Lou stood next to their brand new team of six oxen, hitched up to a well provisioned Prairie Schooner, as Conestoga’s recently revamped wagon model was being called for its resemblance to a seagoing craft. The last two weeks had been busier than she’d ever thought possible, but she was well satisfied with the work and happy to finally be moving out.
Ike had found a wagon train forming up that not only had room for the newly formed McSwain family, but was eager to welcome them. They would be traveling with the wagon train, but would also be working for the wagon master as scouts and hunters. The skills Teaspoon had taught them over the last year and a half had saved them quite a bit of money, Lou mused, as she silently blessed their mentor.
They’d spent more than she’d wanted to, but less than most of the others. Now, they were fully provisioned with foodstuffs, wagon, spare equipment in case of breakdowns, and all the animals they’d need to survive this journey. Along with the six oxen to pull the wagon and their horses, they’d bought or bartered for a pregnant cat, they’d be able to trade the kittens for quite a bit later on, six chickens and two roosters, a milk cow with a calf and one large dog to stand watch over the lot.
Proper provisions, hunting and scouting skills weren’t the only things that separated the McSwains from their newfound traveling companions, though, Lou thought as she watched wagon after wagon pull out ahead of her. All of them were overloaded with unnecessary items the pioneers were loath to give up. From personal experience riding the trails in Nebraska and Wyoming Territories, she knew half of those family heirlooms, or more, would end up abandoned along the side of the trail soon enough. In that sense, she figured, they were lucky. They had nothing with emotional attachments to bid goodbye to.
“Shhhh,” she whispered to the nearest ox as it moved restlessly in its traces. The large animals, each of which outweighed her by six or seven times, were getting nervous spending so long standing while the other wagons pulled out. But, it couldn’t be helped. Part of their deal with the wagon master was that while one of the McSwain ‘brothers’ was scouting ahead for their next camp, the other was designated to ride drag, making sure no one fell out of formation.
Lou ran a careful eye over each of the wagons, making sure everything was properly lashed down and in place. Some of the members of the wagon train had chafed at taking orders from what they considered to be mere boys, but this group of tenderfeet was so green they wouldn’t catch fire in the desert.
Mentally, she ran through the eight other families in the train. The first wagon belonged to the Nolans, a freed black man, school teacher, his white wife and her father, heading west so they could live in peace. And hadn’t it gotten the goat of the Graysons, a Missouri banker, his wife and three daughters, that the Nolans had drawn the lead position this first day. After the Graysons, came the Metcalfes, the strangest father daughter duo Lou’d ever seen. It was more like their roles were reversed, with Emily Metcalfe acting like the adult and her father, Carl, more like an immature adolescent. Next were three interrelated farm families from Tennessee, the Stuarts, with so many children amongst the three couples Lou’d yet to figure out the exact number or which of them belonged to which couple The seventh wagon belonged to the O’Callahan’s, an older couple, recently immigrated from Ireland, and their five sons, ranging in age from 30 to 5. Bringing up the rear, was the man already referred to simply as Preacher and his wife. In reality they were Mr. and Mrs. Edward Heath. Mrs. Heath, Lou had no idea what her first name was, was pregnant, just barely starting to show.
“Jeremiah, Teresa,” Lou called to the two youngsters, chasing each other happily through the abandoned campsite. “Come on, it’s almost time for us to go.”
“Yes, Lou,” Teresa answered obediently. Both children ran and climbed onto the back of the big wagon. They’d have to walk for most of the journey, so Lou had decided to let them ride as long as possible. The horses they’d decided to reserve for hunting and scouting duties. No telling how good the grazing was going to be further west, and they didn’t want to waste any more of their supplies than necessary supplementing the equines’ feed.
Ike rode up next to her just as she was about to snap the whip and start the oxen on their way.
*Everything set?* he asked. *I can still take this first shift and you can scout ahead today.*
Lou shook her head. “No, I drew short straw. I know I ain’t as good as you with the oxen yet, but I’m gettin’ there. ‘Sides, I ain’t gonna get any better without just jumpin’ in there and doin’ it.”
Ike nodded soberly, touched his hat in farewell and galloped off toward the head of the wagon train. Lou twitched the whip in her hand, flicking it just over the heads of the lead yoke of oxen and shouted, “Get on there, Boss and Bessie. Move on out! Giddup Jess and Jud! Move it, Hap and Hop!”
