“Everyone ready?” Dawn Star called from her seat at the front of the buckboard. She was dressed in her finest white man’s clothes, a pretty pink frock with white lace at the wrists, neck and hem, covered with a dark, rose colored cape to keep her warm. Her eldest daughter, Morning Star sat at her side. All the other adults were mounted on horseback, the pride of the Hotheads and Misfits Ranch, most with a child, or two, mounted in front of them.
Jamie sat astride his favorite mare, Katelyn. Her grand-dam had been his Pa’s mount back in the Express. He’d been there when she was born and trained her himself. He patted the paint’s pretty neck, keeping his other arm firmly around his little sister Mary Margaret’s waist. But, try though he might, he couldn’t keep his eyes off of Julia. She looked so pretty.
Today she was wearing a white dress with dark blue stripes of color. It was trimmed in black velvet that matched her long, ankle length winter cape. She was so pretty. He sighed. Mary Margaret giggled.
“What are you gigglin’ ‘bout?” he asked his nine year old sister.
“You’re funny,” she smiled up at him. “Yer in love and won’t admit it. Why don’t ya just buy her basket at the social? That’d get her to like you. It’s the big one there on the back of the buckboard with the blue and white ribbons on the handle.”
Jamie just shook his head at his sister’s simplistic view of life. “Yer too young ta understand, sis,” he said. “Things ‘re more complicated than that when yer an adult.”
Urging Katelyn into motion, he rode up next to the wagon, his usual position on a family trip like this. Harry Sleepy Boy Cross sat on his bay gelding on the other side of the buckboard. Kid and Lou would ride lead, as always. Buck would follow at the end, to make sure no one got left behind. With a group as large as their combined families, they had to be very organized about things like this or risk losing someone, somewhere.
Once again, Jamie found his eyes drawn to Julia’s animated face as she smiled in response to something her mother said. He watched as little laugh lines appeared at the corners of her mouth and eyes. He could see how she would look one day in those lines and he wanted to be there to see it in person with every fiber of his being.
As if feeling his gaze on her, Julia glanced in his direction, the laughter fading from her eyes, leaving behind a cold glare that froze his innards. Luckily it didn’t last long as she deliberately turned her back toward him and said something to her mother.
Jamie nodded to himself, forlornly, as Dawn Star started the buckboard into motion and he urged Katelyn forward to keep pace. He just hoped Julia didn’t marry someone from out of town. At least that way he’d still get to see her occasionally.
Kid laughed as Lou looked back over her shoulder for the dozenth time.
“What’s the matter, Lou? Scared one of the young’un’s is gonna sneak up on ya or somethin’?” he teased. “Yer so busy lookin’ back, you wouldn’t notice a whole band of outlaws until ya rode right over ‘em.”
Lou shook her head. “No, just can’t seem to stop watchin’ our son make a fool of himself is all.”
Kid looked back himself this time, just in time to catch Jamie sneaking a peak at Julia then quickly turning away. He laughed again.
“So that’s the way the wind’s blowin’, hunh?” he said. “Can’t say as I’m surprised. I allus figured those two’d make a go of it.”
“Not if he has his way they won’t,” Lou said acerbically. “He’s bound and determined to push her away. Stupid child.” She turned to glare at her husband. “Wonder where he gets it from?”
“I’d say that’s a slight case of the pot callin’ the kettle black, there, darlin’,” Kid teased, reaching out to tickle her side.
“I had good reasons,” Lou sniffed, poking her nose into the air in a superior manner.
“And I’m sure he does, too,” Kid said. “Don’t mean they won’t work things out. We did.”
“Let’s just hope they don’t’ have to go gettin’ one of ‘em kidnapped and held hostage!” Lou retorted, thinking back to the Pike brothers and her own capture. “These children are too soft to handle some of the things we went through.”
Kid just laughed again. “They’ll figure it out.”
“Come on, Jamie!” his best friend, outside the family at least, urged, grabbing his sleeve and tugging him in the direction of the church steps. Tables were set up alongside the steps leading to the church doors, heavily ladened with picnic baskets full of various goodies lovingly prepared by the town’s fairest, and most eligible, citizens. Its young ladies.
“Alright, already,” he muttered, reluctantly allowing his friend to drag him along. “I’m comin’, Lewis, no need ta rip a new hole in my best shirt.”
“That’s fer danged sure,” Lewis laughed, playfully patting at the shirtsleeve he’d been yanking on. “You do that jest fine on yer own. How’d ya ever make it all the way inta town without rippin’ it ta shreds, anyhow?”
“He was too busy eyein’ my sister ta find anythin’ ta tear it on,” Harry grinned, shoving Jamie toward Lewis, who just punched him in the arm to get him moving back in the other direction.
Jamie shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to ignore the both of them, missing the significant look they shared behind his back.
The next half hour was one of the longest of his life. He watched with little interest as basket after basket was sold to the town’s eager swains. The whole thing was supposed to be anonymous, but it was easy to tell that many a young man had already sussed out, or been simply informed directly by his sweetheart, which basket belonged to his preferred young lady.
Despite his disinterest in the majority of the auction, Jamie couldn’t keep his eyes from drifting toward the big picnic basket sitting on the end of one table, a large bow made up of blue and white ribbons decorating its handle. The curiosity was killing him. Had she cooked his favorite foods? Or something fancy she’d learned to make while off at college? Had she thought about him at all while preparing the meal?
Shrugging his shoulders, he ducked his head and determinedly stared down at his toes. It was none of his business. He’d made that clear to her. She deserved someone better than a dumb, half educated cowboy who smelled like the barn all the time.
