Sunday, July 29, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 14

Chapter 14
A pair of torn and much mended trousers, a worn and ragged graying calico dress and two large men’s shirts in equally poor condition lay spead out on the bunkhouse table.  A lone figure stood staring down at them for long moments without moving, eyes flicking from one item to the next.
Lou shifted her weight from one foot to the other, sighing discontentedly as she ran a hand through her already disheveled short hair.  She turned her back on the displeasing sight of the clothing before her and paced across the room to peer out the window, watching Jimmy and Buck loading blankets and food delivered by the others into the back of the buckboard.  The rest of their family scurried back and forth from the house to the buckboard, arms loaded with supplies for their picnic.
Even as she watched, Kid turned and took a picnic basket from a smiling Lydia, laughing at something she said.  Lou spun away from the aggravating sight, trying to push down the spurt of jealousy that came surging to the surface.  Kid said they were just friends.  She had to trust him if they had any chance of making things work.
But even with her back turned to the window, she couldn’t get the sight of the other woman’s summer frock out of her mind.  It was so pretty and feminine.  And new.  The rose colored dress sported two rows of ruffles along the boatneck neckline, hanging over Lydia’s shoulders while leaving her arms bare to the summer prairie breezes.  It showed off the other woman’s figure to perfection.
It was about as unlike the oversized yellow dress Lou had had to borrow from her taller sister to wear to church that morning, as Lou was from its wearer.
Lou had been dismayed when Polly had cut breakfast short that morning with the announcement it was time to get ready for Sunday services.  With all the moving around they’d been doing trying to evade the notice of Lampton’s gang she’d lost track of the days.  Most of her clothes had been left behind when they’d run for it and she’d had nothing except the dirty dress she’d worn on the day she’d arrived in Rock Creek and her boy’s disguise, forcing her to borrow Teresa’s single extra dress.
Sighing again, Lou returned to her perusal of the clothing options available for their afternoon outing.  It had been so long since she’d thought about, worried about what she wore, that it felt odd, but she found herself wanting to look pretty for her husband.  Or maybe it was simply that she wanted him to see that she could clean up as nicely as Lydia did, seeing as how he couldn’t remember her.
“You about ready, honey child?”
Lou didn’t respond, simply reaching out to finger the worn calico of her single dress, which Kid had already seen her in.
She finally raised her chin to meet Polly Hunter’s searching gaze.  Tears dripped from one corner of her eyes.
“Lou, what’s wrong?”
“I ain’t got nothin’ ta wear,” Lou practically wailed.
“What are ya talkin’ ‘bout honey?” Polly asked, moving to the younger woman’s side and wrapping one arm around her shoulder.  Lou waved her hand disconsolately at the clothing laid out in front of her.
“How am I s’posed ta court my husband when all I kin show him is a boy and a beggar woman?” she muttered.
Polly laughed quietly.  “First off, I don’t think you really need ta worry about catchin’ yer husband’s eye. It’s already well and truly caught.”  She paused and held up a hand as Lou opened her mouth to respond.  “But, if you truly want ta dress up fer him, you do have some options.”
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Lou asked, confused.  “Not even you or Rachel could whip up a dress for me before we leave on this picnic.”  Then added in an undertone, “And somehow, even if she could, I doubt Lydia would offer.”
Polly just laughed again, even as she began pulling Lou toward the bunkhouse’s back door.  “Come on,” she smiled.  “I’ve got somethin’ ta show you.”
“What is this?” Lou asked, as Polly pulled an old trunk out of a corner of the attic and knelt down in front of it.
“Your dresses.”  Polly carefully unlatched the trunk and opened the lid.  She reached inside to pull out a brown, tailored jacket, followed by a split riding skirt in a slightly darker shade of brown, a series of blouses in a variety of colors and laid them out before Lou’s astonished gaze.
“Where?  How?”
“Teaspoon,” Polly smiled.  “He always knew you’d be back and figured you might want yer things when ya got here.  Your wedding dress is even up here somewhere.”
Lou picked up the skirt and held it in front of her.  “But, will they fit?” she murmured.  “It’s been so long.  And I’ve had a baby in the meantime.”
Polly laughed.  “You may be a bit curvier, darlin’, but I don’t think you’ve got much to worry about.  Now, hurry up and get dressed.  Everyone else is chompin’ at the bit ta get goin’.”
Without another word, she left Lou alone in the attic.
“Where is she?” Lu asked anxiously as he saw Polly coming out the front door of the house.  “Is she ready to go?”
Polly smiled, amused at the man’s obvious anxiousness.  “She’ll be right down.”  Turning to the two children sitting on the porch swing, she held out her hand.  “Why don’t you two come with me.  We’ll get you all mounted up, so as soon as Miss Louise gets down here we can all be on our way.”
The children clambered down off the swing and swarmed around Polly.
“Can I ride my own horse?” Mary Kate asked excitedly.
“I’d rather ride with Mr. Hickok,” Carl said.  “He’s fun!”
Lu resumed his pacing up and down the porch.  He didn’t understand what had happened.  Things had seemed to be going well, until they’d all started getting ready for church.  Then she’d suddenly withdrawn, gone into hiding.  He was almost afraid she’d decide not to go on the picnic, the way she’d been hiding in first the bunkhouse then the house ever since they’d gotten back from services.
“Um hm,” Lou cleared her throat to get his attention.  “I’m… uh… ready.”
Lu froze in his tracks for a moment, then turned on his heel to look at his wife.  She ducked her chin shyly, smiling up at him the entire time.
“You look…. “
“Yes?” she encouraged.
“Beautiful.”  He couldn’t believe his eyes.  The woman he’d seen as an exhausted mother, unnaturally thin from her travails, her troubles written in her slumped shoulders and drooping eyes was transformed into the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  She’d changed into a dark brown split skirt and a white blouse with large, puffed sleeves and a plunging neckline.  The outfit was a tad tight across her hips and bust, but the snug fit only enhanced her winsome curves.
Lou relaxed as she saw a belovedly familiar flummoxed expression take over Kid’s face.  This was a Kid she knew how to handle, the one who didn’t know how to react to her transformation into a woman.
“I thought Teresa said you didn’t have anything to wear…” Kid paused a moment, shaking his head as he rethought what he was saying.  “You know what I mean.”
Lou laughed.  “I didn’t bring anything with me.  But, apparently Teaspoon kept some of my old things after I left.”  She tugged ineffectually at the too tight blouse to demonstrate her next comment.  “They don’t fit as well as they used to, but better than Teresa’s clothes fit me.”
Kid walked up to her and reached out to take her hand in his.  Enveloping it between his two palms, he said, “I think they fit just fine.”
Lou blushed, averting her gaze from his.  He took the hand he’d captured and drew it through his arm, patting the back of it as he rested it on his forearm.
“Shall we go, ma’am?”
“Well, I don’t know, sir,” she said playfully, batting her eyelashes up at him.  “My mama told me never to ride off with strangers.”
