With three horses at her disposal, Lou was able to keep moving throughout the night, switching mounts every hour or so, traveling east toward St. Joe, Missouri. Although she was following the general direction of the Express route, she was careful to stay off any of the trails riders would use. She was in no mood to come across anyone who might recognize her.
By daybreak, though, she knew she needed to get some rest. Already the lack of sleep and hard riding was making her lightheaded. Lifting her head, she slowed Lightning from a full gallop to a walk as she sought out a safe place to stop for awhile.
Eventually, she found a copse of trees overhanging a washout in the bend of the Platte River. Leading the horses to water, she let them drink their fill before staking them out to rest and graze. Pulling out Kid’s bedroll, she laid it out in the shade of a large oak tree and, using her hat to cover her eyes and Jimmy’s jacket as a blanket, she promptly fell into a deep, exhausted, dreamless sleep.
The sound of a twig breaking, followed by Sundancer’s whicker of greeting to another horse woke Lou. Without even looking to see who it was, she sat up, her cocked revolver held out in her hand, pointed straight at the intruder.
Ike stopped in his tracks, his hands raised above his head, his horse’s reins draped casually over one of them.
“Damn it, Ike!” Lou grumbled. “Why’d ya follow me? I told ya ta leave me alone.”
Ike just stood there, not responding until Lou softened and lowered her weapon, uncocking it as she brought it down to her lap. Breathing a sigh of relief, Ike moved to her side, hunkering down on the ground next to her. Leaning over to catch her eye and make sure she was paying attention, he began to rapidly sign.
*I was worried about you. You shouldn’t be alone right now, Lou,* he told her.
“Maybe,” Lou shrugged, standing up and beginning to pack up her gear. “But it’s safer than endangering you boys with my presence.”
Ike followed her, reaching out to grab her shoulder and force her to look at him. *What are you talking about? You’ve saved our lives more times than I can count. How are you a danger?*
“You wouldn’t understand,” she muttered, staring at the ground.
*Make me understand,* he pleaded. *I’m worried about you, Lou.*
Suddenly, the words started tumbling over themselves in their eagerness to see the light of day.
“Kid wouldn’t be dead if I hadn’t pushed him away. And I didn’t have to. I loved him, I wanted to marry him, just not yet. But I was too stubborn to see his side of things,” she started to lose steam. “Too damned scared,” she muttered so quietly Ike wasn’t even sure he’d heart her right.
*Kid made his own choices, too. You’re only responsible for your actions. You didn’t make him accept that man’s challenge, or show up for that duel.*
“Maybe,” she sighed, unwilling to accept the absolution Ike was offering her. “But that doesn’t change the fact Jimmy’s dead cause of me.”
*Jimmy would’ve been proud to die for you. He loved you.*
“I know,” Lou wailed, collapsing in tears into a surprised Ike’s arms. The torrent of sobs she’d been denying for days suddenly would be quieted no longer. Unable to get her attention so he could talk to her, Ike simply held her tight and let her cry herself out. Eventually, he slid to a seat on the ground, still holding her close, her head tucked under his chin, and he began to rock her back and forth like a small child, making indistinct humming noises in his chest, the closest he could come to a soothing murmur.
After awhile, the sobs tapered off and Lou hiccupped a few times, before she began to try scrubbing her face dry with the backs of her hands. She paused as Ike thrust a clean handkerchief under her nose. Accepting it, she finished repairing as much of the damage her crying jag had caused as she could.
Able to put it off no longer she began to speak in a quiet monotone, forcing Ike to lean close to hear her.
“I know Jimmy loved me. He told me so. And I’ll carry that guilt to my own grave.”
*I don’t understand.*
“When we got to Willow Creek, the return package wasn’t ready yet. We had to spend the night. I was so upset over Kid and that, that… schoolteacher… Jimmy just wanted to cheer me up. He bought me a dress, took me to a fancy dinner, with wine and everything, then to a festival they were having in town. There was this guy playing music, and Jimmy started dancing with me, right there in the street. The kind of thing I’d always wished Kid would do, you know? And I was so mad and so hurt that when Jimmy stopped dancing with me and started kissing me, I let him. I let him.”
Even though she stopped talking, Ike could tell there was more to the story, so he just sat there, waiting. Eventually, she moved on.
“Maybe I’d had too much wine at dinner, maybe I just wanted to feel loved again, but I… I went back to the hotel with Jimmy and we spent the night there. Together. Just before he went to sleep, he whispered he loved me. That’s the moment when I realized what a mess I’d just made of everything. I’d done something Kid could never forgive or forget and I was about to rip Jimmy’s heart out too, because I didn’t really love him. Not that way. Not the way he needed. I’d just wanted to feel needed so desperately. So, I got up, got dressed and took off. Figured I’d pick up the package and be ready to go by the time Jimmy woke up, so there wouldn’t be any time to talk.”
*So? It’s not like you haven’t picked up a package a hundred times before. How’d that put Jimmy’s life in danger?*
“That gunfighter, Hopkins? He’d been watching Jimmy ever since we got to town. He’d seen us together and figured we were ‘in love’. He decided I’d make the perfect bait to sucker Jimmy into a gunfight Hopkins would still have a chance to win. And he was right. Jimmy chose to save my life, rather than his own.”
