The biggest surprise of the winter turned out to be the success of the Metcalf Saloon. Carl had been right about there being plenty of mountain men and trappers in the area who’d appreciate a place to stop by for a game of cards and a taste of the ‘good stuff.’ There were never more than two or three at a time, but their presence worried Ike.
*I’m afraid they’ll cause trouble, especially after they’ve been drinking,* he told Lou one night as they sat by the fire after supper. She was feeding a quickly growing JK while Ike was writing in his journal. He’d set the leatherbound book down on his knee to share his thoughts with her.
“It’s not like their presence is exactly a secret,” she said. “Why don’t we make it a practice to drop by the saloon, any time he’s got customers, just to make sure they know we’re keeping an eye on them?”
*We?* Ike asked.
“I can handle a gun better than you and you know it,” she replied acerbically. “And honestly, you’re better with the baby. Don’t see why I can’t drop by and scare a few idiots straight occasionally. Used to do it all the time fer Teaspoon.”
Ike grimaced. He knew he could argue with her that she had a responsibility to JK, not to mention Jeremiah and Teresa, but she’d just turn around and say he had the same responsibility. By that logic, neither of them should go anywhere near the saloon. No, he knew exactly what she’d say and he knew exactly where they’d end up, with her doing more than her share of the law enforcement in the valley.
Instead, he said simply, *Alright. But, I take at least half the visits.*
Lou nodded agreeably.
Ike sighed as he straightened his gunbelt. He’d really thought he’d put it away for good when he’d come west with Lou to start farming. For better or worse though, it felt strangely comfortable and comforting. Pushing his hat back on his head, he stepped through the front of the Metcalf Saloon.
“Hey, Ike,” Carl greeted from his place behind the small table that served as his bar. “What kin I do fer ya?”
*Got any sarsaparilla?* Ike asked.
“Sure,” Carl said, reaching down to pull out a dark brown bottle. Prying off the cap, he handed it over to Ike. “Enjoy.”
“Hey, Carl, who’s the dummy?” a fat, grey haired man clothed in buckskins asked from a table near the fire. The other man at the table with him laughed at the comment. Ike stiffened.
“I’d be careful who I call a dummy, Otis,” a suave, southern voice said calmly as the familiar face of a tall, thin man with long, curling blonde locks never raised his eyes from perusing his cards. “Miss Emily says that there’s the man who found this valley.” Now he tilted his head up until his light blue-grey eyes met Ike’s green ones. “In fact I do believe the valley is named for him.”
Ike tipped his hat in recognition of the man’s defense.
“That’s the truth,” Carl said. “This here is Ike McSwain, the man who discovered McSwain’s Valley. Ain’t none of us would be here weren’t fer him.”
“Pa, you seen the auger?” Emily asked, stepping through the blanket in the doorway that separated the saloon from the Metcalfe’s living quarters.
“No, can’t say as I have,” Carl said, shuffling his feet awkwardly.
Emily heaved an aggravated sigh. She knew it wouldn’t do any good to quiz her parent anymore. He probably didn’t even know which tool she was asking for.
“Why don’t you stop worrying about silly things like augers and come have a seat with us,” the tall man said. “We could use a third for our game. And having a playing partner as pretty as you sure would make it more interesting.”
Emily giggled as she moved over to stand by him. “Why Horace Neville, you’re so sweet. But you know I never play cards. I leave that to Pa.”
Neville smiled up at the pretty young lady. “Can’t blame a man for trying.”
Emily laughed at his compliments, tucking a stray lock of her short hair back behind an ear. Leaning over, she said to him, just loudly enough for Ike to hear every word, “Why don’t you stop by for supper before you leave. We can discuss things further.”
Without another word, she walked back through the door to the living quarters, her hips swaying enticingly.
“That’s one mighty fine piece of a female,” Otis whistled slightly between his teeth.
*And you’d better treat her like the lady she is!* Ike signed, staring at the two men with a determined intensity.
“What’d he say?” Otis asked again.
“That Neville’s become a real regular,” Lou said a week later as she returned from making a stop at the Metcalfe Saloon. “I don’t like him.”
*Me either,* Ike said, reaching out to peel her coat off her shoulders. *But there’s not much we can do about him.*
Lou sighed as she turned toward Ike to receive his customary kiss of greeting on her cheek. She watched him walk away from her to hang the coat on a peg by the fireplace, where it would dry quickly and be nicely warmed the next time she needed it. He was always doing little things like that for her, things she could do for herself easily enough. He was always ready to kiss her on the cheek or forehead, grab her hand or wrap her in a warm, comforting hug. He brought her little gifts he’d made or found. But, he never really touched her. Their little play on Christmas morning was the last time he’d really been romantic with her. She didn’t understand what was going on. She missed the man she’d begun to know those weeks before he’d left on the supply run. She wanted him back.
She was starting to wonder if he’d just been a figment of her imagination. Or, if Ike had only taken advantage of what she’d offered him so freely simply because he’d known there could be no consequences. But now, he wasn’t interested, because she wasn’t the woman he really wanted.
