Friday, June 28, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, Chapter 8

Chapter 8
A frustrated Julia rifled through the contents of her wardrobe yet again.  Pinks, reds, blues, greens, blacks, flashed past as she pushed dress after dress aside.  Because of school she had twice as many clothes as any of her sisters, all in the latest fashions.  But nothing to wear.
Julia’d always been taught that you dressed up to go courting, you looked your best.  But she couldn’t exactly wear her Sunday silk dress for what she had planned.  It would look ridiculous for one thing.  And for another, it wouldn’t survive five minutes.  No, she had to have something.
With that thought, she dove back into the wardrobe, hoping to ferret out some old outfit she’d forgotten about at the back of the closet, something that would be appropriate for courting Jamie.  But moments later she fell back on her behind, weight braced on her hands as she emitted a groaned growl of frustration.  Nothing.
“Whatcha doin’?”
Julia turned her head to glare a brusque comment at her brother, Harry.  But she stopped as she really looked at how he was dressed.  Without a word in response she scrambled to her feet and pushed past him into the hall..
“Hey!” Harry squealed in annoyance as he fell back against the wall from the force of her shove.  “Watch it!”
But she never heard him.  She was already climbing the stairs to the attic, where her mother kept trunks of their old clothes.  Within a matter of moments she was holding up an old pair of dungarees one of the boys had outgrown.  They were so badly stained and ripped up that Dawn Star hadn’t forced the next child to use them.  But they were perfect for what Julia had in mind.
She smiled broadly as she imagined Jamie’s reaction.
 Julia took a huge, fortifying breath and pulled open the barn door, slipping inside.  A north winter wind ripped the door out of her hands and slammed it shut behind her with a loud bang!  She jumped at the sudden loss of control as much as at the noise.
Two mops of brown hair, one longer and shaggier than the other, popped out of different stalls.  The shaggy head bore a quick smile for her, nodded and disappeared back into his stall.  The other, the one with the tightly shorn hair that almost wasn’t, didn’t look nearly so friendly. 
Jamie scowled as he saw who’d invaded what he considered his domain.  He leaned the pitchfork he’d been using against the opened stall door and wiped his hands crossly on his pants as he stepped out into the center aisle of the barn.
“What’re ya doin’ here?” he growled, as menacingly as he could when he could barely breath.
The pair of trousers she’d donned used to be white, at some point, so they shone bright even in the dim lights of the barn’s interior.  And it would be generous to say they fit her.  They were so tight he wasn’t sure how she could move in them.  He knew he could barely move without embarrassing himself, as his own trousers got tighter by the second just looking at the way she was dressed.  And that was before he started to consider the possibilities presented by all the tears and rips scattered up and down the legs.  There was a quite interesting one…..
“I came to help,” Julia said matter of factly, walking toward the tack room.  “Haven’t seen much of you around since I got back.  And, to be honest, I’ve missed being around the horses.  I got to help out some at the barns at school, but, being a lady and all,” she sneered slightly at the term lady, “they wouldn’t let me really dig in and help.  Kept telling me not to get my hands dirty and to go back to the kitchens, where I belonged.”
Jamie winced at the bitterness slicing through her words.  He could just imagine how that attitude had rankled her.
“Yeah, well, maybe they had a point,” he grunted in sudden inspiration.  If he could make her mad maybe she’d leave on her own and he could… relax.
Julia felt rage swell in her chest at the comment.  But, instead of railing at him the way her tongue demanded, she almost literally bit her lip, tightened one hand into a fist at her side, and… let it go.   Instead, she pasted a smile on her face.
“Are you trying to say I’m not capable of working with the horses?” she asked in dulcet tones, tones that held an undercurrent of threat in them, despite her best effort.
Jamie shrugged casually and slipped his hands into his pockets as he leaned against the wall.  Julia had to swallow hard to get past the sudden dry patch in her throat at the sight he presented, all lean, lanky and unperturbed.
“All I’m sayin’ is, this ain’t you no more.  You an’ those fancy, silk dresses of yers that go along with that high falutin’ degree.  You’ve got more important things to do than waste yer time, and mine, playin’ in the dirt with us nobodies.”
Julia took a determined step forward, forcing herself to look past the hurtful words and really listen to what he was saying.  She wanted to cry at the pain she saw then, but knew that wasn’t going to help her cause.  He didn’t want her pity.
“I can do anythin’ you can do,” she muttered through gritted teeth.  “Better than you!”
“Hah!” Jamie threw his head back and laughed, loud and long.  Finally he lowered his chin and met her gaze.  “You wouldn’t last out the mornin’.”
“I’m the same girl who used to beat you at cleanin’ out the stalls mornin’s, and then race ya down to the swimmin’ hole ta cool off after,” she bragged, unconsciously falling into the accent of her youth, instead of the cultured language of her education.
Jamie straightened and walked over to her, roughly grabbing her hands in his and turning them palm up.  He stared down at the silky soft, smooth skin, gently running one thumb back and forth across it, to verify it was just as unmarred as it appeared.  He snorted.
