“You look awful chipper this morning,” Emily smiled at Ike as they cantered their mounts out of the protected pass that was the entrance to McSwain Valley. “I take it your courtship of your dear young wife is going well.”
Ike shrugged, ducking his head to hide the blush spreading to his cheeks. While they’d worked together felling trees to build their little community, he and Emily had grown to be close friends. Sometimes it amazed him how well she’d learned to accept the situation for what it was. At others, her dissatisfaction with the status quo was apparent. The details of the previous night were definitely not something he wanted to share with her.
Emily just laughed at Ike’s bashful response and kicked her mule into a faster pace, moving ahead to catch up with her father. It had surprised Ike and the others when both of the Metcalfes had decided to go on this supply run. But, it did make some sense. One part of the purpose for the trip was to file claim on the land. Since Emily was unmarried, she could file on her own claim. But, she had to be present to do so.
They’d also brought their entire string of six mules. Carl Metcalfe planned to bring back enough supplies to set up his own saloon. Ike just shook his head in resignation. It seemed there was no dissuading him from his crazy idea.
Ike had brought his own chestnut mare, who he called Big Red, along with Katy and Sundancer. He didn’t trust Lightning to behave without Lou around. He probably wouldn’t need all three of them for supplies, but had wanted to do a little gift shopping while he was at the fort as well. Christmas was just around the corner. And, the baby was due in less than a month, if Lou had figured things right.
A brisk breeze whipping down the side of the mountain sent a shiver down Ike’s back and he looked up at the towering cloud bank rising over the mountain peaks. They were making this trip just in time, he mused. Hopefully, they hadn’t waited too long.
The trip back to Fort Bridger took only a couple of days, as compared to the two or so weeks it had taken to travel the same distance with the wagon train just a few months ago. They rode into the fort late on the second day, tired and cold from the long trip, the early winter winds whipping around them, tossing flakes of snow about like a playing child.
Ike looked around and thought how empty the fort looked without its military attachment present.
“Welcome, welcome!” William Carter boomed to the newly arrived group, his head and shoulders hanging out the door of his trading post. “I can see you’re here to trade. Come on in out of the cold and get comfortable!”
It didn’t take long for Ike to complete his business, gathering up the food and other supplies they needed. Then he began to search through the luxury items Carter had. He quickly found something for both Teresa and Jeremiah. For Resi he bought a perfect little miniature tea set. Jeremiah got his own rifle. He was old enough, Ike figured, to learn how to handle one properly. Lou’s gift was more difficult, Ike found. There were bolts of pretty calico cloth, a couple bonnets and hats decorated with bits of feathers and fur, even a silverbacked brush and mirror set. But nothing that struck him as right for Lou.
Even as he searched, he kept one ear and eye on the goings on in the post, making sure all was right with the people he’d come to think of as his, to protect and care for. So, he was the first to notice when Carl Metcalfe slipped through the back door of the trading post into the room where Carter served ‘the good stuff’, for a price of course, and men could find a game of poker. Emily, however, seemed to be spending most of her time flirting with a tall, gangly man with curly, dishwater blonde locks that fell below his shoulders. The man seemed a bit old for Emily, but, Ike shrugged his shoulders, it wasn’t as if he would ever be more than a passing acquaintance.
Finally, finding what he thought would be a good gift for Lou, Ike turned back to Carter and began negotiating the price.
“How’s that little lady of yourn’ doin?” Carter asked as he wrapped up Ike’s purchases.
Getting nervous, Ike wrote down. Baby’s due soon.
“I bet,” Carter laughed. “Not exactly up her alley, is it? Giving birth, I mean.” He paused a moment, then shook himself. “Oh, almost forgot, you’ve got some mail here. Arrived a bit back.” As he shuffled through piles of letters under the counter he muttered, “Too bad about the Express. The mail’s sure slowed down since it closed.”
Ike rapidly scribbled, What happened to the Express?, then pounded his fist on the counter to get Carter’s attention.
Reading the note, Carter said, “The telegraph, son. Didn’t you know? It put the Express out of business when it went through. Well, here’s your mail. Bet there’s a letter or two from your friends explaining things better than I can.”