Ike struggled with himself as he moved away from Lou. It was the last thing he wanted to do. He wanted nothing more than to kick the children out of the house for a day or two and spend the time properly christening the big bed Lou had moved into the house while he’d been gone. He could feel his body reacting just to the thought of holding her, really holding her, again. But he needed to give her some time. Her body needed time to recover. Her mind needed time to adjust to all the changes going on around her. She didn’t need a randy goat like him constantly bothering her.
He was so thankful to Preacher Heath and Tall Elk for both taking the time during the Christmas party to point out the need to give Lou some space after JK’s birth. Ike just wondered how much longer he needed to wait. He wanted the wife he’d barely had back. He doubted he could hold out the two or so years Tall Elk had suggested. But he’d not been able to get a more tenable answer from the highly embarrassed reverend.
Once Ike felt he had himself back under control, he turned to Lou and said, *Just be careful around him. I don’t like how he looks at Emily. And I’m afraid he’ll start getting the same ideas about you.*
“Ike! Lou! Louise!”
At the increasingly frantic call, Lou walked out of the barn where she’d been re-shoeing Katy. “What’s the matter, Jeremiah? Why aren’t you at school?”
Panting for breath, Jeremiah said, “Mr. Nolan sent me to get you or Ike. There’s trouble down to the saloon.”
Already on the move, Lou grabbed her gunbelt and began fastening it on.
“Talk to me,” she ordered.
“Mr. Metcalfe accused that Neville fellow of cheating. Now he’s holdin’ Emily hostage!”
Lou nodded, muttering under her breath, “I knew he was trouble.” Looking at Jeremiah as she moved toward the barn, she said, “You did a good job. Stay here with JK, he’s in the barn in his cradleboard. Ike should be back soon. He’s out gathering firewood. When he gets here, tell him what’s going on and where I’m at.”
With that, she swung up onto Lightning’s bareback and tore out of the barn.
Ike paused, letting the ax fall to the ground as he struggled to catch his breath. He could see why Kid had spent so much time chopping firewood when he’d been frustrated dealing with Lou. It had become Ike’s way of working off the sexual frustrations he was dealing with, waiting for Lou to be fully healed from JK’s birth.
Looking up at the bright blue cloudless March sky, he inhaled a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. There was no sign of the winter cold letting up just yet, but he hoped that the passes would open within another month or so. Then, he’d head out to Fort Bridger for supplies and to mail letters to their family back in Rock Creek. By the time he got back, surely she’d be ready to return to the relationship they’d begun just before he left on the last supply run.
The familiar sound of rapidly pounding hooves drew his attention. Moving through the trees, to a clearing that overlooked their cabin, Ike saw Lou racing away on Lightning, Jeremiah looking after her.
Something was wrong. Without another thought, Ike turned and vaulted over Big Red’s hindquarters, landing easily in the saddle. A nudge of the knees and she was off.
“Oh, thank God you’re here,” Amy Nolan said as Lou came flying into the yard between the three homes.
“Is she alright?” Lou asked quickly, as she slid off Lightning’s side, landing on the ground ready to move, one hand already palming the butt of her gun.
Mrs. Heath nodded mutely.
“Stay out here, then,” Lou ordered. “Better yet, go into your cabins and stay inside, out of the line of fire if things go downhill. Wait until the men get back. Whatever you do, don’t come in after me. NO matter what you hear.”
“Are you sure you shouldn’t wait for Ike?” Mrs. Heath asked cautiously.
“If I wait for Ike, it might be too late for Emily,” Lou said. “No, I’ve handled situations like this before. I’ll be fine.”
Without another word, Lou turned and pushed her way through the door of the saloon.
“Alright, Neville, you mind tellin’ me what’s goin’ on?”
Ike came pounding in a few moments later, Big Red sliding to a stop near Lightning, her head hanging low, her sides heaving in and out as she struggled to catch her breath. Ike jumped to the ground.
*Where?* was all he asked. The women, peeking out the door of Mrs. Heath’s home, pointed to the saloon door.
Even as he turned in that direction, Amy called out after him in an exaggerated whisper, “Tim went to get the others for help.”
Ike waved a hand in acknowledgement but never slowed his race across the yard. He came barging through the door just in time to see Neville turning his pistol toward Lou. He knew Lou was fast, but he loved her too much to take the chance she’d be that fraction of a second too slow this time. He pushed her out of the way, stepping into the space she’d occupied, even as he pulled his own pistol, took aim and fired.
“Ike! No, Ike!”
A second shot followed from the ground that seemed to be coming awfully close to his head. Ike landed on the ground, an odd pain in his chest chasing most thoughts away. But he managed to turn his head just enough to get a clear look at Lou. She was lying on her side next go him, her gun hand extended, her pistol still smoking. Even as his eyes started to slide closed, he saw her drop the pistol and scramble toward him.
“Ike!” Lou screamed in panic. “No! This can’t be happening again. Not Ike. Not him too!” Wrapping her hands around his precious face, she said, “Hold on, Ike. Hold on! It’s going to be alright. We’ll be alright.”
She never noticed the tears streaking down her face or the crowd gathering slowly around her. When someone reached out to touch her gently on the shoulder, to pull her away from Ike, she began to fight.
“No, he needs me. He needs me,” she wailed, brokenhearted, sure he was gone, that, just like all the others, he’d left her behind.