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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.