "Not really."

"Don't think there's much ta say," Daniels added. "You've already reached yer own conclusions."

"Get back on your horses. We'll be talkin' to the general when we get back to camp," the commander said, then clicked his horse into motion, leading the rest of the troopers past the two dismounted women.

"Females!"

"Girls in uniform."

"They've seen me in the all together!"

The whispers spelled doom for their careers in the Army. Looking at each other, Thatch and Danny sighed in unison.

That night, Thatch joined Cody and Jimmy at the bar of the Diamond Lady.

"So, what'd the general say?" Cody demanded.

"That our presence wasn't regulation," Thatch sighed, sipping the sarsaparilla the bartender had placed in front of her. "Made us turn in our rank insignia and weapons then and there, before we even started filling out the paperwork. A toast gents, I am officially a private citizen once again."

Thatch raised her glass in the air and waited for Cody and Jimmy to react. They gently tapped their glasses against hers and all drank deeply in silence.

"What's Danny gonna do?" Jimmy asked.

"Shhh," Thatch pantomined, putting a finger to her lips. "Danny's gonna head East and re-up with another unit!"

Then Jimmy asked, "And you?"

"Well, for starters, I'm gonna have myself a real drink," Thatch said, grabbing Jimmy's whiskey glass and downing its contents in one swig. "No more Army, no more Army regs."

"Aw man," Cody groaned. "You two really are cut from the same cloth!"

"Put up or shut up, Cody," Jimmy said, grabbing a third glass from behind the bar and pushing it toward Cody.

"What the hell," Cody muttered. "I'm officially on leave. Might as well enjoy myself."

"Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man," Jimmy trilled hours later.

"Washed his face with a fryin' pan," Cody added in.

"Combed his hair with a wagon wheel and died of a toothache in his heel," Thatch rounded out the chorus. "Hoorah!"

The three lifted their glasses in the air and downed another shot of whiskey.

"That does it for me, you two," Cody said. "I had a long ride and need some rest. I'll see ya in the morning."

Before leaving he gave Thatch a significant look and she nodded back. She had the night watch.

"So, Thash," Jimmy slurred. "Any idea whatch yer gonna do now that yer outta the Army?"

"I'm pretty handy with a gun, thought maybe ya could use me over at the Provost Marshal's office," Thatch teased.

"Don't think ol' Sanborn's quite as open minded as Teaspoon was," Jimmy said. "Hic! Sides, it's still part of the Army."

"Maybe I'll just run off and join the circus, then," Thatch said. "Always wanted to walk the tightrope in front of an adorin' audience."

"Ish no wonder you and Cody become friends."

"He's been a good buddy," she agreed, catching Jimmy by the arm as he started to tilt out of his seat. "I think it's time to get you home to bed, Hickok."

Standing up without letting go of his arm, she dragged him to his feet. He ambled along, content to let her guide his stumbling feet in the right direction.

As they mounted the stairs to his room he stumbled into her from behind and used both hands to steady himself by grabbing her around the waist. Leaning against her soft body at the top of the steps, Jimmy peered down at her.

"So, how come you and Cody never became more'n friends, Thatch?" he asked.

"Because I was already in love with someone else," she said quietly, turning away from him to open the door. She pulled him into the room and dragged him to his bed, where he flopped down onto his back.

Walking to his feet, which were hanging off the end of the bed, she grabbed one between her legs and began to pry off his boot. Jimmy lay staring at the ceiling.

"Thash. Thash," he said repeatedly. "So, whash yer real name, anyways? I mean, Lou was Louise. But I cain't figure out Thash."

"It's Agnes," she said quietly, placing the first boot on the floor and grabbing his second leg. "Thatch is short for Thatcher, my real last name."

The effort required to pull his second boot off was more than her own unsteady balance could handle and she landed on her hands and knees on the floor. Using the side of the bed, she pulled herself up and collapsed onto it next to Hickok.

He rolled over to look at her more closely. "Agnes? Thatsh a pretty name."

Reaching out to push an unruly lock out of his eyes, she smiled at him. "Thank you."

"Agnes," he asked. "Would you mind if I kissed you?"

"I'd like that, Jimmy," she said. "I'd like that a lot."

The next morning, Cody entered Jimmy's room with a tray full of food balanced on one hand.

"Mornin' Jimmy," he said. "Thought ya might like…. Oh fer cryin' out loud! What have you two done?"

"Hunh?" Jimmy asked, leaning up on one arm and pushing his hair out of his face. The motion disturbed the young lady lying on her stomach next to him, her legs still entwined with his.

"Leave me alone," she grumbled. "Don't havta get up. Not in the Army no more."

Jimmy looked down at her, startled. Then his eyes flew back up to meet Cody's.

"You hurt her, and I'll hurt you," Cody said. "I'll leave this food here and go downstairs to wait for ya."

With those sober words, the normally ebullient Cody walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind him. Hickok looked back down at the slender back of the young woman lying next to him in bed.

"Thatch?" he asked

She rolled over and peeked up at him through veiling eyelashes, trying to judge his mood. "Yes?"

"Did we do what I think we did?"

Her whole body stiffened and she opened her eyes completely to glare at him. "Are you tellin' me you don't remember?"

"I'm sayin' I ain't sure."

She hopped out of the body, unmindful of her state of undress. "Get back to me when yer sure."

"Come on, Thatch," he pleaded, sitting up fully. "You knew I was drunk as a skunk. You can't expect me to remember everthin'."

Thatch sighed as she finished buttoning up her shirt. She walked over to the window and pulled open the curtain. Jimmy flinched away from the shaft of sunlight that suddenly fell on him.

"Thatch!"

"Oops," she said. "Sorry. You're head must be pretty bad this mornin'."

As she turned to face him, a sudden memory surfaced.

"Agnes. Your name is Agnes."

The sudden smile that blossomed across her face made the pleasant looking young woman radiantly beautiful.

"Yes," she whispered, flinging herself across the bed to grab Jimmy's face in her hands and drag him in for an intoxicating kiss.

Moments later he pulled back to stare into her eyes. "I take it to mean I'm forgiven?"

"Yes," she said, then grinned. "Now what say we rebuild those memories you've mislaid?"

Kid and Lou

"This looks like a good place to stop for the day," Lou suggested. The copse of trees wasn't ideal, but was the best they'd seen in the last hour of searching. They hadn't been able to find another suitable cave such as they'd used outside of Richmond. "Kid?"

"Hunh?" he roused enough to turn and look at her. His face was haggard, with a slight grayish tinge. The night's hike had taken a lot out of him, even riding on their sole horse while Lou walked. He wasn't as healed as they'd hoped.

"I said, this looks like a good place to stop for the day."

"Yeah, sure," he said, slumping to a seat at the base of a tree.

"Alright, let me dig a fox hole and collect some brush for cover, then we'll get some sleep."

"I'll help," he said, starting to push himself up.

"No!" she exclaimed. "You rest. You're still healing. I can do this."

He smiled at her wryly and sat back down. "Yes, ma'am."

In the few minutes it took Lou to dig the foxhole and gather some branches for cover, Kid had fallen asleep. She sighed gently and smiled at the sight.

"Kid," she whispered, brushing his face with her fingertips. "Kid, you need to wake up. Just for a moment."

Gently she guided him to the foxhole and helped him lie down. Then, she crawled in beside him and covered them both with the branches. Soon, she was fast asleep next to him.

"Lou! NO!" Kid screamed in his sleep.

"Sh!" Lou tried to shush him. She'd thought he was past these nightmares. He hadn't had one in weeks. "Kid! Wake up!"

"Hey, Malone! I hear somethin' back here!"

"What?"

"Sounded like a Johnny Reb to me," the first voice said.

"Where?"

"Over here, in this copse of trees."

Lou slapped a hand over Kid's mouth in a desperate attempt to quiet him. But her small body couldn't keep his much larger one from thrashing around in the throes of his nightmare. She nearly wept in frustration as she heard the Federal soldiers coming closer and closer to their hiding place.

"Malone, over here. I found 'em," the first voice said triumphantly as the man behind the voice pulled away the last of the branches hiding Kid and Lou in their foxhole. "Hidin' like a couple a scared rabbits!"

"Alright you two, up and out of there," Malone said. "You're now prisoners of war. If you promise not to try to escape, we won't tie you up."

"Sir, we're just trying to get home to Nebraska," Lou pled. "My brother's been badly hurt and we just want to go home."

"I'm sorry, kid," Malone said, not unkindly. "But you're wearing Rebel uniforms. I ain't got no choice but to take ya in."

Lou nodded resignedly.

"Look," he added. "If you can promise not to run off, I'll let your brother here ride instead of walk. I can see he's not that strong."

"We promise," Lou said eagerly. Kid simply nodded in agreement. "Ain't like we got any place to run to. The Confederates would just hang us for deserters."

Teaspoon

Teaspoon leaned back in his old chair in the Marshal's office. Despite his lingering cough, as soon as the city leaders of Rock Creek had learned he was back in town they couldn't offer him the job as Marshal fast enough. So, here he sat. It felt… right.

He smiled as he watched his Polly emerge from the front door of her re-opened saloon and cross the street to his office. She carried a platter in her hands with something underneath a white cloth. He sat up and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Lunch.

"Waiting for me, I see," she grinned as she entered the front door. "I must be getting predictable."

"Only to my stomach," Teaspoon said, patting the named organ. "Tell me you're staying?"

"I really shouldn't, Sugarlips."

"Aw, what is there to be done over at the saloon that your girls can't take care of?"

"Nothing much, I suppose," she said reluctantly.

Teaspoon patted the second chair next to his desk. "Then stay."

"How's the cough?" she asked casually, as she picked up a roll off Teaspoon's plate and started tearing it into bite sized pieces.

"Pert near gone," he declaimed. "The summer heat's done burned it out o' me."

"That's good to hear," she said.

"I been thinkin' there's somethin' else you'd like ta hear," he said, clearing his throat and looking around the office at anything but her. "At least, somethin' I'd like ya ta hear."

"And what's that, Teaspoon?"

"Well, see, it's like this. I know things didn't quite work out fer us before, but I'd like ta think I'm a bit wiser with age."

She laughed at this and he glared at her for a moment.

"Where was I? Oh yeah, wiser. Anyways, seein' as how I'm a tad wiser, I was wonderin' if ya'd give me another chance at that husband job?"

"Are you asking me to marry you, Sugarlips?"

"Well, I 'spect that's 'bout it," Teaspoon said, suddenly bashful.

"Well, it's about time," she said, standing up only to sit down on Teaspoon's lap. "I've been waiting for you to ask me ever since you got back to town. If you hadn't asked soon, I was going to ask you."

"Well, we couldn't have that, now could we?" Teaspoon smiled at her.

"Never, Sugarlips. Now, kiss me!"

"With pleasure," he said as their mouths met in a tender kiss.

That night, they joined Rachel and Janusz for supper as had become their custom. Teaspoon confiscated the seat nearest the fire, as the chill night air had a tendency to bring on an unwanted coughing fit. Polly snuggled next to him.

As the foursome finished their meal, Teaspoon cleared his throat.

"I've, well… Polly and me, we've got an announcement to make," he began.

"Not zo fast," Janusz interrupted, reaching over to grab Rachel's hand in his. "Rachel und I haf an announcement to make, too."

Polly and Rachel just grinned at each other as the menfolk tried to glare each other into allowing them to go first. Finally the women burst out in unison, "We're getting married."

Teaspoon and Januzs turned to look at their respective fiancés in mock horror.

"Well, what'd ya go and ruin the surprise fer?" Teaspoon grouched.

"What surprise?" Rachel asked. "We've all known this was comin' ever since ya came back. It was only a matter of time."

"And please, Janusz," Polly added. "You've had that spark in your eye for more'n a year now. The only question is what was takin' ya so long."

Janusz ducked his head bashfully and muttered into his lap, "I vas being respectful."

Rachel leaned over and pecked him on the cheek. Polly turned to Rachel and asked, "So, when were you thinking of tying the knot?"

"Well, Janusz and I were talkin' and seein' as how it's a second marriage fer both of us, we don't see any need to wait and plan some big fancy weddin'," Rachel said.

Teaspoon leaned forward, pulling Polly close into his side.

"Sounds good to me," he grinned. "Never did see the need for all that folderol."

Polly smiled down at him, "Besides, for us it's more like a renewal of vows than a real wedding. We've already had that."

Janusz chimed in, "Und I only care that Rachel becomes my vife, not how. The sooner, the better, I belief is how it is said."

"It's settled then," Rachel blushed. "We'll talk to the pastor and find out when he's free to perform the weddings. That is, you did want to make it a double wedding?"

Thus it was that just a few days later, on a bright, warm Sunday afternoon in August the two couples found themselves in front of what they'd expected to be an empty church. But somehow word had gotten around the growing town of Rock Creek and just about the entire village had stuffed itself inside the church.

As the music stopped, the pastor looked down at the two couples standing before him. Clearing his throat, he began the service, "Dearly beloved…."

It took just moments to complete the ceremony and soon Janusz was kissing Rachel and Teaspoon was kissing Polly, to the loud cheers and whistles of their friends. A quick glance between Rachel and Teaspoon was the only evidence of the pain of missing family at this most special of moments.

Cody

"Do you know what you're gettin' yerself into?" Cody asked suspiciously. He and Thatch were walking toward the livery where Cody had stabled his horse while in Springfield. After a week, he'd decided Jimmy had calmed down enough to be trusted on his own again. So, Cody was headed back to his post in St. Louis. But, he was worried about Thatch. "You know he's still in love with her."

"I know," Thatch said, quietly, looking down at her hands. The morning after her ignominious discharge from the Army, she'd headed straight to the nearest dressmakers shop and gotten herself some women's clothing. Unlike Lou, the only reason she'd been in boy's togs to begin with was for the adventure. "But, I'm here and she ain't. Sooner or later, he'll realize that."

"I just hope it's sooner rather than later," Cody sighed. "Lou coulda tol' ya. Jimmy's always been a stubborn cuss. He's likely to realize only after it's too late."

"Guess that's my risk, then ain't it?" Thatch said defiantly.

"It is at that," Cody said as he grabbed his saddle and began saddling his horse. Tightening the cinch strap he turned to her one last time. "Just, let me know if you need anythin'. Even if it's just to talk."

As he mounted up to ride out, Thatch looked up at him and smiled. "Like I could ever get a word in edgewise, Mr. Buffalo Bill Cody."

With that she slapped his horse's rear to get him started, nearly unseating the startled Cody. Laughing at the sight of the blonde man trying to stay in the saddle, she called after him, "Ride safe!"

Cody shook his head and grinned at the memory. It was exactly what he would have done in the same situation. They were so much alike, him and Thatch. Agnes. He needed to remember to call her Agnes now. Why hadn't he and Agnes ever fallen for each other, like Lou and Kid had, he wondered to himself. Maybe it was because they were just too much alike. Both were showmen at heart and neither could really stand to share the spotlight for long.

His trip down to Springfield last month had been the last interesting thing to happen to him, he thought, sighing as he returned his attention to the unending paperwork in front of him. From Agnes' latest letter, it sounded like she and Hickok were making things work. So far. Then again, it had only been a month. Even Hickok should be able to keep a relationship going for that long.

"Hey, Buffalo Bill, you 'bout done in there?"

"Sure thing, Will," Cody said, flashing a grin at the young man peering around the corner of the door at him. "Just got to go get the General's John Hancock on these, then I'm done fer the day."

"Well, hurry up, then," Will McDonald said impatiently. "I wanna go riding before supper."

It took only a few minutes for Cody to get everything wrapped up, grab his hat and head out the door with his young friend. Will McDonald was every bit the prankster Cody was and they'd struck up an almost immediate friendship upon Cody's arrival in St. Louis.

Chattering about the trivial events of the day, the two headed for the livery and collected their horses. Cody swung up onto the back of his mount without using the stirrups. It was a trick Will had not yet been able to copy, much to his chagrin. The two took off, galloping down the street toward the edge of town, sending other riders, stray dogs and the occasional pedestrian flying out of their way. Many a fist of anger was shaken at them after they'd passed, not that either of the two irrepressible spirits noticed.

An hour later, the two young men were walking along the side of the road, headed back toward town. Each held his horse's reins in one hand and their hat in the other, enjoying the late afternoon sun on their heads.

"So, ya think yer friend's gonna be alright?" Will asked.

"Probably. Thatch, er Agnes, appears to have gotten him over the worst of it," Cody said. "Not that I think he'll ever completely get over their deaths. Lou and Kid, they were his best friends. I mean, we were all family, but those three, somehow they were always a bit more."

Will nodded without saying anything.

Changing the topic, Cody asked, "Did I tell ya Teaspoon got hitched, again?"

Will shook his head.

"Yep. Just got a letter from Rachel," Cody said, smiling broadly. "The old coot remarried his second wife, Polly. Not sure if that makes this his sixth marriage or his seventh?"

The two started to laugh at the joke, but stopped to admire a beautiful young woman cantering down the lane past them. She was tall and slender with dark brown eyes and beautiful long black tresses. Most important, in Cody's eyes, she sat a horse like she'd been born on one.

He said nothing, just followed her movements with his eyes until she was out of sight. Then, he turned to his friend and asked, "Who was that gorgeous lady?"

"Her?" Will asked nonchalantly. "Oh, that's just my cousin, Louisa. Louisa Frederici. She lives here in town with her parents."

"You've got to introduce me," Cody sighed. "Cause I think I'm in love."

Buck

Running Buck was seated in a sunny spot between the tipis his two wives had set up on the edge of the Kiowa summer hunting camp. Soon, they would be returning to their winter camp in Kansas and Buck still hadn't decided whether or not to stay with them. Lying in the sun next to him, Standing Woman was recovered from the ordeal of delivering their son, Shines Brightly, just three months ago.

Buck looked down at the infant sleeping in his lap, tiny fists curled up near his face, his lips pursed and occasionally making sucking motions.

"I bet I know what you're dreaming about, young man," Buck smiled at his son. "I'll tell you a secret, I've been havin' similar dreams lately. But you can't tell your mother."

"Buck."

Buck looked up to see his second wife, Dawn Star standing nervously in front of him, wringing her two hands together. Since Shines Brightly's birth, their marriage had been more traditional, in the sense that when he slept in her tipi they actually shared a bedroll. But for both of them it remained a case of taking comfort in the other, not a love match. So, they'd kept the new aspect of their relationship to themselves, hoping to spare Standing Woman any pain.

"What is it?" he asked, concerned by her look.

"We need to talk," she said.

"So talk," he smiled.

"Not here. Privately."

"Alright," he said slowly, standing up and laying his son back in his cradle board next to his mother. "I'm coming."

As he followed Dawn Star around the tipi to the corral where their horses were kept, he wondered what it was that had her so upset.

"Dawn Star," he said, grabbing her elbow and turning her around to face him. "What's wrong?"

Looking down at the ground, continuing to wring her hands, she finally whispered, "I'm pregnant."

"What?!?" Buck asked, shocked.

"I know it's not what we'd planned," she began, apologizing. "I never wanted to come between you and my sister. I'll just put your things out and go back to my father's camp…"

Seeing the tears streaking silently down her cheeks as she babbled on, Buck realized the impression he'd given her in his shock. He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. Pressing his nose into her clean hair he said, "You have nothing to apologize for, Dawn Star. If anyone should be apologizing, it's me. It was my actions, my need for comfort, that led to this. And you won't be going anywhere. You're my wife and this is my child. Standing Woman will understand."

Pulling back from him, Dawn Star wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. "Do you really think so?"

"She'll have to," Buck began.

"What will I have to understand?" Standing Woman asked, cradling her infant son in her arms.

Buck and Dawn Star started at the sound of her voice, then turned to face her looking like a couple of misbehaving youths caught in the act.

"You'd better tell me before I come to the wrong conclusion," she grinned at them.

Buck pulled away from Dawn Star and began walking toward Standing Woman slowly, holding out one hand in a placating gesture.

"Standing Woman, we've got some news you might not like…" he began.

"I'm so sorry," Dawn Star said at the same time.

"Sorry about what? What won't I like?"

"I'm pregnant," Dawn Star stated baldly.

Standing Woman gasped, her gaze flying between her husband and her sister, seeing the truth in their eyes. Covering her mouth with one hand to catch the incipient sob, she turned and fled the scene. Dawn Star started to move after her, but Buck caught her arm and held her back.

"Let me," he said. "We need to settle some things between us."

Dawn Star nodded and watched him lope off after the love of his life. Tears continued to stream down her face. He was her husband, the father of her unborn child, but she knew he would never love her as he loved her sister. At least he would love their baby, she thought, just as she would.

Buck caught up with Standing Woman as she neared the pond where they'd spent many an hour since their son was born, just being together. It was a place of peace and love. He could hear the sobs building and breaking free of her against her will.

Reaching out, he tried to pull her into his arms to comfort her, but she began to strike out at him, pounding on his chest.

"How could you!" she raged. "How could you! It was just supposed to be a temporary marriage. You said you loved me! How could you betray me this way?"

Knowing there was no defense, Buck just let her rage, accepting any blows that she managed to land with a stoic fatalism. Eventually, her grief and her anger ran their course, leaving her depleted of energy. She wilted against him, almost falling to the ground except for his support.

Buck gently took the cradle board from her and hung it from a low hanging branch on a nearby tree, then returned to his wife. Taking her face in his hands, he lifted her tear swollen eyes to his.

"Are you ready to listen?" he asked.

She said nothing, just sat there, staring at him.

"Alright," he said. "We did not do this to hurt you. It started in grief, the night of Shines Brightly's birth. We sought only to comfort each other and one thing led to another."

"And you couldn't even wait to find out if I was dead yet?" she asked bitterly.

"Standing Woman, you know the losses I have suffered," Buck said reprovingly. "I was not thinking clearly. In my mind, the Earth Creator had already taken you from me."

He stopped speaking and just stared at his wife, until she lowered her eyes from his and nodded once, choppily.

"Once the relationship was begun, there was no going back. We kept it quiet, because we did not want to hurt you. And, honestly, neither of us was thinking of a future. This was still just a way of taking comfort in each other. We never planned on children. Our original plan for this marriage remained."

"Not anymore," Standing Woman sliced at him with her words.

"No, not anymore," Buck agreed sadly. "She will remain my second wife. I will provide for and help to raise our children. And, as you pointed out when you asked me for this marriage, she will be there to be a mother to our children when our duties as Shamans take us away from them. We can make this work, but only if we all try."

Standing Woman just stared at her husband, the man who'd brought her so much joy and now so much pain. Seeing that pain in her eyes, Buck gathered her close, offering her the only comfort he could at that moment. Closing his own eyes in pain at the hurt he'd handed her, he said, "My heart is still yours, Standing Woman, and always will be. Do with it what you will."

Lou and Kid

"Lieutenant," Malone said, walking up to where Lou stood at the edge of the encampment of Confederate Prisoners of War, "tell your men to prepare to move out."

"Where are we headed, Sir?" she asked, concern in her gaze. As a prisoner any change could be bad news.

"Just got orders, you and all the rest of the prisoners held by the 30th Ohio infantry are being transferred to Camp Douglas tomorrow," Malone said.

Lou nodded. She'd been expecting something like this soon. The number of Confederate POWs was growing by the day. So far, she was the highest ranked officer captured, which had put her in charge of this lot. And since, unlike Company G, she had no history with these men, it took a lot to keep them in line. She'd had to build a corps of bodyguards, centered around Kid, to help her keep the hardcases in line. As it was, she'd been unable to prevent dozens from making repeated attempts at escape. Few had succeeded. Those who had had been brought back dead within hours.

The good news about the time they'd spent here, was Kid had had a chance to finish healing. Physically he was back to his old self. Mentally, he'd admitted to her, he was still struggling. He'd told her he didn't know if he had it in him to shoot another human being ever again. It was a good thing they were both out of the shooting part of the action for the remainder of the war. Unfortunately, she'd heard stories about what a POW camp could do to a man's mind. She worried about how Kid would handle the deprivations.

Mentally shrugging, Lou turned and headed back to the tent she'd designated as command headquarters amongst the prisoners. There was nothing she could do about it now, so time to worry about the things she could do.

The next morning, Lou was up early, chivvying the grey clad prisoners into orderly lines and columns, ready for the long march to Camp Douglas in Illinois. She'd arranged things so each man carried only what they could handle. The weakest carried nothing but the clothes on their backs and were carefully dispersed amongst the strongest of their brethren, in case they needed help.

Nodding in satisfaction that she'd done all she could, Lou hurried toward the front of the column. Saluting the Union officers gathered there, she reported that the prisoners were ready to march. Within moments, they began the trek that would cover hundreds of miles of terrain before dropping them all off at the doors of Camp Douglas, just outside of Chicago.

Marching between Kid and another young man, Lou was just thankful for the pleasant early October weather. So many of the men lacked adequate clothing and blankets for winter weather. She just hoped they'd make it to Camp Douglas and better provisions before winter weather hit.

Three weeks later Lou's only thought was to put one foot in front of another. They'd marched straight through, ten hours a day, seven days a week, moving hundreds of men from Northern Virginia through the newly formed state of West Virginia, then Ohio, Indiana and now Illinois. Despite her best efforts, she'd already lost a couple of dozen of the weakest prisoners to the travails of the journey.

"Ready! Halt!"

Lou looked up in surprise at the unexpected command, nearly tripping over her own feet in an attempt to comply. Only Kid, reaching out to grasp her arm, kept her standing as the rest of the men shambled to a halt behind her.

"Stand at Ease!"

Looking at each other in confusion, Lou and Kid settled in to wait.

"What do ya think's goin' on?" asked Alfred Potter, one of the young men who'd attached themselves to Lou just before the beginning of the march.

"No idea," Kid said.

"Best bet is just to wait and find out," Lou added.

Moments later, a group of mounted men in blue uniforms rode over the edge of a nearby ridge and thundered down on the group of exhausted prisoners. The leader of the group began to ride up and down along the line of men. Soon, he came to a standstill at the front of the column.

"Men, you are our prisoners and will remain as such until the cessation of hostilities. There will be NO escape. Anyone caught trying will be shot on sight," he began in a booming voice that could easily be heard by all in the crowd. "Many of the things you carry with you now are contraband and will be confiscated by my men before you can enter the camp. Anyone who tries to resist will be shot. There will be no exceptions. You chose to take up arms against your country and you will be treated as the traitorous dogs that you are."

After spitting out those words in a scarily calm voice, the man, apparently the commandant of the POW camp, turned and rode back over the ridge. The soldiers who'd rode in with him stayed and began circulating through the column in groups of three. One man held an aimed weapon at all times, the second would search the prisoner and everything he carried. The third man watched the other prisoners nearby during the search and then carried any confiscated contraband over to a growing pile at the edge of the column of prisoners.

Lou groaned as she saw what they were confiscating: food, coats, boots, tents, blankets along with anything that conceivably be made into a weapon. How were they going to survive the winter, she wondered to herself. But, she did not allow any of this to show on her face, not wanting to spark a riot amongst the already upset prisoners.

"Lou?" Kid asked, as she quickly grabbed his wedding ring on the chain around her neck and stuffed it, chain and all, down inside the bindings she used to flatten her chest.

"Don't," she said. "Just don't."

He nodded in understanding and reached into a pocket to pull out the velvet bag that held her ring and handed it to her. It quickly followed his ring into hiding. Then they stood there, waiting through the interminable search, both lost in their own despairing thoughts about the winter to come.

By the time they were marched into the camp, all the men were barefoot and had only a single shirt and pair of pants to their name. That night, they huddled together three and four people to a bunk in the underheated barracks building, trying to stay warm. Lou found herself squashed between Kid, who'd claimed the spot along the wall, and Alfred. Another, unknown young man clung to the outer edge of the bunk, trying simply not to fall off.

"Up and at 'em," came the call the next morning. "Into formation for roll call! Move it! Move it! Move it!"

The scruffy guards banged pots and pans together to accompany their screams at the prisoners. Lou could see her breath as she followed Kid out into the cold morning air. By the time the guards had finished taking roll the sun had finished climbing into the sky, but had done little to warm the earth. Lou had lost all feeling in her feet some time ago and begun stomping them on the ground to keep the blood flowing. Soon the entire corps of prisoners had followed suit and the parade grounds had resonated with the sound of hundreds of feet stomping in unison.

"Brrr!" Kid shivered as they re-entered the barracks. "I sure wish they'd hurry up and issue us some coats or blankets."

"Don't be naïve, Kid," Lou snapped. "They ain't goin' to. They're tryin' ta kill us, or hadn't ya noticed."

"Mite testy, ain't he," muttered an older man pushing past their group into the barracks building.

Lou glared after him. She'd already noticed the lack of military discipline at the camp. It had immediately been apparent that things worked on an 'every man for himself' basis here. She was no longer the top ranking officer in the camp, but it seemed no one was trying to keep order either.

Seeing one of her former bodyguards start to go after the man, Lou grabbed his arm and shook her head. A small cadre of men who'd followed her lead on the trip here had remained in orbit around her, providing a small sphere of influence. Catching the eyes of each of the men who'd remained near her, Lou indicated with her head they should meet at the back of the room, furthest from the stove.

"Sir," Alfred asked, as the men gathered around Lou, "What are we gonna do?"

"What we're gonna do is we're gonna survive," Lou said flatly. "That's the only goal we can or should have at this moment.

"We should be lookin' fer ways to escape," one man said.

Lou glared him down. "Have you seen or heard any evidence to suggest a single man has ever managed to successfully escape?"

She left the question hanging for a moment before answering it herself.

"No. You haven't. We may outnumber the guards, but as soon as we get away from the camp, we're so heavily outnumbered here it ain't even funny. And that's before you consider we ain't got guns, or food, or even clothes to protect us from the winter. No, escape is not an option."

"Sounds like ya got a plan, Lou," Kid said quietly from behind her.

She smiled at him, grateful for the implicit support in his words and tone.

"My plan is to work together," she said. "I can't put it any plainer than that. We've all seen already how there ain't no sense of community here. Every one's just trying to keep body and soul alive. But, workin' together's the best way to do it."

She could see now that she had them, most of them at least. Several were nodding in agreement. She began to lay out the details of her plan.

"We'll all take turns. We'll sleep in shifts to protect each other. We'll take turns on the inside and outside of the bunks. We'll take turns fetching water and cooking. We'll put our rations together and eat together. We'll go to roll call together. Heck we'll go to the latrine together."

She searched the eyes of every man in the group, making sure they were paying attention. "They're trying to kill us and we ain't gonna let 'em. And I'll tell you one thing, if they can make us give up our community, our humanity they'll have won. They don't need to kill the body, if they've already killed the soul. We cain't let that happen. Are ya with me boys?"

A chorus of ragged cheers and nods answered her.

"Alright, let's split up into groups of four, that means every man's got at least three available partners at all times," Lou said, getting down to the nitty gritty of setting up her little band of survivors.