Holding up one hand between their faces, the other still clasped in his, he said, “You think you can keep up with me with this?  You’d be so blistered by noon you’d be crying.  You’ve gotten soft along with educated.  And that’s fine.  Fer you.  But it don’t do me no good, here in the barn.”  He suddenly dropped her hand and pushed at her shoulders, shoving her toward the barn door. “Now, git.”
Julia stumbled slightly, then let loose with the glare that had been trying to escape for awhile now.  “Who died and made you boss?” she growled.  “I did plenty of hard work at college.  If you think working in the hot kitchen in the middle of a sweltering Iowa summer is ‘soft’, you’ve got another think comin’.  Not ta mention all the long, hard hours I spent bent in half helpin’ tend an’ harvest the crops.  ‘Soft!’” she snorted back at him. 
“That wasn’t real farm work,” Jamie muttered, trying desperately to get her to leave him alone.  To just leave him, so he could stop fighting the urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her until neither one of them could breathe.  “That was just wimmen’s work, cookin’, tendin’ the garden.  You’d never be able ta keep up with real work.”
The sound of the slap rang through the barn, causing several horses to nicker and stick their heads over the stall doors to see what was going on.  Julia tried not to wince at the bright red handmark now standing out starkly on Jamie’s cheek.   But he’d deserved it.
“You better be glad yer Ma and Pa didn’t hear what ya just said,” she muttered through gritted teeth.  “Aunt Lou’d tear ya ta pieces and Uncle Kid’d bury what was left.”
Jamie tried not to quail under her diatribe, even though he knew she was right about how his parents would react.  He didn’t really believe the words he’d said.  He just figured they were his best chance of getting rid of her.
“Well, it ain’t goin’ ta work,” she continued, unconsciously voicing his next thought.  “I’m here ta work, and that’s what I’ll be doin’.  And make no mistake about it, I’ll keep up with you all day long!”
Turning her back on him, she didn’t wait for a response.  She marched over to the tack room and grabbed a pitchfork of her own.  Jamie grunted as she came back out and entered the next stall down from the one he’d been cleaning.  He leapt for the pitchfork he’d left leaning against the stall door.  The race was on and he had no intention of losing.
Julia winced as she tossed another pitchfork full of hay over the edge of the hayloft.  She’d spent the last hour racing Jamie through the remainder of the stalls, cleaning them out and laying new straw down on the floors.  She could feel a tightness in her shoulders that would be real pain tomorrow and, despite the gloves she’d carefully donned, she knew there would be blisters to testify to her labors today.
Her lips stretched into a taut grin of triumph at her next thought.  No matter how fast and hard Jamie had worked, she’d kept pace with him.  He stood below, panting slightly from his efforts, waiting for her to toss down the next bit of hay.  He’d given in and admitted she was helping.  But he still maintained she wouldn’t last out the day.  He should’ve known better than to toss down a challenge like that.
“You’re not quittin’ on me now, are ya?” he called up, slightly breathlessly.
“Naw,” she grinned mischievously down at him.  “Just waitin’ fer ya to catch yer breath.  Wouldn’t want to go leavin’ ya in my dust or anythin’.”
She could hear the growl that started to rumble in his chest at that comment, but gave him no time to properly respond.  The next pitchfork of hay landed right on top of him.  Most slid off and ended up scattered around his feet.  But there was plenty left sticking out of his hair, his ears, his shirt.  She couldn’t help laughing at the sight.
“You look like an indignant scarecrow,” she gasped out between giggles at the affronted look on his face.
Plop.  Another shovelful of manure landed in her wheelbarrow.  There.  She smugly patted the top of the pile of horse…. leavings…. to make sure it wouldn’t slip off the wheelbarrow and set her shovel aside. 
With only a slight twinge in her legs, she bent forward and grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow to start it on its way to the compost pile at the far end of the big pasture.  Picking up speed, she concentrated carefully on keeping the wheelbarrow properly balanced on its one wheel and never saw Jamie coming back from his last run to the compost pile.
The first hint she had of his presence was when she suddenly found herself airborne, her toes stinging from the hard as a rock foot they’d just stumbled over.  She landed with a loud Splat! as the load of manure she’d been transporting landed with her. 
Julia looked up in outrage at the loud guffaws emitting from the man she’d thought she loved.  The man who’d just deliberately tripped her and was now laughing at her…. mucky… state!
“Might wanta watch where yer goin’,” Jamie gasped out between rolls of laughter.  “You never know what might be in… yer…. way!”
“And  ya never know when ya might be hoist on yer on petard,” she muttered, sinking her fingers into the muck surrounding her and suddenly letting fly with a handful of glob.  She watched with satisfaction as it landed with a resounding thump right in the middle of his workshirt.
“Hey!  What did ya do that fer?”
Pushing herself to her feet, Julia glared at him.  “If ya have ta ask yer dumber than I thought.”
With all the dignity she could muster she grabbed the now slimy handles of the wheelbarrow and picked it up to head back to the barn. 
“Ya can clean up yer own mess,” she tossed over her shoulder at him as she left.
