“With a horse!” Lou snapped sarcastically. “Of course, a baby.”
Ike stared at her for a moment, then taking Lou by complete surprise, jumped to his feet, grabbed her around the waist to lift her up and smack a big, noisy kiss on her forehead, before hopping out of the wagon and turning several cartwheels and handsprings. Lou moved to the tailgate to watch his exuberant celebration, laughing at his sudden excitement.
Running back, he hopped up on the wagon’s tailgate to sit next to her. With almost exaggerated care, Ike wrapped an arm around her shoulders and asked, *How far along are you?*
All the lighthearted laughter slipped away from Lou with those simple words. Looking down at her hands, she began picking at a stray thread hanging from one cuff.
“About two months,” she muttered.
Reaching out to tilt her chin up so she could see him, he asked gently, *Jimmy?*
Lou shrugged, again looking away from him. Blushing slightly, she added, “Maybe. Or Kid.”
Pulling her tight against his side, he gently kissed the top of her head and placed a hand gently over her stomach. With one hand he awkwardly signed, *It doesn’t matter. Either way, this child is a piece of one of our brothers that will always be with us.*
Lou looked up at Ike to see if he was serious. His green eyes bored into hers, and she could tell, he was indeed happy about this news. She didn’t understand, couldn’t understand.
“How can you be so happy about this? Raising another man’s child? A wife who isn’t. And you know what they’re all going to think once I start showing!”
Ike slid away from her a touch in order to use both hands. *They’ll think whatever we tell them, especially if we don’t wait until you’re showing to announce who you really are. Besides, since when did you care about what others thought?*
Lou shrugged. “Don’t know. Just do.”
*As for the rest, I’ve always wanted a big family, lots of children. It’s been a pure joy having Resi and Jeremiah around. I can’t wait to add this little one to the lot I get to spoil.*
Lou had to chuckle at that. Spoil the children, Ike certainly did, in the best way possible, with lots of love. He was strict, but with such a gentle hand they hardly noticed. Sometimes she wondered how he managed it.
*Besides,* he continued, *“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.”*^
“What was that?”
*Just something Preacher Heath said last Sunday. Guess it sort of stuck with me.*
She was so busy contemplating those words, she completely missed his next comment, *And you’re the only kind of wife I want.*
“What’s this?” Lou asked when Ike handed her her breakfast the next morning. Next to the cornmeal mush was a handful of some sort of flat biscuit.
*Soda crackers,* Ike smiled at her. *I remember my Ma practically lived on them when she was expecting my little sister. Said they were the only thing she could keep down.*
Lou stiffened. “Where’d you get ‘em?”
Ike busied himself with lifting a spoon to his mouth and chewing slowly so he wouldn’t have to answer, but Lou wasn’t going to let it go.
“Well? I thought we agreed to wait a bit more before.. sayin’ anythin’ to the others.” The decision had come after a lot of fast talking on her part. Ike was ready to have her quit scouting and hunting right away. But Lou had insisted she could continue with her work for the wagon train, at least until she started showing.
Finally, reluctantly, Ike said, *Mrs. Heath.*
“What did you tell her?”
*Just that you were feeling poorly. I didn’t give nothing away.*
Still uncertain, but unwilling to break the fragile peace they’d established the night before, Lou let it go. Reaching down, she picked up one of the soda crackers and brought it to her nose. Unlike coffee, bacon and half a dozen other foods they ate on a daily basis, the scent didn’t turn her stomach. That was a good sign. Sticking just the tiniest corner of the cracker in her mouth, she bit it off and chewed, slowly. When her stomach didn’t protest, she tried a larger piece. Before she knew it, the crackers were all gone, as was half her cornmeal mush.
“Guess they work pretty well,” she finally admitted, looking up at Ike as he was about to gather the dishes for washing. “Thanks.”
*You’re welcome,* he signed, smiling broadly at her.
Pulling out that morning was tough. No one had any heart for the journey after the previous day’s events. And the sight of John and Paul Stuart having to pry Peter’s mother, Amy, away from his grave so they could leave was heart wrenching.
Lou could only imagine what the poor woman was going through. Many times that day, every time she heard Amy Stuart break into tears again, Lou had to fight the urge to place a hand over her own growing child. The more real this baby became, the more attached to it she was getting. Regardless of whose it was.
