Keeping Watch


Christmas Eve, 1864

Louise McCloud-Travis looked up from the candle she was lighting as a round of goodnatured laughter drifted in through the open parlor door. Her family was all gathered in the other room reminiscing and decorating the tree Buck and Teaspoon had searched hard for. She could see Teaspoon, looking a little older and a little grayer, sitting in state on the settee, Rachel, who was now his wife and expecting their first child, seated next to him as he told story after story about Louise and her fellow riders for the Pony Express. On the floor, Buck and his new wife Jenny were patiently helping Louise's identical twin sons make popcorn and paper garlands to drape around the house and tree. Like most children though, Jamie and Billy tended to want to eat the popcorn rather than string it and Lou smiled as she heard Jenny reprimand them gently.

All of her family was there, laughing and talking and celebrating the Christmas season, but the laughter and talk were hollow in her ears. One member of her family was glaringly missing from the quaint picture framed within the doorway. She felt tears prick her eyes and turned away, catching her reflection in the glass, the candle perched on the windowsill throwing an almost otherworldly light upon her features and illuminating her white blouse. The woman she saw in that reflective glass startled her. Lou wondered if her husband returned if he'd even recognize her anymore. She was thin, almost too thin, from the hard work and deprivation she'd endured just to keep the small homestead alive. Her auburn hair was longer than when she'd last seen him, almost three years ago now, and was held back at the nape of her neck by a deep green ribbon that matched her skirt. The petite features were still young, but her dark brown eyes showed a weariness, an oldness born of worry and strife that surpassed her twenty-two years.

The ache she'd felt the day Kid had kissed them all goodbye and begun his journey toward Virginia was as rich today as it had been then. He'd tried to squelch the need to fight for his home state and defend his memories, but the time had come when Lou had seen just how much his inaction was killing him. In the end, although it had pained her beyond words, she'd told him to go--to confront his past and return to them when it was all over. Kid had waited until the twins were born and he was assured that his young family would be all right before he made his preparations to go. The night he'd left, Lou had placed a large white candle in the parlor window and promised herself that that candle would shine its light through the window until his return. She'd kept that vow faithfully for almost three years.

"Mama, Mama!" Lou quickly swiped at the few tears that had escaped and looked down into the upturned face of Jamie--a face that looked more and more like Kid's everyday. He held up a cut out and colored angel ornament that Jenny had obviously helped him with. "Lookee what I made. Can I put it on the tree, Mama?"

"It's beautiful, baby," she said softly, pulling him up onto her lap on the window seat. Lou kissed his forehead gently. "Of course you can put it up. Ask Uncle Buck to help you, though okay."

Jamie grinned and jumped down from her lap, but didn't dash off into the other room. Instead, his little face contorted, his brow furrowing like it did when he was trying not to ask something. "Mama, does my Daddy 'member us on Chi'stmas?" he asked tentatively.

Lou swallowed hard. Oh, Kid come home to us soon, she thought sorrowfully. Your sons need you. I need you. She lifted Jamie back onto her lap and snuggled him close, his sandy curls tucked under her chin. "Oh, Jamie, your daddy loves you and Billy so much. He'd never forget you. You remember how Mama told you Daddy was with the army? Well, the army spends a lot of time in places where they can't write letters or visit. It's not that he's forgotten, it's just that his letters aren't gettin' through," she assured him. Lou pulled away and touched his nose gently with a smile. "But you know what we can do?"

"What?" the little boy asked with a sniff.

"We can go in the parlor and light his candle. That way, God will see the light and can let your daddy know that we haven't forgotten him. Why don't you go ask Aunt Rachel to help you light it?"

She watched after him as he dashed into the parlor and went straight to Rachel's side. Have I been lying to my children? God, she hoped not. She hoped with all her heart that his letters just weren't making it through the lines because the alternative was incomprehensible to her. Kid had to be alive. She'd scoured the casualty lists every day with baited breath and his name had never appeared on any of them. Lou knew in her heart of hearts that she would know if he was dead. She would know if that connection she'd always felt to him was severed. But, it was the uncertainty of it all, the waiting and watching and worrying that took its toll on her emotionally and now physically. Lou hadn't slept the whole night through without a nightmare since the day he left.

She'd heard Teaspoon and Buck talking about the war the other day. Ever since Gettysburg it had been apparent to many in the Union and Confederacy that the Confederate cause was dying. The war was essentially over for the South and Louise hoped beyond hope that it meant Kid would be returning soon.

