Ike watched as the other couples took a moment to themselves before the men headed out for another day of logging. Preacher had one arm draped around his missus’shoulders and was tickling his infant son with the other hand. Tim Nolan was leaning in and kissing Amy on the forehead, both arms wrapped around her waist as she leaned toward him.
Ike sighed softly, wishing things were the same between him and Lou. He had renewed hopes that one day they might be, but lately it had gotten awfully hard waiting patiently. Suddenly unable to bear the sight of the others enjoying what he wanted but didn’t have, Ike turned away to finish yoking up their lead pair of oxen. He’d be using them to haul logs today.
The sound of a softly cleared throat behind him had Ike swinging back around. Lou stood there, almost timidly, his hat held in her hands.
“Um, you forgot your… hat,” she said, avoiding his gaze as she held out the hat.
*Thanks,* Ike signed, watching her curiously. She wasn’t acting like her normal, confident self. When she suddenly took a quick step toward him, he braced himself, not sure what to expect.
She pressed a soft kiss to his cheek, then turned and fled back toward the fire where the kids were finishing up breakfast.
“Have a good day,” she tossed over her shoulder in a cheery tone.
Ike watched her go in wonderment, the knuckles of one hand pressed to his cheek where her lips had been pressed for such a fleeting moment. Shaking his head, he chuckled slightly in surprised delight. Maybe he wouldn’t have to wait as long as he’d feared.
“It’s nice to see you appreciating what you’ve got,” Mrs. Heath smiled at Lou as she began to add logs to the fire, building it up for the washpot.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Lou muttered, keeping her eyes on the pile of dirty laundry in front of her. She hated wash day. The activity held too many bad memories for her. But there was no other choice. They only had so many clothes and those were all dirty by now with the hard work they’d been doing, trying to get the garden in and their homes up before winter hit.
“Oh, come on, Lou,” Amy smiled at her. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“We understand yours wasn’t a love match,” Mrs. Heath said, “but that doesn’t mean it has to be a cold, loveless marriage either.”
Lou just shrugged as she helped Amy lift the pot over the fire and attach it to the tripod.
“I mean, it’s not as if you two don’t share a certain affection. You are in a delicate condition, after all,” the older woman continued.
Turning her back on the other women, Lou sighed. She might as well tell them, they’d find out sooner or later anyway.
“It’s not his,” she muttered, barely audibly.
“What?” Amy asked, not sure she’d understood correctly.
Gathering her courage, Lou straightened her shoulders and turned back to face the other two women boldly, daring them to find fault. “The baby. It’s not his.”
Both had ceased their activity and were paying full attention to Lou now.
“Where’s the father?” Mrs. Heath asked kindly.
“Dead. He was… another one of the riders at the Express station.”
“Oh, Louise, I’m so sorry!” Mrs. Heath walked up to the younger woman and hugged her tight for a moment. “And Ike married you to provide a father for the baby? What a wonderful young man.”
“You really are very lucky,” Amy added. “Not many men would marry a woman knowing she was already enceinte with another man’s child.”
Lou blushed a bright red before stuttering out, “He.. we… didn’t exactly know.”
“Well, this certainly explains much about you two that has confused Mr. Heath and I, child.”
Suddenly, Lou found the entire, sordid story pouring out. Well, most of it anyway. Sitting down on an upturned log, the words just kept coming until finally, she finished, “I just figure, it’s time to move on, you know?” Touching her stomach, she smiled wistfully, “I loved the baby’s father. But, he’s gone. I’ve… I’ve gotta move on.”
“That’s the spirit,” Mrs. Heath encouraged. “You’ll see, love will grow where you give it the chance to.”
“Just, take your time,” Amy added. “Don’t rush things.”
“Oh, I won’t be doing that,” Lou shook her head fervently. “Not again. Believe me, I’ve learned my lesson. Slow and easy. If I’d listened more to the last person who told me that, things might be very different in my life right now.” Besides, it might already be too late, she thought to herself, thinking of how comfortable Ike and Emily had gotten with each other.
Walking amongst the piles of logs, each stacked 10 high, Lou counted again, a small smile trying to break free the higher the number got.
“Sixty-five, sixty-six, sixty-seven…” she trailed off as she reached the last pile. “Just three more logs!” Turning back she quickly hiked back to the camp where the Amy and Mrs. Heath were cleaning up after lunch. Upon arrival she announced, “One more trip and they should be done!”
“Are you sure, Louise? Really sure?” Mrs. Heath nearly begged.
“Oh, I hope you’re right!” Amy added fervently.