Lou sighed as she sank knee deep into the snow when she stepped off the breezeway on her way to the barn. The snow had started the morning after Ike and the rest of the men had left for Fort Bridger. It hadn’t stopped for more than a few hours since and had piled up quickly. She was seriously worried about whether they’d be able to make it back before spring.
Grabbing ahold of the rope they’d strung between the cabin and the barn in case of a blizzard, Lou used it to keep her balance as she slowly worked her way through the white stuff. It didn’t take her long to feed and water the animals, then muck out the stalls and spread fresh hay for them. In the process though, she discovered their milk cow had, once again, kicked out one of the walls of her stall.
“You keep this up and we’re just gonna let you out to deal with the wolves and coyotes on yer own,” Lou muttered acidically. While the work of repairing the stall helped fill a few minutes, it still didn’t take long. Soon, she stood at the barn door, looking out over the white blanketed landscape, sighing.
She didn’t have anything else to do today. The children had already left for their daily lessons with Amy Nolan, who was filling in for her husband as teacher while he was gone. The cabin was clean. She’d made so many baby clothes, diapers and blankets she was out of material. And, though she wouldn’t say she’d done that good a job of it, she’d canned every piece of fruit and vegetable she could find in preparation for the long mountain winter. She needed something to keep her busy or she was going to go stir crazy.
She’d always worried about the boys when they’d been out on runs. But never quite like this, not even with the Kid. She figured it must be the baby making her so unsure and uncertain. Wrapping her arms around herself, she squeezed them tight. She missed Ike more than she’d ever have thought possible. She wanted him back. Not just for his warmth in bed at night, not just for his sweet kisses and gentle strength. No, she missed his smile in the morning, his happy teasing, his loving care with the children. She missed him.
This train of thought had her thinking back to their one night together, just before he’d left. It had been so sweet. She was glad she’d waited, yet wished they hadn’t waited quite so long. Looking up at their hideaway in the hayloft, she had an idea. She knew what she would do that day.
“Damned piece of …. “ Lou let the muttered imprecation trail off as she struggled to drag the frame of the double bed Ike had made for them out through the barn doors. The sudden cackling of female voices had her head swinging around to see who was watching her.
Tall Elk’s two wives stood in the cabin breezeway, whispering animatedly to each other and occasionally pointing at Lou.
“Instead of standing there laughing at me, you could come help!” Lou called out to them.
The two women, about the same age as Lou and Ike from all they’d been able to figure out, came trotting over, moving easily through the deep snow in their thigh high moccasins and leather leggings, under their beautifully decorated long tunics.
“You funny white woman,” the elder of the two women, Pretty Flower, said in broken English. “Why tie wood like this? Easier carry logs to fire.”
Lou laughed at the misunderstanding. “This isn’t for the fire,” she said. “This is a bed. For sleeping,” she added at their confused looks.
“But, no can carry on trail,” the second woman said, still frowning. “Why make when have to leave in spring?”
“We won’t go on the trail like you,” Lou explained as they helped her carry the large, unwieldy frame across the yard to the cabin. “We’ll hunt, sure, but we won’t be gone more than a few days. We’ll put in crops and stay here to make sure they grow. It’s called farming. That’s why we built a log cabin instead of staying in a tent.”
“Why?” Pretty Flower asked, as confused as her sister wife, Blue Sky. “Plants grow on own. Don’t need help.”
Lou paused at the front door of the cabin to look at the other two women, not sure how to explain. Finally she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”
It didn’t take them long to get the bed frame the rest of the way into the bedroom, then bring over the feather mattress and make the bed. Lou looked across the room at the abandoned single beds she and Ike had been using. She decided she’d make Jeremiah and Teresa move them up into the loft when they got home.
“Coffee?” she asked her guests, ready to settle in for a long visit. One thing she did like about this settled life was the ability to have a long afternoon chat with other women, to not have to hide who and what she was. And she had Ike to thank for that freedom, she thought with a small, half hidden smile.
Looking at the two women as they seated themselves in her kitchen, Lou was reminded of Buck for a split second. Thinking about his incurable sweet tooth, she added, “Would you like some dried apple pie? Teresa made it just yesterday. I didn’t touch it, I promise.”
