Chapter 15

"Is a boy," Pretty Flower said, placing the newborn infant in Lou's arms. Looking at Ike, she admonished, "No let her sit. Still work to do!"

Ike, who was standing behind Lou, his arms wrapped around her, holding her up on her feet, nodded absently, his eyes clapped to the baby.

"A boy," Lou whispered, reaching out to slowly brush a smear of blood off the child's cheek. Ike reached up and jerked his bandanna off his head. Using it, he gently began cleaning the newborn with the red cloth clutched in one hand, even as he kept Lou on her feet with the other. Neither was really aware of Pretty Flower's continued ministrations, dealing with the afterbirth.

His hands full, Ike found himself unable to tell Lou all he was thinking and feeling. Yet, when she looked up at him and their eyes met, green to brown, he knew she understood. They were overwhelmed. This perfect miniature human being had just been given into their care. They knew how easy it was for a warm, loving family to be ripped away from a child. It had happened to both of them. And both were determined it not happen to this one.

By the time the baby was cleaned off, he was already rooting around, looking for Lou's breast. She gasped when he first latched on, then relaxed back against Ike, sighing in wonder. Ike, too, was astounded by the primeval experience.

"Put in bed," Pretty Flower said softly. "Mama, baby need sleep."

With a nod, Ike leaned over to slip his other arm under Lou's legs and lift both her and the baby boy into his embrace. A few steps and he was gently laying them down on the bed and pulling the covers up over them. Her eyes already closing in slumber, Lou whispered, "You, too, Ike. You need sleep, too."

"Louise! We got to spend the night with Tall Elk and Blue Sky!"

"We're sorry we didn't make it back before nightfall," Resi piped up. "Tall Elk wouldn't let us. Said it wasn't safe."

"Shhhh!" Pretty Flower tried to quiet the children as they burst through the door. "Mama sleeping."

"Why's Louise sleeping?" Resi asked, confused.

"Mama," Pretty Flower repeated. "Baby."

"Louise had her baby?" Jeremiah shouted in sudden excitement.

"Yes," Pretty Flower nodded, sighing in resignation. There would be no quieting the exuberant children now.

"It's alright," Lou said from the bed where she was cocooned in a nest of blankets and Ike's warm arms, the infant lying next to her. "I'm awake."

"What is it?" Teresa asked, as both children tentatively moved toward the bed.

"It's a boy," Lou said quietly, pushing the blankets away from the newborn's face so her brother and sister could get a good look. "A strong, healthy little boy."

"Woo-hoo!" Jeremiah exclaimed. "I win! You have to water the horses for a week!"

Lou laughed as she realized the two had laid bets on the gender of their new nephew.

"You two've been around Express riders too much," she muttered under her breath.

"What's his name?" Teresa asked, reaching out to reverently touch the baby's cheek with one extended finger. He yawned, turning in the direction of her finger, one fist tightly clenched near his head, eyes still closed.

"I.. I don't know," Lou stuttered, taken off guard. "We never talked about names."

A movement behind her caught Lou's attention and she looked over her shoulder at Ike, who had awoken and was trying to sign something one handed.

*We should call him… James Kidd McSwain… for fallen brothers.*

Lou promptly burst into tears.

"So, what's his name?" Amy Nolan asked as she cooed over the quietly sleeping infant later that day.

*James Kidd McSwain,* Ike signed.

"We're calling him J.K. though," Lou said over the lump that always seemed to block her throat when she thought of the name with which Ike had christened her son. There was no way she could explain to them they didn't want to pick one name over the other because even now they couldn't tell which of their fallen brothers had been the baby's father. His eyes, not just the blue of them but their shape as well, reminded her of Kid. But his long fingered hands made her think of Jimmy. It would probably become apparent as he grew older, but for now his parentage remained a mystery.

Not that Ike seemed to care, Lou thought as she watched him gently take the newborn and place the infant in the fine, cherrywood cradle Ike had brought back through the storm as a gift for her. Ike was more in love with their son, that's what Ike called him, than even she was.

"He's a good father," Mrs. Heath said, echoing Lou's thoughts.

"Yes, he is," Lou whispered in agreement.

After all their well wishers had left, Ike began to unpack the rest of the supplies he'd brought back with him. Walking back into the cabin from the barn, he handed Lou a packet of papers.

"What's this?"

*Letters,* he said. *There was a lot of mail waiting for us at Fort Bridger.*

"How'd they know where to find us?" she asked, as she began to sort through the missives.

*I told everyone where we were headed, back when the train stopped outside Rock Creek,* he explained. *Carter knew we'd left the train, so he held on to the letters rather than send them on to Oregon City.*

Lou nodded absently. The first letter was from Emma, addressed directly to Lou. She sat that one aside to read later, when she was alone. She pretty much knew what Emma would have to say and wasn't sure she was up to handling it. There was another letter from Rachel. Cody had sent a short note and Noah had, unsurprisingly, sent them the longest letter of all.

"You didn't read any of them?" Lou asked, noting that all the letters were still sealed, even the ones addressed to both of them.

*They were to both of us,* Ike shrugged. *Didn't feel right reading them by myself.*

The letters were full of news from home. Noah was still courting Cassie, but had hopes of convincing her to marry him by spring. Cody had joined the Army as a scout and left for Kansas. The Express had come to a crashing halt with the advent of the telegraph. Buck and Noah were working as Teaspoon's deputies, but asked if they could come join Ike and Lou in the spring.

*What do you think?* Ike asked. *I know you needed some time away, time to grieve, but I think you're past that now. Would it be alright?*

Lou smiled at him, touched by his concern for her feelings.

"They're our brothers, how can we turn them away?" she asked. "No, I'll be happy to see them. I've missed them all more than I'd ever thought possible." She still wasn't sure she was safe to be around, but nothing had happened in months. Maybe, just maybe, she had outrun the trouble that seemed to dog her footsteps, always missing her and felling those she loved the most, instead.

*I'll send them directions,* he said, *first thing in the spring, soon as the pass to Fort Bridger opens up again.*

Those first few weeks of real winter slipped by the young couple, almost unnoticed. They spent the time in a daze of midnight feedings and daily exhaustion. Lou quickly came to understand why Mrs. Heath had jumped at the chance to end her journey early when they'd decided to stay in McSwain Valley.

But Ike was always there to relieve her when the stress of being a new mother became too much.

*Let me take him with me while I feed the animals,* he'd say, wrapping little JK securely in a fur blanket and strapping him into the cradleboard Pretty Flower had gifted them with.

Pretty Flower and her sister wife, Blue Sky, continued to make regular visits, often appearing without warning at the McSwain place, which they preferred over the Americans who lived at the other end of the valley. They came for friendly conversation, to offer advice on caring for JK, and of course to satisfy their sweet tooth.

Christmas morning, Lou awoke to a smiling Ike kneeling next to the bed, a small package held in his hand for her. Sitting up, she sleepily wiped her eyes, trying to clear them. JK had been fussy the night before. She thought he might be teething. Insistently, Ike pushed the gift toward her.

"What's this?" she finally mumbled, taking the small box.

*Open it and find out,* he grinned at her.

His suppressed excitement slowly wormed its way past her exhaustion, waking her more fully. With a quirked eyebrow, she quickly tore the box open then paused to gasp at the sight of what was inside.

"Oh, Ike," she murmured in awe. "You shouldn't have."

*Why not? A beautiful ornament for a beautiful woman,* he signed. *I saw it and immediately thought of you.*

She reached into the box with reverent fingers and pulled out a beautiful cameo, carved into an ivory oval and set against a gold backpiece, all hanging from a long golden chain. She held it up in front of her, slowly twisting in the air as she admired its beauty.

"I've always wanted something like this," she murmured quietly, missing the satisfied grin that covered Ike's features. Then, she held the necklace out to him. Pulling her hair, which had by now grown down below her shoulders, up and out of the way, she asked, "Would you?"

Ike leaned forward and carefully fastened the necklace behind her neck. His sudden proximity caused her breath to shorten with desire as she found herself gazing at his face while he watched his hands to make sure he didn't catch any of her hair in the clasp. When he pulled back, she reached up to caress his cheek. Ike reached up to cover her hand with his before leaning back in and placing a gentle kiss on her lips.

