Lou just stared at Ike, dumbfounded. Her mind sputtered to a complete halt. She could barely comprehend the words he’d signed and seriously doubted she’d read his signs right. Finally, she shook her head and croaked out an astounded, “What?!”
*Let’s get married,* Ike signed again, a small smile hovering around the edges of his expressive mouth. He knew he’d more than shocked Lou, but they didn’t have much time if this was going to work. *It doesn’t have to be for real,* he continued signing as fast as he could. *Not like it would’ve been for you and Kid. I know that. But lots of folks get married for more practical reasons out here everyday. And what better reason could we have than to get Jeremiah and Teresa out of here?*
Lou shook her head as if poleaxed. He’d said what she’d thought he’d said. But she still didn’t quite understand.
“You want to marry me? For my brother and sister?” she asked incredulously, not sure whether to feel thankful or insulted.
Ike nodded happily and breathed a sigh of relief. She was starting to catch on. Now that he had her full attention, he felt he could slow down and explain properly.
*You don’t really think there’ll be another Annie out there for me?* he asked. *Someone who’ll overlook all this?* He pointed at his throat and his bald head. *And want me anyway?*
Lou watched his impassioned plea with a puzzled expression. Why would he offer to do this for her? Especially after what she’d told him just the day before.
*You know I love you, Lou,* he continued. *We all do. I want to be there for you. And I love your brother and sister, too. I grew up in a mission much like this one and I know just how horrible it can be, no matter how nice the people who run it are. They’ll be much better off once we get them out of here.*
She stared at him for a long moment. Finally, she asked, “What if you do meet someone, someday? What then?”
He smiled ruefully and shrugged. *I doubt it’ll happen. We’ll just have to cross that bridge when and if we come to it.*
He had an answer for everything it seemed, and his solution would work. After pondering his suggestion for what seemed like forever. She found herself slowly nodding. “Alright,” she said. Then added a warning, “But it’s a marriage in name only.”
In response, Ike held out his hand toward her. She took it in her own and they shook, sealing the deal.
“Are you two sure you want to do this?” Mother Superior asked doubtfully. “It all seems rather sudden.” She turned toward Lou to ask, “What about that young man who came with you the last time you visited? The one with the odd name? I got the impression he was your beau. Honestly, I expected you to come back married to him when you came to pick up Jeremiah and Teresa.”
Lou closed her eyes in pain and Ike reached down from his position standing behind her chair to place a comforting hand on her shoulder. She grabbed his fingers and squeezed tight as she answered, “Kid’s… gone. Dead.”
Lou had to force the last word out over the lump trying to close her throat. She squeezed Ike’s fingers so tightly he winced in pain, but never once tried to pull away. The Mother Superior, watching the young couple before her, took in all their actions and reactions with a raised eyebrow.
Finally, she sighed and said, “Well, I won’t tell you what you can and can’t do. You’re both adults. But I will warn you, this will be a true marriage in the eyes of God and man. There’s no backing out of this later on down the road.”
“I ain’t got no reason to,” Lou murmured. Behind her back, Ike simply smiled at the nun, placing a hand over his heart before looking down at Lou. She nodded. She couldn’t read Ike’s signs, but she’d gotten his message all the same.
“Why don’t you two go give Jeremiah and Teresa the good news then,” she smiled at them, “while I inform Father Armando he has a wedding to perform.”
In no time at all, Lou found herself standing next to Ike before the aged priest who, along with the nuns, ran the orphan mission. She looked up at her groom, standing tall and proud at her side, and felt unaccountably nervous. They weren’t marrying for love. They were good friends. They could make this work. For the children.
The thought had her eyes flitting to the two children, scrubbed to within an inch of their lives and dressed in their Sunday best, sitting quietly on the front pew behind her. Jeremiah and Teresa. They were the reason she was standing here. The reminder gave her the strength to go through with the marriage, despite her own fears and worries.
