Epilogue:

"You sure you don't mind, Benny?" Josie asked yet again. It wasn't uncommon for her to go for a ride on her own while he minded the little ones but he was still getting settled with the new one and four, it seemed, was much different than three.

"Go," he said smiling, "You need to get away for a bit. We'll be fine. I'll manage to keep them under some kind of control without anyone burning the place down."

Josie nodded and headed toward the door. But his hand on her arm stopped her.

"You think you get away without giving me a kiss?"

She widened her smile and kissed him deeply and then the forehead of their newest addition who was snuggled in his arms.

"You know where you're riding to today?" he asked as she pulled a jacket on. She shook her head. Sometimes she had a plan and sometimes she did not. Sometimes she got home and told him all about her ride and sometimes she kept it to herself telling him only the barest of facts. She had always loved riding and this was her time. He was always happy to give it to her.

"Well, could you take Katy? I haven't ridden her in too long. I think she's feeling a little neglected."

A short while later and Josie was off, the wind almost chilly as it flapped her lone braid around. These rides were where she could contemplate things, all sorts of things. Sometimes it wasn't anymore than thinking about what to fix for supper but sometimes it was thinking through bigger things. When she had gotten word that her brother Larry had died in the war, she had needed a ride to think how she felt about that. Her father had written back, poorly, after she wrote about her wedding and Willie's birth. His words had not been kind and he had no interest in seeing his grandson. She still kept the secret of Willie's true parentage but it wasn't important. Benny was his Pa and he looked nothing like Mr. Howell. In fact, Willie was a smaller and boy version of Josie herself right down to the spray of freckles across his little nose.

When Josie's pa passed on, a rather long ride was needed. She couldn't find a kind word for him or how he treated her or her ma or really even her brothers but still it hurt to lose him. A short while after that, her remaining brothers, Clem and Zeke wrote that they wanted to come and see her. She did a lot of riding and talking to Benny before even writing back. And then while she waited for them to get there she fretted even more. It had been good though. They were different out from under her father's thumb. They no longer drank to excess and they were very sweet to her, complimenting her even and going on and on to Benny about how lucky he was to have her. She thought, although none of them or Benny himself would confirm it, that they had even told him to watch himself because if he didn't take care of her right that they'd come after him. It was really rather sweet.

Today she really didn't have those kinds of things weighing on her. She just needed to get away. Willie was five now and Melissa just turned four. Little Jed was almost two and the new one only a few months. She loved every day and every moment with them but discovered she could love them better if she occasionally got a break from them. Thankfully Benny never balked when she said she wanted to go for a ride on her own.

Today was a day to just think about everything. Everything that had happened in just a few years. It was hard to think how little time had passed and so much had changed. As she rode she saw some flowers newly blooming and stopped to pick some and then she knew where she had to ride to.

Pulling up on the reins, Josie hopped down from Katy's back and walked to the marker. It wasn't alone there but it was the only one that mattered at that point. Bending she laid the flowers gently at the base of the wooden cross that read simply 'Louise McCloud'. Then she looked around. No one was near and she knew no one would be. She sat down next to the grave and took a deep breath.

"It's been a real long time, Lou," she said softly less to the grave than the spirit of the woman whose body rested there. "I thought lots of times about coming here but frankly I was still a little scared of you. I know that's silly but I been called worse than that. I guess since our little Louise was born I felt I needed to. Yeah, that's the new one. We didn't even think about it, it just was the right name for her. Louise Emma. I never met Emma but the way Benny talks about her, well, she must be awful special."

Josie looked up to the sun which was warm on her skin when the wind eased up enough to feel it.

"I wanted to talk to you. I mean, I guess it ain't the same now you can't say nothing back. I am sorry for lots of things. I didn't know no different. That ain't much of an excuse but it's all I got and it is true. Thought you'd want to know how everyone's doing though. I know you loved 'em all. I try to look after 'em maybe like you would've. I love 'em all too. Anyway, me and Benny are doing just fine. He works hard but then I guess we both do. Lord knows there's enough work to keep us busy from morning to night. And then there's the young 'uns. We named the one I was expecting William. We call him Willie but I think at school he's taken to having his friends call by his middle name, Cody. Said some of the kids made fun of Willie Wiltshire…we probably should've thought that out better. Told him either way his Uncle Bill would be proud. Melissa came next and she looks just like Benny. She's turning into such a little lady too. Likes to bake and wants me to teach her to sew even though her little fingers can barely handle the needle yet. Jed came along a couple years ago. If you shrunk Benny down you'd have Jed…follows his pa everywhere too. And then just a couple months ago our little Louise joined us. She's beautiful and she's got a temper too. Benny says she reminds him of you. Maybe it's in the name."