That night, Lou crawled into the bunk, taking her turn on the outside along the wall. Despite the cold and discomfort, she was satisfied with her day's work. Her group of four had ended up being comprised of Kid, Alfred, the youngster who'd marched with them from Virginia, and a giant of a man by the name of Tiny Silverstein. Tiny was at least six foot tall, maybe taller, and as wide as Kid and Lou put together, made up of pure muscle. He and Alfred came from the same town in Northern Virginia and were as attached to each other as Kid and Lou.

That night, in whispers in the bunk, Kid and Lou had to explain their secret to Tiny and Alfred. The security arrangements meant all the latrines and sewers were open to the public, and thus the eyes of the guards. It would take some special maneuvering on their part to protect Lou's secret.

"But, why don'cha jest tell 'em what ya are?" Alfred asked.

"I won't leave without Kid," Lou said, grabbing her husband's hand in the dark. "And there's no way they'll let Kid out of here before the war's over. So, I'm here for the duration, too."

Kid pressed a kiss into Lou's shoulder, where his head rested in their cramped positions on the shared bunk, thanking her for her devotion.

"Protectin' yer secret won't be a problem," Tiny finally mumbled. "So long's ya can keep mine."

"What?" Lou asked, startled.

"I'm a woman, too," she revealed.

Silence reigned amongst the four compatriots for a moment.

"Well, hell!" Kid complained. "Next thing yer gonna tell me yer married to l'il Alfred here."

"No," Tiny laughed.

"I'm married to her little sister," Alfred said quietly.

"I joined up to protect him for her," Tiny said. "I'm the eldest, but no one ever wanted to marry me, 'cause o' my size. When the war started and Alfred said he had to join up, Coraline asked me to go along and protect him. So, I stole some of Pa's clothes and here I am."

Lou reached out a hand and fumbled around until she found Tiny's large paw. Wrapping her fingers around the other woman's she said, "Well, your secret's safe with us, Tiny."

Every morning, several men were found dead from the cold. Though, so far never one of those who followed Lou, thanks to her sleeping rotation schedule. During morning roll call, the guards entered the barracks and removed the bodies, piling them up in a mass grave near the dead line. When the grave was full, they asked for volunteers to fill it in and dig a new one further down the road. The volunteers got extra clothes and provisions, so the men, and women, of Lou's little group of survivors volunteered for every job they could get.

"Man, I don't know how many more of those jobs I can endure," Kid complained as they walked back to the barracks one frigid November afternoon.

"Ain't that bad," Alfred said. "At least I ain't cold from sitting still in the barracks all day."

"And we didn't have to go find snow fer water," Tiny added. That was often the most dangerous job. The garrisoned soldiers had shut off the two water pumps to the camp in punishment for the way Union POWs were being treated in the South. This meant the men had to collect and melt snow for drinking water. With the number of men in the camp, upwards of 8,000, that meant they often had to range dangerously close to the dead line to get enough. The dead line was a line marked out with stakes about three feet in from the walls of the camp. Any prisoner caught between the dead line and the camp walls was shot on sight. Just being near it could get a man shot if a guard had an itchy trigger finger.

"Just make sure to wash up real good," Lou reminded them. "It's dangerous bein' so near all them dead bodies for so long."

"Aw, Lou, that's jest Buck's superstition," Kid said.

"No, it ain't," Lou said. "Think of all the gravediggers that've come down with some illness or another since we've been here. We ain't. Cause we're careful. We got ta keep being careful."

"Yes, ma'am," Kid said, with a hint of the humorous sparkle she loved so much.

Lou pushed him away from her for the joke. A playful fight started to ensue until a bullet hit the dirt at Lou's feet.

"Break it up!" shouted an irritated guard.

The group's good luck when it came to taking on dangerous duties failed them the next day. When they got up, it wasn't hard to tell Tiny had a fever. Lou stayed behind to watch over her that day while the others headed out looking for volunteer duties they could perform.

"How's Tiny doin'?" Alfred asked anxiously when he and Kid got back.

"Not good," Lou said. "The fever's gettin' worse. And I ain't got nothin' to treat it with."

"Should we consider taking Tiny to sick call?" Kid asked.

"No,"Alfred said quickly. "They'd find out Tiny's secret!"

"Would that be so bad, if it saved Tiny's life?"

"Let's wait and see how Tiny's doin' in the mornin'," Lou suggested, trying to keep the peace.

But, the next morning, Tiny was worse and the three friends agreed it was time for her to give up her secret for a chance to live. It took all three of them to half drag, half carry her to roll call.

"We'd better just head straight over to the hospital," Alfred said once they were dismissed.

"Yep," Kid said. "She's heavier than Jimmy when he's drunk."

Lou chuckled at that, remembering all too well just how heavy Jimmy could be once he'd passed out.

"Come on, all together now," she said. "And, lift."

But, when they got to the hospital, the orderly turned them away.

"We're all full up," he said. "Ain't no more room here. You'll have to go to the overflow hospital."

"Where's that," Lou asked impatiently.

"They turned the old chapel into a temporary sick hall," the orderly said, pointing down the dirt road to a building with a cross over the door.

Lou nodded and said to her friends, "Come on."

They were met at the door by another orderly who examined Tiny by lifting her eyelids to peer at her eyes and feeling her forehead. "Yep, he's sick," the man said brusquely. He motioned to a couple of people inside and they rushed forward to take Tiny from Lou, Kid and Alfred. When they started to protest the orderly shut them down. "Sorry, only sick folk and medical personnel are allowed in here. Camp rules."

"How can we find out how our friend is doing?" Lou asked.

The orderly pointed to a list of names posted outside the door.

"Just check the list each mornin'," he said. "It'll tell ya if yer friend's still here sick, released back into the population or dead."

The three nodded somberly and slowly turned away. The next morning, as soon as roll call was over, they headed straight back to the overflow hospital.

"Well, is he there?" Alfred asked anxiously as Lou scanned the list, looking for the Ss.

"Simon, Sills, Silverstein," Lou said, finally finding the name she was looking for.

All three peered anxiously at the words written next to Tiny's name. Discharged.

"Looks like they found out," Kid finally said quietly.

"Hope that means she's gettin' better," Alfred said.

"Well, all's we can do is pray, now," Lou said. "It's not like they'll tell us anythin' else 'bout what happened and they sure as heck ain't gonna let her come back here and visit."

Kid patted Lou's shoulder with one hand and Alfred's with the other as the three turned and walked dejectedly back to their barracks.

Hickok

Jimmy rolled over in his sleep, wrapping his arms around the small woman in his bed.

"Lou," he breathed, then finished waking up and shook off the remnants of the dream he'd been locked in. He'd been having the dream a lot lately. That Lou was locked away with Kid in that prison back in Prosperity, doing hard time. He had this feeling he should be riding out to find them, rescue them. But they were dead. He hid his face in Agnes' hair and let the tears flow.

Agnes had awoken when Jimmy rolled over and heard his whisper. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, letting him grieve. Again. She thought back to the conversation she'd had with Cody about being able to handle the fact Jimmy was in love with another woman. At the time she'd been so sure. Now, she wasn't. Lately, every little thing had been upsetting her. She'd never been so emotional in her life.

Finally she pulled back from Jimmy and asked gently, "Ain't ya got work today?"

"Yeah," he sighed, sitting up. "Sorry, didn't mean ta wake ya."

"I know," she said. She'd taken a job working the bar at the saloon. She wanted the money to keep her own place, even if she was spending most nights with Jimmy.

"Go back to sleep, honey," he said as he crawled out of bed and began putting on his clothes. "I'll see ya at supper."

She watched every move he made as he covered that beloved body, pulled on his boots, strapped on his guns and grabbed his hat. She smiled sadly at him when he looked back at her once, before walking out the door.

"Miss ya," she said, just as he closed the door behind him.

She hadn't meant for him to hear that, he thought morosely. He knew his dreams and his inability to get over Kid's and Lou's deaths were hurting her. He wished he could let them go, but something wouldn't let him. It was almost Christmas, maybe he'd get her something special for the holiday to show her how he felt.

That afternoon, as she was getting things set up behind the bar, Agnes couldn't help snapping at everyone around her.

"My, my," said a tall man sitting near the end of the bar. "Must be that time 'o the month."

"No it ain't," she snapped at him. "Not that it's any of yer business."

"Sorry, ma'am," he said apologetically. "Didn't mean no offense. Wanta tell me what's botherin' ya?"

This offer gave her pause and she started to laugh. "I think that's supposed to be my line."

"Just tryin' it on fer size," he said.

"What's yer name mister?"

"Lake. Bill Lake," he answered. "I'm part owner of the circus that just come into town. You ever seen a circus?"

"Have I?" she gushed in excitement. "I love circuses. I want to learn to walk the tightrope and wear pretty dresses and perform in front of great big crowds someday."

"You've certainly got the balance and the grace for it," Lake said, looking her up and down.

"What would you know 'bout it?"

"Well, officially I'm a clown," he said smiling. "But unofficially, I do a lot of recruiting for the circus. Finding new performers, training them, you know."

She nodded sagely.

Across town, Jimmy was trying to decide what to get Agnes for Christmas. Simon was starting to get rather miffed at all the stops Jimmy kept making in their afternoon rounds.

"Come on, Jimmy," Simon whined. "I want to get this done so's we can go back to the office and warm up."

"Sorry, Simon," Jimmy shrugged. "Why don't ya go on without me. I need to look in here."

"Ain't gonna be no misbehavin' soldiers in there," Simon said dismissively. "That's a jewelry store."

"I know it's a jewelry store," Jimmy growled. "I can read!"

"Well, what do ya want with a jewelry store?"

"Thought I'd get Agnes somethin' pretty for Christmas," Jimmy said through gritted teeth.

"Well, why didn't ya say so," Simon said, smiling now. "Let's go!"

Walking gingerly through the store, Jimmy felt lost. He had no idea which of the numerous necklaces, bracelets, rings and earbobs would appeal to Agnes. Then, a pretty cameo hanging from a gold chain caught his eye.

His memory flashed back to something Lou had told him once, about what she wished Kid would buy her. Reaching out, Jimmy clasped the cameo in a hand and held it up to the light to get a better look. It was just like the one Lou'd described. He sure hoped Agnes would like it.

Agnes walked out of the saloon with a determined stride. When Bill Lake had made that joke about it being her time of the month, she'd started thinking. Then counting. And the results had her worried. Looking around to make sure Jimmy wasn't out on patrol, she scurried down the boardwalk and entered a small office with a shingle out front reading, "Doctor".

Jimmy didn't see Agnes disappear inside the doctor's office as he exited the jewelry store with Simon. He carefully pocketed the small package he'd just purchased and started purposefully down the street.

"Do you think she'll like it?" Simon asked.

"I hope so," Jimmy muttered. "But if you don't shut yer trap, yer gonna ruin the surprise."

Catching a glimpse of the scowl on Jimmy's face, Simon shut up.

Hours later, as their shift was about to end, a young boy came barging into the Marshal's office.

"Ya gotta come quick!" the boy shouted. "There's a bunch a soldiers tearing up the Red Garter Saloon!"

"Here we go, boys!" Jimmy said, grabbing his hat and slamming it onto his head. Jimmy, Simon and two other deputies spilled out of the Marshal's office hot on the heels of the boy who'd called them.

Hours later, Jimmy dragged himself painfully into his room.

"Sorry I'm late, honey," he said. "There was a ruckus at the Red Garter. Took us a bit to get the men under control. Then we had to haul 'em out to the Army camp."

Rubbing his sore jaw from where one of the rowdy soldiers had clipped him a good one, Jimmy sat down hard on the bed. That's when he noticed it was empty. Turning around, he scanned the entire room, looking for Agnes. But, she was nowhere to be found.

Wondering why she wasn't there, Jimmy turned around and found a note folded neatly on his pillow. Picking it up, he went to the window to read it by moonlight.

Jimmy,

I'm sorry. I knew you still loved her when we took up with each other. I thought I could handle it, but I can't.

So, I'm running off to join the circus. It's been my lifelong dream. I'm going to become a famous tightrope walker.

Please don't follow me. You need time to heal and so do I. Maybe someday we'll find each other again. And maybe when that day comes we'll both be ready for that something wonderful I know we can have. But that day isn't today.

I love you.

Agnes Thatcher

Jimmy leaned back against the wall, crumpling the note in one fist as he slid down the wall to sit on the floor with his head resting against his knees.

Across town, Bill Lake helped Agnes up into one of the traveling wagons of the circus. Taking a seat, she smiled gently at him before turning to stare out the window, one hand covering her abdomen.

Cody

"You're sure she's expectin' me?" Cody asked for the dozenth time.

"Yep," Will McDonald answered with a twisted grin. "Of course, the main reason you're supposed to be there is to make her other beau, Louis Reiber, jealous. But, hey! It's a chance."

"Once she's met me, she won't remember this Louis Reiber feller," Cody declared self confidently, pausing to check his appearance in a store front window. After a moment's consideration he adjusted the tilt of his hat before moving on.

The pair rambled up the boardwalk to a large, French style house.

"This is it," Will said, pointing to the door, indicating Cody should go first.

"Shouldn't we knock first?" Cody asked, trying to hide his sudden nerves.

"Naw, I'm family," Will said with an insouciant grin.

Cody followed his friend into a large salon with a roaring fire in the fireplace. Cody paused in the doorway, taking in the sight of a beautiful young lady at rest reading a book by the fire. He didn't notice his friend Will sneaking up behind the woman and pulling the chair out from under her.

He did see her fall to the ground. Cody stepped up, planning to help her up, only to be received with a slap in the face.

"Will McDonald, if you ever do that again I'll…" she suddenly slowed to a stop, her facing turning red in mortification. She stammered out, "I… I'm… well, I'm so sorry."

Cody stared at her in stupefied silence for a moment, slowly rubbing his hand across his stinging lips. Then, he let out a howl of laughter.

Trying to breathe through his laughter, Will spit out, "Louisa, this is the young man I was telling you about. May I present you to Private William Frederick Cody of the U.S. Army."

Louisa just stood there, staring, unable to think of anything to say. Cody reached into a pocket and pulled out a handerkerchief to wipe his face. Smiling he said, "I believe Miss Frederici and I have already met."

"Where?" she asked in confusion.

"In battle," Cody joked.

The young lady's hands came up to cover her reddening cheeks and she turned and fled the room.

"I don't care what you say to her, Will, but you'd better get her back down here!"

"On it," Will promised before following his cousin up the stairs.

Cody paced nervously, back and forth, in the hallway. Eventually she reappeared with Will at her back, practically pushing her forward. Cody rushed up to her and grabbed her hand in his. Raising her hand to his lips he kissed the back of it and said, at his most gallant, "I apologize most profusely, Miss Frederici, if my laughter embarrassed you. If there is ever anything I can do to make it up to you, you have but to say."

After that, the evening went well. The food was good and Miss Frederici paid complete attention to Cody, ignoring her other beau at the table. An enfuriated Louis Reiber made an early exit to Will's obvious delight. Cody and Louisa barely noticed his departure.

"So, Mr. Cody, what do your friends call you? Willie?" Louisa asked as they walked out the door to the front porch.

Leading her to the porch swing and helping her sit down before answering, Cody said, "No. Mostly Cody, sometimes Billy. Only my mother ever called me Willie."

"Then I shall call you Willie," she said decisively.

"And what exactly should I call you, Miss Frederici? You wouldn't happen to go by Lou? Or Lulabelle?"

"Most certainly not," she said repressively, before letting a hint of a grin show. "You may call me Louisa. I'm too old for nicknames now."

"Well, now that that's settled, I've got a much more important question for you, Louisa," Cody said. "When can I see you again?"

"Well, I, well, I'm not sure," she began, hemming and hawing.

"How about tomorrow night?" he pressed.

After a moment's thought she said, "I'm sorry but I already have a prior engagement tomorrow night."

"Then the night after? I shan't ask again," he warned.

"That would be fine," she smiled.

"I can't wait," he said, bending to kiss the back of her hand once more. "Until we meet again, my sweet."

With that, Buffalo Bill Cody sauntered down the path to the boardwalk.

"She may not be Lou," he said under his breath to himself. "But I do believe Louisa is the one for me."

Buck

"Here, Buck, you watch Shines Brightly for me," Standing Woman said. "I'm going out to look for spring greens with some of the other women."

Buck shrugged as he took his 10 month old son in his arms. He watched as Standing Woman walked away. She'd come to a certain acceptance of his relationship with Dawn Star. But she continually found little ways to make him pay. Ways he accepted without complaint.

Moments later, a heavily pregnant Dawn Star walked up and set a toddling Sleeps A Lot on a blanket next to Buck. Little Shining Star, about five years old by now, followed her mother and sat down next to her brother.

"Watch the kids for me, will you Buck?" Dawn Star asked. "I'm going over to help Red Bear's wives cure some hides and I don't want the kids near that mess."

Buck just nodded and watched his second wife waddle away. Then he turned his attention to his three children who all stared right back at him.

"So, what do I do now, hunh?"

"Mommy said you have to feed us," Shining Star piped up.

"Feed you?" Buck thought aloud. "What do I know how to make that you could eat?"

The kids just gazed at him, waiting for him to decide.

"Porridge. I'll make porridge. I'm sure Mama Standing Woman has some oats or cornmeal around here somewhere."

Setting Shines Brightly down next to his elder brother on the blanket, Buck moved into the tipi behind him and began searching through the parfleches that contained Standing Woman's food supplies.

"Come on, there's got to be some in here somewhere," he muttered to himself.

Suddenly he heard one of the babies crying. Dropping the parfleche he'd had in his hands he turned and sprinted out the tipi door to see what was wrong. He found Sleeps A Lot holding a handful of Shines Brightly's hair, trying to put it in his mouth and chew.

"Now, don't do that," Buck said gently, starting to disentangle the younger boy's hand from his older brother's hair. "Just be patient and Daddy'll get you something much tastier to chew on, I promise."

Once he had the two boys separated and settled on two separate blankets this time, each with their own toys, he looked around for Shining Star. She was nowhere to be seen.

"Now where did your sister get to," he wondered aloud.

Standing up, he began to search the area around the tipis for the girl. A few minutes later, he found her happily making mud pies in the middle of the horse corral.

"Shining Star, get out of there this minute," he demanded, exasperated. "Do you know what that mud is made of? It hasn't rained in over a week!"

Holding up a handful of the wet, black earth, Shining Star beamed at him.

"Daddy eat my porridge?" she asked.

Moving in to scoop her up in his arms, Buck shuddered. "Uh, no thanks, honey. Daddy's not hungry."

"I'm hungry. Want porridge."

Buck heaved a put upon sigh.

That evening Standing Woman and Dawn Star strolled slowly back into camp, chattering about the events of the day. Both stopped in their tracks as they took in the mess Buck had left the camp in. Curled up in the middle of the mess lay Buck with the three children, fast asleep. With oatmeal in all their hair.

The next morning they let Buck sleep in while they cleaned up camp, laughing together at the mess he'd made. That's how Red Bear found them, when he came looking for Buck.

"He's still sleeping," Standing Woman said. "I'll go wake him up."

A few minutes later, Buck emerged from her tipi still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "What's going on Red Bear?"

"Cannot a man simply come to visit his brother?" Red Bear asked ingenuously.

"Not you, not in this way, brother," Buck said repressively.

"You know me too well."

"So?"

"We have received word the Pony Soldiers wish to talk about a new treaty with us," Red Bear began.

"And you want me to act as interpreter?" Buck guessed.

"No, my brother. Or at least not just that. Several of the other chiefs have sent messages to me asking if you would act as chief negotiator."

It took Buck a moment to come up with a response he was so shocked. "What? Why?"

"You have obviously been greatly honored by the Earth Creator," Red Bear began. "And, you understand the Pony Soldiers in a way none of the rest of us can."

"And what if the terms I find acceptable the rest of you do not?" Buck asked.

"Those of us who are going to the negotiations have agreed to be guided by your knowledge and wisdom."

"This is a huge honor," Buck said. "Not to mention a lot of responsibility."

"Which is why the Earth Creator has asked so much of you already in your young life. So you would be ready when your time came."

"Alright, I'll do it," Buck said after a moment's thought. "When do we leave?"

"We'll take the whole band," Red Bear said. "We leave first thing tomorrow morning."

As usual it took the settled camp less than an hour the next morning to pack up and move out. It took longer, several days, to reach the spot along Medicine Lodge Creek near Fort Larned designated for the treaty talks.

Upon their arrival, even before his wives had begun setting up their tipis, Buck rode on into Fort Larned itself. Wearing the shirt, vest, trousers and boots he'd worn in his Pony Express days, Buck entered the trading post and took a seat near the door. It didn't take long for him to hear what he'd come for.

"Looks like the War'll be over any day now," one man said to his companion.

"Yup," said the second man. "General Sherman's burned most of Georgia and is turning his sight on the Carolinas."

"I heard Ol' Jeff Davis is ready to sit down and talk peace with Lincoln hisself."

"Only if Lincoln'll agree the South was an independent country. Ain't never gonna happen."

The two continued to chatter as they left the building, but Buck had heard what he wanted to know. The war was almost over, which meant this treaty was more important than he'd thought.

"I tell you Red Bear, we've got to get the best terms we can for our people," Buck said that night around the dinner fire. "Once the white man's war in the east is over, the Pony Soldiers will turn their attention back to us. And they'll be a lot less willing to make a deal once they've got their full strength back!"

"We can beat them," Red Bear said confidently. "We always have before."

"You don't understand Red Bear. There's too many of them. It's the same reason the South is losing their Civil War. They can't match the number of warriors the Pony Soldiers can put up. For every one you kill, another three will come in their place. If you want to survive as a people, you must make peace now."

"Even if it means giving up our land and traditions?" Red Bear asked.

"Even that," Buck said. "We're talking about the survival of our people. To survive, they must learn to live in the white man's world. And they must do it now."

Kid and Lou

Lou walked out into the cool March morning, glad that the frigid temperatures of winter had begun to abate. Thanks to team work and careful planning fully 98% of her little band of survivors had made it through the winter, a winter that had killed off nearly 25% of the overall camp population.

"Looks like a beautiful day," Kid said walking up beside her.

"Yep, sure does," Lou said. "Would be a great day for a ride."

Alfred said nothing as he joined them in line for morning roll call. He'd gotten quieter and quieter as the winter had rolled on, until now he barely spoke at all.

"Wonder if there'll be anythin' for breakfast," Kid said idly.

"If there's anything at all, I can guarantee it won't be enough," Lou said somberly. "We need to step up our attempts at getting volunteer jobs if we're going to have enough food."

"Quiet!" snapped one of the guards nearby.

Usually roll call lasted a couple of hours and left everyone freezing. This morning, for some reason, it lasted until past noon. Several men had fainted from standing out in the chilled spring morning air for so long in their already weakened condition. By the time the guards released the prisoners to return to the barracks, Lou was shivering uncontrollably.

"Lou, you need to get back in bed," Kid said worriedly.

"No, I need to go see about a volunteer job," she persisted.

"Lou, don't be stupid," Alfred chimed in. "If you keep pushing yourself like this, you're gonna get really sick and ain't a one o' us could handle losin' ya."

"Now get back in bed," Kid insisted, pushing her toward the bunk the three of them shared.

Despite their precautions, she was worse the next morning.

"Lou, you've got a fever," Kid said. "Let me take you to the hospital."

"No way, Kid," she said desperately. "You know what'll happen. Same as with Tiny. We cain't let 'em find out."

Seeing that she was becoming agitated, Kid placated her. "Alright, Lou. Alright."

It took both him and Alfred to get her out to roll call the next morning and hold her upright throughout the wait. Afterward, Kid picked her up in his arms and simply carried her back to the barracks, not caring what anyone else said.

He spent the day at her side, using his drinking water to sponge off her face and neck when she was hot and lying on the bunk next to her to warm her up when she got the chills. Throughout the day the other members of the little band of survivors Lou had put together and guided through the winter came up with reasons to pass by her bunk and check on her.

"How's he doing?"

"No better, no worse."

"We're prayin' for him."

That night, Alfred and Kid again tried to convince Lou to go to the hospital.

"Lou, I don't know what's wrong with you. We don't have any medicines and we're running out of water," Kid reasoned. "Please, let me take you to the hospital."

"No, Kid. You promised, no riding on without me," Lou was adamant. "You gotta promise now, you won't let me be taken to the hospital."

"I can't promise that, Lou. Please, don't ask me to."

"You've got to, Kid," she nearly wept. "Don't tell me all this has been for nothin'! Please, promise me."

Eventually, her tears and pleading wore him down and he promised. But his glance at Alfred as he was saying the words made it clear to the other man that if the time came, he'd break that promise to save her life.

Kid spent the next week battling the fever trying to steal his wife from him. During that time, the others in their band began to look to him for direction. Without realizing it, he stepped into the leadership role Lou's illness had left vacant.

"Kid, the sewers are overflowing again. What should we do?"

"Ask the guards if you can dig a new latrine, further away from the current one. And downhill. I doubt they'll object to you makin' this place less smelly."

"Kid, my bunkmates are keeping me awake at night with their snoring. What should I do?"

"Well, if kicking 'em don't work, try stuffing some cotton in your ears."

This meant that as word of the latest Confederate defeats began to trickle into Camp Douglas Kid was one of the first to be alerted.

"Kid, Richmond's fallen! Jeff Davis and the rest of the government fled in the middle of the night."

"Kid, General Lee's surrounded at some place called Appomatox. You ever heard of that?"

"Kid, General Lee surrendered. Unconditionally. The war's over!"

Even that barely got a reaction from the Kid, as he continued to care for his sick wife. The next morning, they got the official word during roll call.

"Gentleman," the camp commandant began, "most likely by now you've heard the rumors. Lee has surrendered unconditionally. The War is over."

There were no cheers from this group of ragged men as they tried to digest what they were hearing. Tried to understand how it had happened. How their glorious Cause had fallen so far, so fast.

The commandant continued. "In the next few days, we'll begin to release you lot. Anyone under the rank of colonel who agrees to swear the Oath of Allegiance will be provided with transportation home. All others will have to make their own way. This camp will close its doors by the end of the month. That is all. Please return to your barracks and await further orders."

Teaspoon

In his eagerness to get the latest news from the front, Teaspoon had taken to awaiting the stagecoach's arrival every week. Before the passengers even got off, the driver handed down the latest shipment of newspapers to the Marshal.

The headlines on the last shipment had been all about how Richmond had fallen and the Federal Army had Lee surrounded. Teaspoon knew this could mean the end of hostilities in just a matter of days. So, today he paced up and down the boardwalk awaiting the stage.

"It's late," he muttered.

"No, you're just impatient, Sugarlips," Polly said from where she sat on a nearby bench. "Why don't you come sit next to me and enjoy the spring sunshine?"

"Can't sit still," he said. "Gotta know if my boys are comin' home soon."

"Well, all your pacin' ain't gonna…."

"Stage's comin'!" the shout came from up the street. Teaspoon suddenly calmed down and stood straighter.

"Whoa! Whoa, there!" the stagecoach driver said, pulling the horses to a halt in front of the hotel. "Rock Creek. Last stop for the night. Everyone off."

"Well, you got my papers?" Teaspoon demanded.

"Shore 'nuff do," the driver said with a grin. "But I can tell ya what ever last one o' 'em says."

"Well?"

"War's over! Lee surrendered at Appomatox."

A cheer went up from the crowd that had gathered around Teaspoon to hear the latest news. Soon they had the papers and were passing them around, reading articles out loud to each other, celebrating the end of outright hostilities.

Teaspoon no longer needed the newspapers. He knew what he needed to know. His boys would be headed home soon. They needed to get ready. Turning to Polly, he said, "I've been thinkin'. Maybe we ought to expand the house a bit. We could build on and connect it to the ol' bunkhouse. Make it one big ranch house. That ought to have enough room for all our boys, don't ya think?"

"I agree, Sugarlips," Polly said, taking his arm and walking with him back toward the old stationhouse they were sharing with Rachel and Janusz. "Those boys deserve somethin' better than to come home to a hard bunk. We'll set it up so's each one has their own room."

Chapter 9: The War is Over, Life Begins (Apr-Sep 1865)

Music: Fortunes of War, Iron Maiden (Kid)

Kid and Lou

As they all returned to their barracks, the members of the band of survivors Lou had guided through the winter gathered in their corner. Most were eagerly discussing their plans for after they were released. A few were sadly bemoaning the end of the Confederacy.

"Kid, what are your plans?" one asked.

Looking up from where he was checking on a still feverish Lou, Kid said, "We're going back to Nebraska Territory. We plan to start a horse ranch out there."

"I almost wish I could do the same thing," Alfred murmured. "The Virginia we knew is gone. Won't ever be back. If it weren't for my wife and her family, don't think I'd go back at all."

Several of the men nodded in agreement with Alfred's assessment. Lou weakly reached out and grabbed the edge of Kid's sleeve to get his attention. Letting the others talk on, Kid leaned down to see what she wanted.

"Invite them," she whispered. "Some will come."

Kid nodded and lifted his head to rejoin the conversation.

"Lou's right," he said. "If any of y'all ever decide to head West, you're welcome to come to our place. Come for a visit, come to stay. You've all heard us talk 'bout how the Pony Express made us riders a family. Well, surviving in this hellhole has made all of us a family too."

Several of the men nodded thoughtfully. Then one asked, "How do we find ya?"

Kid smiled, putting his and Lou's dream into words, "Look for the McCloud/Cross Horse Ranch, somewhere in the vicinity of Rock Creek. That's in Nebraska Territory, near the Kansas stateline."

That day no one wanted to go out and find a volunteer job. Everyone stuck around the barracks, discussing their plans for after their release, talking about parents, sweethearts, wives, children. As they squeezed into their shared bunks that night it was with a good cheer that had been missing since their arrival. Few were truly happy about the defeat of the South, but all were ecstatic they'd soon be going home.

At roll call the next morning, the releases began. Moving through the prisoners in alphabetical order, it took two days before Kid and Lou reached the top of the list.

"McCloud, Kid. McCloud, Lou," the call came.

Kid rushed up to the sergeant seated at a desk and saluted. "Kid McCloud, 1st Virginia Cavalry, Company G, reporting as ordered, Sir."

"Mr. McCloud, are you willing to take the Oath of Allegiance?"

"Sir, yes, sir," Kid responded quickly.

"Stop calling me, Sir," the sergeant smiled tightly. "I work for a living. Sergeant is fine."

Kid nodded.

"Alright, records show you were picked up in Northern Virginia. Is that true?"

"Yes, sergeant."

"Here's the money to cover a train ride back to Richmond. You'll have to make your own way home from there," the sergeant said, pushing a handful of bills across the table toward Kid. Kid looked down at the money then back up at the sergeant.

"Sergeant, can I pick up my brother's, too? He's sick."

"Nope," the sergeant shook his head. "Each man's gotta come in person. On account of the Oath."

"Alright," Kid said. "Can I go get him now, then?"

"You do that. But hurry. There's a lot of fellas just as eager to get home as you."

Kid ran back to the barracks where Alfred was watching Lou for him. Walking up to the bunk, he was pleased to see Lou was awake for a change.

