“Is a boy,” Pretty Flower said, placing the newborn infant in Lou’s arms. Looking at Ike, she admonished, “No let her sit. Still work to do!”
Ike, who was standing behind Lou, his arms wrapped around her, holding her up on her feet, nodded absently, his eyes clapped to the baby.
“A boy,” Lou whispered, reaching out to slowly brush a smear of blood off the child’s cheek. Ike reached up and jerked his bandanna off his head. Using it, he gently began cleaning the newborn with the red cloth clutched in one hand, even as he kept Lou on her feet with the other. Neither was really aware of Pretty Flower’s continued ministrations, dealing with the afterbirth.
His hands full, Ike found himself unable to tell Lou all he was thinking and feeling. Yet, when she looked up at him and their eyes met, green to brown, he knew she understood. They were overwhelmed. This perfect miniature human being had just been given into their care. They knew how easy it was for a warm, loving family to be ripped away from a child. It had happened to both of them. And both were determined it not happen to this one.
By the time the baby was cleaned off, he was already rooting around, looking for Lou’s breast. She gasped when he first latched on, then relaxed back against Ike, sighing in wonder. Ike, too, was astounded by the primeval experience.
“Put in bed,” Pretty Flower said softly. “Mama, baby need sleep.”
With a nod, Ike leaned over to slip his other arm under Lou’s legs and lift both her and the baby boy into his embrace. A few steps and he was gently laying them down on the bed and pulling the covers up over them. Her eyes already closing in slumber, Lou whispered, “You, too, Ike. You need sleep, too.”
“Louise! We got to spend the night with Tall Elk and Blue Sky!”
“We’re sorry we didn’t make it back before nightfall,” Resi piped up. “Tall Elk wouldn’t let us. Said it wasn’t safe.”
“Shhhh!” Pretty Flower tried to quiet the children as they burst through the door. “Mama sleeping.”
“Why’s Louise sleeping?” Resi asked, confused.
“Mama,” Pretty Flower repeated. “Baby.”
“Louise had her baby?” Jeremiah shouted in sudden excitement.
“Yes,” Pretty Flower nodded, sighing in resignation. There would be no quieting the exuberant children now.
“It’s alright,” Lou said from the bed where she was cocooned in a nest of blankets and Ike’s warm arms, the infant lying next to her. “I’m awake.”
“What is it?” Teresa asked, as both children tentatively moved toward the bed.
“It’s a boy,” Lou said quietly, pushing the blankets away from the newborn’s face so her brother and sister could get a good look. “A strong, healthy little boy.”
“Woo-hoo!” Jeremiah exclaimed. “I win! You have to water the horses for a week!”
Lou laughed as she realized the two had laid bets on the gender of their new nephew.
“You two’ve been around Express riders too much,” she muttered under her breath.
“What’s his name?” Teresa asked, reaching out to reverently touch the baby’s cheek with one extended finger. He yawned, turning in the direction of her finger, one fist tightly clenched near his head, eyes still closed.
“I.. I don’t know,” Lou stuttered, taken off guard. “We never talked about names.”
A movement behind her caught Lou’s attention and she looked over her shoulder at Ike, who had awoken and was trying to sign something one handed.
*We should call him… James Kidd McSwain… for fallen brothers.*
Lou promptly burst into tears.
“So, what’s his name?” Amy Nolan asked as she cooed over the quietly sleeping infant later that day.
*James Kidd McSwain,* Ike signed.
“We’re calling him J.K. though,” Lou said over the lump that always seemed to block her throat when she thought of the name with which Ike had christened her son. There was no way she could explain to them they didn’t want to pick one name over the other because even now they couldn’t tell which of their fallen brothers had been the baby’s father. His eyes, not just the blue of them but their shape as well, reminded her of Kid. But his long fingered hands made her think of Jimmy. It would probably become apparent as he grew older, but for now his parentage remained a mystery.
Not that Ike seemed to care, Lou thought as she watched him gently take the newborn and place the infant in the fine, cherrywood cradle Ike had brought back through the storm as a gift for her. Ike was more in love with their son, that’s what Ike called him, than even she was.
“He’s a good father,” Mrs. Heath said, echoing Lou’s thoughts.
“Yes, he is,” Lou whispered in agreement.
After all their well wishers had left, Ike began to unpack the rest of the supplies he’d brought back with him. Walking back into the cabin from the barn, he handed Lou a packet of papers.
*Letters,* he said. *There was a lot of mail waiting for us at Fort Bridger.*
“How’d they know where to find us?” she asked, as she began to sort through the missives.
*I told everyone where we were headed, back when the train stopped outside Rock Creek,* he explained. *Carter knew we’d left the train, so he held on to the letters rather than send them on to Oregon City.*
Lou nodded absently. The first letter was from Emma, addressed directly to Lou. She sat that one aside to read later, when she was alone. She pretty much knew what Emma would have to say and wasn’t sure she was up to handling it. There was another letter from Rachel. Cody had sent a short note and Noah had, unsurprisingly, sent them the longest letter of all.
