“Ike, have you seen Teresa?” Lou asked. She’d slept half the morning away, after being up all night helping deliver Mrs. Heath’s baby. Now, feeling bleary eyed and fuzzy headed from the odd sleep schedule, she just wanted to know what she’d missed.
Ike shrugged and looked over to Jeremiah, who was playing a game of checkers with his friend, Liam O’Callahan.
Without looking up from the gameboard, Jeremiah said, “She went over to the Metcalfes’. Miss Emily’s teaching her how to bake zucchini bread, or some such, in the dutch oven.”
*I’ll go check on her,* Ike said, setting aside the harness he’d been repairing. *You get something to eat,* he added with a pointed look at Lou and then toward their camp kitchen.
Lou snapped out a jaunty salute. “Yes, Sir, husband, Sir!”
Ike shook his head, laughing at her antics as he walked away. Crossing the circle of wagons to the Metcalfe camp, he could already hear Teresa’s voice. She was standing next to Emily, chattering away, while Emily was removing the freshly baked zucchini bread from the dutch oven and setting it on a camp table to cool.
Ike knocked gently on the end of the wagon’s side to announce his presence.
“Ike!” Teresa called happily. “Come over and see! We made zucchini bread. I helped.”
Ike walked over and obligingly inspected the still warm baked goods. He nodded approvingly.
*Good job.* Turning to Emily, who’d moved back over by the fire at his approach, he added, *Thank you for helping her.*
Emily shrugged, refusing to meet his eyes. Ike frowned. Emily Metcalfe likes you. Lou’s words floated through his mind.
“I’m teaching her how to sign, so she can talk to you, in exchange for the cooking lessons,” Teresa said, proudly. “She says I’m a good teacher.”
Ike nodded, keeping his eyes on Emily, who’d now turned her back on him, blushing bright red. *Resi, your sister’s up now. Why don’t you go tell her about your bread? I’m sure she’d like to hear all about it.*
He waited until Teresa was well out of earshot, before reaching out to touch Emily’s shoulder. When she pulled roughly away to move toward the off side of her wagon, away from the sight of everyone else in camp, Ike knew there was definitely a problem. He followed her. Finally, she turned to face him.
“*What do you want?*” she asked, almost angrily, signing carefully along with her words.
*I’m sorry,* he signed. *I never meant to lead you on. I thought we were friends. That’s all.*
“*Friends? What kinds of friends are you used to having?*” She started to rail at him with both her hands and her voice. Then she growled in frustration when she couldn’t sign fast enough to keep up with her complaints and threw her hands in the air. “Friends don’t spend hours taking long walks together, talking about anything and nothing! Friends don’t help you when your dad gets drunk or in trouble playing cards! Friends don’t lie to you about who they are!”
*The truth wasn’t mine to share,* Ike began. *As for the rest, that’s precisely what friends do. They’re always there for each other, to help out. That’s one thing Emma, Rachel and Teaspoon taught us.*
“Do you love her?” Emily asked after a long moment. “She said something about it you getting married so you could get Jeremiah and Teresa out of an orphanage.”
There was still a note of hope in her voice. Ike sighed, knowing he was going to have to quash it.
*I love her more than life itself,* he said. *I just have to convince her she can love me. I’m sorry,* he added. *I never meant to hurt you. But I’m married, and happy to be so.*
Unable to stand the pain twisting her features, he tried to soften the blow.
*If I weren’t already in love with Lou. If Kid were still alive, even if Jimmy hadn’t been killed, and I knew I had no chance with her, it might be different. Under normal circumstances I’m the last man Lou would have turned to. And you’re a lovely, sweet girl, Emily. It would be easy to fall in love with you. But, I’m already spoken for.*
At that, she burst into tears. Feeling bad, Ike stepped toward her, reaching out to pull her into his embrace, resting her head against his shoulder. He sighed as he patted her back to comfort her. Why did life always have to be so difficult? There were times after Annie left that he would have killed to have a girl like Emily interested in him. Now? Now, he was just sorry for the pain he’d caused.
“Why? Why couldn’t you have met me first?” she whispered through her tears.
Nearing the Metcalfe camp, Lou listened to Teresa’s happy description of her morning with only half an ear. She carefully inspected the bread and smiled her approval.