The gentle kiss quickly turned hot with a passion that might have gotten quickly out of both their control if it weren't for the sudden giggles and gagging sounds coming from the loft above.

"Oh, gross! They're at that mushy stuff again!" Jeremiah complained in a loud voice, before beginning to make a noisy, stomping entrance down the ladder from the loft.

Ike and Lou laughed as they pulled apart, slightly abashed to have been caught necking by her 13 year old brother.

*Merry Christmas,* Ike signed, standing up and heading over to give the children his customary 'good morning' hug.

"Merry Christmas!" they chorused back, before running straight to the fireplace. "What did Santa bring us?"

"I don't know about Santa," Lou smiled, "but I know Ike got you both something special. And so did I."

The next few minutes were filled with shouts of glee as the children opened the presents Ike had picked up for them at the Fort Bridger trading post. In addition, Lou had made each of them a new outfit and given them a peppermint candy stick and an orange, which she'd carted all the way from St. Joe. Ike claimed his now customary place behind Lou, arms wrapped around her rapidly shrinking waist, chin rested on her shoulder, as they watched the children enjoying their first real Christmas in years.

"It makes me think of last year," Lou said wistfully. "Everything seemed so happy and full of hope. I didn't see how anything could ever change."

*All things change,* Ike slowly signed. *Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. All we can do is control how we react to the changes.*

Lou turned around in Ike's arms. Leaning up, she kissed his chin. "How'd you get so smart?"

"Would you two stop it?" Jeremiah complained over his shoulder, but he had a grin on his face. He might pretend to dislike the apparent affection growing between his sister and her husband, but deep inside he was as happy about it as Teresa.

Lou simply pointed up at the rafter over their heads, where a bunch of mistletoe dangled, and went back to kissing Ike, who didn't seem the least bit concerned about being the object of her affections.

The entire community of McSwain Valley gathered at the Heaths for a special Christmas Day prayer service, followed by a large communal feast. Even Tall Elk, his brother Panther's Tracks and their wives had come to join the festivities.

Everyone spent the afternoon talking, laughing and generally having a good time. That evening, the musicians amongst them pulled out their instruments and began to play while the rest took to the cleared floor for an impromptu dance.

"I need to rest," Lou laughed after her fourth dance in a row. "Besides, I think it's time to feed little JK."

Ike nodded agreeably and escorted Lou to a private corner where JK and the Heaths' five month old son, Joey, were wrapped warmly in their cradles near the hearth. Settling herself comfortably, Lou looked over and saw Emily sitting by herself.

"Why don't you go dance with Emily," she suggested. "She looks a little lonely. No one should be alone on Christmas."

*Are you sure?*

Lou shrugged. "Makes more sense than for you to sit here watching me feed JK."

Soon Ike was walking across the room. But, before he got halfway to Emily's side, Preacher Heath waylaid him.

"Ike," he said, "I've been wanting to talk to you, son."

*What about?* Ike asked curiously.

"Well," the man of God began to hem and haw as he blushed bright red. "Well, you see, there's this time, after a woman's brought this new life into the world that she needs a little extra help."

*And I'm helping Lou all I can,* Ike said.

"I know you are son, I know you are." The preacher patted Ike on the shoulder, even as he kept talking. "But that's not… exactly.. the type of help I'm talking about. This is more in the way of help.. uh… healing. The Bible says you should let your wife rest up good and long after having a baby."

Now it was Ike's turn to blush bright red, as he realized what the preacher was getting at. Nodding his agreement, he signed a quick *sure!* and made his getaway. Only to be stopped a moment later by Tall Elk and Panther's Tracks.

*We need to talk to you,* Tall Elk signed, turning his back to the room in an obvious attempt to keep their conversation private. *I understand you have no father to guide you in these matters.*

*What matters might those be?* Ike asked.

*Matters between a husband and wife,* Panther's Tracks added, smiling slightly. *It is important to give your wife time to heal after the birth of a baby.*

*We know it can be difficult for newlyweds, such as yourselves, to abstain for so long, but her body needs that time,* Tall Elk added helpfully.

*How much time are you talking about here?* Ike asked slowly, almost fearfully.

*Amongst our people, it is normal to wait until the child is weaned,* Panther's Tracks answered.

*That is one reason why those who can provide for a large family often have more than one wife,* Tall Elk said. *It can get lonely on a cold winter night while waiting for your wife to be ready to join you in the furs.*

Tall Elk and Panther's Tracks laughed uproariously at their joke., even as Ike backed away from them, his face blanching from a blushing red to a pale white.

Lou looked up from little J.K. as she laid him back down in his cradle, fast asleep after his meal. She watched as Emily's features brightened when Ike finally reached her side and held out his hand to her in question. Soon they were twirling their way around the room in time to the music.

"Is good," Pretty Flower said, coming up to stand next to Lou. "She good choice."

"What are you talking about?" Lou asked, confused.

"Now good time," Pretty Flower began, then paused, flummoxed by her lack of English vocabulary. Finally, she lapsed into sign language. *Now's a good time for Ike to take a second wife. A strong, virile man like him needs someone to keep the blankets warm while you are nursing. It's not good to make him wait until your baby boy is weened.*

Lou stared at Pretty Flower in horror.

"We… we don't believe in multiple wi….wives," she finally stuttered.

"He not courting Emily?" Pretty Flower asked, now confused herself.

Lou shook her head, almost violently. "They're just friends."

Pretty Flower made a doubtful grunt. "Not look like friends to me."

Lou looked again at Ike dancing with Emily held securely in his arms, her head thrown back in laughter at something he'd just done. She tried not to let it, but a moment of doubt wormed its way into the back of her brain. Was Ike in love with Emily? Did he regret marrying her? Taking on the responsibility for Jeremiah, Teresa and now baby JK? Was he accepting her affections as his due for the sacrifices he'd made for her, not because he really wanted her? Was he just making the best of the situation he'd gotten himself in to?

Chapter 16

The biggest surprise of the winter turned out to be the success of the Metcalf Saloon. Carl had been right about there being plenty of mountain men and trappers in the area who'd appreciate a place to stop by for a game of cards and a taste of the 'good stuff.' There were never more than two or three at a time, but their presence worried Ike.

*I'm afraid they'll cause trouble, especially after they've been drinking,* he told Lou one night as they sat by the fire after supper. She was feeding a quickly growing JK while Ike was writing in his journal. He'd set the leatherbound book down on his knee to share his thoughts with her.

"It's not like their presence is exactly a secret," she said. "Why don't we make it a practice to drop by the saloon, any time he's got customers, just to make sure they know we're keeping an eye on them?"

*We?* Ike asked.

"I can handle a gun better than you and you know it," she replied acerbically. "And honestly, you're better with the baby. Don't see why I can't drop by and scare a few idiots straight occasionally. Used to do it all the time fer Teaspoon."

Ike grimaced. He knew he could argue with her that she had a responsibility to JK, not to mention Jeremiah and Teresa, but she'd just turn around and say he had the same responsibility. By that logic, neither of them should go anywhere near the saloon. No, he knew exactly what she'd say and he knew exactly where they'd end up, with her doing more than her share of the law enforcement in the valley.

Instead, he said simply, *Alright. But, I take at least half the visits.*

Lou nodded agreeably.

Ike sighed as he straightened his gunbelt. He'd really thought he'd put it away for good when he'd come west with Lou to start farming. For better or worse though, it felt strangely comfortable and comforting. Pushing his hat back on his head, he stepped through the front of the Metcalf Saloon.

"Hey, Ike," Carl greeted from his place behind the small table that served as his bar. "What kin I do fer ya?"

*Got any sarsaparilla?* Ike asked.

"Sure," Carl said, reaching down to pull out a dark brown bottle. Prying off the cap, he handed it over to Ike. "Enjoy."

"Hey, Carl, who's the dummy?" a fat, grey haired man clothed in buckskins asked from a table near the fire. The other man at the table with him laughed at the comment. Ike stiffened.

"I'd be careful who I call a dummy, Otis," a suave, southern voice said calmly as the familiar face of a tall, thin man with long, curling blonde locks never raised his eyes from perusing his cards. "Miss Emily says that there's the man who found this valley." Now he tilted his head up until his light blue-grey eyes met Ike's green ones. "In fact I do believe the valley is named for him."