With a soft lowing of protest, the big animals lurched forward, pulling the wagon out onto the road, headed west. Lou walked at their side, carefully guiding them with the whip and a long prod, called a goad. Every time she successfully snapped the whip, Lou felt a warm spot deep in her soul for Noah, who’d taught her the basics. But, much as she missed her Express family, she wasn’t willing to go back and bring danger to their doorstep.
Their first week on the trail had gone well, Ike mused as he cantered back toward the wagon train after finding a suitable spot along the Platte River to stop for the night. Once he reported in, he’d head back out again to see if he couldn’t scare up a little game.
Before sighting the wagon master though, Ike’s eyes went straight to his own wagon, at the end of the train. He smiled as he watched Lou teaching Jeremiah how to drive the oxen. Once she’d gotten a handle on it herself, she’d been eager to pass that knowledge on. It warmed Ike’s heart, when he saw how motherly Lou was with her brother and sister. It was a side of her they’d rarely seen in the bunkhouse. It was a side of her he loved.
Shaking his head, Ike turned his smiling face to seek out the wagon master. But his eyes caught on the middle wagon, the Metcalfes’, just as the skirts of one of the Grayson’ girls’ fancy dresses fluttering in the breeze spooked the Metcalfes’ mules. The lead pair reared straight up, almost coming straight down on top of the Grayson girl. Her large brimmed prairie bonnet prevented her from seeing the danger headed her way. Luckily, Tim Nolan saw and made a running tackle, pushing her out of the animal’s way, to safety.
Mrs. Grayson and her other two daughters screamed hysterically, even as Ike, Lou and Stan Henderson, the wagon master, came rushing up. Henderson and Ike quickly helped Emily Metcalfe get the animals back under control, while Lou checked on Tim Nolan and Constance Grayson.
“Get your dirty hands off me, you nigra!” Constance Grayson spat at her rescuer. “How dare you! My father’ll have you horsewhipped for this!”
“He tries and I’ll shoot him so full of holes yer mother’ll be able ta use him fer a colander,” Lou spat out. Pointing to Tim, who’d already risen to his feet and was brushing the prairie dust off his clothes, she added, “This man just saved your life. You oughta be thankin’ him, not cussin’ him.”
Turning to Tim, she asked, “Are you alright, Mr. Nolan?”
“Just fine, young man,” he said, nodding in Lou’s direction. “Thank you for asking,” he added pointedly, before turning to walk back toward his own wagon.
Lou sighed as she watched him trudge back to his anxiously waiting wife, and the way Mrs. Grayson sniffed and pulled her skirts aside so he couldn’t accidentally touch them. She had a feeling there was going to be trouble between those two families, sooner rather than later. Her eyes narrowed even further as she watched Mrs. Grayson and her two other daughters, Prudence and Charity, converge on the still upset Constance. More specifically, she was taking a closer look at their clothes.
*What are you doing?* Ike asked, as he settled down next to the fire wearily. Jeremiah and Teresa had run him ragged once he’d returned from hunting that afternoon with several large grouse to add to the various cookfires.
Lou held up the pair of pants she was hemming. Speaking around the straight pins in her mouth, she muttered, “I’m shortening these for Teresa.”
“That bonnet she wears and them skirts? They’re a danger. Constance Grayson never even saw that mule comin’ fer her around the wide brim of her bonnet. And it was her skirts that spooked the animal in the first place. Dresses are too dangerous.”
Ike nodded. It made sense. *You know that’s going to cause a scandal, though?*
Lou shrugged. “Teresa’s life is more important.”
“Those boys shouldn’t be allowed to have charge of a darling young lady like little Teresa,” Mrs. Grayson spoke up. “Letting her run around in pants like that. Why, it’s un-Godly. Am I not right, Preacher?”
“Now, Mrs. Grayson, under normal conditions I might agree with you,” Pastor Heath began placatingly. “But those ‘boys’ as you call them have good reasons for what they’ve done, and I can’t say as I disagree with them.”
“I’ve already tightened my skirts and shortened the brims of my bonnets,” Mrs. Heath added in quietly. “So as to prevent another such incident as the one that almost took your dear Constance from us.”
“My darling Connie’s clothing is quite appropriate for a girl her age,” Mrs. Grayson defended heatedly, before turning on the Metcalfes, “And would never have caused any problems if you would have had proper control of your animals. Just goes to show what comes of letting a woman do a man’s job,” she sniffed.