“Can I walk with you today?”
Startled, Lou turned to find Emily standing nearby. With a smile, she nodded. “Sure.”
“Oh, good,” Emily said, relaxing with relief. “I’m getting so sick of talking about nothing but cards and guns with my Pa! Even Ike was boring as all get out, yesterday. He kept going on and on about the merits of oxen over mules for pulling wagons!”
Lou laughed out loud. Although she couldn’t say it, she could certainly sympathize. She’d had those days herself, living in the bunkhouse. Lou liked Emily. She was a sweet, straightforward woman, and practical. So practical that after Lou’d started dressing Teresa in boy’s pants for safety, Emily’d taken one look and gone and gotten, or made, a pair for herself. She didn’t wear them all the time, but certainly on trail days. That had been enough to further scandalize some of the more conservative members of their group of travelers. But Emily had just shrugged and moved on with her life. Lou admired that in her.
Lou shook her head as she silently marveled at just how impractical the other women’s dresses were. The skirts were bad enough, one light prairie breeze had them swaying and flapping in such a way as to spook even the calmest of animals. That’s without counting all the petticoats that went underneath, or the over bodice that buttoned up to the neck. The dresses, all by themselves, consisted of some 12 to 15 pounds of material. Lou was surprised none of the other women had yet collapsed from heat stroke. She’d seen it happen before, back when she’d been with the Express.
Turning to Emily, she asked, “So, what do you want to talk about?”
With one thing and another, the days slid into weeks, the weeks into months. Slowly, the wagon train inched across the prairie, toward the Rocky Mountains. Lou breathed easier, the further from Rock Creek they got. When they passed the town of Sweetwater, she once again insisted on staying behind with the train, while Ike took the kids into town, again travelling with the Metcalfes.
“Lou, what’s that?” Jeremiah asked, from his position behind her on Katy’s back.
Lou looked where he was pointing and in the distance saw the smoke rising from the small cluster of buildings that made up Fort Bridger.
“That would be the Fort we’ve been on the lookout for,” she smiled. “Fort Bridger.”
“Have you been there before?”
“Sure have, little brother,” she said. “Used to ride through it real regular. It’s got a Pony Express station there, along with an Army Post and trading station.”
Swinging Katy back around toward the wagon train behind them, Lou said, “We’d better go tell the others the good news!”
That night, they camped just a couple miles away from the Fort, with plans to arrive mid-morning the next day. It would give the tired travelers the rest of the day and all weekend to relax and socialize before picking up their journey west again.
After Jeremiah and Teresa were tucked into their pallets in the wagon, Ike came out to find Lou sitting by the fire, industriously sewing at something.
*What’s that?* he asked curiously.
“A dress,” she mumbled around the thread in her mouth.
Picking up one end of the material, Ike shook it a little before teasing, *Looks a bit big for Resi.*
“Ha, ha! It’s fer me and ya know it.”
*What happened to that pretty pink dress you had? Or the blue one?* he asked curiously, settling down next to her.
She said nothing for a moment before muttering, “Don’t fit no more.”
Ike sat up straighter as he looked at her. *Does that mean it’s time?*
Unhappily, she nodded, before bursting into tears. Grabbing her hand to get her attention, Ike smiled at her. *It’s going to be alright,* he reassured her. *You’ll see.*
Lou smiled tremulously up at him, desperate to believe his words.
“Well, I’ll be, if it ain’t Ike McSwain and Lou Mc-“
“Nice to see you, too, Carter,” Lou rapidly interrupted the tall, bluff man who ran the trading station at Fort Bridger. “These are Jeremiah and Teresa, my brother and sister.”
“So, ya finally went and picked ‘em up, hunh?” he laughed. “Here, why don’t you two have a piece of candy?”
The kids eagerly reached out to accept the round hard pieces of horehound candy William Carter* was holding out toward them. Before sticking them in their mouths, both looked at Ike, awaiting his silent permission to eat. Carter watched the interplay in bemusement.
“Why don’t you two go outside and play?” Lou suggested, trying to avert any early release of her secret.
“Not with the Express anymore, are you?” he asked, as they watched the children bound out of the store.