Ike tipped his hat in recognition of the man's defense.

"That's the truth," Carl said. "This here is Ike McSwain, the man who discovered McSwain's Valley. Ain't none of us would be here weren't fer him."

"Pa, you seen the auger?" Emily asked, stepping through the blanket in the doorway that separated the saloon from the Metcalfe's living quarters.

"No, can't say as I have," Carl said, shuffling his feet awkwardly.

Emily heaved an aggravated sigh. She knew it wouldn't do any good to quiz her parent anymore. He probably didn't even know which tool she was asking for.

"Why don't you stop worrying about silly things like augers and come have a seat with us," the tall man said. "We could use a third for our game. And having a playing partner as pretty as you sure would make it more interesting."

Emily giggled as she moved over to stand by him. "Why Horace Neville, you're so sweet. But you know I never play cards. I leave that to Pa."

Neville smiled up at the pretty young lady. "Can't blame a man for trying."

Emily laughed at his compliments, tucking a stray lock of her short hair back behind an ear. Leaning over, she said to him, just loudly enough for Ike to hear every word, "Why don't you stop by for supper before you leave. We can discuss things further."

Without another word, she walked back through the door to the living quarters, her hips swaying enticingly.

"That's one mighty fine piece of a female," Otis whistled slightly between his teeth.

*And you'd better treat her like the lady she is!* Ike signed, staring at the two men with a determined intensity.

"What'd he say?" Otis asked again.

"That Neville's become a real regular," Lou said a week later as she returned from making a stop at the Metcalfe Saloon. "I don't like him."

*Me either,* Ike said, reaching out to peel her coat off her shoulders. *But there's not much we can do about him.*

Lou sighed as she turned toward Ike to receive his customary kiss of greeting on her cheek. She watched him walk away from her to hang the coat on a peg by the fireplace, where it would dry quickly and be nicely warmed the next time she needed it. He was always doing little things like that for her, things she could do for herself easily enough. He was always ready to kiss her on the cheek or forehead, grab her hand or wrap her in a warm, comforting hug. He brought her little gifts he'd made or found. But, he never really touched her. Their little play on Christmas morning was the last time he'd really been romantic with her. She didn't understand what was going on. She missed the man she'd begun to know those weeks before he'd left on the supply run. She wanted him back.

She was starting to wonder if he'd just been a figment of her imagination. Or, if Ike had only taken advantage of what she'd offered him so freely simply because he'd known there could be no consequences. But now, he wasn't interested, because she wasn't the woman he really wanted.

Ike struggled with himself as he moved away from Lou. It was the last thing he wanted to do. He wanted nothing more than to kick the children out of the house for a day or two and spend the time properly christening the big bed Lou had moved into the house while he'd been gone. He could feel his body reacting just to the thought of holding her, really holding her, again. But he needed to give her some time. Her body needed time to recover. Her mind needed time to adjust to all the changes going on around her. She didn't need a randy goat like him constantly bothering her.

He was so thankful to Preacher Heath and Tall Elk for both taking the time during the Christmas party to point out the need to give Lou some space after JK's birth. Ike just wondered how much longer he needed to wait. He wanted the wife he'd barely had back. He doubted he could hold out the two or so years Tall Elk had suggested. But he'd not been able to get a more tenable answer from the highly embarrassed reverend.

Once Ike felt he had himself back under control, he turned to Lou and said, *Just be careful around him. I don't like how he looks at Emily. And I'm afraid he'll start getting the same ideas about you.*

"Ike! Lou! Louise!"

At the increasingly frantic call, Lou walked out of the barn where she'd been re-shoeing Katy. "What's the matter, Jeremiah? Why aren't you at school?"

Panting for breath, Jeremiah said, "Mr. Nolan sent me to get you or Ike. There's trouble down to the saloon."

Already on the move, Lou grabbed her gunbelt and began fastening it on.

"Talk to me," she ordered.

"Mr. Metcalfe accused that Neville fellow of cheating. Now he's holdin' Emily hostage!"

Lou nodded, muttering under her breath, "I knew he was trouble." Looking at Jeremiah as she moved toward the barn, she said, "You did a good job. Stay here with JK, he's in the barn in his cradleboard. Ike should be back soon. He's out gathering firewood. When he gets here, tell him what's going on and where I'm at."

With that, she swung up onto Lightning's bareback and tore out of the barn.

Ike paused, letting the ax fall to the ground as he struggled to catch his breath. He could see why Kid had spent so much time chopping firewood when he'd been frustrated dealing with Lou. It had become Ike's way of working off the sexual frustrations he was dealing with, waiting for Lou to be fully healed from JK's birth.

Looking up at the bright blue cloudless March sky, he inhaled a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. There was no sign of the winter cold letting up just yet, but he hoped that the passes would open within another month or so. Then, he'd head out to Fort Bridger for supplies and to mail letters to their family back in Rock Creek. By the time he got back, surely she'd be ready to return to the relationship they'd begun just before he left on the last supply run.

The familiar sound of rapidly pounding hooves drew his attention. Moving through the trees, to a clearing that overlooked their cabin, Ike saw Lou racing away on Lightning, Jeremiah looking after her.

Something was wrong. Without another thought, Ike turned and vaulted over Big Red's hindquarters, landing easily in the saddle. A nudge of the knees and she was off.

"Oh, thank God you're here," Amy Nolan said as Lou came flying into the yard between the three homes.

"Is she alright?" Lou asked quickly, as she slid off Lightning's side, landing on the ground ready to move, one hand already palming the butt of her gun.

Mrs. Heath nodded mutely.

"Stay out here, then," Lou ordered. "Better yet, go into your cabins and stay inside, out of the line of fire if things go downhill. Wait until the men get back. Whatever you do, don't come in after me. NO matter what you hear."

"Are you sure you shouldn't wait for Ike?" Mrs. Heath asked cautiously.

"If I wait for Ike, it might be too late for Emily," Lou said. "No, I've handled situations like this before. I'll be fine."

Without another word, Lou turned and pushed her way through the door of the saloon.

"Alright, Neville, you mind tellin' me what's goin' on?"

Ike came pounding in a few moments later, Big Red sliding to a stop near Lightning, her head hanging low, her sides heaving in and out as she struggled to catch her breath. Ike jumped to the ground.

*Where?* was all he asked. The women, peeking out the door of Mrs. Heath's home, pointed to the saloon door.

Even as he turned in that direction, Amy called out after him in an exaggerated whisper, "Tim went to get the others for help."

Ike waved a hand in acknowledgement but never slowed his race across the yard. He came barging through the door just in time to see Neville turning his pistol toward Lou. He knew Lou was fast, but he loved her too much to take the chance she'd be that fraction of a second too slow this time. He pushed her out of the way, stepping into the space she'd occupied, even as he pulled his own pistol, took aim and fired.

"Unh!"

"Ike! No, Ike!"

A second shot followed from the ground that seemed to be coming awfully close to his head. Ike landed on the ground, an odd pain in his chest chasing most thoughts away. But he managed to turn his head just enough to get a clear look at Lou. She was lying on her side next go him, her gun hand extended, her pistol still smoking. Even as his eyes started to slide closed, he saw her drop the pistol and scramble toward him.

"Ike!" Lou screamed in panic. "No! This can't be happening again. Not Ike. Not him too!" Wrapping her hands around his precious face, she said, "Hold on, Ike. Hold on! It's going to be alright. We'll be alright."

She never noticed the tears streaking down her face or the crowd gathering slowly around her. When someone reached out to touch her gently on the shoulder, to pull her away from Ike, she began to fight.

"No, he needs me. He needs me," she wailed, brokenhearted, sure he was gone, that, just like all the others, he'd left her behind.

Chapter 17

"Louise," Mrs. Heath said quietly, trying to calm the frantic younger woman. "You've got to let us move him, see what's wrong."

Finally, Lou realized the people around her were their friends, trying to help. In no time, they'd moved Ike to a bed in the Metcalfes' living quarters. Isaac Brown began cutting Ike's shirt off him. Emily moved in to help. Lou, feeling useless, slowly began to move toward the back of the room as the others worked frantically over him.

"The good news is the bullet went right through," Isaac said softly. "We'll just need to clean the wound and then wait. If it didn't hit anything vital, and he doesn't catch a wound fever, he'll be alright."

