Lou stood at the tailgate of the wagon, showing Teresa how to mix a batch of baking powder biscuits. Since she had scouting duty today that meant she also had breakfast detail. Ike and Jeremiah were feeding the stock.
Watching as Teresa carefully stirred the white batter that would go with bacon for breakfast, Lou swallowed back the bile trying to force its way up.
“Dang it,” she muttered angrily, turning away from the suddenly disturbing sight of the biscuit batter.
“You alright, Lou?” Teresa asked, worried. They’d all noticed her odd behavior the last few days, but she wouldn’t talk to any of them. She just kept getting crabbier and crabbier.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Lou muttered, starting to walk away. “You know what to do next. Call me when yer ready ta put them in the dutch oven.”
“Sure, Lou,” Teresa said quietly, taking the batter out of the bowl and plopping it down onto the well-floured surface of the tailgate to begin kneading the dough.
“Still grouchy Lou today?” Jeremiah asked, timidly poking his head around the corner of the wagon, having just finished feeding and watering the livestock. Teresa nodded morosely. “Here,” he suggested. “Why don’t you give me that. I’ll finish the biscuits while you go milk Samantha.”
Teresa happily traded chores and, grabbing the bucket, took off quickly to find the milk cow. Jeremiah shook his head as he watched her running across the field, braids trailing out behind her. She stopped at the first of the Stuart wagons to pick up young Peter Stuart, the only other child on the wagon train her age. They’d spent almost every free moment playing together the last few weeks. And, oh, hadn’t that gotten Mrs. Grayson’s goat! Eventually, Teresa made her meandering way, Peter now in tow, to the temporary corral where all the milk cows were herded together.
“Samantha,” Jeremiah muttered to himself in disgust. “Oddest damned name I’ve ever heard of for a cow.” Turning to the dough in front of him, he began to use a tin cup to cut it into circles for biscuits. “Don’t know why Lou insisted on it.”
A sudden angry shout interrupted his internal conversation. Looking over to Lou by the fire, he saw her with a skillet raised over her head, chasing after the Grayson’s little pug dog. It was running for all it was worth, little legs churning through the dust, their rasher of bacon clenched tightly in its jaws.
“Come back here, you varmint! I’m gonna skin you alive!”
Lou caught up with the dog at the same time that Mrs. Grayson descended from her wagon to see what all the ruckus was about. Jerking the bacon away from the canine, Lou started to swing the skillet at the now whimpering animal.
“Don’t you dare,” screeched Mrs. Grayson. “You touch one hair on my Poppy’s precious head and I’ll have you horsewhipped.” Bending over, she gathered the trembling dog into her arms, holding him tightly to her heaving chest.
“Then you’d better keep that nuisance in your own camp from now on,” Lou gritted out. “I can’t afford ta be feeding it bacon every morning. It steals one more piece of food from my camp, it even pokes its damned nose in my direction, and I’ll shoot the danged thang and toss it in the cookpot!”
Mrs. Grayson sucked in a shocked breath, before turning to stomp back toward her wagon. Looking around, Lou noticed the crowd her temper had gathered.
“Y’all can go ‘bout yer business. Ain’t nothin’ ta see here,” she snapped, turning back toward her own camp.
Ike, returning from his own morning chores, shook his head. Something had to break, and soon. Lou’s temper was getting worse and worse. Sure, the dog was a nuisance, but there was no call to threaten to eat it.
“Wagon’s West!” came the daily call that got the train lumbering on its way. Progress was slow and grating on Lou’s nerves. She was used to covering 75 miles in a day. The train was on a roll if it made 10. Sighing, she turned her horse down the route the train was taking and urged it into a gallop. Time to go find tonight’s campsite.
Ike watched her take off from where he was walking alongside the oxen pulling their wagon in the permanent drag position. He hoped she’d be back for lunch today. He wanted to talk to her, try to get her to open up. He knew what had happened with Wicks was bothering her and that she was feeling guilty for having told him, not Kid. But it felt like there was something more. And, she still wasn’t eating right. Normally, Lou could, and would, keep up with the rest of the boys when it came to eating everything in sight not nailed down. Lately, though, she’d been surreptitiously giving half her food to their dog, Duke. The other half came back up a short time later, like as not. She was starting to look tired and drawn and was losing weight, not something she could afford to do to begin with. She’d always been such a slight thing.