“Nope,” Lou shook her head. “We’re headed west. Going to try our hand at farming.”
“Well, I wish you the best of luck. You’re gonna need it,” he chuckled. “Farming’s a fool’s game. Why do you think I run a store?”
“’Cause you’re lazy and greedy?” Lou guessed good naturedly.
“Precisely! And who are these folks?” he asked, indicating the Nolans and the Metcalfes, clustered in the door behind Ike and Lou.
“Some friends of ours from the wagon train,” Lou answered.
“So, what can I do fer ya?” he asked, stepping behind the store’s small counter.
Ike pulled out a list of supplies and handed it over. Carter read through it slowly, nodding.
“I think I can handle most of this,” he said. “But you’re goin’ ta have ta talk to Spotted Horse about the moccasins and pemmican.”
“That’s about what we’d figured,” Lou nodded. “If you can fill this order, I’ll go see if I can roust out Spotted Horse.”
“Sure thing,” Carter said. “Me and Ike are old hands at horse tradin’, aren’t we son?”
Ike nodded with a grin.
*Did you get everything you wanted from Spotted Horse?* Ike asked when Lou walked back into camp with two, obviously well stocked parfleches hanging over her shoulder.
“Yep,” she smiled. “And then some.”
*I don’t know if it’s good news or not,* Ike began a bit timorously, *but it might be a good chance to break our news to the others.*
Plopping down onto her saddle, next to Ike, Lou smiled at his roundabout comment. “What might be, Ike?”
*There’s goin’ ta be a dance tomorrow night. Thought maybe you could go as Mrs. McSwain,* he said, almost bashfully.
Reaching out to pat his hand, Lou smiled at him. He was trying so hard. “I think you’re right, Ike. It’s time.”
“You about ready in there, Lou?” Jeremiah called out from outside the wagon. “I think Ike’s going to pace a hole in the ground if you don’t hurry it up!”
Lou stuck her head out through the back of the wagon, being careful to keep the edges of the cloth top closed. “Ike, can you come on in here? I need a little help.”
Ike nodded and moved quickly toward the wagon. As always when she saw one of the Express boys dressed up, Lou took a moment to admire the fine figure he cut. Turning to Jeremiah and Teresa, she said, “Why don’t you two run on over to see if the Metcalfes are ready? If they are you can walk to the dance with them. We’ll be along in a bit.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Teresa said, a twinkle in her eye. She was looking forward to the big surprise planned for tonight. In her eyes it was in the order of a grand practical joke and tonight was the punch line. Lou wasn’t quite so unflappable about the whole thing. She watched as the two children scampered off to join the Metcalfes. Then stepped aside to let Ike into the wagon, being careful to keep the edges of the canvas wagon cover between her and public view.
*What do you need, Lou?* he asked as soon as she’d securely tied the cover closed behind him.
She looked up at him through her eyelashes, before turning her back bashfully to him.
“I did the best I could, but I still can’t quite get this corset fastened on my own,” she whispered, embarrassed, as she let go of the sleeves of the dress and the bodice fell down around her waist. When she felt nothing, she turned her head to look behind her. “Ike?”
He was standing there, staring at her, transfixed by the sight of her bare shoulders and neck.
“Ike?” she repeated. “You alright?”
Shaking his head like a flummoxed bull, he slowly raised his eyes to meet hers. Suddenly he blushed bright red.
“Oh, Ike,” she laughed. “You’ve seen me in less than this plenty.”
*That was… different,* he gestured, before stepping toward her and reaching out gingerly to grasp the laces along the back of her corset.
“Once you get it done the first time I won’t need help anymore,” she chattered nervously as he fumbled with the strings down the back of the undergarment. “I just need someone to do it the first time. I’m sorry if this is embarrassing you, but I couldn’t ask anyone else.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous about a dance,” she continued, trying to distract herself from the feel of his fingers as they occasionally brushed against the skin of her back, sending unexpected, unwanted, damnit!, sparks flying. “Not even that first time. You remember? When Teaspoon made us all go with Amanda? Except we didn’t know she was Amanda yet? Oh, man! I still remember the look on those girls’ faces when Buck told them you were the only man he’d ever scalped. I thought they were going to run screaming to their Pa’s to protect ‘em.”