Lou was grateful to their friends for arranging to bring Ike back to their cabin, where she could tend him in the comfort of his own bed.

"Don't you die on me, Ike McSwain," she muttered. "Don't you dare leave me alone after all this."

Through the night she kept her silent, lonely vigil, watching his chest to make sure it kept rising and falling, constantly checking to make sure he wasn't feverish. The quiet gave her a lot of time to think. And she didn't like where her thoughts were taking her.

Once again someone she loved was in danger, might already be dying, because of her. Because whatever curse she was under refused to let her pay for her sins, but always punished those she loved. And she did. She loved Ike. That was the other mistake she'd made. She'd let herself fall in love with her own husband. Had she only realized it in time to lose him?

Shortly after dawn, a knock sounded softly on the door. Rising tiredly to her feet, Lou moved toward the sound. Opening the portal, she saw Emily standing diffidently on the steps, twisting her hands together in front of her.

"I came to help," Emily said.

Lou just looked at the other woman dumbly for a moment, then she stepped back and let the her in. Maybe this was her answer, she thought sadly.

"How is he?"

"No change," Lou said. "No fever, but he hasn't woken up, either."

Emily nodded as she moved over to stand beside the bed, staring down at a pale Ike, his chest heavily bandaged. "I feel so guilty," she said. "My flirting is why he's here."

"No," Lou said. "It's not your fault." It was hers, she thought. She was the bad luck. Everyone she loved too much ended up dying to protect her. She'd never even had the chance to tell him how she felt. Looking upward, she prayed, Please, let him live and I'll leave. I'll leave them all. I can handle being alone, if I know they're safe. They're better off without me. They'll be happy together. They'll all be happier without me here, she thought, her eyes returning to the sight of Emily bending tenderly over Ike.

The two women spent the next three days hovering over Ike's sick bed, spooning gruel down his throat, changing his bandages, cleaning up the messes he made. They didn't speak much to each other, each too focused on her own guilt and on keeping Ike alive. Others stopped by occasionally to help or just provide a little company, but they never stayed long.

On the morning of the fourth day, Lou suddenly couldn't take it anymore. She needed to get out of the small confines of the cabin.

"I'm going out to check on the animals," was all she said as she slipped out the door. Emily just kept wiping a cool wet cloth across Ike's forehead.

In the dim interior of the barn, hidden from the eyes of the world, Lou finally released all the fears and guilt and sadness she'd been feeling. By the time she was done, it felt like her entire body was sore from the strength of her sobs. But, she felt better, like she could handle whatever came next.

"Don't die, Ike," Emily begged. "Please, don't die. Don't leave Lou and the kids because of me. I could never live with myself if I stole you away from them with my foolish flirting. I'm so sorry. I should never have encouraged him. But he made me feel wanted after everything with you and Lou.. and me. Oh, Ike, I'm so, so sorry."

Caught up in her own pleadings, she didn't notice Ike's eyes had opened and were watching her blearily, until he reached up a hand and caught hers in it, stopping its motion across his forehead.

"Ike!" she exclaimed. "You're awake! You're going to be alright!"

*Where's Lou?* he asked, signing slowly, wincing at the pain the movement caused in his chest.

"Out in the barn," Emily smiled down at him happily, a great weight suddenly off her shoulders. "She'll be back soon."

Ike reached up to touch her cheek, capturing a tear on his fingers.

*Why are you crying?* he asked.

Emily just laughed in relief and rested her cheek in his cupped palm.

That's how Lou found them when she walked back into the cabin. She knew then what she needed to do. But first, she'd make sure Ike was really going to be alright.

Her footsteps as she moved toward the bed caught Emily's attention. The other woman started, then stood up quickly, a broad smile lightening her features. "He's awake!"

"So I see," Lou smiled softly. Kneeling down next to the bed, she added to Ike, "You ever scare me like that again, Ike McSwain and I'll shoot you dead myself!"

Ike started to laugh at the comment, so typical of Lou, but stopped, putting a hand to his aching chest.

"Yeah, you better watch it! It's gonna be awhile 'fore yer back to normal."

A week later Ike was sitting up in bed, propped against a pile made up of all the pillows in their house, waiting for Lou to bring him his breakfast. He watched her move through the door with an unconscious grace that always made his heart beat faster. Even as sore as he was, she could still make him want her. It never failed to amaze him.

His eyes followed her movements hungrily as she crossed the room toward him. So desperate for her attentions was he, he didn't protest when she tucked a napkin under his chin and began to spoon feed him the oatmeal. He was perfectly capable of feeding himself by now, but this seemed to be the only way he could get her to spend any time with him.

He wondered what had changed. She'd become very quiet, almost distant. Doing her chores mechanically, staying as far from him and the children as she could without neglecting anyone's basic needs. Almost like she'd been after Kid and Jimmy's deaths. The sudden thought struck Ike to the bone, setting his heart to aching more than his chest ever had. No! He didn't know if he could start all over again with her. He had to figure out what had happened.

Lou watched as Ike chewed and swallowed the spoonful of oatmeal she'd just given him. The sight of him, barechested except for the white bandages wrapped around him, never failed to stir her. She wanted nothing more than to lay her head on that chest, feel him wrap his arms around her and accept all the love and comfort he had to offer. Except, he wasn't really hers, was he? She had to accept it, stay strong. She gulped back a sob. She'd been putting things off, waiting until he was healthy enough to take care of himself and the children before leaving. But it was obvious at this point he was just humoring her, letting her coddle him. It was time.

Setting the spoon down on the tray next to the now empty bowl, she said, "I've got to go get more firewood. If you can watch the baby for a little while? Emily'll be here soon."

Ike nodded uncertainly. There was something about the way she was acting that bothered him, he just couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Lou tightened the cinch on Lightning's saddle one last time. Tears were streaming down her face. This was the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life, but it had to be done. She had to keep those she loved safe. And obviously the one thing putting them all in danger was her. So, she was the one that had to go.

Reaching down to grab her carpetbag, she started to tie it onto the saddle next to the saddle horn. Her bedroll was already firmly attached to behind the mantle.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Lou whirled around to see Emily standing in the barn door, her mule's reins held in one hand.

"Leavin'," she finally said, the one word all she could manage to force out. Turning back to Lightning, she double checked the knots holding everything to her saddle.

"Why?"

At that question, she turned toward Emily with anger in her eyes this time. "Why? Do you really have to ask that? Why? How about because you love him and he loves you! He only married me to rescue my brother and sister. How about because I'm a danger, to him, you and the kids! How about… " her voice broke now but she forced herself to continue, "How about because he deserves better than a whore that didn't even bother to charge two bits?"

Emily gaped at her for a moment, then started laughing for all she was worth. "You have got to be kidding me!"

"You think this is funny? It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my whole danged life. Harder than learning to be a boy, harder than telling Kid I couldn't marry him, harder even than killin' Wicks. But it's gotta be done."

"You are so full of yourself you can't see the forest for the trees, can you?" Emily spat out, her voice full of a vitriolic anger that was the only thing that could pull Lou's attention away from her own misery. "Ike? In love with me? In my dreams. Maybe. Maybe if I'd met him before you. Maybe if you'd never said yes or if your precious Kid had lived. But, guess what? Ike can't see I even exist, he's so starry eyed over you. When we talk? All he can talk about is, 'Lou said this', 'Lou did that', 'Lou thinks', 'Lou wants'! Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou! I'm sick to death of your name!"

Emily slowly advanced on Lou, pushing her backward toward the stall wall as she continued her diatribe. "Hell, I'd love to have met this Jimmy of yours. I think we'd have had a lot in common from what Ike's told me! Both of us in love with someone who can't even see we exist. And you're ready to walk away from all that? Walk? More like run as fast as you can. You're either the stupidest or most selfish woman I've ever met in my life!"

Lou just stared at Emily, her mouth agape, unable to comprehend what she was hearing.

"You know what? I've only been coming out to help you because Ike's a good friend and I felt guilty over him getting shot on account of me. Well, guess what? I'm through. You try riding out of here with a clear conscience, knowing you're leaving him to handle the farm and the children all on his lonesome, with no one to help out!"