Ike frowned as he stared into the fire that night. It took every ounce of control he had not to pull his revolver and start shooting something, anything. The rage filling his body right now was unlike any he’d ever felt before. How could the government have pulled the land office out of Fort Bridger? He didn’t have time to travel all the way into Oregon City to file for their land. He needed to get back to Lou. She was waiting for him, expecting him, needing him. He had to be there! But, if he didn’t file for their land now, someone else might have snatched it out from under them by spring, forcing them to move on. And Lou already loved their valley, he could tell. She showed none of her usual signs of restlessness. He didn’t know if it was the baby or if she’d just reached a point in her life where she wanted to settle, but she was rapidly turning their little cabin into a real home. A home he wanted to get back to.
Allowing himself a little bit of venting, he tossed the next handful of branches onto the fire with unneeded extra force, causing sparks to shoot up into the sky.
“She’ll be alright,” Emily’s soft voice came from his side. She laid a calming hand on his arm, which he impatiently pushed away. He didn’t want to be calmed. He wanted to be home.
*And if the baby comes?* he asked.
“She’ll have Mrs. Heath and Amy Nolan there to help. And her Indian friends,” Emily smiled, a little sadly, at Lou’s ability to gather friends around her, despite her unconventional lifestyle. “She’ll be fine.”
*She’ll be worried. It’s been almost two weeks already,* he signed, his hands jerking in furious controlled anger. *It’ll take another week or two for us to get to Oregon City, fill out the paperwork and come back. Worry’s not good for her and the baby.*
Emily watched Ike as he once more collapsed in on himself, brooding in a silent, heavy anger. She wanted so desperately to hug him to her, comfort him. But he wasn’t hers to comfort. Finally, she spoke again.
“I’ll go back.” Ike looked up at her sharply in wonder. She nodded confirmation, he’d heard what he thought he’d heard. “We really don’t need two plots. And, if Pa plays it right, he can surround my 160 with his and no one else’ll want it. I’ll be able to come back next spring to file. I’ll go back, let them all know what’s going on, so they don’t worry.”
*Thank you,* Ike signed simply, reaching out to drag Emily into a bearhug, patting her shoulder for emphasis. She sighed, enjoying the contact, but wishing it were for another reason. Lou’d damned well better appreciate her sacrifice, she thought fiercely.
Lou waved after the two women as they left the next morning to return to their camp. She’d enjoyed their visit. It had certainly distracted her for a few hours from her worry over Ike and the other missing men. They’d hoped to make the trip and back within a week and a half, two at the most. It had now been more than two weeks since they’d left.
Needing another project, now that the bed had been successfully moved into the house, Lou scanned her little home, trying to decide what to do next.
“Whatcha doin’?” Jeremiah asked, running past her toward the barn, eager to be off to school.
“Lookin’ fer somethin’ ta keep me busy,” Lou muttered.
“Why don’t you build some steps,” Teresa suggested as she dropped heavily more than a foot from the threshold of the door to the ground.
“That’s a danged good idea, young lady,” Lou smiled at her. “I’ll just go see what we’ve got in the way of supplies in the barn.”
Thus it was, she was pounding away at the last step when the children came rushing home. She’d built steps not only to the front door but also to the breezeway. But, before she could even ask the kids about their day, they started shouting.
“Lou! Come quick! They’re on the way back! They’re coming home!”
Lou didn’t even stop to grab her gloves, which she’d set down on the steps while wielding the hammer. She jumped up and headed straight for the barn. Moments later she came tearing out of the barn, riding Lightning bareback.
“Wonder how she mounted?” Jeremiah asked of no one in particular.
When Lou reached the other end of the valley and the cluster of three homes, she found only Sundancer and Katy tied up outside, along with the others’ pack mules. Sliding off Lightning’s back, she dropped the reins, ground tying him, and rushed into the Heath’s home.
“Ike, I’m so glad you…” she came to a sudden halt as she realized the only one of the travellers there was Emily. Lou’s face suddenly lost all color and she reached out to grab the door post. Barely able to breath, she stuttered, “Where’s…. where’s Ike? And… and the others?”
Emily jumped to her feet, holding out one hand in a vain attempt to reassure Lou. “They’re fine! I swear. Just turned out they had to go all the way into Oregon City to file their claims. Couldn’t file at Fort Bridger with the Army gone.”
