“Watch out, Ike! Make sure you’ve got her legs tied tight!”
Lou watched anxiously, holding her end of the lasso attached to the thrashing, complaining cow’s neck taut. If anything happened to Ike… she wouldn’t let herself complete that thought. Ike had determined, after checking the Nolans’ ailing cow several times, that one of her stomachs had gotten dislodged. In order to fix it, they were going to try a roll maneuver.
“Ready?” John Stuart called as Ike stepped back from where he’d been double checking the ropes binding the animal’s feet together. At Ike’s nod, John and Charles Stuart began pulling their rope, attached to the animal’s rear hooves, to one side. Ike came over to Lou’s side and together they began to pull the rope attached to the bovine’s head and front hooves in the same direction. Soon, the bellowing cow was resting on one side. But they weren’t done yet. Now, they all heaved and tugged until they had the cow on her other side. After repeating the rolling motion several times, Ike stepped in to the upset cow’s side and carefully released the ropes holding her down.
With a last indignant moo of disgust, the animal lumbered to her feet and trotted off to reassure her anxious calf that all was well with the world.
Ike and the Stuarts walked over to join the Nolans, who’d watched the entire operation in fascination.
*We’ll have to keep an eye on her for a few more days,* Ike said, Lou interpreting for him. *But, if I’m right, that should have taken care of her problems.*
“And if he’s not, we’ll be enjoying a nice beef roast,” Charles Stuart cracked. The men all laughed. Lou smothered a grimace. So many of the foods she used to enjoy were now just turning her stomach. Even Ike was beginning to notice her sudden apparent lack of appetite.
“I can’t thank you enough, gentlemen,” Tim Nolan said, holding out his hand. Ike and Lou immediately reached out to shake, while the Stuarts stood back, shuffling a bit, looking confused and unsure how to handle the situation. “We’d never have known what to do without your help.”
*You’ve got a lot to learn about living on the frontier,* Ike said.
“But you’re hardly alone in that respect,” Lou added on her own. “Even those of you who’ve been farmers will be facing challenges we’ve never dealt with before. This is a whole ‘nother world.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” John smiled good-naturedly. “Never thought to find myself working side by side with a nigra. And an educated one, at that.”
“I’d prefer the term Colored,” Tim replied, accepting the comment with good grace. “Although I don’t think that’s quite what young McSwain here meant.”
“Speaking of educated,” Lou spoke up, “I was wanting to talk to you about a little schooling for Jeremiah and Teresa? Maybe on Saturday afternoons, when we’re resting?”
A short time later, as Lou and Ike moved back toward their own campsite, Lou looked around at the group of circled wagons. It had taken a few weeks, but the disparate families were starting to form a community with the habit of working together for the good of all. She grimaced a bit as her eyes lit on the Grayson wagon. Well, most of them anyway.
*Looks like the Graysons could use a little help,* Ike commented, pointing toward Mrs. Grayson and her three daughters. They had a squawking chicken surrounded and kept chasing it back and forth toward each other. Yet, when it came within reach of one of the women it would begin pecking at her, and she would squeal and run away.
“Smart chicken,” Lou muttered. “I’d like to take a peck ‘er two outta them myself.”
Ike gave Lou a quelling look and she sighed. “Alright, alright. Let’s go help.”
Walking up behind the four women, Lou reached out and grabbed the chicken with both hands, one on its feet one around its neck, to keep it from pecking and scratching at her.
“You can’t let it scare you like that,” she said. “Now, what did you want to do with it?”
“We’re planning a proper Sunday dinner, complete with fried chicken, for Mr. Grayson,” Mrs. Grayson sniffed.
*Have you ever butchered a chicken?* Ike asked.
At their confused looks, Lou added, “Um, do you know what to do next?”
“No,” Mrs. Grayson said shortly.
“We always had a maid who bought the chicken at market, already butchered,” Constance sniffed. “Why didn’t we bring a maid along, mother?”