“Then I guess it’s a good thing we have so many chaperones,” he teased.
“I haven’t been on a picnic in years,” Lydia sighed, lifting her face to enjoy the fresh breeze rustling through the tree leaves shading them from the sun.  “And this is such a perfect spot.  How’d you all find it?”
“You can blame the Kid fer that,” Jimmy smiled.  “He was always off looking fer places ta spend time alone thinkin’, or with Lou.  Or thinkin’ ‘bout bein’ alone with Lou.”
Lydia laughed.  “I was a lot like that when Carl and I were courting.  When we weren’t sneaking off together I was dreaming about sneaking off with him.”
“Hey, the kids are having fun playing tag with Teaspoon and Buck, what say we sneak off a bit ourselves,” Jimmy suddenly suggested, a devilish light entering his eyes.  “There’s a pretty little cave the other side of the waterin’ hole I’d love ta show you.”
“Why sir,” Lydia teased, bringing a hand dramatically to her breast.  “Are you trying to corrupt my morals?”
“Only if they’re corruptible,” Jimmy grinned playfully, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet.  “Come on!”
The two began to walk around the edge of the clearing, staying in the shadows cast by the trees surrounding the swimming hole.  Heads together they chattered like little children the entire time.
“Wonder what those two are up to,” Rachel asked as she watched them disappear.
“I don’t know,” Polly said, following the direction of Rachel’s gaze.  “But I think she’s good for him.  I haven’t seen Jimmy this relaxed and playful since before… well, since before the war.”
“This was a grand idea, Polly darlin’,” Teaspoon sighed, walking over to collapse on the picnic blanket, next to the two women, with an overly dramatic sigh.  “But I swear those young’uns are ‘bout ta wear me out.”
“Well, no one told you to run around like a 10 year old playin’ tag with them,” Polly admonished, handing her husband a glass of lemonade.
He tilted the glass to his lips and drained it in one long swallow.  “Ahhh,” he groaned.  “Now that hits the spot.”  Handing the glass back to Polly, he added.  “And I wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout them young’uns.”
Teaspoon indicated Lou, seated on a second blanket halfway around the pond from them, looking up at Kid who was leaning against a tree, whittling away at a piece of wood he’d found.
“I was speakin’ ‘bout them two.”
“Now, Teaspoon, you leave those two alone,” Polly admonished.  “You’ve done your part, now let them work things out for themselves.”
“You know you can’t push either one of them too hard or too fast,” Rachel added.  “They’ll just dig in their heels and start heading the other direction.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Teaspoon smiled at the two women.
“What are you whittlin’?” Lou asked curiously.  “I’ve never seen you carve nothin’ before.”
Lu shrugged, continuing to move the small knife in his hands smoothly along the planes of the wood, as the object began to take shape in his hands.  “It’s a toy.  For Mary Kate.”  He paused to look at Lou.  “I really never whittled before?”
Lou shook her head.  “Not that I ever saw. It’s possible you knew how and just didn’t.”
“Hunh,” he grunted.  “What was I like?”
Lou laughed.  “Are you sure you really want to know?”
He looked at her over his nose with a disbelieving stare for a moment, then slid to sit with his back still against the tree.  Nodding his head, he said, “You have no idea how much I want to know.  There’s nothin’ I’ve wanted more in the last 9 years than ta know who I am, where I came from.”
Lou could hear the terrible longing in his voice and nodded.  “I s’pose I can understand that,” she said.  She sat, thinking for a moment.  “When we met you were the most stubborn, self-righteous man I’d ever met.”  She laughed before adding, “Well, really still more a boy than a man, but almost there.  You practically gave away my secret the first day you found out.”
“Why?” he asked, genuinely unable to understand.
“You didn’t think a woman should put herself in that kind of danger,” Lou answered.  She smiled at him.  “You always were a bit over-protective of me, wantin’ ta keep me safe, even from imagined dangers, or myself.”
“You’re right,” he mused.  “I was a boy, then.”
Lou cocked her head as she pondered that statement.  Finally, unable to figure it out, she asked, “What do you mean?”
He set the knife and wood down next to him and looked her directly in the eyes.  “Durin’ the war, I saw a lot of things.  Things I don’t ever want ta even think ‘bout again.  But one thing I learned was… women are strong.  They can, and do, do whatever they need to ta survive”  His serious tone turned slightly lighthearted as a smile flitted across his somber face for split second.  “And there ain’t nothin’ so dangerous as a mother protectin’ her children.”
“Hey, you two,” Buck interrupted them.  “Whatcha so serious ‘bout?”
“Nothin’,” Lu muttered, picking up the toy he’d been carving and keeping his eyes glued to his hands as he peeled long shavings of wood away.
Buck grunted.  Right, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife and there was nothing going on.  He plopped down on the blanket next to Lou, stretching out his full body length along the ground, groaning in relief.
“What’s the matter, Buck,” Lou teased him.  “Too old ta keep up with a couple of children?  Teaspoon I get,” she added, nodding toward where Teaspoon was obviously settling in for an afternoon nap, hat pulled down over his eyes.  “But I figured you had more stamina in you.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the physical he can’t handle,” Teresa smiled, walking up to the group.  “It’s the non-stop chatter.  Even I get exhausted by it and I’m used to her.”
“Where’d she get that anyway?” Buck asked, opening his eyes to look from Lou to Kid and back.  “Not like either one of you was ever a chatterbox.  I swear, she may look like you, Kid, but she sounds like Cody!”
“Well, here they come,” Teresa said matter of factly.  “And it’s your turn to entertain them.”
“Pa, Pa!” came the twin calls from Carl and Mary Kate.
“Pa, can we go fishin’ now?” Carl asked.
“Pa, will ya make me a fishin’ rod like ya made Carl?” begged Mary Kate.
Lu laughed at their exuberance.  He handed the half-carved toy he’d been working on to Lou and brushed his hands off on his pants.  “Well let’s see now….” he pondered for a moment, looking around the clearing.  “I don’t rightly see the proper type of wood for a fishin’ pole.  How ‘bout I teach you two to noodle?”
He stood up and began striding toward the inviting waters of the pond, the two children chasing after him.
“What’s noodlin’?” the girl asked curiously.
“Does this mean we get ta get in the water?” the boy added excitedly.
Kid looked down at the children, one on each side of him and smiled.  “Sure does.”  His grin broadened.  “But you’ll have ta be real quiet if ya want ta catch anythin’.”
“Here,” Lou laughed, handing Kid a towel to dry off.  “I can’t believe you got those two to be so quiet for so long!”
“It’s all in giving them a reason to hush up,” he smiled, taking the towel.  But, before beginning to use it, he grinned mischievously and began to whip his head back and forth, sprinkling Lou with water droplets.
“Stop that!” she laughed.  “Yer gonna ruin  my dress.”