Lou nodded, her smile getting broader. “The next load puts us at seventy logs, maybe seventy-one. That’s plenty for the four cabins we’re planning, plus a few extra, just in case.”
“Does that mean it’s time?” Jeremiah asked, coming to stand eagerly next to his sister.
Lou ruffled his hair as she nodded.
“Yippee!” he shouted, before heading off toward the creek. Lou laughed. After a week of gardening, Jeremiah had been looking forward to the change of pace that would come with pulling stones from along the creek bed for the first chimney.
Soon, all the women, Resi and Jeremiah were wading in the cool creek water, looking for stones large enough to build a chimney with. They were laughing and chatting excitedly in their eagerness to get the cabins finished. None of them noticed the arrival of the men and Emily with the last load of logs, until Carl Metcalfe called out.
“Looks like fun, can we join?”
Lou whipped around in surprise and slipped on the slick rocks of the creek bed. “Wah!” she shouted in surprise, her arms windmilling as she tried, and failed, to regain her balance. Next thing she knew, she was landing on her back. Sitting up, she held out her arms to observe her own soaking wet appearance.
“Are you alright, Lou?” Tim called from the shore, obviously choking back laughter.
Letting her arms flop back to her side, making a wet, smacking sound, she looked up at the crowd now gathered on the shore. Smiling, she joked, “Well, looks like I won’t have to wash these clothes this week.”
She began to struggle to her feet, fighting not only the rushing current of the fast flowing creek waters but also her own balance, tilted in an unaccustomed direction due to her growing belly.
“Ohh!” she gasped in surprise as she felt Ike’s hands reaching out and helping her up. Her breath caught in her throat as his hands slid down her arms to wrap around her back and behind her legs. Next thing she knew, he’d picked her up and was carrying her to the shore, then on to their wagon and tent. He set her down in the tent and stepped back.
*Are you alright?* he asked, a worried expression twisting his features. *The baby? That was a hard fall.*
Smiling up at him, she nodded. “I’m fine. We’re fine.”
Now that his worry over her safety, and the baby’s, had been allayed, Ike noticed how his shirt that Lou was wearing had turned nearly transparent with the soaking it had taken. Since all knew she was female now, she no longer bothered wearing bindings and her round breasts were clearly visible. Ike could feel his body reacting the sight before him and blushed.
Noticing the color staining his cheekbones and Ike’s sudden, valiant attempt to not look anywhere but her eyes, with occasional flicks downward, Lou looked down at herself. Her off-white shirt, which she’d stolen from Ike’s trunk, was plastered to her front and completely see through. Crossing her arms over her chest defensively, she blushed now, brighter than Ike, and laughed nervously.
“Uh, guess I’d better change,” she muttered, turning around to start rummaging through their things.
“Lou was right,” Tim Nolan said that night around supper. “We’ve got enough logs to start building! Although I don’t know that I’d have chosen her method of celebrating!”
There was a general titter of laughter around the fire as everyone relaxed, enjoying the thought that they were all one step closer to having a snug shelter through the coming mountain winter.
“Tim,” Amy said, “why don’t you get out your violin? I think this calls for some music.”
“Oh, yes,” Emily added. “Let’s have a little fun.”
Soon, they were all dancing in a circle around the campfire, laughing and singing along to the songs Tim played. When he wanted a break to dance with Amy, his father-in-law, Isaac Brown, pulled out a mandolin and started strumming a slower song while Carl Metcalfe accompanied him on the harmonica.
Ike watched as Lou stood on the sidelines, slowly swaying to the soft music. There was nothing he wanted more than to spend some time holding her in his arms and there was something about her body language that told him she wouldn’t push him away this time. Walking up behind her, he gently tapped her shoulder.
Lou turned. Ike stood there, looking slightly diffident.
*Dance?* he asked simply.
Lou nodded happily, holding out her hand to his. Soon, he was swinging her in circles around the fire. She laughed when they stumbled over the uneven ground and he kept her on her feet with just the strength of his arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her a touch closer to prevent a re-occurrence. It was a magical moment, full of hope and dreams, unlike any she’d ever before experienced.
The impromptu party didn’t last long. They’d all been up since the crack of dawn and worked hard throughout the day. Soon, they were turning in. Ike followed Lou as she ducked into the tent they’d erected when they set-up camp in their valley, nearly running her over when she came to an abrupt stop. Peering over her shoulder, he saw what had stopped her.
Jeremiah and Teresa were curled up together on pallets at the back of the tent. Lou had been leaving the two children between her and Ike at night, using them as a subconscious barrier. Now, they’d have to sleep side by side, much as they had while on the trail with the wagon train. But, the confining space of the tent, meant there was no room to separate their bedrolls.