“That was your father’s decision.”
“Well,” Lou said, “one of you needs to put some water on to boil.”
“Oh, we’ve already got that done,” Charity, the youngest of the sisters, and least snotty in Lou’s opinion, offered eagerly. “What’s next?”
“You got a ax?” Lou asked.
Four heads swung slowly, side to side. Lou sighed.
*They’re gonna have to wring its neck, then,* Ike signed.
“No, you mean I’m gonna have to do it,” Lou grumped under her breath. Turning back to the women, she said, “Watch close, ‘cause I ain’t gonna be runnin’ over here every time ya want ta butcher a chicken.”
With quick, smooth motions, she grabbed the chicken’s neck in both hands and twisted in two different directions. A distinct snap could be heard by all.
“Oh, oh my!” one of the Grayson women murmured.
“It’s still alive,” Prudence shouted. “Put it out of its misery!”
“No, it’s dead,” Lou said. “It ain’t feelin’ nothin’ now.” Letting the dead, flopping chicken dangle at her side, she looked around. “Alright, where’s that boilin’ water?”
Charity pointed toward the tripod hanging over the fire next to the wagon, with a pot dangling from its center. Lou walked over and checked the pot. Determining that it was big enough to handle the entire bird, she held it up by its feet and dunked it into the water.
Gagging at the sour stench pouring off the bird as she removed it from the water, she handed it over to Mrs. Grayson.
“Here,” she gritted out. “You should be able to pluck it now.”
Without another word, she turned and ran off into the woods to empty her stomach of all she’d eaten that day. Ike watched her go, worried, for a moment, before continuing on to their own campsite. He knew she wouldn’t want him following her, but it was hard not to.
“Ike, where’s Lou?” Jeremiah called excitedly, as he passed the O’Callahan wagon, where Jeremiah had made friends with the middle boy, 13 year old Liam.
*She’s taking care of personal business. She’ll be back in a few minutes,* Ike said.
Jeremiah nodded. “Look what Liam showed me how to make!”
Ike took the child’s toy, called a Jacob’s Ladder, and looked it over approvingly. While not perfect, it showed a certain attention to detail and care for craftsmanship that he liked. Jeremiah showed great promise at working with his hands.
“Thanks! I can’t wait to show Lou!”
*She’ll be impressed, I’m sure.*
Ike was impressed with how quickly Jeremiah and Teresa had not only learned to read his signs, but even begun signing back. They’d gotten so good at it, that recently they’d started teaching the other children in the wagon train. All the kids thought it was great, a way to speak secretly without most adults being able to understand them. Now, it wasn’t unusual for Ike to round the end of a wagon and find a group of youngsters signing away industriously to each other. He shook his head in wonderment at the idea.
When Lou walked back into camp, still wiping her mouth with her sleeve, Ike noticed she looked pale.
*Are you alright?*
“I’m fine,” she said shortly, walking over to the food supplies to begin getting things out for supper.
Ike followed her, touching her elbow to get her attention. *Are you sure you’re not getting sick? We’re coming up on Rock Creek soon. You could go see the doctor there.*
If anything, she paled even further, jerking away from him to turn back to the food.
“I said I’m fine. Just leave it alone,” she snapped at him.
*Are you sure you won’t come along?* Ike asked as he looked down from his mount at a wan Lou. *Teaspoon, Rachel and the boys would love to see you. And…*
“Don’t even say it,” Lou snapped peevishly. “I left with no intentions of ever goin’ back and nothin’s changed that. You wanta visit, yer free ta do so. I ain’t even gonna stop the young’un’s from visitin’. But I ain’t gonna put the others at risk with my presence.”
*You’re being silly, Lou,* Ike signed, a reproving look on his mobile features.
“Yeah, Lou, you ain’t a danger to no one,” Jeremiah chirped up from his position behind Ike on the horse.
“Stay out of things you don’t understand, Jeremiah.”