Julia glared at Jamie through her eyelashes as she used a mallet to pound the needle through a tough piece of leather.  Of all the chores on the ranch, she hated mending tack the most.  And Jamie damned well knew it. That’s why he’d said it was mending day.  Just to spite her.  It had nothing to do with the fact it was Tuesday.
She was a fair hand at sewing itself but simply didn’t have the strength to finesse the needle through the leather with just her hands.  Not like he could.  His hands were naught but muscle and sinew.  They flexed with each push and pull of the needle, setting the tendons into stark relief.  It was hard to imagine hands with such power in them could be so gentle.  But she’d seen it for herself, not so long ago, when they’d been grooming the horses.  He touched them with such care, caressed them almost.  She grew warm and flushed just at the memory of how his hands had molded to the muscles of the animal’s side and back as he brushed and curried them.  She’d desperately wished it had been her he’d been touching as the animal’s hide had shivered in a pleasure she very much wanted to feel for herself.
“Yer never gonna get done, ya sit there daydreamin’,” his brusque voice interrupted her thoughts.
She flushed madly to realize she’d gotten lost to the world while staring at his hands.  A quick glance at the piles of torn bridles, reins and saddles lying at their feet and she gulped.  While she’d been staring hopelessly at his hands, he’d finished repairing one bridle and started on another.  She hadn’t even finished her first project.  At this rate she’d never keep up with him.
Buck’s eyes narrowed as he watched two figures come out of the barn, one much shorter and slighter than the tall young man at her side.  What was Julia doing dressed in trousers? he wondered.  He didn’t question it was his second eldest daughter.  She’d spent enough time with her Aunt Lou he knew she wouldn’t think twice about wearing pants when the occasion called for it.  It just took him by surprise that she’d decided to put herself to work in the barns.  Then again, she’d do anything to spend time with Jamie. Always had.  He knew that.
Buck stiffened as the pair turned to the Breaking Corral as they called it.  That’s where they took the green yearlings and began to train them to saddle and bridle.  Given, they began putting a halter on the foals almost the day they were born and laying things over their backs, weighted according to what they could handle, shortly after that to get them ready for saddle and bridle training.  It was a much more effective method than green breaking them like they’d done back in the Express.  But it was still too dangerous for his daughter to be involved in.
A red rage began to cloud his eyes as he watched Jamie bring out one of the highest spirited young colts at the farm and tie it to the post at the center of the corral while Julia stepped up to the nervous animal’s head and began whispering to it.
How dare--
“Don’t worry,” Lou said softly, putting a restraining hand on Buck’s upper arm.  “He won’t let any harm come to her.”
Buck looked down at her and quirked one eyebrow in silent, sarcastic doubt.  Lou laughed lightly and patted his shoulder.
“He won’t.  He’d die first, no matter how he’s tryin’ ta hide it.  He’s got it bad.”
“Besides,” she continued, not letting him complete his protest, “Julia’s done this plenty.  She knows what she’s doing.”
“Like hell she has!” Buck practically exploded.  “I never let them near the breaking until they were 16.  By then she was off ta college.”
“Don’t fool yerself, Buck,” Lou smiled up at him as she began to lead her mount toward the barn to unsaddle it.  “All the children started breaking in the foals by the time they were ten.  Didn’t ya ever wonder why they spend so much time in the foaling barns?  Or why some of the yearlin’s seemed so easy ta train?  They are ours after all.”
Shaking her head in wonder at his self-delusion, Lou wandered off, while Buck’s eyes turned back to watch as Julia leaned slowly over the young equine’s back, letting it feel her entire weight.  The horse jumped slightly, whickered in concern and turned its head to look back at Julia, but once again calmed as she spoke to it.
Buck twitched with as many nerves as the young horse was exhibiting, but he refused to move or take his eyes off his daughter as she slowly inched her way into the saddle and began to teach the animal the meanings of the various signals of reins and knee and heel.
Leading the horse back to its stall, Julia began to reward its hard work that day with a gentle brushing, crooning a tuneless melody softly as she moved.  Jamie brought in a double ration of oats and grain for it and the horse relaxed completely, whickering softly and nuzzling her with its soft nose.
Exhaustion etched in every fiber of her being, she eventually stepped out of the stall and sighed as Jamie latched it behind her.
She didn’t say anything to him, too tired to try to trade barbs with him anymore.  Instead she began to slowly walk out of the barn toward the Big House, thoughts of a hot bath dancing in her head.
“I was wrong.”
“What?” she asked, surprised to hear his voice coming softly from so close behind her.   Turning her head, she found him standing mere inches from her back.
“I was wrong.  Ya can keep up with me,” he admitted quietly, reaching out to finger the strands of her silky hair that had come free of their confinement throughout the day’s labors.  “Better’n most.”
The words seemed to cause him some sort of pain, as if they were the last thing he wanted to, or expected to, say.  But being the honest man he was, he couldn’t lie to her.
She nodded and started to push the barn door open when the feel of his hands on her shoulders stopped her.  He pulled her slowly toward him, then reached down and tilted her chin up with one hand so that he was staring straight into her caramel brown eyes.