"But… but…"

A sharp rapping on the barn wall caught both their attentions. The two women's heads swung around to see Ike leaning against the barn wall.

*Emily, that's enough,* he angrily signed.

"That's just what I was telling your precious Lou," Emily spat, mounting up onto her mule and riding out of the barn. Lou watched her gallop off with a poleaxed expression. Once the other woman was out of sight, she turned her gaze on Ike. Suddenly, she couldn't stand there anymore, not knowing what all he'd seen.

Turning, she fled out the other door, into the corral with the other animals. Tripping over her own feet, she practically fell near the donkey they'd named Samson, in honor of Emma's donkey they'd left behind in Rock Creek. Reaching out, she caught herself on the slats of the corral fence, just as Ike caught up with her.

Grabbing her arm with one hand, he signed, *Would you wait? I can't keep up with you right now!*

His look and his words froze her in place. Unable to move her feet, she wrapped her arms around herself protectively.

"What's there to say? I'm leavin', before I 'cause more trouble. You'll be able to patch things up with Emily and you can all live happily ever after without me. Live!"

*I'll never live happily without you, Lou,* he signed, a sad look pulling at his beautiful face. *I'll survive, but I won't really live and most definitely not happily.*

She cocked her head, not really understanding what he was saying.

"What… what do you mean, Ike?"

*Haven't you figured it out yet?* he signed, his motions jerky with anger. He moved closer to her step by step, as if she were a skittish mustang. Stopping just a couple paces in front of her, he sucked in a deep, fortifying breath and said, *I love you, Louise McCloud McSwain. I. Love. You.* He ended the last with a sharp, emphatic poke of one finger into her chest, pushing her back toward the fence again.

"No, you can't. I'm not the kind of woman people love. I'm fer sleepin' with, not makin' a life with. I'm fer leavin', not keepin'. I learned that lesson the hard way," she said, starting to turn away from him.

*No,* Ike signed, taking the chance to close the distance between them even more, reaching out to grab at her arm to keep her from turning her back on him. *No, you're for loving. It would take my entire life and then some to love you as much as you deserve. I've loved you since the day we really met for the first time.* Taking one more step, so he was standing directly in front of her, he reached down to put a finger beneath her chin and tip her face up so she could see his eyes. *And I'll love you until the day I die.*

Dropping to one knee, he asked, *Will you marry me, Louise? For real this time? Because I love you and… you love me?*

"How…" she started to say, stopped, then fell to her knees in front of him, shaping his face with her hands. "How'd you know I love you Ike? I never said anything."

*Because you were about to leave me,* Ike signed slowly. *And I've been waiting a long time for you to realize how perfect we are for each other. I should've realized you'd think that meant you had to leave to protect me. How about we protect each other, instead?*

Lou laughed a bit as he bent forward to press his lips to hers in a kiss that quickly went from tender to passionate to out of control.

Finally pulling back from him, she smiled a watery-eyed grin up at him. "If I say yes, will you promise you boys will stop proposin' to me in barnyards?"

Chapter 18

Ike laughed at Lou's joke, looking around at the animals milling about. *I don't know,* he signed. *Seems kind of appropriate to have Samson here with us, even if he isn't the original.*

Lou joined his laughter as she pushed herself to her feet. She sobered when she saw him staying down on the ground. Tilting her head to one side she questioned him without words.

*I think I need some help getting up,* he signed, smiling at her. *I may have overdone things a bit.*

"Oh!" she gasped, rushing to his side and pulling him to his feet, putting her shoulder under one arm to help him walk back to the house. "You shouldn't be out of bed!"

Ike looked down at her, eyebrow raised in disbelief as she started to scold him, and she had the grace to blush prettily and shut-up.

"Sorry," she muttered.

Soon, she was tucking him back into bed. He sighed with relief, his eyes starting to drift closed. Lou reached out to gently run one hand down the side of his beloved face. He reached up to grab her hand and kiss it, before jerking heartily on it so she tumbled into the bed next to him.

*Much better,* he signed with a smile, his eyes still closed. Lou laughed, laying her head down on the pillow next to his, enjoying listening to the sound of his quiet breathing as it slowed into sleep, one hand pressed gently to his chest, carefully held clear of his injury.

"Does this mean Ike's gonna be alright?"

"'Going to' not 'gonna'."

Lou surfaced from her exhausted slumber slowly, opening her eyes to see Jeremiah and Teresa peering down at her and Ike in the bed.

"Oh, good, you're awake," Resi smiled.

"Please tell me this doesn't mean more mushy stuff," Jeremiah begged, not even trying to hide the broad grin plastered across his face.

Lou blushed. Scrambling out of bed she hurried over to check on a still sleeping JK. Assured he was alright, she grabbed her apron and headed toward the door without looking back. "I need to get supper going."

For the first time in a week, Ike got out of bed, despite Lou's protests, and joined the family at the dinner table. He didn't eat much, but it felt good to have him back.

"Now, don't overtire yourself," Lou said for the dozenth time, hovering over him worriedly.

*I'm fine,* Ike said, smiling at Lou's antics. *Stop worrying, Sit down and eat this delicious meal you've provided.*

"That just goes to show how far from fine you are," Lou harrumphed as she took her seat at his side. "Talking about my 'delicious' cookin'."

"It's gotten a lot better," Jeremiah encouraged.

"Yeah, you barely burn anything anymore, Lou," Teresa added helpfully.

"Oh, you two are a laugh a minute," Lou smiled, balling her napkin up and tossing it at her brother and sister across the table.

Dinner proceeded in the same lighthearted vein, everyone happy to see things getting back to normal. But Lou kept a close eye on Ike the entire time and could see he was rapidly flagging.

"Alright," she finally said, "back to bed with you, before you collapse."

*Wait,* Ike smiled tiredly. *One more thing, then I'll go like a good little boy.*

"I'd like to see that," Lou snorted.

Ike mock glared at her.

"Fine, fine," she held up her hands in surrender. "What is it?"

Ike turned to Jeremiah. *Jeremiah, can you go get my saddlebags?*

"Sure, Ike," the earliteen said, jumping up eagerly from the table. He returned a moment later with Ike's saddlebags draped across his shoulder. Handing them over he said, "Here you go, Ike."

Lou watched curiously as Ike opened one compartment and began to dig through it, eventually pulling out a small blue bag. Her eyes widened as Ike turned back to her.

*You agreed to marry me, for real, today,* he began, then paused as Teresa squealed in joy and even Jeremiah let out a shout of excitement at the news. *I remember a conversation we had once, and a ring you gave me. Both our thoughts were on other people then. Things have changed.*

Lou blushed and looked away. That had been a long time ago, what seemed like another lifetime. Ike waited patiently until she turned back to him. Reaching out, he captured her left hand in his. Pulling it up to his mouth he kissed it gently before placing the small, silky bag in her palm.

*This ring is mine, and mine alone. Meant for you only. I hope you'll wear it to remember the promises we've made.*

Lou sat staring down at the bag, afraid to open it, tears coursing down her face. Its very existence was proof of the hopes and dreams Ike had held. The most recent time he could have gotten it was at Fort Bridger, before JK was born. But she hadn't seen anything like it the last time she'd been there. It looked suspiciously like the packaging from a popular jewelry store in St. Joe that she and Kid had looked at once while window shopping.

"Go on, Lou, open it!" Teresa encouraged.

"Let me savor the moment, will you, Resi" Lou smiled over at her little sister, then at Ike. "This is a moment that doesn't exactly come more than once or twice in a girl's life."

"I don't get it," Jeremiah complained. "You're already married, what's the big deal?"

*You'll understand someday,* Ike said. *When you find the right woman for you.*

While they were talking, Lou slowly opened the drawstring on the pouch and upended it, dumping the ring out onto her opened palm.

"Oh, Ike," she exclaimed. "It's beautiful!"

Ike reached out to take her left hand in his and, confiscating the gold filigreed band topped with four rubies in a diamond shape surrounded by several smaller emeralds, he slowly slipped the ring onto her third finger. Smiling down at her, he leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.

The next week passed quickly as they all worked to help Ike recover from his wound. Soon, though he still tired easily, he was back in the barn doing daily chores with Lou and the children. It was a quiet, peaceful time for them.