“Good, then maybe ye’ll take it off,” he winked at her as he brought the rough material up to dry his face off and then began toweling his hair dry.  Lou gaped at him in astonishment.  Her Kid had loved to tease her, but he’d never flirted this openly with her before.  She blushed.
“Hush,” she hissed at him sternly, even as a grin flirted with the corners of her mouth.  “Little pitchers have big ears.”
Kid just grinned at her.  “Hard ta listen in when yer busy talkin’,” he said.  With a nod in the direction of the buckboard, where Mary Kate and Carl were animatedly describing their fishing expedition to Teaspoon, he added, “They’re gonna sleep well tonight.”
“Where’d you learn that, anyway?” Lou asked curiously.  “You never used ta like fishing.  Said it reminded you too much of yer Pa and brother.  Wouldn’t even eat fish when one of us caught some fer Rachel ta cook up.”
“Really?” Kid looked at her, startled.  “I love fish.  ‘Specially hand caught catfish, fried up in cornmeal with fresh, bakin’ powder biscuits.  It’s one of my favorites.  Has been fer as long as I can remember.”
Lou gaped at him, mouth hanging open.
“That’s… that’s the only thing I knew how ta cook without burning,” she whispered, eyes wide.
He reached out a hand to trace the edge of her cheek comfortingly.  Then continued.  “As for noodlin’?  Carl taught me how durin’ the war.  Apparently it’s an old Cathers tradition going back ta before the Revolution.  Sure saved us from some hungry nights, lemme tell you.  I taught Carl, Jr, just as soon as he was old enough ta understand staying quiet.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like,” Lou said sadly.
“I don’t like to remember it much,” Kid said.  “It was an awful time.  And I never shoulda been there.  But I figured that out too late.  Now, I just try ta move on with my life, not dwell too much on the past.  There’s much more appealin’ things ta dwell on…. like the taste of yer lips.”
Without any warning, he swooped down and captured her mouth in a tender kiss, the only part of him touching her was his lips.  They moved across hers in a determined search for….something.  Lou didn’t know what, but she knew what she wanted and reached out to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, sliding her fingers into the soft, curly hair at the nape of his neck.
“Hey, you two comin’?” Jimmy yelled from atop his horse, Carl seated securely in front of him.
Lou and Lu broke apart almost guiltily.
“Hold that thought,” Lu whispered to her, smiling down at his blushing wife.  Grabbing her hand, he turned and began walking toward their waiting family.
“I still remember the first time I cooked up a mess of catfish for Lu,” Lydia smiled, laying a hand familiarly on Kid’s arm.  “I’d baked it, just like my Ma taught me when I was little.  He was aghast!  Refused to eat it.  Said I’d ruined a perfectly good fish.  From then on he insisted on cooking anytime he’d gone fishing.”
Everyone at the table laughed as Lu ducked his head, blushing. 
“It didn’t taste right,” he muttered.
Lydia pushed at his shoulder playfully.  “Fish is the only thing I ever cooked Lu here didn’t care for.  Got to the point where I just plain stopped offering.  Thought I was losing my touch in the kitchen or something.”
“Never that,” Lu smiled, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and hugging her tight to his side.  “You know you’re the best cook this side of the Mississippi.”
“Now wait a minute!” an outraged, yet still smiling, Rachel exclaimed.
Lu held up both hands in a peace gesture.  “Now Rachel, you’re retired from cookin’ fer others regular like.  Said so yerself.”
“That’s the truth,” she smiled, settling down.  “And don’t you forget it.”
“Excuse me,” Lou said unsmilingly, plopping her napkin down on the table with a little too much force.  Without another word, she scrambled up from her place on the bench and headed out the door, letting it slam behind her.
“What?” Lu asked, confused, starting to stand to follow her out but stopping at the feel of a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back into his seat.  Looking up, he met Jimmy’s gaze.
“Lemme,” Jimmy said.  “I think I know what’s goin’ on.”
“You’re doin’ it again.”
“What?” she answered roughly, her hands busily swiping along the back of her horse with the curry comb.
“Actin’ like a spoiled child and a jealous fishwife, all at once,” Jimmy smiled, walking up next to her and grabbing the curry comb out of her hand the next time it came near him.
“Give that back!”
“Not until you’re payin’ attention ta what I’ve got ta say.”
“What are you goin’ ta tell me?  That she’s the better woman fer him?  She’s sweet, she’s friendly, she’s a good Ma, she’s a great cook, she knows him in ways I’ll never be able to.  You think I don’t know all that?”  The tirade that had begun so heatedly ended on a quiet, dispirited half-sob.
“No,” he said softly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.  “That he’s head over heels in love with you and doesn’t have eyes for anyone else.”
“Yeah, right,” she muttered, jerking away from him to walk over to the other side of the stall and begin pulling off a flake of hay to put in the horse’s feed bin.  “That’s why he was all over her tonight.  ‘Cause he’s in love with me.”
Jimmy laughed at her.  She turned to glare at him, eyes narrowed so tightly in anger they almost looked shut.  “What?”
He stepped up to her and grabbed both her hands in his gloved ones to hold her still and make sure she was paying attention to him.
“You weren’t listenin’ ta a word he said, were ya?”
“What are you blatherin’ on about?” she nearly growled, pulling at her hands trying in vain to free herself.
“Oh no, yer not runnin’ away from this conversation Louise McCloud,” he said sternly.  “He spent the entire night, and so did she, pointing out that even though he loves her cooking he can’t stand the way she makes the one thing you know how to cook perfectly.  Even Rachel always wanted you ta cook up the catfish.”
Lou cocked her head, considering Jimmy’s words as she thought back through the events at supper.
“Do you remember how jealous Kid got over you and me bein’ friends?” Jimmy asked, interrupting her flow of thoughts.  “He started actin’ all stupid, comin’ after me an’ everything.  It almost spelled the end fer you two.”
Lou nodded.  “Yeah, he did act a little stupid, didn’t he?”
“That’s puttin’ it mildly,” Jimmy smiled.  “But it was because he was so desperately in love with  you and couldn’t imagine you havin’ a guy like me fer a best friend.”
Lou shrugged.  “He got used to it.”
“And now yer gonna have ta get used to it.”
“What?”  She looked up at him in obvious confusion.
“She’s his best friend.  Heck, she’s been his only friend fer years now.  Maybe someday he’ll remember the rest of us,” Jimmy shrugged.  “Maybe he won’t.  But she’ll always be extra special to him.  And yer gonna have ta get used ta that.  Doesn’t mean it’s anythin’ more.”
“But, they was gonna get married,” she protested.
Jimmy shrugged.  “And what did he tell you about that?”
Lou’s shoulders sagged as she whispered, “That it was fer the boy and the trip.”
“Somethin’ a good friend might do fer ya, if he didn’t have anyone else in his life?  Somethin’ I might do fer you?”
Lou nodded.
“Louise?  You in here?”
Lou looked up at the sound of Kid’s voice coming from the barn door.
“I think you ought to talk to him,” Jimmy said.  “Apologize.”