Unsure what to say, Ike waited for Lou to make the first move. With an almost imperceptible shrug, Lou moved forward, as if she’d never stopped, and began to pull the blankets back in preparation for crawling into bed.
“It’s been a long day,” she said quietly. “I’m exhausted.” Without looking his way, she said, “Night, Ike.”
Ike sighed as once again Lou moved restlessly next to him. Her nearness was enough to keep him ever on the alert. Her obvious inability to rest quietly worried him. When she whimpered with her next turn, Ike leaned up on one elbow to see what the matter was. Noticing her twisted position, he quickly determined the weight of her growing belly was putting a strain on her back. Reaching behind his head, he pulled out his own pillow and gently shifted her up and slipped the pillow under her stomach, then he nudged her upper leg forward with his leg, pushing it onto the top of the pillow as well.
Laying back down on his side, he rested his head on one arm and, unable to resist, reached out to wrap his other arm around her waist, letting his hand rest on her stomach. Soon, both were fast asleep.
Lou woke up feeling refreshed in a way she hadn’t in weeks. Lately, her aching back and hips woke her several times throughout the night and she got up feeling as tired as when she lay down. Not this morning.
This morning she felt rested. And that wasn’t all. There was an underlying sense of well-being, almost happiness, she hadn’t felt since that last morning with Kid, before everything had gone downhill on her.
Wondering at her odd mood, she started to roll over, but froze as she became aware of the strong arm wrapped around her, the warm body snuggled up against her back. Turning just her head, she found herself almost nose to nose with Ike. Afraid to wake him, she caught her breath. Instead, she lay there quietly, watching him over her shoulder in the pre-dawn light filtering through the white tent walls. He seemed so peaceful, so content. She could see the child he’d once been in his sleep slackened features. He must have been a lovely child, she thought inconsequentially.
Ike was enjoying his dream. He and Lou were wed for real, expecting their first child. They were curled up together in a large bed, snug under warm quilt. A roaring fire blazed in the nearby fireplace. He could feel her breath on his face as she leaned over to kiss him. He smiled and tightened his arms around her, bringing her closer to him.
Suddenly, Ike’s arm tightened around Lou as he pressed her entire body closer to his, rubbing his nose against the back of her neck, making her shiver in appreciation. She could feel the tension returning to his muscles as he slowly surfaced to wakefulness. When his green eyes opened, she smiled at him.
“Morning,” she said quietly. He stared at her for a long moment in complete astonishment. Then, she felt him shift again and he blushed so hard his face matched his favorite scarlet bandanna. He started to scramble back from her, pushing himself rapidly to his feet and turning his back on her as he stepped toward the tent’s entrance.
“It’s alright,” she called after him, laughter evident in her voice. “I understand. It’s just morning. It’s not that you’re happy to see me or anything.”
Lou watched as the next level of logs went into place, one at a time. Once they’d gotten to the point where the men couldn’t raise the logs into place themselves, they’d erected a jim hoist, made from one of the extra logs, in the middle of what would soon be the McSwain kitchen and were using ropes attached to it as a pulley to lever the timbers up and into place.
Once they’d decided they had enough logs to start building, the entire troupe had spent several days planing the logs into rough square shapes and cutting out notches at the ends. Now, all they had to do was lift them into place and pound them together.
Lou stood back on the platform of the scaffold they’d built along the inside of the wall, making sure to stay out of the way of the swinging mallots as Tim and Ike worked in tandem to pound this latest log into place. Looking out over the top of the rising cabin walls, she watched as Teresa and Jeremiah disappeared back into the forest, and smiled. They were enjoying gathering the dirt, leaves, twigs and dried grasses that the other women were mixing with water and shoving into the gaps between the walls.
A nudge in her ribs had her turning back to Ike, who was trying to move past her, to help raise the next log.
The work went quickly and by the end of the second day, the walls were up and they’d begun putting in the roof. Lou found herself now banished to chinking duty with the other women, using the materials being constantly ferried back by Jeremiah and Teresa.
She turned at Jeremiah’s urgently shouted call with a raised eyebrow.
“We’ve got guests,” he said unnecessarily. Lou had already seen the pair of Indian hunters trailing along after Jeremiah across the field, Teresa walking between them, her hands flashing in rapid conversation.
“Um, Ike!” Lou called up, pounding on the wall of the cabin. “Everybody, you might want to come on down!”