It was hardly the wedding of her dreams. Kid wasn’t the man standing at her side. Teaspoon hadn’t been there to give her away. She wasn’t wearing the perfect white wedding dress she’d spent hours laboring over herself. No, she was standing in front of a strange priest, next to one of her best friends, almost a brother, in her riding clothes, without any of her Express family or friends present.
The ceremony unfolded almost like a dream as her thoughts wandered to and fro. She would have completely missed her vows, if it hadn’t been for Ike’s surreptitious squeezing of her fingers to get her attention.
In a bare whisper, she promised to love, honor and obey the tall man at her side, till death did they part. She almost giggled maniacally over the obey part. They both knew that would never happen. She just prayed it would be her death and not his that parted them. He deserved better than to die because he’d tried to help her.
“I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss your bride,” the priest intoned, bringing the ceremony to a close.
Ike leaned in and chastely pecked Lou on the cheek, even as Jeremiah and Teresa came bounding up to them as if suddenly catapulted across the chapel. Jeremiah wrapped his arms around Lou’s waist as Teresa entwined herself around Ike’s leg.
“Congratulations!” they shouted in unison.
“Indeed, congratulations my dears,” Mother Superior smiled as she walked up to the couple. “May you have a long and happy life together, Mr. and Mrs. McSwain.”
Lou turned to look at the nun in a moment of shock. When had that happened? How had she lost her own name in the process of entering a marriage of convenience? A frantic glance at Ike found him shrugging. Deciding to think about the name change later, Lou turned back to the children.
“You two better go get your bags,” she said. “We need to hit the road if we’re going to make camp before nightfall.”
As they watched the children scamper off, Ike tugged at her elbow. When she looked at him, he signed, *Where are we going?*
Lou shrugged. “For now? Away from here. Can’t say as I’ve thought beyond that.”
“Jeremiah, chew with your mouth closed. And swallow before taking another bite,” Lou scolded her brother. “Just because we’re in the wilderness is no excuse for bad manners.”
Ike swallowed his laughter as he listened to Lou imitating Emma. It was like she’d morphed into a shorter, more slender version of their first station mother when they’d ridden away from the orphanage with her brother and sister in tow. Ike was fascinated at this change in her. Yet he could still sense the underlying layer of pain and grief she was trying to ignore.
After the kids had finally fallen asleep and Lou and Ike had tidied camp, they settled down for a last cup of coffee before turning in themselves.
*We’re gonna need ta get more supplies,* Ike signed.
Lou sighed. “I know. We ain’t got no meat or beans left after tonight. One of us can hunt, but that’ll only tide us over for a day or two. We’re gonna have ta go into town.”
Ike wondered at her obvious reluctance to going into St. Joe proper, but her every word and movement screamed at him to not ask. So he kept silent, something he was good at, and just nodded.
“What’s that?” Teresa asked excitedly for what seemed like the hundredth time since they’d ridden into St. Joe. Lou didn’t even bother to look anymore.
“Stay close,” she warned instead as she rode up to the boardwalk outside the general store. “And remember, we’re just here for a few supplies.”
Lou dismounted and tied Katy to the hitching post before turning to help Teresa off Sundancer. Jeremiah had already climbed down off Lightning and was copying Lou’s motions at the hitching post. Soon, Lou was leading a small parade into the store, Teresa holding tight to her hand while Jeremiah followed close on her heels and Ike brought up the rear.
“Go over to the candy section and pick out one piece each,” Lou told the children. They immediately scampered off to make their choices. Lou turned to Ike and asked, “So, what should we get? It’ll need to be more than canned beans and jerky.”
Ike smiled. *Probably some basics, like flour, oats, cornmeal, salt, coffee, and… yes, we’ll need beans and jerky, too.*
It didn’t’ take them long to gather what they wanted and head over to the clerk. But, when they looked at the pile of stuff, Lou groaned. “We’ll never get all this into our saddlebags, not even with the extra horses.”
