Nebraska Territory, September 1867

Lou sat staring into the glowing coals of the fire, the chill of early autumn slowly seeping past its warmth. She was glad Kid had convinced her to wear her winter weight long johns. They'd been annoying during the still warm day, but had been a blessing once the sun set, taking its warmth with the light.

"You're gonna be night blind," Buck warned her, "if you keep starin' into the fire like that."

Even as he spoke, he added another couple logs to the glowing coals. He used a long stick as a poker to stir up the coals and get the new logs burning. Soon flames were once again dancing, sending sparks flying up into the night sky.

Buck, who had first watch, turned his back on the now merrily burning fire and stared out into the night dark. In the evening's quiet, the men who'd formed the posse snuffled and snorted as they tried to catch a few hours sleep before taking up the chase again at dawn.

Lou quickly surveyed the group of men as they settled down, making sure everyone was present and had everything they needed. It was a habit she'd developed during the war, but it stood her in good stead now. Soon, she was back to contemplating the fire.

"Thnking 'bout the children?" Buck asked without turning around.

"Yep," she sighed. "And Kid."

"Don't worry," Buck smiled into the night. "Kid'll protect the young 'uns with his life. And Dawn Star and Standing Woman will watch out for him."

Lou smiled, too, as she thought about just how obsessively over-protective Kid was probably being right now with Buck's four youngsters and their own 15 month old son, James Hunter McCloud.

But, becoming a mother had hardly been the biggest change in her life in the last couple of years, Lou thought, looking down at the shiny tin star pinned to her coat over her left breast.

McCloud/Cross Ranch, Near Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, January 1866

Lou took a break from shoveling hay down from the loft to the horses below. Leaning on the pitchfork, Lou gently caressed her slightly swollen belly with her other hand.

A soft smile crossed her face. This was the most stressful job Kid and Buck would let her do now. And, for once, she wasn't complaining about the coddling. She laughed quietly as she remembered how incensed she'd been at the boys' teasing about babies just before their wedding. But now? She couldn't be happier. A soft kick against the inside of her belly brought another smile, until the sound of approaching hoofbeats wiped it off her face.

"Rider comin'!" Lou called out, already scrambling down the ladder out of the loft. Grabbing her gunbelt, she strapped it on as she pushed her way out of the main barn doors into the January sunshine.

Buck and Kid were just appearing around the corner of the smaller, second barn in response to her call. They'd been breaking horses in the corral behind the second structure. Standing Woman had stepped out onto the front porch of the house, the shotgun which normally hung beside the front door cradled in her arms. Dawn Star had already herded the kids inot the house, where she'd keep them until given the all clear.

Lou shaded her eyes with one hand while the other rested on the butt of her revolver. She and the others didn't relax their stances until they recognized the young man on the horse as the nephew of the livery owner in Rock Creek. Lou strode forward and grabbed the horse's halter under the chin, helping slow it to a stop.

"What can we do for ya, Robert?" Kid asked, walking up behind Lou and wrapping one arm around her shoulders.

Robert looked directly at Lou and said, "Mrs. McCloud? The Town Council was hoping you'd come in and meet with them tomorrow evening."

"Do you know what they want, Robert?" Buck asked, protectively closing ranks on Lou's other side.

Robert mutely shook his head, then added, "But, they told me to tell you and Mr. McCloud," he nodded in Kid's direction, "yer welcome ta come, too. So long's ya understand it's the missus they want ta talk to."

"What time?" Lou asked.

"Six o'clock," Robert said, "at the hotel restaurant. Dinner'll be on them."

Lou, Kid and Buck looked at each other, communicating their thoughts and concerns silently. After a moment, Lou turned her gaze back to Robert.

"We'll be there," she said simply.

*********

"Any idea what they want?" Buck asked.

Lou shook her head and Kid just shrugged. It had been the question they'd all been mulling over for the last day.

"Guess we'll find out when we get there," Kid said, tightening the cinch strap on Lightning's saddle. Turning, he reached down and circled Lou's disappearing waist with his hands, helping her up into the saddle. With her now obvious pregnancy she no longer felt up to her acrobatic leaping mounts.