Without another word, he walked out of the stall and toward the barn door.  He said something she couldn’t hear to Kid as he passed him, heading out into the night.  Kid nodded and began moving toward Lou.  She just watched him approach, frozen in place.
“You alright?” he asked.
She nodded jerkily.
“You seemed sorta upset at supper.”
She opened her mouth to say something, closed it, opened it again and finally blurted out, “I was jealous.”
“Of who?  Lydia?”
She nodded mutely.  He reached out and dragged her into his arms.  “Ain’t nothin’ ta be jealous of,” he whispered in her ear.  “I ain’t never felt like this about her.  ‘Specially ain’t never wanted ta do nothin’ like this with her.”
Suddenly, he was no longer talking, but sprinkling kisses up and down her neck and across her jawline until he reached her lips.  She eagerly responded, wrapping her arms around his waist and holding on tight as they both tried to devour the other with a frantic energy born of renewed passion and fear of loss.
Wrapped up in each other, they stumbled across the stall until Kid’s back slammed into the wooden wall.  Never letting go of her lips or her body, he slid down the wall until he was sitting in a pile of straw and dragged her into his lap.  She left one hand wrapped around his waist, tugging at his shirt until it came free of his waistband, even as she began searching for the buttons of his shirtfront with the other hand.
Feeling the skin of her palm caressing his suddenly bared back, Lu reared back in surprise.  Looking down into her passion hooded eyes, he said hoarsely, “We should go back to the bunkhouse.”
“I ain’t in the mood fer company,” she murmured, reaching her free hand up to caress his face.  “I want ta spend time with you.”
“This is movin’ too fast,” he mumbled, trying to pull his gaping shirt closed with one hand while reaching behind him to snatch her other hand and stop its disturbing wanderings across his back.
“How?” she asked, beginning to kiss at his neck and ear and any other part of him she could reach.  “We’re already married.  With a child.”  She plastered her mouth over his to deliver a deep, probing kiss that had him gasping for breath along with whatever tiny portion of control he still had left.
“We just met,” he muttered, trying to push her away.
“Our tenth anniversary is next month,” she responded, suddenly stilling in his lap and staring deep into his eyes.  “I’d like to celebrate with my husband for a change.”  She paused for a long moment.  “Make love to me, Kid,” she whispered.
He groaned, no longer able to resist the open invitation in her large brown eyes.  Wrapping his arms around her, he fell back into the hay, pulling her down with him in a tangle of body parts, hands caressing, fingers searching, lips tasting.

Friday, July 27, 2012

You Were Always There, Chapter 18 & Epilogue

Chapter 18
Ike laughed at Lou’s joke, looking around at the animals milling about.  *I don’t know,* he signed.  *Seems kind of appropriate to have Samson here with us, even if he isn’t the original.*
Lou joined his laughter as she pushed herself to her feet.  She sobered when she saw him staying down on the ground.  Tilting her head to one side she questioned him without words.
*I think I need some help getting up,* he signed, smiling at her.  *I may have overdone things a bit.*
“Oh!” she gasped, rushing to his side and pulling him to his feet, putting her shoulder under one arm to help him walk back to the house.  “You shouldn’t be out of bed!”
Ike looked down at her, eyebrow raised in disbelief as she started to scold him, and she had the grace to blush prettily and shut-up. 
“Sorry,” she muttered.
Soon, she was tucking him back into bed.  He sighed with relief, his eyes starting to drift closed.  Lou reached out to gently run one hand down the side of his beloved face.  He reached up to grab her hand and kiss it, before jerking heartily on it so she tumbled into the bed next to him.
*Much better,* he signed with a smile, his eyes still closed.  Lou laughed, laying her head down on the pillow next to his, enjoying listening to the sound of his quiet breathing as it slowed into sleep, one hand pressed gently to his chest, carefully held clear of his injury.
“Does this mean Ike’s gonna be alright?”
“’Going to’ not ‘gonna’.”
Lou surfaced from her exhausted slumber slowly, opening her eyes to see Jeremiah and Teresa peering down at her and Ike in the bed.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Resi smiled.
“Please tell me this doesn’t mean more mushy stuff,” Jeremiah begged, not even trying to hide the broad grin plastered across his face. 
Lou blushed.  Scrambling out of bed she hurried over to check on a still sleeping JK.  Assured he was alright, she grabbed her apron and headed toward the door without looking back.  “I need to get supper going.”
For the first time in a week, Ike got out of bed, despite Lou’s protests, and joined the family at the dinner table.  He didn’t eat much, but it felt good to have him back.
“Now, don’t overtire yourself,” Lou said for the dozenth time, hovering over him worriedly.
*I’m fine,* Ike said, smiling at Lou’s antics.  *Stop worrying,  Sit down and eat this delicious meal you’ve provided.*
“That just goes to show how far from fine you are,” Lou harrumphed as she took her seat at his side.  “Talking about my ‘delicious’ cookin’.”
“It’s gotten a lot better,” Jeremiah encouraged.
“Yeah, you barely burn anything anymore, Lou,” Teresa added helpfully.
“Oh, you two are a laugh a minute,” Lou smiled, balling her napkin up and tossing it at her brother and sister across the table.
Dinner proceeded in the same lighthearted vein, everyone happy to see things getting back to normal.  But Lou kept a close eye on Ike the entire time and could see he was rapidly flagging.
“Alright,” she finally said, “back to bed with you, before you collapse.”
*Wait,* Ike smiled tiredly.  *One more thing, then I’ll go like a good little boy.*
“I’d like to see that,” Lou snorted.
Ike mock glared at her.
“Fine, fine,” she held up her hands in surrender.  “What is it?”
Ike turned to Jeremiah.  *Jeremiah, can you go get my saddlebags?*
“Sure, Ike,” the earliteen said, jumping up eagerly from the table.  He returned a moment later with Ike’s saddlebags draped across his shoulder.  Handing them over he said, “Here you go, Ike.”
Lou watched curiously as Ike opened one compartment and began to dig through it, eventually pulling out a small blue bag.  Her eyes widened as Ike turned back to her.
*You agreed to marry me, for real, today,* he began, then paused as Teresa squealed in joy and even Jeremiah let out a shout of excitement at the news.  *I remember a conversation we had once, and a ring you gave me.  Both our thoughts were on other people then.  Things have changed.*
Lou blushed and looked away.  That had been a long time ago, what seemed like another lifetime.  Ike waited patiently until she turned back to him.  Reaching out, he captured her left hand in his.  Pulling it up to his mouth he kissed it gently before placing the small, silky bag in her palm.
*This ring is mine, and mine alone.  Meant for you only.  I hope you’ll wear it to remember the promises we’ve made.*
Lou sat staring down at the bag, afraid to open it, tears coursing down her face.  Its very existence was proof of the hopes and dreams Ike had held.  The most recent time he could have gotten it was at Fort Bridger, before JK was born.  But she hadn’t seen anything like it the last time she’d been there.  It looked suspiciously like the packaging from a popular jewelry store in St. Joe that she and Kid had looked at once while window shopping.