"Do you think you can walk?" he asked.

"I'll try," she smiled at him. "Anything to get home."

Alfred helped her sit and then stand up. Once on her feet, Kid and Alfred closed ranks about her and, each grabbing an arm, helped guide her out into the bright sunshine of the May morning. Slowly, she shuffled her way to the desk with the sergeant in the middle of the parade grounds.

"Lou McCloud, reporting as ordered," she whispered.

"Mr. McCloud, are you willing to take the Oath of Allegiance?"

"Yes," she answered.

"Are you going home with your brother?"

Looking up at Kid with a hint of her former self, she half grinned as she said, "Yes."

"Alright, here's the money for the train," he said, handing her a pack of dollar bills similar to the one he'd already given Kid. "Now, you both have to take the Oath of Allegiance. Repeat after me:

I, state your name, do solemnly swear, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the State thereunder, and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all Laws and Proclamations which have been made during the existing Rebellion with reference to the Emancipation of Slaves - So help me God."

"So help me God," Kid and Lou ended together.

"Make your marks here," the sergeant said, pointing to the bottom of the papers in front of him with the written oaths on them, "And you'll be free to go."

Kid quickly signed his Oath, then helped Lou bend over to sign hers. The sergeant gave them both a copy of the Oath that included a sworn testament that they were free to go. They looked at each other, at a loss as to what to say, what to do next. It was Alfred who broke the silence.

"Congratulations! Now, get out o' here before they change their minds!"

"You don't want us to wait for ya?" Lou asked.

"No. Kid needs to get you out of here and to a doctor," Alfred said. "I should be up soon, today or tomorrow. As soon as they let me out of here, I'm catching the next train home. I haven't seen my Coraline since the day after our wedding. And, hopefully Tiny will have made her way home already, too."

"Give her our regards," Kid said. "And let her know about the invitation to our place. A woman like her would do well in the West."

Alfred nodded, even as he started pushing Kid and Lou toward the front gates. So it was, that without a glance backward, Kid and Lou reached the front gate. They paused momentarily at the dreaded dead line, before gingerly stepping across it. They both felt an itch between their shoulder blades as their bodies tensed to avoid the bullets they knew would soon come flying their way, but didn't. Then they stepped up to the guards at the gate. Kid kept one arm around Lou to hold her up. With the other he handed their exit paperwork to the guards.

"Another pair of Johnny Rebs ready to head home," the guard muttered as he stamped the paperwork and handed it back. "Get out o' here and don't ya come back, ya hear!"

"We wouldn't dream of it," Kid started to respond sarcastically, until Lou elbowed him gently in the ribs. He ended on a strained smile and turned to walk down the road away from the POW camp.

Slowly, they made their way down the dirt road. Lou's little bit of strength didn't last fifteen minutes. Soon, she was huffing and puffing.

"Kid," she panted. "I need to rest."

"Alright," he said, guiding her off to the side of the road. "Let's sit under this tree for a bit."

Sitting down she leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder. Together, they looked across the landscape, away from the walls of the POW camp they'd just left.

"Look, Kid," Lou said weakly. "Is that the ocean?"

"No, that's Lake Michigan," Kid said quietly. "It's one of the Great Lakes. They're so big they look like the ocean."

"Wonder if Teaspoon's been here," Lou whispered.

"We'll have to ask him," Kid answered, looking down at his wife. She'd fallen asleep on his shoulder. Reaching out to touch her forehead with the back of one hand, he flinched at the heat pouring off her. Sighing, he shifted her position so he could stand up. Bending over he lifted her into his arms and began to march down the road, praying he would find a doctor quickly. Twenty minutes later, the road led him into the edges of the city.

"Please, can you tell me where I can find a doctor?" Kid asked for what felt like the millionth time.

"No, now leave me alone," the woman said, brushing past him to climb into a fancy carriage. "Damned seccesh, scum!"

Becoming more desperate by the minute, Kid grabbed the arm of the next person to pass him on the boardwalk. "Please, my wife's sick. Where can I find a doctor?"

This person just ignored him, easily pulling out of his grasp and moving on down the street. Just as Kid was starting to give up hope, he felt a tug on his pant leg. Glancing down he saw a dirty street urchin looking up at him.

"You need a doctor, mister?"

"Yes! Do you know where I can find one?"

"Follow me!" the child said, before darting off into traffic.

Caught by surprise, it took Kid a moment to realize what was happening and take off after the child. "Wait! Slow down!"

After following the child across a busy street and down a twisting alley, Kid emerged into a sunlit street across from a large building with the words Deaconess Hospital emblazoned over the door. The child disappeared inside, Kid on his heels.

"Doctor! Doctor!" the child shouted.

"What is it Jerome?" a middle aged man asked, stepping out of a back room, wiping his hands on a white apron fastened around his middle. He stopped as he caught sight of a skeletal Kid standing in the doorway, an even skinnier youth clutched in his arms. After a brief pause to digest the sight, the man rushed forward, "Here, let me take him. Nurse! Some help out here."

"Please," Kid begged, on the verge of tears, "You've got to help her! You've got to save my wife!"

The man looked down at the youth in his arms in surprise, noting this time the finely etched features, still apparent despite their wind-chapped, malnourished condition.

"What's wrong with her?" he asked, already hurrying toward the exam room at the back of the building.

"I don't know," Kid said, following. "She got a fever after roll call a few weeks ago. Hasn't been able to shake it. It just seemed to keep getting worse. Today, she passed out."

"Roll call?" the nurse who'd answered the call for help asked, noting Kid's and Lou's ragged grey uniform remnants. "You two just came from Camp Douglas, didn't you?"

"Yes, ma'am," Kid answered.

"I won't help these confounded Grey Backs," she said with a quiet menace. "It was traitors like them that killed my Manny."

She set down the tray of bandages she'd been carrying and turned to leave the room.

"Mrs. MacDonald," the doctor said, "They're human beings and it's our Christian duty to help them. Besides, by the looks of them, they've already paid for their folly tenfold."

Kid said nothing to defend himself, merely walking over to the exam table the doctor had laid Lou on and running his hand along the side of her face. The doctor came up beside him and placed a hand on Kid's shoulder. "We'll take care of her, young man."

"You've got to save her. I can't survive without her. She's saved my life more times than I can count these last few years. She can't die now. She just can't."

"Well, let's see what's wrong with her," the doctor said, turning to Lou and beginning to unfasten the dirty grey rags that were all that was left of the flamboyant uniform she'd donned three years previously. "Hand me those scissors. We'll need them to cut through these bandages. Was she injured?"

"Uh, no," Kid said, ducking his head and blushing a bit. "She used those to help hide her…. self."

"Ahhh," the doctor nodded in understanding. As he peeled back Lou's clothes his hand brushed a series of pinkish spots across her abdomen. "Has she had diarrhea?"

"Yes. Does that mean anything?" Kid asked anxiously.

Turning from Lou to Kid, the doctor nodded. "It looks like Typhoid. I know she looks bad, but it's treatable. The only problem is, we're out of quinine, the best treatment. All I can offer her is soporific treatment, to ease her symptoms."

"Where can I get quinine?" Kid asked, pulling the train money from his pockets. "I have the money they gave us for a train home. I can buy it."

Moving away from Lou's side, the doctor went to a desk and pulled out a pad of paper.

"This is the name of my pharmacist. If he doesn't have any, he'll know where you can get some," the doctor said, handing the note to Kid. "But, you need to clean up first. Typhoid is spread by lice, and I imagine you as well as your wife are well infested. Best to get you both washed down as soon as we can. We'll have to shave off all your hair, too."

Kid submitted impatiently to the bath, knowing it was necessary but thinking all along of the urgent need to get his wife medicine. He took no longer than necessary to scrub down, not even pausing to enjoy the feeling of being clean. As soon as he stepped out of the tub, he put on the old hand-me-down shirt and trousers the doc had left for him. Looking at the tattered remnants of his uniform, he picked them up off the floor and dropped them in the fireplace on his way out the door.

Following the doc's directions, Kid easily found the pharmacy. A bell tinkled merrily as he entered. Looking around, Kid briefly ran a hand over his now bald head and thought of Ike.

"How can I help you young man," a voice said, seemingly from nowhere.

Kid jumped. Looking around, trying to identify the source of the voice, he said, "Uh, Doc Passavant sent me. Said I could get some quinine for my wife here."

A small man popped up from behind the counter. "How much will you need?"

"Doc didn't say. She's got typhoid fever. Been sick for a few weeks now."

"Sounds like you'll need a full two weeks course," the small man said, bending down and pulling out a bottle of a white powder. Beginning to measure out a portion, he continued, "Can you afford that much?"

Pulling out their combined train money, Kid looked down and began counting. "How much is it?"

"The full two week course will be $50."

Kid shrugged and handed the whole pile of bills over. It was all they had, but worth it to save Lou's life. Somehow, he'd have to find a way to earn money to feed them and send a wire to Rachel in Rock Creek.

Hickok

Jimmy sighed as he downed another whiskey. He'd mustered out of the Army last week. But, despite the promise they'd all made to head back to Rock Creek when the war was over, he just couldn't make himself leave Springfield. With Lou and Kid dead, there just didn't seem to be a reason to go back. Tapping the table in front of him, he indicated he wanted two new cards.

"What's yer problem?" a voice with a slight southern accent asked. "Cat got yer tongue?"

Jimmy looked up, startled, to the man who'd just joined the game with the last hand. Between his accent, his height and his low tilted hat he reminded Jimmy of Kid back when they'd first met.

"Don't see no reason to say things that don't need sayin', is all," Jimmy muttered, watching the younger man from under the brim of his own hat.

"Seems a mite unfriendly, to me."

"What's yer name, kid?" Jimmy asked, allowing his curiosity to get the better of him.

"Davis Tutt. Junior."

"Hickok," Jimmy said, waiting to see if the kid recognized his name.

"Just Hickok? Ya ain't got a first name?"

"Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok."

"Well, Mr. Jimmy Hickok," Tutt said, laying down his cards, "it's time to put up or shut up. I've got two pair. Let's see 'em."

"Three of a kind," Jimmy flashed a quick grin at the younger man. "You'll have to get up earlier than that, to beat me."

The younger man pushed his chair back in disgust, but Jimmy waved him back into his seat.

"Stick around. I'm 'bout to order some supper. There's always plenty to share," Jimmy said. "So long's you're willing to share your story."

"Ain't much to tell," Tutt muttered, pulling his chair back up to the table. "Picked the losin' side. Like always. Now, I'm just lookin' for a fresh start."

Jimmy nodded in commiseration.

"I know the feelin'," he grinned. He reached out and wrapped an arm around the waist of a passing saloon girl, dragging her into his lap. She giggled as he tupped her under the chin. "Nothin' a little whiskey and a good woman can't fix."

Buck

"Red Bear, I know the terms aren't great. But at least they're terms," Buck urged. "The Gantonto are going to come and settle the lands whether we agree or not. The only question is whether we get anything for the land!"

"But, you would have us give up so much," Red Bear practically whined.

"Would you give up your son's life?" Buck asked.

"No," Red Bear said, not even having to think about the answer.

Looking at all the Kiowa leaders gathered to discuss the last round of treaty negotiations, Buck continued, "They're offering not only compensation for lands lost, but to provide schools, teachers, hospitals and doctors. You're not going to get a better deal!"

Slowly, one by one, the leaders nodded in agreement.

"You are right, Running Buck," White Eagle said. "Much as it pains us to admit it, our time has passed. We can only hope to survive in this new world."

"So, I can tell the Pony Soldiers and Agent Whitfield that you'll sign the treaty?" Buck questioned.

"Yes."

That night Buck settled back in satisfaction after eating Standing Woman's supper. Shines Brightly was cuddled up to him on one side, while Shining Star was curled up asleep in his lap. He gently stroked the little girl's hair as he spoke with his wives.

"It looks like we'll be able to hold the final treaty signing within the week."

"That's good news," Standing Woman said.

Dawn Star nodded in agreement, pulling their newborn daughter close to her breast to nurse. "We'll begin packing up camp the same day, so we can leave the next morning."

"You two know me too well," Buck sighed in mock aggravation.

"We know that with the war over you're eager to get home to your Wasicu family," Standing Woman smiled gently at her husband.

Looking around the tipi at the varied nature of his family, Buck grimaced as he imagined his Express brothers' reactions when they met.

Buck's time estimations were right on target. It took only three days to arrange the final signing of the treaty between the U.S. government, Kiowa, Comanche and Apache tribes. That morning, his wives began packing up their camp even as Buck put on his ceremonial robes, including the white buffalo robe, for the signing.

Buck gathered underneath a canopy along with the dozen other tribal leaders and translated as the Indian Agent J.W. Whitfield droned on about his hopes for a peaceful future between the Indians and the Whites. Finally he shut up and the actual signing of the treaty began.

The various tribal leaders stood up and one by one approached the table with the treaty on it. They carefully put an X next to their names on the paper. Buck oversaw the entire ceremony, making sure each man signed next to his own name. Buck shook his head silently as he marveled at how easily his Kiowa family could have been cheated if he hadn't been there. Not a one of them could read or write. They were relying on his knowledge to guarantee the Pony Soldiers' honesty. As the translator and negotiator Buck himself did not sign the treaty.

After the signing ceremony was over, the Indian Agent approached Buck. "You did good work here, son."

"Thank you," Buck said simply, hiding his irritation at the man calling him son. The only white man who could truthfully call him son was in Texas, the last he'd heard.

"We could use a man like you," Whitfield said. "Why don't you come work for me out at the reservation?"

"Sorry, sir," Buck said. "My family and I have other plans. We only came to help with the treaty. We'll be leaving for Nebraska Territory first thing in the morning."

Whitfield looked taken aback, then his features hardened. "Your kind ain't exactly welcome in Nebraska Territory, son. That's white land, now."

Buck smiled. "I know. I'm going back to reunite with my white family, now the War's over back East."

Not giving the befuddled Whitfield a chance to respond, Buck walked, almost sauntered, away. He loved getting the drop on stupid white men, he thought to himself. The looks on their faces were priceless!

Lou and Kid

Kid leaned forward and brushed his hand across Lou's face. She turned her head, unconsciously nuzzling against his touch.

"She's responding well to the treatment, son," Dr. Passavant said.

Kid nodded in relief.

"What are your plans, once she's ready to travel?"

"Don't know, sir," Kid shrugged. "Haven't really thought beyond getting her help."

Kid had been working around the hospital to pay for his room and board while Lou was being treated. The Lutheran charity hospital offered medical treatment for free.

"Guess I'll have to find a job," he added. "I only need to earn enough to send a wire to Rock Creek. They can send me money for the train trip home."

The doctor nodded in understanding. "Day workers gather in the mornings in Haymarket Square. You won't get much, but it'll be something."

"Thank you. I'll try that tomorrow, then. No matter what, I'll continue to work cleaning up around here in the evenings."

"Just don't make yourself sick, son. You're still regaining your strength."

"Ain't that the truth," Kid half-laughed. "I could barely lift a full mochila about now. The boys would sure laugh to see me in this condition."

The next morning, Kid left before dawn and joined dozens of other men in Haymarket Square, hoping to be get work for the day. Unfortunately, there were about three times as many men as jobs. Kid got no work that day and trudged back to the hospital around noon.

A couple days later he finally managed to pick up work with a construction crew. He spent the day helping rebuild an apartment building destroyed in a recent fire. He came home that night 50 cents richer and tired to the bone.

Reaching the hospital, he headed straight to Lou's room. She was awake for once.

"Kid," she smiled, her whole being brightening at the sight of him. "You're back. How'd it go?"

"Earned four bits. Ain't much, but it's a start," he sighed, collapsing into the chair next to Lou's bed. "How are you feelin'?"

"Better," she said. "I stayed awake all day, today."

"That's good," he said. Then, sighing deeply, he dragged himself out of the chair and headed back toward the door. "I'd better get to work cleaning."

"But…" Lou began, unable to finish before he'd left the room. She frowned in irritation. This was the first day she'd been fully awake and she'd been looking forward to spending some time with him. Maybe he didn't like the way she looked with so little hair, she thought grumpily. Running a hand over the fuzz that had already started to grow in from where the doctor had shaved all her hair off, Lou pouted. As short as she'd cut her hair herself, this was just too short.

A pattern soon developed. Kid was able to get work once or twice a week. The money slowly started to add up. Yet, even when he didn't get work, Kid always seemed to have something to do to keep him busy and away from Lou.

Three weeks later, they'd saved about half the amount needed to send a wire to Rock Creek and Lou was up and walking around, trying to get the strength back into her legs. Kid had come back early that day, unable to get any work, and almost immediately disappeared into the depths of the hospital. Lou, without Jimmy to consult, had decided it was time to track down her errant husband and force him to talk.

She eventually found her husband in the kitchens at the back of the hospital, stirring a pot of stew. The Deaconess Hospital was unusual in that it provided two meals a day for the resident patients. Most hospitals expected patients to provide their own food. But, being a charity hospital run by the Lutheran Church, Deaconess had added this extra service.

"Kid," Lou said quietly, walking up behind him.

"Lou," he said, startled. "What are you doin' out of bed? You should be restin'."

"Kid, the doc says it's time I started moving around," she placated. Then, she got down to business. "Kid, we gotta talk."

Turning back to the pot of stew, he mutterd, "What about?"

"Kid, why are you avoidin' me?"

"I'm not avoidin' ya, Lou. I'm just busy."

"It's more 'n that, Kid. Even when you don't have work, you're nowhere ta be found," she said. "What's wrong?"

"Lou, just leave it alone," Kid almost begged. Setting the spoon aside, he put the lid back on the pot of stew and walked to the back door. Grabbing his hat off a hook by the door, he snugged it down on his head.

"I gotta go ta the bakery ta pick up the day's bread," he practically flung over his shoulder as he walked out the door.

Lou sighed in frustration as she watched him leave. That hadn't gone as well as she'd hoped. Next time, she'd try a different tack.

Kid knew he was too early to pick up the day's bread shipment, so he started wandering the Chicago streets. Soon, his steps brought him down to the lakefront. He stood for a long time staring out over the grey waters of Lake Michigan. It wasn't their pond with his thinking place, but it was the best he was going to get here.

After an hour of deep thought, Kid stood, brushing off the seat of his pants. He knew he'd have to talk to Lou. But he'd needed some time to figure things out for himself, first. Now, he was ready to talk. He started walking down the street, toward the bakery that donated its day old bread to the hospital. He'd find her after supper.

"Kidd? Hieronymus Kidd? Is that you?"

Kid froze at the sound of a name he hadn't heard in years. Turning slowly, he watched as an older version of himself with a full beard and mustache hurried down the walk toward him. Peering at the man, recognition suddenly hit Kid.

"Uncle Stuyvesant? Stuyvesant Schuykill?" he asked, bewildered.

"It is you!" the older man exclaimed, reaching out to pull Kid into a bear hug.

"What are you doin' here?" Kid asked. "We all thought you were in California."

"I was. I was," Stuyvesant grinned broadly, stepping back to get a good look at Kid without letting go of him. "Made my fortune in the gold fields in '49! Finally got married a couple years ago. With the war over, my wife and I decided to head back and see if there was any family left."

Kid eyed his uncle sadly and shook his head. "I'm all that's left."

"What happened?"

"Everything. Nothing," Kid shrugged. "Life. It's a long story. Several long stories."

"Well, you can tell me all about it over supper," Stuyvesant said. "My Molly'll be tickled pink to meet you. You'll have to join us at the Briggs House for dinner. Come on."

"I'm sorry, sir," Kid demurred. "I'm on an errand right now. And, to tell the truth, neither my wife nor I are in any condition to be eatin' at some place as fancy as the Briggs House."

"Your wife? Well, it appears you've got more stories to tell than I thought, young man. If you don't feel comfortable comin' to dinner with us, we'll come to you. Where ya stayin'?"

Looking around, wishing he had something else to say, Kid finally spat out, "The Deaconess Hospital, corner of Dearborn and Ontario."

"Is everythin' alright?" Stuyvesant asked in sudden concern.

"Lou was sick. But she's gettin' better now," Kid said, brushing off his concern. "I'll, uh, see ya later."

With that, Kid turned and walked away. But this time he knew he'd be seeing his family again soon, whether he wished to or not.

That night, Stuvesant and Molly Schuykill walked up to the Deaconess Hospital and asked for Hieronymus.

"Who?" the nurse at the front door asked in confusion.

Looking down at his wife in amusement, Stuyvesant said, "I'll take a gander he's still using that ol' nickname of his, The Kid. Never did cotton much to his Christian name."

Sighing in relief, the nurse said, "Oh! The Kid's back in the kitchen getting the last of supper on the table. Come on in. I'll show you the way."

Following the nurse, they found the Kid filling bowls with stew from a giant pot, then setting a biscuit along the edge of each bowl.

"I see some things don't change much," Stuyvesant joked. "Still puttering around in the kitchen. He used to spend all his time there with his ma, learning to cook everythin' under the sun. Took a lot o' guff from his Pa and brother over it, but that never stopped him. Now, where's that wife of yours ya told me 'bout?"

Looking up, Kid managed a strained smile. He nodded his head toward a still painfully slender young woman with extremely short hair sitting at the table.

"Hieronymus! You didn't tell me she was such a looker!"

Lou's eyes flew from this older version of her husband to the Kid in shock.

"Hieronymus?" she mouthed in shock.

Seeing the byplay, Stuyvesant laughed. "I take it he managed ta get ya ta the altar without givin' away his little secret. He always hated that name."

"Hieronymus?" Lou finally managed to fully vocalize. "Your name is Hieronymus?"

At Kid's bashful nod, Lou let a small laugh escape. "So, is that your first name or last? Am I Mrs. Hieronymus now?"

"Uh, no. It's Hieronymus Kidd," the Kid said quietly. "I started using my last name as a nickname long before Jed took off. After that, I was the only male Kidd left in town, so everyone just naturally started callin' me The Kidd. It stuck."

"So, Cody wasn't wrong when he said he should call me Mrs. Kidd?"

Kid managed an embarrassed laugh. "I prefer Kid McCloud, actually. It's grown on me, Mrs. McCloud."

He bent and pressed a kiss to Lou's head. Turning to his uncle and new aunt, Kid waved to the table. "Have a seat. We ain't got much, but yer welcome to what we've got."

Sitting down at the table across from Kid and Lou, Stuyvesant looked at his nephew and asked, "I know you told me you've got several stories to tell, but start with the most important one. How'd ya end up here?"

His pointed look took in Kid and Lou's worn, hand-me-down clothes and the surrounding charity hospital kitchen.

"That's the longest story of all. I'm not sure where to start."

Lou grabbed her husband hand in hers and said, "Why don't you start at the beginning?"

Nodding, he started to speak, "I guess it all began shortly after you left in '49. Pa wasn't no good at runnin' the farm and when we had a bad year, he started to drink. Everthin' went downhill from there."

Long after supper was over, Kid, and later Lou, told the story of how they'd ended up at the Deaconess Hospital. Finally, Kid finished quietly, "So, we're just tryin' ta save enough money for a wire home."

"So ya two ain't as destitute as ya look?" Stuyvesant asked. "Cause, honest to God, yer the closest thing I'll ever have to a son, Kid. That means what I got is yers. And I can easily afford a wire."

"I ain't askin' fer charity," Kid said, standing up and moving away.

"Kid, it ain't charity when it's family," Lou reprimanded him. "How often did Teaspoon havta tell ya that?"

"Yer right," Kid relented, returning to the group. Looking at his uncle he held out his hand, "I'd be honored to accept yer offer of help."

Stuyvesant gravely took Kid's hand and shook it, knowing just how much it had cost the younger man to accept the offer. "We'll head over to the telegraph office first thing in the morning, son. Ye'll be headed home in a matter of weeks."

"And, once we're done with our wedding trip," Molly added. "We'll be coming by for a visit. Might even stick around awhile."

"You're always welcome, ma'am," Lou said. "Family's always welcome."

Teaspoon

"Marshal! Marshal!"

Teaspoon turned to see who was calling him. Things had been quite peaceful in Rock Creek since the news of the war's end. Slowly, men had begun returning home, but none had been his boys. Not yet.

"Yes?" Teaspoon asked.

The young boy who'd been hailing him ran up and held out a piece of paper. Gasping for breath he said, "This here telegram's for Mrs. Tartovsky. Pa was wonderin' if you could take it to her, seein's how yer headed out to her house anyways."

"Sure, son," Teaspoon said, accepting the paper and handing the boy a penny for his efforts.

"Wow! Thanks, Marshal Hunter," the boy said, a grin lighting up his face.

Teaspoon watched as the boy turned and headed straight for Thompkin's store. Then, he looked down at the paper in his hand.

"Wonder what this is all about," he muttered to himself. "Well, I guess the best way to find out is to get over to the house."

As he walked into the yard that had once been the scene of so many Pony Express mail transfers, Teaspoon looked up at the construction going on. They'd already added several rooms onto the side of the house, stretching it toward the old bunkhouse. This evening, Janusz was busy putting glass in an empty window frame.

"Where's Rachel?" Teaspoon asked.

"In de kitchen," Janusz answered around a mouthful of nails. "Vhy do you ask?"

"She's got a telegram," Teaspoon said, waving the paper at Janusz even as he turned to head into the house.

"Who vould send Rachel a telegram?"

"Don't know. Plan on findin' out real soon, though. Rachel?" Teaspoon called.

"In here," she said, poking her head out of the kitchen door while wiping her hands on an apron. "Supper's not quite ready. Polly's out in the garden picking some greens for the salad."

Walking into the kitchen, Teaspoon held out the telegram to her.

"What's this?" she asked, accepting it.

"Ya got mail," was all he said.

She tore open the seal holding the folded sheet of paper closed and flipped it open. Her eyes scanned the paper and she gasped. At the look on her face, Janusz quickly came to her side and placed an arm around her waist.

"Vhat is vrong?"

"Nothin'," she said, looking up and starting to grin so widely her face looked like it was about to split open. "Everythin's gonna be absolutely perfect, just as soon as we can get to the bank!"

"What?" Teaspoon asked, befuddled.

Rather than ask his question, Rachel handed him the telegram. Looking down he read:

We're alright. Stop.

Need $50 for train. Stop.

Send to Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. Stop.

The Kid. Stop

Teaspoon sank weakly into a chair. "But, they were reported dead."

"No," Rachel said calmly, going to a cupboard and pulling out a scrapbook. Opening it she pointed to the casualty list she'd saved. "Actually, they were reported missing and presumed killed. Obviously, they were only missing!"

Looking up at her, Teaspoon smiled, though his eyes looked suspiciously moist.

"Well, what are we waiting fer?" he asked. "We've gotta get ta the bank before it closes and get that money, so's my kids can come home! All of 'em!"

Cody

Cody looked into the mirror he'd hung above his bunk in the barracks and straightened his tie. He was nervous. He'd officially been discharged from the Army that morning. Tomorrow he would start the long trip back to Rock Creek. But tonight? Tonight he was going to see Louisa and he had something important to ask her.

Finally satisfied with the way he looked, the blonde rider grabbed his jacket and shrugging into it walked out the door. He'd been seeing a lot of Louisa in the last couple of months and he hoped she'd respond well to his request. He really thought she was the one for him. If it weren't for his promise to Teaspoon, and his desire to see the rest of his family after all these years, he wouldn't be leaving at all.

Arriving at the Frederici home, he saw he wouldn't even have to knock on the door. Louisa was already out on the porch, sitting in the swing waiting for him. She blushed at his quirked eyebrow and lowered her eyes to her lap.

"Dinner ready already?" he teased.

"No. Mama's making it extra big again," she teased right back. "Seeing as how she can never quite fill you up!"

"Well, let's go on in and see what's cookin'," he smiled at her, holding out his elbow. She stood up and slipped her small hand through the crook and walked indoors with him.

After dinner, Cody looked at Louisa and suggested, "Why don't we take a walk in the garden?"

She nodded her agreement and soon they found themselves wandering amongst her mother's roses. After a few moments of silence, she looked at Cody and asked, "Spit it out. There's something you've been thinking about all night. What is it?"

"You know I'm leavin' in the mornin'," he began.

"I know. Your going home to see your family."

"Yep. Thing is, I was kinda hopin' ta ask ya somethin' before I left and was wonderin' if ya might say yes," he said, beating around the bush in a very un-Cody-like manner.

Louisa stared into his eyes for a moment then, as he started to open his mouth to say something else, placed a finger over it to silence him.

"Wait here," she said, then turned and ran back into the house. A few minutes later she scampered back out again, this time with something in her hand. Handing it to him she whispered, "Come back to me safe, Willie."

She placed a soft kiss on his cheek and left him standing in the garden, this time knowing she would not be back. He looked down at what she'd given him. It was a photograph of her. Turning it over he saw she'd written, "Maybe, sometime" on the back of it. Grinning he tucked the picture into his jacket pocket before looking up at her window. Seeing the light there he whispered, "I'll hold ya to that, my sweet Louisa!"

He turned and walked away. It was time to go home.

Buck

Standing Woman watched her husband as they turned to approach the town on the horizon from the north. They'd already talked about not wanting to parade through the middle of town to get to Rachel's house. Instead, they'd ride around and come up on the house from the back. Not that that meant they'd go unnoticed, she thought as she saw a rider go streaking toward the town after watching them for several moments.

She and Dawn Star were both a bit nervous about meeting Buck's Pony Express family. More nervous than they'd been about meeting Red Bear and his wives. This was the family that truly mattered to Buck. Their approval, or disapproval, would be key to his happiness.

She'd watched as he'd simultaneously become more relaxed and more nervous, the closer they'd gotten to Rock Creek. She was still trying to figure out the odd dichotomy.

"I'm going to ride on ahead," Buck said before taking off at a gallop. She smiled as she watched him go. It was always such a joy to watch Buck riding flat out.

Buck grinned into the wind as he raced his horse toward the old home station. It felt as if the intervening years hadn't happened, as if he were just coming in from another long run.

"Rider comin'!"

The familiar call only made his grin even bigger as he raced into the yard, to find what seemed like a small crowd waiting for him. Teaspoon was even on hand to reach out and grab his horse's reins near the bridle, helping bring it to a halt, just like he often had after a run.

"Good ride?" he asked.

"Perfect," Buck grinned down at the old man he considered his father.

"Welcome home, son!"

Dismounting, the others crowded in around him and all began talking at once. Buck looked around the group and took note of who was there and who wasn't. Noticing his searching gaze, Teaspoon smiled.

"You're the first one in, son," he reassured. "But, Cody, Kid and Lou are all on their way. Haven't heard from Jimmy yet."

Buck nodded. Then, hearing the sound of multiple hooves coming up behind him, he smiled. "I didn't come alone."

"Who's that?" Rachel asked, looking at the group of women and children riding into the yard, along with a couple dozen Indian ponies.

Buck blushed and ducked his head.

"I take it there's a story comin'," Teaspoon ribbed him.

Buck said nothing, simply walked over and helped first Standing Woman then Dawn Star down from their horses. Holding hands with both women he walked back toward his family.