"The sooner we get movin', the sooner we'll find out," Lou added. She slapped Lightning's neck lightly with the reins and shouted, 'Hah!' to spur the horse into a gallop. Kid and Buck scrambled to mount their own horses and follow her, laughing like children.

A half hour later, the smiling trio trotted into Rock Creek.

"I don't know why you boys don't just give up," Lou taunted. "You've never managed to catch me."

"Judging by that waddle you're developin', I'd say the Kid managed ta catch ya just fine," Buck shot back with a twinkle in his eye.

Dismounting, Lou grabbed a handful of snow and tossed it into Buck's face.

"That's not the kind of catchin' I was talkin' about!"

Buck and Kid laughed, delighted with the verbal play.

"Leave me out of this!" Kid begged through his laughter.

Handing Lightning's reins to the ostler at the stable, Lou requested, "Rub him down well. He just had a hard run. So'd the others."

The man nodded and led the three horses into the stable. Meanwhile, Kid and Buck moved up on either side of Lou, both offering her their arms. Slipping a hand into the crook of each man's elbow, Lou got the trio moving. They walked down the boardwalk toward the hotel three abreast.

At the hotel entrance, Kid pushed the door open and held it for Lou. Inside, they found the five-member Town Council already seated at a table at the back of the restaurant. Joining them, Kid pulled out a chair for Lou and waited while she seated herself before taking his own seat.

Lou leaned back in her chair and surveyed the businessmen seated around the table who made up the Rock Creek Town Council.

To the far left sat Mr. Thompkins, owner of the town's only general store and a man who'd been both friend and foe over the years.

Next to Thompkins sat Oral Enochs, owner of the livery and Robert's uncle. He was a tall, slender man with heavily callused hands. Unlike the other four men with whom he shared the table, Enochs eschewed a suit and tie. Instead, he wore a leather vest over a clean, brown calico shirt and sturdy dungarees.

In the middle sat the plump owner of the hotel and restaurant, Mr. Jarvis. The man who'd once been so opposed to allowing Coloreds and Indians into his restaurant now greeted Buck with a warm smile and nod.

To Jarvis' right sat Hiram Booker, the current owner of the Rock Creek Bank. He'd taken over ownership late in 1861, after Lou and Kid had left to serve in the War. His smiled greeting to the trio seemed a trifle nervous to Lou. She wondered why.

Finally, on the far right sat a well known face to the trio, Janus Tartovsky. Having taken over as the blacksmith, Janus had joined the Town Council during the War as well.

Comfortable with silence, Lou, Kid and Buck simply sat and waited for someone on the Council to speak. After a moment, Thompkins cleared his throat. With a brief glance at his fellow council members, he looked at Lou and said, "I suppose you're wondering why we asked to speak to you?"

"You could say that," Kid said.

Janus spoke up. "You understand ve vish to speak to Lou?"

All three nodded, even as Hiram Booker shifted uneasily in his seat.

"How are you doing?" Thompkins asked. "We know Teaspoon's death hit you hard."

"Fine," Lou said shortly. "Thank you."

"And the baby?"

"We're both fine, Mr. Thompkins."

Thompkins sighed, ran his fingers through his hair, then started to speak.

"When Teaspoon told me how bad off he was we," he indicated the other councilmen and himself, "started talking about who would replace him."

"We don't want no stranger appointed by the governor comin' here and stickin' his nose in our business," Oral Enochs said adamantly, leaning over to spit tobacco juice into a cup in front of him. Booker grimaced in distaste.

"So," Thompkins picked up the explanation, " we talked to Teaspoon and he suggested we wire Sam Cain, what with him being Territorial Marshal and all."

"What's that got to do with Lou?" Kid asked impatiently.

"Ve are getting to that, Kid," Janus smiled. "Haf patience."

Kid grunted and looked away. Thompkins took that as a signal to continue.

"Sam said, as long as we submitted our suggestion before the governor made an appointment, he'd make sure our choice was at the top of the list."

Jarvis jumped in now.

"We asked Teaspoon who he'd suggest and he told us you, Lou, would be the best choice."

