“Well if that don’t take the rag off the bush,” Carter marveled, with a growing smile. “I must admit I’ve been hornswaggled but good!”
Carter’s colorful comments seemed to awaken the frozen crowd of shocked pioneers. Everyone began to speak at once.
“Louise? Is that our Lou he’s talking about?”
“Is he really a girl?”
“Why’d he pretend to be a boy?”
“Why’d he own up to the truth now?”
“What else hasn’t he told us?”
“Now folks,” Preacher Heath moved to the front of the room to stand next to Ike and Lou, holding his hands out for quiet. “I’m sure if you give them a moment to breath, this fine young couple would be happy to answer your questions.”
Ike nodded, Lou simply scooted a little closer to his side and he reached out to wrap one arm comfortingly around her waist. The preacher smiled at them kindly. “I’d like to start off by asking, did you really both ride for the Express?”
“I can answer that one,” Carter said with a bellowing laugh. “Lou… ah… Louise…. here rode through quite regular for the Express. Ike was through occasionally, too. But it was Lou what always put the fear of the Almighty in me. Somehow he… uh…. she always managed to walk out of my store with exactly what she wanted at a price that should have beggared me. And that’s the Simon pure truth!”
The crowd tittered at Carter’s words, giving Lou the courage to begin answering questions.
“Yes, I’m really a girl. Always have been. I pretended to be a boy so I could get a decent paying job that didn’t end up with me in a brothel,” she paused a moment to cover a shiver of memory. “As for why we decided to tell everyone… well….”
She stuttered to a stop, unsure how to continue. Looking to Ike, she silently begged for help.
“But she’s expecting a baby and won’t be able to pretend no more,” Jeremiah piped up for her.
Lou’s mouth fell open in pure shock this time. “How.. how’d you know that?”
“What? You didn’t think we’d put it together?” Jeremiah asked. “We aint’ deaf, dumb and blind, ya know.”
Once again, everyone laughed. The repeated laughter relaxed the group and soon they were breaking up into smaller clusters, getting their questions answered a few at a time. No one noticed a teary eyed Emily Metcalfe sneaking out the back door.
*Shall we dance?* Ike asked an hour later, holding out his hand invitingly to Lou.
“Yes, please,” she smiled. As he swept her into his arms and out into the swirling crowd of people dancing vigorously to the upbeat music provided by Mr. O’Callahan and his two eldest sons, Lou continued, “That went better than I feared.”
Ike shot an “I told you so” grin her direction as he swung her in a dizzying twirl. Lou laughed at his antics. “But good Lord, the questions! I’m exhausted. I don’t think I’ve ever talked so much in my life. Give me a double run anyday over another night like this!”
“Damned buttons!” Lou grumped as she struggled to fasten her britches. She was in a hurry to hit the trail that morning, before Henderson had a chance to tell her she couldn’t do her job anymore. But her steadily expanding belly was getting in the way, already.
“Here, Lou,” Teresa said, holding out a string to her, “use this.”
Lou let go of her waistband to reach out and accept the offered string. Holding it up in front of her face, she asked, “What am I supposed to do with this, Resi?”
Teresa giggled, happy she knew something, for once, that her idolized big sister didn’t. Taking the string back, she tied it into a circle as she spoke. “You loop one end around the button, pass the whole thing through the buttonhole, then loop it back over the button again. It’ll let you keep wearing your trousers for another month or two.”
Looking at her little sister skeptically, Lou followed the directions.
“It works,” she marveled. “How’d you know about that?”
Teresa shrugged. “It’s a trick the nuns taught us when we’d outgrow our clothes and couldn’t get new ones yet.”
Hugging Teresa to her quickly, Lou said, “Thank you, honey bear.”
Then, grabbing a handful of the ever ready soda crackers, Ike had bought several more boxes for her from Carter, she hopped out of the wagon and headed to where they had the horses tethered. Moments later, she was flying down the trail.
“Ike, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you out riding the trail?” Henderson asked as he saw Ike urging their oxen out onto the road west.
*It’s Lou’s day to ride point,* Ike gestured.
“What?” Henderson reached up to scratch his head in confusion. “Jest a sec. Jeremiah!” he shouted. “Get over here and translate for me.”
“Yes, sir,” Jeremiah called back, running over from the O’Callahan wagon two spaces ahead of the McSwains.
“Now, what did you say, Ike?”
Jeremiah watched Ike a moment then said, “Lou’s out riding point today. It’s her turn.”