“Go on, Lou, open it!” Teresa encouraged.
“Let me savor the moment, will you, Resi” Lou smiled over at her little sister, then at Ike.  “This is a moment that doesn’t exactly come more than once or twice in a girl’s life.”
“I don’t get it,” Jeremiah complained.  “You’re already married, what’s the big deal?”
*You’ll understand someday,* Ike said.  *When you find the right woman for you.*
While they were talking, Lou slowly opened the drawstring on the pouch and upended it, dumping the ring out onto her opened palm.
“Oh, Ike,” she exclaimed.  “It’s beautiful!”
Ike reached out to take her left hand in his and, confiscating the gold filigreed band topped with four rubies in a diamond shape surrounded by several smaller emeralds, he slowly slipped the ring onto her third finger.  Smiling down at her, he leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.
The next week passed quickly as they all worked to help Ike recover from his wound.  Soon, though he still tired easily, he was back in the barn doing daily chores with Lou and the children.  It was a quiet, peaceful time for them.
At night, after the children had gone to bed, Lou would cuddle up to Ike’s side, held tightly to him by the arm he’d wrapped around her, his other kept free to move, her head resting on his shoulder, and they’d talk, about anything and everything.
But Ike would never touch her more than that daily embrace or a simple kiss here or there.  He was openly affectionate with her, but never let things develop into more.  Lou was starting to get frustrated and decided to take things into her own hands.
One morning, after chores were done and the children off to school, she followed Ike back to the house.  Closing the door gently behind her, she walked up to Ike and began to cuddle him from behind, running her hands across his shoulders, kissing his neck.
Ike stepped away from her and turned around.  With a soft smile, he signed a simple *No.*
Lou looked at him, mouth agape.  “What?!”
Lou clenched her fist, using the feel of Ike’s ring to keep her from losing control, and asked, “Why the hell not?  If you can muck out stalls, why can’t we… well… you know?”
*Because I love you.*
“Oh, now that makes a whole lot of sense,” she muttered sarcastically.  At her raised voice, JK began to whimper, quickly turning into a full blown cry.  “Now look what you’ve done.”
She marched over to his cradle and picked the baby up. 
“Don’t mind your mommy and daddy little one.  We’re just a little crazy.”  She emphasized the word ‘crazy’ as she glared over her shoulder at Ike.  Unfortunately, the tension in her body only upset the child more and he began to cry in earnest.
*Let me,* Ike said, walking toward her, stretching his arms out to take the infant.
“Fine!” she snapped, handing over the infant.  “I’ll be in the kitchen.”  And she stomped out of the room, leaving Ike with her quickly quieting son.
Lou stiffened as she heard the door to the kitchen open and then close behind her.
“Is he calm now?” she asked, without turning around, continuing to chop viciously at the potatoes on the cutting board in front of her.  A slapping sound reminded her that she needed to look at Ike, not something she often forgot.  Dipping her hands in the basin of water sitting in the sink, she grabbed a towel to dry her hands and turned to face him.
*He’s sleeping,* Ike said.
“Then would you care to explain yourself?” she hissed at him, obviously still angry with him.  “You say you love me, want to marry for real, then you won’t touch me?”  Frustrated beyond measure she pounded on the counter next to her, trying to keep from crying.
*I do love you,* Ike signed.  *That’s why I won’t touch you.  Not until our wedding night.*
Lou looked at him, more confused than ever.  Ike continued.
*I heard what you said to Emily.  You’re not a whore, Lou.  No matter what might have happened.  I won’t have you believing that.  And since this marriage has never been real in your mind, we’ll just wait until it is.  I won’t have you feel like you’re buying my presence, or my love, with your body.*
Lou looked at him standing there, so tall and strong, so smart.  Tears gathered in her eyes. 
“How’d I get so lucky?” she whispered.
Ike shrugged and walked up to her, pulling her into his embrace.  Framing her face with his hands, he leaned down and kissed her with all the passion in his soul.  When they were both struggling to breath, he pulled back.
*I want you, Lou.  Don’t ever doubt that.  I just need you to know I respect you, too.  For that, we wait.*
Then he turned around, heading for the door.
“Where are you going?” Lou called after him.
*The creek.*
After much discussion, they decided to set the date for their second wedding for the first weekend in June.  They hoped that meant Buck and Noah would be there in time to celebrate with them.  And their Arapaho friends would still be around, not having left yet for the summer hunts.
In late April, the passes were finally clear and Ike and the other men made another supply run to Fort Bridger.  Ike took with him several letters to be mailed and came back loaded down with gifts, as well as supplies.
Dismounting in front of their cabin after a weeklong absence, Ike smiled as his family poured out into the yard.  This was the way things were supposed to be, he thought, as he swung Teresa up into a bear hug, then pulled Lou close to his side for an intoxicating kiss, accompanied by Jeremiah’s hoots and hollers.
“We missed you,” Lou whispered, when he finally released her mouth.
Setting Teresa down, Ike answered, *I missed you, too.  How’s JK?*
“Growing like a weed!  He rolled over for the first time on Wednesday, and I swear he’s already trying to crawl.”
*Impatient, just like his momma,* Ike smiled, reaching out to tweak her nose.  Lou dodged his efforts, punching him lightly in the arm in retaliation.
Turning, Ike began to pull packages off his horse.  Most he handed to Teresa and Jeremiah to carry into the cabin.  But one special one he left for last.  Finally, he untied it and handed it reverently over to Lou.
Lou looked at the brownpaper-wrapped package in her hands and asked, “What’s this?”
Ike smiled at her. *Open it.*
Peeking up at him through her eyelashes, Lou proceeded to rip through the packaging to reveal a length of creamy white satin, accompanied by several yards of gold ribbon.
“Oh, Ike, it’s beautiful!” Lou exclaimed, running one hand over the soft cloth reverently.
*I saw this at Carter’s and thought of you,* Ike said, reaching out to tilt her face up to his.  “I know our first wedding wasn’t exactly what a girl hopes and dreams of.  Let’s make this one special, alright?*
After consulting with Mrs. Heath, Amy, and even Emily, on the pattern, Lou finally took scissors to the beautiful fabric, cutting out her wedding dress.  There was even enough of a white netting to make a veil.  She spent every spare moment hunched over the fabric, stitching it together.  But she was careful to never let Ike see it.  As he’d said, this time they were going to do things ‘right’ and that meant following all the traditions. 
Finally, the big day arrived.  Lou’s dress was finished and carefully laid out at the Heaths’, just waiting for her.  Amy had agreed to make and decorate the chocolate groom’s cake while Emily had surprised Lou by offering to make a beautiful white frosted bride’s cake.  Everyone was rushing around making last minute preparations, getting washed up, shaved, hair combed and in place.  Tall Elk, Panther’s Tracks, Pretty Flower, Blue Sky and several other members of the neighboring Arapaho band were milling around, watching all the commotion curiously.