He turned to Buck and smiled.

"He said you'd be too busy with getting the ranch started and taking care of that family of yours, Buck." To Kid he said, "We asked about you, too, son. Teaspoon said even though you're wearing a gun again, you aren't up to being our Marshal, not day in and day out."

Shifting uncomfortably, Kid nodded in understanding.

"And you thought I, even pregnant!, was your best choice?" Lou sputtered incredulously.

"You've always had that fighting spirit," Thompkins said. "Even when you didn't have a gun to hand you've always figured out how to get your man."

Smiling ruefully while rubbing the back of his head in pained remembrance, he added. "Don't think I've forgotten how you handle a skillet, girl!"

Lou, Kid and Buck all laughed aloud at this reminder of the time the Express riders had nearly destroyed Thompkins store back in Sweetwater over his use of the term "Indian Lover" amongst other slurs about Buck. Lou had knocked Thompkins out with a judicious swing of a cast iron skillet.

"I ain't seen any man, other'n Jimmy Hickok or the Kid here, as good with a gun or a horse," Oral Enochs added, spitting for emphasis.

"'Sides," Jarvis said, with a glare to the right, "even thouse who didn't know ya when ya rode for the Express," his voice hardened even as Hiram Booker squirmed in his chair, "remember how ya handled them drunken rowdies last year while Teaspoon was off with the posse. Heck, even the rowdies agree you'd do a good job."

Finally Hiram Booker opened his mouth. With a still uncomfortable look on his face, he said, "We also spoke with a couple of the men you commanded in the War. They both vouch for your ability to handle any situation, or men, you come up against."

Lou could tell he'd agreed to this against his will. She'd be willing to lay bets he hadn't talked to Tiny! She allowed a small grin to cross her face, hiding it behind her hand.

"So," Janus picked up, "vhat do ya say? Vill you be Rock Creek's new Marshal?"

"The governor ain't gonna pick a woman to be Marshal," Lou offered one last protest.

This time it was Kid, who'd long since grabbed her hand in his, who spoke up.

"What the governor don't know won't hurt us, Lou. Sam'll just nominate ya as Lou, not Louise."

"Like Teaspoon always said, family's family and company's company. A family sticks together," Buck finally spoke, providing Teaspoon's justification for continuing to lie to Russell, Majors and Waddell about Lou's gender.

A few minutes later, Lou walked out of the restaurant with a shiny new tin star pinned over her breast. In a daze, she headed to the Marshal's office to greet her deputies, Kid and Buck on her heels.

Nebraska Territory, September 1867

Lou laughed as she settled back against her saddle, pulling the blanket up over her shoulder. Taking the tin star off, she polished it almost reverently. True to the Council's word, the official appointment had come from the governor's office a week later.

Even as she lost some of her freedom of movement to her advancing pregnancy, she'd continued to patrol the streets of Rock Creek, using her wits to replace the brawn she lacked.

When the day came she could no longer strap on her gun, Standing Woman had helped her rig up a carrier for her skillet. Thompkins had just about doubled over with laughter the first time he saw her on patrol with that skillet. But, she'd never had any trouble with the rowdies. Although she did end up clubbing one would be gunfighter over the head. She'd had one of her deputies drop him off, still unconscious, in Blue Creek. He'd never come back.

Any time Lou couldn't work, and for the first couple of weeks after her son's birth, Kid and Buck had taken turns filling in for her. When she'd gone back to work after James' birth, she'd simply taken him with her, leaving him in the care of her deputies while on patrol herself.

Lou sighed and pinned the badge back onto her coat before laying her head down.

"Better get to sleep," Buck advised. "You're watch will be here before you know it. And, I want to get an early start so's we can get the jump on this bunch and head home."

"Yes, sir," Lou smiled, even as she closed her eyes. This was hardly the life she'd dreamt of when she'd signed on with the Pony Express all those years ago. But, she couldn't imagine any other now.

Within moments, Marshal Lou McCloud, unbeknownst to the Territory of Nebraska the first woman Marshal of the United States, was fast asleep.

Author's Note: This story started on a youth campout as I was staring into the fire late at night.

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