“Maybe ya ain’t changed so much after all,” he murmured as he leaned forward, never taking his eyes off of hers, right up until their lips met.  His eyes fluttered closed even as hers widened in surprise.  The light kiss brushed across nher lips and along her jawbone to end at the edge of her cheek and ear.  “Good night,” he whispered.  Then opened the barn door over her shoulder and pushed past her out into the chilled air of the gathering evening.
A cheek splitting grin, very reminiscent of her father’s, ate up her face as she walked away.  Maybe today had been worth it after all, she thought to herself.
“Pleased with yerself?”
Julia turned her head to the side to see her Pa leaning against the far corner of the barn, arms crossed over his chest, a gently teasing light in his eyes.
“We’ll see,” she muttered, turning away from him and blushing.
Buck chuckled as he walked up to her and grabbed her hands. 
“How long’ve you been breaking horses?” he asked in a determined voice.
Glad for the change in topic, she looked up at him slyly through her eyelashes, trying to keep a look of innocence on her face.
“Why do you ask?”
“Cause as yer Aunt Lou so astutely pointed out to me, you knew what the hell you were doin’ out there taday,” he muttered, scowling slightly.
“Awhile,” she shrugged, trying to pull away from him.  Buck tightened his hold on her hands, determined not to let her escape until she answered his question.  The pressure pushed on one of the blisters she’d developed and she gasped in pain.
“What?!” Buck asked, moving quickly from gentle disciplinarian to concerned parent.  Turning her hands over, he grinned slightly.  “You weren’t goin’ ta say nothin’ to him, were ya?”
Julia again shrugged in answer and this time he let her go when she pulled away from him.  Buck shook his head as she started to walk toward the house.

“Better have yer Ma tend them hands, missy,” he called after her.  “’Specially if ya plan ta be back at it tomorrow.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Courtship of Jamie McCloud, chapter 7

Chapter 7
Jamie looked down at the list in his hands, double checking to make sure he had everything on it they’d need out at the ranch for the next week.  Coming in to Tompkins’ store for supplies, even though the old man had retired and turned the business over to his son a few years ago, was never Jamie’s favorite activity.  Alfred Tompkins may have had his mother’s height and muscular build, but there was no doubt he was his father’s son, through and through.  A more irascible, grumpy, curmudgeonly, skinflint couldn’t be found this side of the Mississippi.
His eyes stopped as he checked the list against the prices written in a skillful hand on the chalkboard behind the counter.  Ouch.  The price of potatoes had gone up again.  Maybe he should drop them from the list.  They could survive without spuds for a few weeks, give Tompkins’ time to re-think his price hike. Besides, Jamie thought grimly to himself, he didn’t feel the need to provide Abe with any of his favored foods.  No reason to make the damned interloper feel any more at home than he obviously already did.  No telling how long he was going to stick around, anyway.  A little discomfort might make him move on that little bit faster.
The tinkling of the bell over the door at the front of the store drew his attention.  He turned and watched as Julia and her sisters, Rose and Victoria, wandered into the mercantile, chattering and laughing like a flock of magpies.
A smile softened the potentially harsh planes of his face as his eyes caressed hers gently.  He hadn’t seen her, deliberately, in a couple of days and he’d missed the sight.  But just the thought of her with her college ‘friend’ was more than he could handle.  He’d have lost it if he’d had to watch them together, too.  Much like Tompkins, he’d inherited his father’s temper, complete with explosive anger and, apparently, extremes of jealousy.
“Hm hmmm.” 
Jamie flushed at the sound of Tompkins clearing his throat from behind the counter and quickly turned back to face the storekeeper. 
“Is that it?” Tompkins asked acerbically.
Another quick glance down at the paper in his hand and Jamie nodded. They wouldn’t be needing any potatoes for a couple weeks, at least.
“Just put it on our bill,” Jamie said.  “We’ll pay up, end of the month, as always.”
Tompkins barely spared him a glance as he rapidly calculated the total in his head, his pencil waving aimlessly in the air as he did so, then wrote it down in a big, black ledger he’d pulled out from under the counter.  Looking up, he nodded to a young boy stocking a nearby shelf. 
“Hollis there’ll load this up in your wagon,” he said.
Jamie nodded and turned, the chatter of the three Cross girls still ringing in his ears. He started to walk toward them, thinking to maybe catch Julia alone for a moment.  But he checked his motion when he saw Abe walk around the corner of the aisle behind them and hold something out to Julia, who looked down at it and blushed through a laughing smile.
Feeling his stomach sink to his toes, Jamie turned and walked down the next aisle, straight toward the door, as fast as he could.  In his hurry he never saw Rose’s glance in his direction or the hurried, whispered conversation that followed.  Nor did he see the stricken look on Julia’s face as the door closed firmly behind him.
