“Louise,” Mrs. Heath said quietly, trying to calm the frantic younger woman. “You’ve got to let us move him, see what’s wrong.”
Finally, Lou realized the people around her were their friends, trying to help. In no time, they’d moved Ike to a bed in the Metcalfes’ living quarters. Isaac Brown began cutting Ike’s shirt off him. Emily moved in to help. Lou, feeling useless, slowly began to move toward the back of the room as the others worked frantically over him.
“The good news is the bullet went right through,” Isaac said softly. “We’ll just need to clean the wound and then wait. If it didn’t hit anything vital, and he doesn’t catch a wound fever, he’ll be alright.”
Lou was grateful to their friends for arranging to bring Ike back to their cabin, where she could tend him in the comfort of his own bed.
“Don’t you die on me, Ike McSwain,” she muttered. “Don’t you dare leave me alone after all this.”
Through the night she kept her silent, lonely vigil, watching his chest to make sure it kept rising and falling, constantly checking to make sure he wasn’t feverish. The quiet gave her a lot of time to think. And she didn’t like where her thoughts were taking her.
Once again someone she loved was in danger, might already be dying, because of her. Because whatever curse she was under refused to let her pay for her sins, but always punished those she loved. And she did. She loved Ike. That was the other mistake she’d made. She’d let herself fall in love with her own husband. Had she only realized it in time to lose him?
Shortly after dawn, a knock sounded softly on the door. Rising tiredly to her feet, Lou moved toward the sound. Opening the portal, she saw Emily standing diffidently on the steps, twisting her hands together in front of her.
“I came to help,” Emily said.
Lou just looked at the other woman dumbly for a moment, then she stepped back and let the her in. Maybe this was her answer, she thought sadly.
“How is he?”
“No change,” Lou said. “No fever, but he hasn’t woken up, either.”
Emily nodded as she moved over to stand beside the bed, staring down at a pale Ike, his chest heavily bandaged. “I feel so guilty,” she said. “My flirting is why he’s here.”
“No,” Lou said. “It’s not your fault.” It was hers, she thought. She was the bad luck. Everyone she loved too much ended up dying to protect her. She’d never even had the chance to tell him how she felt. Looking upward, she prayed, Please, let him live and I’ll leave. I’ll leave them all. I can handle being alone, if I know they’re safe. They’re better off without me. They’ll be happy together. They’ll all be happier without me here, she thought, her eyes returning to the sight of Emily bending tenderly over Ike.
The two women spent the next three days hovering over Ike’s sick bed, spooning gruel down his throat, changing his bandages, cleaning up the messes he made. They didn’t speak much to each other, each too focused on her own guilt and on keeping Ike alive. Others stopped by occasionally to help or just provide a little company, but they never stayed long.
On the morning of the fourth day, Lou suddenly couldn’t take it anymore. She needed to get out of the small confines of the cabin.
“I’m going out to check on the animals,” was all she said as she slipped out the door. Emily just kept wiping a cool wet cloth across Ike’s forehead.
In the dim interior of the barn, hidden from the eyes of the world, Lou finally released all the fears and guilt and sadness she’d been feeling. By the time she was done, it felt like her entire body was sore from the strength of her sobs. But, she felt better, like she could handle whatever came next.
“Don’t die, Ike,” Emily begged. “Please, don’t die. Don’t leave Lou and the kids because of me. I could never live with myself if I stole you away from them with my foolish flirting. I’m so sorry. I should never have encouraged him. But he made me feel wanted after everything with you and Lou.. and me. Oh, Ike, I’m so, so sorry.”
Caught up in her own pleadings, she didn’t notice Ike’s eyes had opened and were watching her blearily, until he reached up a hand and caught hers in it, stopping its motion across his forehead.
“Ike!” she exclaimed. “You’re awake! You’re going to be alright!”
*Where’s Lou?* he asked, signing slowly, wincing at the pain the movement caused in his chest.
“Out in the barn,” Emily smiled down at him happily, a great weight suddenly off her shoulders. “She’ll be back soon.”