The sudden sound of harshly flung words in a half whisper brought her up short. Turning to Teresa, she said, “I think you’d better head back over to our camp.”
Teresa looked from Lou to the wagon from which the sounds were coming. With a nod, she turned and, once again, raced away. Lou stepped toward the side of the wagon and peeked her head around, just in time to see Ike drawing Emily into his arms, resting his cheek against her head.
Lou pulled back and quickly walked away, not wanting to interrupt the tender moment. She was glad Ike was getting closer to Emily. He deserved to have someone who loved him for him, she told herself. She had no reason for this sudden sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Lou sighed with exhaustion as she urged the oxen out onto the trail the next morning. She still hadn’t had time to recover from staying up all night helping Mrs. Heath deliver her baby. But, needs must when the devil drives. In this case, the devil being the rapidly advancing summer. The train desperately needed to make its way across the Rockies before winter hit. Nobody wanted a repeat of the legendary Donner Party.
Today, they would cross the Sweetwater River. Again. This would be their ninth fording of the river which twisted and turned its way through this part of Wyoming Territory. The river’s cold waters would be a welcome change from the sweltering summer heat, Lou thought with a grimace. And, this crossing, at Burnt Ranch*, was their last before they crossed the Continental Divide and officially entered Oregon Territory.
“Wagons Halt,” the order came filtering down the line and Lou kept a cautious eye on the Nolans’ wagon in front of her. When it began to slow, she called out to her own team, “Whoa, there, whoa I say!”
Even as the prairie schooner slid to a slow, lumbering halt, the wagon master came trotting up on his horse. “We’ll be stopping here for lunch. Burnt Ranch is just around that bend. After lunch, we’ll line up to ford the Sweetwater.”
“Yes, sir,” Lou nodded. “We’ll be ready.”
Although the McSwains’ job during river crossings was officially to make sure the other families were able to safely ford the river, by now they were rarely needed. In the last few months, the pioneers had gone from horribly green tenderfeet to well seasoned westerners. They could do their own hunting, even the women and older children. Most had, by now, jettisoned all the excess baggage they’d insisted on dragging along at the beginning of the trip. And they could cross a raging river in their sleep without losing a single bag of beans. She and Ike really weren’t needed anymore.
Moving to the back of their wagon, Lou pulled out the camp bread, cold beans and dried bacon that would make up their lunch.
“What’s for lunch, Lou?” Jeremiah asked as he came bounding up.
“Well, you have two choices,” she smiled at him. “Cold beans and bacon or bacon and cold beans.”
Jeremiah laughed, accepting the plate from her and sitting down to eat. Lou looked around when Teresa didn’t immediately show up. While eating the same foods day in and day out could be…. boring, to say the least, they were all always hungry and eager for the next meal. Spotting Resi’s braids disappearing around the back of the Heath wagon, two places ahead, Lou walked over to see what was going on.
Teresa was seated on a camp stool, the Heaths’ baby boy cradled in her arms, while Mrs. Heath bustled around the wagon getting together their lunch.
“Everything alright?” Lou asked.
“No,” Mrs. Heath snapped shortly.
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Only if you can figure out a way to either stop time or get us over the mountains faster,” the harried new mother muttered. “Here!”
She practically threw the plate of beans, bacon and bread at her husband, who shrugged apologetically at Lou before digging in.
“What’s the matter?”
Mrs. Heath sighed, trying to regain her composure, her shoulders slumping in dejection. “Oh, I didn’t get any sleep last night. The baby kept me up, demanding to eat every 20 minutes or so. I’m just sooo tired. I’d give my best Sunday dress for a full night’s sleep!”
“Why don’t you take a nap over the lunch hour?” Lou suggested. “Resi and I can watch the baby for you. And you can get more rest while waiting for everyone else to cross the river this afternoon.”
“Would you? Oh, thank you!” Mrs. Heath said, already climbing into her wagon. Turning around, she handed out a pile of clothes to Lou. “Here’re some nappies, in case you need to change him or he spits up. If he gets hungry--“
“We’ll feed him a little cow’s milk,” Lou smiled. “It won’t hurt him and you need your rest.”