“You didn’t read any of them?” Lou asked, noting that all the letters were still sealed, even the ones addressed to both of them.
*They were to both of us,* Ike shrugged. *Didn’t feel right reading them by myself.*
The letters were full of news from home. Noah was still courting Cassie, but had hopes of convincing her to marry him by spring. Cody had joined the Army as a scout and left for Kansas. The Express had come to a crashing halt with the advent of the telegraph. Buck and Noah were working as Teaspoon’s deputies, but asked if they could come join Ike and Lou in the spring.
*What do you think?* Ike asked. *I know you needed some time away, time to grieve, but I think you’re past that now. Would it be alright?*
Lou smiled at him, touched by his concern for her feelings.
“They’re our brothers, how can we turn them away?” she asked. “No, I’ll be happy to see them. I’ve missed them all more than I’d ever thought possible.” She still wasn’t sure she was safe to be around, but nothing had happened in months. Maybe, just maybe, she had outrun the trouble that seemed to dog her footsteps, always missing her and felling those she loved the most, instead.
*I’ll send them directions,* he said, *first thing in the spring, soon as the pass to Fort Bridger opens up again.*
Those first few weeks of real winter slipped by the young couple, almost unnoticed. They spent the time in a daze of midnight feedings and daily exhaustion. Lou quickly came to understand why Mrs. Heath had jumped at the chance to end her journey early when they’d decided to stay in McSwain Valley.
But Ike was always there to relieve her when the stress of being a new mother became too much.
*Let me take him with me while I feed the animals,* he’d say, wrapping little JK securely in a fur blanket and strapping him into the cradleboard Pretty Flower had gifted them with.
Pretty Flower and her sister wife, Blue Sky, continued to make regular visits, often appearing without warning at the McSwain place, which they preferred over the Americans who lived at the other end of the valley. They came for friendly conversation, to offer advice on caring for JK, and of course to satisfy their sweet tooth.
Christmas morning, Lou awoke to a smiling Ike kneeling next to the bed, a small package held in his hand for her. Sitting up, she sleepily wiped her eyes, trying to clear them. JK had been fussy the night before. She thought he might be teething. Insistently, Ike pushed the gift toward her.
“What’s this?” she finally mumbled, taking the small box.
*Open it and find out,* he grinned at her.
His suppressed excitement slowly wormed its way past her exhaustion, waking her more fully. With a quirked eyebrow, she quickly tore the box open then paused to gasp at the sight of what was inside.
“Oh, Ike,” she murmured in awe. “You shouldn’t have.”
*Why not? A beautiful ornament for a beautiful woman,* he signed. *I saw it and immediately thought of you.*
She reached into the box with reverent fingers and pulled out a beautiful cameo, carved into an ivory oval and set against a gold backpiece, all hanging from a long golden chain. She held it up in front of her, slowly twisting in the air as she admired its beauty.
“I’ve always wanted something like this,” she murmured quietly, missing the satisfied grin that covered Ike’s features. Then, she held the necklace out to him. Pulling her hair, which had by now grown down below her shoulders, up and out of the way, she asked, “Would you?”
Ike leaned forward and carefully fastened the necklace behind her neck. His sudden proximity caused her breath to shorten with desire as she found herself gazing at his face while he watched his hands to make sure he didn’t catch any of her hair in the clasp. When he pulled back, she reached up to caress his cheek. Ike reached up to cover her hand with his before leaning back in and placing a gentle kiss on her lips.
The gentle kiss quickly turned hot with a passion that might have gotten quickly out of both their control if it weren’t for the sudden giggles and gagging sounds coming from the loft above.
“Oh, gross! They’re at that mushy stuff again!” Jeremiah complained in a loud voice, before beginning to make a noisy, stomping entrance down the ladder from the loft.
Ike and Lou laughed as they pulled apart, slightly abashed to have been caught necking by her 13 year old brother.
*Merry Christmas,* Ike signed, standing up and heading over to give the children his customary ‘good morning’ hug.
“Merry Christmas!” they chorused back, before running straight to the fireplace. “What did Santa bring us?”
“I don’t know about Santa,” Lou smiled, “but I know Ike got you both something special. And so did I.”
The next few minutes were filled with shouts of glee as the children opened the presents Ike had picked up for them at the Fort Bridger trading post. In addition, Lou had made each of them a new outfit and given them a peppermint candy stick and an orange, which she’d carted all the way from St. Joe. Ike claimed his now customary place behind Lou, arms wrapped around her rapidly shrinking waist, chin rested on her shoulder, as they watched the children enjoying their first real Christmas in years.
