*Lou, what do you think about going on a picnic?* Ike signed tentatively. This was important to him.
*Yeah, you know, food? In a basket? You go somewhere outdoors and eat it, together with friends and family?* Ike smiled at her. *I want to show you something.*
“Alright, I guess we could all use a break,” Lou said, rubbing her aching back. At six months pregnant, she was really starting to show. Although she hadn’t given up wearing her pants, thanks to Teresa’s little string fastener, she had taken to wearing Ike’s shirts, instead of her own. They hung down nicely over her burgeoning belly.
*I’ll go get Jeremiah and Teresa,* Ike signed, already turning around to look for the children.
“But…” Lou let the protest die unspoken. Muttering to herself, she said, “Get pregnant and slow down and suddenly you’re stuck with all the kitchen duties. Men!”
When Ike returned with the children and all four horses, saddled and ready to go, Lou was sitting on the open tailgate of the wagon, a packed picnic basket next to her, swinging her legs back and forth. Seeing the others, she started to hop down, then paused as her belly got in the way.
*Let me help you,* Ike said, dismounting and moving quickly to her side, holding up a hand to her.
Lou grimaced as she accepted his hand and crawled down off the wagon. “I don’t know how Mrs. Heath managed all those months on the trail like this!”
*You’ll figure it out,* Ike signed, before helping her up onto Lightning’s back, something else that grated on her nerves.
“Alright, I’m ready to go,” she said, sighing a bit in pleasure as she settled back into the familiar feel of the saddle. She hadn’t ridden in a week, but it felt like much longer than that to her.
Ike remounted his horse and began to lead his growing family away from the wagon train camp. They rode for about half an hour through a small pass between two tall mountain peaks. Lou passed the time admiring the scenery, the craggy rocks covered with deep green moss, trees clinging precariously to the side of the steep slopes, a creek rushing down the middle of the pass, burbling cheerfully as it went. This was what they meant by food for the soul, she thought, feeling a tightness she hadn’t even known was constricting her chest slowly release, inch by inch, with every hoofbeat.
Suddenly, Lou realized Ike had come to a stop at the edge of a clearing. Riding up beside him, she looked at him questioningly. He raised his arm to indicate the valley before them and asked, *What do you think?*
Turning, she took a long, hard look. The valley had a reasonably flat floor, with a creek running down the middle of it. The valley floor was carpeted with large wildflowers in every color of the rainbow. The sun sparkled off the snowcapped peaks of the mountaintops that towered above them. Tall trees surrounded the edges of the valley, providing cooling shade from the hot summer sun.
“It’s… beautiful, Ike,” she breathed. Smiling at him, she asked, “How’d you find it?”
*I was tracking a bull elk a couple of days ago, and it led me straight here.*
“You haven’t brought back any elk meat this week.”
Ike shrugged. *Couldn’t kill it, after it led me here.*
*So? Do you think it’ll do?* he asked, unable to wait any longer.
“For a picnic?” Lou teased. “It’s perfect.”
Laughing, she spurred Lightning into motion, and the chase was on. Soon, they were racing each other around the hidden mountain valley, the bright laughter of all four of them echoing off the mountains rising around them as they played a sort of mounted tag with the children. Lou finally slowed Lightning to a stop near a small copse of trees at the far end of the valley, not too far from a waterfall that was the source of the creek’s water.
Dismounting, carefully, she sucked in a deep breath of the crisp, fresh air and smiled. Leaning down, she dug her hand deep into the ground, pulling out a handful of dark, rich earth. Letting the dirt trickle through her fingers, she turned to Ike as he approached her, leading his own horse.
“Yes, it’ll do. It’ll more than do. It’s perfect Ike! We’re home.”
Ike grinned happily, walking up to her and wrapping his arms around her disappearing waist, to lift her up and spin her around and around until they were both dizzy and, once again, laughing for all they were worth. Jeremiah and Teresa added their own dance of happiness nearby.