“Alright. Thanks again.”
With that, she pulled the curtains at the end of the wagon emphatically closed. Lou could hear a moment or two more of rustling inside, then all was silent.
“You’re doing God’s work,” Preacher Heath said from behind her. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“Don’t know ‘bout that,” Lou said, turning around to face him. “I’m hardly the handmaiden of Christ here. I’m just doin’ the neighborly thing.”
“And that’s God’s work,” he smiled at her. “Believe it or not, He can use anyone he chooses. And rarely does he choose the perfect person. In fact, I believe he only did that once in all of history.”
Lou laughed with the kindly man who’d changed her mind about preachers in general.
“Seriously, though, I can’t thank you enough. She wouldn’t listen to me. I offered to watch over little Joey, but..”
He let the sentiment trail off and Lou nodded. Although she was just now beginning to show in her own pregnancy, already she could understand the new mother’s intense possessiveness of her son.
“Alright, Ladies and Gents, you know how this is done. One wagon in the water at a time. Take it nice and steady all the way across. DO NOT, under any circumstances, allow your animals to slow down until you are out of the water on the other side. Once out of the water, get clear of the exit as quickly as possible. McSwain will show you where to set up camp. The next wagon doesn’t enter the water until his missus says its time. Any questions?”
No one had any. By now, the instructions were old hat to the weary travelers. All were ready to simply get the crossing over and call it a night.
Soon the first wagon, the Graysons’, was entering the water. Lou stood knee deep in the frigid river water, watching as they moved quickly across, waiting for the signal from Ike that they were clear of the exit. When his piercing whistle drifted across the water, she turned to Emily Metcalfe and nodded. Emily waved to her father, seated, for a change, on the wagon’s seat, and he started their mules off.
It took about 20 minutes for each wagon to safely ford the rapidly rushing, three foot deep waters of the river. A couple hours later, the O’Callahans were ready to go. At Lou’s signal, Shaun O’Callahan, the eldest son, urged their oxen into motion. The rest of the family was going to wade across. Bryan, the patriarch, was helping his wife Kathleen across, with the others strung out behind him.
Suddenly, Kathleen slipped and started to fall. Bryan tried to catch her but got caught in her skirts and went down too. Shaun, seeing what was happening, started to slow their oxen in an effort to help.
“Don’t you dare slow down, Shaun O’Callahan,” Lou shouted at the top of her lungs, snapping her own bullwhip expertly across the backs of the lumbering oxen to keep them moving.
Ignoring the distressed shouts of the other O’Callahan boys and the screams of fear from the shore, Lou waved to Jeremiah to send Katy out to her. Grabbing onto the saddle horn, she swung herself up onto the mare’s back one armed, already reaching with her other hand for the lariat hanging from the saddle.
She didn’t need to look to know Ike was doing his job of making sure Shaun got all the way across and safely out of the water, before joining her and Henderson in the rescue effort. Urging Katy into motion, Lou galloped downriver toward the rapidly disappearing bodies of the O’Callahans. Once in sight of them, she raised the lariat over her head and began twirling it for all she was worth. Sighting her target, Kathleen, she let the rope fly, settling it over the woman’s upper torso, clamping her arms to her side, and, with a slight push of her heels urged Katy to begin backing up to pull the rope tight.
“Hold on,” she ordered. Even as she began to drag the bedraggled, half drowned woman to shore, the wagon master went flying past her on his horse after the other victim. Heading for the far side of the river, Lou could feel the rope pulling tight as Kathleen continued to struggle and scream. “Stop fighting it,” she yelled to her. “I’ll have you out of there in a minute.”
Once on shore, Lou leaped off Katy’s back and ran to free Kathleen from the rope. Still not really aware of her improved situation, Kathleen’s arms went flying with extreme force, hitting Lou in the face and sending her soaring backwards into the frigid waters.
Lou gasped in shock as the ice cold liquid closed in over her head. Fighting her way to the surface, she found the current had already carried her several feet further downriver. And no one knew where she was. Struggling to force her lungs, partially paralyzed by her sudden immersion, to inhale oxygen, Lou fought to keep her head above water. Finally, she was able to get her legs back underneath her and begin to make slow progress, half walking, half swimming, toward the river’s edge. When she crawled out of the water, she collapsed on the river bank, gasping for breath and shivering.