At night, after the children had gone to bed, Lou would cuddle up to Ike's side, held tightly to him by the arm he'd wrapped around her, his other kept free to move, her head resting on his shoulder, and they'd talk, about anything and everything.

But Ike would never touch her more than that daily embrace or a simple kiss here or there. He was openly affectionate with her, but never let things develop into more. Lou was starting to get frustrated and decided to take things into her own hands.

One morning, after chores were done and the children off to school, she followed Ike back to the house. Closing the door gently behind her, she walked up to Ike and began to cuddle him from behind, running her hands across his shoulders, kissing his neck.

Ike stepped away from her and turned around. With a soft smile, he signed a simple *No.*

Lou looked at him, mouth agape. "What?!"

*No.*

Lou clenched her fist, using the feel of Ike's ring to keep her from losing control, and asked, "Why the hell not? If you can muck out stalls, why can't we… well… you know?"

*Because I love you.*

"Oh, now that makes a whole lot of sense," she muttered sarcastically. At her raised voice, JK began to whimper, quickly turning into a full blown cry. "Now look what you've done."

She marched over to his cradle and picked the baby up.

"Don't mind your mommy and daddy little one. We're just a little crazy." She emphasized the word 'crazy' as she glared over her shoulder at Ike. Unfortunately, the tension in her body only upset the child more and he began to cry in earnest.

*Let me,* Ike said, walking toward her, stretching his arms out to take the infant.

"Fine!" she snapped, handing over the infant. "I'll be in the kitchen." And she stomped out of the room, leaving Ike with her quickly quieting son.

Lou stiffened as she heard the door to the kitchen open and then close behind her.

"Is he calm now?" she asked, without turning around, continuing to chop viciously at the potatoes on the cutting board in front of her. A slapping sound reminded her that she needed to look at Ike, not something she often forgot. Dipping her hands in the basin of water sitting in the sink, she grabbed a towel to dry her hands and turned to face him.

*He's sleeping,* Ike said.

"Then would you care to explain yourself?" she hissed at him, obviously still angry with him. "You say you love me, want to marry for real, then you won't touch me?" Frustrated beyond measure she pounded on the counter next to her, trying to keep from crying.

*I do love you,* Ike signed. *That's why I won't touch you. Not until our wedding night.*

Lou looked at him, more confused than ever. Ike continued.

*I heard what you said to Emily. You're not a whore, Lou. No matter what might have happened. I won't have you believing that. And since this marriage has never been real in your mind, we'll just wait until it is. I won't have you feel like you're buying my presence, or my love, with your body.*

Lou looked at him standing there, so tall and strong, so smart. Tears gathered in her eyes.

"How'd I get so lucky?" she whispered.

Ike shrugged and walked up to her, pulling her into his embrace. Framing her face with his hands, he leaned down and kissed her with all the passion in his soul. When they were both struggling to breath, he pulled back.

*I want you, Lou. Don't ever doubt that. I just need you to know I respect you, too. For that, we wait.*

Then he turned around, heading for the door.

"Where are you going?" Lou called after him.

*The creek.*

After much discussion, they decided to set the date for their second wedding for the first weekend in June. They hoped that meant Buck and Noah would be there in time to celebrate with them. And their Arapaho friends would still be around, not having left yet for the summer hunts.

In late April, the passes were finally clear and Ike and the other men made another supply run to Fort Bridger. Ike took with him several letters to be mailed and came back loaded down with gifts, as well as supplies.

Dismounting in front of their cabin after a weeklong absence, Ike smiled as his family poured out into the yard. This was the way things were supposed to be, he thought, as he swung Teresa up into a bear hug, then pulled Lou close to his side for an intoxicating kiss, accompanied by Jeremiah's hoots and hollers.

"We missed you," Lou whispered, when he finally released her mouth.

Setting Teresa down, Ike answered, *I missed you, too. How's JK?*

"Growing like a weed! He rolled over for the first time on Wednesday, and I swear he's already trying to crawl."

*Impatient, just like his momma,* Ike smiled, reaching out to tweak her nose. Lou dodged his efforts, punching him lightly in the arm in retaliation.

Turning, Ike began to pull packages off his horse. Most he handed to Teresa and Jeremiah to carry into the cabin. But one special one he left for last. Finally, he untied it and handed it reverently over to Lou.

Lou looked at the brownpaper-wrapped package in her hands and asked, "What's this?"

Ike smiled at her. *Open it.*

Peeking up at him through her eyelashes, Lou proceeded to rip through the packaging to reveal a length of creamy white satin, accompanied by several yards of gold ribbon.

"Oh, Ike, it's beautiful!" Lou exclaimed, running one hand over the soft cloth reverently.

*I saw this at Carter's and thought of you,* Ike said, reaching out to tilt her face up to his. "I know our first wedding wasn't exactly what a girl hopes and dreams of. Let's make this one special, alright?*

After consulting with Mrs. Heath, Amy, and even Emily, on the pattern, Lou finally took scissors to the beautiful fabric, cutting out her wedding dress. There was even enough of a white netting to make a veil. She spent every spare moment hunched over the fabric, stitching it together. But she was careful to never let Ike see it. As he'd said, this time they were going to do things 'right' and that meant following all the traditions.

Finally, the big day arrived. Lou's dress was finished and carefully laid out at the Heaths', just waiting for her. Amy had agreed to make and decorate the chocolate groom's cake while Emily had surprised Lou by offering to make a beautiful white frosted bride's cake. Everyone was rushing around making last minute preparations, getting washed up, shaved, hair combed and in place. Tall Elk, Panther's Tracks, Pretty Flower, Blue Sky and several other members of the neighboring Arapaho band were milling around, watching all the commotion curiously.

"White men silly," Pretty Flower was overheard telling Emily at one point. "Why marry woman who already wife? Not understand. Supposed to marry another woman. Silly!"

The only disappointment for Ike and Lou that beautiful day was that Noah and Buck hadn't arrived yet. Lou had just gotten to the Heaths, with Teresa in tow, and was starting to strip off her trousers and shirt to put on her wedding gown when the unexpected sound of a wagon pulling up penetrated the cabin walls. Buttoning her shirt back up as she went, Lou flew out the door.

"Buck! Noah!" she called in excitement when she saw their familiar forms standing by the wagon.

"What about me?" a familiar feminine voice asked, a head capped with a full fringe of frizzy red hair poked around the end of the wagon.

"Emma?!" Lou stopped in her tracks, then began rushing forward again to embrace the woman she thought of as her mother. "Oh, Emma! I can't believe you're here!"

"Lulabelle," Emma scolded lightly, even as she held Lou tightly to her. "You didn't think I'd miss your wedding day, now did you? A pack of ravening wolves couldn't have kept me away!"

Pulling back, Lou asked, "Where's Sam?"

Emma waved the question away.

"Probably off dining with the Territorial Governor, or chasing bank robbers, or something, having a grand old time. He'll be happy to see me when I get back though, if you know what I mean," she added, a wicked twinkle in her eye. Lou laughed in appreciation.

"Sorry we're late, Lou," Noah said, coming around from the other side of the wagon. "We had to wait for Emma to get to Rock Creek before we could leave."

A slight, pretty woman with chocolate skin and a cap of dark curls that matched Noah's accompanied him, holding lightly to his arm.

"Cassie!" Lou exclaimed, holding out her hand to the other woman. "I take it, this means you finally put Noah out of his misery."

Cassie just shrugged as she smiled happily up into Noah's face.

"And then we had another surprise addition to the party," Buck added, a wide grin splitting his features.

"Where's my pretty girl? I've got to kiss the bride!"

"Teaspoon!?" Lou wasn't sure if she could handle any more shocks, as her Express family passed her from person to person, hugging her tightly in greeting, pressing kisses to her cheeks.

"Gotta say, Lou, that's a new look for you," Buck teased, reaching up to flick at the cloth rollers tied into her hair to curl it. "Is that how you managed to finally corner Ike?"

Lou reached up bashfully to touch her hair, having completely forgotten its condition. Then, as Buck was moving past her to grab something out of the wagon, she stretched out her leg, tripping him in retaliation.

"I can't believe it," Lou smiled, tears starting to leak from the corners of her eyes. "I can't believe you all made it."

"So, where's this baby boy of yours?" Emma asked, hooking her arm through Lou's and starting her back toward the cabin. "Boys, why don't you go find Ike. I'm sure he would appreciate a little support about now!"