Julia had truly enjoyed the last couple of days with Abe visiting.  It had almost been like having the carefree days of her college years back again, a time when she didn’t have to worry with every word, every action that her entire future, her every chance at happiness was at stake.  She’d be sorry to see him go.  But there’d been a cloud hanging over her the entire time.  Jamie hadn’t looked at her twice since Sunday dinner.  And any time she came into a room, he left it immediately.    She couldn’t figure out what she’d done, again, to make him turn away.
“Look, he’s here,” Victoria crowed.  She pushed her sister gently, teasingly on the shoulder.  “You should go pin him down before he can escape.”
Julia hid her pain and laughed at her sister’s joke. 
“Miss Julia?”
Abe’s deep baritone interrupted her morose thoughts and she turned to him with a welcoming smile, glad for the reprieve.
“There you are,” she greeted him.  “All ready?  The stage should be here any minute.”
Abe nodded and pulled one hand out from behind his back.  “Almost.  I just wanted to give you a small token of my appreciation, for your hospitality these last few days, and your friendship these last few years.  You have no idea what they’ve meant to me.”
He stared deeply into her eyes, almost urgently, as he spoke.  She fought the urge to squirm away from his penetrating gaze.  To escape, she lowered her head and looked at the small, gaily wrapped package he was handing her.  It was obviously a bottle of the expensive Wright Florida Water perfume Tompkins kept stocked, but rarely sold.
Julia blushed a deep red as she realized not only just how much Abe had spent on a gift for her, but that she didn’t have anything for him.
“I.. I… I don’t know what to say,” she stuttered, flabbergasted.
“You could start with ‘Thank you’,” he suggested, smiling down at her.
“But… I wasn’t expecting anything…. I don’t have….”
He reached out and pressed his fingers against her lips, stopping the words she was too embarrassed to vocalize.
“Don’t,” he said softly.  “I got this for you because I wanted to, not in expectation of anything in return.  And, of course, you weren’t expecting anything.  If you had been, you wouldn’t be the woman who stood by my side all those years at school.  Now, why don’t you let her out and we’ll say our goodbyes,” he finished.
Julia had to laugh.  For a man who’d been born a slave, he sure had a courtly manner about him.  Nodding, she said, “Alright, then.  Thank you.”
He grinned down at her, his teeth flashing white in his dark face, as he held out a crooked arm for her to take.  She smiled as she slipped her hand into his elbow.  But her smile faltered as she heard her sisters whispering behind her almost at the same time she caught a glimpse of Jamie disappearing out the front door.  Damn it, she groaned inside.  How was she supposed to court him when he wouldn’t stand still long enough for her to do any courting?
She remained distracted, only half-heartedly responding to Abe’s comments as he led her and her sisters out to the stage stop.  Her good-bye was a mere formality as she continued to scan the street and boardwalk for any sign of Jamie.  But, he was nowhere to be seen.
“Don’t worry,” Abe whispered to her, seconds before boarding the stage.  “It’ll all work out.  You’ll see.”
She never heard his encouragement as she patted him on the shoulder and stepped back so he could climb into the waiting carriage.  She was too busy wondering what she’d done to scare Jamie off, again.  And how to fix things, if she even could.
Julia remained distracted and downcast on the trip back to the ranch, unable to join her sisters in their joyous, carefree chatter.  She was too busy wondering what was going on with Jamie.  She had caught another fleeting glimpse of him as the stagecoach was pulling out.  He’d been standing by the door to the saloon, his eyes fixed on her.  But as soon as she’d looked in his direction, he’d pulled his hat down to shade his eyes and turned his back on her, entering the saloon.  It was such a deliberate gesture of dismissal she couldn’t help but be hurt.
“You coming?”
“What?!” Julia asked, startled out of her reverie by her sister’s acerbic question.  She looked around her, confused, and realized they’d arrived back at the ranch already.  A couple of the younger boys were busy unhitching the horses from the buckboard.
“Are… you…. coming?” Victoria asked in a slow, distinct tone.  Then she gestured up at the Big House.  “Inside?  Or are you just going to sit here all day?”
“Uh… I think I’m going to take a ride,” Julia muttered, climbing down off the buckboard and heading in the opposite direction, toward one of the barns, with a determined stride. 
It took only a few minutes to saddle up her favorite mount in the dark confines of the stables.  She mounted inside and rode her horse flying out of the barn as if a ravenous horde of wolves bayed at her heels.
Once away from the ranch compound, she let the horse have its head and tried to lose herself in the pounding rhythm of its hooves as it galloped across the prairie. 
The sound of pounding hooves in the distance distracted Carl from his contemplation of his various aches and pains.  He was pretty sure his dad had broken his nose.  He couldn’t remember if this was the fourth or the fifth time.  Not that the count really mattered.  The pain made him irritable and cranky, to say the least.
Curiously, he searched the horizon, wondering who would come flying through this desolate part of the back country so fast and hard.  It was the far edge of his father’s property, the worst land in the county for trying to grow anything on.   He was loitering by a lonely stand of trees, huddling against them to avoid the sharp prairie winds that sliced straight through his thin winter coat.  It was too small and almost too old to really do him any good, but it was all he had.  And no way would he take his hat in hand and go begging for someone’s leftovers at the church. 