You wouldn't recognize the boys now, Kid, they're so big, she thought. They look more and more like you every day and I haven't let them forget you. Teaspoon and Buck, even 'Miah and Tessa talk about you every day. They've drawn you dozens of pictures and I've filled at least two journals with stories about them for you to read when you come home.

Lou continued the running letter she was composing in her head. Every day as she worked or sewed or just watched her children play, she composed letter to Kid. At night when her siblings and sons were safely tucked away in their beds, she would sit at the small writing desk in the front parlor and carefully and lovingly wirte down what she'd been thinking all day. There's no doubt they're your sons, my love. Both boys have your good nature, your smile, and your eyes. Billy shares your love of fun and his giggles often fill this empty house. Jamie is the more serious and responsible of the two and watches out for Billy. He loves Katy as much as you do and clamors every day to ride her. Rachel's gesturing for me to come join them all. Rachel's seven months along now and she and Teaspoon can't wait until the baby's born. They're here along with Buck and Jenny. I think they're all conspiring to cheer me up this year. But Christmas is so empty without you. I've read the papers trying to keep up with the fighting and I remember what it was like when we rode for the Express. Death is never valiant, glorious, or easy. How can I paint a smile on my face knowing that you're in the midst of all that?

She walked slowly toward the doorway and stood watching her family, leaning against the frame. If you want to give me a present for Christmas, Lord, bring Kid home, Lou prayed not for the first time. She'd never been particularly religious growing up but the war and motherhood had put things into perspective for her. Prayer had gotten her through each day and Lou felt that her newfound relationship with God was the only thing that had kept her sane through the long, lean months with little to no food in the pantry due to inflated prices when the bank had threatened to foreclose on the land. She firmly believed that it was her prayers that kept her husband's name from appearing in the casualty lists she desperately scanned every day.

A hand laid gently on her arm, startling Lou out of her reverie. "He's fine, honey," Rachel said gently. "You've just gotta believe he'll be home soon. Even Kid knows when it's time to give up a lost cause."

"I know in my heart he's fine, Rachel," Lou replied. "I'm just so tired of this damn war. And it's not just him. We haven't heard from Jimmy or Cody for so long either. I can't help but wonder if they faced each other across the field or...."

"Louise, they may not have parted on the best of terms but you know those boys. They've always fought about somethin' but when it comes right down to it, they've always remembered they were family. Jimmy and Cody and Kid love each other more than brothers." The blonde woman rested one hand on her rounded stomach and pulled Lou toward the settee with the other. "Besides, 'tis the season for miracles and who says God doesn't have one more up His sleeve."

Teaspoon patted the cushion next to him a grin lighting his grizzled face. "Rachel's right as usual," the older man piped up. "And just where have you been hidin' all night, sweetheart? We've missed your beautiful face 'round here tonight." He kissed her cheek affectionately.

SOmething about Rachel and Teaspoon's easy responses seemed too pat, too perfect for the total lack of information they'd had regarding the fate of their soldier boys. Lou's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You two know somethin' I don't?"

"No, sweetheart. We're just tellin' ya not to lose hope, that's all."

Buck turned from the tree, Jamie sitting comfortably on his arm. Jenny was softly humming to Billy as he sat on her lap looking at a picture book. Theresa and Jeremiah were tying a few final ribbons onto the tree. "So, what do you think of the decorations, Lou?" Buck asked.

She looked around the room at the greens on the mantel tied together with red bows. The tree stood in a corner of the room, green and lush and deorated with strands of paper and popcorn chains, colored bows, a few candles, and the twins' paper decorations. A fire burned cheerily in the hearth bringing warmth and light to the room. In the window, a large white candle burned illuminating the snow outside. Lou glanced at her family's expectant faces and smiled. "It's beautiful everyone," she said. "I don't think this room's looked so good in a long time."

Teaspoon nudged her gently and pointed to the twins' drooping eyes. "Looks like bedtime for two little boys I know," he said with a chuckle. When the boys' eyes opened suddenly and the complaints began, Teaspoon held up a hand. "The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner Santa Claus gets here with your presents."