Lou’s shoulders slumped. All the energy and excitement bleeding away with those few words. She was glad Ike was safe, so far as she knew, but she wanted him home. Now.
Mrs. Heath walked up and patted her shoulder comfortingly. “It’ll be alright, dearie. He’ll be back before the baby gets here. You’ll see. He wouldn’t miss that for anything.”
Lou crossed off another day on the calendar they’d bought back in St. Joe, bringing it all the way out here with them. It had been three weeks and five days since Ike had left. Her baby was due any day now and still there was no sign of his return.
Bending forward, Lou pulled the blue and white checked curtains she’d made aside and peered out the window. Snow was still falling again, and it was coming down thicker than ever.
She turned at the frantic call filtering through the thick cabin walls. Grabbing her shawl, she wrapped it around her shoulders as she stepped out into the breezeway to find out what Teresa was yelling about.
“What is it?”
“The milk cow, she’s broken through the stall again,” Resi said, slightly frantically.
“I’ll be right there to fix it,” Lou sighed. “Let me just grab my hat.”
“No, Louise, you don’t understand,” Resi pleaded, finally reaching the steps to the breezeway. “She’s gone. She got out somehow last night.”
Lou rubbed her aching back. She didn’t need this. Not today. She just wasn’t up to it, not mentally, certainly not physically. “She’s just going to have to make do on her own for awhile, then I guess.”
“We’ll go find her,” Jeremiah offered. “Won’t we Resi? Tall Elk and Panther’s Tracks have been teaching us about tracking. We’ll be back in no time.”
Lou cocked her head, considering the proposition. She’d been relying on the children more and more the last week. But this seemed like almost too much.
“Please,” Resi added. “It’ll be so much more fun than being stuck in the house all day.”
At last, Lou relented. “All right, but I want you back by sundown, cow or no cow, you understand? And you bundle up good!”
“Yes, ma’am,” the children chorused, putting their heads together and hatching their plans for the search even as they moved back toward the barn. Lou shook her head.
Back in the house, she found herself moving restlessly from room to room. Her back ached horribly and she was tired as all get out, but she couldn’t seem to sit still. Thus, she greeted a knock on the front door with a sense of relief.
“Pretty Flower! Blue Sky!” she greeted the Tall Elk’s two wives happily. It was strange, but in many ways she’d become closer to them over the last few months than with the other women in their small community. “I didn’t expect to see you two today, not with that storm brewing.” She indicated the growing storm cloud with her chin, in the Indian way.
“Storm come tonight,” Blue Sky said. “Plenty time. But no spend night.”
Soon, the three women were seated before the fireplace with cups of heavily sweetened coffee in their hands and plates of cookies on their laps. But Lou found, even now, with her two good friends to talk with, she couldn’t sit still. Standing, she began to move slowly, back and forth, between the fireplace and the kitchen table.
Catching a look passed between the two sisters, she asked grumpily, “What?”
“How feel today?” Pretty Flower asked, moving behind Lou and beginning to massage her lower back.
“I dunno,” Lou said, unable to verbalize her odd feelings. “Restless, I guess.”
“Back hurt?” Blue Sky queried.
Lou looked up at her in surprise. “Yes.”
“Feel… tight? Here?” Pretty Flower asked, running a hand along the lower edge of her own belly to indicate what she meant.
Lou nodded slowly. “Yes. Has been fer awhile now. What are you gettin’ at?”
“Baby come soon,” Pretty Flower pronounced solemnly, then broke into a wide smile.
“Oh no! Hell no!” Lou said, backing away from the two women now beaming at her. Shaking her head violently she added, “This child ain’t goin’ no where ‘til Ike gets back!”
“Baby no care ‘bout father,” Blue Sky said sagely.
Trying to ignore the two women now following her every movement with their eyes, Lou returned to her pacing.
“This one does,” she muttered to herself. “I do!”
“I say we stay here,” Carl Metcalfe argued. “We’ve got shelter, food, warmth. No sense heading out into a storm.”
“We’ll be safer,” Preacher Heath added. “The ladies will still be there if we wait another day or two to get home.”
Ike watched his companions as they tried to convince him to stay, ride out the storm in the cave they’d spent the last night in. But he knew he needed to get back now. Something in his gut told him he needed to hurry.