“White men silly,” Pretty Flower was overheard telling Emily at one point.  “Why marry woman who already wife?  Not understand.  Supposed to marry another woman.  Silly!”
The only disappointment for Ike and Lou that beautiful day was that Noah and Buck hadn’t arrived yet.  Lou had just gotten to the Heaths, with Teresa in tow, and was starting to strip off her trousers and shirt to put on her wedding gown when the unexpected sound of a wagon pulling up penetrated the cabin walls.  Buttoning her shirt back up as she went, Lou flew out the door.
“Buck!  Noah!” she called in excitement when she saw their familiar forms standing by the wagon.
“What about me?” a familiar feminine voice asked, a head capped with a full fringe of frizzy red hair poked around the end of the wagon.
“Emma?!” Lou stopped in her tracks, then began rushing forward again to embrace the woman she thought of as her mother.  “Oh, Emma!  I can’t believe you’re here!”
“Lulabelle,” Emma scolded lightly, even as she held Lou tightly to her.  “You didn’t think I’d miss your wedding day, now did you?  A pack of ravening wolves couldn’t have kept me away!”
Pulling back, Lou asked, “Where’s Sam?”
Emma waved the question away. 
“Probably off dining with the Territorial Governor, or chasing bank robbers, or something, having a grand old time.  He’ll be happy to see me when I get back though, if you know what  I mean,” she added, a wicked twinkle in her eye.  Lou laughed in appreciation.
“Sorry we’re late, Lou,” Noah said, coming around from the other side of the wagon.  “We had to wait for Emma to get to Rock Creek before we could leave.”
A slight, pretty woman with chocolate skin and a cap of dark curls that matched Noah’s accompanied him, holding lightly to his arm.
“Cassie!” Lou exclaimed, holding out her hand to the other woman.  “I take it, this means you finally put Noah out of his misery.”
Cassie just shrugged as she smiled happily up into Noah’s face.
“And then we had another surprise addition to the party,” Buck added, a wide grin splitting his features.
“Where’s my pretty girl?  I’ve got to kiss the bride!”
“Teaspoon!?”  Lou wasn’t sure if she could handle any more shocks, as her Express family passed her from person to person, hugging her tightly in greeting, pressing kisses to her cheeks.
“Gotta say, Lou, that’s a new look for you,” Buck teased, reaching up to flick at the cloth rollers tied into her hair to curl it.  “Is that how you managed to finally corner Ike?”
Lou reached up bashfully to touch her hair, having completely forgotten its condition.  Then, as Buck was moving past her to grab something out of the wagon, she stretched out her leg, tripping him in retaliation.
“I can’t believe it,” Lou smiled, tears starting to leak from the corners of her eyes.  “I can’t believe you all made it.”
“So, where’s this baby boy of yours?” Emma asked, hooking her arm through Lou’s and starting her back toward the cabin.  “Boys, why don’t you go find Ike.  I’m sure he would appreciate a little support about now!”
“Gettin’ impatient, Ike?” Teaspoon asked.
Ike nodded.  At the sight of Emma walking out of the cabin, little JK in her arms, he straightened, wiping his palms down the sides of his dark dress pants, before reaching up to straighten his string tie.  He nodded. 
*It’s time to get married,* he signed.
“Mr. Spoon,” Emma called.  “Lou’s got a favor to ask of you.”
“Well, boys, seems like I’m needed elsewhere ‘bout now,” Teaspoon harrumphed.  “Try to stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”
*Is she alright?* Ike asked Emma nervously.
Emma smiled serenely, a glint of mischief dancing in her eyes.  “Wait ‘til you see.”
Still bouncing the infant in her arms, cooing to him as she went, Emma glided between the two rows of roughly hewn log benches the pioneers had set out to form an outdoor chapel for the wedding ceremony.  Taking a seat, she looked around, admiring how they’d decorated the entire area with fresh picked spring wildflowers, even forming an arch of flowers at the front of the aisle, where the bride and groom would stand.  Preacher Heath stood on the other side of the arch, Ike in front of him, his brothers Noah, Buck and Jeremiah at his side.  Emma took a seat in the front row, next to Cassie, baby JK smiling in her arms.
Tim Nolan and Carl Metcalfe started playing an unusual version of the wedding march on violin and harmonica.  At the creaking noise of a door opening, Ike turned to behold the vision that was his bride.
Lou, clinging tightly to Teaspoon’s arm, walked slowly toward him.  She’d turned the material he’d brought her into a beautiful white gown with large puffy sleeves that ended at the elbow.  Flat pleated ruffles decorated the entire circumference of the neckline, edged with the gold ribbon Ike had brought her.  More gold ribbon formed a leaf pattern circling the skirt about a foot up from the hem.  But Ike never noticed her dress.  His eyes never left Lou’s as she made her way slowly toward him, a gamine smile struggling to take over her face, shouting her happiness to the world.
When Lou and Teaspoon reached the front of the aisle, she and Ike just stood there, staring at each other, until Teaspoon cleared his throat and reached out to grab Lou’s hand and place it in Ike’s, manually maneuvering them into the proper position in front of Preacher Heath, accompanied by titters from their gathered friends and family.
Lou ducked her head, blushing.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, in this company, to witness the marriage of these two young people.  Again.  And forever,” Preacher began with a smile for the young couple.  “It took them a lot of hard work to get to this point, but if there’s one couple that belongs together, it’s these two.  If anyone disagrees, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
An expectant hush covered the crowd for a moment and when no one spoke, Preacher smiled and said, “I didn’t think so!” rather emphatically, before adding, “Who gives this bride to be wed?”
“We do,” Teaspoon grumped, hiding a smile as he indicated the rest of their Express family.  Turning around, he took a seat next to Emma and grinned, relieved to have his part of the ceremony completed.
“Marriage is the most serious commitment one can make.  But these two have already shown they have made that commitment, to each other and to the children in their care.  Today, they come to pledge a deeper troth, to each other and before God.  To that end, they have written their own vows.  Ike?”
Letting go of Lou’s hand, Ike began to speak, Jeremiah translating for those who couldn’t see.
*I loved you once in silence.  I’ve loved you since that first time I saw you in that pretty pink dress, peaking around the corner of Emma’s stairs, threatening to punch the first one of us to laugh.  We all fell in love with you, at least a little bit, that day,” Ike shrugged.  “But I knew then you’re heart was already taken.  I was willing to let you go, if that made you happy.  I could have lived my life happily married to someone else, but you would always have held at least a small corner of my heart.  But then… suddenly… you weren’t happy anymore.  Life changed.  You were in pain and I couldn’t just let you walk off thinking you were alone in this world.  You’re the love of my life.  And I want to spend a lifetime showing you, Louise McCloud McSwain, just what you mean to me.  I promise to love you forever, until the day I die.*
Lou reached up one hand to caress his cheek, before beginning her own vows.