"Teaspoon, Rachel, Polly… Janusz?" he paused in his introductions as he noticed the Polish man standing behind Rachel, with his hands on Rachel's shoulders.

Rachel reached up and put her left hand over Janus' and Buck saw the slender gold band encircling her third finger.

"I see I'm not the only one with a few stories to tell," he grinned, suddenly a little more relaxed. "I'd like to introduce you all to my wives, Standing Woman and Dawn Star, and our children, Shining Star, Sleeps A Lot, Shines Brightly and." reaching over he removed the infant from a cradle board on Dawn Star's back, "our youngest, little Wiggle Girl."

Holding his youngest daughter close to his chest, Buck finally looked back at his Pony Express family and waited for their reaction.

They stared at him, all of them, in complete, total silence, shocked silence, for what felt like forever. Then, they all started talking at once.

"Well, welcome," Polly began, walking up to Standing Woman and Dawn Star and shaking their hands in turn. "I'll bet you're ready for a rest after your journey. Let me show you your rooms."

Rachel came up to Buck and took Wiggle Girl from him, holding her close and marveling at the perfection of her features. "She's beautiful, Buck. They all are. You're a lucky man."

"Yes, I am."

"But, Wiggle Girl? What kind of a name is that?"

"Not her adult one!" Buck said, laughing. "Most tribes name their children after personality characteristics. And the name can change several times before the child reaches adulthood and earns their grown-up name."

"Well thank goodness!"

"Son," Teaspoon said, placing a hand on Buck's shoulder, "I always hoped you'd learn somethin' from me, but I never expected this. I know I was always talkin' 'bout being married six times, but… not all at once!"

Buck laughed at Teaspoon's chagrined look. "Things are a bit different amongst the Plains Tribes, you know that Teaspoon. It wasn't what any of us had planned, but this works for us."

"Well, I ain't one to judge," Teaspoon said after mulling that over. "Just so long's your happy."

"As happy as a man can be with two wives," Buck smiled. "It ain't always easy!"

"I'll say," Teaspoon smiled, pulling Polly close into his side. "It took me several decades and nearly as many failures before I finally figured out how to keep one woman happy. Let alone two!"

That night they all sat around the old bunkhouse table eating Rachel's delicious cooking. As they were finishing up her famous apple pie, Buck leaned back and sighed.

"I sure have missed your cookin' Rachel."

"I'm sure Standing Woman and Dawn Star are perfectly good cooks," Rachel said with a warning glance his direction.

Buck smiled and said, "Quite true. Two of the best cooks in all the Cheyenne and Kiowa nations. But, it ain't like there's much call for bakin' pies and such out on the prairie."

Rachel laughed and patted his shoulder before placing another piece of pie in front of him.

"So, vhat are your plans?" Janusz asked, getting to what everyone had been wondering ever since Buck had ridden in with his unusual family. "Are you planning on staying around long?"

"I'm here to stay," Buck said, with a contented expression on his face. "This is home. Before they left, I spent a lot of time talking with Kid and Lou about our plans for after the war. We're going to start a horse breeding ranch together. I've been gathering and training Indian ponies the last couple of years so we'll have a good starter herd once they get here."

Teaspoon nodded at the confirmation that his boys had been making plans together.

"That explains that herd ya brought in with ya," he said. "We're gonna have to expand at least the corrals in the mornin'."

Buck nodded. "Looks like you're already hard at work expanding the house, too."

"Yes," Polly said. "We wanted to make sure you all had someplace nice to stay when you're here. You're a bit old to be sleeping in a bunkhouse these days."

Buck laughed appreciatively.

"And, we're gonna be needin' a bit more room ourselves," Rachel smiled mischievously, taking Janusz' hand in her own.

Teaspoon suddenly sat forward and looked hard at Rachel. "Are ya tellin' us?"

Rachel just nodded. Janusz answered for her.

"Ve are expecting a baby. Sometime in November, the doctor thinks."

"Congratulations!"

"That's wonderful."

"I'm so happy for you Rachel, you deserve this."

The talk around the table quickly turned to babies as the women began discussing the things they'd need to do in preparation. The men took advantage of their distraction to slip out onto the bunkhouse porch.

Buck slapped Janusz on the shoulder and said, "So, have the cravings started yet?"

"No. Vhat are crafings?"

"Ah…." Buck smiled mischievously. "They're one of women's ways of punishing us men for getting them pregnant in the first place."

"It's hard to believe you've got experience at somethin' I ain't, son," Teaspoon smiled. "Looks like yer gonna have to be handin' out the advice for the next few months."

"My only advice is agree with whatever she has to say, no matter how crazy it sounds."

The three men laughed together, comfortable in each other's company.

Buck turned serious for a moment.

"Is there anything I can do to help out around here while we're waiting for the others to get home?" he asked.

"Vhell, your help vith the house addition vould be greatly appreciated," Janus said. "It's going too slowly vith yust the two of us vorking in the evenings und on veekends."

"Yep," Teaspoon agreed. "With me busy over at the Marshal's office and Janusz doin' the blacksmithin' round here, there ain't a lot of time for the house buildin'. And you were always good at carpentry."

Buck nodded. "I'd be glad to."

"I was also hopin' ya might let me deputize ya," Teaspoon said a bit hesitantly. "I need the help. Especially with the daily patrols. I just ain't as young as I onct was."

"Are you sure the townspeople would accept that? I mean, it was one thing to make me a temporary deputy along with the others when you needed extra help. But, on a more permanent basis?"

"I already talked to the town council about it," Teaspoon admitted. "They're fine with it. Most of 'em remember you pretty fondly. And the fact is, they ain't been able to find anyone else. And, I know neither Jimmy or Cody will be willing to do it on a regular basis. Kid might."

"Or Lou!" Buck smiled. "Sure Teaspoon, I'd be glad to be your deputy. Like I always was!"

Hickok

"Hickok, let's go play some poker," Tutt suggested jovially.

Jimmy shrugged noncommittally but followed him down the boardwalk to the nearest saloon.

"Why do ya hang out with that feller?" Simon asked, dogging his footsteps. Even though Jimmy was no longer a member of the Army, Simon still found every opportunity to pass the time with his hero.

"He's a friend," Jimmy said shortly.

"But why? He's nothin' but a down on his luck Rebel cardsharp."

Jimmy didn't deign to answer. The truth was, he wasn't too sure why he hung out with Tutt himself. He wouldn't admit to himself it was Tutt's soft southern accent that reminded him so much of someone else.

Pushing through the saloon doors, Jimmy looked around the saloon until he found Tutt, already seated at a poker table. Jimmy headed over and took a seat, saying, "Deal me in."

Unfortunately, Jimmy had an unusual run of bad luck at the table that night and a couple hours later found himself tapped out.

"Simon, let me borrow a couple bucks so I can stay in the game," he requested.

"Sorry, Jimmy. I ain't got it. I'm done fer the evenin' myself," Simon said, pushing away from the table and leaving the saloon.

Jimmy turned to Davis Tutt and asked, "What about you? Lend a feller a couple bucks?"

"Sure," Tutt said, sliding a few bills from his pile of winnings toward Jimmy. "You'll owe me."

"I'm good fer it," Jimmy said. "You should know that."

"How 'bout lettin' me spend the night with yer gal, Susanna," Tutt half-joked.

Pulling the blonde barmaid closer to him, Jimmy scowled at Tutt. "That ain't funny. I don't share."

"Aw, ya know I was just joshin'," Tutt backed down quickly.

"Let's just play already," Jimmy said.

Kid and Lou

After Kid's uncle and aunt had left the hospital, Lou headed to bed. She was hoping with her improved health Kid would join her in the bed, instead of laying down on a pallet on the floor as he had been doing.

But, an hour later when he came back from cleaning up the kitchen, he started setting up his pallet. Lou sighed heavily in disappointment.

"Go to sleep, Lou," he said quietly. "You need your rest."

"What I need is my husband," she muttered.

He blew out the flame in the kerosene lamp and lay his head down on the pillow. After a few moments of silence, Lou sighed again and pushed the covers back. Climbing out of the bed, she walked over to Kid's pallet and pulled up his blanket to slide underneath it.

"Move over," she said.

"Lou! What do you think yer doin'?"

"If you're not going to join me in the bed, I guess I'll just have to join ya on the floor," she said, snuggling up to his side.

He lay stiffly, not stopping her but neither did he relax into her embrace.

"What's wrong, Kid?" she asked gently, hiding her face against his chest.

"This ain't right," he said stiffly.

"What do ya mean?" she asked pushing up to look him in the eyes. "We're married, how can it not be right?"

"Yer sick."

"No, I'm gettin' better. And I need my husband so I can keep gettin' better."

"I'm afraid I'll hurt ya," he started. "And…"

"And?"

"And, I'm not sure I deserve ya anymore," he finished wretchedly.

"What on earth could make ya think that?" she asked, shocked.

"I'm not a real man, not anymore," he mumbled. "I can't protect ya. I spend most of my time in the kitchen, fer cryin' out loud. And, I can barely provide fer ya."

"Kid, have I ever once asked ya to take care of me?"

When he didn't respond, she pushed her fingers into his armpit, wiggling them nastily. "Well, have I?"

Squirming away from her torture, he finally admitted, "No."

"I need a man who'll stand beside me," she said. "A partner, not a father and not a son. You're that partner. We'll take care of each other. When I've needed a helpin' hand, you've been there. When you need help, I'm ready to do what needs doin'."

"I know," Kid said, finally wrapping his arms around her and gathering her close in a hug. "And I appreciate all you've done fer me, Lou. Don't think I don't."

"But do ya still love me?"

"Now who's askin' silly questions," he whispered, pressing his lips into her hair. "I love you more than life itself."

"Then be my husband tonight, Kid. I need ya," she said, letting her hands start roaming over his body. After a moment of silent thought, he reciprocated her explorations. They both began to get reacquainted with the other's body, a body that had changed much during the last couple of years' worth of hardships.

It had been more than a year since they'd been able to get any private time and each was emotionally drained, in desperate need of the emotional intimacy that came with the physical intimacies they were experiencing. Lou sighed in contentment at his caresses and kisses. Now, she was free of the war. Now, she was coming home.

A week later, Lou was trying to fasten the hooks and eyes on the dress Molly had given her. It was a beautiful blue silk dress, as nice, if not nicer, than her wedding dress. Unfortunately, her arms just weren't long enough, or flexible enough, to get into the right position to fasten it up the back. She heard the door open and turned to see Kid coming in.

"Oh, thank goodness," she muttered in relief. Turning her back to him, she said, "Fasten these would you?"

Coming up behind her, Kid slipped his hands inside the open flaps of material and around her waist.

"I'd rather take it off ya," he whispered into her ear.

Elbowing him in the gut, she said, "Behave yerself, Kid. If I'd a known crawling into yer bed was gonna make ya this randy, I'd a waited a few more days. Now, come on. Yer aunt and uncle'll be here any minute."

Sighing in disappointment, Kid pulled away and began fastening her dress. Soon, they were ready and waiting for the Schuykills to pick them up. Kid wouldn't take this day away from Lou for anything. She'd once said one of her dreams was to see a big city. Chicago wasn't New York, but it was huge compared to places like St. Joe. The cities they'd seen during the war hadn't exactly counted, at least not in his book.

The Schuykills pulled up in a beautiful carriage with four matched black geldings hitched into the traces. Lou smiled in appreciation of the horseflesh as Kid helped her up into the carriage. She sat down next to his Aunt Molly and looked out across the street. This was the first time she'd spent more than a few minutes outside the hospital and she was eager to see the city.

Lou and Kid 'oohed' and 'ahhed' over the sights as they drove up State Street, checked out the shopping at Marshall Field's Department Store, then went for a walk at Lake Park.

"It's so beautiful here," Lou said, leaning her head on Kid's shoulder as they strolled down the paths in the park. "So green and peaceful."

"We don't have to go," Kid said. "We could stay here. I'm sure I could find a job."

"Oh, Kid," she laughed, punching him in the shoulder. "It may be pretty, but it ain't home. Besides, we'd never be able to really ride around here. Just ain't enough room. Too long here and I'd start to feel suffocated."

"That's good," Kid smiled, "because I got a wire from Teaspoon this morning. He's sending our money so we can come home. Buck's already there."

"That's wonderful! When can we leave?"

"I'll check train schedules tomorrow morning," Kid promised, hugging her arm closer to his side.

"I'll come with you," she smiled up at him.

"What's the matter? Afraid I won't get the information right?"

"No, I just want to get out more. You know that suffocated feeling? I've been feeling it for awhile now at the hospital."

"Well, ya coulda always asked me to open a window," he teased. She laughed and he basked in the tinkling tones. He loved making her laugh. "Lou, I asked Uncle Stuyvesant and Aunt Molly to let us have a little time alone for a reason."

She opened her mouth to say something, but he pressed a warning finger against her lips. Smiling he begged, "Lou, for once just let me say what I gotta say without interrupting me."

She subsided with a smile and lay her head on his shoulder to listen, glad for the bonnet she wore that hid her hideously short hair.

"Lou, I asked my aunt and uncle to leave us alone for a reason. I wanted to ask ya somethin'. Would you marry me? Again? Right here?"

"What?" Lou asked, confused.

Kid dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a tattered, yet extremely familiar, little velvet back. Taking her hand, he dumped the contents out onto her palm. They both stood, looking down at their wedding rings for a long moment. At last, finally understanding what Kid was asking, Lou looked back up at her husband and cupped his cheek in her hand.

"Yes!" she whispered.

Smiling tenderly down at her, he reached into her palm and picked up the smaller of the two rings. Taking her left hand in his, he slowly slid the ring onto her finger.

"I give you this ring as a visible and constant symbol of my promise to be with you as long as I live. It is a symbol of my love, my faith in our strength together, and my covenant to learn and grow with you," he promised.

Lou wrapped her fist around the larger ring still sitting in her palm and brought it to her lips to kiss it, repeating her actions from their wedding day. Then, taking the ring she clasped Kid's hand in hers and slipped the ring on his finger, whispering past the tears caught in her throat, "I give you this ring as a symbol of my love for you. Let it be a reminder that I am always by your side and that I will always be a faithful partner to you. This ring is a token of my love and devotion to you. I pledge to you all that I am and all that I will ever be. With this ring, I gladly marry you and join my life to yours."

Clasping her beringed hand in his, Kid leaned down and tenderly pressed his lips to hers.

"Thank you," he whispered. "I needed that."

Leaning her head against his shoulder, Lou sighed in appreciation of the moment. Kid tensed and looked down at her worriedly.

"Are ya sure yer not gettin' too tired?"

"I'm fine. I just want to remember this moment forever," she smiled, "like our wedding."

"Let me know if you get too tired," Kid said anxiously. "We can always postpone dinner until tomorrow night.

"No way! I wouldn't miss supper with yer Aunt and Uncle tonight for anythin'," she grinned up at him. "I'm hopin' to get a few more embarrasin' stories out of 'em!"

He groaned playfully as they continued their walk down the tree lined path.

That night at supper, Kid and Lou explained their plans to leave to his relatives.

"Well, son," Stuyvesant said, "I can understand yer desire to get home. When do ya expect to leave?"

"Sometime next week," Kid answered. "Depends on the train schedules."

"We should be able to make most of the trip by train now," Lou added. "We're going to stop in Omaha and pick up my brother and sister on the way."

"We're thinking of cutting our tour short and heading back west, too," Molly piped up.

"Yep," Stuyvesant agreed. "The city's been fun, but we're missin' the freedom of the West. Been thinkin' we might stop by and see y'all on our way. Heck ain't nothin' tyin' us ta California. We might even stay."

"You'll be plenty welcome," Lou said.

"As long as you can keep yer mouth shut 'bout my name," Kid mumbled into his dessert plate.

"Sorry, Kid," Lou laughed. "That cat's out of the bag now. Ain't no putting it back in, Hieronymus."

In response, Kid flicked a candied flower from his piece of cake across the table at her. She dodged agilely and the candy hit the floor behind her.

Waving a finger in his face, she tutted at him. "Manners, Kid. What would Emma say?"

Hickok

"Susana, ya in there?" Jimmy called, taking the steps to her room behind the bar two at a time. "Guess what? I got tickets to…."

He trailed to a stop as he opened the door to her room to find her on the bed with a man he'd thought was a friend. Looking Davis Tutt in the eyes, Jimmy felt his hand inching toward his guns and deliberately moved it away.

"Hey, Jimmy," Tutt smiled. "I'm just collecting on yer gamblin' debts. Ya got good taste in women!"

Jimmy deliberately turned his back on the pair and closed the door behind him. On his way out of the saloon he dropped the pair of tickets to a new play in front of a gambler by the door. He didn't respond to anyone's attempts to get his attention, concentrating on simply keeping his temper in check.

It wasn't that he loved Susanna, or even cared overmuch about her. She was fun to hang around with, but that was about it. The problem, he decided, was he just didn't like to share.

The next day, Jimmy was playing poker with Simon and a couple of his other former co-workers from the Provost Marshal's office. Tutt walked in and pulled up a chair to the game, saying, "Deal me in, gents."

Jimmy promptly dropped his cards down on the table and stood up.

"That does it fer me," he said, turning and walking out of the saloon.

Over the next couple of weeks, the pattern continued, Tutt trying to join in on Jimmy's games and Jimmy walking away.

"Ya know, he's gettin' right furious with ya," Simon said one night.

Jimmy just shrugged.

"I've heard tell, since ya won't play with him no more, he's startin' ta bankroll guys ya will play with."

Again, Jimmy shrugged, not really caring overmuch.

"Well, what are ya gonna do 'bout it?" Simon asked, unwilling to leave things alone.

"Ignore him. Beat anyone he backs against me," Jimmy said shortly, downing the drink in front of him in a single gulp and turning to leave the saloon.

The next night, Jimmy was on a winning streak. He'd already shut down three players and it was down to just him and another highroller. There was more than $300 in prize money sitting on the table and his opponent didn't have anything left to bet.

Jimmy was well aware of Tutt in the crowd behind his opponent, but ignored him. Until Tutt came up to him and said, "Jimmy, I'm callin' in yer debt. Pay up the $35 ya owe me!"

"It's only $25," Jimmy said, pushing a few bills toward Tutt.

"Nope," Tutt insisted. "Ya owe me $35. Now, hand over the other $10."

Jimmy just looked at him for a moment before saying, "It's $25 and I've got an IOU in my other pocket to prove it."

Tutt laughed and said, "Yeah, right."

Reaching out he grabbed the brand new gold watch sitting next to Jimmy's elbow. Jimmy had just won it that night and had taken quite a fancy to it. It reminded him greatly of Emma's father's watch. His jaw clenched tightly but he didn't respond to Tutt's provocative move.

"Fine," Tutt crowed, tossing the watch into the air and catching it. "I'll just hold onto this watch as collateral until ya pay up."

"I better not catch ya wearin' that," Jimmy warned.

"I plan on wearin' it first thing in the mornin'," Tutt egged him on.

"If ya do, I'll shoot ya," Jimmy said quietly, standing up and collecting his winnings. Without another word he walked out of the Lyons Hotel restaurant where they'd been playing.

"Sure ya will," gloated Tutt, thinking he'd won the confrontation.

The next morning, Jimmy was sitting on the porch of the boarding house where he was staying, cleaning his guns. Simon ran up and asked, "Have ya heard?"

"Heard what?"

"Tutt's in the town square, wearing that watch o' yourn as bold as ya please!"

Jimmy paused in his cleaning for a moment, then returned to what he was doing.

"So, what are ya gonna do 'bout it?" Simon asked.

"I'm gonna finish cleanin' my gun," Jimmy snarled. "Then I'm gonna shoot the bastard."

In the long run, Jimmy forced himself to sit and consider for a lot longer than it took to clean his guns. He eventually decided he simply couldn't let this go. That evening he entered the town square looking for Tutt.

Seeing Tutt at the opposite side of the square he yelled out, "Dave! Here I am. Ya better not come across that square wearing that watch."

Tutt stared at him, with his hand resting on his pistol. Jimmy shifted position, his hands hovering over the handles of his twin revolvers. The two just stared at each other for what felt like an interminable period of time to the nervous onlookers. No one ever could identify just what sparked the motion, but suddenly they both appeared to reach for their guns simultaneously.

Jimmy pulled just one pistol and rested it on his opposite forearm before pulling the trigger. Tutt's shot missed by a mile. Jimmy's didn't, entering Tutt's ribs.

Tutt shouted at the pain and backed up a few steps, yelling, "Boys, I'm killed!"

Then he crumpled to his knees. Onlookers rushed up and checked him. "He's dead," one called.

"Better call the sheriff," another added.

Most of the crowd still had their eyes on Jimmy. He hadn't waited for Tutt to fall, knowing his bullet would take the man out. The second he'd fired, he'd whirled around, gun still cocked, to hold the weapon on several of Tutt's friends moving in behind him.

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," he growled. The men quickly removed their hands from their weapons and backed away. That's how the sheriff found him, when he arrived.

"I'm sorry, son," the sheriff said. "But I've got to take ya in, at least until an investigation can be completed."

Jimmy just nodded, holstering his weapon and unfastening the gunbelts to hand them over to the lawman.

Cody

"Waa-hoo!"

Much as Buck had, Cody felt the need to race back into the old home station at full gallop, as if he were just coming back from another run. He announced his arrival with his characteristic cheer.

The pounding hooves of his horse and his shout had people pouring out of doors to the house, the bunkhouse and the barn. Teaspoon broke into a quick dance of joy.

"My boys 're comin' home!"

"Howdy, Teaspoon," Cody said, sliding down off the side of his horse. "Great to see ya!"

He engulfed the older man in a bear hug, then turned to take stock of who else was present.

"So, where is everybody?" he asked.

Buck walked up from the barn, where he'd been mucking out stalls.

"I'm the only other one back so far," he said, holding his hand out to Cody. Cody looked at the hand and grabbed it, only to pull Buck into a bear hug of his own.

"Glad ta see ya survived," he said. "Too bad not everyone else did. I'm not too surprised Jimmy ain't come back yet. I'll be kinda surprised if he comes at all."

"Why not?" Rachel asked, moving in for her own hug of greeting.

Pulling back to look her up and down, Cody grinned. "Ya know, there was a day when I'd a thought I'd died and gone to heaven if ya'd hugged me like that."

Rachel slapped at the back of his head playfully, but he easily ducked her swing. Looking pointedly at her expanding middle, he crowed, "Looks like ya two got straight to work on buildin' a family. Or maybe ya didn't wait?"

Placing her hands protectively over her middle, Rachel smiled gently. "The baby's due later this year."

"Stop trying to talk yer way out of answering her question, young man," Polly joined in.

"Polly!" Cody exclaimed, reaching out and dragging her into his arms to swing her in an exuberant circle. Setting her down again, he begged, "Tell me how ya finally convinced the ol' coot to take the plunge one last time?"

In answer, Polly simply wagged her fingers under Cody's nose, "Now, out with it."

Cody sighed and looked around the group, obviously not wanting to share this news.

"I'm not sure just how updated your casualty lists are," he started.

"Fairly good," Teaspoon said. "Though not nearly so good as what ya got down at Army headquarters in Missouri, I'm sure, son."

Taking a deep breath, Cody finally blurted, "Kid and Lou were killed at Cold Harbor last spring. Jimmy ain't takin' it so well."

Everyone just started at him for a moment, then they all started talking at once. Teaspoon stepped forward and held up a hand for silence.

"When'd ya hear this son?"

"Both their names appeared in the KIA lists about a month after the battle."

"Probably the same lists as the one in the paper came from," Rachel said. Teaspoon nodded in agreement.

"Well, then, we've got news for you, son," Teaspoon grinned broadly, then winked.

Looking around at the loved ones surrounding him, Cody began to feel he was the butt of some cosmic joke.

"Kid wired us a week or so ago!" Rachel exclaimed joyfully.

"They were captured, not killed," Polly added.

"They're headed home," Teaspoon ended, smiling broadly. "Should be here sometime next month."

"Waa-hoo!" Cody leaped in the air for joy. "We gotta let Jimmy know!"

The next morning, Cody rolled out of the soft bed Rachel and Polly had made up for him in his brand new, private bedroom. Looking around, he grinned at the luxury of it all, before jumping up and getting dressed.

He ate breakfast with more than his usual gusto. Rachel just smiled, enjoying his enjoyment, and kept dishing out the food.

"I swear, Rachel, I ain't had food this good since I left," he said.

Smiling, Rachel chided him, "Don't talk with your mouth full, young man. Chew and swallow first."

Doing just that, Cody grinned at her unrepentantly as he said, "Sorry, Ma'am," before stuffing another bite into his maw. Eventually, even his bottomless stomach was satisfied and he pushed back from the table. Looking around at those gathered there, he asked, "So, what are the job prospects around here?"

"Well, son," Teaspoon humphed, "I could always use more help over at the Marshal's office. It would be just part-time right now, Buck's there the other half 'o the time. But once Kid and Lou get back, he plans on going to work full-time on the horse ranch they're starting together."

"I need somethin' full time, now, Teaspoon," Cody said, shaking his head. "Besides, she'd kill me if I became a lawman."

"And just who might 'she' be?"

Looking at the faces around the table, Cody couldn't keep the growing grin off his face.

"Louisa," he breathed. "Louisa Frederici. The prettiest little lady this side of the Rockies."

Rachel and Polly looked at each other and mouthed the word "Louisa?" at each other. Both knew all the boys had been at least a little in love with Lou and the coincidence in names had them wondering. Not noticing the byplay, Cody continued speaking.

"We ain't promised, yet. But we will be. She said she'd wait fer me. I just got to find a job and earn enough money to support her."

"I can see yer dilemma, son," Teaspoon said, scratching his chin in thought. "Ain't nothin' around here that'll pay as well as the Express did."

"There is the new stagecoach office," Janusz pointed out. "They are adwertising for drivers."

"Now that sounds more like it," Cody enthused. "Where do I apply?"

Hickok

Jimmy picked up the spoon, stared at its contents and dropped it back in the bowl, before pushing the bowl out of the jail cell.

"Better eat," the bored deputy said, turning a page in the catalog he was perusing. "That's it 'til breakfast."

"Ain't hungry," came the laconic reply.

"Gentlemen, might I beg a moment of your time?"

Both men, one in the cell, one outside it, looked up in surprise. The deputy stood and, placing his hand on the butt of his gun, asked, "What can I do fer ya, mister?"

The tall, fancily dressed man with graying hair and beard, held out his hand, "I am Colonel George Nichols."

The deputy wiped one hand on his pants then reached over and shook the colonel's hand.

"I was hoping your prisoner might consent to speak with me for a bit," the colonel said.

"Why should I?" Jimmy asked, uninterested.

"I know you've had bad luck with writers before and I thought you might want to set the record straight, young man."

Jimmy slid back on the cot in the jail cell and pulled his hat down over his eyes. The colonel eyed him for a moment, then added, "Besides, it doesn't look like you have anything else to occupy your time at the moment."

Not moving, Jimmy finally muttered, "What did ya want ta know?"

Smiling, the colonel pulled up a chair and took out a pencil and pad of paper. "Where did the nickname Wild Bill come from?"

Over the next two weeks, as Jimmy awaited trial on manslaughter charges, he reluctantly answered more and more of the colonel's questions. The day before his trial, the colonel ended the interview with, "Well, I wish you luck, son. I'll be in the courtroom eagerly awaiting the verdict."

"What ya plannin' to do with all them notes ya been takin'?" Jimmy wanted to know.

"I'm going to write it up for Harper's New Monthly Magazine."

"Unh hunh," Jimmy grunted. "Just make sure ya tell the truth!"

The next day, his trial began. It didn't last long. Despite the number of witnesses, they all had pretty much the same thing to say. At the end of the day, the judge issued his instructions to the jury.

"Men, this case is straightforward. The only conclusion you can come to under the laws of the great state of Missouri is guilty. However, you do have the option of applying the unwritten law of the 'fair fight' and vote to acquit."

It took the jury only a few minutes to return with their verdict.

"Not guilty on all counts," the jury foreman announced.

Turning a sour look on Jimmy, the judge paused for a pregnant moment.

"Son, you got lucky here today," he grumped. "I suggest you take this as the second chance it is. I understand your reputation is only partly your fault. But your temper is all yours and you've got to learn to control it, or the next time you might not get so lucky."

Banging his gavel down, the judge ended, "Court dismissed!"

Picking up his hat, Jimmy turned to the deputy assigned to guard him. "Can I have my guns back now?"

That evening, Jimmy stood bellied up to the bar, pondering the glass of whiskey on the counter before him. He felt someone move up next to him.

"So, whatcha gonna do now?" Simon asked.

"Don't rightly know," Jimmy muttered. "I should head home, but it just don't feel right."

"I hear tell our old pal Davy Huston is runnin' fer sheriff of Springfield."

"That halfwit?" Jimmy scoffed. "He couldn't catch a rat if it stood on his head!"

"Mebbe not, but he sure can talk a blue streak," Simon countered.

"This town's in for some real trouble if they elect him sheriff."

"Well, why don't ya run 'gainst him, then," Simon suggested. "Give them a real lawman to vote for."

Slamming his whiskey glass back down on the bar, Jimmy snorted, "I just might do that!"

It took only a few minutes the next day to fill out the paperwork at the courthouse to get his name entered in the election. Jimmy grinned. Who knew all those reading lessons he'd been taking while with the Pony Express would come in so handy. Now, he just had to let the town know he was running.

He walked out of the courthouse still pondering this question, only to run into Colonel Nichols.

"Why Mr. Hickok," the Colonel smiled. "How's it feel to be a free man again?"

"Right good, colonel. Right good," Jimmy smiled broadly at him, shaking his hand vigorously. "Listen, I was wonderin' if ya'd sent that story in to yer publishers just yet."

"I'm planning to mail it off tomorrow morning, son. What makes you ask?"

"Well, I was wonderin' if ya could add a little bit into it fer me," Jimmy began, leading the colonel off toward his favorite watering hole.

Two weeks later, Jimmy was spending every afternoon loitering around the general store, waiting for its daily shipment to arrive.

"Here it is," the clerk said, handing over the latest copy of the new glossy magazine Harper's New Monthly.

"Thanks a lot," Jimmy said, grabbing it and tucking it under one arm. Handing over a gold piece he added, "And yer sure they'll be put out where people can't miss 'em?"

"Yes, sir!"

Jimmy nodded, satisfied, and walked off to read the story Nichols had written about him. A couple hours late he wasn't nearly so happy. "If I ever see that lowdown, dirty snake again, I'll show him what a gunfighter's temper really looks like!"

"What's wrong?" Simon asked, walking up behind Jimmy. "Whatcha readin'?"

"A bunch of lies, that's what! And after he spent all that time talking about journalistic ethics and just wantin' ta tell the truth. I shoulda known better than ta ever trust a writer!" Jimmy spat out.

Simon slid the magazine out from under Jimmy's elbow and started flipping through it.

"Hitchcock?" Simon sputtered. "He couldn't even get yer name right!"

