Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, chapter 13

Chapter 13
Julia looked back at the palefaced man lying on the travois dragging behind her horse.  They’d tied her Aunt Lou’s bedroll to two young saplings in a triangle formation, with two ends of the saplings tied together over the haunches of Julia’s horse.  The wide end of the triangle dragged on the ground behind the horse.  Jamie had lost consciousness when they’d moved him into the makeshift bed.  That had been a godsend, given how much the travois bumped and jolted with every step the horse took.
They’d had to go slow because of the extra weight the travois put on the horse.  And every second felt like a millennium to Julia, each clop of the horses hooves like a spike being pounded into her heart.  Lou seemed certain Jamie would be alright.  But he appeared half dead already. Julia didn’t know how much more he could take.  Thus the frequent, frantic glances back to assure herself he was still breathing.
“We’re almost there,” Lou said, her breath puffing white into the early dawn air.  “I’m goin’ ta ride ahead and let ‘em know we’re comin’ in.”
Julia perked up as she realized they had just one more hillock to top and a short jog across the plains to the ranch.
“You keep my boy safe,” Lou said as she spurred her horse into action.
Julia nodded as she watched Lou’s horse leap into a full out gallop and wished she could hurry her mount along the same way, get Jamie in out of the cold faster.
“I will,” she half whispered, looking back at him again.  “He’s not just your boy anymore, after all.”
“You grab his legs,” Uncle Kid ordered Jed and Willie.  “I’ve got his head.  Let’s get him into the infirmary.”
It might have been funny watching six grown men scramble to grab any part of Jamie’s body they could reach to cradle a single man like a baby as they transferred him into the Big House and Buck’s medical treatment room.
Julia ran ahead and laid a folded up blanket down at one end of the raised pallet her dad used for an examining table.
“Here,” she said.  “Careful with his head.  He’s got an awful big goose egg on it.”
“I’m much more worried about that leg of his,” Buck said.  “At least the cold helped keep his body temperature down.  That will have slowed any swelling.  There’s still a chance I can straighten the leg and set it proper.”  He looked deeply into Julia’s eyes as he added, “But there’s a good chance it won’t heal perfect.  He may have a serious limp the rest of his life.  If he doesn’t catch an infection from the treatment.”
Julia looked away even as she nodded.  She knew how bad his injuries were and just what his chances of full recovery would be.
“He’ll…. he’ll be alive,” she mustered.  “That’s all that matters.”
Lou put a comforting hand on her shoulder as Kid gave her the hug Buck couldn’t at the moment.  The three of them watched, Jed and Willie standing right behind them, as Buck moved over to Jamie’s side and began checking him over.
“Julia grab the shears and cut the rest of this pant leg off,” Buck ordered brusquely.  “We’ll deal with the leg first, then his other injuries.  We can worry about the rest of his clothing later.”
Julia rushed to do as bid and soon Jamie’s injured leg lay, the thigh slightly twisted at an odd angle, ready to be set.
Buck shook his head as he completed his examination.  “There’s a good chance settin’ that leg’ll rouse him.  Normally I’d give him some chloroform ta prevent it, but I don’t want ta risk that with his head injury.  Head injuries can be strange things.  Never good ta add anythin’ to ‘em that might muddle the mind.  That means y’all are goin’ ta have ta hold him down while I set his leg.  If ya can’t stay strong durin’ this, then leave now.”
He looked around at the concerned family members gathered around the examining table and near the door to the room.  His eyes met Dawn Star’s and she nodded and began gathering the younger children up, chivvying them toward the kitchen.
“I’ll have a hot meal on when you’re ready,” she said softly as she followed them youngsters out of the room.
Buck nodded, his face softening with love and appreciation.  He took a deep breath and looked around those still in the room.  Harry, Jed and Willie stood uncertainly at the foot of the examining table.  Julia stood at her father’s side and Kid and Lou were on the other side of the table.
He moved to the end of the table and picked up Jamie’s foot.  Looking at the three boys he said, “One of you will have to pull hard on his foot.  You can’t waiver for even a second until I tell you I’m done.  The other two will have to hold down his other leg, keep him from moving.  It’s vital he be kept still while I piece his leg back together.”