“Leave my daughter out of this,” Carl Metcalfe growled.
“She handles those animals better than your husband does yours,” Lou spoke out, translating for Ike’s rapid fire signing. “You should spend more time worrying about your own family and leave others alone.”
“Now, now, folks,” the wagon master tut tutted, trying to get everyone to calm down. “I know what happened has everyone on edge. But we can’t go taking this out on one another. We’re only a little more than a week into a six month journey! One in which you will face perils that will make this week’s look like a walk in the park. You’ve got to learn to get along.”
Mrs. Grayson huffed in exasperation and motioned to her daughters and husband. “Come along. I won’t stay where I’m not wanted.”
Mr. Grayson glanced apologetically around the group before following his wife and daughters away from the central campfire and back to their wagon.
“I wish she would,” Mrs. O’Callahan muttered. “This journey would be a mite more peaceful without the likes o’ her around.”
A short time later the weekly meeting broke up, after deciding that they would continue to follow the tried and true route along the Platte River up into Nebraska Territory rather than attempting a new shortcut the wagon master had heard about.
As Lou herded Teresa and Jeremiah toward their own wagon, Teresa tugged at her coatsleeve.
“Yes, Resi?” Lou asked, leaning down toward her sister.
“I like my new clothes,” Teresa said. “They’re just like yours!”
Lou smiled and hugged Teresa close. “Come on, it’s time to get you two into bed. Mornin’s gonna come awful early. And there’ll be no more ridin’ in the wagon after this.”
“Mr. McSwain? Ike?” a soft feminine voice called from the edge of the light cast by their fire.
Lou poked her head out of the back of the wagon to see Emily Metcalfe standing nervously nearby.
“Ike’s not here,” she said. “He’ll be back in a few. He went to check on Mr. Nolan. Their cow’s been off her feed lately. Can I help you?”
Emily smiled at Lou and nodded. Twisting her hands nervously in front of her, she said, “I wanted to thank you and your brother for comin’ to my defense earlier. I’m not used to that.”
“You didn’t do anythin’ wrong,” Lou shrugged.
“I know, but, folks don’t usually care ‘bout things like that.”
*What do you mean?* Ike asked, walking up to join them.
Emily looked at him in confusion.
“He just wants to know what you mean by saying folks don’t usually care about right and wrong,” Lou interpreted.
“Oh,” Emily said, blushing a little. Ducking her head she said, “Well, my Pa? He likes to gamble a bit. He’s good and he usually wins. But, he’s had problems before. He won’t stand for others cheating him. Can’t keep his mouth shut. We’re out here ‘cause a senator’s son got shot back home, after Pa accused him of cheatin’. Pa wasn’t the one doin’ the shooting, but he was the one took the blame.”
Lou nodded sympathetically, looking across at Ike. Both had been through similar problems before. Moving toward the fire, Lou picked up the coffee pot and held it up.
“Want some coffee?” she asked.
“Sure,” Emily said, following her over. Ike joined them. Soon, the three were chatting away like old friends.
After Emily finally left, and Lou and Ike were spreading out their bedrolls underneath the wagon, Lou turned to Ike and said, “She likes you.”
“You heard me. She likes you.”
*Don’t matter,* Ike shrugged. *I’m already married? Remember.*
Lou just looked at Ike strangely, before rolling over and closing her eyes.
“What is that awful stench?” Lou muttered one morning as she crawled out from under the wagon, blearily blinking out into the hazy early morning light.
Ike shrugged as he finished gathering the eggs from the hens roosting in cages hanging from the bottom of the wagon.
*Scrambled eggs?* he asked, holding up the basket full of eggs. *We’ve got quite a few today. Coffee’s already on.*
“Sure,” Lou smiled, heading eagerly toward the pot of coffee. But, the nearer she got the worse the stench became, until she realized it was the smell of the coffee. Unwilling to hurt Ike’s feelings, she altered course.. Heading away from camp in search of a place to do her morning business in privacy, she tossed over her shoulder a quick, “I’ll be right back!”
On her way back, she stopped by the river to wash her face and hands. Rounding a small copse of trees, she found Emily bent over, industriously scrubbing at a small piece of white cloth. As Emily held it up to the light to check its state of cleanliness, Lou recognized the menstruation belt in her hands.
She stopped suddenly in her tracks as her mind began to calculate how long it had been since she’d last used hers. Her face blanched. It had been too long. Way too long.Chapter 5