"And that ain't the least of it. He says I've killed 'hundreds' of men. Hundreds! I'm for sure to lose the election now," he finished, tipping up his whiskey glass to down the last few drops of amber liquid. "The worst of it is, I actually talked to this guy."

Jimmy's prediction came true. On election night that September, he came in second to Davy Huston. Yet Simon found Hickok sitting in a corner of the saloon with the biggest grin he'd ever seen on his face.

"I thought ya wanted ta win," he asked, taking the seat across from Hickok, who was seated with his back to the wall. "So why're ya so all fired happy ya lost?"

"I could care less 'bout bein' Sheriff," Jimmy said, smiling up at Simon. "The drinks 're on me tonight!"

"Does this mean ya've found Thatch?"

Not even mention of Thatch, usually the quickest way to set Jimmy off, could dampen his mood tonight. "Naw. I'm still lookin' fer her. Nope, what I've got is even better."

With that, he simply slid a telegram across the table to Simon.

Come home. Stop.

Kid & Lou are alive. Stop.

Due in Rock Creek in September. Stop,

Cody. Stop.

Looking back up at his friend, Simon sighed. "I guess that means ye'll be leavin' us, now."

"Yep," Jimmy said, grinning into his sarsaparilla.

"Won't be the same here without ya."

Jimmy just laughed.

Buck

"You don't have to go, Buck," Standing Woman said as she watched her husband saddle up his favorite mount.

"Yes, I do," he smiled down at her. "You know how much they mean to me. To all of us, really. Kid and Lou, they were the core of our little family. Emma, and later Rachel, along with Teaspoon may've been the heads, and Jimmy was definitely the leader, but Kid and Lou, they were the heart. I've gotta go make sure they get back here safe and sound."

Turning back to check the cinch strap on his saddle, he added a little less enthusiastically, "Besides from the sounds of it, Lou's still gettin' her strength back. Knowin' her, she'll be insistin' on being treated as if nothin's wrong, even when it is. Kid'll need some help keepin' her quiet 'til she heals up."

Standing Woman laughed and smacked the back of her own, very stubborn, husband's head.

"That sounds an awful lot like the pot callin' the kettle black to me."

Buck turned and gathered her into his arms for a deep goodbye kiss. Lifting his head, he grinned down at her. "Maybe, but in this case, it's the truth."

Moments later he led his saddled mount out of the barn, with Katie and Lightning tied to his saddle by their reins. After hugging Dawn Star goodbye and kissing each of the kids, he swung up into the saddle and cantered off into the sunrise.

Teaspoon's eyes followed him as he crossed the yard and disappeared down the main street of Rock Creek.

"Ride safe!" he yelled. "And bring my kids home!"

Lou and Kid

Lou stood on the boardwalk outside Chicago's grand Union Station. Kid swung down out of his uncle's open carriage after her, then reached back in for their carpetbags.

"Thanks again," Lou said, looking up at the man who'd insisted she begin calling him 'uncle'. "I don't know what we'd have done without ya."

"Oh, you'd have found a way," Stuyvesant grinned down at her. "It's the Kidd way."

"Not to mention the Kid's way!" Lou joked, before giving the older man a hug.

Kid shook his uncle's hand, offering his own thank you. "We'll be seeing you next summer then?"

"Yep. That's the plan," Molly said. "I may be hankerin' to get back out west, but I ain't fool enough ta want ta travel through a plains' winter to do it!"

"We'll be lookin' ya up next summer though, son," Stuyvesant added. "You can be sure of that."

"We'd better get goin'," Lou said, glancing anxiously at the big clock over the main doors of the train station, "Or we're goin' ta miss our train."

Kid shifted the carpet bag to his left hand and held out his right arm for her. She very properly placed her gloved hand through the crook of his elbow while trying, with little success, to bob a respectful curtsey at the Schuykills.

They all laughed as she nearly tripped over her own feet, only staying upright by virtue of her death grip on Kid's elbow.

Then, Kid and Lou turned and walked into the train station. As they passed through the huge main doors, Lou looked around in wonder. Despite all the fancy buildings they'd seen over the last few years, in good repair and bad, this was one of the nicest, she thought. Their steps rang out as they crossed the marble floors to the stairway that led down to the boarding area.

Their train was already waiting when they got to the right platform. Lou let go of Kid's arm as he reached into his jacket to pull out their tickets. First class, thanks to his Aunt and Uncle, complete with beds in a Pullman sleeping coach. A belated wedding present they'd insisted.

After checking the authenticity of their tickets, the conductor reached out a hand to help Lou up the steps. She stared at the outthrust hand for a moment, not quite sure what to do about it. Then she figured out she was supposed to place her hand in it and let the man help her up the steps. She could hear Kid choking back laughter as she fought to wrangle her skirts with just one hand while letting the conductor 'help' her by holding on to the other.

Once they were both aboard, and safely out of sight of the conductor, Lou turned around and took a swing at Kid. Her tightly clenched fist impacted with a satisfying thud into his ribs. His surprised 'oof' sounded even better to her ears.

"And there's more where that came from," she smirked, before turning around and flouncing off toward their cabin. Unfortunately, she ruined the effect by promptly tripping over the lace trim of her skirt. Hearing Kid's barely stifled guffaw behind her, she stiffened her shoulders and marched on.

Not having to hide who they were, not to mention the first class tickets, made the train trip home much smoother than the trip east, but it wasn't without its difficulties. Railroad tracks were still messed up from the war. More than once, everyone on board had to disembark and wait while the train was manually moved from one piece of track to another. But, eventually, they reached their first destination. Lou spent the last several miles pacing back and forth in their cabin.

"Would you sit down," Kid begged. "You're makin' me nervous!"

Plopping down onto the softly cushioned bench next to Kid, she lay her head back on the backrest. "Sorry, Kid. It's just been so long since we've seen them."

"I know, darlin'," Kid soothed. "But frettin' about it, ain't gonna change anythin'. It'll just make you exhausted and me cranky."

"Oh, scary thought that," Lou teased. "Woe is me. My husband is cranky."

The train's whistle announced their arrival and Lou hopped up out of the seat as if it had suddenly turned red hot.

"Let's go!" she said, like an excited child on Christmas morning, grabbing Kid's hand and pulling him toward the cabin's door. Kid laughed, snatched up their carpetbag and followed her toward the train's exit.

Lou didn't wait for the conductor to 'help' her down off the train this time. She simply gathered the excess material of her skirts in one hand and leaped to the ground. Even before she landed, she was looking around.

"Where are they?"

"Louise!" came a familiar voice, wafting over the crowd. Kid, with his extra height over Lou, was able to spot where Emma, Sam and Teresa were waiting further back on the platform, closer to the station.

"This way," he said, gathering Lou in close to his side and starting to push their way through the crowd. She continued to crane her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of her family.

"Louise!" Teresa exclaimed, enfolding her older sister in her arms as soon as she was free of the crowd. "I thought you'd never get here."

"Yep. When they announced another delay," Sam said, "we thought she'd start walking up the track to meet ya! Welcome home!"

He placed a comforting arm around Lou's shoulder and hugged her to him, then shook Kid's hand before pulling him into an embrace, too.

"Oh, Lulabelle!" Emma exclaimed in simultaneous welcome and dismay, as she surveyed Lou's still frail form.

"It's alright, Emma," Lou reassured her, throwing herself into Emma's arms for yet another hug. "I'm alright."

Pushing her back, Emma brushed Lou's slowly lengthening hair out of her eyes and searched her face. "Don't you ever do that to us again, young lady!"

"I didn't exactly plan on doin' it the first time," Lou said.

Emma pulled her back in for another hug. "I know. But…"

"That's enough, Emma," Sam said, pulling her away from Lou. "Let them catch their breath."

Looking around, Lou asked, "Where's Jeremiah?"

Sam and Emma shared an uncomfortable look before Sam said, "He's on a run to Wichita."

"He works for a freighting company, driving the wagons," Teresa added. "It's the closest he could come to riding for the Pony Express!"

"But," Lou started to protest, until Kid tugged on her hand.

"Not now, Lou," he whispered in her ear.

Once back at the Cain house, it didn't take long for Lou to realize things weren't going to go according to her plan.

"But, Teresa," she begged, hating the almost whiny quality to her voice.

"Lou, I love you," her younger sister said. "But, I'm almost finished with my schooling here. I've got a chance at a good job once I am done. And…" at this point the young lady started to blush, "I have a beau."

"Emma, are you listening to this!" Lou exclaimed in horror. Turning back to her sister she began to lecture, "Young lady you are only 15 years old. That is too young to be having beaux! You haven't even begun to live your life. How can you go thinkin' 'bout hitching it up to someone else's?"

"Louise," Emma cautioned. "Just 'cause she's got a beau don't mean it's gonna be permanent. Remember how things were for Kid and you, back in the beginning. They coulda gone either way. But, how would you have reacted if any of us had tried to tell ya to slow down?"

Lou blushed at this, as she thought about the mistakes she and Kid had indeed made in their own courtship.

"But that's just it, Emma," Lou said. "I learned the hard way, and almost lost the love of my life over it. I don't want Teresa to go through that."

"Lulabelle, you can't live other people's lives for 'em. Remember the talks we had, when you were so confused? Did I ever tell ya, do this, don't do that? No. 'Cause I knew there weren't no sense in it. You had to decide for yerself and live with the consequences. It's called growing up."

Lou, outnumbered and outgunned, decided to leave off the conversation for the moment. But she was by no means ready to give up on convincing Teresa to come live with her and Kid. Finally, Teresa simply put her foot down.

"Lou, I love you. You're my big sister. But, ya ain't my ma, fer all yer tryin' ta act like it. It's too late fer that. Our ma's dead. Emma's been all the ma I've needed fer years now."

Getting up from the sofa where they'd been sitting, Teresa crossed the room to look out the window at the Cain children playing in the backyard. "Besides, it won't be long now before you and Kid start having a family of your own. You need some time alone to get settled proper before that happens. You two ain't never really had any time alone."

At this bout of common sense, she finally gave up. Even more worrisome than Teresa's decision not to 'go home' with Lou and Kid was Jeremiah's failure to make it back before they left. He'd sent several telegrams with increasingly vague excuses for why he wouldn't make it in time.

"I just don't understand," Lou told Kid several times.

He hugged her before answering. "From what Sam's told me, he's never quite forgiven ya fer leavin' the orphanage. As long as ya weren't around, he felt free to love ya. Now yer back, he's ready to play the pissed off teenager, again."

Lou couldn't help but laugh at the characterization, albeit a mite uncomfortably. It felt all too much like how she would've described Jimmy when they'd first met him.

Thus it was that a week later, she and Kid boarded the train for Lincoln, the closest train stop to Rock Creek, without either her sister or her brother.

In a bad mood when they boarded the train, Lou was silent for most of the trip. It was only as they neared the stop at Lincoln that she spoke up, picking up an argument they'd been having ever since the trip began.

"I'm not ridin' in a stagecoach, Kid," she said defiantly. "I'm well enough to ride home proper, so long's we take it slow."

"But, Lou, we don't even have any horses."

"It'll be cheaper to rent a couple of horses at the livery than it will be to pay for tickets on the stagecoach anyway. One night at the hotel in Lincoln, then we're ridin' home! And that's that."

Kid sighed heavily and gave up the argument. When Lou dug her heels in she could out-stubborn a mule. He grinned to himself. As aggravating as that was, her stubbornness was one of the many things he loved so much about her, seeing as how it had let her survive so much that would have killed a weaker person, male or female.

This time, when the train's whistle and the grinding of the wheels on the brakes announced their arrival, Lou wasn't in a hurry to get off. She sedately allowed Kid to escort her off the train, like a proper gentleman. As he handed her down off the train he tugged at the collar of his traveling suit.

"Horseback or stage, I can't wait for tomorrow when I can wear somethin' a little more comfortable."

Lou nodded.

"Kid! Lou!"

They both jerked their heads up and wheeled around to see who was behind them. Kid instinctively tried to push Lou behind him, while Lou was grabbing for the six gun she wasn't wearing.

"Buck!" Kid exclaimed, relaxing. "What are you doin' here?"

"I'm the welcome committee," Buck grinned at them, shaking Kid's hand so hard he about ripped it out of the socket. Then he turned to Lou and held his arms open to her. She stepped into them and wilted against his chest as he closed his arms around her. "We've missed you."

Lou took her time stepping back, so as to surreptitiously wipe a few tears from her eyes.

"We've missed you, too," she whispered hoarsely. "You have no idea, how much."

"Come on," Buck said, grabbing the carpetbag from Kid and hooking one arm through Lou's while Kid kept hold of her other arm. "Let's get you two to the hotel. I've already got rooms reserved for ya."

"You didn't have any problems, did ya?" Kid asked, hating the thought Buck might have had to put up with prejudice for them.

"Nope," Buck grinned. "Not once I told them I was your servant and had come ahead to prepare for your arrival."

They all three got a good laugh out of that, the idea of Buck acting as anyone's servant being too preposterous to take seriously.

"Once we get you settled, we can have a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant," Buck continued, guiding them down the street toward a large, three storied frame building, the tallest in the growing town. "We'll leave for Rock Creek tomorrow."

"You'd better have brought horses, and not the buckboard," Lou growled, tensing at the thought of being coddled.

"Wouldn't have dreamed of doin' anythin' else, Lou," Buck reassured her.

"In that case, I'm gonna have to do some shoppin' this afternoon," Lou announced.

The two men stopped their movement to stare at her. Looking back she smiled insouciantly.

"Well, ya don't expect me to ride in skirts, do ya?"

They walked out of the hotel before dawn the next morning, headed for the livery. Lou hadn't had to go shopping after all. Buck had offered to hem up a pair of his old britches, which she'd paired with one of Kid's shirts, all cinched together at the waist with a leather belt. She'd had to roll the sleeves up several times, but loved the feel of the soft, worn material next to her skin. Plus, the shirt smelled like the Kid. She grinned, surreptitiously sneaking a sniff of the collar as she followed the two taller men down the sidewalk.

As they neared the livery stable, Kid dropped back to walk beside Lou.

"Buck's got somethin' up his sleeve," he whispered to her.

"I know," she said. "He's been twitchy as a long-tailed cat in a room full o' rockin' chairs all mornin'."

Reaching the livery stable, Buck motioned for the two of them to precede him into the dimly lit barn.

"Your horses are in the last two stalls," he said. "I figured you'd want to saddle up yourselves."

Nodding their agreement, Kid and Lou started walking toward the indicated stalls. At a soft, familiar whicker, Kid ground to a halt.

"Katie?" he whispered in wonder, before sprinting to her stall. "And Lightning!"

"Oh, Lightning," Lou whispered, wrapping her arms around her horse's neck and hugging it for all she was worth. The horse hung his head over her shoulder and watched as Kid and Katie went through a similar reunion.

Buck laughed as the two horses appeared to roll their eyes at the emotional reactions of their people.

"We figured you'd be itchin' ta get back into the saddle," he said. "And none o' us could imagine you two comin' home on any other mounts."

As the sun rose over the prairie, the three reunited riders galloped out of Lincoln, headed for home. It took them almost a week to cover a distance it should have only taken a couple of days to travel. Both Buck and Kid called frequent stops for all sorts of things. Lou knew they were coddling her, but didn't really mind. She was enjoying just being back out on the prairie, and on her beloved horse, too much to complain.

But, as they neared the former home station, she began to get impatient, pushing Lightning first into a trot, then a canter and finally a gallop.

"Lou, slow down," Buck said.

Kid just shook his head, sharing Lou's sudden urgency to complete the last few miles of their homeward journey as fast as possible. Buck smiled and soon joined them in what became a race to the finish.

Thus it was that the three riders flew back into the old Rock Creek Station in a swirl of dust kicked up by their horses' hooves.

Rachel stood on the bunkhouse porch, ringing the dinner bell with a grin that wouldn't stop and bellowing at the top of her lungs, "Riders coming!"

Chapter 10: Reconstructing a Family (Sep - Dec 1865)

Lou looked around the crowded table and sighed in contentment. It was good to be home. Things felt… right. Rachel sat at one end of the table, a hand resting on her rounded belly, Janusz at her side. Teaspoon sat at the other end with Polly at his side. Kid, Lou and Cody filled the bench down one side with Buck, Standing Woman and Dawn Star on the other side. The children had already sacked out for the night. Everyone else was loathe to let the reunion end.

"In rides Buck, big as you please, followed by this horde he calls a family," Teaspoon said. "And announces he's not only gotten himself married, he went and done it twice!"

"Ya know," Cody said, looking across at Buck, "All those times Teaspoon talked about how often he'd been married, he didn't mean it as a challenge."

Standing Woman and Dawn Star laughed as they watched their husband squirm, albeit happily, under the scrutiny of his friends. They'd never seen him so relaxed and content.

Kid smiled, joining in on the fun. "It's always the quiet ones. All those years holding up walls at town socials and dances, he was just waitin' fer us to clear out so's he could scoop up all the available, pretty women in the territory!"

"Excuse me?" Rachel and Polly asked in simultaneous, exaggerated outrage. Lou just landed a slap to the back of her husband's head.

"Well, you three were obviously already spoken for," Kid defended himself. "Otherwise, he'd be challenging Teaspoon fer his title of most often married!"

"Kid, tell me, what's it like to take orders from your wife?" Buck asked, attempting to turn the heat on one of his brothers, and thus off himself.

Kid just shrugged.

"Yeah, Kid," Cody said, unable to not jump in. "Tell us what kind o' commander Lieutenant Lou was!"

"Well, there was this time she gave me a black eye," Kid said, a twinkle in his eye.

"Lou!" Teaspoon chided.

"It was that or tell 'em I was a girl and get kicked out," Lou said.

"I can't see as how Lou being in command was any different from the way they were before they left," Rachel added.

"Speaking of finding out about girls in the unit, how was it your Thatch got caught again?" Polly asked.

As the banter continued to circle the table, Kid slid his hand beneath the top and grabbed Lou's in a tight grip. She gently squeezed back and leaned her head on his shoulder, sighing slightly.

"We'd better call it a night, folks," Kid said, stepping back from the table and helping Lou up. "Lou still gets tired easily and we had a hard ride today."

A few moments later, the couple found themselves alone in their room.

"Thanks," Kid muttered, gathering Lou close in his arms and resting his head on top of hers. "It was startin' to get to be too much in there."

"It's fine, Kid. That's what partners are for," she whispered, kissing his neck. "'Sides, I was gettin' a little tired. I just didn't wanta say anythin'."

**************

Kid stretched and yawned, enjoying the feeling of the comfortable bed beneath him and the clean sheets around him. As he pushed his arms to the limits of their length, he realized he was alone in the big, double bed Rachel and Polly had prepared for him and Lou. Raising his head, he called out quietly, "Lou?"

When he got no answer, he groaned and got up, muttering to himself, "Good Lord, years of havin' ta wake her and now she's gotta go and show me up!"

He quickly dressed, pausing a moment to consider his gunbelt before walking out of the room without donning it. He moved down the hall between the new bedrooms that led to the old bunkhouse, now kitchen, of Rachel's house. As he entered the kitchen, he sniffed appreciatively.

"Sure have missed yer johnny cakes, Rachel."

"Sit on down then," Rachel said, turning from the stove with a platter piled high with the scrumptious smelling pancakes. "The maple syrup's right there on the table."

"Have ya seen Lou?" Kid asked as he piled three cakes on his plate and began buttering them up before drenching them in the syrup.

"She's out with the horses," Polly said as she came in from the barn carrying two buckets of milk, "getting acquainted with Katie and Lightning's offspring."

"I still can't believe they had two foals while we were gone!" Kid exclaimed.

"Teaspoon says they spent too much time around you two," Standing Woman said, entering with a baby on her hip and a little girl holding onto her hand. "Rachel, can you hold Shines Brightly while I get Shining Star set up with some breakfast?"

"Sure thing," Rachel said taking the baby from her. "It's good practice."

"When are you due?" Kid asked.

"Sometime in November," Rachel smiled. "Just a couple more months to go!"

"And they're the most difficult," Standing Woman smiled.

As the two women began to discuss pregnancy, its joys and difficulties, Kid quickly scarfed down his hotcakes and made his escape.

"There you are," Lou said as she heard him enter the barn.

Wrapping her in his arms, Kid dropped a good morning kiss on her lips. "I missed you this morning."

"Sorry," she said. "You just looked so peaceful, I couldn't bear the idea of waking you. And I wanted to see the youngun's."

"Are these the foals?" Kid asked, pulling away from Lou to inspect the two young horses in the stall in front of her. The older one was a beautiful solid black horse, just like her sire. The younger one, not quite a year old but past the nursing stage, was a paint, like her dam. "They're beautiful."

"And both bein' fillies, they'll make a great start on that ranch of ours," Lou said, laughing as the yearling pushed her nose against Lou's hands, looking for a treat.

"That's not all we've got," Buck said, walking into the main room of the barn from the tackroom at the back.

"What do ya mean?" Lou asked, following him as he walked out the main barn doors.

"I didn't spend all the time you two were gone getting married," Buck smiled. "I had a few extra minutes here and there."

"And what did you do with those 'extra minutes'?" Kid asked, half-running to catch up with Lou, grabbing her hand in his as they crossed the yard and walked around behind the bunkhouse.

"Got a little start on our ranch," Buck said, holding his arm out to direct their gazes toward the temporary corral he'd built while awaiting their arrival.

"A little?" Lou gasped.

"That looks more like a whole herd!" Kid added, astonished.

"Well, you two gave me plenty of time to work on it," Buck said, smiling. "They're all halter and harnass broke. But I've only had time to saddle break a handful."

"Looks like we've got somethin' to keep us busy," Kid said, climbing over the fence to get a closer look at the Indian ponies milling about the corral.

"We still need to find a place," Lou said, following him up onto the top of the fence, but remaining there, sitting and watching as Kid inspected the horses. "How much do you still have set aside?"

"Pretty much all of it," Buck said, coming to stand next to Lou as Kid continued to wander amongst the horses. "Didn't 'xactly need it out on the plains."

"Same here," Lou said. "We only touched enough for the trip home."

"Yep, should be able to afford somethin' real nice," Kid added.

"What you guys talkin' 'bout?" Cody asked, walking up to the group of ex-riders.

"Our ranch," Kid said.

"What ranch?"

"The one we were planning… before," Lou answered.

Buck remained quietly in the background, as Kid added, "We'd have asked if you wanted in on the partnership, but we figured you'd be bored stuck out on a ranch, without an adoring audience."

"Ya got that right, Kid!" Cody said, slapping his friend on the back. "Besides, Louisa could never handle livin' out in the middle of nowhere. She's a city girl. Not sure what I'll do, but it'll have to be somethin' that allows me to have a home base in a town of some sort."

*****************

Miles away, Jimmy tossed the dregs of his coffee cup into the fire before kicking dirt over it to completely kill the flames. After scrubbing the cup out with a handful of sand, he slipped it into his saddlebag and mounted up.

"Let's go girl," he whispered to his horse. "We've got family waiting."

They took off at a quick canter. A few hours later they rode into the yard of the old station to the sweet music of a voice calling out his approach. He cantered right up to the hitching post outside the old bunkhouse, pulling his horse to a stop and sliding off in a single motion. Taking the steps two at a time, he rushed into Rachel's open arms and hugged her tight.

"It's so good to see you, Jimmy," Rachel said.

"Feels like you've been busy while I've been gone," Jimmy joked, placing a hand gently on her stomach.

She laughed and grabbed the hand to drag him into the bunkhouse turned kitchen. "Look who's here, ladies!"

*****************

That evening, Lou and Kid walked in, followed by Buck, covered in dust and obviously exhausted. Jimmy was leaning back in his chair, listening to the tales of Buck's rocky courtships. Three of Buck's four kids clustered around Jimmy, the fourth and youngest was tucked safely in his arms.

"Now there's a scene we never thought to see," Kid said.

"Kid! Lou!" Jimmy jumped up and started to move toward them before remembering the baby in his arms. Turning, he thrust the little girl at Dawn Star before rushing to greet his friends.

Hugging the two of them tight to him in a simultaneous embrace, he whispered, "Don't you two ever do that to me again! I can't live through y'all dying on me."

"We didn't exactly plan on it the first time," Lou said gently. Reaching up to run a hand down his cheek she smiled, "How are you doin'?"

"I've been better," Jimmy said, pulling back from the emotional precipice he was on and sitting back in his chair. Patting the bench next to him he motioned Lou and Kid over.

Lou reached out and tweaked the long handlebar mustache Jimmy had grown since returning from his spy mission, then grabbing a lock of the long curls that twisted to the middle of his back.

"What's this?" she asked. "Practicing to be a mountain man? Or were you goin' for the river boat gambler look?"

"No," Jimmy joked, pulling her own still painfully short locks. "Just thought I'd make up for your lack of hair."

The three laughed easily and started the long process of catching up. That's how Teaspoon found them when he came in just in time for supper. He grinned broadly and spread his arms wide. "Now there's a sight for sore eyes! The last of my boys has made it home."

"Whatta ya mean, the last?" Lou asked. "Ain't ya hopin' Jesse'll make it back."

Teaspoon turned his back on the group as he pretended to search for something in his coat pocket before hanging the coat up on a hook by the door. Turning back around, he said, "No, not really. I read a lot about that gang he and Frank hooked up with in Missouri during the war. They were more outlaw than soldiers. Don't know where I went wrong with him."

Jimmy moved over and patted Teaspoon's shoulder. "Ya didn't do nothin' wrong. Just didn't have as much time with him is all."

Then, trying to change the subject, Jimmy added, "Kid and Lou tell me Isaac and his grandson aren't here. Didn't they make it this far?"

"Oh yeah, they made it son," Teaspoon said, grunting as he settled into his chair. "Got 'em a job workin' a ranch 'bout 20 miles west of here, close to Seneca."

"I figured to find 'em workin' here."

"I know son, but there warn't no work fer 'em here and they wouldn't live off charity," Teaspoon consoled Jimmy. "They said ta expect 'em back fer the holidays."

After supper that night, Teaspoon turned to Kid and asked, "Have ya thought 'bout what yer goin' ta do now, son? I could sure use yer help as a deputy. 'Specially now that Buck tells me he's quittin' to start that ranch with you and Lou."

"Sorry, Teaspoon," Kid said. "But that ranch isn't just Buck's. 'Sides," he added in a much quieter voice, "in case ya ain't noticed, I don't pack a gun no more. Couldn't work as a deputy, anyway."

Teaspoon nodded, and turned to make the same offer to Jimmy.

"I'll be glad ta work with ya, Teaspoon. It'll be just like the old days."

*************

A few days later, Jimmy was sitting in the Marshal's office, beating Teaspoon at checkers. He looked up at the sound of several horses galloping down the main street of town. Through the paned window he saw the stage pull up, with Cody in the driver's seat.

"Whoa! Whoa, there, dang ya!"

Jimmy stood and waited by Teaspoon's desk, knowing Cody would be in as soon as he handed the horses off to the stageline's hostler. He watched as Cody jumped up onto the boardwalk, eschewing the use of the nearby steps, and swaggered into the Marshal's office.

"Jimmy!" he greeted. "Nice ta see ya finally made it home."

Jimmy just nodded, not ready to deal with his talkative brother's jibes.

Turning to Teaspoon, Cody said, "It was a smooth run. Nary a sign of outlaws nor renegade Indians. I swear, if the Express had been this easy they wouldn'ta needed us!"

"Don't count on it stayin' that way fer long," Teaspoon warned.

"I know, I know. But I can enjoy it while it does. Anythin' I need to know before headin' over to Rachel's for some food?"

Jimmy shook his head even as Teaspoon answered Cody. Things had been quiet around Rock Creek since he'd arrived. In fact, the return of all the former Express riders was the biggest news in town at the moment.

"Alright then," Cody said. Turning to Jimmy he added, "Want ta come along?"

Looking to Teaspoon for permission, Jimmy said, "Things have been slow around here. Ya don't really need me at the moment, Teaspoon."

"Go on with ya," Teaspoon said, making shooing motions. "I'll see y'all at supper."

As they walked out, Cody chattering, Jimmy listening, Teaspoon smiled. Putting his feet up on his desk and pulling his hat down over his eyes, he muttered, "It's great havin' y'all back, but yer sure messin' up my naptimes."

**********

When Teaspoon returned to the station for supper he found everyone already gathered around the table waiting for him. He grinned and said, "Somehow I ain't surprised. Ya gotta get ta supper early if'n ya want ta get yer fair share when Cody's around!"

Kid and Lou smiled at the old joke, then went back to their conversation with Buck about the merits of the various possible ranches they'd looked at in the area.

As Teaspoon sat down in his customary seat at the head of the table, he paused. "Oh, almost forgot. Cody, this here letter came fer ya today."

Jimmy watched curiously as Cody took the letter from Teaspoon, glanced at the return address and then simply tucked it into a pocket.

"Who's it from?" he asked.

"That Thatch gal he rode with in the war," Teaspoon said, not noticing Cody's sudden frantic motions to 'shut-up!'

Jimmy stiffened and turned to glare at Cody.

"Ya know where she's at?" he growled.

His angry tones caught the attention of everyone else in the room and all the other conversations ceased.

"Now, Jimmy," Cody began in a placating tone.

"Ya know I've been lookin' fer her ever since she left and ya knew where she was all along?"

Cody's tone hardened at this, "Jimmy, ya had yer chance with her and ya ruined it!"

"I ruined it? Me? She's the one what left without any explanation! Just some note 'bout not bein' able ta live with my ghosts."

"I warned ya," Cody started only to be interrupted.

"Tell me where she is!"

"No. She don't want ya ta know. Ya think she hasn't heard 'bout that mess in Springfield? A shootout over a girl? So far's she's concerned, ya've moved on already. If ya want me ta tell her somethin', I will. But I ain't gonna break her trust."

"Cody, I swear to God Almighty, if you don't tell me where she's hidin' I'll knock ya inta next week."

Kid stood up, ready to get between his two friends and stop the incipient fight. Lou and Teaspoon each grabbed an arm and jerked him back down into his seat.

"No, son. He needs to work through this," Teaspoon said.

Even as he said that, they heard the smack of Jimmy's fist hitting Cody's chin. They all turned just in time to see Cody hit the ground, out cold. Jimmy started to reach forward to pull the letter out of Cody's pocket, but Rachel stepped in between him and his unconscious brother.

"Jimmy," she said gently, "that's his letter and it's his decision whether or not to share any of the information in it."

Jimmy glared at her for a moment, but couldn't bring himself to raise a violent hand against any woman, let alone a heavily pregnant woman. Finally he snorted in anger and turned to stomp out of the bunkhouse.

"Kid, Buck," Rachel said, "come get Cody and take him to his room. He's gonna have a heck of a headache when he wakes up."

"Serves him right," Buck muttered. "He's always givin' us a headache!"

As they lifted the blonde rider up from the ground, Kid grunted.

"Fer such a skinny man, he's sure heavy."

"Yep. It's all Rachel's cookin' he's been stuffin' down that hollow leg of his," Buck agreed as they dragged their friend through the door and down the hall to his room.