Shaking his head, he said, *No. I need to get back now. We’re already almost two weeks late. The baby’s due any day now. I can’t wait.”
“Ike you won’t do her any good if you go and get yourself lost, frozen or worse trying to get home in the middle of a storm,” Tim Nolan made one last attempt to dissuade him. But Ike was having none of it.
*Lou would come for me,* he said simply.
In a matter of moments, he was wrapped up in as many layers as he could manage, his head covered in his customary bandanna, a hat on top of that and a thick muffler wrapped around the lot, then down around his neck and face. Mounting up on Big Red, he headed out into the gathering storm, praying he’d make it home safe and sound.
“Here,” Pretty Flower said, “Tea. Help calm you.”
“I don’t want any damned tea,” Lou gritted out between her teeth, trying to ignore the repeated tightening of her abdomen. “Where are those children?”
“Blue Sky go home. Tell Tall Elk find, take to village. Not good they be here now.”
“Shouldn’t you be headed home, too?” Lou asked, glaring at the woman tormenting her with her constant cheerfulness.
“No. You no be alone when baby come,” Pretty Flower answered, unflustered by Lou’s rising temper. “I stay.”
“I won’t be alone,” Lou ground out, trying not to groan as another round of cramping rolled over her belly, much stronger this time. “Ike’ll be here.”
“Hmph,” Pretty Flower grunted non-committally.
Lou suddenly bent over, a hand to her belly, as she felt a sudden gush. “No!”
“Waters break,” Pretty Flower commented drily. “Time take clothes off.”
“What?” Lou practically shrieked, as the other woman began tugging and pulling at her clothes. “No. You don’t need to take my clothes off. This baby’s not comin’ yet!”
“Baby come, you say yes, you say no. Baby come,” the implacable Indian stated, finally managing to pull Lou’s shirt off.
The snow was coming down so thick now Ike could barely see in front of his face. He just prayed he was still heading in the right direction. He’d had to dismount a couple miles back and was now plowing through the thigh deep snow on foot, breaking a path for Big Red.
He was so cold. He wanted nothing more than to stop, dig a hole in the snow and go to sleep. But he couldn’t stop. Lou was counting on him. His Lou needed him. He refused to not be there for her.
With slow, deliberate determination, he pushed through the snow, concentrating on just putting one foot in front of the other.
“Nooooo!” Lou screamed as yet another pain passed through her, leaving her feeling like someone was trying to split her insides in two.
“Yes,” Pretty Flower said softly. “Baby come soon.”
Pretty Flower shook her head sadly. “Not good fight pain. Relax. Baby come soon, easy. Fight, baby hurt more.”
Lou reached out with one arm and grabbed a fistful of the other woman’s deerskin tunic, dragging her in close.
“This… baby…. is… not…. coming…. until… I… say…. it’s…. coming!” she panted before pushing the Indian away with all her force, sending her skidding across the floor.
“Mother have much spirit,” Pretty Flower muttered as she picked herself up off the floor. “Baby be strong.”
Were those lights he saw up ahead? Ike wondered. He was so cold now he was no longer sure what he was seeing. It could as easily be an illusion as one of the cabins. But it didn’t matter. He had to keep going. Lou needed him. He wouldn’t let her down.
“You need stand up,” Pretty Flower said. “Make baby come easy. Like falling.”
“I told you--“
Lou’s repeated protest was cut short by a sudden banging against the closed and latched door. Pretty Flower hurried over to it and began to fight with the unfamiliar leather latch. Finally, she managed to get it in place and pulled the door open. A tall man, nearly completely white from the snow encrusted in his clothes, almost fell into the small, cozily warm room.
Lou pushed herself up off the bed she’d been sitting on and moved across the room as quickly as her condition would allow. Falling to her knees, she began frantically pulling the muffler away from the man’s face, unwinding it from around his hat and shoulders.
“Ike,” she whispered. “You made it, Ike.”
One mittened hand, as white as the rest of him, reached up to brush against her cheek.
*Promised,* he motioned.
Lou nodded, leaning down to press warm kisses against his frigid lips and cheeks. “And you’ve always kept your promises to me. I knew you’d make it.”
“Now you let baby come?” Pretty Flower asked, unheard.