“Why don’t you go get the training bridles,” Jamie suggested. “I think this guy is ready to hit the trails. And I know some of the others could use some exercise, too.”
Julia nodded. Over the last few days, she and Jamie had fallen into an old, familiar rhythm, working and playing together as if little had changed over the last few years. Once again he was the playful, caring man she’d grown up loving.
“Be right back,” she smiled at him. They’d said nothing about the future, but she could tell this courtship was headed in the right direction, finally. And she was looking forward to spending some time alone with her young man.
Her hopes crashed when she returned with the bridles to find not only Jamie, who smiled a bit abashedly and shrugged, but also her brother Harry standing by with three horses ready to be saddled.
“Heard you were going to exercise some horses,” Harry grinned unrepentantly at her. “Mine could use a stretch of the legs, too.”
Julia pressed her mouth into a straight line and moved to begin saddling the horses without a comment. As the trio moved in a well practiced dance around the animals, settling saddle blankets, saddles and bridles into place and tightening straps and buckles, Jamie sidled up to her and whispered, “Sorry. I tried to tell him no.”
Julia smiled at Jamie flirtatiously. “There’s no tellin’ my brother, ‘No’, when he’s of a mind to be obnoxious and irritating. Just ignore him.”
She deliberately raised her voice at the end so Harry could hear her. Leaping onto the back of her young mount, she grinned wickedly at the two young men mounting behind her.
“Catch me if you can!”
“I don’t know why your young man didn’t pick up potatoes the last time he was in town,” Dawn Star muttered as she rifled through the contents of the pantry. “I know I put them on the list.”
“Don’t worry, Ma,” Julia smiled as she stepped back from the irritated woman. “I’ll just run into town and get them. It’s no big deal.”
“It is too a big deal,” Dawn Star continued to mutter. “This place relies on all of us doing our part. Always has. Now someone’s picking and choosing what to do and what not to do? It just isn’t right.”
“I’m sure it was just an oversight, Mama,” Julia smiled, knowing there was no talking her occasionally irascible mother out of her mad at the moment. “I’ll just go hitch up the buckboard and get them now. I’ll have them back in plenty of time for you to begin preparations for Sunday dinner.”
“And what would’ve happened if I hadn’t decided to check supplies today instead of tomorrow morning?”
Julia shook her head in fondness as she walked away, her mother’s voice trailing down the hall after her, still muttering in annoyance.
“Where ya goin? There’s chores ta do.”
Julia looked up from the rig as she finished tightening the last strap tying the matched pair of chestnut geldings to the buckboard and smiled up into Jamie’s face.
“Seems someone forgot to get spuds last time he was in town, so I’m savin’ him from my mother’s wrath.”
There was a long pause as Jamie contemplated how to answer. Finally he offered up a half apologetic, “Oops?”
“Yeah well, that oops’ll get ya kicked out of Sunday dinner next week.”
“Heaven forbid!” Jamie laughed as he helped Julia up onto the seat of the rig. Then, in sudden inspiration, “Listen, it was my error, why don’t I come along?”
Julia blushed a becoming shade of pink as she realized he was angling for some time alone with her. They’d been getting along better and better over the last week, as she’d helped him with chores every day. They’d even started talking again. Really talking, not just trading insults and caustic barbs. But they’d rarely been alone after that first day. There always seemed to be someone nearby, one of their parents, a sibling, a hired hand, a visitor. But they would be alone for the duration of the ride into town and back. All…. alone. Her lips burned in remembrance of what had happened the last time they’d been…. alone.
“Uh, sure,” she answered belatedly, scooting over to make room for him but unable to meet his eyes in a sudden bout of inexplicable shyness. He clambered up into the rig and gathered the reins, clucking to the horses as he shook the lines in his hands, urging the pair into a lurching start that had them flying down the ranch road toward town before anyone had the chance to realize what the two sitting on the buckboard’s seat were up to.
The triumphant look on Jamie’s face when they turned onto the main road to town and realized they’d gained no followers nor hangers-on startled a giggle out of her.
“That’s better,” he smiled at her, winking. “How’s a fella s’posed ta court a gal if he can’t spend no time alone with her?”
“Oh, is that what we’re doing?” Julia smiled, still laughing slightly to lessen the import of his words, neither one had yet spoken of formal intentions. “I thought I was saving you from starvation by running into town to buy the potatoes you forgot.”
“No need to rub my nose in it,” he muttered, looking away.
She wondered what he was hiding but never got the chance to ask as he turned back to her and said, “Hey, maybe if we get the spuds fast enough we could sneak back in, grab a couple of mounts and…. erm… exercise them a bit. You know… out on the prairie… with no little brothers hangin’ around?”
“What’s the matter?” she asked innocently. “I thought you liked my brothers.”