Ike reached up to touch her cheek, capturing a tear on his fingers.
*Why are you crying?* he asked.
Emily just laughed in relief and rested her cheek in his cupped palm.
That’s how Lou found them when she walked back into the cabin. She knew then what she needed to do. But first, she’d make sure Ike was really going to be alright.
Her footsteps as she moved toward the bed caught Emily’s attention. The other woman started, then stood up quickly, a broad smile lightening her features. “He’s awake!”
“So I see,” Lou smiled softly. Kneeling down next to the bed, she added to Ike, “You ever scare me like that again, Ike McSwain and I’ll shoot you dead myself!”
Ike started to laugh at the comment, so typical of Lou, but stopped, putting a hand to his aching chest.
“Yeah, you better watch it! It’s gonna be awhile ‘fore yer back to normal.”
A week later Ike was sitting up in bed, propped against a pile made up of all the pillows in their house, waiting for Lou to bring him his breakfast. He watched her move through the door with an unconscious grace that always made his heart beat faster. Even as sore as he was, she could still make him want her. It never failed to amaze him.
His eyes followed her movements hungrily as she crossed the room toward him. So desperate for her attentions was he, he didn’t protest when she tucked a napkin under his chin and began to spoon feed him the oatmeal. He was perfectly capable of feeding himself by now, but this seemed to be the only way he could get her to spend any time with him.
He wondered what had changed. She’d become very quiet, almost distant. Doing her chores mechanically, staying as far from him and the children as she could without neglecting anyone’s basic needs. Almost like she’d been after Kid and Jimmy’s deaths. The sudden thought struck Ike to the bone, setting his heart to aching more than his chest ever had. No! He didn’t know if he could start all over again with her. He had to figure out what had happened.
Lou watched as Ike chewed and swallowed the spoonful of oatmeal she’d just given him. The sight of him, barechested except for the white bandages wrapped around him, never failed to stir her. She wanted nothing more than to lay her head on that chest, feel him wrap his arms around her and accept all the love and comfort he had to offer. Except, he wasn’t really hers, was he? She had to accept it, stay strong. She gulped back a sob. She’d been putting things off, waiting until he was healthy enough to take care of himself and the children before leaving. But it was obvious at this point he was just humoring her, letting her coddle him. It was time.
Setting the spoon down on the tray next to the now empty bowl, she said, “I’ve got to go get more firewood. If you can watch the baby for a little while? Emily’ll be here soon.”
Ike nodded uncertainly. There was something about the way she was acting that bothered him, he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Lou tightened the cinch on Lightning’s saddle one last time. Tears were streaming down her face. This was the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life, but it had to be done. She had to keep those she loved safe. And obviously the one thing putting them all in danger was her. So, she was the one that had to go.
Reaching down to grab her carpetbag, she started to tie it onto the saddle next to the saddle horn. Her bedroll was already firmly attached to behind the mantle.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Lou whirled around to see Emily standing in the barn door, her mule’s reins held in one hand.
“Leavin’,” she finally said, the one word all she could manage to force out. Turning back to Lightning, she double checked the knots holding everything to her saddle.
At that question, she turned toward Emily with anger in her eyes this time. “Why? Do you really have to ask that? Why? How about because you love him and he loves you! He only married me to rescue my brother and sister. How about because I’m a danger, to him, you and the kids! How about… “ her voice broke now but she forced herself to continue, “How about because he deserves better than a whore that didn’t even bother to charge two bits?”
Emily gaped at her for a moment, then started laughing for all she was worth. “You have got to be kidding me!”
“You think this is funny? It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole danged life. Harder than learning to be a boy, harder than telling Kid I couldn’t marry him, harder even than killin’ Wicks. But it’s gotta be done.”
“You are so full of yourself you can’t see the forest for the trees, can you?” Emily spat out, her voice full of a vitriolic anger that was the only thing that could pull Lou’s attention away from her own misery. “Ike? In love with me? In my dreams. Maybe. Maybe if I’d met him before you. Maybe if you’d never said yes or if your precious Kid had lived. But, guess what? Ike can’t see I even exist, he’s so starry eyed over you. When we talk? All he can talk about is, ‘Lou said this’, ‘Lou did that’, ‘Lou thinks’, ‘Lou wants’! Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou! I’m sick to death of your name!”