The dark-skinned young men, their long black hair parted down the middle and bound tightly into braids that hung over their shoulders, moved easily and quietly in their deerskin clothing, moccasins, leggings, breechclout and tunic. Lou could tell they weren’t part of a war party by their dress and lack of war paint, but didn’t want to take any chances. By the time they arrived, all the members of their little community had gathered nervously in front of the partially completed cabin.
Ike took a deep fortifying breath as he watched their approach. He was proud of Lou’s quick response, but worried that she still put herself in the forefront of their group, despite her condition. Such a risk-taker! He hoped these men were friendly. They looked so much like Buck it made his heart ache to think of shooting at them, but he would do it without thinking twice if they showed the slightest sign of intending to harm his family.
The taller of the two men nodded at them all then raised his hands to ask, *Which of you is Ike McSwain?*
Ike stepped forward, Lou at his shoulder, her hand resting on the holstered pistol she’d quickly donned, the gunbelt pulling her shirt tight over her belly. She knew behind her the others were unobtrusively holding onto rifles of their own.
*I am,* Ike signed. *How can we help you?*
“These are Tall Elk and Panther’s Tracks,” Resi said, reaching out to grab the hand of each of the braves as she introduced them. “They were out hunting when we came across them, down by the valley entrance.”
*Is this all there are of you?* the one she’d introduced as Tall Elk asked.
Ike nodded. *Although I can’t promise there won’t be more later.*
*You speak the hand language of our people,* Panther’s Tracks jumped in. *How is that?*
*My blood brother is Kiowa,* Ike said simply. *Running Buck.*
The two men looked at each other and spoke rapidly in a language none could understand. Then, Tall Elk turned back and asked, *Do you live as friends to the Arapaho, too?*
*We mean you no harm,* Ike signed. *If that’s what you mean.*
Moving slowly, to make sure she got the signs right, Lou added, *We would like to think we can be your friends.*
The two men nodded and, turning, moved back the way they’d come.
“What did they want?” Mrs. Heath asked nervously.
“Only to find out if we planned to live in peace or meant them harm, I think,” Lou said quietly, watching the men as they disappeared into the shadows marking the edge of the forest.
“I certainly ain’t planning on pissing them off,” Carl put in.
“Watch your language, sir,” Isaac hushed him. “There are ladies present.”
“My apologies,” Carl said as he began to climb back up onto the roof.
“Today’s the day,” Lou said excitedly as she ducked out through the entrance of her tent, happily contemplating the fact that by the end of the day they would be sleeping in their new home. She couldn’t wait.
In the early dawn light, she found herself just standing there, watching the sun rise over the roof of their new cabin. They’d positioned it so the door faced south, to receive the early morning sun and collect the warm breezes of summer, and avoid the harsh, cold northern winds of winter. It was made up of two rooms, one for sleeping and one for living. There was a loft in both rooms. One would provide storage for food stuffs. Jeremiah and Teresa would sleep in the other. An open breezeway separated the two rooms, providing an outdoor area where cooking and chores could be done in the heat of summer. In winter they would put up a temporary wall to block the northern winds in the breezeway. The roof was covered with dozens of hand shaved wood shingles. Each gap between the logs had been carefully chinked, the mud and grass mixture already drying to a hard consistency that would make the cabin snug as a bug come winter. The only thing left to do was cut the doors and windows into the building, then close off the last corner of the roof.
Lou didn’t quite understand her proprietary feelings toward this small building. She’d never felt this way before. But, for the first time in her life, she couldn’t wait to move into a new home, to start making it hers.
Ike watched Lou from where he was checking on the stock. She was so beautiful, her brown tresses now falling below her shoulders, slightly curling at the ends as they waved in the early morning breeze. Her form was outlined in the rosy light cast by the rising sun. Still wearing pants, she’d long since had to resort to wearing his larger shirts, so the material would cover her belly. Something about the sight of her in his clothes made his chest tighten in proprietary wonder. She was his. If only she would accept it. At least she was starting to warm up to his touches, he thought, unable to resist moving up behind her and wrapping his arounds about her.
Lou started when she felt two arms snaking around her waist, then relaxed back into Ike’s chest as he hugged her close. His chin came to rest on her shoulder, his cheek next to hers. This felt, right. She sighed in momentary contentment.
The sound of a throat being cleared jerked the couple from their silent reverie. Turning, they saw the two young men from yesterday, accompanied by two more men of about the same age and several women. Tall Elk slowly approached Lou and Ike and asked, *Where is Friend Maker?*
“Who?” Lou asked, before remembering and reaching up to quickly sign, *Who?*
*The little girl who found us yesterday? We call her Friend Maker.*
*She’s doing her morning chores,* Ike said, nodding toward where Teresa was getting ready to milk their cow. *What brings you back here so soon?*
“We came to see you put up your strange tipi,” one of the new men said slowly, in heavily accented English. “If we are to be friends, neighbors?, we must learn to understand each other.”