The protesting but sleepy twins were tucked into their little beds after Teaspoon's traditional reading of the Christmas story. It wasn't long after the children were asleep that the adults too began to head off to bed, leaving Louise sitting alone in front of the fire dreading trudging up the stairs to her own cold and lonely bed. It had been before this hearth one night years ago that she'd first told Kid he was going to become a father. He'd been so excited and worried at the same time she remembered. He'd had an almost permanent grin on his face from the time he'd noticed she was showing until the day the babies were born. They'd spent hours and hours just sitting in front of the fire planning their future and their children's futures. Wrapped in an afghan, Lou fell asleep in front of the hearth remembering the blissful first months of her marriage.

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Christmas Morning

Louise woke shivering slightly in the cold morning air. The fire had gone out during the night leaving her cold and stiff from sleeping curled up on the floor. Outside, the large fluffy cotton snowflakes had continued to fall blanketing the ground in white which appeared gray in the twilight of early morning. She hurriedly restarted the fire and it wasn't long before the flames began warming the room. Looking around hopefully, she was disappointed to find no evidence of the miracle she'd prayed so fervently for. I've been so patient, Lord, she prayed, her tearful eyes looking toward the ceiling. When will my children have their father again? When will I have my husband back?

In the stillness, a warm, peaceful, and comforting feeling filled her. It was the feeling of a father's warm engulfing embrace. In the silence, words were spoken to her heart and mind. "For I will be a father to the fatherless, a husband to the widow. Fear not, My child. Trust Me and know that I fulfill the desires of your heart within My own time."

Without questioning the source of the words, Louise took the comfort they offered, clinging to it as a child to his parent in an unfamiliar place. It was Christmas, the celebration of the ultimate gift for mankind. As great as her love for her friends and husband were, she knew that God had given them all a love that was greater, a love that would lay down its life for friend and stranger alike. Glancing at the still burning candle, Louise decided that if God could do so much, the least she could do was to keep the faith, continuing to watch and pray for their safe return.

She dashed at the tears she'd cried too many times and decided to get up and begin her chores before starting breakfast. It may be Christmas, but the stock still had to eat.

Bundling up, she trudged through the powdery snow to the barn. Lou'd made the trek so many times that she knew the path even without taking a lamp with her to light her path. Amazingly, the barn had retained most of its warmth thanks to the animals breathing. She fed their two Jersey milkcows, the six chickens that remained and the horses being sure to pay extra attention to Katy who eagerly thrust her nose out to be patted. "Sorry, girl. He's still not home, yet," Lou told the horse softly. "But he will be. He will be."

On her way out of the barn, she could hear Terror, their large gray and white dog, begin to bark at some commotion in the yard. Curiously, Lou left the barn finding herself face to face with a vision she would never have expected.

Two horses stood in the yard, a man still dismounting. He turned to her and grinned. Lou's mouth dropped open in surprise as she caught a glimpse of the ivory grip on his pistol beneath the duster he wore. The mustache was different, but she'd still know him anywhere.

"Hi there, pretty lady," he said. "Are you gonna just stand there gapin' like a fish or can I get a hug?"

"Jimmy?!" Lou nearly knocked him over as she ran into his arms.

Jimmy laughed at her exuberance and spun her around. He set her on her own feet and stared down at her lovingly before kissing her forehead. "Merry Christmas, Lou."

Lou let her hands wander over his face with a smile. "You're really here aren't you? Oh, thank God you're alive." She hugged him again. That's one down, she thought. "The others are gonna be so happy to see you!"

He grinned down at her. "And don't you think I've forgotten what today is. I've got a couple of very special Christmas presents for you and the kids," Jimmy said.

He let her take his hands and drag him into the house, grinning from ear to ear. Lou took his wet things and set him down at the table before bustling about to get him some hot coffee. She could hear someone awake upstairs as she sat at the table with Jimmy, just basking in the fact that he was there and alive. "So where are they, Jimmy?" she asked after a moment of just gazing at him.

Jimmy laughed uproarishly. He'd forgotten how inpatient Lou was when it came to surprises. The last Christmas they'd all spent together, she was the one who tried to guess what was in all the brightly colored packages beneath the tree. He took her hand, her palm warm from where it'd been wrapped around her mug. "Well these presents you can't unwrap," he said. Jimmy rose from his seat and crossed to her. She looked at him curiously as he hauled her up out of her seat and hugged her firmly. "This is from Cody."

"He's all right?" Lou asked softly.

"Yeah," the former rider replied as he pulled out of the hug. "He said to tell ya he's fine but he's planning to spend Christmas with his wife. They'll wire sometime tonight most likely."