Josie took a breath and a drink from the canteen she'd brought.

"Guess you'd want to know about the rest of the boys too. Well before I tell you all that, I should tell you about Teaspoon. He up and proposed to Rachel one day. It was a while past when we got married and they'd moved on to Rock Creek. Oh, I should tell you…I can't believe this wasn't the first thing I told you. Right after Willie was born, Teaspoon took Rachel to the orphanage to see about your brother and sister. Well, they wanted to get them out but wasn't sure they could. Turns out they could as long as Rachel agreed to raise 'em and Teaspoon agreed to sort of see to them too. So when he did propose and she said yes…well, I guess Jeremiah and Theresa got a ma and pa now. I know it ain't how you planned it but they're happy and being raised right and good.

"Um…Jimmy never made the move to Rock Creek with the others. He left. Said he'd met some woman on a run once and knew in his heart he loved her. Said he thought he was doing right when he left Alice but after everything that happened with us and Bill and then what happened to you, he knew it wasn't right at all. If he loved her he needed to tell her and it needed to be her choice. So he went to live with them Peacemaker people for a while. I guess they eventually decided that they didn't need to live there to have those things in their hearts so they came and bought the place next to me and Benny. They got a passel of girls. Go ahead and laugh because it's kind of funny watching Jimmy Hickok in the middle of all those skirts and braids. I think Alice feels bad she ain't had a son yet but honestly, I don't think he'd trade a one of his girls for nothing. No one ever talks about Wild Bill anymore. He's just Jimmy. He's a farmer and he's got a wife and some kids. That's all. It's nice.

"Noah, Bill, Ike and Buck all went when the company relocated them to Rock Creek. It turned out a good place for them all. Noah met this real nice girl named Cassie. She was free and raising her little brother. Oh it was something close to love at first sight for those two. I tell you, I don't know how one ever existed without the other. They spent a lot of time getting people to freedom. Probably made more risky choices than you ever did but somehow they came through it alright. Just heard she's expecting now. Noah must be proud. Guess he wasn't born to hang after all. Or maybe we can change things like that. I don't know."

Josie took another drink. She was talking more today than she did most and that was saying something with four children to keep tabs on.

"Ike fell for this girl name of Emily. Her pa was in real trouble when they met and he got killed…her pa, I mean. She was all set to go after the man what done it but Ike stopped her. He made her see that what they had was too special to risk. I know it was hard for her because the law couldn't get nothing on the killer. She had to let it go but he was right. Love's pretty special. I've seen 'em together and if anything had happened to her, he might've just laid right down and died. They got a couple little ones too. He and Buck started themselves a horse ranch when the Pony Express ended. You know the telegraph lines and all. Buck seemed lost for a while. It was so hard for him to see almost all his brothers finding love and families and he didn't have those things. Broke my heart too.

"Anyway, he met this girl name of Esmeralda. I think she used to dance in a saloon. But you wouldn't know that unless someone told you. She's just sweet as pie. Her ma was Mexican so she don't care none about his skin so long as he don't care about hers. You should see their babies, Lou. They are the cutest with their black hair and dark eyes. He's so happy.

"Then there's Bill. He was in the Army for a while and we worried something fierce for him but he came out safe. Then he got the idea to start up a show. Calls it a Wild West Show. Lets people see what the west is like. He's got Indians and sharpshooters and trick riders. He's said more'n once he wishes you was still around so that you could come work for him, says you'd be the best rider next to Liza. Oh yeah, Liza. She's pretty and wild and he loves her like he ain't never loved no one or nothing before in his life. She loves him too, I can tell. He once told me he was worried for all the attention she gets and I told him not to fret none. Liza'd die before she ever looked at another man like she looks at Bill. He keeps trying to marry her but she says no. I worry a bit about that. He says it's alright and you can't expect to rope the wild wind or some such thing…you know how he is. But I wish he could have a wife and some little ones. You should see how he spoils his nieces and nephews. It's like he was made to be a pa and it ain't likely to happen as long as Liza puts off taking his ring. I think he's mostly happy though."