Eventually he saw the small form atop a prime beast top a ridge to the west.  By the obvious quality of the animal alone he could tell the rider had come from the Hotheads & Misfits Ranch.  And what sort of a name was that for a ranch anyway, he wondered sarcastically. The long tail of dark hair flying out behind the rider made it clear she was a woman.  And she was too tall to be the Marshal, which meant it had to be one of the older Cross girls.
His eyes narrowed as he realized that and he watched her more intently.  Soon the horse slowed from its all out gallop to a cantor, a trot and, eventually, a meandering walk.  As it passed closest to him he was finally able to make out the rider’s features enough to identify her as Julia.
Just thinking her name, watching the way she moved, almost unconsciously, in sync with her horse, made him break out in a cold sweat. His heart began to pick up speed, beating faster and faster, until he could barely breathe.  He couldn’t take his eyes off her as she crossed the prairie.  When she was about to disappear over the horizon he didn’t think twice, just turned to his old, broken down nag of a mount and clambered up onto the gelding’s back.  He kicked it viciously in the sides to get it moving, following Julia’s path like a panther trailing its prey.
Julia had let the horse have its head, racing across the prairie at top speed for awhile, trying to lose herself in the moment, to forget the thousands of little self-doubts that kept stabbing at her, slicing away at her confidence, leaving behind just gaping, bleeding wounds, whenever she thought about Jamie.
When she realized her horse was tiring, she pulled back on the reins, slowing it down until eventually the duo was wandering almost aimlessly across the prairie as she continued her reverie.
A sudden lack of motion pulled her back to reality.  Looking around she realized the horse had instinctually carried her to the swimming hole.  Now it had stopped at the edge of the water and was taking a long, deep drink.
Sighing, Julia dismounted.  This was as good a place to think as any, she figured as she tied the horse’s reins around a low hanging tree branch and found herself a sheltered spot to sit down and rest a bit.
When Julia hadn’t exited the wooded area around the local swimming hole by the time Carl arrived, he stopped his horse and dismounted.  The weary, beleaguered animal snorted in relief and immediately began snuffling around in the grass at its feet.  Carl didn’t bother to tie the animal in place. It wasn’t going to go anywhere without a little… encouragement… anyways.
Pushing his battered grey hat more tightly down on his head, he ducked beneath the tree branches and began to stealthily sneak toward the swimming hole itself.
It didn’t take him long to find her.  There was one particular spot, where they’d all liked to gather as children and swing by a rope, yelling and squealing in holy terror and glee, out over the water before letting go to splash down into the cool depths.  Even in winter it was a nice spot to sit and think, just the right amount of sun, sheltered from the wind, with a couple of fallen trees that made perfect benches for sitting on. And that’s precisely where she was, staring out into nothing, her cheek cradled in one hand, the elbow of that arm braced on her knee as she sat slightly hunched over.
Carl paused to just drink in the sight of her.  She’d always been like a siren call to him.  He didn’t know if it was his father’s opposition, well… hate, really, or her own decidedly sweet nature that drew him.  She was nice to everyone, even the grubby little boy who didn’t have enough in his lunch pail to keep his stomach from growling halfway through the afternoon.  He’d started to fall in love with her the first time she’d given him half her lunch, claiming she didn’t feel well but didn’t want her ma to find out ‘cause she’d fuss and make her stay home from school.  She’d said he’d be doing her a favor if he could finish it off for her.  He’d finished the fall the next day when she’d shown up with a lunch twice its normal size and ‘accidentally’ left half of it behind for him to ‘find.’
He’d shown her in every way he knew how he’d felt.  He’d bossed her around, pulled her pigtails, pushed her anytime he was near.  But she’s always been so caught up in that damned McCloud boy she’d never taken notice.  Of course, as he’d gotten older his tactics had changed, but the results hadn’t.  Jealousy took hold and he’d started to let his father’s attitudes color his own actions.  But, even then, it was like she never noticed.  And that frustrated him more than anything.  Didn’t matter what he did, she never noticed.  Well, maybe she’d notice now.  He’d developed into a burly, grown man while she’d been off at her fancy school.  He could make her notice him now.
Carl started to step forward, intent on pushing his way through the last of the shrubbery and into the clearing, when he heard another horse coming.  A sudden fear clutched at his gut and he slid noiselessly back into his hidey hole.
Lou smiled gently as she pushed her way past the last branches between her and Julia.  Her position was so reminiscent of the same one she was wont to find Jamie in when he was thinking things over.  It just underscored how much these two were meant for each other.
Julia never moved or took any notice of Lou’s approach, even as the older woman sat down on the fallen tree next to her.  The two sat side by side for several moments, Lou occasionally smoothing her skirts or hair in her perpetually restless inability to sit completely still.
“So, you done mopin’ and ready ta start chasin’?” Lou asked after what she considered a decent waiting period.
“Wha?!” A startled Julia couldn’t even complete a simple word in her shock.  Her mouth worked for a moment, but no sounds issued forth.  Then, “What?  How?  Where?”