Carl whistled beneath his breath as he sauntered down the boardwalk. It was a good day. His pa had let him be the last several days and his cuts and bruises had healed over enough he’d felt alright to come to town. And, he’d made a good deal at the livery, selling several items of worked leather goods to the ostler there for a tidy profit. He’d gotten enough that he could be sure his ma had plenty to eat for the next couple of weeks, and maybe even a bit extra to spend on himself, if he lied to his pa about what he’d gotten. Luckily he was an old hand at that.
“Jamie, stop that!”
Carl stumbled over his own feet at the sound of her voice. Turning, he saw her laughing up into the McCloud boy’s face, his hands resting around her waist as she tried to disentangle them both from her skirts and he did his best to make sure they remained tied together.
The smile fled Carl’s face as anger chased it away, leaving only a snarl in its place. Bad enough she spurned him, but to flaunt her whorish ways here? In front of the entire town? Just went to show you could never truly civilize a wild Indian.
“James Hunter McCloud, we don’t have time for this,” she admonished in laughing tones, jerking herself away from him to step down the boardwalk toward Carl. Jamie leapt eagerly after her, barely remembering to wrap the reins of the buckboard around the hitching post before he chased her down.
With a smile, she gracefully wove her hand around his elbow and continued on her way.
“Well, well, well,” Carl drawled, stepping in front of the duo, breaking into their laughing conversation. “Looks like the apple don’t fall far from the tree.”
“Leave her alone, Carl,” Jamie immediately stepped up, pushing the other, taller man back.
At the same time, Julia smiled at her old classmate. “Hello, Carl. Nice to see you.”
“I’m talkin’ ta her, not you,” Carl rasped, pushing Jamie back. “I kin see yer just like yer father,” he added, leering down at Julia.
She frowned, disconcerted by his tone and confused by his words.
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, I’ve heard the stories… about how yer Pa got run out of the last town he was in fer sniffing after some white banker’s daughter. Disappears fer a few years then reappears with not one, but two injun gals fer wives?” Carl rudely scanned Julia’s appearance from head to toe, pausing for a long moment at her bustline. “Ya may dress like a white woman, but yer already showin’ yer red roots, the way yer pantin’ after Jamie here. Gotta say, if yer anythin’ like yer Pa, it’s gonna take more’n him ta satisfy ya.” He stepped closer, reaching out to wrap a hand around her waist and pull her flush against his chest. “That’s alright, darlin’. I don’t mind sharin’.”
“Carl! Let me go this instant!” Julia hissed, slapping his face as he lowered it toward her neck.
“Mmmm, you got spirit,” he murmured. “I kin just imagine--”
The meaty sound of a fist impacting on skin interrupted his next insult, sending him flying back off the edge of the boardwalk to land on his back in the dust of the unpaved street.
“What was that fer?!” an indignant Carl blustered, rubbing his already bruising jaw as he stood up and began to dust himself off with his hat. “It weren’t like I was tryin’ ta steal her or nothin’. I just offered ta help her…. scratch an itch. Ya know… share what she was already obviously givin’ away fer free.”
“Jamie, no!” Julia cried, putting herself in front of the now furious man she’d arrived with. “He’s not worth it.”
“I’ll kill him fer talkin’ ‘bout you that way!” Jamie gritted out through his teeth, even as he picked her up and set her behind him so he could turn and jump off the edge of the boardwalk onto the road in front of Carl. “You ain’t got no call ta talk ta a proper lady like that! A lady what’s always been nice ta ya, no less!”
Carl sneered. “Her, a lady? Ya gotta be joshin’ me. Ain’t no injun whore ever gonna be a lady, proper er otherwise.”
Jamie responded with another punishing right hook to Carl’s jaw. Carl responded with a growl and a running headbutt into Jamie’s stomach, pushing the slightly shorter yet burlier man into the edge of the boardwalk.
He swung wildly, intending to begin pounding Jamie’s face into mud, but a strong, slender hand caught his fist and the cold steel of a pistol pressed into his neck.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” a steely soprano said.
Carl slowly straightened, slightly hampered by the fact the Marshal wouldn’t let go of his fisted hand and kept her six gun cocked and aimed at his chest the entire time. He towered over her, yet felt completely overwhelmed by her presence.
“Yer part of what’s wrong with this town,” he snarled down at her. “Prancin’ ‘round in pants and wearing a gun and a badge, stead of stayin’ home and takin’ care of yer family like ya ought. Ya ain’t no better than that red whore over there moonin’ over yer son. It’s no wonder he carries yer name and not his Pa’s. Maybe ya ain’t so sure he really is his Pa. I heard ya named him after one of the other men ya shared a bunkhouse with back then. Or was he some Johnny Reb’s bastard?”