“And it’s ‘are not’ not ain’t,” Teresa piped up from the safety of her position in front of Ike, surrounded by his protective arms. Just as Jeremiah was reaching out to smack his sister for her comment, Ike grabbed his arm and shook his head in a demanding, *No!*
Jeremiah settled for sticking his tongue out at her instead. Teresa just sniffed and turned away.
“Ike? You comin’?” Emily Metcalfe called from the rear of the group of departing pioneers. Ike waved to indicate he’d be there in a moment.
Turning back to Lou, he begged, *Be careful, I don’t like you staying out here all by yourself. You know how dangerous this territory can be.*
“Precisely, I know what to expect. Especially ‘round here. You can stop worryin’ about me. I’ll be fine. Now, git!”
Ike nodded unhappily and turned his horse to follow the path forged by the others from the wagon train who’d already left for town. He smiled as he caught up with Emily and her father. They’d become close friends with the McSwains over the last few weeks on the trail.
“What are you planning on picking up in town?” Emily asked, happily looking forward to the break from the monotony of their journey. By the end of the day, the pioneers would have emptied Tompkins’ store of every possible portable item, and then some. This was their last chance for any sort of provisioning until Fort Kearney. And, from what Ike had heard, Kearney wasn’t exactly stocking up for travelers anymore, not with the war back East.
*Not much we need,* Ike shrugged. Jeremiah translating for him. *Mostly going to be visiting with friends.*
“You’ve got friends in Rock Creek?” Carl Metcalfe asked curiously.
Ike nodded and began to explain all about their Express family.
Lou sighed as she watched Ike and her siblings ride away, chatting happily with the Metcalfes. The sight bothered her for some reason, but she refused to dwell on it. She had other things to worry about right now.
It was a relief to have some time to herself. She’d been fighting so hard not to admit what she knew was happening to her body. But she didn’t have much choice. This week she’d missed her second monthly. And she’d always been regular as clockwork. There was no longer any room for doubt, at least on that front. She cringed away from the next thought that tried to push its way into her head. She just wasn’t ready to deal with that yet.
After tidying up camp, Lou grabbed her saddlebags and walked down to the old watering hole. She found it ironic, or maybe it wasn’t since Ike had scouted out their camp, that the wagon train had camped near Kid’s old thinking place. Well, she needed to do some thinking, might as well do some cleaning up while she was at it.
Soon, Lou was resting on a rock, warming herself in the sun as she let her hair and clothes dry out. The water had been chilly, but it felt soooo good to be clean again. She desperately missed having regular access to the shower Teaspoon had rigged up for the riders. She sighed as that returned her thoughts to the changes going on in her body, and their cause. One hand came to rest against her still flat belly.
“Louise, what a surprise to find you out here all by your lonesome,” a well-remembered slick, oily voice from her past oozed across the clearing to her. Lou stiffened, one hand creeping under her hat toward her gun. But she froze at the ominous sound of a pistol hammer clicking into place. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Louise.”
Opening her eyes, Lou turned her head to face one of her worst nightmares head on. Wicks. Lyle Wicks. The man who’d stolen her childhood, her innocence from her, then left her bleeding on the floor. The man, who if you thought about it, was why she’d ended up with the Express.
“What do you want, Wicks?” she asked, refusing to let the fear his voice engendered in her show.
“Where’s Charlotte? And the money you two stole from me?” he demanded harshly, motioning for her to stand up at the same time.
“Now, how would I know that?” Lou asked, reaching for her shirt and pants, pulling them on over the longjohns she was still wearing. “I ain’t seen you or her in more than three years.”
“She disappeared with it the same day I saw you in St. Joe. I know you’re behind it!” He paused to laugh. “You may have changed your name, Lou McSwain, but you still had those two brats in tow. Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize you?”
Walking up to her, he reached out with one hand to run a finger down her cheek. “You were always pretty, Louise. But you sure have grown into a beautiful woman.” Feeling her shiver of fear, he smiled evilly at her. “Too bad you’ll always be that frightened little girl, deep down inside.” The timber of his voice dropped an octave as he purred to her, “You’re mine, Louise. You’ve been mine since we celebrated your birthday together. You’ll always be mine.”