“Hold on a minute, I ain’t gonna have no woman scouting and hunting for me,” Henderson began to sputter. “’Specially not one in a delicate condition!”
Jeremiah didn’t wait for Ike to respond. “Uh, have you met my sister, Mr. Henderson? You try stopping her from doing something she’s set her mind on. Ain’t never worked for none of us!”
Ike laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair. He’d taken the words right out of his hands.
Henderson hmphed grumpily, glared at Ike a moment, then swung his horse around and trotted off.
When Lou rode in around noon to report on the campsite she’d found for that evening, Henderson listened to her report, then waved her off.
“Go talk ta yer husband,” he grumped.
With dread in her heart, she headed toward her wagon, sliding off Sundancer before he came to a complete halt and tying the reins to the tailgate. Accepting the sandwich Teresa held out to her, she settled onto an upturned log next to Jeremiah. After chewing and swallowing her first bite, she finally looked across the campsite at Ike.
“What’s with Henderson?”
“He wanted ya to quit workin’,” Jeremiah piped up.
“But Ike told him it was up to you,” Teresa said.
Lou smiled gratefully at Ike. “Thanks.”
*He said he’d leave it up to us as a family. Figured you’d been doing the job just fine so far. But, he’s not comfortable with you keeping it up too much longer, under the circumstances.*
“That ain’t fer him to decide,” Lou started to bluster.
“That’s what Ike said,” Jeremiah assured her.
*But, you should start thinking about when you’re going to stop working so hard,* Ike continued, undeterred. Crossing to her side, he added, *After all, we want to take good care of this baby.*
He reached out a hand to pat her stomach familiarly.
“Keep yer hands to yerself,” she squealed, batting his hands away and laughing. “As I recall, that’s the kind of thing that got me into this fix!”
Ike just smiled at her, wistfully.
“Louise, you going to join us this evening?”
Lou started at hearing her full name called out. Turning around, she paused to let a slightly breathless, pregnant to the point of bursting, Mrs. Heath catch up with her. “Join you? Fer what?”
“Why, the weekly Ladies Meeting,” Mrs. Heath said.
“Because you’re a lady, young woman. And, because you might enjoy it.”
“I ain’t much fer talkin’ ‘bout the latest quiltin’ patterns an’ gossipin’ ‘bout who done what recently,” Lou said. “Somehow I don’t think y’all’d be too interested in discussin’ the latest developments in pistols or how to track a deer.”
“Oh, come on, give it a try. I think you’ll enjoy it. We just talk about whatever’s on our minds. You might be surprised at some of the topics that come up,” Mrs. Heath smiled.
Shrugging her shoulders, Lou assented, “I’ll think about it. One meetin’ ain’t gonna kill me.”
The preacher’s wife reached out and patted Lou on the back. “That’s the spirit my girl. The meeting will be at my camp this week. Come on over after supper.”
Lou nodded as she watched the other woman walk, waddle rather, back toward her wagon.
“What’s she doing here?” Mrs. Grayson muttered under her breath as she saw Lou approach the Heaths’ camp.
“She’s coming to the Ladies Meeting,” Mrs. Heath said calmly. “I invited her.”
“Why? She isn’t a lady. She’s barely a female,” Prudence sneered.
“That’s no way to talk about one of God’s children,” Mrs. Heath gently reproved the girl. “She may have lived an unconventional life, but she’s a woman in the middle of the wilderness, just like the rest of us. And,” placing a hand on top of her rounded belly to emphasize her point, she added, “she’s in a condition where she’ll soon need our help. It’s our Christian duty to offer it. She’s certainly not stinted on helping any of us when we needed it, now has she?”
Even the Graysons couldn’t deny that. Mrs. Heath pushed herself laboriously to her feet to walk the few steps over and welcome Lou, with hands outstretched.
“Come on over and have a seat, child,” she said, pulling Lou into the circle of light cast by the campfire. “You know everyone here, so relax. You’re among friends,” she added with a pointed look at the Graysons and a couple of the Stuart women who’d expressed reservations as well.
“Come sit with us,” Amy Nolan invited, patting the ground between her and Emily. Lou walked over and lowered herself gracefully to a seat. She rubbed her hands down her pants legs nervously, noticing even Emily had put on a dress for the meeting. Lou hadn’t had time to change after a day in the saddle and could feel the accumulated grime announcing her differences from the other women like a flag held high. She hunched in on herself when Emily made a point to scoot a few inches further away from Lou, refusing to look her direction. Lou sighed forlornly. She shouldn’t have come.
“How are you feeling?” Amy asked.