That’s how Ike found her when he rode up on Lightning. Leaping off the horse, he slid to his knees next to her, clasping her to his chest and rubbing her arms briskly to warm her.
“I’m alright,” she gasped. “I’m alright.”
Lou sat staring into the leaping, dancing flames of their fire, going over and over those frantic few minutes in the river. Though she’d never once stopped fighting, there had been a second, or two, where she’d thought she might not make it out of the water.
Ike, seeing her shiver, moved closer to her, in a silent offer of comfort and warmth. Lou smiled at him gratefully.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve never been so glad of those swimming lessons Emma forced on us after Jimmy almost drowned as I am today.”
*Wish I could’ve seen Jimmy’s face after he realized Emma’d rescued him!*
Lou laughed. “Yep. That sure would’ve been worth the trip to Fort Reunion all by itself!”
Sobering, she realized she’d just spoken of Jimmy without thinking, without pain, without tears, for the first time in months. Turning, she looked at Ike in surprise. He nodded and smiled at her, reaching out to cover her hand. Turning hers palm up, she slid her fingers between his in response.
“Please, kin ye come look at me wife? She’s doin’ poorly,” Brian O’Callahan said timidly, standing at the edge of the circle of light cast by their fire.
“What’s wrong?” Lou asked, concerned.
“I dunno, she’s after throwing up her entire innards, and I’m thinkin’ there’s summat else what she isna tellin’ me,” he said, fiddling nervously with the brim of his hat.
“We’ll be right there,” Lou smiled at him. Ike was the closest thing they had to a doctor on the train. Although she was pretty sure she knew what was going on.
Moments later, they ducked into the tent the O’Callahan boys had set up for their parents that night.
“How are you feelin’, Kathleen?” Lou asked familiarly, Ike standing just behind her.
The woman, pale and sweaty, moaned as she rolled over to wretch into a bucket. After several moments, she fell back onto her cot with a thud. Lou knelt beside her to pick up a rag and wipe her face off. That’s when Kathleen noticed Ike standing there.
“No,” she moaned. “Make ‘im leave. ‘Tis no place fer a mon, here tonight.”
Lou looked at her, a frown creasing her brow, before turning back to Ike. “Why don’t you go see if you can calm down her husband,” she suggested. “While I try to figure out what’s going on?”
Ike nodded and ducked back out of the tent.
“There,” Lou said quietly, dipping the rag in clean water and once again wiping it across the distressed woman’s brow. “Now, you want to tell me where it hurts?”
“I’m after losin’ me babe,” she mumbled. “T’ain’t the first time, so’s I know what’s happenin’. Ain’t nothin’ the menfolk can do ‘bout it.”
“Alright,” Lou said, sighing. “Let’s see what we can do to make you comfortable.”
“I didn’t even know she was expecting,” Lou said the next morning over breakfast. “And there I am helping her through losing the babe.” She shivered. “That could have been me.”
*But it wasn’t,* Ike reassured her.
“Not this time.” She paused, then looking up at Ike, she said, “I think it’s time.”
“Time for me to back off a bit, stop working, take it a little easier.”
*Good,* Ike smiled at her. *I was beginning to worry a bit too much about you.*
“Alright, Kid!” she laughed, pushing at Ike with her elbow. Ike smiled, glad she could tease him like this about her lost love. He wondered if she even realized what she’d done. “Thing is,” she continued more soberly, “I ain’t sure I want to keep going.”
*What do you mean?*
“I like it here. This is pretty country. Good soil. Lots of game.” Turning to Ike she said, “We could have us a real nice place right around here, somewheres. We don’t have to go all the way to Oregon.”
Ike felt a large grin begin to blossom across his face. He liked the sound of the way she’d unconsciously used the term ‘we’. Nodding, he said, *I’ll start looking around while scouting.*
*The name Burnt Ranch didn’t come into usage until the late 1860s, after the Sioux had burned down the facilities, twice. Before that it was referred to simply as The Last Crossing or The Upper Sweetwater Crossing. I used Burnt Ranch for recognition’s sake.