Lou enjoyed the morning back in the saddle, flying down the trail on Lightning’s back, letting the wind ruffle through her hair. She was able to simply be. She didn’t have to worry about the babe in her belly, or what everyone’s reaction would be. She didn’t have to think about all the things that were bothering her. With a sigh though, she eventually slowed the horse and began to search along the banks of the river for a suitable camp spot.
Shortly before noon, she rode back up to the moving line of wagons to report to the wagon master on what she’d found. Drawing Lightning to a standstill on a rise overlooking the train, she let her eyes drift down its line, until they came to rest on Ike, and Emily, walking alongside her wagon. Emily was chattering away while Ike kept their oxen heading in the right direction. Lou smiled a bit at the sight.
When he caught sight of her waiting, the wagonmaster, Stan Henderson looked up at the sun, almost directly overhead, and raised his arm to shout…. “Wagons Halt!”… indicating it was time to stop for the noon break.
In a stuttering line, the wagons began grinding to a slow halt. Lou watched in growing horror as she saw two of the Stuart boys playing on the opened tailgate of their wagon, apparently oblivious to the order to halt. One of them was Teresa’s new little friend. Lou began to look around for Resi, when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Stuart wagon jerk to a stop, sending Peter flying off the end of the tailgate, right under the hooves of the oxen pulling the next vehicle. Even from her distant position, she could hear the screams of horror from onlookers as several adults rushed in to pull the child free.
Riding up to join the gathered group of concerned family and friends, Lou could tell it was already too late. In her few short years she’d seen too many dead bodies. The oxen’s hooves had so badly mangled the boy Lou would never have recognized him if she hadn’t seen him playing just moments ago.
Not wanting them to witness any more of the horror before her, Lou began herding the shocked children away from the scene, even as Ike helped several of the men carry the boy to a shady spot near the trail. It looked like they weren’t going to make the campsite she’d found tonight, afterall.
“What happened to Peter, Lou? Will he be able to play with me again after lunch?” Teresa asked.
Lou stopped in her tracks and looked down at her little sister. Hunkering down on her knees, she looked Teresa in the eyes. “Honey, Peter won’t ever be able to play with you again. He’s….” suddenly she found herself choking up with tears over the death of a child she’d barely known, “he’s dead.”
“But, he just fell out of the wagon,” the little girl protested.
“Resi, you know how dangerous those oxen can be,” Jeremiah scoffed. “There’s no way he could’ve survived being trampled by six of them! Don’t be stupid.”
“Jeremiah! There’s no call to be mean,” Lou reprimanded him, as Teresa threw herself into Lou’s arms, wailing for all she was worth. “How would you feel if it had been Liam who’d fallen instead?”
Standing, Lou picked up the little girl and continued on her way back to their campsite, a chastened Jeremiah following in her footsteps.
Seating herself next to their wagon, leaning up against the rear wheel, Lou awkwardly patted her sister’s back. “There, there,” she murmured. “It’ll be alright.”
“No it won’t. Peter’s never coming back, never, ever, never,” she wailed at the top of her lungs.
Not knowing what to say to that, Lou remained silent and continued to hug the little girl. Eventually, Teresa fell asleep in Lou’s arms. She still sat there holding her little sister close. It so easily could have been Jeremiah or Teresa. Lou couldn’t believe how scared she’d been.
“I’m sorry, Lou,” Jeremiah finally broke the silence. “I wasn’t’ trying to be mean.”
Lou looked up at her younger brother and saw the tear streaks down his cheeks. Holding out one arm, she beckoned him close. He moved over and slid under her arm to cuddle up to her side.
“I know you weren’t honey,” she said quietly. “He was your friend, too, wasn’t he?”
Jeremiah nodded his head in a silent yes.
Feeling Teresa stirring in her arms, Lou decided to broach the subject that had been preying on her mind. “Do you see now why we don’t let you play on the wagon while it’s moving? How dangerous it can be?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeremiah whispered.
“Good,” Lou sighed. Looking up, she watched as Ike trudged back to camp, his shoulders bowed in grief as well. When he was close enough to speak, she asked, “How are they doing?”
*Not well,* he sighed. *John Stuart is putting together a casket, but I think the boy’s father is losing it. He was their only son.* Ike shook his head.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Teresa asked from her place on Lou’s lap.