The three boys nodded and Jed stepped up to take hold of his brother’s foot while the other two moved over to his other leg.
Buck moved back toward Jamie’s thigh while looking at his other three helpers.
“Kid,” he said, “you’re gonna have ta hold down his head and shoulders.  Lou, you and Julia will each take an arm.  Be ready.  At first there’ll be no resistance, but once he wakes up, he’ll fight hard.  This is gonna hurt like hell.”
Looking around to make sure everyone was in position and ready, Buck nodded.  “Alright then,” he muttered.  “Here we go.”
With deft, sure hands on Jamie’s thigh he ordered, “Jed, pull.”
Julia put all her weight into pressing down on Jamie’s arm at the command, flinching only slightly at the chest deep groan that escaped her childhood love as Buck began maneuvering the two ends of the broken thigh bone back into position.
She looked away after a moment, no longer able to watch the disturbingly gruesome picture of the pieces of Jamie’s leg poking out at skin again and again, in a way never intended by nature, as Buck pushed and prodded them into place.
“Gaaaaah!” Jamie suddenly screamed in her ear, struggling to sit up.
“NO!” she yelled at him.  “You’ve gotta stay still, Jamie.”  Tears rolled down her eyes at the pain he was going through.  But she gritted her teeth and stayed the course.  “I know it hurts,” she said hoarsely.  “But we’ve gotta do it.  Just hang in there, Jamie.  Hang in there.”
“Hold him still, damnit,” Buck grunted.  “Jed, pull harder, I need more room ta work.”
The fight to hold Jamie still seemed to take forever as he shouted, groaned and squealed in pain, right in Julia’s ear.
Finally, Buck stepped back, “Done.  You can let him go now.”
The others released their hold on Jamie, who, beyond knowing what was going on, continued to struggle.  As Julia released his arm it went flying.  The knuckles of his hand landed right in her face, knocking her over.
Julia sat in a corner of the infirmary, a hand-sized slab of fresh meat plastered to her face over the growing bruise that was once her eye.  Her gaze had remained tight on Jamie for hours as she waited for him to awake.  Shortly after hitting her, he’d lost consciousness again.  But this time it was a peaceful, healing rest.  Eventually exhaustion had claimed her, too.  Now she slept where she sat, snoring lightly, her head resting against the wall behind her.
Jamie felt the warmth of the room first, then heard the rumbling sounds of someone snoring.  Hmmm, things were heating up in hell, he thought idly to himself.  His Ma had always told him sleeping in a room with a snorer was pure hell, but this sound was almost… soothing.  The Devil was off his game today.  Even the warmth was comforting, not scorching as he’d always imagined Hell to be.
Eventually he got tired of looking at the red-gold insides of his eyelids and slowly flickered his eyes open.  The pattern of the wood above his head looked oddly familiar.  He frowned.  A snort off to the side had him turning his head.
“Julia?” he whispered.  What was she doing in Hell?  Frowning slightly at the thought, he turned his head to look around the room some more, wincing as the movement and light sent shards of pain lancing through his brain.  He was in the… infirmary?  “I’m not dead?”
“No, you most certainly are not.  Although not for lack of trying, both on your part and with the help of others.”
“Ma?”  He turned his head quickly toward the sound of his mother’s soft voice, then groaned at the pain that attacked him in retaliation.  Closing his eyes against it, he said, “What’s goin’ on?”
“Bet that head of yours is hurtin’ ta fit the dickens,” Lou muttered, half-smiling as she moved toward him with a cold cloth.  “Forget geese.  What you’ve got is more the size of an ostrich egg.”
“Ostrich?” Jamie latched onto the unfamiliar word in his confusion.
“A big bird, taller than a yer Pa.  Read about it once in a book about strange, monstrous looking animals,” Lou chattered on as she checked her son over to be sure he really was going to be alright.  Buck had said so, but….. “They’re from Africa, though by the look of the animals in that book I swear half of them are made up.  Maybe more.  Then again, I’d a never believed there existed a horse-like creature with a giant hump in its back if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes.  And it spits.”  She chuckled.  “How’s the leg feeling?”