“It’s my job, girl,” Lou laughed.  “And you were a… touch distracted.”
Julia nodded and turned back to ponder the empty, half frozen-over swimming hole.
“You ready to talk about it, child?”
Julia shrugged.  “What’s there to say?  I’ve failed.  And I haven’t the faintest idea why.”
“Oh, honey,” Lou smiled gently, wrapping an arm around the younger woman’s shoulders.  “You’ve just begun to fight.”
Julia straightened in sudden interest, frantically wiping the errant tears that had silently sparkled across her cheeks.
“What.. what do you mean?” she asked, her voice full of fearful hope.
“Is Jamie married to anyone?”
“Nooooo,” Julia answered, dragging the word out in confusion.
“Then it ain’t too late,” Lou smiled confidently.
Julia’s shoulders slumped in defeat.  “Don’t matter if I can’t catch him to court him.  He’s avoiding me like I’m a leper or something.”
“Now you never had trouble finding ways to spend time with him before,’ Lou said, hiding her grin. “I’d hazard a bet you can figure out where he’s hiding.  If you really want to.”
“But… if he’s avoiding me…..”
“My dear, I doubt he really knows what he wants at this time,” Lou reassured her.  “And the last thing you should do is try to change yourself to be what you think he wants.  Just…be yourself and spend time with him.  Everything else will work itself out.”
Julia just looked at Lou in bewilderment.
“Darlin’, you’ve been acting all fancified since you got back.  I know you spent a lot of years learning how to act proper at school, but that can be a bit off putting to folks that ain’t had the same trainin’. Like Jamie.”
Julia blanched. 
“But… but… I did it for him!” she wailed.
Lou patted her soothingly on the shoulder.  “I know dear.  The thing is, I’ve learned in my life one should only ever change oneself for oneself.”
Julia looked at her blankly, clearly confused.  Lou sighed.
“Shortly after Kid and I got married, before we left for the War,” Lou started to explain, “I got it into my head that I had to be the perfect wife, the perfect woman.  By the rest of the town’s standards.  Not mine or his.  I made us both miserable.  I hated wearing skirts even while riding or doing barn chores.  I never much liked cooking and it just got worse the harder I tried.  We were both miserable.  Until one day he told me to just relax, do what I want and be myself.  He’d married me, not some woman from town.”
Lou stopped speaking and just looked at Julia in expectation.
“You mean…. there’s still a chance,” Julia stated in hushed hope.
Lou smiled and nodded. “He’s loved you for most of his life,” she said, hugging the girl closer to her once more.  “I don’t see that changing.  As long as you stay you.”
Every word out of the Marshal’s mouth was like an arrow, piercing straight through Carl’s heart. And each time Julia said Jamie’s name, the bleeding wound turned a little bit more to stone as it reminded him of all the times she’d put Jamie before anyone or anything else as they’d all been growing up.
He didn’t hear the quiet growl that crept up from his belly through his throat and out of his mouth, but he could feel the hot, pulsing anger that created it taking him over.  And this time, he let it spread because, despite the burns it left behind, that was still less painful than the rips she’d torn in his heart.
His Pa had been right.  She was nothin’ but a red whore, he thought viciously as his face twisted in a sudden surge of hate. 
He knew he couldn’t take the Marshal, so he’d bide his time.  But he’d get his satisfaction off the injun gal for leading him on like that all those years and then walking away while he was still hurting, still wanting.  He’d get his satisfaction in more ways than one.
“Of course, you can’t do any courtin’, when yer all the way out here and he’s back at the ranch,” Lou smiled, urging Julia to her feet.  “What say we start headin’ back?”
As they walked toward their horses Julia was obviously still thinking over what Lou had told her, not even really watching where she was going.
The older woman smiled and decided to offer one more piece of encouragement.
“You know,” she said offhandedly as they mounted up, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jamie as jealous as he was when Abe arrived.  The boy could barely touch his food.  And you know nothin’ puts that child off feedin’ time!”  She laughed as she spurred her horse into a cantor, Julia following behind, eagerly eating up her words.  “It’s either Love or the Pox, is all I gotta say.”
There’s a difference? Julia thought wryly to herself.  It sure didn’t feel like it.  But she couldn’t help laughing, her hope in the future of her dreams restored.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Decision

Kid watched Lou’s face across the fire, as the flickering light of the flames highlighted the sometimes stark planes of her face.  She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she was the epitome of beauty to him.  Sometimes it made him ache to watch her, but, like a moth drawn to the flame, he couldn’t seem to help himself.
He’d missed her so much for so long, he was afraid to make the wrong move now.  So instead he waited and bided his time, letting her dictate the pace of their relationship now.  Fast or slow, it was all up to her.  He didn’t like the out of control feeling that gave him, but it was better than being without her.
And they had been getting closer again lately, since the move to Rock Creek.  It hadn’t been smooth, but since when had things ever been smooth between them?  He chuffed in quiet laughter at the thought.  He had high hopes that this time, once he voiced them, his intentions would not be spurned.
