That night, all four families camped together. Sitting around the fire, they talked late into the night, making plans.
*Lou and I have discussed building our cabin just over there, by the source of the creek,* Ike said, with Lou’s help.
“It’s a good spot, with a nice water source and plenty of nearby trees for the cabin,” Lou added.
“Don’t suppose it hurts that it’s a real pretty spot, either,” Preacher Heath added.
Lou and Ike laughed. “No, it sure doesn’t.”
*Have you had a chance to look around?* Ike asked, *Find a place you’d like to start building?”
Isaac Brown, Amy Nolan’s father, looked around before answering for all of them. “We talked about sticking together. Like you said, it’s going to be hard enough, without going it alone.”
“Would you mind if we built our places at the other end of the valley? Near the entrance?” Carl Metcalfe asked.
Ike shrugged. *Don’t see why we should. We can only claim so much land and this valley’s a lot bigger than that.*
“We should probably get some sleep,” Mrs. Heath said. “Tomorrow’s a big day. We start felling timber for our new homes.”
Lou found herself almost forcibly sidelined by the entire rest of the group the next morning.
“It ain’t safe, not in your condition,” Emily Metcalfe bit out a tad acerbically.
*Lou, listen to them,* Ike begged her. *Please, just let us fell the timbers. There’ll be plenty for you to do later on.*
“You should listen to your husband, young lady,” Mrs. Heath admonished with a smile. “You’re in a delicate condition now. And he’s only got your best interests at heart. Not just yours, but the baby’s, too.”
“She’s right,” Carl Metcalfe put in. “Gotta take care of that young-un’.”
“Besides, we’ve got plenty of brawny men to do the hard lifting,” Amy’s father jumped in. “No need for you to be working up a sweat.”
So, Lou spent the day restlessly tending the fire and the children with Mrs. Heath and Amy Nolan. Emily Metcalfe decided to head out with the men to start dropping logs large enough to build their homes. They’d agreed to work together felling the logs. Then, once they had enough for all four homes, they’d start building one cabin at a time, with the McSwain place going up first.
“What’s the matter, Ike?”
Ike looked up from the fallen Douglas Fir he was busily hacking all the branches off of. Pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow, he let his eyes ask the question, *What?*
“Well, somethin’s obviously got you upset, the way yer goin’ at that there tree,” Emily smiled at him. “I almost feel sorry for it.”
Grabbing his canteen, Ike paused to think a moment before shrugging. Dropping down to a seat on the half hewn log, he sighed. *I just feel like I’m wasting my time, sometimes. You know?*
“Lou?” Emily asked, coming over to sit next to him.
“Have you tried doing anything to… well… get her attention?”
*What do you mean? I’m always there. How can she not notice me?*
“Maybe that’s the problem. You’re always there. You need to do something to make her sit up and smell the coffee. Wake her up out of this funk she’s been in. She doesn’t realize what a jewel she’s got in you, you know?” Emily said the last as she raised her canteen to her mouth to slug down some water of her own, and to hide the look of jealousy she couldn’t quite keep from crossing her face.
“Oh, oh my,” Mrs. Heath gasped when the workers began dragging the first logs back to the clearing where the McSwain house was going to be built.
Lou looked up and blinked in surprise herself. In the heat of the day, the men had removed their shirts. She watched in fascination as they trudged into the clearing, glistening muscles bulging with the effort of guiding the horses and oxen dragging the long, heavy logs behind them. After dropping off their burdens, they all trooped down to the creek to splash water on themselves to cool off. Lou was fascinated by the play of sunlight across Ike’s sweat drenched shoulders and well developed arms. When he turned around and saw her, his mobile face split into a broad smile. Barely conscious of it, she returned his greeting with a tentative half smile of her own, accompanied by a small wave. Her eyes were too busy devouring the sight of his well toned chest and rippling stomach muscles. She kept her eyes glued to Ike’s form until he disappeared back into the dark woods moments later, looking for the next tree to topple.
“Well,” Amy said, nudging Lou with one elbow while vigorously fanning herself with her other hand. “They certainly put on quite a show for us, didn’t they?”
Startled out of her bemused reverie, Lou turned to look at the other young woman. “What are you talking about?”
“All that manly flesh they just displayed for us? You don’t really think that was an accident do you?”
Lou found herself unaccountably flushing with embarrassment.
“It’s hot out,” she mumbled, turning back toward where Teresa and Jeremiah were busy working to clear the ground for a large garden all four families planned to work together this first year. She couldn’t understand her own reaction to Ike’s shirtless state. There was no reason for her to feel so breathless. She’d seen him stripped down from working in the summer heat many times before. Besides, even if he was showing off, it hadn’t been for her, she reassured herself. He was out there working with Emily. He must’ve been trying to get her attention, Lou reassured herself. Which was as it should be.
The next morning Lou was restless. The images of a shirtless Ike, muscles glistening in the sun, had kept her awake much of the night. When she had slept, they’d invaded her dreams. After much pacing, and snapping at the children, she suddenly stood up and grabbed her rifle, slapping a hat on her head and tucking a jacket under one arm.
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Heath asked, bouncing her baby boy softly in her arms to quiet him.
“Huntin’,” Lou answered shortly. “Jeremiah? Teresa? You be good while I’m gone. Do what Mrs. Nolan and Mrs. Heath tell you.”
“Yes ma’am,” they responded quietly, watching as she marched off in the opposite direction from the one the men had taken not too long earlier.