After laying him on his bed, Buck stopped long enough to remove Cody's boots. Then, he and Kid turned and headed back up the hallway toward the kitchen. Sudden shots rang out from behind the building.

"Jimmy's takin' his anger out on some innocent bottles, again," Buck grinned, turning to share the humor with Kid. "Kid?"

Kid had gone white as a sheet and was sweating heavily. Reaching out a hand, Buck tried to touch Kid, who violently shoved him away.

"Lou. Where's Lou?" Kid started mumbling. "Gotta watch her back 'fore them Yanks shoot her."

"Kid," Buck tried again, getting no response. So, he yelled through the door into the kitchen, "Lou! You'd better get out here!"

Lou came running through the door at top speed, only to skid to a halt at the sight of her husband.

"Go into the kitchen, Buck," she said quietly. "You'll only make things worse."

Buck nodded and walked backward toward the kitchen, watching his two friends every step of the way.

"And Buck?" she asked without taking her eyes off Kid, "Could ya get someone to tell Jimmy to stop shooting?"

"Sure thing, Lou."

"Kid," she said softly, walking up to him slowly. "It's me, Kid. It's alright. I'm right here. I'm safe. We're back at the home station. Nothin' kin hurt me now. Ya done yer job Kid. Ya brung me home safe."

Continuing her neverending reassurances, Lou walked up to Kid and wrapped her arms around him. At the feel of her body pressed against his, Kid's body relaxed and he started to slump against the wall.

"No, Kid," she said. "Don't do that. Come on, let's get you to bed."

Slowly, she maneuvered the taller man toward their bedroom, continuing to reassure him.

"Yer sure you're alright," he asked once as she started to remove his shirt.

"I'm fine, Kid," she smiled up at him. "Now, let me take care of ya, like a good little wife."

He relaxed, letting her do what she would, so long as she remained within arm's reach of him. Soon, she had him stripped down to his longjohns and climbed into the bed next to him.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his head in her shoulder. It was only then, in the darkness of their room, secure in her embrace, that he could let go and cry. She continued to brush his hair, like a mother would a young child's, and whisper words of love to him. Eventually, he cried himself out and fell asleep.

The next morning, she awoke to find Kid already up and gone. Knowing his routines as well as her own, she was pretty sure he was either out with the horses or in the kitchen cooking. Quickly, she threw on the nearest clothing she could find, her single pair of britches and Kid's old shirt that she'd appropriated. Soon, she was half running toward the kitchen.

"I've never seen anything like it," Polly was saying, as Lou walked into the kitchen.

"That's nothing," Buck said. "You should've seen him last night."

"It's gettin' better," Lou said. "Slowly."

Polly, Rachel and Buck turned at her words. Standing Woman smiled and patted the seat next to her.

"What's wrong with him?" Teaspoon asked.

Lou sighed and prepared herself for an explanation she'd hoped not to have to give. "The doctor called it Battle Fatigue. Said a lot of soldiers are suffering from it since the War ended. Basically, he said the stress of constant battle and," she smiled bitterly, "and constant worryin' 'bout my safety, not ta mention the guilt he felt over havin' dragged me inta a war he no longer belived in, got ta be too much fer his mind. Like I said, he's gettin' better, but some things still set him off."

"Like gunfire," Jimmy said, walking in behind Dawn Star.

"Like gunfire," Lou nodded. She turned to Teaspoon. "That's why he don't wear a gun no more. Can't stand to hear 'em go off, let alone shoot one."

Teaspoon nodded in understanding. "I knew some men from the Mexican War were the same way. Noise is a problem, too, ain't it."

Lou nodded again. "Yep. Noisy crowds can set him off, although there it's more of a case of a little goes a long way. He can handle it in small doses, but not too much. That's why we keep leaving y'all so early in the evenings, when we're all gathered together."

Polly smiled. "I'd wondered 'bout that."

"Most of us just figured y'all was enjoyin' a second honeymoon, darlin'," Rachel added.

Janusz, who rarely spoke, asked, "Vhat can ve do to help?"

Smiling gratefully at the taciturn man, Lou said, "Don't take things personally when he loses it. Get me, if I'm not around. Ya did the right thing last night, Buck. Since his main fear is my safety, I'm the best thing to calm him down when one of his panic attacks hit."

As she paused to think, Lou noticed several dozen muffins stacked near the stove. "And, don't tease him about how he handles things afterward. He finds comfort in spending time alone with animals, especially the horses," she said. "But, cookin' seems ta do him the most good. Don't josh him over it, alright?"

"No problem, Lou," Jimmy said. "Though we may have to gag Cody. The only time that man ain't talkin' is when ya want him to spit somethin' out."

"I made a promise, Jimmy, and I ain't gonna break it," Cody said, stepping into the kitchen, rubbing absentmindedly at the bruise on his chin.

Jimmy grunted and turned his back on Cody, slamming the door of the kitchen behind him as he walked back out into the yard.

"'Tween you two and the Kid, I'm thinkin' it's time ta head out to the sweatlodge," Teaspoon muttered.

Lou, Buck and Cody all groaned, but knew by the stubborn look on Teaspoon's face there was nothing they could do to dissuade him from the idea.

******************

All of the former riders were gathered in the sweatlodge with Teaspoon. Both of Buck's wives had chosen to join them. It made for a tight fit in the small hut.

Teaspoon looked around. Kid was seated next to Lou, as usual, with his arm wrapped tightly around her. Lou, who didn't have longjohns anymore, was dressed in a frilly camisole and lacy bloomers, and glaring at anyone who even looked like they were thinking about commenting on her underclothes. Cody was seated between Lou and Teaspoon, glaring at Jimmy who sat by the door gasping for every breath of cool air he could get. Buck sat sandwiched between Standing Woman and Dawn Star, who'd stripped down to a simple cotton shift each. He looked supremely uncomfortable, yet both women appeared completely at ease. Everyone had, without thinking about it, squeezed close together so they could leave Ike's and Noah's customary seats open. Teaspoon grinned as he poured water over the hot stones, causing a cloud of steam to billow up into the air.

"Ahhh," he sighed. Then, tilting his head to one side, he added, "Looks like I'm gonna have ta enlarge this thing before we use it again. Gettin' a mite crowded in here."

"You could let me outa here," Jimmy complained. "That'd leave plenty of room fer the others."

"Now boy, yer the one that needs this the most," Teaspoon admonished.

Cody snorted. "That's an understatement."

"And you, Cody, you got your own thinkin' ta do," Teaspoon said, turning on the blonde rider.

"What'd I do?"

"Ya forgot who yer brothers were," Teaspoon said.

"But…"

"I don't mean ya should tell Jimmy what he wants ta know," Teaspoon continued, unfazed by Cody's interruption. "I just mean ya shoulda let him know ya'd had word from Thatch and that she was safe."

"Her name's Agnes!" Jimmy interrupted.

"At the same time, son," Teaspoon said, turning to Jimmy, "Ya should apologize to Cody. Ain't no reason to beat up on a man 'cause he's keepin' a promise. That's part o' what makes him a man."

As Jimmy opened his mouth to protest, Teaspoon held up a warning finger. "I ain't done yet."

Jimmy closed his mouth and leaned back against the wall of the sweatlodge, trying to get closer to the door while waiting.

"I know ya don't understand what Thatch, uh Agnes, done. Heck, I still don't understand half of what women do," Teaspoon smiled. "But, ya gots ta work things out with her without putting yer family in the middle of it. Do ya remember what happened 'tween Kid and Lou when y'all got involved?"

The others all reluctantly nodded at the reminder. Sighing, Jimmy turned his head in Cody's direction. "I ain't gonna say I'm sorry I hit ya. But I am sorry I did it over the letter. Shoulda waited fer a better reason."

Cody grinned. "Apology accepted."

"Great. Can we leave now?" Jimmy asked, turning to Teaspoon.

"You two ain't the only reason we're here."

"What?" chorused three voices.

"What'd we do?" Buck asked.

"Yeah, we ain't done nothin'," Kid added.

"This war that's just over was a bad one boys, and y'all were scattered around the country without the support of yer family," Teaspoon said. "That just made things worse fer ya. Yer all hidin' wounds ya don't want ta share. But, that's what family's fer. To share the things ya hide from the rest of the world."

Teaspoon paused to let his words sink in. Looking around the gathered group he watched as each person thought about what he'd said.

Finally, Standing Woman looked tentatively at Teaspoon and moved her hands fluidly in a question.

"Yes, you can go first," Teaspoon nodded.

She paused, took a deep breath and finally said, "I've been hiding the fact that I'm mad at Buck and Dawn Star. Their marriage wasn't supposed to be real. When it became real, I got mad. I'm sorry."

Buck and Dawn Star pulled her toward them in a group hug. The rest of those gathered in the sweatlodge looked away, giving the family a moment of privacy.

"What 'bout you, Kid?" Teaspoon prompted. "Ya got anythin' ya've been hidin' from us?"

"You know I have, Teaspoon. And y'all already know what it is," Kid sighed.

"I ain't talkin' 'bout yer post war problems, though we'll get ta that."

Kid looked at Teaspoon with a question in his eyes and Teaspoon jerked his head toward Jimmy. Kid's eyes widened in sudden understanding.

Turning to his best friend, he opened his mouth. "I'm sorry, Jimmy, for the way I acted before… before the war. Ya were right. I was wrong."

Jimmy reached over and patted Kid's shoulder. "From what I saw, there was a whole lot o' wrong on both sides, Kid. 'Sides, I forgave ya a long time ago, thought ya knew that."

"Told ya," Lou said, smiling at her husband.

Slowly, one by one, the riders began to open up about their hidden feelings, sharing with each other the wrongs they felt they'd committed, asking forgiveness, discussing their concerns over the present and fears for the future. None noticed as the hours slipped past and they slowly found their way back to each other.

************

Over the next few weeks, they all fell into a routine. Jimmy helped Teaspoon out at the Marshal's office, while Lou, Buck and Kid rode all over the area looking for the perfect ranch. Cody continued to make his twice weekly stagecoach runs.

One day, riding back from looking at the old Haverman place, Lou, Kid and Buck were discussing its merits.

"It's the right size," Kid said.

"But it's the Haverman place," Lou protested. "You know what they did to Buck! I just can't see us living there."

"If it don't matter to me, I don't see why it should matter to you, Lou," Buck put in. "I'm the one that got tarred and feathered. This place's got everythin' we've been lookin' for and it's a great price, havin' been empty ever since they left town."

"Lou, the barns are extensive enough to handle all the stock we've got and still have room for expansion," Kid laid out the case in favor of the property. "The only thing that needs any work is the main house, and that's minor."

"It is big enough to hold all of us for the winter," Lou mused. "Even if we get some long-term guests."

"And we'll be able to build our own house next to it in the spring," Kid encouraged. "The way Buck's family's growin' he's gonna need that entire place for himself!"

Buck swatted his friend with his hat, but grinned in appreciation of the jibe.

"Plus, it's been empty so long, it's dirt cheap," Buck added. "Can't beat that. Leaves us more money to make it through the winter and still be able to make improvements next spring."

"You two've made up my mind for me, haven't ya?" Lou asked, acerbically.

"Is that a yes?" Buck asked, eyes twinkling.

"I guess so," she sighed heavily.

"Great!" Kid whooped. "We'll head to the bank tomorrow morning and get the paperwork started."

That afternooon, Jimmy found Kid sitting on the steps of the old bunkhouse porch staring at something in his hands. Walking up, he could see that Kid was holding his old revolver as if he were afraid of it.

"Whatcha doin'?" Jimmy asked, sitting down next to his friend.

"Ponderin'."

"Whatcha ponderin'?"

"If I'm man enough ta strap this back on."

"A gun don't make ya a man, Kid," Jimmy said. "I learned that the hard way, and only after it was too late ta take the gun off and survive. Ya ain't got my problems. Ya never need ta put a gun on again."

Kid turned and looked at Jimmy. "And what happens if Lou and Buck aren't around and I need to scare off coyotes, four-legged or two? How do I do that without shooting a gun?"

Jimmy shrugged. "Ye'll find a way, I spose."

"Help me."

"Whatcha mean?"

"Go with me out back and help me get through shootin' this thing," Kid whispered.

"Do ya think that's a good idea?"

"The doc said, once I could handle things on a regular basis, it might help me ta force myself ta endure the things that cause my panic attacks," Kid admitted. "I'm almost ta the point where I can spend the entire evenin' with the family, even when Cody's here."

Jimmy grinned in commiseration.

"I figure it's about time ta move on ta shootin'."

"Do ya want Lou ta come?" Jimmy asked, standing and heading toward the fence out back where they all did their target shooting.

"No," Kid said after a moment's thought. "This is somethin' I've got ta do myself."

It took a few minutes to gather enough broken bottles and set them up along the fence. Then, Jimmy checked both their guns, to make sure they were in working order. Finally, with nothing left to do but start shooting he turned to Kid and asked, "So, how do ya want ta do this?"

After a moment's thought, Kid said, "Why don't we start with you shootin'. If I can stand here and not lose it while the gun's goin' off, then we'll move on ta me shootin'."

Jimmy waited a few seconds to make sure Kid wouldn't change his mind, then walked over and set himself in position. His hands hovered over the butts of both guns. Then, in a motion too fast to be truly comprehended by the human eye, he pulled both guns and shot out all the bottles. When he finished, he turned to find Kid standing behind him, eyes clenched closed and hands fisted at his sides.

"Ya all right, Kid?" Jimmy asked.

Taking a deep breath, Kid relaxed his body, opened his eyes and smiled. "I did it. I didn't run away and I didn't have a panic attack."

"Alright. You ready ta try?"

"Might as well," Kid said, suddenly eager to push himself.

********************

When Lou and Buck returned from tending the stock, they found Kid pulling a pie out of the oven, whistling as he worked. As he stood up and turned to place the pie on the table to cool, Lou noticed the gun strapped around his waist. Her eyes flew to Kid's face and saw complete peace there. She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, then snapped it closed and turned to walk out of the room.

Buck followed her as she broke into a run, straight for the Marshal's office. She burst through the door, asking even before she saw Teaspoon and Jimmy, "What happened?"

Jimmy grinned at her. "Kid just did some target shootin' with me today."

"How? Why?"

Teaspoon stood up and stretched. "Buck, come on. Seems these two got some talkin' ta do. And I figure Kid's 'bout done with that pie o' his. If we hurry, maybe we'll get a piece 'fore Cody steals it all."

No one said a word about the gunbelt and revolver that had reappeared on Kid's hip. Yet, the meal that night had a sense of the celebratory about it.

"I'm so glad this was the last day of teaching," Rachel said, as she stood to help Polly clear the dishes.

"Tired?" Standing Woman asked, noticing the bags under Rachel's eyes.

"Yep. Been havin' the worst time sleepin' the last couple of days," Rachel smiled. "Got a back ache that'd kill a mule."

Dawn Star stood up and walked over to Rachel. She began to slowly massage the other woman's lower back.

"Oohhh," Rachel moaned in appreciation. "That feels wonderful."

"Vhat are you doing?" Janusz asked, curiously.

"Like this," Dawn Star started to show him. "It relieves the tension in her back from carrying the baby's weight."

Carefully Janusz copied Dawn Star's movements, until he was massaging Rachel's back on his own. Suddenly, Rachel let out a gasp that had Janusz jumping back as if scalded.

"Vhat is vrong?" he asked concernedly.

Rachel leaned over, grasping her belly.

"I think this baby's comin' now!"

"But, Rachel, I thought ya weren't due 'til after Thanksgiving," Lou said.

"Well, apparently this baby ain't willin' ta wait that long," Rachel snapped.

"Babies do tend to have a mind of their own," Standing Woman said. "We should get her to her bedroom."

Quickly the women gathered around Rachel and ushered her out of the room, leaving behind a gaggle of gaping men.

"Hey, does that mean I can have her piece of pie?" Cody asked.

****************

Over the next several hours Jimmy, Kid, Buck, Cody and Teaspoon stood watch over Janusz, who leaped to his feet in worry every time the door to the bedroom opened and a woman moved in or out. The moans and then screams coming from the room had him blanching in fear.

Teaspoon patted his shoulder in commiseration.

"Here, have a drink," he suggested, holding out a glass of whiskey.

Janusz grabbed the glass, tossed the amber liquid down his throat and resumed his pacing in front of the fireplace, unfazed by the influx of liquor into his system.

As the dawn broke, still there was no sign of the baby. The only thing that kept Janusz from completely losing it was Standing Woman's and Lou's occasional appearances to reassure him that all was fine and progressing normally.

"Vhatefer that means," he muttered as Lou once again scurried back into the bedroom at an urgent call from Polly.

Kid prepared a breakfast no one ate, as they continued to keep vigil, waiting. Looking at the untouched food, he couldn't find it in himself to make anything for lunch.

Shortly after noon, all noise coming from the bedroom stopped. The men looked at each other, then stood as one and walked toward the door. They stopped nearly simultaneously as they heard first a tentative, then a stronger wail.

"Congratulations, papa," Teaspoon said, patting Janusz on the shoulder. Soon, all the men were gathered around him, pounding his back and congratulating him. Then, the door opened and Polly stepped out, wiping her hands on an apron. Lou, Standing Woman and Dawn Star followed.

"You have a fine son, Janusz," Polly said. Whoops of excitement greeted her announcement. "Well, what are ya waitin' fer? Go in there and meet him!"

Needing no other encouragement, Janusz sprinted into the room and his waiting wife's arms.

Lou slipped over to Kid and wrapped her arms around him. He smiled and buried his nose in her hair.

"It was wonderful, Kid," she said. "The most wonderful, scary, sacred thing I've ever seen."

"I can't imagine," he said. "But, ya got ta promise me, not ta lock me out when we have a baby. I couldn't handle waitin' out here, not knowin' how you were doin'."

Lou nodded silently against his shoulder.

"Please," Janusz said from the bedroom door, motioning inside. "To come and meet my son."

They all filed in slowly, oohing and aahing over the baby. Janusz moved over to sit on the bed beside Rachel, who cradled their son in her arms. She never even looked up at the crowd now gathered in her bedroom, keeping her eyes trained on the infant.

Janusz looked around and then said, "Ve know your Emma and Sam name their son Ike. So, if you haf no objection, ve vhould like to call our boy, Noah Hunter Tartovsky."

Lou smiled, wiping a tear from her eye. Even Teaspoon snuffled a little, before taking a visual inventory of the others' reaction to the idea. Turning back to Janusz, he nodded. "That sounds like a right fine idea, Janusz. Noah'd have been proud to have this young feller named fer him."

**********

"Well, it all looks in order," the land agent said, rifling through the paperwork Kid, Lou and Buck had spent hours the previous day filling out. "Mr. Kidd? If you'll just sign here, the Haverman ranch will be the Kidd Ranch."

Looking confused, Kid turned to Lou and Buck for an explanation. Lou piped up, "I think you've mistaken us, Sir. We're all three buying the place. Together."

The land agent's eyes widened as he looked from one face in the room to the next. "Well, I.. ah… well."

Kid said, "We're going to be equal partners, the paperwork should say that."

"We were very careful about that as we filled it out," Buck added.

The land agent looked back down at the papers in front of him and started reading through them again.

"Ahem," he cleared his throat. "So you have. This is very unusual. I'm not sure how to handle this. Don't even know if it's legal in this territory."

"What do you mean?" Lou asked in a stern voice.

"Well, I know black's, even freedmen, can't own property here. Don't know about Indians. No offense, Mr. Cross."

"None taken, Mr. Langley," Buck smiled gently.

"And, well," Langley turned to Lou. "Under the law, everything a woman owns belongs to her husband anyway. So, I'm not sure how to work it out so that you're an equal partner."

"Just put me in as Lieutenant Lou McCloud," Lou said. "Far as the law's concerned, I'm a man."

"Well, that might work," Langley mused. "A legal fiction, as it were. Might just work at that. And, Mr. Cross, you're part white, are you not?" "Half."

"So, maybe another legal fiction for you," Langley began to ponder the problem and ways around it. Looking up he appeared almost startled to see the three of them still sitting there. "I'll have to work on this a bit. Why don't you come back next week? I should have everything figured out by then and ready for your signatures. *********

"Hyah!" Jimmy yelled, urging the last of the horses into the corral between the two large barns on the new McCloud/Cross Ranch. Buck swung the gate closed after them.

"That should do it," Cody said, swinging down off his horse.

"Yep, yer all moved in," Teaspoon smiled. "Though I still don't get why yer not callin' it the Kidd/McCloud/Cross Ranch."

Kid swatted at Buck. "I can't believe you told them!"

"What'd ya expect, Hieronymus," Buck asked, grinning even as he backed away. "Ya spent so much time hidin' yer name, I couldn't keep it to myself once I knew. Who do ya think I am? Teaspoon?"

"I only do what's in the best interests of my boys," Teaspoon asserted, straightening his shoulders. "I was afraid Lou might say 'no' if I used his real name in the ceremony."

"Come on, guys," Lou said. "Leave the Kid alone, or he might not invite ya over the next time he starts baking!"

That threat worked well and the group scattered.

In the following days, plans went ahead for a great Thanksgiving feast. It had been decided that since the house at the new ranch was still in need of repairs, Thanksgiving would be celebrated at Rachel's and Janusz' house, Christmas out at the ranch.

Kid and Polly spent all their time at Rachel's place, baking every goodie they could think of. Standing Woman and Dawn Star took over Rachel's regular cooking duties to give the new mother a few days rest. Buck and Lou were hard at work getting the new ranch in working order.

The day before Thanksgiving, Cody arrived with a surprise on the stage, Isaac and Samson. Jimmy was just taking the last of Teaspoon's checkers when he heard a familiar voice behind him.

"Why if it ain't Mr. Jimmy hisself," Isaac said.

Jimmy jumped up and spun around with a grin on his face.

"Mister Isaac," he teased, "ain't you a sight for sore eyes. I was a tad disappointed when I got here and you were gone."

"Well, see Mister Jimmy, this here freedom thing takes a bit ta get used to. A man's gotta learn to stand on his own two feet and he cain't do that, if'n he's livin' off a bunch o' white folk."

Jimmy laughed. "Come on back to the house. I've got some friends that are mighty anxious to see you two."

Jimmy escorted Isaac and Samson back to the house, clueing them in on all they'd missed the last few weeks. He led them straight to the kitchen, where he knew Kid and Lou would be with several of the others putting last minute touches on the holiday baking.

Pushing his way through the door he said, "Kid, Lou, you've got a visitor."

As they both turned to see what he was talking about he stepped out of the way and let Isaac then Samson push past him into the room.

Kid and Lou froze for a moment, before rushing to greet their friends.

"It's good to see you," Kid said, shaking Isaac's hand vigorously while Lou hugged Samson.

Then, Lou turned to Isaac.

"Why, Lieutenant Lou," Isaac said. "You shore done changed since Ise left. You looks mighty fine in that dress."

Lou laughed and said, "It's just Lou now. Or Louise if ya prefer."

"Lieutenant Lou suits me just fine," Isaac declared.

"Give it up, Lou," Jimmy said. "I argued with him for over 800 miles and all I managed to do was talk him down to Mister Jimmy from Mister Hickok. At least ya started with yer first name."

They all laughed at that.

Samson piped up, "So, when's supper?"

After supper, Kid walked out to get their horses ready for the return ride to the ranch that night and found Cody sitting in the porch swing reading a letter.

"Letter from your sweetheart?" he asked.

Cody looked up for a moment, before going back to reading. "Yep."

"Must be pretty good," Kid observed.

Finally Cody stopped reading and set the letter aside. He sighed.

"She wants me to come back."

"I thought you were trying to earn enough for a grubstake, get a start out here."

"I was, but she's getting impatient," Cody said. "I don't think she'll wait much longer. And, to tell the truth, I don't wanta wait anymore myself. I'm thinkin' 'bout goin' back after the holidays and askin' her to marry me."

"Well, I won't offer any advice," Kid said acerbically, "seeing how all your advice didn't help me when I needed it. So, I'll just say, congratulations! And, you'd better invite us to the weddin'!"

"Who else'd I invite?" Cody demanded, outraged. "You're family!"

Kid slapped Cody on the back before continuing his walk toward the barn. There, he found Jimmy sitting on a bale of hay outside Sundancer's stall.

"What's wrong, Jimmy?" he asked at his friend's morose look.

"I miss her."

"Who?"

"Agnes," Jimmy said. "Didn't realize just how much she meant ta me, 'til she was gone. Now I can't find her. Thought bein' back here, with my family, would help. And it did, for awhile."

"But now?"

"Now, I'm feelin' restless. It's like there's somethin' I don't know and I gotta find her, soon."

"Whatcha gonna do about it?"

"Figure I'll head on out after the holidays," Jimmy shrugged, standing and moving toward the tackroom to help Kid get the saddles and bridles for the horses. "I've been offered the position of Deputy U.S. Marshal at Fort Riley, back in Kansas. Think I'll take the job. I'll be able to search territory I haven't checked yet."

"Kansas, Jimmy?" Kid laughed, as he settled a saddle on Katie in the first stall. "It must be love if yer willin' ta go back ta Kansas for her!"

"I've gotta find her, Kid. That's all I know."

"We'll miss ya," Kid said, slapping his hands against his pants as they finished saddling Lightning and the other horses. "But we'll understand."

Kid wandered back to the house, leaving Jimmy still in the barn thinking about Agnes. When he walked into the living room, he paused as Isaac put a finger to his lips, calling for silence. Then, Isaac pointed to the settee in front of the fire. There, Lou sat with a book in her lap, her head resting on the back, snoring delicately.

Kid smiled and pulled a blanket from a chest near the door to throw over her. Then he headed back to the kitchen to tell Buck the horses were ready. But Buck was nowhere to be found in the house.

Thwump. Crack. Thwump. Crack.

The rhythmic noises led Kid out back of the house to the woodpile Buck was busy enlarging.

"Uh oh," Kid smiled. "Trouble in paradise?"

"Leave me alone, Kid," Buck warned.

"What's the matter, the wives teaming up against ya?"

"You've got no idea," Buck said, pausing to gather the wood he'd chopped and stack it neatly in cords along the back wall of the kitchen. "Ya know how Lou would get real cranky once a month or so?"

Kid nodded.

"Well, turns out when two women live near each other, their….. cycles tend to synchronize."

Kid's eyes widened. "Are ya sayin'….?"

"Yep. At the same time," Buck moaned.

"Good lord," Kid commiserated. "No wonder yer hidin' out here. I would be, too."

"That ain't the worst of it, Kid," Buck said, plopping down on the stump they used to chop the wood on, his shoulders bowed in defeat.

"What could be worse than that?"

"Did ya know that Indian women don't sleep with their husbands while they're nursing a baby?"

Kid winced as he thought of the two infants Standing Woman and Dawn Star were still nursing.

"That's right. All those jokes Cody's been makin' about me havin' two wives and I'm gettin' less lovin' than he is!"

Kid sighed, then grinned. "Well, don't tell him that. We'll never hear the end of it!"

This startled a laugh out of the forlorn Kiowa.

**********

Lou yawned as she awoke slowly. Turning her head in confusion she realized she was tucked up in the bed Kid had made for them when they'd moved into the new ranch house. It had a beautifully carved headboard with horses capering across it. Lou frowned in confusion. The last thing she remembered was sitting down to read her book at Rachel's. How, when had she gotten home?

Pushing the covers back, Lou slipped out of bed. Dressing quickly, she grunted in annoyance when she had trouble fastening the skirt of her dress. At least that was a good sign things were improving. Heading out the door she went in search of Kid. As she passed through the kitchen she spotted the pile of drop biscuits he'd made for breakfast laying on the table next to a bowl of Dawn Star's delicious porridge. Lou grabbed the bowl and a spoon along with a biscuit and, eating as she walked, continued on her way.

Entering the first barn, she found Kid saddling one of the mustangs that was only halter broke.

"Kid," she called quietly, not wanting to startle either him or the horse during this delicate operation.

He finished what he was doing, then slowly turned his back on the horse and walked out of the stall, closing the door behind him. Only once the horse was safely on the other side of the wall, did Kid speak.

"Mornin' darlin'," he said, walking up to her and wrapping his arms around her in a good morning hug. "Feelin' better?"

"I feel fine," she said. "How'd I get home?"

"I carried ya in front of me," he smiled.

"Why didn't you wake me?" she asked. "I could've ridden on my own."

"You looked so peaceful sleepin'," he said. "I didn't have the heart to wake you. 'Sides, I enjoyed holdin' ya like that."

Pulling back, Lou took a last bite of her porridge.

"At least ya could've woken me up this morning!"

Kid just shrugged and grinned down at her. "Didn't see no reason to. Yer obviously still recovering and need the extra sleep. It ain't as if your not workin' as hard as the rest of us when yer awake. A little extra sleep on your part ain't gonna hurt the ranch."

Lou nodded and turned to head back into the house. "If you say so. I'll just go put this dish away, then I'll be back out to help with the chores."

"We've already finished feedin' all the stock and Dawn Star and Shining Star milked the cow," Kid said, already turning back to the nervously shivering saddled mustang. "Why don't ya go look over the bunkhouse, see what still needs doin' in there. Isaac and Samson'll be movin' in after the holidays."

Lou nodded, but decided to find Standing Woman first. She found the Medicine Woman at the prayer wheel she and Buck had set up behind the house, facing the East. She waited as Standing Woman completed her prayers, fascinated by the ritualistic motions. Finally Standing Woman said a last few words and carefully stubbed out the flames on the bunch of sweetgrass she'd been using. Coming to her feet, Standing Woman turned to Lou.

"And what can I do for you this morning, Louise?" she asked.

Lou grinned. Standing Woman and Dawn Star were the only ones who routinely called her Louise and she always had to stop and think for a split second when they did. Then her expression sobered.

"I need your advice, medically," she said.

"You don't want to go see one of your white doctors?"

Lou grinned ruefully. "First, that might let Kid know I'm worried, which is the last thing I want to do!"

Standing Woman smiled in commiseration. "He does tend to worry overmuch about you, doesn't he?"

"I'll admit, I've given him some reason to," Lou said, before continuing. "Besides, during the War the medicine Buck taught us did more to save lives than any of the half-trained quacks who called themselves doctors out on the battlefield. Guess I just don't trust most docs no more."

Leading Lou back into the house, Standing Woman headed toward the big pantry next to the kitchen that she and Buck had turned into an examining room. They didn't expect many white patients, but figured there would be enough injuries on the ranch to call for it. And, eventually, they expected guests from their Kiowa and Cheyenne families to come calling.

"So, what's worrying you?" she asked, sitting down in one of the comfortable chairs at one side of the room. Lou sat down next to her.

"It's just, well," Lou hemmed and hawed for a moment. "Well, see, I lost my courses during the War. Isaac said it was probably 'cause I wasn't gettin' enough to eat and too much physical exertion. But, they ain't come back."

Standing Woman nodded. "But that ain't all?"