Josie stood and dusted off her behind.

"I should get heading back. Benny ain't used to all four to once yet and if Louise starts crying he ain't going to know what to do what with the others always needing something too. 'Sides I need to start getting some supper ready for that bunch."

Mounting up, Josie took one last look at the grave and knew she'd have to ride back more often. There was so much to tell. Maybe she'd bring the children out too. They needed to understand more of who their Aunt Lou was, the wonderful and strong woman she was.

Arriving home, she first saw to Katy and then headed into the wonderful chaos of their home. Benny had actually gotten Louise down for her nap and gotten Willie and Melissa to entertain Jed long enough to start supper to cook. When Josie walked in he went to her and wrapped her in his arms twirling her around and dancing to a tune only they heard. Soon the three oldest of their children were dancing around them and laughing.

They didn't know it yet but in time a letter would reach them. A letter that would set to rights something that had nagged at them a while.

"Dear Kid and Josie,

Oh, the news I have for you two. You'd better sit down for this—especially you, Kid. You're like a little old lady clutching at your pearls sometimes. I know I said that even I couldn't rope the wild wind that is my Liza. I honestly believed it too. I really thought I'd never get her to the altar but things have been shifting a while now and then just the other day she told me she's expecting. She ain't far gone or nothing but she can't work no more. I mean I know it don't matter. Even if her pa wasn't rich, I'd take care of her. But the point really is her pa. He's coming. I ask her nearly every day and I think if I don't get her to say yes by the time he gets here, there's going to be another shotgun in my future. Just wondering whose back it'll be in. I'll keep you posted.

All my love to the both of you and that rabble you call your children.

Wm. F. Cody."

The End…?


So this is really the end of this story. I think now you understand about a possible sequel. Myrtle has been contemplating Cody and Liza for a little while now. I will soon be writing a story about how Buck met Esmeralda.

I apologize for the tone of the last few author's notes. This story has done a number on me. It has taken over nearly every facet of my life and has gotten more personal than I ever intended it to. There is more of me in this story than I ever have allowed before. It is a vulnerable feeling and I think left me more prone to defensiveness than usual. If you are wondering, I have deleted all the reviews I felt were unfair and/or left me no recourse. As I have said before I welcome the chance to discuss this or any other story I am writing. It makes me better and that is important to me. But to just call me cruel or even take anger out on poor Willie without allowing any response...that's just not right.

Nanowrimo started and some of you know what that means and some don't...I should be writing a new story now. I won't be. I know I can be a very prolific writer so I'm not entirely fretting it but I won't be writing at all for a little while. I know there might still be some out there who think I write things like this cackling madly at the carnage...I do not. I cry through my stories, yell at the characters, second guess and rethink and then cry some more. This story took more from me than any other I have written and I just can't. Writing used to be fun and right now it is not. It is a chore for which I will be chastised and I need a break.

I don't know how long the break will be. I guess until my muse and I can handle being in the same room together. In the meantime, those who think I am the devil incarnate are welcome to peruse my earlier writings and send me ugly anonymous reviews about how terrible my character development was then. Really...oh yeah and the stilted dialogue of my stories when I still wrote Criminal Minds. I'll even agree with you. Maybe you'd like to analyze every death I have written and see how often I am just mean. Like I said, I need a break. And I deleted the mean reviews that were just mean for the sake of it...if your review is sitting there, you did not offend me, nor were you just mean for the sake of it. We don't have to agree on every stinking thing or anything like that.

And with that, I shall leave. I would love to say that this vacation from writing might include a sunny beach and a hunky cabana boy bringing me fruity alcoholic beverages. But alas it does not. Though I might read a book...or watch a chick flick...or give myself a mani/pedi. Things I don't often do. Until we meet again, dear readers, Ride Safe!-J

PS I would be horribly remiss if I did not thank Myrtle. She keeps me as sane as I get and keeps me honest when I sometimes want to take the easy way out. Myrtle, my dear, you are a precious jewel of a friend. Somehow you always just know when I need to hear that I am still shiny and good and stuff. Everything I write is better because of you...and usually my days are too. And to the women at the plus...you are some of the most amazing women I know. Thank you all for the strength you lend me. Okay...time to read or sleep or something good for me.