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.
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.
“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.”