"Gettin' impatient, Ike?" Teaspoon asked.

Ike nodded. At the sight of Emma walking out of the cabin, little JK in her arms, he straightened, wiping his palms down the sides of his dark dress pants, before reaching up to straighten his string tie. He nodded.

*It's time to get married,* he signed.

"Mr. Spoon," Emma called. "Lou's got a favor to ask of you."

"Well, boys, seems like I'm needed elsewhere 'bout now," Teaspoon harrumphed. "Try to stay out of trouble while I'm gone."

*Is she alright?* Ike asked Emma nervously.

Emma smiled serenely, a glint of mischief dancing in her eyes. "Wait 'til you see."

Still bouncing the infant in her arms, cooing to him as she went, Emma glided between the two rows of roughly hewn log benches the pioneers had set out to form an outdoor chapel for the wedding ceremony. Taking a seat, she looked around, admiring how they'd decorated the entire area with fresh picked spring wildflowers, even forming an arch of flowers at the front of the aisle, where the bride and groom would stand. Preacher Heath stood on the other side of the arch, Ike in front of him, his brothers Noah, Buck and Jeremiah at his side. Emma took a seat in the front row, next to Cassie, baby JK smiling in her arms.

Tim Nolan and Carl Metcalfe started playing an unusual version of the wedding march on violin and harmonica. At the creaking noise of a door opening, Ike turned to behold the vision that was his bride.

Lou, clinging tightly to Teaspoon's arm, walked slowly toward him. She'd turned the material he'd brought her into a beautiful white gown with large puffy sleeves that ended at the elbow. Flat pleated ruffles decorated the entire circumference of the neckline, edged with the gold ribbon Ike had brought her. More gold ribbon formed a leaf pattern circling the skirt about a foot up from the hem. But Ike never noticed her dress. His eyes never left Lou's as she made her way slowly toward him, a gamine smile struggling to take over her face, shouting her happiness to the world.

When Lou and Teaspoon reached the front of the aisle, she and Ike just stood there, staring at each other, until Teaspoon cleared his throat and reached out to grab Lou's hand and place it in Ike's, manually maneuvering them into the proper position in front of Preacher Heath, accompanied by titters from their gathered friends and family.

Lou ducked her head, blushing.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, in this company, to witness the marriage of these two young people. Again. And forever," Preacher began with a smile for the young couple. "It took them a lot of hard work to get to this point, but if there's one couple that belongs together, it's these two. If anyone disagrees, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."

An expectant hush covered the crowd for a moment and when no one spoke, Preacher smiled and said, "I didn't think so!" rather emphatically, before adding, "Who gives this bride to be wed?"

"We do," Teaspoon grumped, hiding a smile as he indicated the rest of their Express family. Turning around, he took a seat next to Emma and grinned, relieved to have his part of the ceremony completed.

"Marriage is the most serious commitment one can make. But these two have already shown they have made that commitment, to each other and to the children in their care. Today, they come to pledge a deeper troth, to each other and before God. To that end, they have written their own vows. Ike?"

Letting go of Lou's hand, Ike began to speak, Jeremiah translating for those who couldn't see.

*I loved you once in silence. I've loved you since that first time I saw you in that pretty pink dress, peaking around the corner of Emma's stairs, threatening to punch the first one of us to laugh. We all fell in love with you, at least a little bit, that day," Ike shrugged. "But I knew then you're heart was already taken. I was willing to let you go, if that made you happy. I could have lived my life happily married to someone else, but you would always have held at least a small corner of my heart. But then… suddenly… you weren't happy anymore. Life changed. You were in pain and I couldn't just let you walk off thinking you were alone in this world. You're the love of my life. And I want to spend a lifetime showing you, Louise McCloud McSwain, just what you mean to me. I promise to love you forever, until the day I die.*

Lou reached up one hand to caress his cheek, before beginning her own vows.

"You're the love of my life, too, Ike. I don't think either of us ever imagined me saying that, but it's true. You sort of snuck up on me with your kindness, gentleness and wisdom. Even before, you were always there when I needed someone to talk to, or just a shoulder to lean on. And when the darkness came and I was lost so deep inside myself, ruining everything with my own fears and selfishness... there you were, reaching out to catch me and pull me back into the light. You put up with my foolishness and waited patiently for me to come to my senses. I've never known a love like this, a love that is patient and kind and forgiving, a love that is laughter and light and friendship. You're in my heart and soul. You're all the joy and tears that I cry, now. And you don't ever have to say a word, Isaac Matthew McSwain. I can see your love in your eyes. I promise to love you forever, until the day I die."

Teaspoon reached up to surreptitiously wipe away a tear from the corner of one eye. Noah found his eyes searching out Cassie's gaze. Tim Nolan reached over and captured his wife's hand in his, squeezing it tightly.

Preacher Heath cleared his throat and asked, "Do you have the rings?"

Lou nodded and pulled a large ring off her pinkie finger, where she'd been holding it. Pressing the ring to her lips, she kept her eyes on Ike's as they listened to the preacher.

"Repeat after me, with this ring, I thee wed."

Reaching out, she slowly slid the ring onto Ike's finger, grimacing slightly as it caught on his knuckle. He reached down with his free hand to help wiggle the simple gold band into place.

"With this ring, I thee wed," she whispered, glancing up at Ike, almost shyly, through her eyelashes.

Ike pulled her ring out of his pocket and repeated the motions, slipping the band into place next to her engagement ring. Finished, he signed, *With this ring, I thee wed. With all my wordly goods I thee endow.*

Ike and Lou stood staring at each other, awed by this powerful moment that had joined them together for life.

Finally, breaking the moment, Preacher Heath intoned, "By the powers vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Ike, you may kiss your bride."

Ike needed no encouragement, leaning down to capture Lou's mouth with his in a kiss full of all the love he felt for her, all his hopes and desires, dreams and plans for their future together, a kiss that seemed to last forever, a kiss designed to carry them through all the storms life would throw at them.

**Wedding vows heaviliy influenced by Sammy Kershaw's Love of My Life

Epilogue

June 8th, 2012

McSwain Valley, Wyoming

"I can't believe we're finally here," CK said excitedly as she crawled out of the car.

"Don't know why not," her smiling husband of less than a week answered, walking around the front to meet her. "You've only been planning this trip for, what? Six years, now?"

Laughing, he pulled her in close to lean down and press a kiss to her lips. Swatting at his shoulder playfully, she smiled back up at him.

"Come on, let's get the bags and get checked in."

Moments later she was walking down a long paved sidewalk, a hefty backpack slung over one shoulder, a stuffed suitcase bumping and rolling along behind her. The walk wound its way through a lovely rose garden and past a little stream before stopping at the base of a wide veranda that surrounded the lovely, Victorian style house, mansion really. Three stories tall, it's peaked rooftop and gabled windows provided a stunning contrast against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains around them. CK paused at the end of the walk to take a deep breath, soaking in the moment.

The sign at the top of the steps read, McSwain Homestead Bed and Breakfast. CK shook her head as she read it, then started up the steps to the front door.

"Can I help you?" the young lady sitting behind a desk just inside the door asked, setting aside the magazine she'd been reading.

"Yes, we have a reservation for the McSwain Suite," CK said, locking her wheeled suitcase into an upright position.

"Oh!" exclaimed the receptionist, suddenly snapping into an alert position, her dark eyes widening in recognition even as her two long, dark-haired braids, proclaiming her heritage as loudly as her dusky skin, went flying behind her. "You would be Mr. and Mrs.-"

"Just call me CK," CK said, holding out her hand to greet the girl. "I figure since we're going to be here awhile we ought to be on a first name basis… ah…" she paused to read the girl's name tag, "Rose. This is my husband, Chris."

"Nice to meet you, Rose," he smiled in greeting, both hands occupied with two more suitcases.

"Wow! Nice to meet you, CK, Chris," Rose said, rapidly shuffling through a pile of paperwork in front of her. "Ah, here it is," she announced, finally pulling out one particular sheet. Turning it toward CK, she pointed at the blank line at the bottom of the page. "Just sign here."

While CK bent forward to sign in, Rose reached back to a row of hooks on the wall behind her and grabbed a set of keys. Turning back, she traded the keys for the signed paper.