"I can't believe Cody's married."

Hickok chortled. "Neither can he."

"I noticed another horse in the yard."

Hickok's brown eyes began to sparkle with merriment. "That is your other Christmas present," he said grinning.

There was the sound of footsteps from upstairs as someone descended the staircase. "Hey, Hickok, does my wife even live here anymore 'cause I certainly ain't seen hide nor hair of her?" an all too familiar voice called out.

Lou swayed, Jimmy's arms holding her up as she stared over his shoulder at the man coming down the stairs. Her face paled even more as he turned the corner and looked toward the table where they were standing. He was thin, almost thinner than the day they'd first met which seemed a lifetime ago. His sandy curls were longer than he'd worn them before and showed the telltale signs of nervous fingers running through them. A white, jagged scar, the only outward sign of the battles he'd seen, ran from his temple and down along his jawline but all his limbs were there intact. He stood there, whole and real and finally home!

"But there's a couple of gremlins sleepin' upstairs that might be mine." His voice trailed off on the last word as his brain caught up with his sight. She was absolutely the most beautiful sight he'd seen in a long time. She was thin, too and Kid's heart broke to know just how far the arm of the war had gone to affect his family all the way out here where he'd thought they'd be safe. Her auburn hair was longer--he could see the ends of it, pulled back though it was, as they hung almost to her tiny waist. Kid held his breath and watched as she closed her eyes slowly. She reopened them and he could see the tears pooling there. But beneath the tears, he saw the love and relief and need he'd remembered on all those long, cold days as they marched and rode through all kinds of weather. It was the memory of home in the dark depths of his wife's eyes that had kept him fighting on those days when it had seemed so much easier to just give up and let death have its way, kept him fighting until the ending surrender was unmistakable and inevitable. This was his wife at long last, those two beautiful sleeping angels he'd happened upon upstairs his children.

Jimmy watched his two best friends stare at each other and felt and emotional lump form in his own throat. It had been pure luck that he'd happened to be scouting ahead for his unit and passed the recent battlesite. Luckily in his scouting duties, he hadn't had to do much actual fighting and the stench of the unburied bodies left behind during a Rebel retreat had nearly made him fall off his horse be sick. A whisper of sound had come to his ears on the early morning breeze, but it was so faint that he'd nearly ignored it and headed off on his duties. When the moan had come again, it had been unmistakable. He'd followed the sound and found it to be issued from beneath the dead weight of two corpses, one Reb, the other Yank. When he'd managed to pull the man from beneath the bodies and looked into his gaunt face, James Butler Hickok had found himself staring at the ghost of a man he'd thought he'd left behind in Nebraska Territory. Beneath the grime and the blood and the blackness of gunpowder lay the pain and shock filled blue eyes of his best friend. An instant forgiveness and understanding had come born of two years of not knowing if the harsh words each had said to the other upon leaving Rock Creek had been the last words they would ever hear from each other. Taking Kid back to his unit's camp, Hickok had had a lieutenant doctor friend care for the Rebel captain, swearing the lieutenant to secrecy upon pain of mutilation. When he'd discovered that his own commanding officer was going to send Kid to a northern prison camp for POWs, Jimmy had snuck his friend out of the camp and both of them turned their backs upon the grievous war that had stolen years from their youth.

No one knew who moved first, even Jimmy couldn't say and he watched it all. With a sudden sob and a groan and a blur of motion, the couple had propelled themselves into each other's arms and dropped helplessly to their knees on the floor. The commotion soon had the house's other occupants awake and rushing down the stairs to see what had happened only to become embroiled in the unexpected reunion. After every hug, Kid would re-hug Lou as if to reassure himself that she wasn't going to disappear into another feverish fantasy. Jamie and Billy had crept down the stairs soundlessly and run to hide their faces in their mother's skirt.

Smiling through her tears, Lou knelt on the floor, one boy in each arm as they shyly and sleepily hid their faces from everyone. "Boys, do you know who this is?" she asked gently.

Their blue eyes met a pair of misty blue eyes and a gentle smile as the man crouched down in front of them. The whole group went quiet as they waited for the twins' response. Jamie looked at his mother, then his father, his brow furrowing as he examined the man before turning back to his mother in confusion. "That's Daddy, Mama," he whispered in answer as if his mother should know better than to ask him such stupid questions.