“There’re plenty of good tall trees for the house,” Lou was saying, speaking animatedly as they rode back to the wagon train that evening. “We’ll need to start cutting them down quickly. It’ll take at least 15 to 20 good sized logs if we’re going to have a decent cabin before winter.”
“Teresa and I can start the vegetable garden,” Jeremiah offered. “We spent plenty of time helping with the orphanage garden back in St. Joe.”
*That’s good,* Ike teased. *Because I’m not sure your sister knows the leaves from the roots!*
“You better watch it, Ike McSwain! Or I just might get the willowbark mixed up with the cascara bark,” she threatened. “Don’t blame me if you suddenly get the runs!”
Ike cowered in mock fear. *Please, no! Not that! Anything but that!*
“I’m going to shoot that uppity, no good, lazy nigra! How dare he think he can get away with messing with my girls?!”
The sudden fierce threats being bellowed from the wagon train camp put a stop to their play. Ike and Lou looked at it each other in sudden worry and fear, before urging their horses to a full gallop. Thundering into camp, they pulled the animals to a stop amidst protesting whinnies and stomping hooves.
The fragile peace of the wagon train had obviously been disrupted during their absence, and the train had degenerated into two camps, now ranged against each other, and all shouting at the top of their lungs.
“You’ve got a mighty high opinion of yourself, mister,” Amy Nolan was screeching. “My husband wouldn’t touch one of your prissy daughters with a ten foot pole. He’s got better taste than that!”
“Couldn’t prove it by me!” Mrs. Grayson sniffed vituperatively. “He’s already proven he’s got a taste for white women, stead of sticking with his own kind like he ought!”
“What’s going on here?” Lou asked. When her words were lost in the ongoing fight, she pulled her gun and fired it once into the air. All heads swiveled in her direction as the sound brought instant silence. “That’s better,” she said. “Now, what’s going on?”
Everyone started yelling and shouting at once, pointing to various other members of the train on the other side of the argument. Lou sighed, shared a look with Ike, then fired once more into the air.
“One at a time! Mrs. Grayson, you seem to have the loudest complaints, why don’t you start?”
“That, that.. nigra… attacked my daughter. He violated her… and now she’s expecting.”
Lou raised a disbelieving eyebrow at this claim. So far as she knew, the Nolans, all of them, had kept as much distance as possible between them and the Graysons for the entire journey. Looking around the angry faces, she pointed to Amy Nolan, standing protectively in front of her husband.
“And what do you have to say?”
“It’s impossible. He wasn’t anywhere near her! He never had the opportunity, let alone the desire,” Amy gritted out, obviously struggling to hold her temper in check.
“Anyone else have something to add?” Lou asked, leaning forward to rest her arm on her saddle horn. Tipping her hat back with her other hand, she swept the entire crowd with a glare. “No innuendos, only facts!”
No one said anything. Blessing all the times she and Ike had helped Sam and, later, Teaspoon in the Marshal’s office, Lou asked, “When is this attack supposed to have happened? Just how far along is she?”
When several people opened their mouths to speak, Lou held up her hand and glared. “I’m speaking to the ‘victim’,” she growled. “She can answer for herself!”
Mrs. Grayson, Constance and Charity pushed Prudence to the front, forming a line behind her.
“Well, uh… I guess it was about a month or so ago,” Prudence stammered.
“You guess? I thought you were violated? I’d think that’d be a date that would stick with you,” Lou said.
Prudence looked around for help, but Lou’s glare and Ike’s cocked gun held easily in his hand kept everyone else silence. Realizing she was on her own, she finally said, “It was three and a half weeks ago. Yeah. When we stopped at Soda Springs for the night.”
Lou sat back in her saddle, relieved. “Well, then, if you were violated, it certainly wasn’t by Mr. Nolan.”
“What?!” screeched Mrs. Grayson. “Why, how dare you!”
“I dare, Mrs. Grayson, because I was out hunting that night with Tim, Ike and Bryan O’Callahan. There was no possibility any of them could be responsible for your daughter’s condition.”