Lou didn’t rise to his taunts. In a calm voice she simply said, “You don’t like the way I run this town, ya got every right ta leave it. But so long’s the people here an’ the governor in Omaha want me here, this is my town. And I’ll run it the way I see fit. That means no fightin’ in the streets, no insultin’ ladies and a night behind bars if ya cain’t handle the rules.”
“Ya know,” Carl mused, ignoring her as best he could, “I gotta wonder if that middle boy of yer’s isn’t the Indian’s get. He’s got some awful dark hair and eyes. And yer sure protective of them redskins, ain’t ya? Indian lover!”
“So what if I call Indians and Negroes my friends? My family? It’s better than bein’ a bully, which is all yer Pa’s raised ya ta be,” she responded acerbically. “Now, ya got a choice. I kin either let ya go, ya go get yer Pa, -- I happen ta know he’s over in the White Horse Saloon -- and leave town. Or I kin escort ya over ta my office and lock ya up until ya can act like a civilized human bein’, which might be ‘til the next century comes round the way yer actin’. It’s yer choice, son.”
Yer part of what’s wrong with this town…
Ya may dress like a white woman, but yer already showin’ yer red roots…
Ain’t no injun whore ever gonna be a lady, proper er otherwise.
Carl’s words swirled through Julia’s mind, over and over again, as Jamie drove them back to the ranch. Each word lashed out at her, hitting with an impact that left behind a bruise so deep it couldn’t be seen, but that she couldn’t move without feeling. Was he right? She’d certainly proven in the last week that, despite the degree she’d earned, the education she’d gotten, she hadn’t really changed. Was she still unworthy? Maybe she never would be.
And feeling the anger still radiating off of Jamie in waves, she couldn’t help but wonder how much of it was aimed at her. A quick glance in his direction out of the corner of her eye confirmed her earlier analysis. He was already developing quite a shiner thanks to the altercation with Carl. Although Carl had definitely come out the worse for wear from the meeting. That gave her some satisfaction. But, could she handle being responsible for Jamie being hurt this way? Being treated as an outcast the rest of his life? The ranch was his life’s blood. He couldn’t leave it behind. She could never ask him to do that. But she’d never be more than that Indian gal, at best, in this town. That’s why her elder sister had married a Cheyenne warrior and gone to live on the reservation with him. At least there she was accepted. Here? Here she was a pariah. And always would be.
The buckboard jerked to a stop in front of the Big House and Julia didn’t wait for Jamie to come around and help her out. She quickly climbed down on her own.
“Come on inside and I’ll get you something for that eye,” she said, never looking up to meet his pained eyes.
“Julia…” he started to say, but she didn’t wait for him to speak, just walked quickly inside to the backroom where her pa kept all his medicines. With a sigh, he followed her. He could tell The Incident in town had seriously upset her.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to the elevated bench set against one wall as she scanned the jars of medicines, salves and powders his Uncle Buck kept ready for any and all emergencies. Finally, she pushed herself up on her tiptoes and grabbed a jar of salve from one of the higher shelves. Opening it, she turned and marched across the room to his side.
Without ever speaking, she tenderly washed his face, getting all the dirt and dust from the fight and the drive home off the cuts and scrapes marring his tanned skin. Then she generously spread the salve on his face. He winced as the moisture discovered a couple of cuts in the skin he hadn’t yet been aware of. But then it began to gently sooth and numb the throbbing pain from the injury.
There were so many things Jamie wanted to say to her right now, but not a single one came to mind. He couldn’t figure out how to tell her what he was feeling, the pride, the anger, the fear. They all overwhelmed him. So he closed his eyes and simply enjoyed her gentle touch as she ministered to him.
He felt the loss when she stepped away from him, as if it were more than the simple loss of the welcome heat from her body. Opening his eyes, he watched as she carefully put everything away, leaving the room as neat as it had been when they’d entered it.
Then she turned back to look at him again and the look in her eyes, the weariness, the pain, the acceptance in them, struck right to the core of him. Now he was afraid to say anything, afraid of what she might say in response, afraid of ruining everything.
So, as she stepped toward him, he stiffened. She noticed and slowed her pace, then came to a stop in front of him. She reached out with one hand and gently brushed the hair back, off his forehead. He closed his eyes again, savoring the feel of her touch. He felt her lips brush across his cheekbone, eyebrow, than his forehead and he started to relax, thinking it was going to be alright.
But then she pulled away from him again. He could tell not just from the loss of her touch, but the loss of the heat she brought into his life anytime she was near. He opened his eyes to see her stepping out into the hallway, her shoulders bowed. Were they shaking? he wondered.“Julia?” he called after her. But she didn’t answer, never slowed, never turned to look back his direction.