The softly exhaled exclamation and stiffening body of Harry at his side, drew Jamie out of his inner musings. Looking up, he asked, “What?”
Harry pointed with his chin, as Buck had taught him was polite, toward the figure of their school nemesis, Carl Wiggins, pushing his way roughly toward the front of the crowd while digging industriously in one pocket. Nervously, Jamie looked toward the church steps to see which basket was being auctioned just as his mother handed the preacher Julia’s picnic.
“Now here’s a pretty little meal,” the preacher began his prattle. “Beautifully decorated and even more wonderfully tasting, to judge by the smell.” He sniffed appreciatively at the basket, while turning it around and around for all to see. “What am I bid for this wondrous concoction?”
Jamie started to turn away, not wanting to see who won Julia’s lunch, and company for the afternoon. But he stopped when he heard Wiggins shout out.
“I’ve got two bits,” the preacher smiled at Wiggins. Looking around the crowd of townsfolk, he asked exuberantly, “Am I bid three? Three bits, anyone?”
Jamie looked around, waiting for someone, anyone to take up the call and outbid Wiggins. Never mind that most of the baskets had gone for little more than two bits that day.
“Three bits? Last chance,” the preacher warned. “Are you sure you don’t want to outbid this young gentleman for this delicious meal. I smell fried chicken in there.”
Still no one answered the call. Some even shrank away from Wiggins possessive glare.
“Two bits,” the preacher sighed. “Going…. going….”
Jamie gulped. Had that been him? Yep. That was his hand waving in the air, three halves of a quarter clutched in is clenched fist.
The preacher smiled beatifically, perking up at the signs that there was about to be a bidding war.
“Three bits. We have three bits. Do I hear four? Fifty cents anyone?”
“Fifty cents,” Wiggins shouted.
“Seventy-five,” Jamie answered. He may not think he was good enough for his Julia. But no way in hell was he letting Wiggins get within spitting distance of her.
Unfortunately, Wiggins had other ideas. “One dollar, fifty cents!”
The crowd gasped. No basket had gone for more than seventy-five cents. Wiggins had just doubled that.
“A dollar fifty!” the preacher crowed. “We have one fifty. Is there another bid?” He looked toward Jamie eagerly. “Remember, these funds go toward a good cause. To support the War Orphans at the Mission in St. Joe. Follow this young man’s example,” he pointed toward Wiggins, “and bid generously.”
Jamie began to dig frantically through his pockets, gathering every coin and bit he had on him. But, no matter how many times he counted them, the paltry pile of coins resting in his palm only added up to a dollar. Looking up his eyes met those of the preacher, and he started to shake his head. He couldn’t beat Wiggins bid. He swallowed hard, wanting to hurl.
“A dollar fifty,” the preacher continued. “Going once…. Going twice….”
“Here,” Harry hissed, shoving more coins into Jamie’s hand. “That’s all I’ve got. Don’t let that bastard win!”
Looking down, Jamie saw three brand new, shiny silver coins resting on top of the pile of change in his hand.
“One seventy-five,” he crowed exultantly. He refused to look in the direction where the young ladies were gathered. He didn’t know if he could do this if he saw the recrimination in Julia’s eyes. He’d promised to leave her alone and, less than a day later, he was breaking his promise. Just went to show how wrong he was for her.
If he had, he might have seen the glow in her eyes, the blush on her cheek that rose a little bit higher each time he bid and the fear that made her smile brittle every time he was outbid.
“Two fifty,” Wiggins countered.
Jamie almost staggered back. There was no way he could scrounge together that much on such a short notice. He looked at Harry, almost panicked. What was he supposed to do now? A nudge at his shoulder and Jamie looked up at Lewis, standing on his other side holding something out to him.
“Take it,” Lewis urged, shoving the crisp new bill at him.
“I can’t,” Jamie gasped, trying to push Lewis’ hand back at him. “Not your advance.”
Lewis shrugged. “What do I need it for? I’ve got a bed and food at the livery.
“But,” Jamie sputtered, “you had plans for that money.”
“This is more important,” Lewis hissed urgently. “You can’t let him win that basket. Haven’t you figured it out yet?”
Jamie looked at his friend, confused. “What?”
“He doesn’t know who she is! You know how he feels about ‘Injuns’, sorry Harry,” he muttered a quick apology for using the pejorative term. Harry waved it off understandingly. “The Crosses in particular. Can you imagine what he’ll do to her if he wins?”
Jamie inhaled sharply. He’d been so caught up in his own turmoil he truly hadn’t noticed. He snatched the bill out of Lewis’ hand and, without even looking at the preacher, shouted, “Six seventy-five!”
“Sold!” the preacher responded, pounding his gavel on the wooden lectern in front of him. “For Six seventy-five to young James McCloud.”
Jamie slowly raised his head, turning to push his way toward the front of the crowd, to claim the lunch and the woman he’d bargained so hard for on this sunny morning. In a daze, he came to a stop in front of the preacher, hearing none of the murmurs or laughter echoing from the gathered townsfolk. He barely felt it as the preacher gently pried the money out of his hand and hung the basket over Jamie’s arm.
But he felt it throughout his entire body as a small hand snaked through the crook of his elbow and the warmth of her body pressed against his side. Slowly, unwillingly, he lowered his gaze to meet hers. Not sure what he expected to find there, he marveled at the surprise that warmed him as he sank into the joyous exultation of her smiling countenance.