"Thank you," CK said, moving to grab her suitcase.

"The room's upstairs, at the end of the hall," Rose said, smiling. "Um, if you don't mind my asking, what are you planning on doing here? We've never had someone book a room for three whole months before!"

CK laughed. "I'm a history professor at Iowa State University. I'm here working on my doctoral thesis, Women and Minorities on the American Frontier."

"That is sooo cool," Rose gushed. "And you definitely came to the right place. You know McSwain Valley is the home of the first Woman and first Deaf Sheriff, first Native and first African American Mayor? This is about the most evenly split, racially, not to mention completely integrated town in the entire country!"

"I did indeed. That's why I'm here."

"The McSwains over there, they started it all. It's such a romantic story," Rose continued, pointing to a large painting hanging over a fireplace at the other end of the foyer. CK gasped as she moved slowly toward the family portrait, listening with half an ear as Rose continued to chatter. "Ike McSwain? He found this valley just for his wife, Lou, 'cause she was tired of traveling the Oregon Trail. Isn't that sweet? They had eight kids, five girls and three boys."

CK stared up at the portrait with a tall, bald man standing behind an old fashioned horsehair sofa, one hand resting on the shoulder of the petite brunette seated on the sofa. Four boys stood next to Ike. Four girls were seated, two on each side of the woman CK assumed was Lou, Ike's wife. Two smaller girls, obviously still infants, were seated on Lou's lap and the lap of the eldest girl sitting next to her.

CK pointed at the painting. "I thought you said they had eight children? Who are the other two?"

"Oh, the oldest girl and boy are Lou McSwain's brother and sister, Jeremiah and Teresa. They were orphans and Ike and Lou raised them as their own. In fact, Jeremiah started using the McSwain last name when he became an adult."

"What's this picture?" CK asked, already digging into her backpack for a notepad.

"I'll meet you upstairs when you're done down here," Chris whispered in CK's ear, even as he handed her a pen. She smiled gratefully at him, already starting to scribble down details.

"That one?" Rose grinned as she moved out from behind her desk to come stand next to CK in front of the collection of painted family portraits and old time photographs and tintypes. "That's from before they moved out here. Ike and Lou, well Louise was her real name, but everyone called her Lou, anyway, they met riding for the Pony Express. Some say they even worked with some gunslinger who was famous for a short time back then, a Wild Bill Hickok, not to mention the great Buffalo Bill Cody! In fact, Cody, Wyoming? He's supposed to have gotten the idea for the place from McSwain Valley. This photo was taken by a traveling Englishman back in 1860, at the Sweetwater station, where they worked. See, there's Running Buck Cross, too. He was Ike's blood brother. The Crosses are another of the founding families around here."

"He was the first Native American Mayor, right?"

Rose nodded.

"Yep! He married Emily Metcalfe, another of the Valley's founders. They had five kids, four boys and a girl, the youngest." She pointed to another photo, a couple dressed in their wedding clothes, smiling happily at each other, an unusual pose in such an old picture. CK wondered about that. "He was instrumental in getting the Army to agree to allow the Arapaho that lived in this area to settle in the valley, part of their traditional hunting grounds, rather than shipping them off to a reservation. He even brought some of his Kiowa family here, later on, his brother Red Bear, a few others."

CK's eyes kept moving across the trio of paintings. The second was a family portrait of Emily and Buck with their five children, all seated outside a tipi. Then she stopped at the third portrait. "Would those be the Dixon's?"

"Noah Dixon brought his bride, Cassie, with him when he moved to the Valley with Buck, at Ike and Lou's invitation. Her younger brother is the one who painted all these portraits. He was a great artist. You'll find his work scattered all over town."

"Tell me about Noah? Did he ride with the Pony Express, too? He's not in that photo."

"He hadn't joined the Express yet when that photo was taken. But he did ride with them, that's how he met the others. Noah was an unusual man for the times. Born free, he used to go to slave auctions and buy slaves just to free them. Nearly got him killed more than once. He and Cassie moved here when the U.S. Army wouldn't let him join up during the Civil War. After they settled here, he headed East, collected a group of runaway slaves and led them West on a wagon train. After the war, he just kept it up. This town is almost precisely one third white, one third Native and one third African American," Rose said proudly. "Eventually Cassie convinced Noah to retire and stick around here when she was pregnant with their third child. Said she was tired of being a single mom! And either he stuck around or she was going to find another man to be a father to her children. He stuck around after that."

The two women laughed, imagining the dressing down the slender lady in the portrait must have given her tall, handsome husband.

CK kept examining the collection before her, this time concentrating on the photos and tintypes lined up on the mantel. There was another one of three young men holding their weapons in front of them. Noah was in that picture with a distinctive looking whip in his hands. Next to Emily and Buck's wedding photo was one of Noah and Cassie at their wedding, then two different photos showing Ike and Lou, one where they were dressed in formal clothes, but Lou had unusually short hair and was dressed as a boy, another where Lou had long hair, and Ike and Lou were dressed formally, Lou obviously in a wedding gown, an infant cradled in her arms. CK pointed to it.

"Why does it look like this picture was taken after the other one?" she asked curiously. "It would've been a huge scandal if that baby was born before they got married! And I've never found anything about such a scandal in my research."

"No doubt! That's JK, their eldest. Sort of. He wasn't actually Ike's son. His father was one of the other riders, Lou'd been engaged to. But, he got killed. This photo was taken after Lou and Ike's second wedding, though. They got married before they left on the Oregon Trail, so they could adopt Lou's brother and sister. That's the first photo. All of them dressed up just before leaving on the wagon train. It's a fascinating story."

"How do you know so much about them?"

"Oh, I've read the McSwain Journals hundreds of times," Rose smiled. "It's so romantic, how he loved her before she ever thought of him as anything more than a brother. How he brought her West and got her to fall in love with him."

"There are journals?" CK asked, her excitement growing. "I didn't know about any journals!"

"Oh, yes! Come back to the library and I'll show you," Rose said, already heading through an open doorway to her left. "We don't exactly advertise their existence, but Ike McSwain was an incredible journaler. He wrote nearly everyday, liked to draw pictures, too."

CK followed Rose into a large room filled with floor to ceiling built-in bookcases. A large fireplace dominated one wall with a painting of an elderly Ike and Lou McSwain hanging over it. Rose moved to an area where the bookcases had been encased in glass.

"We've put in special climate controls," she explained, "to protect the journals. They're so detailed they've become one of the most sought after items of Old West memorabilia, despite the fact we've tried to keep knowledge of them limited. You have to put on a pair of gloves if you want to handle them," she added, pointing to a box of latex gloves sitting on the next shelf over. "But otherwise, they're made available to anyone who wants to read them."

CK ran a hand reverently across the glass, imagining spending the next several weeks wading through the journals, gleaning all the bits of history from them. Turning back to Rose, she asked the question that had been nagging at her since they'd left the foyer.

"So, who was JK's father?"

"Oh, he was named for him, and another rider who died about the same time. James Kidd McSwain. They never really knew his father's name. He just went by a nickname, The Kid. Folks could do that back then."

CK smiled in agreement. Times had been different. But Rose barely stopped for breath now that she had a captive audience with whom to share her favorite stories.

"He named his eldest son Kidd Isaac after his birth father and the man who'd raised him. Kidd and Lou's maiden name, McCloud, or Cloud, became real common around here. Why, I remember back when I was in school I had three Cloud's, two McClouds and five Kidd's in my grade alone!" Rose laughed at the memory.

"Rose Cross are you back here? You better not be shanghaiing guests again to tell all your stories! Mom'll kill you!"

A smaller, younger version of Rose, her hair flying loose around her shoulders, came running into the library, only to skid to a halt at the sight of CK.

"Oooh, you are so in trouble when I tell Mom!"

"It's alright Lily," Rose laughed. "I'm just answering her questions. She's a historian. She wants to hear my stories."

"Hi, I'm Lily Cross," the little girl said, stepping forward to hold out her hand toward Ck. "Who are you?"

"Lily, it's very nice to meet you," CK answered, coming to her knees so she could look Lily in the eyes as she introduced herself. "I'm Cloud Kiddette McSwain Wright. And it's very nice to meet you, too."