“Yes, have you noticed any improvement in the morning sickness?” Mrs. Heath queried.
Lou looked up, surprised. “How’d you know ‘bout that?”
Mrs. Heath laughed. “After your big announcement? It wasn’t too hard to guess. Ike had already told me you were feeling poorly when he asked if I had any soda crackers. I hope they helped.”
“Yes, ma’am. I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” Lou smiled, relaxing a bit.
“All I can say is I don’t know how you two do it,” Clara Stuart piped up. “I won’t let my John touch me as long as we’re on the trail. No way I want to get caught while traveling across country like this!”
“You know, there are ways to enjoy marital relations without worrying about babies,” Amy said quietly.
“What?!” Mrs. Grayson gasped. “Interfere with God’s plan for you? Why, that’s sacrilege!”
“And refraining from marital relations isn’t?” Mrs. Heath responded. “I do believe Paul counsels in 1st Corinthians 7:5, “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
“So, what’s this method you got of avoiding babies,” Kathleen O’Callahan asked curiously. “Does it work better than the rhythm method?”
“One would hope,” Lou muttered, placing a hand over her belly. That’s what she’d been attempting to use and look how things turned out.
“Oh, yes. Much,” Amy smiled. “It’s called a ‘male shield’. It’s--“
“Shut your mouth, young woman!” Mrs. Grayson snapped. “I will not have you corrupting my innocent young daughters with this indecent talk.”
“Oh, please,” Beth Stuart rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard worse out of their mouths on a Sunday morning!”
Tuning out the growing argument, Lou began to restlessly look around the group. Thus, she was the only one who noticed Mrs. Heath’s uncomfortable shifting. When the other woman suddenly blanched and let out a deep groan, Lou was the first to her side.
“Are you alright?” she asked, worried about this woman who’d gone out of her way to be nice to her.
“I… I think my time’s come,” Mrs. Heath smiled wanly.
“Her baby’s coming, you foolish child,” Mrs. Grayson snapped. “Girls, go home. This is no sight for young, unmarried ladies. You shouldn’t have even heard what we were talking about earlier.”
“I’ll let Mr. Henderson know,” Emily volunteered. “We won’t be able to pull out tomorrow.”
“Do you have a tent?” Kathleen asked, concerned.
“Yes,” Mrs. Heath gasped, panting a little. “Mr. Heath has it stored in the wagon somewhere.”
“I’ll go find it,” Lou offered, immediately turning to crawl into the wagon and start searching. At least finding and setting up a tent was something she had some know how in.
Once the tent was up, Lou found herself pressed into service boiling water and warming blankets. The other married ladies kept her busy but wouldn’t let her run off.
“You need to have some knowledge of what to expect, my dear,” Kathleen O’Callahan smiled at her. “I know this is a sort of trial by fire, but better that than nothing.”
Lou wasn’t so sure of that. She thought she’d rather have remained ignorant. Childbirth appeared to be a painful, noisy, messy thing. And she wasn’t so sure she wanted any part of it. That was, until the new baby was actually born.
She stood, transfixed, watching as the wet, bloodied infant was pulled squirming from its mother’s body. Mrs. Grayson held it up by the rear legs, smacking its bottom until it squealed. Then the newborn was placed gently in the warm towel Lou held in her arms, while the other women swarmed around Mrs. Heath, cleaning her up.
Lou just stood there, staring down at the baby boy, unable to believe this child had just come out of another human being.
“Well, wipe it off, hurry,” Amy Nolan smiled at Lou. “We need to get that boy to his mother so she can feed him.”
Lou walked back to her camp, slowly, in the pre-dawn hours. She was exhausted and elated at the same time. Stopping next to their wagon, she placed a hand over her belly. For the first time, this child felt completely real to her. Not a burden, or a problem to be solved, but a human being to be loved. Finally, she could understand, at least a little, Ike’s anticipation and excitement over it.
“Ooh!” she gasped in shock, as she felt an odd roiling and rumbling in her belly. Looking down, she waited a moment. It happened again. “Is that you, little one? Are you eager to come out and play? Well, yer gonna have ta wait a bit longer. Yer momma’s got a lot to learn before you get here. But she’s learnin’ just as fast as she can!”
So caught up was she in the moment, in her wonder over her new understanding of what was happening to her body, she didn’t hear Ike rollover on his pallet under the wagon. She didn’t see the light reflecting off his opened eyes as he watched her, protectively, lovingly. He was glad she was coming to terms with this pregnancy. Maybe now, they’d be able to move forward and work on something else.