Lou spent a leisurely morning exploring the dark depths of the forest that encircled the valley where the valley floor met the rising mountains that defined it. It was a deeply relaxing exercise. Though ostensibly hunting, she soon found herself just sitting in one place, wedged into the crook where a large limb attached to the trunk of a tall evergreen, contemplating her life. More specifically, the people in it and those missing.
She didn’t want to admit it, but Ike’s little display the day before it shaken her. She’d found herself responding to the sight of his strong form physically, breathlessly. She’d felt things she hadn’t felt since she and Kid had split up. Not even with Jimmy had she responded so… easily. Lou shook her head, trying to rid herself of those pesky thoughts.
She loved Kid. He was the love of her life. Letting her mind wander, soon she was reliving those first days with the Express, not just the excitement of getting the mail through no matter the danger, but the excitement of falling in love for the first time. She remembered that breath-catching moment when he’d turned a peck on the cheek into their first real kiss, the twinkle in his beautiful blue eyes that first time he’d ever seen her in a dress, his tentativeness the first time he’d asked her to dance, out behind the corrals in Sweetwater, and then his refusal to let her back away from their second kiss. A soft smile graced her face as she mentally wandered through all her memories with Kid. Those beautiful moments, the embarrassing ones, like when Emma’d insisted on her little coming out party, and the painful ones. Through it all, there’d been a powerful strand of certainty, a belief that this was the way things were meant to be, that, in the end, it would all work out. Until she’d come home to find him gone. Yes, she loved Kid. He was the love of her life. Was. But now? Now, he was… gone.
Naturally, her mind moved on to Jimmy. He’d been her best friend. Someone she could always talk to, laugh with, count on to be there for her when she just needed someone to be by her side. She’d loved Jimmy, too, in her own way. It hadn’t been the same. She’d never felt the insane jealousy over Jimmy’s various loves that she’d felt any time she even thought Kid was looking at another woman. She missed Jimmy, all the same. His absence was more like a missing tooth than Kid’s missing limb. But it was something that bothered her all the same, made worse by her guilt over his death. She remembered riding at Jimmy’s side, standing back to back with him holding off outlaws, laughing at his jokes, wanting to clobber him upside the head for his stupidity. But he, too, was gone. Never to come back.
The sound of a hoof stamping on the ground jerked her to an awareness of the world around her. Looking down from her place in the tree, she saw a beautiful 15 point buck standing in the small clearing beneath her. He was staring majestically across the clearing to where three does and their fawns were grazing. Lou watched him watching over his family, unaware of the tears coursing down her face. Yes. She’d loved Kid and Jimmy. But they were gone. Ike, like the big, strong deer standing below her, was there. He’d been there for her, she realized, even before their losses, but especially ever since, silently providing support, taking care of what needed doing, watching over her and her siblings, just… caring.
She continued to watch the small herd of mule deer until they eventually wandered off. Never once did she reach for the rifle at her side. Once the herd was gone, Lou slowly crawled down out of the tree. Looking around, she found a sturdy piece of a fallen branch, about the thickness of her middle finger, and, pulling out her knife, sat down on the forest floor to quickly carve it into a strong peg. Standing, she moved back to the tree she’d been sitting in and, using the haft of the knife, she carefully pounded the peg into the tree’s trunk. Stepping back, she slowly picked up the jacket she’d brought with her, Jimmy’s jacket, and looked down at it.
“You were my best friend, Jimmy, and I miss you somethin’ awful. But, maybe it’s better this way,” she said quietly, through a veil of tears. “I woulda hurt you horrible if you’d survived. At least you died thinking I loved you the way you wanted… needed to be loved.”
Reaching out, she hung the jacket on the peg, carefully straightening its folds, brushing off a stray piece of forest debris. Then she stepped back and removed the hat she was wearing, Kid’s hat, and looked down at it.
“I loved you, Kid, more than I can say. I’d have forgiven you for that schoolteacher of yours. We’d have moved on together. But now I’ve got to move on alone. I’ve gotta say…” she paused a moment to get control of the sob trying to burst out of her. “I’ve gotta say good... goodbye. I can’t keep my life on hold forever.”
Unable to speak anymore, she lifted the hat to her mouth and softly kissed the brim, before hanging it on the peg over Jimmy’s coat.
Placing her hand over her now softly rounded belly she said one last thing. “I don’t rightly know who’s baby this is. I may never know, and maybe that’s as it should be. Just know, he or she will always be a memory of the two men who taught me how to love. And I can’t thank you enough for that. I love you. Rest in Peace.”
Without another word, she turned and walked slowly away, never looking back at the coat and hat hanging from the peg on the tree trunk, looking for all the world like they were waiting for Jimmy and Kid to stop by and pick them up any minute.
No one mentioned Lou’s lack of game, or clothing, when she returned to camp that evening. They could all sense that she was in a strange mood and left her pretty much alone. Until after supper, when, as the sun went down, she began to shiver and inch closer to the campfire.
Thumping his chest for attention, Ike asked, *Where’s your coat?*
“Rock Creek.” Lou shrugged, gazing into the dancing flames of the fire and missing the dramatic widening of Ike’s eyes as he absorbed the real meaning of what she had said. Looking around, he realized Kid’s hat was also missing. A slow smile began to slide across his mobile face, but he quickly hid it. This wasn’t the time, he realized. Not quite yet. But soon.
Scooting over, he wrapped an arm around Lou’s shoulders to warm her up. She sighed thankfully and snuggled into his embrace, leaning her head wearily against his shoulder.