“You’re the love of my life, too, Ike.  I don’t think either of us ever imagined me saying that, but it’s true.  You sort of snuck up on me with your kindness, gentleness and wisdom.  Even before, you were always there when I needed someone to talk to, or just a shoulder to lean on.  And when the darkness came and I was lost so deep inside myself, ruining everything with my own fears and selfishness... there you were, reaching out to catch me and pull me back into the light.  You put up with my foolishness and waited patiently for me to come to my senses.  I’ve never known a love like this, a love that is patient and kind and forgiving, a love that is laughter and light and friendship.  You’re in my heart and soul.  You’re all the joy and tears that I cry, now.  And you don’t ever have to say a word, Isaac Matthew McSwain.  I can see your love in your eyes.  I promise to love you forever, until the day I die.”
Teaspoon reached up to surreptitiously wipe away a tear from the corner of one eye.  Noah found his eyes searching out Cassie’s gaze.  Tim Nolan reached over and captured his wife’s hand in his, squeezing it tightly.
Preacher Heath cleared his throat and asked, “Do you have the rings?”
Lou nodded and pulled a large ring off her pinkie finger, where she’d been holding it.  Pressing the ring to her lips, she kept her eyes on Ike’s as they listened to the preacher.
“Repeat after me, with this ring, I thee wed.”
Reaching out, she slowly slid the ring onto Ike’s finger, grimacing slightly as it caught on his knuckle.  He reached down with his free hand to help wiggle the simple gold band into place.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” she whispered, glancing up at Ike, almost shyly, through her eyelashes.
Ike pulled her ring out of his pocket and repeated the motions, slipping the band into place next to her engagement ring.  Finished, he signed, *With this ring, I thee wed.  With all my wordly goods I thee endow.*
Ike and Lou stood staring at each other, awed by this powerful moment that had joined them together for life. 
Finally, breaking the moment, Preacher Heath intoned, “By the powers vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife.  Ike, you may kiss your bride.”
Ike needed no encouragement, leaning down to capture Lou’s mouth with his in a kiss full of all the love he felt for her, all his hopes and desires, dreams and plans for their future together, a kiss that seemed to last forever, a kiss designed to carry them through all the storms life would throw at them.
**Wedding vows heaviliy influenced by Sammy Kershaw’s Love of My Life

June 8th, 2012
McSwain Valley, Wyoming
“I can’t believe we’re finally here,” CK said excitedly as she crawled out of the car.
“Don’t know why not,” her smiling husband of less than a week answered, walking around the front to meet her.  “You’ve only been planning this trip for, what?  Six years, now?”
Laughing, he pulled her in close to lean down and press a kiss to her lips.  Swatting at his shoulder playfully, she smiled back up at him.
“Come on, let’s get the bags and get checked in.”
Moments later she was walking down a long paved sidewalk, a hefty backpack slung over one shoulder, a stuffed suitcase bumping and rolling along behind her.  The walk wound its way through a lovely rose garden and past a little stream before stopping at the base of a wide veranda that surrounded the lovely, Victorian style house, mansion really.  Three stories tall, it’s peaked rooftop and gabled windows provided a stunning contrast against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains around them.  CK paused at the end of the walk to take a deep breath, soaking in the moment.
The sign at the top of the steps read, McSwain Homestead Bed and Breakfast.  CK shook her head as she read it, then started up the steps to the front door.
“Can I help you?” the young lady sitting behind a desk just inside the door asked, setting aside the magazine she’d been reading.
“Yes, we have a reservation for the McSwain Suite,” CK said, locking her wheeled suitcase into an upright position.
“Oh!” exclaimed the receptionist, suddenly snapping into an alert position, her dark eyes widening in recognition even as her two long, dark-haired braids, proclaiming her heritage as loudly as her dusky skin, went flying behind her.  “You would be Mr. and Mrs.--“
“Just call me CK,” CK said, holding out her hand to greet the girl.  “I figure since we’re going to be here awhile we ought to be on a first name basis… ah…” she paused to read the girl’s name tag, “Rose.  This is my husband, Chris.”
“Nice to meet you, Rose,” he smiled in greeting, both hands occupied with two more suitcases.
“Wow!  Nice to meet you, CK, Chris,” Rose said, rapidly shuffling through a pile of paperwork in front of her.  “Ah, here it is,” she announced, finally pulling out one particular sheet.  Turning it toward CK, she pointed at the blank line at the bottom of the page.  “Just sign here.”
While CK bent forward to sign in, Rose reached back to a row of hooks on the wall behind her and grabbed a set of keys.  Turning back, she traded the keys for the signed paper.
“Thank you,” CK said, moving to grab her suitcase.
“The room’s upstairs, at the end of the hall,” Rose said, smiling.  “Um, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you planning on doing here?  We’ve never had someone book a room for three whole months before!”
CK laughed.  “I’m a history professor at Iowa State University.  I’m here working on my doctoral thesis, Women and Minorities on the American Frontier.”
“That is sooo cool,” Rose gushed.  “And you definitely came to the right place.  You know McSwain Valley is the home of the first Woman and first Deaf Sheriff, first Native and first African American Mayor?  This is about the most evenly split, racially, not to mention completely integrated town in the entire country!”
“I did indeed.  That’s why I’m here.”
“The McSwains over there, they started it all.  It’s such a romantic story,” Rose continued, pointing to a large painting hanging over a fireplace at the other end of the foyer.  CK gasped as she moved slowly toward the family portrait, listening with half an ear as Rose continued to chatter.  “Ike McSwain?  He found this valley just for his wife, Lou, ‘cause she was tired of traveling the Oregon Trail.  Isn’t that sweet?  They had eight kids, five girls and three boys.”
CK stared up at the portrait with a tall, bald man standing behind an old fashioned horsehair sofa, one hand resting on the shoulder of the petite brunette seated on the sofa.  Four boys stood next to Ike.  Four girls were seated, two on each side of the woman CK assumed was Lou, Ike’s wife.  Two smaller girls, obviously still infants, were seated on Lou’s lap and the lap of the eldest girl sitting next to her.
CK pointed at the painting.  “I thought you said they had eight children?  Who are the other two?”
“Oh, the oldest girl and boy are Lou McSwain’s brother and sister, Jeremiah and Teresa.  They were orphans and Ike and Lou raised them as their own.  In fact, Jeremiah started using the McSwain last name when he became an adult.”
“What’s this picture?” CK asked, already digging into her backpack for a notepad.
“I’ll meet you upstairs when you’re done down here,” Chris whispered in CK’s ear, even as he handed her a pen.  She smiled gratefully at him, already starting to scribble down details.