*How much money do you have on you?* Ike asked. *Do you have enough to get a packmule?*
“Yeah,” Lou said, twisting her mouth in a grimace. “I took out everything I’ve saved over the last couple years before I left. I just didn’t want to spend so much of it right off like this.”
*One packmule ain’t going to put much of a dent in your savings. And we still won’t have touched mine. Why don’t you head on down to the livery and see about that mule and I’ll go over to the bank and make arrangements to get my savings.* Ike paused a moment before continuing. *I’m guessing we’re not going back to Rock Creek?*
Lou paled slightly and shook her head quickly in rejection. Turning, she headed toward the livery without another word. Ike watched her for a moment before turning in the other direction, never noticing the tall, debonairly dressed man standing on the corner also watching Lou move down the boardwalk.
“Hello! Anybody here?” Lou called out, peering into the depths of the barn.
“How can I hep you sonny?” a skinny, grizzled man with a straggly grey beard and just a few wisps of hair still clinging to his skull poked his head out of the tackroom. He hawked and spat, sending a stream of tobacco juice to join the manure and old straw scattered about the barn floor.
“I need a packmule. How much you charging?”
The man, shorter than Lou herself, straightened to his full height and swaggered out to the barn entrance where Lou was standing. “Ain’t got none.”
“You heard me, I ain’t got none. Sold the last mule to a wagon train drover not 10 minutes ago. Got a good team of oxen, if yer lookin’ ta supply up, and a couple ridin’ horses. Mustangs. But ain’t got no more mules.”
Lou’s eyes narrowed at the man’s spiel.
“Wagon train?” she asked, curiously.
“Ayup,” the man nodded, moving the wad of tobacco tucked into his lip from one side of his mouth to the other. “Ain’t yer heard? St. Joe’s become the jumping off point fer most wagon trains headed west… Oregon, Californy, the silver mines in Nevada, gold mines in Colorady. ‘Course, most folks that roll through here are homesteaders, headin’ west in search of land. Farmers!” Once again the man spat in the dust, this time in disgust.
Lou nodded slowly as she digested what he was telling her, and a plan began forming in her head. “Where can I find one of these wagon trains?”
“Most are camped just outside of town,” he said, pointing down the street with his chin, toward the nearby river.
“How much for three yoke of oxen and a wagon?” Lou asked.
“Ain’t got no more wagons. Ye’ll have ta head over to the Conestoga offices, down on 3rd Street and order one. Probably take a week or so. The oxen’ll cost ya $65 a yoke, so… that’d be… “ he paused to calculate the total in his head, “One hunnert, ninety-five dollars. Cash mind ya, I don’t give credit.”
“That’s highway robbery,” Lou nearly screeched. “I can get ‘em fer half that price.”
“Not ‘round here, ye cain’t,” he retorted assuredly. “Buy ‘em or not, sonny, those oxen’ll be sold by the end of the day at $65 a yoke.”
Lou glared at the man before turning around and marching toward the bank. The prices were outrageous, but she wasn’t willing to give up on the plan that was brewing in her head.
*You want to go to Oregon?* Ike asked.
“I don’t know ‘bout goin’ all the way,” Lou shrugged, “but, yeah. We can stop when we find a nice town, or a decent place ta set up a farm. It’s what I always wanted ta do once I got Jeremiah and Teresa. Get our own place.”
Ike glanced over to where the children sat on the edge of the boardwalk, carefully sucking on their candy sticks, trying to make them last as long as possible. He could see Lou’s point. And he would enjoy farming again. It was what he’d been raised to do, before his parents were killed. He nodded.
*We can at least check,* he said. *Let’s ride out and see if there’s a train that’ll take us before we start buying supplies, though.*
“Sounds good to me,” Lou smiled. “Hey kids,” she said, turning to her siblings, “guess what? We’re going to go find us a place out on the wild frontier!”
She laughed at their excited cheers. Ike smiled, enjoying their exuberance and joy. None of them noticed the tall man standing in a nearby doorway, smiling knowingly around a cigar clamped between his teeth.