At the mention, Jamie remembered his leg hurting horribly.  But now?  Not so much.  Suddenly concerned, he struggled to push himself up on his elbows and look down at the leg.  Lou jumped in to support his shoulders while he completed his inspection.
“It… aches.”
“That’s good.  You let us know if that changes.  Achin’ means it’s healin’ good.  Anythin’ else, or the least sign of a fever, could mean ya got an infection after all.”
Jamie nodded distractedly as she helped him lay back down.  His head turned back to where he’d seen Julia, curled up asleep in the chair.  She was no longer snoring.  Instead, her eyes were open and staring at him.  Well, at least one eye was open.  The other remained hidden beneath that slab of steak.
Lou looked back and forth between the two of them and hid a smile behind her hand.  “Um, I think I better go check on our prisoner.  Now that yer awake, I’ll need ta get him ready ta take ta town and put in a proper cell.  Tyin’ him up like a hog fer butcherin’ may be personally satisfyin’, it just ain’t…. proper.”
She set aside the cloth she’d been wiping Jamie’s forehead with and stood up to leave.
“I still think we should let him go,” Julia said quietly, looking down at her hands in her lap.  “This isn’t his fault.”
“Like hell it ain’t!” Lou ground out through gritted teeth.  “And I’ve about had enough of yer standin’ up fer the man what was gonna rape ya and kill my son.”
“But, I… I led him on.  He thought I loved him.  I… I just wanted to help.  His Pa is such a mean ol’ drunk.  How was I to know he’d take it otherwise?  I just don’t think he should be jailed for misunderstanding.”
“Oh, Julia, stop it!” Jamie grunted.  “Yer always willin’ ta forgive everyone.  Everyone but yerself.  Other men misunderstand what a woman wants.  Hell, I’ve done it myself with you a hundred times.  But they don’t go tryin’ ta kidnap and violate her.  Which was exactly what he was gonna do.  He shot me in the back, Julia.  That’s more than a misunderstandin’.”
Exhausted by his outburst, he leaned his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes with a strained sigh.  Julia immediately jumped to her feet and rushed to his side.
“You need to take it easy, Jamie,” she chided him, pulling the blanket up to his shoulders and straightening it.  “I’ll…. I’ll let you get some sleep.”
Jamie’s eyes snapped open again at the way she said the last and he looked into her eyes and knew, knew to his bones that she was running away again.  He reached out and snatched one of her hands with his.
“What the hell are ya plannin’ this time, darlin’?”
“I… I….”
“Don’t lie ta me, Julia,” he warned grimly, then softened his look with a lopsided smile up into her face.  “Ya were never any good at it, anyway.”
She pulled free of his grasp and walked over to the window by the door, staring out into the swirling morning snow.  She couldn’t look at him when she told him.  “I… I’m leaving in the spring.”
“Iowa State College offered me a teaching position before I left.  I’ve decided I’m going to take it.”  She managed to get the words out without breaking into the tears she could feel battering at her from the inside out.
“But… why?” Jamie said so softly she could barely hear him, sounding almost like a wounded little boy.
“Look at yourself, Jamie.  That’s what I do to people,” she huffed, using anger to control her emotions as she turned to face him.  “Look at Carl, headed for prison.  Because of me.”  She kept rolling in her tirade, right over Jamie’s partially voiced objection.  “Because I’m Indian.  Well, that’s something that’ll never change.  It doesn’t matter how smart I am, how educated I am.  It doesn’t matter what I wear or how I talk or if I know which fork to use at the dinner table.  I am, always have been and always will be, nothing but a Red Savage in the world’s eyes.  My presence just paints a bright red target on you and everyone else in this family.  And I won’t be responsible for that! ….. I… can’t.”