Billy nodded, backing up his "big brother." He risked a smile as he glanced at his father, but when Kid smiled back, he giggled and buried his head against Lou's shoulder shyly. Suddenly a thought occurred to the little boy and he tugged on the sleeve of his mother's blouse to get her attention.

"Yes, baby, that's your daddy. What do you need Billy-boy?" she asked her younger son, using the nickname Kid had given him as a baby.

"Mama," he whispered excitedly. "Daddy's candle workeded and he comed home for Ch'istmas!"

"What candle?" Kid asked curiously. He was immensely relieved and amazed to discover that his sons knew him considering that they'd only been babies when he left. But it was a bittersweet relief as he realized how much of their lives he'd missed out on. When Kid had left for Virginia, his twin sons had still been nursing and now he returned to find them walking and talking.

Teaspoon rubbed his emotional wife's back as he smiled down at the reunited family. "Lou's been puttin' a lighted candle in the parlor window every night since you left. Didn't want you gettin' lost and endin' up at the neighbors' when you finally came home," he said.

"Oh, that woulda been fine, though 'cause we're the neighbors," Buck joked, clapping Jimmy's back affectionately. He winked at Jenny. "'Course we didn't know you'd be bringin' this cuss with ya or we woulda reconsidered movin' in next door."

Jimmy harrumphed in mock offense. "Oh, a fine welcome home we get, eh, Kid? We go off to fight a little war and come back to find you married and livin' next door, not to mention Rachel and Teaspoon married and expectin' any day," Jimmy complained, gesturing towards the two couples.

Kid had to laugh at his best friend's act. "Yeah, last time we go off and leave ya'll alone--too much changes. I walked in and thought ya'll had moved while I was gone!"

Lou smacked at her husband's knee. "Don't you even think about it! We'll tie you to the bed if you ever breathe a word about leavin' town without us. Won't we boys?"

Jamie nodded decisively, crossing his arms. Billy didn't respond. He was normally Jamie's little shadow, letting the older twin take most of the initiative in their ventures. At the moment, though, he lifted his head slowly from his mother's shoulder and pulled away from her side. Seeing the action, Kid smiled warmly at his son and extended one large hand out to him. Billy stuck a thumb in his mouth uncertainly as he looked at the hand Kid held out. Watching his father's face the whole time, he very slowly and deliberately took a step closer and grasped Kid's fingers in his little hand. He grinned. "Hi, Daddy," he whispered shyly.

Daddy. He'd never imagined a single word could mean so much or sound so sweet. Kid closed his eyes briefly at the sound. "Hi, Billy-boy," he said huskily.

"Can we open presents now, Daddy?" Jamie asked impatiently.

Jeremiah laughed at his nephew from where he stood leaning against the staircase. "Trust James Noah Travis to jump right to the important stuff," he said.

The group laughed, lightening the heaviness in the room as they watched the twins each grab one of Kid's hands and drag him into the parlor to see the decorations they'd made. During the hustle and bustle of friendships being re-established and gifts exchanged, a single candle--once large, now mostly melted and congealing wax--stood in the window silently keeping watch over the proceedings.

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*Keeping Watch
by Margaret Becker, from Soul

Out over the hillside, I see the houselights shine,
Burnin' bright to guide somebody home,
Here inside my own house, I am lighting mine,
And it burns against the night for you alone.

Until these arms grow too heavy to hold this candle high,
Until these eyes grow too weary to search the midnight sky,
Until this heart has stopped its beating,
Until these dreams have all run dry,
I'll be keeping watch for you.

Friends are all around me, there's laughter in my home,
But still sometimes, I feel so far away,
And here inside of my heart I'll always be alone,
Until I finally touch your gentle face.

Until these arms grow too heavy to hold this candle high,
Until these eyes grow too weary to search the midnight sky,
Until this heart has stopped its beating,
Until these dreams have all run dry,
I'll be keeping watch for you.

Everything inside of me is missin' somethin' without you.
I don't care if it takes forever.
I'll keep waiting here for you,
Waiting here for you.
I don't care how long it takes,
I don't care how much it takes,
I'm waiting here for you.

Until these arms grow to heavy to hold this candle high,
Until these eyes grow too weary to search the midnight sky,
Until this heart has stopped its beating,
Until these dreams they've all run dry,
I'll be keeping watch for you.
I'll be keeping watch for you.

Merry Christmas, everyone!!