"No," Lou smiled self-consciously. "I'm still so tired all the time. The doctor in Chicago said that should only last another couple weeks. But it's been months now and it's like it's gettin' worse."

"Anything else?" Standing Woman asked. "Good or bad?"

"Well," Lou thought for a moment. "I guess I'm startin' ta put some weight back on. I could barely fasten my skirt this mornin'."

Standing Woman smiled at her friend. "I think I know what's goin' on, but I'd like to do a physical exam to be sure."

Lou nodded and stood up to lie on the exam table. A few minutes later, Standing Woman stepped back and helped Lou sit up.

"So?" Lou asked anxiously. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing a few months won't fix," Standing Woman said, smiling mysteriously. Lou just looked at her in confusion. "About nine, total, to be precise."

Lou blinked. Then comprehension dawned. "A baby?"

Standing Woman smiled broadly as she nodded confirmation.

"When? How?"

"As to how, I'd think you'd know that by now," Standing Woman teased.

Lou glared at her and she laughed.

"You probably got pregnant the first time you could, before you had your first courses again," Standing Woman took pity on her and explained. "When? It's hard to tell exactly, since you hadn't been having your courses. But, based on the exam, I'd say you're between two and four months pregnant. So, sometime next summer."

Looking down at her still flat stomach, Lou let the information sink in. Putting a hand over her belly, she smiled up at Standing Woman. "After all this time, I'd begun to think it wasn't possible. It ain't like Kid and I were that careful, but nothin' ever seemed to happen. I'd started to think Wick's did some sort of permanent damage."

Standing Woman frowned in confusion. "Wicks?"

Lou flinched when she realized Buck hadn't shared that story with his wives. Probably, he'd considered it too personal and up to her to decide who to tell. Taking a deep breath, she launched into the story.

**************

"Lou?" Kid asked as he walked into the bunkhouse. She was just sitting there, a chair leg in one hand and hammer in the other, staring into space. "Lou, are you alright?"

Startling, Lou dropped the hammer on her foot. "Ow!"

"Lou!" Kid rushed to her side and grabbed the injured extremity, pulling the boot off and rubbing it gently.

"It's just bruised," she said. "I'm alright."

"What were you daydreaming about?" Kid asked.

Her smile grew huge and a touch mischievous.

"Just planning," she said, trying for a mysterious tone.

"Plannin' what?"

"Things."

"Lou!" Kid demanded, starting to get exasperated. "What kind o' things?"

Looking down at the beloved face in front of her, Lou wondered if their baby would have his beautiful blue eyes and curly hair.

"Lou?" Kid asked and she realized she'd been woolgathering again. "What kind of things are ya plannin'?"

"Well," she said standing up and putting the hammer away in the tool box. "I was thinking about our house and wonderin' how quickly we could get it put up in the spring."

"That depends," Kid said, rising to his full height and coming to her side to take the chair leg from her other hand and set it down on the counter. "Why do you ask?"

"Do you think we can get it done before June?" she asked, smiling gently.

"Maybe, depends on when the snows melt, how much help we have and how big we make it."

"Oh, it doesn't have to be very big," she said. "Just enough room for three of us."

"Three?!"

Lou nodded, placing a hand over her belly. "Um hm. Three. You, me and our baby."

"Baby? We're gonna have a baby?"

Lou nodded, enjoying his shock.

"A baby!" he exclaimed, grabbing her to him and swinging her around. "We're gonna have a baby!"

Setting her down he kept grinning at her. "When are we gonna tell everyone?"

"I figured at Thanksgiving dinner," she said. "We'll all be together. I already told Standing Woman not to say anything until then."

"Standing Woman?"

"Yeah," Lou shrugged. "I decided to go to her, 'stead of the doc in town. He reminds me too much of those quacks back East."

Kid nodded, understanding her feelings. "I wish ol' Doc Barnes were still around. But, I understand why he retired."

****************

"Congratulations, Lou, Kid!" Rachel said, coming around to hug both of them.

"Ya ain't gonna attack us are ya, Lou, if we say we was beginnin' to wonder when you two would start a family?" Cody asked tentatively from the other side of the room, remembering how Lou'd reacted to a little teasing about becoming a wife and a mother before her wedding.

Lou laughed. "Not this time, Cody. This time we're both ready!"

"More than ready," Kid said, turning the brilliant smile he hadn't been able to drop for a second during the last two days on his small wife. "This is the last piece of our dream. Family, our own ranch, and, now, a baby."

Jimmy hugged Lou and slapped Kid on the back, saying, "Don't take this wrong, Hieronymus, but I'm a mite jealous."

That finally wiped the grin off Kid's face. He glared accusingly at Buck, who just shrugged.

"Wow, he must be happy," Teaspoon said. "He didn't slug ya fer that one, Jimmy."

"Kid," Buck asked innocently, "have you two thought of names yet? Are ya gonna name it after you if it's a boy, Hieronymus?"

"Hell, no!" Kid exploded as everyone else laughed.

"Alright everyone, now that the good news has been shared, let's sit down to eat," Polly said, beginning to herd the growing family into the kitchen. "Hurry it up, before the turkey gets all dried out."

"I like turkey," Shining Star piped up.

Jimmy scooped her up in his arms and said, "Then you can have my share, too. Cause otherwise your Uncle Cody would eat so much you couldn't have seconds."

The little girl wrapped her arms around her Uncle Jimmy's neck and he grinned.

"Never expected to see Jimmy so comfortable around kids," Teaspoon muttered.

"Like ya said, Teaspoon," Kid answered, "we all changed during the War, for the better as well as the worse."

Hooking her arm through her husband's Lou added, "But we're still a family."

Teaspoon smiled at them. "And ain't that somethin' ta be thankful fer!"

************

Lou and Kid were just sitting down to dinner with Buck, Standing Woman, Dawn Star and the children when they heard the sound of dozens of hoofbeats bearing down on the ranch.

Kid looked at Lou worriedly, "Wonder who that could be? We weren't expectin' anyone."

Kid and Buck grabbed their gunbelts, hanging on hooks by the door and strapped them on hurriedly. Lou grabbed a shotgun, but stayed inside the front door as the other two headed out onto the porch. She peered out the window worriedly.

Dawn Star touched her gently on the shoulder. "He'll be alright."

Lou answered without taking her eyes off the men on the porch. "I hope so. This is the first time he's strapped that thing on for more than target practice."

After what seemed like an interminable wait, the group of riders they'd heard cantered into the yard. On seeing Jimmy's distinctive palomino, Lou relaxed her grip on the shotgun. Placing it back in its holster by the door, she walked out to join Buck and Kid.

"We need yer help," were the first words out of Teaspoon's mouth as soon as he reached the porch.

Looking around the group of men, Kid noticed the abundance of silver stars. This was a posse.

"What's happened?" he asked.

"Bank robbery over in Blue Creek," Jimmy said. "We just got a wire they're headed our direction. We're headed out to stop them 'fore they get here, take 'em back ta Blue Creek for trial."

"I'll get my stuff," Buck said, turning to head back indoors.

"I'm coming with you," Standing Woman said quietly, turning to follow him. He just nodded his acceptance.

"I don't think we should go, Teaspoon," Kid said.

"Wasn't askin' ya to, son," Teaspoon smiled. "We need Buck's trackin' skills, otherwise we'd a never come out here at all."

"Hey!" Cody complained. "What's wrong with my trackin'?"

"Yer good, son," Teaspoon said. "But not as good as Buck!"

Turning back to Kid and Lou, he said, "I've got another favor to ask you two."

"What is it?" Lou said.

"I'd like ta deputize you as well, but have ya stay in town," Teaspoon said. "Keep an eye on things fer me. It's been real quiet and I don't expect no trouble, but…" He let the statement hang in the air.

"Why don't you stay?" Lou asked. "We all know ridin' ain't easy fer ya no more. Not with that knee."

"It's part o' the job, girl. If I cain't lead out a posse, I shouldn't be wearin' this star," Teaspoon sighed. "Now, will ya do it?"

Kid and Lou looked at each other, silently communicating their concerns over Kid's still lack of confidence around weapons and Lou's pregnancy. Turning back, Kid said, "Alright. We'll do it."

Teaspoon nodded. "Figured ya would son. I hate ta ask, but someone's gotta do it and ain't no one I trust more'n y'all."

A few minutes later the posse headed out with Buck and Standing Woman in tow. Lou hurried upstairs to change into britches and a shirt, carefully hooking the Deputy Marshal star into the fabric. When she walked outside, still fastening her gunbelt on, she found Kid waiting out front for her with a saddled Lightning.

She walked up and took the reins from him, then leaned into him for a hug.

"You be careful, hear?" he cautioned.

"I will," she smiled. "And, I'll see ya tomorrow mornin'."

"Or sooner. Just as soon as I can get the stock fed."

"Do ya think they'll accept me? I mean, me back wearin' this star?"

"Don't see why not," he said. "We learned at the weddin' most folks'd already figured out yer secret and they'd never complained 'bout ya actin' as deputy before."

"But that was always as part of the group, never alone."

"Shouldn't be a problem," Kid reassured her. "Just pull yer Lieutenant Lou routine on 'em and you'll have 'em quakin' in their boots in no time."

She grinned at him and with a slow, deep kiss, they said goodbye. Then, she swung up into the saddle and took off for town. Kid watched her riding into the sunset until she disappeared over the horizon.

********

Lou entered the Marshal's office after her latest walk through town. With the exception of the two saloons and the cathouse on the far edge of town everything was silent and closed up for the night. She sighed as she poured herself a cup of coffee then sat down in Teaspoon's chair. She could understand why he spent so much time napping on the job. This marshaling business was boring. Except when it wasn't.

Laughing quietly, Lou reminded herself to be thankful tonight was one of the boring ones. Hearing the rapid stomp of bootheels across the boardwalk headed in her direction, she sat back upright, sobering. Unless it wasn't.

"Come quick!" the young boy who swept floors and did other odd jobs at the Red Garter Saloon yelled. "The Garvey brothers are on a tear. If ya don't hurry they're gonna destroy the saloon."

Lou jumped out of the seat and followed him back toward the saloon at a full out run. Even before she burst through the doors of the saloon, she could hear the ruckus, shouts and howls punctuated occasionally by pistol shots.

"Alright," Lou shouted, using her command voice from the war. "That's enough of that! If you boys can't play nice, yer gonna find yerselves playin' in one o' my jail cells!"

Everyone stopped and turned to stare at her. Then one man in a corner 'whispered' to another, "It's that girl Lieutenant! Heard she's a crack shot, almost as good as Wild Bill!"

Apparently, someone decided to test that theory because out of the corner of her eye, she saw a young cowpoke reaching for his weapon. She had hers palmed, cocked and aimed before his cleared his holster.

"I wouldn't do that if I was you," she growled.

Looking around she glared each man down.

"Now, pick this place up! Or I'm shuttin' it down fer the night."

A couple of men started to pick up a turned over table, but a third glared at Lou.

"I don't cotton ta takin' orders from no woman," he sneered. "I ain't no cowardly Johnny Reb what needs his momma ta tell 'im what to do!"

Lou snapped off a shot right at his feet, making him jump back in sudden fear. But, rather than back down the way she hoped, he reached for his gun. This one was faster than the last, but not fast enough when she already had her gun out and ready.

She squeezed off two shots, hitting him in the hand and the shoulder and knocking him to the ground. Even as he was falling, she turned around and used the butt of her pistol to knock out the man trying to sneak up behind her.

Stepping so her back was to the wall, she surveyed the room.

"Move it!" she barked out and the rest of the men in the room quickly started putting it to rights. Once she was certain all the trouble had been scared out of the remaining men, she walked over to the injured drifter.

"Oh, shut yer caterwaulin'," she said, bending over carefully to check his injury. "I've taken worse and kept on ridin'. You'll be alright. Now, stand up and start walkin'."

As she herded him toward the door, she pointed to the second man lying unconscious on the floor and told the bartender, "Keep an eye on that man. Make sure no one tries ta sneak him outta here. I'll be back in a few ta collect him."

It only took her a matter of minutes to get the injured drifter locked up tight in the first jail cell. Then she turned to collect her second attacker.

"Ya cain't leave me here without a doc," the drifter complained. "I'll bleed ta death."

"I'll get the doctor after I've got all of you locked up," she smiled sweetly at him. "Don't worry, ya ain't gonna bleed ta death between now and then."

"Much as I might wish ya would," she muttered under her breath as she walked back out the door.

Re-entering the saloon, she sighed to see the place was back to normal with some men bellied up to the bar drinking and others sitting around the tables gambling. She smiled in satisfaction, then looked down at her second 'prisoner'.

"Need some help?" the bartender asked.

"Nope," she said, sighing as she bent over. She grunted as she dragged his front arms and torso over her shoulder before pushing herself upright with the man in a fireman's carry. "If I could drag Kid off the battlefield in the middle of the night, I can handle this galoot."

Taking each step carefully, she walked back out the door, not minding that the batwing doors banged her prisoner on the head on their way out. She could hear the men murmuring behind her back.

"Didya see that?"

"She just picked him up, and he was twice her size!"

"And she just took 'em both out, cool as ya please."

"Man, that's one gal with a lot o' gumption. I wouldn't ever wanta cross her!"

"That's the truth. Glad I ain't her husband!"

Lou just smiled. Kid would laugh when he heard about this. After he stopped hyperventilating.

***********

Kid sighed as he handed over the sandwiches Polly had prepared to the prisoners. Turning back to Polly he said, "I can't believe she took 'em on all by herself."

"Would you expect anything less from her?" Polly asked.

"No," Kid said, dropping back into Teaspoon's chair. "She's never done less than 110% of what she thought was her job."

"But," Polly commiserated, "It's hard bein' the one sittin' at home waitin'."

"Polly, ya in there?" Rachel asked, poking her head into the Marshal's office.

"Come on in, Rachel," Kid said, waving her into the room.

"How's it goin', Kid?"

Polly smiled. "He's learnin' how hard it is to be the one left behind."

"How do you two handle it?" he asked.

"Well," Rachel said, "I've found it's always useful to have something to do. Didn't you boys ever notice all the clean laundry whenever ya came home from chasing after the bad guys?"

"Now that ya mention it," Kid laughed. "I guess I did."

"And me," Polly said, "I like to knit. Teaspoon's got a whole wardrobe full of sweaters, socks and scarves. More'n he'll ever wear."

Kid nodded. "Well, I've tried chopping wood, but all that got me was blisters."

Rachel laughed, remembering the incident well.

"How about baking?" Polly said. "You already bake when somethin's upsettin' ya, so it's obviously something that soothes you. Give that a try, next time."

"Maybe I will," he said.

"Maybe you will what?" Lou asked, coming into the Marshal's office and taking off her coat to hang by the door.

"Bake your favorite pumpkin bread, soon's I get home."

Walking up to her husband for a kiss, she moaned in appreciation. "Mmmmm. Sounds good."

"You two are makin' me sick," the injured drifter complained from his cell.

All four people in the room turned as one and said, "Shut up!"

"What are ya doin' here so early?" Kid asked. "I wasn't expectin' ya 'til supper."

"Dawn Star said it looked like a pretty bad storm comin', so I decided to come in early and weather the storm here with you. She and the kids are keeping track of things back at the ranch."

Rachel gathered the basket with baby Noah in it back into her arms and wrapped her shawl quickly around her head at that news. "We'd better get back to the house, then, and make sure things are locked down tight. Come on, Polly."

Following Rachel out the door, Polly waved to Kid and Lou. "Stay safe."

*************

"Looks like a storm's brewing on the horizon," Buck said quietly to Teaspoon. "That ain't a good sign, this time of year. We need to find shelter."

Looking around the empty plain, Teaspoon sighed. "Ain't no shelter ta be had within a day's ride, son."

"There's a waterin' hole a couple hours ride to the east of here," Cody suggested. "Ain't much, but the trees should provide some protection."

Teaspoon nodded. "Let's get a move on, 'fore we run outta time. Don't wanta get stuck in the middle of the plains in a storm like this looks ta be."

**********

Lou stood at the window of the Marshal's office, watching the snow coming down. It had started mid-afternoon and just kept on coming, faster and thicker every hour. It was coming down so hard now that she couldn't even see to the restaurant across the street.

Kid walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.

"They'll be alright, Lou. Buck and Standing Woman would've noticed the storm same as Dawn Star."

"I know," she smiled back at him, lacing her fingers through his. "But they're family."

He squeezed her tighter and kept vigil with her.

Across town, Polly too was staring out a window, worrying over her husband.

Janusz came up beside her and handed her a cup of coffee.

"He vill be alright," Janusz offered. "He has surfifed vorse than this many times."

"I know, Janusz. But, he's my husband and that makes it my job to worry. 'Sides, how many times can he dance with the devil and escape alive?"

Janusz laughed and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder for a moment. Then, he went to curl up in bed with his wife and son.

Across the plains, Cody, Jimmy, Buck and Standing Woman shared an improvised tent with Teaspoon. They were shivering, but alright. The combined heat from their bodies and from the horses they'd carefully tethered around the tent keeping them from freezing.

Teaspoon on the other hand didn't look so good. He was shivering twice as bad as the rest of them, even after they'd all draped their extra blankets around him. And, he'd started coughing again, a deep wracking cough that seemed to tear at his lungs with each hack.

"Is he gonna be alright?" Cody asked worriedly.

"I dunno," Buck shrugged. "I thought he'd kicked that cough. Had it when he came back from Texas. But it was never this bad before. I just dunno."

"There's nothing we can do until this storm breaks other than keep him warm, anyway," Standing Woman said.

***********

The next morning, Lou awoke on the extra cot in the unused cell. She stretched and yawned as she sat up. She quickly straightened her back as she suddenly recognized the lack of howling winds.

"The storm's over?" she asked Kid.

"Yep. Stopped comin' down 'bout an hour ago," he said. "I'm bettin' the posse'll head back today, no matter what. Any chance of trackin' them bank robbers got blown away when this storm started."

She nodded.

As predicted, the posse trotted into town that afternoon. Lou and Kid stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of the Marshal's office to await their arrival. They smiled in greeting as Jimmy and Cody rode up to the hitching post in front of the office, then looked quizzically as Teaspoon continued on toward Rachel's house with Buck and Standing Woman riding on each side of him.

"What's up?" Kid asked.

"Teaspoon got sick," Cody said.

"The cold of the storm apparently got some cough he'd had last year kicking up again," Jimmy added. "Buck's takin' him back ta the house ta try some Indian treatment on him."

"Yeah. He said none of the white doctor's medicine did Teaspoon any good last winter. The only thing that chased the cough off was the summer heat."

"So," Jimmy said, noticing the two prisoners as he followed Kid and Lou into the Marshal's office, "How'd things go fer you?"

"They ain't no bank robbers," Lou said. "But I did nab a couple o' rowdies who thought they could ride roughshod over a deputy. Or was it 'cause I'm a woman?"

"That was their first mistake," Cody laughed.

"And just what do you mean by that?" Lou started to bristle.

"Only that I've never met a woman that could be ridden roughshod over," Cody defended himself.

"Unhunh," she grunted skeptically, even as Kid helped her into her coat.

"We'll see ya later," Kid said. "We need ta get back and see how Dawn Star and the children did all alone out at the ranch, and check on the stock."

"Standing Woman's headed out that way, too, soon's they drop Teaspoon off," Jimmy said. "She wanted to grab some of her medicines from the house."

Kid and Lou nodded as they walked out the door, headed to the livery to get their horses.

**********************

Lou and Kid trotted into the main barn from the rear, riding straight inside to get out of the cold before dismounting and unsaddling their horses. As they pulled their horses to a stop, they saw a new wagon, piled high with household goods standing in one corner with a group of mules munching placidly in the nearest stall.

"What?" Lou started to ask.

"Looks like we've got guests," Kid observed. "Let's hurry and get Katie and Lightning settled, so we can find out who they are."

Working in practiced unison, they soon had their mounts unsaddled, brushed down and settled in their stalls with a heaping serving of oats and hay.

Grabbing Lou's hand Kid led the way out of the barn's front door and across the yard to the house.

"We're back," Kid yelled to the house in general, as they walked in the front door. In no time, two little boys and a slightly older girl had surrounded them, hanging on legs and begging to be carried.

Bending down, Kid promised, "If y'all let us go talk to yer mommy Dawn Star and see who our guests are I promise there'll be a special treat after supper."

"Blueberry pie?"

"Punkin' bread?"

"Taffy!"

The various requests came fast and furious.

"You'll just have to wait and see," Kid said, ruffling the hair on Shining Star's head as he stood back up. "Why don't you show us where the adults are?"

Shining Star grabbed Kid's hand while the two boys clustered around Lou, who picked up the youngest. Soon, the whole group trooped into the room they'd dubbed the family room at the back of the house, behind the kitchen. There, Dawn Star was sitting with Alfred, Tiny, and three other people Kid and Lou didn't recognize.

"Kid!" Alfred stood up as he saw them enter, the slender, petite blonde next to him standing as well. "Lou!"

"It's great to see you guys," Kid said, holding out his hand in welcome. "Did ya have any trouble finding the place?"

"No," Alfred smiled. "It was just as easy as ya said it would be."

"Although, we were surprised to see who was here when we got here," Tiny smiled. "And who wasn't."

"Sorry, we got stuck in town in the storm."

"I understand," Alfred said. "We barely made it here ahead of it."

"Alfred, we should introduce everyone," Tiny suggested.

"Oh, yes," Alfred said, starting. "I forget y'all haven't already met. Kid, Lou, these are my parents, Heloise and Captain Potter. And this," he gestured to the slim blond at his side, "is my wife, Coraline."

Then turning to his family, he performed the same introductions for Lou and Kid.

"Buck should be back soon," Kid said, "Along with his wife StandingWoman. They were out with the posse. Jimmy and Cody are staying over at Rachel's place. But you'll get to meet all of them in a couple weeks, if not before then. Christmas is set to be held here."

"His wife? I thought Dawn Star was his wife?" Coraline questioned.

Lou smiled. "It's not unusual amongst the plains Indians for a man to take on his wife's sister as a second wife if her husband dies. That's what Buck did. Standing Woman is his first wife. He married Dawn Star after she was widowed and adopted her two older children as his own."

"I can't wait to meet everyone," Tiny said. "We heard so many stories about them, I feel like I know them already."

"So, what are your plans?" Lou asked.

"Well," Alfred paused, looking around. "We were sorta hopin' we could spend the winter with y'all, help out here on the ranch, then get our own farm in the spring."

"I'm a good cook," Heloise said.

"And I know plenty about carpentry," her husband, the Captain, added.

"Welcome skills indeed," Kid smiled. "That should be no problem. Lord knows we've got plenty of empty space in this big old house."

"And there ain't nothin' left for us back home," the Captain said bitterly.

After getting their guests settled in the various bedrooms, Kid headed to the kitchen to get to work on the treats he'd promised the children.

Heloise turned to Alfred, "These friends of yours are so strange. I don't hold with it, but can understand a woman going off to fight with her husband. But living in the same house with a savage Indian? And him with two wives? I don't know how I'll ever sleep at night."

"Kid and Lou've been living in the same house with Buck for years, Ma," Alfred calmed her. "And ain't nothin' happened to them. You'll see, he's just another man. Things are different here in the West."

"That's certainly true," Coraline smiled. "I like it. I wonder if Lou will teach me how to shoot?"

****************

Buck looked across at Standing Woman and shook his head. Teaspoon had not improved, despite getting him back home and into a warm bed. If anything, his cough was getting worse, fast.

"He's coughing up blood, Buck," Standing Woman said.

"I know," he sighed. "There's nothing more we can do for him."

"We need to tell the others," she said sadly.

"I'll go," Buck said. "You stay with Teaspoon. I'll send Polly in."

"Son," Teaspoon croaked.

"Yes," Buck said, coming quickly to stand by Teaspoon's head.

"Don't let them make a fuss over me," he whispered.

"I won't," Buck promised solemnly.

************

"There's nothing we can do?" Rachel asked, after Polly had left to sit by her husband's side.

"No," Buck said sadly. "I've seen this before. It usually goes slowly, but it looks like he's had this for some time, just been hiding it from us. I don't see him lasting more than a few weeks."

Rachel let out a sob and hid her face in Janusz' shirt.

"Ve should let his daughter know," Janusz said. "Vhat vas her name? The one vith that saloon in Abilene?"

"Amanda," Polly said hoarsely. "Yes, you've gotta let Amanda know. She'd want to be here."

Rachel jumped up to wrap her arms around Polly in comfort. But, after a short moment, Polly pushed her away. "I just came to get him some soup. He says he's hungry."

Buck nodded even as he stood up and began putting on his winter gear. "I've already talked with Standing Woman. She'll stay with him tonight. I'll be back in the morning to spell her. I'll stop off at the telegraph office in town and wire Amanda, then go let everyone at the ranch know what's going on."

"Better get a room ready for her," Jimmy suggested, from where he'd been sitting brooding by the fireplace. "I expect she'll be here within the week."

"Give her Kid and Lou's room," Cody suggested. "It's the closest to Teaspoon's and got the best bed."

Rachel nodded. "I'll get on that tomorrow. Ride Safe, Buck. We'll see ya in the mornin'."

Three days later, Cody pulled into town with the latest stage, hopping down even as the horses were still skidding to a halt so he could be the one to open the door and help a beautiful brunette down. Her eyes were reddened and, even as she stepped down off the stage, she brought a handkerchief to her face to wipe away a tear.

"Come on, Amanda," Cody said. "Let's stop at the Marshal's office and get Jimmy. Then we'll head over to Rachel's."

Amanda nodded and glanced around Rock Creek. She hadn't visited Teaspoon since the Express had moved them here. It differed from Sweetwater only in location, she decided.

"Look who's here," Cody said quietly, leading her into the warmth of the Marshal's office.

Jimmy stood and said nothing, simply wrapped her in his arms. She let go with a few more sobs.

"I barely found him," she whispered through the tears. "And I haven't spent near enough time with him."

"He'll be happy to see you," Jimmy reassured her.

"Is he… is he in any pain?" she asked, as Jimmy and Cody began guiding her toward Rachel's.

"Naw," Jimmy said, the normally loquacious Cody quiet. "Standing Woman and Buck are givin' him some herb that keeps him comfortable. But he's gettin' weaker by the day. They don't expect him to last out the year."

**********

Everyone from the ranch had come out to Rachel's for supper. They'd been doing so at least once or twice a week, despite the distance of the ride, wanting to get as much time with Teaspoon as possible before he left them.

Tonight however, he'd remained locked in his room with Polly and Amanda, apparently too weak to get out of bed.

"What are we gonna do?" Lou asked forlornly, just picking at the food on her plate.

"We're gonna give him the kind of Christmas he's never had," Amanda said, walking in to the kitchen with Polly on her heels.

"He's never had a Christmas with every one of his family in one place, with him," Polly added. "So, we're gonna make sure he has the Christmas of his dreams."

Like generals, Amanda and Polly began marshalling the troops. Rachel and Kid were detailed to work on the baking, which was ordered to exceed the excesses of Thanksgiving and include all of Teaspoons favorites. Buck was ordered to hunt down the biggest turkey he could find. Meanwhile Jimmy and Cody were ordered to find the perfect Christmas tree, even if they had to go all the way to Denver for it! Standing Woman and Dawn Star were detailed to help Polly with cooking all of Teaspoon's favorite dishes. Amanda and Lou were relegated to decorating the house.

"Do you get the feelin' they don't trust us in the kitchen?" Lou asked, smiling at her 'sister'.

"Well, I know they don't trust you in the kitchen," Amanda answered. "Not sure why they'd think I can't cook. It's not like I've ever burned their dinner beyond recognition."

Lou started to laugh at the joke, then stopped as she remembered why they were doing this.

"Don't," Amanda said gently. "Don't be sad. This is supposed to be Teaspoon's perfect Christmas. It won't be perfect for him if we're all walking around crying. He should hear laughter and smiles and jokes."

"You're right," Lou said, a mischievous light entering her eyes. "And I've got a great idea…."

************

By Christmas Eve the Tartovsky/Hunter household was the most beautifully decorated home in all of Rock Creek. Paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. Chains of popcorn and cranberries wrapped their way around the giant fir Jimmy and Cody had brought back, lit beautifully by the candles carefully placed amongst the branches. Boughs of holly were draped around the windows and the fireplace mantel, decorated with huge red and gold bows. Hanging over the door was a mysterious little green plant with red berries, with a little silver bell attached, so as soon as the door opened the bell would ring.

Lou looked around in satisfaction even as Buck carried Teaspoon, now shrunken to half the size he'd been just weeks ago, out to the living room and placed him gently on the already prepared chaise lounge.

"Are you comfortable?" Buck asked.

Teaspoon batted his hands away weakly. "Stop fussin' over me, son. I'm dyin'. That ain't changed me inta some ol' woman!"

Buck stepped back with a smile. "Yes, sir."

Just then the bell over the door tinkled brightly as the door opened and Alfred and Coraline started to walk in. They stopped, startled, and looked up.

"Mistletoe?" Alfred asked. "Where'd you find mistletoe?"

"Never mind that," Lou giggled, covering her mouth. "You know what you've gotta do!"

Alfred turned to his wife, took her face in his hands and planted a big, noisy smooch on her lips. They broke apart, laughing, and continued on their way inside.

Teaspoon smiled at Lou. "Wonder which pair's gonna go through next?"

"We'll just have to wait and see," she smiled, patting his shoulder as she settled onto the settee next to him.

A few minutes later, Cody and Jimmy opened the door, pushing at each other alternately, to see who could get through the door first. They too stopped at the tinkling of the bell and looked up.

"That there's somethin' called mistletoe," Teaspoon explained, with a wicked grin on his face. "When yer caught underneath it with someone else, ya gotta kiss her, or him."

"What?!" the duo exclaimed in combined horror. Pointing at each other they said simultaneously, "I ain't kissin' him!"

"Do you know where his mouth's been?" Jimmy asked.

"Louisa'd kill me!" Cody exclaimed.

"That's the tradition, boys," Lou smirked. "If ya don't kiss, it'll bring bad luck on the family for the whole next year."

Looking back and forth between the two, Jimmy and Cody suddenly seemed to sag in place. There was no give in either Teaspoon or Lou. Slowly they faced each other. Even more slowly they leaned forward, then so fast as to almost be unseen landed a peck on each other's cheeks.

They ran from the room, escaping Teaspoon's weakened guffaws and Lou's silvery peals of laughter.

After supper that night, the whole family was gathered in the living room again, just talking and enjoying each other. Suddenly, a heavy knock sounded on the door, halting the conversation.

"I'll get it," Tiny said from her chair near the door. Walking over, she opened it to see Mr. Thompkins standing there, half the town behind him. At the tinkling of the bell on the mistletoe, Teaspoon perked up and looked over at the door.

"I don't care who it is, Tiny, ya gotta kiss him!" he demanded.

Tiny blushed, while Thompkins stared at Teaspoon as if he'd sprouted a second head.

"What are you talkin' 'bout?"