“Julia Wiggle Girl Cross, you get over here right now or I’m getting’ up off this bed and comin’ after ya,” Jamie grunted, feeling his own ire rise to match hers.  Struggling he began trying to push himself up to do just as he’d threatened and Julia rushed to his side
“Don’t!  You can’t put weight on that leg yet!  Pa hasn’t finished splinting it!” she scolded him.  “That’s just a green splint for now.  You can’t get up until he comes back and fixes it proper so you can walk on crutches in a few days.”
“Well?” Lou whispered.  “What are they sayin’?”  She stood with the rest of the family just outside the door.  The two in the infirmary had never even noticed her departure.
“They’re still arguin’ over whether she should go teach at Iowa State,” Kid answered, his ear pressed to the door.
“Teach?  At Iowa State?” Buck asked, his brow wrinkled in confusion.  “Did she say anythin’ ‘bout that to you?” he asked Dawn Star.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.  “Not a word.”
“Hush!  I can’t hear what they’re sayin’ with y’all natterin’ on,” Kid hissed, waving a shushing hand at the rest of their combined families crowded behind him.
“Then don’t leave,” Jamie smiled triumphantly as he grabbed both her hands and pulled her up against him.  “Cause every time ya do, I’m just goin’ ta get up and follow.  No matter how far, no matter how often.  Bum leg bedamned.”
Julia stared at him, her eyes filling with tears.
“What…. what are you saying, Jamie,” she whispered hoarsely.
“I’m sayin’ that I love ya, you fool woman,” he answered, pulling her even closer and smashing his mouth against hers, letting go of one of her hands so he could reach up and press her head closer to his.
Julia lost herself in the power of his ardor.  The feel of his lips hungrily searching hers, the pounding of his heart pressed so tightly to hers, the strength of his hands as he held her to him, as if afraid she’d leave, all sent her pulse skittering sideways and froze her lungs in mid-breath.
It was passion with an edge and it could only last for so long.  Eventually he pulled back and collapsed on the pillow behind him, as if he’d used up all his strength.
“Do ya understand now?  If ya gotta go back ta Iowa State ta teach, I’m comin’ with ya.  If ya try runnin’ back ta live with yer Ma’s folks, I’ll follow ya.  I let my own stubborn pride come between us enough.  No more.”  Smiling, he reached up and gently cupped her cheek in one hand.  “You’re mine.”
Tears of relief and love started escaping from the corners of her eyes.
“Alright,” she hiccuped, smiling mischievously at him.  “But only if you marry me first.”
His eyes widened at her unexpected words.  He opened his mouth to respond, but she pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him before he said a word.
“You don’t really think, after a kiss like that, things would stay platonic between us, do you?”
“Lord, I hope not,” he breathed, pulling her down on top of him as he pressed his lips to hers once again.
The duo was so caught up in each other they didn’t hear the cheers and whistles from the crowd gathered outside the infirmary door.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, chapter 12

Chapter 12
“No, no, you can’t be gone, Jamie, no!” Julia panted the half-prayer, half-diatribe over and over again as she pushed the snow away from first a hand, then an arm, a shoulder and, finally, a face.  A cold, immobile face.
“No,” she let out a wail to wake the dead as she collapsed over Jamie’s body in grief, sobs pouring out of her like water from a broken pitcher.  Guilt over what she’d said and done, and what she hadn’t, filled the empty places he’d left behind, burning their imprint into her soul.  Eventually, she quieted, not for lack of grief, but because the deepest levels of emotion can only be maintained for short periods of time.  As her sobs drained away to nothing, a tiny corner of her brain wondered where her Aunt Lou was.  All the noise should have had her coming on the run.
Lifting her head, she suddenly noticed the chest she’d been resting on wasn’t… still.  It moved up and down slowly, painfully slowly.  Then… she felt the soft pat of a hand on her back.
“Jamie!” she exclaimed in joyful realization as she turned to look at his face, still blue with cold.  But now his eyes were slitted open.
“Must’ve decided on Hell,” he muttered.  “Gonna spend eternity with women cryin’ all over me.”  Then his eyelids fluttered shut, once again hiding the beautiful crystal blue of his eyes from the world.