“That one?” Rose grinned as she moved out from behind her desk to come stand next to CK in front of the collection of painted family portraits and old time photographs and tintypes.  “That’s from before they moved out here.  Ike and Lou, well Louise was her real name, but everyone called her Lou, anyway, they met riding for the Pony Express.  Some say they even worked with some gunslinger who was famous for a short time back then, a Wild Bill Hickok, not to mention the great Buffalo Bill Cody!  In fact, Cody, Wyoming?  He’s supposed to have gotten the idea for the place from McSwain Valley.  This photo was taken by a traveling Englishman back in 1860, at the Sweetwater station, where they worked.  See, there’s Running Buck Cross, too.  He was Ike’s blood brother.  The Crosses are another of the founding families around here.”
“He was the first Native American Mayor, right?”
Rose nodded. 
“Yep!  He married Emily Metcalfe, another of the Valley’s founders.  They had five kids, four boys and a girl, the youngest.”  She pointed to another photo, a couple dressed in their wedding clothes, smiling happily at each other, an unusual pose in such an old picture.  CK wondered about that.  “He was instrumental in getting the Army to agree to allow the Arapaho that lived in this area to settle in the valley, part of their traditional hunting grounds, rather than shipping them off to a reservation.  He even brought some of his Kiowa family here, later on, his brother Red Bear, a few others.”
CK’s eyes kept moving across the trio of paintings.  The second was a family portrait of Emily and Buck with their five children, all seated outside a tipi.  Then she stopped at the third portrait.  “Would those be the Dixon’s?”
“Noah Dixon brought his bride, Cassie, with him when he moved to the Valley with Buck, at Ike and Lou’s invitation.  Her younger brother is the one who painted all these portraits.  He was a great artist.  You’ll find his work scattered all over town.”
“Tell me about Noah?  Did he ride with the Pony Express, too?  He’s not in that photo.”
“He hadn’t joined the Express yet when that photo was taken.  But he did ride with them, that’s how he met the others.  Noah was an unusual man for the times.  Born free, he used to go to slave auctions and buy slaves just to free them.  Nearly got him killed more than once.  He and Cassie moved here when the U.S. Army wouldn’t let him join up during the Civil War.  After they settled here, he headed East, collected a group of runaway slaves and led them West on a wagon train.  After the war, he just kept it up.  This town is almost precisely one third white, one third Native and one third African American,” Rose said proudly.  “Eventually Cassie convinced Noah to retire and stick around here when she was pregnant with their third child.  Said she was tired of being a single mom!  And either he stuck around or she was going to find another man to be a father to her children.  He stuck around after that.”
The two women laughed, imagining the dressing down the slender lady in the portrait must have given her tall, handsome husband.
CK kept examining the collection before her, this time concentrating on the photos and tintypes lined up on the mantel.  There was another one of three young men holding their weapons in front of them.  Noah was in that picture with a distinctive looking whip in his hands.  Next to Emily and Buck’s wedding photo was one of Noah and Cassie at their wedding, then two different photos showing Ike and Lou, one where they were dressed in formal clothes, but Lou had unusually short hair and was dressed as a boy, another where Lou had long hair, and Ike and Lou were dressed formally, Lou obviously in a wedding gown, an infant cradled in her arms.  CK pointed to it.
“Why does it look like this picture was taken after the other one?” she asked curiously.  “It would’ve been a huge scandal if that baby was born before they got married!  And I’ve never found anything about such a scandal in my research.”
“No doubt!  That’s JK, their eldest.  Sort of.  He wasn’t actually Ike’s son.  His father was one of the other riders, Lou’d been engaged to.  But, he got killed.  This photo was taken after Lou and Ike’s second wedding, though.  They got married before they left on the Oregon Trail, so they could adopt Lou’s brother and sister.  That’s the first photo.  All of them dressed up just before leaving on the wagon train.  It’s a fascinating story.”
“How do you know so much about them?”
“Oh, I’ve read the McSwain Journals hundreds of times,” Rose smiled.  “It’s so romantic, how he loved her before she ever thought of him as anything more than a brother.  How he brought her West and got her to fall in love with him.”
“There are journals?”  CK asked, her excitement growing.  “I didn’t know about any journals!”
“Oh, yes!  Come back to the library and I’ll show you,” Rose said, already heading through an open doorway to her left.  “We don’t exactly advertise their existence, but Ike McSwain was an incredible journaler.  He wrote nearly everyday, liked to draw pictures, too.”
CK followed Rose into a large room filled with floor to ceiling built-in bookcases.  A large fireplace dominated one wall with a painting of an elderly Ike and Lou McSwain hanging over it.  Rose moved to an area where the bookcases had been encased in glass.
“We’ve put in special climate controls,” she explained, “to protect the journals.  They’re so detailed they’ve become one of the most sought after items of Old West memorabilia, despite the fact we’ve tried to keep knowledge of them limited.  You have to put on a pair of gloves if you want to handle them,” she added, pointing to a box of latex gloves sitting on the next shelf over.  “But otherwise, they’re made available to anyone who wants to read them.”
CK ran a hand reverently across the glass, imagining spending the next several weeks wading through the journals, gleaning all the bits of history from them.  Turning back to Rose, she asked the question that had been nagging at her since they’d left the foyer.
“So, who was JK’s father?”
“Oh, he was named for him, and another rider who died about the same time.  James Kidd McSwain.  They never really knew his father’s name.  He just went by a nickname, The Kid.  Folks could do that back then.”
CK smiled in agreement.  Times had been different.  But Rose barely stopped for breath now that she had a captive audience with whom to share her favorite stories.
“He named his eldest son Kidd Isaac after his birth father and the man who’d raised him.  Kidd and Lou’s maiden name, McCloud, or Cloud, became real common around here.  Why, I remember back when I was in school I had three Cloud’s, two McClouds and five Kidd’s in my grade alone!”  Rose laughed at the memory.
“Rose Cross are you back here?  You better not be shanghaiing guests again to tell all your stories!  Mom’ll kill you!”
A smaller, younger version of Rose, her hair flying loose around her shoulders, came running into the library, only to skid to a halt at the sight of CK.
“Oooh, you are so in trouble when I tell Mom!”
“It’s alright Lily,” Rose laughed.  “I’m just answering her questions.  She’s a historian.  She wants to hear my stories.”
“Hi, I’m Lily Cross,” the little girl said, stepping forward to hold out her hand toward Ck.  “Who are you?”
“Lily, it’s very nice to meet you,” CK answered, coming to her knees so she could look Lily in the eyes as she introduced herself.  “I’m Cloud Kiddette McSwain Wright.  And it’s very nice to meet you, too.”
The End
Author's Note:  This was not a story I particularly wanted to write.  I'm a die hard Kid/Lou fan so the idea of pairing Lou up with any of the other riders was anathema.  Unfortunately, I'm constitutionally incapable of walking away from a challenge.  And, in this case, that was the challenge, to write about a pairing you hadn't written about before.  So, I began to ask myself 'What if?'.   Even then, I don't know if I would have even begun this story without the encouragement of the ladies on Google Plus.  So, if you liked it, thank them.  They got me started and gave me lots of great advice and ideas.