A soft pat on her shoulder notified her he was done. Without turning around, Lou pulled the bodice of the dress up and shrugged into the sleeves. Buttoning up the front, she swung to face him. Holding her arms out to her sides, she twirled.
“Well?” she asked. “How do I look?”
*As beautiful as the first time I ever saw you in a dress,* Ike signed, smiling at her. *Maybe more. You’re glowing.*
“That’s sweat,” she said repressively. “It’s hot as blazes in this get-up. Lord, I thought it was bad getting dressed up as a boy. That was nothing compared to this!”
*Ready?* Ike asked, ignoring her tirade.
She stopped and stared at him, sudden fear flashing through her eyes.
*It’ll be alright,* he promised, sweeping her close in a hug. Pulling back, he added, *You’ll see. They’ll love you. We all did.*
Heaving a huge sigh, well, really just trying to take a deep breath wearing the damned corset, Lou smiled gamely. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
Ike climbed down out of the wagon, then held up his hand to help her out, just like she’d seen Teaspoon and the boys do for Emma and Rachel a hundred and one times. Heck, she’d even done it more than once herself. It felt odd to be at the other end of the aide. Odd, but kind of nice, too, she reflected.
Once safely on the ground, she reached back into the wagon to grab her handbag, made of material that matched the deep burgundy dress with pink trim she was wearing. Inside she carried only a handful of Mrs. Heath’s soda crackers. Just in case.
He smiled back at her, bowing deeply, sweeping his hat off his head in proper courtly tradition. Straightening, he pulled his other hand from behind his back, a gaily wrapped package held in it.
“For me?” Lou asked, astonished. “Ike, you didn’t need to get me anything.”
Gesturing impatiently for her to take it, Ike continued to hold the gift out to her. Walking to his side, she accepted the gift and began ripping open the wrappings to reveal a pretty pink fan, a perfect match for the trim on her dress.
Opening it up, Lou observed the beautiful lace trim.
“Oh, Ike, you shouldn’t have.”
He shrugged bashfully. *I saw it and I thought of you, in that pink dress at Emma’s coming out party? Do you remember?*
“Do I?” she grinned up at him. “I was so embarrassed she made me do that.”
*And so pretty!* Stepping back, he held out his elbow for her. *Shall we?*
Lou fluttered her new fan flirtatiously in front of her face.
“Go for a walk with you this fine evening? Why, I don’t mind if I do,” she smiled at him playfully as she tucked her free hand into his crooked elbow. Together they began the half mile walk to the fort and the dance.
“Hey, look, here comes Ike McSwain, and he’s got a gal with him!” A deep southern twang telling them it was one of the Stuart girls.
“She’s pretty,” another voice answered the first. This time a deeply timbered lilt indicated one of the older O’Callahan boys.
Ike smiled as he heard this unofficial, but excited, announcement of their arrival at the big room where the dance was being held. The former barracks was empty since the Army had abandoned the fort a few months ago, when hostilities broke out back East.
Lou however froze.
“I cain’t do this,” she muttered. “I ain’t ready.”
Ike stopped to face her. Reaching out, he cupped her cheek in his hand for a brief moment before speaking. *Ready or not, you need to do this, Lou. It won’t be but a matter of weeks, maybe even days, before you won’t be able to hide anymore. Make the revelation your choice, not theirs. You can do it, Lou. You can do anything you put your mind to. How many times did you have to remind all of us that?*
Lou nodded her head and, taking a deep breath, said, “Alright. I’m ready.”
Resuming their movement, Lou practically marching in martial precision, they entered the room.
“Hey, Ike, who’s yer gal?” William Carter, the sutler, asked curiously. “She looks awful familiar.”
Ike smiled proudly down at Lou, then looked out over the crowd. Placing one hand over hers, he took her hand off his elbow so he could ‘speak.’ At this cue, Jeremiah and Teresa pushed their way to the front of the crowd. As Ike began to sign, Jeremiah translated.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Louise McCloud McSwain.”
“That’s our sister,” Teresa piped up into the shocked silence. “We’re really McClouds. But, she married Ike and that made her a McSwain. So, we’re McSwains now, too!”
^Deuteronomy 25:5-6, King James Version