At that announcement, several people began to shuffle off, realizing they’d been mistaken in their assumption and suddenly ashamed of their behavior.
“Now, does anyone else have anything to add?”
When no one spoke, Lou nodded. Turning to Mr. and Mrs. Grayson, she said, “I’d suggest you take your daughter back to your camp and have a long heart to heart with her. I do believe there’s something she’s not telling you, and I believe it might involve a certain young man in the Stuart household. Meanwhile, leave the Nolans’ alone!”
The next morning, Lou watched with detachment as the rest of camp packed up and prepared to depart. She’d be glad to be rid of much of the strife between the various members of the wagon train, though she would miss some of the friends they’d made.
She turned at the sound of a clearing throat.
“Mr. Nolan, how are you?” Lou asked.
“Just fine, ma’am,” he said, smiling at her. “Thanks to you.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Well, see, the Missus and I, we were wondering, is it true?”
*Is what true?* Ike asked, returning to the camp from feeding their stock with Jeremiah.
“Is it true you are leaving the train? Not moving on with us?”
“Yes, it is,” Lou smiled. “We’ve found a good spot to settle not too far from here. We’re staying. We never really planned on going all the way to Oregon, anyway.”
Amy Nolan stepped up to stand proudly beside her husband. “Would it be possible for us to stay with you?”
Ike quirked a surprised eyebrow. This he hadn’t expected. Lou looked at him in question. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t mind. The Nolans were good people in his book.
Turning back to the Nolans, she eyed the couple. They were a study in contrasts. He was tall, darker than Noah, with tightly curled black hair. She was short, with brassy red curls and pale white skin. Her small hand rested on his arm, clenching tightly as they nervously awaited Lou and Ike’s response.
“It won’t be easy,” Lou finally said. “Nothing like living in the city. There are no houses on site to move into. You’re going to have to build your own. We’ll help a little, but we’ve got a house to raise as well. And you’ll have to at least put in a garden for winter vegetables.”
*Tough as sticking with the train might be, it’d be easier than going it alone,* Ike added, Jeremiah translating for him.
“I doubt that,” Amy said. “After last night, we just don’t feel safe with the train. You folks have always treated us right, like there isn’t anything different or wrong with us.”
“Oh, please, can’t they stay,” Teresa begged. “I like school with Mr. Nolan, he’s fun. And smart!”
Lou laughed. “That’s endorsement enough for me! You’re welcome, if that’s what you want.”
The tense couple relaxed and smiles began to burst out on their faces. “Oh, thank you. Thank you ever so much,” Amy Nolan said over and over again.
By the time the wagon train departed later that morning, the Metcalfes and the Heaths had also decided to stay behind and settle in what they were already calling McSwain Valley. Lou shook her head in wonderment as she surveyed the group, not quite sure how it had happened.
“So, when do we leave?” Carl Metcalfe asked.
“This is beautiful, Lou,” Mrs. Heath said as they rode up to the valley. Since this was to be their last day on the trail, Lou’d offered the horses to the women, letting the men drive the wagons. “How ever did yo find it?”
“I didn’t,” Lou said, smiling back at the wagons slowly lumbering up the pass toward them. “Ike did. I just told him I wanted to stay in this area. I was tired of traveling and ready to settle down. He found this place all on his own.”
“You are so lucky,” Amy smiled.
“How so?” Lou asked.
“Most men wouldn’t care so much about your opinion on things,” Mrs. Heath said. “Let alone go out of their way to find you the perfect spot.”
“I know Pa didn’t ask me if I wanted to stay here, he just said, we’re stayin’,” Emily muttered.
“I don’t think you realize just how lucky you are to have a young man who loves you so much,” Mrs. Heath said, urging Lightning forward, into the valley. The other women followed her on Katy and Sundancer. Lou, mounted on Ike’s bay mare, looked after them, confused. What were they talking about?