“Welcome,” Lou said, walking up and holding out her hand in greeting. The group of Indians looked at her strangely. She smiled and said, “This is how we greet each other. You take my hand,” grabbing Tall Elk’s hand, she demonstrated, “and shake it. It’s to show you are a friend and don’t wish us harm, because you have to hold any weapons in your off hand.”
*This is good,* Panther’s Tracks signed, grunting in approval once Lou’s words had been translated for him, before reaching out to shake Lou’s hand also. Each of the visitors then insisted on shaking hands with every member of the little community. Lou smothered her own desire to laugh at the solemnity with which they treated what was a very casual custom amongst the Americans.
*We bring gifts,* Tall Elks said once the greeting ceremony was over. *Meat for your fires and blankets.*
“Thank you,” Isaac Brown said. “We appreciate it.”
Lou walked over to where Tim and Carl were standing and whispered, “We should offer gifts as well.”
As the two groups began to mingle, Lou watched, happily noting as they relaxed around each other and even began to laugh and joke with each other.
“It’ll be good to have friends amongst the locals,” she whispered to Ike. He nodded in agreement. “We don’t want any trouble like we had with the Paiute back in Sweetwater,” she added, shivering in memory.
Soon, the American men were beginning the slow process of sawing through the thick log walls to cut out the three doors and three windows. One front door would be located on the south wall of the building, two other doors would open the rooms to the breezeway. There would be one window on each east and west facing wall of the home. Then, the men put in the last few shingles, closing up the roof, and the McSwain cabin was done.
Lou watched the process from a distance, impatient. She felt like the addition of the doors and windows was waking her home up, bringing it to life. Each window looked like an eye opening onto the world. She couldn’t wait to get inside and get to know her new home.
As soon as the last shingle was in place and the men came tumbling out the front door, a cheer went up. But Lou didn’t wait for the celebrations, she was already heading straight for the front door.
“You’d better catch her, if you want to carry her over the threshold,” Emily said to Ike, pushing him in Lou’s direction. Blushing, he rushed to catch up with his eager wife.
So intent was Lou on her goal, she didn’t notice Ike walking up beside her, so she shrieked in surprise when he suddenly swung her up into his arms.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
“Following tradition,” Preacher Heath answered with a beaming smile.
“It’s your first home together,” added Amy Nolan. “It would be bad luck to let you walk in on your own!”
Lou shook her head and laughed. “What about the bad luck of Ike breaking his back trying to carry me?”
Ike shook his head. Even pregnant, she still weighed next to nothing. But, catching her teasing mood, he deliberately faked a stumble just short of the door. Lou shrieked in mock outrage, reaching out to wrap her arms around his neck. Ike grinned. .Just the reaction he’d hoped for, he thought, as the move brought her closer to him.
“Don’t you dare drop me, Ike McSwain,” she ordered.
Ike just grinned down at her as he twisted sideways and ducked his head to step up over the threshold and into the cabin. Lou held on even tighter at his unexpected movements, still laughing for all she was worth.
Stopping just inside the dimness of the cabin, small squares of light filtering in through the windows providing the only illumination, Ike slowly lowered Lou to the floor, letting her slide down the front of his body, until she stood in front of him, pressed close, her arms still wrapped around his neck.
Leaning in slowly, giving her the time and space to move away if she wished, Ike gently pressed his lips to hers. When she didn’t pull away, he pulled her tighter into his embrace, deepening the kiss. Lou’s surprise at Ike’s suddenly aggressive move faded into pleasure as she reveled in his attentions. Soon, she was kissing him back, pressing herself closer to him in an effort to relieve the heat building inside, the heat only he seemed to be able to quench.
Ike smiled against her lips. Not only hadn’t she pulled away, she was actively participating in the kiss. Her lips were sweeter than he had ever imagined. And, oh, had he spent time imagining. Reaching up, Ike cradled the back of her head in his hand, enjoying the silky texture of her hair as the strands wrapped themselves around his fingers, even as he pulled her even closer, deepening the kiss.
A sudden tumbling in her gut had both of them pulling back, gasping slightly for breath. Ike reached out one hand to press it wonderingly against her belly, where the baby had kicked them both. A broad grin spread across his face.
*Welcome home,* he signed, smiling down at her.