Once again, Lou broke down, unable to handle the weight of her own emotions. This time, as the crying tapered off, she fell asleep in Ike’s arms, not having gotten enough rest yet after her night of hard riding.
When she awoke several hours later, feeling groggy and out of sorts, she discovered Ike had set up camp, with a proper fire and a squirrel roasting over it for supper. Her stomach reminded her she’d had nothing to eat since breakfast the day before, rumbling ominously.
Ike turned toward her as he heard her moving on the bedroll and his mouth spread into his endearing smile. He held a cup out toward her. Getting up, Lou walked over and took the cup from him, sniffing at the freshly brewed coffee appreciatively. Sitting down across the fire from Ike, Lou stared into the flames, not ready to talk yet. Ike let her alone as he finished cooking supper, only rousing her when he handed her a plate with half the roasted squirrel and some cornpone on it.
While she ate the food he’d provided, Ike tapped his chest to get her attention. She looked up to see him already signing.
*Do you want to move on tonight? Or get some rest and head out in the morning?*
Lou shrugged. “Don’t rightly care. You should head on back to Rock Creek though. They’re sure to be missing you by now.”
Ike shook his head almost violently. *I ain’t leaving you.*
“They need you, Ike. No one can work with the horses as well as you.”
*You need me more right now.*
She opened her mouth, about to threaten to sneak off while he was sleeping, but he held up a hand to forestall her.
*You try leaving without me and I’ll just follow you. I ain’t letting you alone until I know you’re going to be alright, Louise.*
Giving up the argument, she returned to her meal. After wiping up the last bit of grease with the last bite of cornpone and stuffing the lot in her mouth, Lou looked at Ike contemplatively. If any of the riders were as stubborn, or more so, than her, it was Ike. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to lose him. With a deep sigh, she finally spoke.
“We’ll spend the night, then, and start out in the morning.”
Ike nodded, clearly pleased by her decision.
*So, where are we headed?* Ike asked the next morning, as they mounted up and started heading east again.
“I’m goin’ ta St. Joe ta get Jeremiah and Teresa,” Lou said. “It’s time I did what I promised our Ma I’d do, get them out of that orphanage and keep us together. Teach them what it means ta be part of a real family.”
“Ain’t thought that far,” Lou admitted in a small voice. “I’ll come up with somethin’.”
Ike nodded and left her to her own thoughts as they crossed the wide prairie in companionable silence.
Ike drew his horse to a halt as he crested the rise that overlooked the orphanage just outside of St. Joe. Curiously, they’d circled the growing city, instead of passing through it. But he hadn’t questioned Lou’s decision. This was her quest, she was in the lead. He was just there if she needed him.
He watched as Lou spurred Lightning into a gallop down the small hill toward the front gate, admiring the figure she cut on her horse’s back. She was a mighty fine rider and an even finer woman, when she let herself be. He could so easily see why both Kid and Jimmy had fallen so hard for her. Heck, all of them loved her a little bit. It would be easy, with the least bit of encouragement, to fall even further.
Shaking his head ruefully at his own thoughts, Ike urged his horse into motion and followed Lou down to the mission. When he entered the courtyard, she was already dismounted and disappearing into the Mother Superior’s office. He quickly followed.
“I’m sorry, Louise, but I can’t.”
“What are you talking about? They’re my brother and sister!” Ike could hear the mounting anger in Lou’s voice and reached out to touch her shoulder, letting her know he was there for her, even as he wondered what the matter was.
“It’s Missouri state law, Louise. If I let you take Jeremiah and Teresa the government could shut down our entire operation. What would happen to all the other children in our care?” the nun asked. Quickly, she answered her own question. “They’d be handed over to whoever would take them in, regardless of their suitability as parents, or, even worse, turned over to a workhouse. You wouldn’t want that, would you Louise?”
Lou wordlessly shook her head, even as her eyes filled with tears. Ike could see her hands fisted so tightly at her sides her knuckles were turning white, silent testimony to her own internal distress.
Finally, he pulled at her shoulder so she’d turn to look at him. *What’s wrong?*
“They won’t let me take Jeremiah and Teresa ‘cause I’m a woman,” she muttered angrily through gritted teeth.
Ike looked questioningly at the Mother Superior, who nodded in confirmation.
“We can only adopt the children, or allow them to leave with relatives, who are married. No single men and, especially, no single women. I’m sorry.”
Ike nodded in understanding. The rule wasn’t exactly unheard of, many orphanages in Nebraska Territory and other surrounding states followed it as well. He held up a finger to the nun, asking for a moment of privacy.
She nodded in understanding and gathered her skirts around her. “I’ll just give you two a moment to talk things over. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Lou started to say something, but clamped her lips shut and glared at Ike as he motioned for her to wait. After the nun left, the words exploded out of her mouth. “What are you doin’ Ike? It ain’t like we can change anythin’. I can’t endanger the rest of the kids for Jeremiah and Teresa. I’m just gonna have ta sneak in and steal ‘em in a week or so. I’ll haveta wait a bit so’s the sisters don’t get in any trouble over it.”
Ike shook his head. *I have another idea. One that would be a lot safer and would let us leave with the children today.*
Lou snorted. “Yeah, right. And what’s that?”
*Let's get married.*