"It's the mistletoe," Tiny said. "Anytime the bell rings, anyone standing under it has to kiss or bring bad luck on the house for the year."

"Er, um, well…"Thompkins started to blush redder than Tiny had. "If it means I get to kiss a pretty young lady like you, I think I can live with that tradition."

He took her hand in his and gallantly pressed his lips to the back of her hand, to the cheers and whistles of the entire Express family. Only Lou, however, noticed how Tiny's other hand crept up to cover her heart at the gesture.

"Alright, Thompkins, now that tradition's been satistifed, whatta ya want?" Jimmy demanded.

Looking around, Thompkins cleared his throat. "We know things ain't goin' well fer ya Teaspoon, so we, well the town, thought we'd like ta sing ya some Christmas Carols. We remember how much ya've done fer us over the years. When we heard how the boys, and you Lou, were trying to give you a 'perfect' Christmas, we figured we could help."

"Sounds wonderful," Teaspoon said. "I love me a good Christmas Carol."

In a matter of minutes the entire gathering had donned winter wraps and walked out on the porch. Jimmy and Cody carefully moved Teaspoon out onto the porch swing, where Polly covered him with an extra blanket then sat next to him, holding his hand.

The singers started off with several high spirited songs, such as Good King Wenceslas and Deck the Halls, before moving into some of the more religious carols, including Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and The First Noel. Finally, they ended with Silent Night.

Teaspoon hummed along with the singers throughout the concert. The other riders joined in on all their favorites, enthusiastically, if not always musically. By the end, everyone was rosy cheeked and pleased.

"Why don't y'all come in for some hot cider," Rachel suggested, standing up and leading the way into the house.

Looking from his wife to Amanda to Lou and the boys, Teaspoon whispered, "Thank you. Thank you for my perfect Christmas."

They all slept at Rachel's house that night, doubling up on beds or curling up in bedrolls in front of the fire once they'd run out of beds.

Kid thought he was the first one to awake Christmas morning and decided to get started on the hotcakes Rachel was planning for breakfast, before the children descended on their stockings. He walked into the kitchen to find Polly just sitting there, staring into the fire, doing nothing, with a blank look on her face.

"Polly," he asked, concerned.

She turned to look at him and her face crumpled.

"He passed?" Kid asked, taking her in his arms.

She nodded against his shoulder, her own heaving with her quiet sobs. Finally, she quieted enough to say, "In his sleep, last night. I found him when I woke up this morning."

*************

Lou carefully straightened the bodice of her new black dress. She'd had it made especially for today. Then, she went back to fussing with her hair. After several more attempts to make it look perfect, Kid walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, meeting her eyes in the mirror over their dresser.

"You look fine, Lou."

"It's just still so short," she lamented. "Do you remember how much he liked it once I started growing it out? Always said he couldn't wait to see it long enough for me to put it up, like a real lady."

She stopped, too choked up to continue. After a gulp to get herself under control, she continued.

"Now, he'll never see it long, Kid," she lamented. "There're so many things he'll never see."

"I know, Lou," Kid said, unable to offer any comfort. "But now we've got to get going. It's time to say goodbye."

She nodded and turned to let him help her put on her black cape, the same one she'd worn to Noah's funeral, all those years before.

"Alright, I'm ready," she said quietly.

Together they walked out of the ranchhouse and Kid helped her up into the buckboard, next to Standing Woman and Dawn Star. Both of the Cheyenne women, as well as Buck, had shorn their hair in mourning. But, today they wore black to honor Teaspoon's white traditions. Buck and Kid rode alongside the buckboard as Lou started it in the direction of town.

They went first to Rachel's house where they met up with the rest of the family, all sitting around somberly in various shades of black. Together, the extended family walked down the middle of Main Street, in a tradition Teaspoon had started amongst the riders after they'd had a hard day, headed toward the cemetery.

The next hour passed in a blur as the preacher said some nice words over Teaspoon's casket, and then the boys carefully lowered it into the hole dug the night before. Lou simply stared at the flowers Polly had somehow found around town to lay on top of the casket.

"Amen," the preacher closed his book and looked around at the gathered crowd that included just about everyone in town and quite a few outsiders as well. "Normally, we'd leave the family alone now to say a last goodbye, but this time, they've asked to share their thoughts with the rest of you."

He stepped back and, squeezing Kid's hand, Lou stepped forward. At last she raised her eyes from the casket to look around at all those who'd gathered to say goodbye to Aloysius 'Teaspoon' Hunter.

"Teaspoon was a friend to all of you," she began. "But he was more than just a friend to us. To us, he was family. Most of us he had to teach exactly what that meant, but he never complained. Over the years, we attended a lot of funerals with him and he always found just the right thing to say. At Noah's funeral he talked about how it hurt so much because burying your child, even an adopted one, wasn't the proper order of things. In his opinion, his passing before ours was the proper order of things. Shortly before he died he told me he could rest easy, 'cause he'd learnt us all his tricks.

Last night, as we were talkin' about it, we decided, that the best way we could honor him would be to share what he means… meant to us and what we learned from him.

To me, he was the 'pa' my own father never was. I think he was that way for all of us. It wasn't somethin' any of us expected, that first time we met. I remember how he popped up out of the watering trough and started spreading bear grease all over himself."

The crowd laughed at this, each able to imagine the scene quite vividly.

"But, what sticks with me the most is something he said when my own pa died. He said, 'Son,' he still thought I was a boy back then, 'Son, there's only one thing you can't save a person from, and that's themselves.' That's a piece of advice that's stood me and the Kid in good stead over the last few years."

Lou stepped back and Cody stepped up. "I remember, back when we first joined the Express, I was so intent on making sure no one disrespected me and makin' a good impression on folks. What I didn't understand was that it wasn't about respect, what I was concerned with was my pride. Teaspoon's the one who taught me the difference. I ain't sayin' it was easy.

I remember when he told us, 'You need to learn, Cody, the difference between Pride and Self-Respect. Pride is a cheap commodity, can leave a man when he's been whupped and kicked. Pride goes on, comes off, easy. Self-Respect? Nobody can take that from ya. It goes clear to the bone.'"

Cody stepped back and Buck took a step forward.

"In some ways, I think I had about the most difficult time adjusting of those of us riders still left," Buck began. "I already had a chip on my shoulder, dealing with what I thought was rejection by my Ma's people and expecting the same thing from my father's folks. In some ways, the white world delivered exactly what I expected. In others, it didn't. I never thought to find one brother, which Ike was, let alone five brothers, a sister and a new Ma and Pa.

I remember during one of the times we were havin' Indian trouble and Teaspoon said, 'The Indians is fightin' for their way of life, the right to live the way they did before we got here. Just like our kin fought the British almost a hundred years ago. Except the Indians is called Savages, our kin was called Patriots, probably 'cause they won.' It took awhile but eventually I understood what he was saying and it made my position, walking the line between two groups a lot easier to handle."

Next, Jimmy stepped up.

"When I started with the Express, I wanted one thing and one thing only, to be the fastest, baddest gunslinger in town. I didn't understand what that meant, until after first Longley then Marcus starting messing with my life and turned me into Wild Bill. Teaspoon? He taught me how to handle it when strangers came gunning for me. The fact he used to be a gunslinger and got out of the business always gave me hope.

But then, Sam," at this Jimmy lifted his eyes and met those of Sam and Emma, standing on the other side of the casket, "Sam and Emma got married and left Sweetwater, makin' Teaspoon the interim Marshal. I couldn't understand why he put that gun back on, after escapin' the curse that went with it. When I asked him, I remember, he told me, 'Jimmy, there comes a time in a man's life when he can't look back. Even though it seems like the path he's about to choose leads back to a place he's already been to, it don't matter. Cause he knows he ain't that man goin' down the path.' I'm not that hotheaded, trigger happy kid anymore, and it's thanks to Teaspoon."

Polly stepped forward.

"Teaspoon was the love of my life. I left him once, 'cause I couldn't handle sharin' him with the law. What I forgot is that it was the law what saved him from turnin' out like the men he brought to justice. Some might ask, do I regret comin' back, since we only had a few short months together again. No! I don't. I'd go through the pain of losing him a dozen times in exchange for the bliss of having been his wife these last few months. And, although we never had kids together, he left me with an incredible family to comfort me in my grief."

She hugged Amanda, who then began to speak.

"Teaspoon wasn't my father, anymore than he was related by blood to the rest of us. Yet, he treated me like the daughter he'd lost. I had a hard start in life and I made a lot of bad decisions after that. Teaspoon taught me I didn't have to let those decisions define me. He told me, 'The greatest treasure a person has is his self-respect. You don't have that, you don't have nothing.' Even after I told him my deepest, darkest secrets, he wouldn't let me leave. Said we were going to stay together, as a family. He gave me first the self-respect then the financial means to escape my past. Along the way, he taught me what it means to have a real family, a family worth dying for. I'll never forget him for that."

Finally, Kid stepped forward.

"Teaspoon became not only a friend, but a father to all of us," he began. Turning, he wrapped his arm around Lou's shoulders again. "I only hope I'll be half the father he was. He loved to learn and try out new things. He taught us about baseball, tennis, bicycles, science, history, and many other things. He taught us how to live a life worth living.

The one thing I'll remember most about him, was his ability to give advice. He once told me it was his favorite thing in the world. And that man knew how to talk, even if sometimes you couldn't figure out what he was saying."

The crowd tittered at that, each person in it having personal experience with the confusion Teaspoon's advice sometimes left in its wake.

"But he also knew how to get you thinking, when to push and when to let ya alone. If he'd followed the rules, none of us would've lasted more than a month with the Express. Instead, due to his pushing and prodding, we became the best unit the company had.

I remember, when I was havin' trouble figuring out women, right after I found out about Lou," once again he squeezed Lou's shoulders and she grinned up at him. "He said something about love, and wheels and not knowing who ya was in love with all along. I still ain't quite figured out what he meant by all that. But, he got me thinking about who Lou was and who I was and did we fit."

Kid paused and looked around at the townspeople gathered together. He saw Thompkins standing with Tiny at his side near Sam, the Territorial Marshal, and Emma. Behind Polly stood Territorial Governor Phelan, an old friend of Teaspoon's. At the back of the group stood a collection of Indians from various tribes, there to honor Teaspon as well.

"What other man could've called this motley crew friends? Family?" Kid asked. "Sometimes we've fought. Sometimes we've gone our separate ways. But always the ties that bound us together remained strong and Teaspoon held them in his hands like a master. I remember, right after he found out about Lou, he said, 'Company's company and Family's Family. And I always thought of you boys, and uh, girls, as family.' That was Teaspoon's talent and his gift to all of us. He built us into a family. It's a legacy that will live on long after we're gone."

Kid bowed his head and stepped back. The Express family reached out, each grabbing the hands of those around them. Together they began to sing Teaspoon's favorite song, as the rest of the townsfolk and funeral guests slowly filtered away.

I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair, Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air; I see her tripping where the bright streams play, Happy as the daisies that dance on her way. Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour, Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o'er: Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair, Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air. I long for Jeanie with the daydawn smile, Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile; I hear her melodies, like joys gone by, Sighing round my heart o'er the fond hopes that die: Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain, Wailing for the lost one that comes not again: Oh! I long for Jeanie, and my heart bows low, Never more to find her where the bright waters flow. I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed Far from the fond hearts round her native glade; Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs flown, Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone. Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore While her gentle fingers will cull them no more: Oh! I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair, Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.

One by one, the riders turned to leave, to get on with their lives. Finally, Lou and Kid were the last ones left. Lou reached down and picked up a handful of dirt, scattering it over the casket.

"Goodbye, Teaspoon. Pa. You'll be missed, but never forgotten."

Epilogue: Secrets Revealed (Jan 1, 1866)

A knock at the front door caught Rachel as she was moving across the living room with a bowl full of freshly pulled taffy.

"Buck," she called, "take this bowl on into the bunkhouse while I get the door."

"Yes, ma'am," Buck smiled as he grabbed the candy and immediately stuffed a piece in his mouth.

Rachel turned back to the front door and cautiously opened it, not wanting to let too much of the cold January snow storm into her house. Standing on the front porch was a slender man on crutches, one leg of his pants pinned up at the knee. Behind him in the yard between the house, now connected to the old bunkhouse, and barn stood a Conestoga wagon with a woman wrapped in a shawl huddled on the front seat.

"May I help you?" Rachel asked.

The man cleared his throat and asked, "Are you Mrs. Rachel Dunne?"

"It's Tartovsky now, but yes, that's me," Rachel answered, confusion evident in her voice.

"So, ya did end up marryin' him," the man said in wonder, then shook his head. "Sorry Ma'am. I know ya don't know me. My name is Virgil Price. I served with some friends of yours during the War. Kid and Lou McCloud?"

He paused, waiting for her to nod in recognition, then continued. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, ma'am. But I figured it'd be better than leavin' ya wonderin' what'd happened to 'em. They both perished, ma'am, at the Siege of Petersburg in the summer o' '64. I saw 'em fall myself."

Virgil stopped speaking as he saw a grin growing bigger and bigger on Rachel's face.

"Ma'am?" he asked.

"Why don't you get that wife of yours on in here out of the cold," Rachel said simply. "I think I've got some good news for you."

Virgil nodded slowly, obviously confused, and turned around to wave to his wife, who quickly began scrambling down off the wagon. He turned back to Rachel as he heard her yell, "Hieronymus! Get on out here! You've got guests."

Kid looked up from where he was popping popcorn at the fireplace and groaned. He knew this would happen if the rest of his family ever learned his real name. At least they reserved use of it for what they considered "special" occasions, although there certainly seemed to be a whole new definition of "special" recently. Handing the popcorn popper to Jimmy, who'd been sitting behind him on the sofa, Kid stood up and headed toward the open front door.

Virgil and his wife were walking in the door, accompanied by several flurries of snow from the inbound blizzard. He looked up at the sound of the approaching footsteps and stopped all movement in shock.

"Kid?!?!"

"Virgil! I didn't expect to ever see you again!" Kid exclaimed, rushing to wrap the man in a hug of welcome. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"Well, I came to let your family know how you'd died! I saw you fall with my own eyes. How'd you ever manage to survive? And what about Lou? He went down with you!"

Kid laughed at Virgil's shocked barrage of questions. "Come on in and get over here by the fire and warm up. I think we can answer all of your questions, starting with Lou. You two get…."

Kid stopped speaking suddenly as he realized who the woman with Virgil was. Now it was his turn to be shocked.

"Anabel? Last report we had you'd died in a Yankee attack on Berkeley Manor!"

"Ah'd actually left to visit a neighbor's house with some medicine about half an hour before the attack. Samson had no idea Ah'd left. When Ah returned, the whole place was in ashes. So, I went to the Prices. That's where my son, Thomas, Junior, was born," she explained, revealing a sleeping toddler on her shoulder as she unwrapped herself from her winter clothes. "When Virgil came back after the War, Ah finally learned what had happened to Thomas."

"She agreed to marry me and come West just a couple months ago," Virgil added. "Now, what's your story?"

By now Virgil and Anabel were seating themselves on the sofa Jimmy had quickly vacated. Due to their intent attention on Kid they hadn't noticed Jimmy moving behind the sofa to make room for them. Jimmy had quickly recognized Virgil and now quirked a questioning eyebrow at Kid, who nodded in agreement. Jimmy turned and headed for the kitchen in what had once been the bunkhouse, while Kid sat down with the Prices and started talking.

"Lou back from the barn yet?" Jimmy asked the rest of the women gathered around the table and stove.

"Not yet," Polly started to say just as the back door opened, letting Lou in with a gust of wind and snow. "Ah, there she is."

"Hey, L-T, you've got guests," Jimmy said, his eyes full of the humor of the situation as he took in the sight of the snow covered Lou dressed in a pretty blue dress for the holiday, her arms full of a bucket of milk.

"Well then get over here and take this," she said grumpily. "I hate doin' barn chores in a dress. Should've waited to change until after."

"Well, you didn't have to do the milking," Polly said acerbically. "I'm perfectly capable of doing my own chores."

"Nonsense," Lou retorted. "It's the holidays, you deserve a little time off."

"'Sides, I think you're perfectly dressed," Jimmy said as he grabbed the bucket and began pouring it into the butter churn by the door.

Lou looked at him in confusion as she headed through the door to the hall that now connected the bunkhouse to Rachel's house. "Wonder who it could be? Pretty much everyone I know in town is here."

"You'll find out," Jimmy said, almost tripping on her heels in an effort to ensure he was witness to the coming scene.

Looking at each other in confusion, Polly, Standing Woman and Dawn Star quickly followed as well.

As Lou entered the living room with Jimmy right behind her, Kid stood up, interrupting his conversation with a couple sitting on the couch.

"Lou!" Kid exclaimed, "look who's come to visit!"

Virgil and Anabel stood up and turned around, then stopped in confusion.

"Ambrose! Good to see you. But where's Lou?" Virgil asked tentatively, looking at the now obviously pregnant young woman at Merriweather's side.

"Actually it's Jimmy," Jimmy started to say, then stopped as Lou walked forward.

"Why Virgil! After all those staff meetin's ya don't recognize me? Guess Kid and me didn't do a good 'nuff job teachin' ya to be a scout," Lou said, dropping into the gruff voice she'd used as Lieutenant Lou McCloud and crossing her arms over her chest in her characteristic stance.

Virgil's jaw dropped in shock. After taking a second to digest the information, Anabel let out a peal of delighted laughter that wouldn't let up.

"Lou?" Virgil asked, questioningly.

"It's Louise," she said, relaxing her stance and moving forward to welcome Virgil and Anabel. "Though most just call me Lou."

Kid came around the sofa to wrap an arm about Louise's waist and said proudly, "In case you haven't guessed, Virgil, this is my wife, Louise."

"What? How?" Virgil sputtered, shaking Lou's hand tentatively, obviously confused on how to treat her.

Jimmy joined Anabel in howling laughter. "I bet this is what Teaspoon looked like when he discovered yer secret, Lou!"

Lou playfully punched Jimmy in the arm. "At least it ain't as embarrasin'!"

Rachel walked up and said, "Why don't you all sit down and get caught up. I'll go let everyone else know what's goin' on. We'll be back in a bit to introduce the whole lot."

Jimmy grinned and said, "With the way this family's growin', you might need to take notes."

Virgil just shook his head in confounded amusement. "No wonder you never wrote him. We always wondered 'bout that!"

Hours later, most of the family leaned back from the scrumptious feast they'd just consumed. That is except for Cody, who was still trying to finish off a last piece of Kid's apple pie.

"Kid, I sure wish you'd a fessed up 'bout your cookin' skills back in the Express," Cody said, savoring the last bite.

"Yeah, it woulda saved us from Jimmy's awful cookin'," Buck threw in.

They all laughed in fond remembrance of Jimmy's porridge, the only dish he could cook without destroying.

"If I had, I'd'a found myself stuck in the kitchen with Rachel. I didn't join up to cook and I wasn't goin' to do it!"

"You were just afraid we'd all think you were the girl in disguise," Jimmy joshed.

"Naw, I had witnesses," Kid boasted, winking at Lou, who tossed her napkin into his face.

As the cavorting continued around the table, Virgil looked at the hodge podge group. There were Isaac and Samson seated next to Rachel and her Polish husband, Janusz. Down the table from them sat the Indian, Running Buck, and his two wives. Scattered between these two groups sat a gunfighter, an Army scout, a woman who'd spent years dressed as a man and Kid, a man who'd taken his wife's last name. That didn't include the Potters, who'd joined the family and an irascible older storekeep who was obviously paying court to a giant of a woman they all called Tiny!

Virgil leaned over and whispered to Kid, "I don't understand. Yer all so different, even fightin' on different sides of the war. Yet here ya all are, like best of friends. How can ya do it?"

Looking around the table of happy people, Kid smiled and started the old refrain, "It's like Teaspoon always said…."

Lou joined in, "We're a family."

Hearing them, the rest of the family helped finish their motto, "And family's family. Ya stick together no matter what."

Then Kid added his own take on the saying, "It's a kind of love worth fighting for."

Everyone else smiled and responded, "Like we always do."

Historical Notes

*The Battle of Wilson Creek actually occurred in August 1861, not January 1862.

*Cody was not allowed to join up until 1863, because at age 14 he was too young when the war started. Instead he rode with Jayhawkers in Kansas for awhile, before going home to care for his ailing mother. He joined the 7th Cavalry after she died in November of 1863.

*Samuel and Orion Clemens were actually headed west in 1861. They took a stagecoach to Salt Lake City, before ending up in Nevada months later where they tried their hands at silver mining. The incidents Samuel recounts in my story are taken from his short story, "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed."

*Frank and Jesse James both rode with Quantrill's Raiders, but not until later in the war. While Quantrill's Raiders were responsible for many atrocities before, during and after the war, they were not known to rob trains. That was something the James brothers took up, along with robbing banks and stagecoaches, when they hooked up with the Younger brothers after the war ended.

*Robert Lincoln would have been about 18 in December 1862. But, he most likely was at Harvard pursing his degree, then headed straight to D.C. to spend Christmas with his family. None of the Lincoln family is recorded as having returned to Springfield until they accompanied Abraham Lincoln's body back for burial in 1865.

*Buck's prayer service, vision quest and Sun Dance experiences are based on the general information about such Kiowa traditions. However, the details are mine. Most Native Americans prefer not to share the details of religious ceremonies with those outside their community due to fears the traditions will be stolen and/or corrupted. I have attempted to remain as true as possible to Kiowa customs, in intent if not in detail, due to not knowing all the details myself.

*The song Buck closes his prayer on the mountain top with was actually spoken by a Kiowa prophet at a Ghost or Feather Dance in the 1890s.

*Company G of the 1st Virginia Cavalry is recorded as having trained at Camp Ashland in November of 1861. It had most likely moved on by January of 1862 when Lou and Kid are supposed to have joined.

*Cody did not earn the moniker Buffalo Bill until after the Civil War. He was contracted to supply the Army and railroad workers with meat and shot and killed 4,280 American bison in an eight month period from 1867-68. Later, he had a shootout with Bill Comstock, who was also called Buffalo Bill, over exclusive rights to the name. He won the shootout, killing 69 buffalo to Comstock's 48.

*My depiction of the Sun Dance is deliberately not quite accurate. While I have endeavored to remain true to the spirituality of the event, I have deliberately muddled details. The Sun Dance is a sacred, religious rite amongst the Plains Tribes and they do not like outsiders interfering. In fact, it is forbidden for anyone to even take pictures of the annual event. It is true that the Kiowa Sun Dance did not involve the piercing found in the Northern Plains Sun Dance. The Kiowa, however, stopped all practice of the Sun Dance in 1889.

*The song, Riding a Raid, was not actually written until 1863, but most definitely would've been sung by the 1st Virginia Cavalry. For more information on Civil War music, here are the two sites I relied on the most: http://pdmusic.org/civilwar2.html and http://www.civilwarmusic.net/songs.php

*The quotes describing the Second Battle of Manassas both actually came from Union soldiers, as reported on the battle site's National Park Service website.

*Garyowen was re-written and became the official tune of the 7th Cavalry in 1867. Regimental tradition is that General George Armstrong Custer heard an Irishman singing the tune and liked its cadence. The lyrics were re-written for the 7th Cavalry. The song is played often to this day by the regiment. It is believed Garyowen was the last song played for Custer and his men as they left for their date with history.

*Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870 under President Ulysses S. Grant. Not all troops celebrated. Some continued to fight on Christmas Day. Others celebrated by decorating trees with salt pork and hard tack, the only things on hand. The story of a troop dressing up like Santa, costuming their horses like reindeer and delivering supplies and presents to the local poor is true. The deliveries were made by a unit of 90 Michigan men stationed in Georgia on Christmas in 1864.

*The attitudes toward homosexuality expressed in this story are not necessarily mine, but are representative of the time period. In fact, Lt. Virgil Price's acceptance would only have been brought on by the exigencies of surviving the war.

*Kissing was not a custom native to most American Indian tribes. It was something they learned from whites, although they took to the idea quite handily once it had been introduced. Only the Eskimo or Inuit had a form of kissing analogous to the European one. Thus the term Eskimo Kiss, still used today, for the brushing of two noses against each other. It was a form of greeting, or breath sharing, between two people who were intimately close.

*James Butler Hickok was officially discharged from the U.S. Army in Missouri in September 1862. He then proceeded to drop off the map for the next year. There are no records, anywhere, of his whereabouts until he resurfaced late in 1863 working for the U.S. Provost Marshal in Missouri. Historians believe he was spying in the South for the Union during this missing year. I've chosen to take that theory and run with it.

*The general details I've related about the battle of Chancellorsville are accurate. However, exactly how, when and where the 1st Virginia participated I could not find out. They are only mentioned briefly, once, in the reports I found online. So, the actions of Company G are theorized based on my overall knowledge of the battle.

*The details of the buffalo hunt are accurate, in a general sense, for most tribes that hunted the wild bovines. I did not try to get too specific.

*White buffalo were extremely sacred to all the migratory plains tribes the relied on the buffalo for survival, due to the white buffalo's extreme rarity. There are only three incidents recorded in the 1800s of a white buffalo. Two involved a buffalo that was killed, the third was sighted but never taken. The man who tried the hardest in that case reported it looked as if all the other animals in the herd were actively protecting the white animal. I found no records in my online research of how the tribes reacted when a white buffalo was taken, so I had to make a ceremony up based on my general knowledge of Plains tribes in general and the Cheyenne more specifically. Any disrespect toward Native Americans or misrepresentation of thoughts or actions is completely unintentional on the author's part.

*Wild Rose was a real woman and spy for the South. However, by the time of my story she had been discovered, imprisoned twice, then exiled to the CSA. In 1863-64 she was in Europe, campaigning for military, financial and political support of the Confederacy.

*Elizabeth Van Lew, or Crazy Bet, continued her spying activities in Richmond throughout the War. She remained in Virginia, virtually friendless, for the rest of her life. She earned her nickname by holding conversations with herself as she walked down the street, since no one else would talk to her. She also had a secret room in her home with a special hidden door that she used to smuggle escaped Union prisoners to the North. She also was responsible for freeing the slavewoman Mary Bowser and convinced her to become a spy in Jefferson Davis' household.

*Although Jeff Davis knew he had a spy somewhere near him, he never did figure out it was freed slave Mary Bowser, whom he thought was dull-witted, who was slipping troop movements and other top secret information to the Federals.

*Recruit Christopher Mean Ol' Kit Price was my great-great-grandfather. He joined the 48th Indiana Infantry in 1862, being almost immediately injured in the fighting near Vicksburg. While recovering in the hospital he contracted what the doctors called pleurisy of the lungs. He never recovered from this condition and was discharged on July 8, 1863. He'd served less than a year and never advanced past the rank of recruit. All his friends and family in later life referred to him as Mean Ol' Kit because of his caustic attitude. I like to think something made him that way, not that he was just a naturally nasty-tempered old man.

*The story of Captain Utt of the 7th Cavalry is true in regards to the fact he existed and he lost both legs from injuries suffered while leading a charge on Confederate artillery. I used his story to illustrate the medical aid soldiers on both sides could look forward to during the Civil War.

*Plural marriage existed amongst most Plains Indian tribes. It was usually sisters married to the same man and usually occurred much as I've described it, with one woman needing the protection and support provided by joining her sister's marriage. As the home in Plains tribes belonged to the woman, each woman would have her own tipi and household. These plural marriages were about survival and protecting the next generation, not about sex or religion.

*Most Plains Indians had a proscription against sexual relations with a nursing mother. It was usual for a woman to nurse her child until he was at least two or three years old. This effectively prevented a woman from being overwhelmed with too many young children at one time and allowed her body time to recover between pregnancies. The final advantage to this was in the case of plural marriages. While such marriages were generally about survival, they would also act more in the sense of serial marriages. The husband would sleep with one wife while the other was nursing. Usually by the time wife #1 stopped nursing, wife #2 would be pregnant again and he would "switch" the wife he was sleeping with.

*The comment I had Jimmy make about telling Emma he hadn't had any strong drink or been with any fancy women in over a year is taken from a letter he wrote to one of his sisters. He asked her to tell their mother about his 'good' behavior. Since in the TYR mythos Jimmy's mother is dead, which she was not in real life, I had him ask Lou (his adopted sister) to write it to Emma (his adopted mother).

*The manner in which I have Danny and Thatch discovered as females is taken from an Civil War officers memoirs in which he recounts a similar incident during his service. Union Army records show between 250 and 300 women being uncovered serving in the military and summarily discharged. Most were discovered when injured, captured by the enemy or when their husbands/fathers were injured/killed and they gave themselves up to go home. Since this number only reflects those discovered, it's believed as many as three to four times that number actually served, in both the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies.

*Conditions at Camp Douglas were as bad as those at the Confederate camp, Andersonville, yet it didn't receive the reputation. In fact, the death toll was higher at Camp Douglas. The bit about the daily roll call and the prisoners stomping their feet to stay warm is taken from Corrie Ten Boom's recollections of her experiences at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in Germany during World War II. The rest of the information about how the prisoners were treated is based on records from Camp Douglas.

*The story of how Louisa Frederici and William Cody met is taken from her book, Memories of Buffalo Bill, published in 1919. I made minor changes to match the story with The Young Riders Bible.

*James Butler Hickok did marry Agnes Thatcher Lake, just months before he was killed in Deadwood, Dakota Territory by Jack McCall. They are recorded to have run in to each other several times over the years before their apparently sudden marriage. But, she was some 12 years older than him and it was a second marriage for her. She'd run away from home with circus clown Bill Lake as a teenager and became a famous circus performer before and during the Civil War. By the time she met Jimmy, Lake had been killed in a dispute over entrance fees and she'd taken over running the circus. Her only recorded surviving child was Emmaline Lake. I've chosen to think Emmaline is actually Jimmy's daughter, but factually that was not possible.

*There was no treaty signed between the U.S. government and the Kiowa in 1865. The Kiowa signed two treaties with the U.S. government, the first in 1853, the second in October of 1867. To make the treaty signing fit the time line of my story, I've combined elements of both treaties and had it signed in 1865.

*The Marshal Field Department Store was not yet using that name in 1865. It was then called the Field, Palmer & Leiter Co. It did not become known as Marshal Field's until after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I chose to use the commonly known name of today for recognition's sake.

*The shootout between James "Wild Bill" Hickok and Davis Tutt was one of the few actual shootouts in the old West. Most so-called gunfighters accrued their kills by shooting men in the back or catching them, literally, with their pants down while in the latrine.

*The conflicting jury instructions from the judge in Jimmy's trial actually occurred. The jury acquitted him under the fair fight ruling.

*Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as Battle Fatigue during the 1800s, was first identified during the Civil War. It is estimated as many as 20% of soldiers suffered from it. While the symptoms can vary, panic attacks, self-isolation and spontaneous re-living of traumatic events cued by particular sounds or situations are common. Some of the most common and effective treatments for PTSD are talk therapy, facing a similar situation again and therapeutic activities that are calming and specific to the individual.

Author's Note: This story is dedicated to all those who said I could do it! You know who you are. Thanks!

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