She smiled and chattered about something she’d seen back in town while they were delivering their special package.  Her slender hands flashed in the firelight.  Kid smiled at her delight, having no idea what she’d just said, but delighted by her joy in it.
Lou knew Kid was not really paying attention to what she was saying.  But the upward curve of his full lips and the amused glint in his eyes more than made up for his inattention.  He’d been so somber lately.  It had started with Ike’s death, then gotten worse with Garth’s and then Doritha’s.  She worried about him so.  That’s why she was going out of her way to be entertaining tonight.  Using her hands to elaborate on the incredibly awful dimensions of the woman’s hat, she continued her story with exaggerated reactions.
A slight turn of the hand, a flip of a finger and suddenly they weren’t Lou’s hands he was watching anymore, but his lost brother’s, Ike’s.  Kid felt the stab of loss deep inside, ripping and tearing at him like a clawed, wild animal desperate to escape.
He’d first really noticed it when Ike died.  But it had really started when Jed passed.  And Garth’s and Doritha’s loss had turned it in to the ravening beast it now was.  Fear.  A fear he’d never faced before.  A fear he didn’t know how to face.  Fear that his very presence, his love, was what was ringing the death knell for those about whom he cared the most.
Lou saw the shadows return and knew she’d lost the battle, for the moment, against the memories.  She didn’t know everything that was bothering Kid, as always he was too stubborn to talk about his problems until they became an emergency.  But she could guess.  Generally, she’d learned to give him time and space to think things through, much as he was learning to let her take her own risks and just be there to catch her if, when, she fell.  But sometimes, sometimes she just couldn’t.
“Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout?” she asked, stopping her story in mid-sentence.
“Hunh,”  he grunted in startled response.
She forced a slight laugh.  “You didn’t hear a word I said.  I was just wonderin’ what was so much more interestin’.”
“Nothin’ much,” he muttered, tossing the remnants of his coffee into the fire’s heat.  The droplets sizzled and disappeared in seconds.  “I’m tired.  Think I’ll turn in.”
She watched as he turned to the saddle he’d been leaning against and pulled out his bedroll, intently avoiding her eyes as he worked.  This wouldn’t do, not at all, she thought.  But she wasn’t sure what else to try.  Closing her eyes, she thought back to all of the worst moments in her life and what had brought her up out of the depths of hell.  Suddenly she knew exactly what she could offer Kid, a comfort no one but her could offer.  If he felt anything near what she did.
She didn’t say anything, just set aside her own plate and cup, then stood up and walked around the campfire to drop back down on the ground right next to Kid.  Without giving him time to react or even think, she wrapped her arms around his neck and began to feather light kisses up his  neck, across his jaw to his mouth. 
At first he stiffened in surprise, but she could feel his heartbeat speeding up with each new touch of her lips to his suddenly flushed skin.  She smiled into the curve of his neck as his arms slowly wound themselves around her waist.  By the time her mouth found his, he was panting slightly and crushing her against his chest, his lips eagerly, desperately seeking hers.  And she could taste the salt of his tears as they ran freely, finally, down his face. 
What had begun as a tender moment of comfort quickly took on the proportions of a blazing inferno as they feverishly and frantically fed the fire that both had kept banked for months.  The flames of desire licking higher and hotter than they ever had before, accompanied by a desperate need to assure one another that neither would disappear within the next blink of an eye.
The duo by the fire took comfort in the fierceness with which each sought the other, their loving rough and tumble, much like their lives, but full of a tenderness that tried to heal the wounds left by an uncaring world.
Kid lay back on his bedroll, staring up at the bright stars in the dark night sky.  His clothes and Lou’s added an extra layer of padding beneath them.  Lou’s cheek rested against his chest, her slow, even breaths gently ruffling across his skin.
He knew soon the chill of the fall night air would begin to seep through the heat their desire had fueled in their bodies.  When it did, he’d disturb her long enough to grab her bedroll for a blanket.  For the moment, though, he didn’t have the strength to move.  He wished he could stay like this forever.
Kid wrapped his arms more tightly around the slender body cuddled up to his and gently kissed the top of her head.  He’d been considering taking the next step with Lou for some time now, but his own fears had stopped him.  This hadn’t been exactly what he’d planned on either, not that he hadn’t enjoyed it.
But he was tired of having to hide how he felt about her when in public, tired of having to help hide her.  She was his bright and shining star and he wanted the rest of the world to know it.  He smiled slightly as he rolled onto his side and tucked her into the curve of his body while pulling her bedroll toward them.  She muttered slightly in discontent as the cold air touched skin that had been heated by contact with him.  But then she settled down with a little moue of contentment, much like a kitten’s half-purr, as he wrapped them in her blankets.
Reaching down, he gently brushed the curls out of her face, glad she’d begun to let her hair grow out.
Yes, he decided.  It was time to ask her to give up her disguise and come out into the open, as his wife.  He just hoped and prayed that this time she was ready to say yes.  If she weren’t though, he’d keep on asking.  The best things in life didn’t come easy.  He’d learned that the hard way, given up on her, on them, once.  He didn't ever want to do that again..  She was the very best thing of all.