“Yeah, what can we do? Anything’d be better than sitting here seeing poor Peter falling off that wagon over and over again,” Jeremiah added.
Ike looked at Lou and she nodded. It would be better to keep the kids busy. *Resi, could you go help the O’Callahans with the littler children?*
Teresa nodded eagerly, immediately jumping up and running across to the O’Callahan wagon.
“What about me?”
*The funeral will be this evening, before supper,* Ike said. *No one’s going to want to spend a lot of time cooking afterward. Could you and your friends get your fishing poles and catch us a mess of fish?*
“Yes, sir! I’ll get right on it,” Jeremiah said and was soon rummaging through the wagon for his pole.
“Thanks, Ike. They needed something to keep them busy,” Lou said, smiling wanly up at him. He nodded.
*Our help is needed, too.*
“Grave detail?” she guessed. Again he nodded. “Let me get our shovel and I’ll be right there.”
As she stood to go, he reached out for her arm.
*You don’t have to do this,* he started to sign.
“Yes. Yes, I do,” she nearly whispered. “That could’ve been Teresa. Or Jeremiah. It could’ve been you or me. Yes, I have to do whatever I can to help, because it could be one of us next time.”
Without another word, she walked away. Ike watched her go, a pain growing in his heart.
“Lou! Lou McSwain! Lou! You can stop now,” Stan Henderson called to her. “Let someone else take a turn. You can’t work that hard for so long in this heat!”
“I’m fine,” she said, continuing to swing her shovel in a rhythmic heave ho motion. “I’m almost there.”
“Ike,” the wagonmaster said, “can you talk some sense into your brother.”
Ike shook his head and shrugged. No one had ever been able to talk sense into Lou once she had her mind made up.
“Done,” Lou panted, reaching out to hand her shovel up to Ike. Then, taking his hand, she used it as leverage to pull herself out of the grave, a shiver crawling up her spine as she did so. Rising to her feet, she swayed momentarily next to Ike. He reached out a hand to steady her.
*When did you eat last?*
She looked at him, uncomprehendingly. Then, suddenly, simply slumped into a heap at his feet.
Lou! he shouted in his head, wishing for the millionth time he still had his voice. No one else noticed as he frantically bent over to check on her. Everyone was too busy taking care of all the details needed to bury one, too young victim of the trail west.
Once assured Lou was alive, Ike carefully gathered her into his arms and carried her back to their wagon. There he climbed inside and laid her down on the pallet the children slept on. Then, he simply sat beside her, waiting. He didn’t know what else to do and had no one to ask for advice.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Lou began to come to, her head moving restlessly from side to side as her eyelids fluttered once, then twice, before opening fully. Her brown orbs met his expressive green ones.
Suddenly, he was angry with her. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he began to ‘talk’.
*What’s wrong? And don’t tell me nothing, because something is obviously going on!* he gestured emphatically.
Lou started to turn her head away, to deny him the chance to have his say. This enfuriated him. Reaching out he grabbed her chin and forced her to look his way. With exaggerated gestures, he continued his tirade.
*I’ve had it, Lou! You act as if you’re the only one anything happens to! Stop playing the martyr. You ain’t the only one to survive a tragedy. Well, guess what, you’re my wife, admit it or not. What happens to you happens to me. When something’s wrong with one of us, then it’s wrong with both of us. You can’t keep trying to shoulder all the burden. That’s not how it works.*
He was really angry, a startled Lou marveled, watching as his arms swung wildly about. It was odd, being bawled out in complete and total silence, she thought inconsequentially. The only sounds in the confines of their wagon were Ike’s harsh breathing and the occasional pounding of a fist against his chest.
*And don’t you go trying to give me that crap about this being a marriage of convenience. If you haven’t noticed, there ain’t nothing convenient about this. But I’m still here! We’re a family. Long before you and I made any vows, we were a family. Nothing’s changed about that. And family sticks together. Didn’t you learn anything from Teaspoon?*
Finally, she opened her mouth to say something, but Ike glared at her to ‘shut-up’ and continued on with his tirade. So, she settled back on the pallet and waited. When his motions eventually slowed, she peeked up at him through her eyelashes.
“May I speak now?” she asked meekly.
He nodded choppily, his anger still in full force.
This stopped all movement from the tall man hovering over her. Until he suddenly dropped to the pallet at her side, his eyes now twice the size they’d been just moments before.
*Pregnant? With a baby?*