Emily slowly advanced on Lou, pushing her backward toward the stall wall as she continued her diatribe. “Hell, I’d love to have met this Jimmy of yours. I think we’d have had a lot in common from what Ike’s told me! Both of us in love with someone who can’t even see we exist. And you’re ready to walk away from all that? Walk? More like run as fast as you can. You’re either the stupidest or most selfish woman I’ve ever met in my life!”
Lou just stared at Emily, her mouth agape, unable to comprehend what she was hearing.
“You know what? I’ve only been coming out to help you because Ike’s a good friend and I felt guilty over him getting shot on account of me. Well, guess what? I’m through. You try riding out of here with a clear conscience, knowing you’re leaving him to handle the farm and the children all on his lonesome, with no one to help out!”
A sharp rapping on the barn wall caught both their attentions. The two women’s heads swung around to see Ike leaning against the barn wall.
*Emily, that’s enough,* he angrily signed.
“That’s just what I was telling your precious Lou,” Emily spat, mounting up onto her mule and riding out of the barn. Lou watched her gallop off with a poleaxed expression. Once the other woman was out of sight, she turned her gaze on Ike. Suddenly, she couldn’t stand there anymore, not knowing what all he’d seen.
Turning, she fled out the other door, into the corral with the other animals. Tripping over her own feet, she practically fell near the donkey they’d named Samson, in honor of Emma’s donkey they’d left behind in Rock Creek. Reaching out, she caught herself on the slats of the corral fence, just as Ike caught up with her.
Grabbing her arm with one hand, he signed, *Would you wait? I can’t keep up with you right now!*
His look and his words froze her in place. Unable to move her feet, she wrapped her arms around herself protectively.
“What’s there to say? I’m leavin’, before I ‘cause more trouble. You’ll be able to patch things up with Emily and you can all live happily ever after without me. Live!”
*I’ll never live happily without you, Lou,* he signed, a sad look pulling at his beautiful face. *I’ll survive, but I won’t really live and most definitely not happily.*
She cocked her head, not really understanding what he was saying.
“What… what do you mean, Ike?”
*Haven’t you figured it out yet?* he signed, his motions jerky with anger. He moved closer to her step by step, as if she were a skittish mustang. Stopping just a couple paces in front of her, he sucked in a deep, fortifying breath and said, *I love you, Louise McCloud McSwain. I. Love. You.* He ended the last with a sharp, emphatic poke of one finger into her chest, pushing her back toward the fence again.
“No, you can’t. I’m not the kind of woman people love. I’m fer sleepin’ with, not makin’ a life with. I’m fer leavin’, not keepin’. I learned that lesson the hard way,” she said, starting to turn away from him.
*No,* Ike signed, taking the chance to close the distance between them even more, reaching out to grab at her arm to keep her from turning her back on him. *No, you’re for loving. It would take my entire life and then some to love you as much as you deserve. I’ve loved you since the day we really met for the first time.* Taking one more step, so he was standing directly in front of her, he reached down to put a finger beneath her chin and tip her face up so she could see his eyes. *And I’ll love you until the day I die.*
Dropping to one knee, he asked, *Will you marry me, Louise? For real this time? Because I love you and… you love me?*
“How…” she started to say, stopped, then fell to her knees in front of him, shaping his face with her hands. “How’d you know I love you Ike? I never said anything.”
*Because you were about to leave me,* Ike signed slowly. *And I’ve been waiting a long time for you to realize how perfect we are for each other. I should’ve realized you’d think that meant you had to leave to protect me. How about we protect each other, instead?*
Lou laughed a bit as he bent forward to press his lips to hers in a kiss that quickly went from tender to passionate to out of control.
Finally pulling back from him, she smiled a watery-eyed grin up at him. “If I say yes, will you promise you boys will stop proposin’ to me in barnyards?”