“It makes me think of last year,” Lou said wistfully. “Everything seemed so happy and full of hope. I didn’t see how anything could ever change.”
*All things change,* Ike slowly signed. *Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. All we can do is control how we react to the changes.*
Lou turned around in Ike’s arms. Leaning up, she kissed his chin. “How’d you get so smart?”
“Would you two stop it?” Jeremiah complained over his shoulder, but he had a grin on his face. He might pretend to dislike the apparent affection growing between his sister and her husband, but deep inside he was as happy about it as Teresa.
Lou simply pointed up at the rafter over their heads, where a bunch of mistletoe dangled, and went back to kissing Ike, who didn’t seem the least bit concerned about being the object of her affections.
The entire community of McSwain Valley gathered at the Heaths for a special Christmas Day prayer service, followed by a large communal feast. Even Tall Elk, his brother Panther’s Tracks and their wives had come to join the festivities.
Everyone spent the afternoon talking, laughing and generally having a good time. That evening, the musicians amongst them pulled out their instruments and began to play while the rest took to the cleared floor for an impromptu dance.
“I need to rest,” Lou laughed after her fourth dance in a row. “Besides, I think it’s time to feed little JK.”
Ike nodded agreeably and escorted Lou to a private corner where JK and the Heaths’ five month old son, Joey, were wrapped warmly in their cradles near the hearth. Settling herself comfortably, Lou looked over and saw Emily sitting by herself.
“Why don’t you go dance with Emily,” she suggested. “She looks a little lonely. No one should be alone on Christmas.”
*Are you sure?*
Lou shrugged. “Makes more sense than for you to sit here watching me feed JK.”
Soon Ike was walking across the room. But, before he got halfway to Emily’s side, Preacher Heath waylaid him.
“Ike,” he said, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you, son.”
*What about?* Ike asked curiously.
“Well,” the man of God began to hem and haw as he blushed bright red. “Well, you see, there’s this time, after a woman’s brought this new life into the world that she needs a little extra help.”
*And I’m helping Lou all I can,* Ike said.
“I know you are son, I know you are.” The preacher patted Ike on the shoulder, even as he kept talking. “But that’s not… exactly.. the type of help I’m talking about. This is more in the way of help.. uh… healing. The Bible says you should let your wife rest up good and long after having a baby.”
Now it was Ike’s turn to blush bright red, as he realized what the preacher was getting at. Nodding his agreement, he signed a quick *sure!* and made his getaway. Only to be stopped a moment later by Tall Elk and Panther’s Tracks.
*We need to talk to you,* Tall Elk signed, turning his back to the room in an obvious attempt to keep their conversation private. *I understand you have no father to guide you in these matters.*
*What matters might those be?* Ike asked.
*Matters between a husband and wife,* Panther’s Tracks added, smiling slightly. *It is important to give your wife time to heal after the birth of a baby.*
*We know it can be difficult for newlyweds, such as yourselves, to abstain for so long, but her body needs that time,* Tall Elk added helpfully.
*How much time are you talking about here?* Ike asked slowly, almost fearfully.
*Amongst our people, it is normal to wait until the child is weaned,* Panther’s Tracks answered.
*That is one reason why those who can provide for a large family often have more than one wife,* Tall Elk said. *It can get lonely on a cold winter night while waiting for your wife to be ready to join you in the furs.*
Tall Elk and Panther’s Tracks laughed uproariously at their joke., even as Ike backed away from them, his face blanching from a blushing red to a pale white.
Lou looked up from little J.K. as she laid him back down in his cradle, fast asleep after his meal. She watched as Emily’s features brightened when Ike finally reached her side and held out his hand to her in question. Soon they were twirling their way around the room in time to the music.
“Is good,” Pretty Flower said, coming up to stand next to Lou. “She good choice.”
“What are you talking about?” Lou asked, confused.
“Now good time,” Pretty Flower began, then paused, flummoxed by her lack of English vocabulary. Finally, she lapsed into sign language. *Now’s a good time for Ike to take a second wife. A strong, virile man like him needs someone to keep the blankets warm while you are nursing. It’s not good to make him wait until your baby boy is weened.*
Lou stared at Pretty Flower in horror.
“We… we don’t believe in multiple wi….wives,” she finally stuttered.
“He not courting Emily?” Pretty Flower asked, now confused herself.
Lou shook her head, almost violently. “They’re just friends.”
Pretty Flower made a doubtful grunt. “Not look like friends to me.”
Lou looked again at Ike dancing with Emily held securely in his arms, her head thrown back in laughter at something he’d just done. She tried not to let it, but a moment of doubt wormed its way into the back of her brain. Was Ike in love with Emily? Did he regret marrying her? Taking on the responsibility for Jeremiah, Teresa and now baby JK? Was he accepting her affections as his due for the sacrifices he’d made for her, not because he really wanted her? Was he just making the best of the situation he’d gotten himself in to?