“Go to hell,” Lou gritted out, spitting in his face. “I’m no one’s. I belong to myself.”
Wicks slapped her across the face, then grabbed a handful of hair at the back of her head, dragging her in close against his body. “Ooooh, you’ve still got spirit. I like that. Maybe I’ll just take you back and make you earn the money Charlotte stole from me. What do you think of that?”
Lou smiled up into her tormenter’s eyes. “I’d say, good luck tryin’.”
Without another word, she brought her knee straight up, lodging it as high and tight as she possible could between his legs, spread wide for balance. As he tilted forward in pain, she reached out with her hands to grab his ears and help his face smash down into her other knee. When he fell to the ground, groaning, she kicked his gun away and brought up hers, which she’d unobtrusively palmed while getting dressed.
“I ain’t a little girl anymore, Lyle Wicks, and you ain’t got nothin’ I want.” As he started to make a move to get up, she slammed the toe of her boot into his diaphragm, sending him back to the ground, then stomped, hard, on the hand reaching out for her ankle. “See, I’ve done more than get strong. I’ve learned how to handle scum like you, from the best.”
With that, she stepped back, cocked the trigger and pulled. With no expression on her face, she continued to pull the trigger until the only response was an empty click. Letting her gun arm fall to her side, she collapsed to her knees on the ground and just stared at the remains of the man who’d inhabited her nightmares for so long, the man whose influence on her life had stolen any chance she’d ever had at happiness with Kid.
“That’s for all of us, all the girls you’ve ruined and tried to ruin over the years. And even for Charlotte. She deserved anything she may have taken from you and more. Now, she’ll be safe. We’ll all be safe.” Once again her hand crept up to rest protectively over her belly.
Lou sat there, staring at the body of Lyle Wicks, watching as it started to bloat in the afternoon sun, flies and buzzards hovering around, drawn by the scent of death. So lost was she in her thoughts, she never heard the sounds of someone crashing through the brush. When a large hand came to rest on her shoulder, she jumped, turning ready to fight, only to nearly collapse in on herself as she saw Ike looking down at her with nothing more than concern in his eyes.
Suddenly, all the pain and worry of the previous few days and the fear of the last few hours became too much for her. Before Ike could even ask her what had happened, she collapsed into his surprised arms, bawling her eyes out.
Once again, Ike found himself cradling a sobbing Lou in his arms. Holding her close, offering her the only comfort he could, even as he struggled to understand why she was so upset. It wasn’t like she’d never killed a man before. It couldn’t be that. He knew there was something more, something that had been bothering her for awhile. He just hoped she’d trust him enough to talk about it, soon.
Lou didn’t understand why, but it felt good, safe and comfortable, being held tight in Ike’s arms. It felt, right. Like this was where she belonged. Like she’d come home. Even as her tears tapered off, she found herself hoping Ike wouldn’t let go of her.
She knew he was about to ask her what had happened, so, to keep him from letting go, she started talking. Slowly at first, in a barely audible voice, she began to tell the story of Wicks’ attack on her, Charlotte’s aid in her midnight escape and how she’d eventually ended up with the Express. Only here, in the safety of Ike’s arms, did she feel capable of putting into words what had happened to her.
Yet, even as the thought occurred to her, she began to feel horribly guilty. Ike wasn’t the one she should’ve been telling this tale to. Pulling away from him, she muttered, “If I’d only told Kid. Things would’ve ended so differently. He wouldn’t have died. Jimmy would still be here…”
*Maybe,* Ike said, reaching out to place a comforting hand on her shoulder for a moment before continuing. *But they’re not. And I think Kid would’ve been happy you had someone you trusted enough to share it with. He would’ve hated seeing you in pain as much as I do. He’d have wanted you to be happy.*