“Jamie,” she gasped again, this time plastering hot kisses across the cold skin of his face.  “No, wake up, darlin’.  Don’t leave me.  Wake up!”
“Don’t worry none, I ain’t gonna let ‘im pass just yet.”
The cold words, colder than the wind and snow surrounding them, followed by a quick, vicious kick to Jamie’s ribs that elicited little more than a groan, brought Julia’s head up with a snap.
He stood there looking down at the bedraggled female, hunkered protectively over his rival’s body.  What had he ever found attractive about her, he wondered idly to himself.  Not that it mattered now.  She was his, even if she didn’t know it yet.  Once he had his revenge on the worthless snot at his feet, he’d take her home.  She could cook, he knew that much.  Maybe she could make his Ma’s life easier while keeping him warm during the cold winter nights.
But, first things first.
“Carl, what’re you doin’ here?”
He leered down at her as he reached for something inside his ratty jacket.  “Gettin’ what you’ve been promisin’ me since grade school, Injun gal.”
“Carl?” Julia’s voice grew small as she heard the outright hatred in his voice and saw the Colt revolver he’d pulled from his jacket, already cocked.  “What… what do you want?”
“Oh, we’ll discuss that at length,” he promised, his disturbing gaze sweeping her from head to toe.  “But first, come with me.  We’re gonna wake yer beau up, so’s he kin join the party.”
The cold water running across his face, down his cheeks, through his hair and into his clothes jerked Jamie out of his pleasant haze.  The sounds of Julia quietly sobbing in the background caressed his ears.
“Yep, Hell,” he muttered to himself as he tried to escape the Devil’s plans for him for at least a few more minutes in the warmth of his dreams.  Dreams where Julia plastered his face with kisses and whispered sweet nothings in his ears.
“Oh no you don’t,” Carl hissed, leaning down to wrap his fingers tightly around Jamie’s chin and shake his head back and forth.  “Yer gonna wake up and yer gonna watch while I get my share of that slut over there.  And yer gonna know that she’s mine from now on.  Yer gonna watch us ride off together, knowing that even if you get out of here alive,” Carl’s voice dropped to a harsh whisper as he finished, “You’ll never see her again.  And I’ll be havin’ her every night and most days.”
The only thing that kept Julia from losing it, from striking out at Carl with every ounce of her frame no matter how futile, was knowing her Aunt Lou was out there somewhere.  That and the fear that anything she might do would push Carl even further over the edge than he’d obviously already gone.  She worried what he might do to Jamie then.
She cast another worried glance at her childhood love, now propped up against a tree, barely hanging on to consciousness.  His face was beaten to a pulp.  She could barely make out his features anymore through the bruising and swelling.  She knew from helping him move that he had a major goose egg on the back of his head, most likely from when he fell off his horse.  Not to mention the bullet hole in his back and the odd twisting of his leg that told her it was most likely broken.  There was little he could do to help them out of the situation other than groan and struggle to stay upright.
“Take off yer clothes.”
“What?” Julia turned wide eyes toward her tormentor.
“Ya heard me.  I know ya ain’t got no problem gettin’ nekkid in front of him,” Carl sneered.  “So one more watcher ain’t gonna make no never mind to ya.  Though I gotta warn ya, after this ya take yer clothes off in front of anyone but me and ye’ll look worse’n him.”
“I will not,” she sniffed at her haughtiest, even going so far as to tip her nose into the air. Though she regretted that move almost immediately when a snowflake went straight down one nostril.
The ominous sound of a hammer clicking back on a gun sharpened her focus on Carl as he grinned maliciously at her.
“Oh, ya will, or I’ll shoot him again,” he sneered.  “Somewhere what won’t kill ‘im, just make ‘im hurt a bit more.  Ya wouldn’t want that, now would ya?”
Julia looked back over at Jamie, trying to shake his head at her, telling her in his own, silly, protective way not to do what Carl was ordering.  Her heart twisted.  She could handle much of his foolishness, but she couldn’t let him get shot, again, over her.
Slowly, her hand moved up toward the top button of her coat.  As it slipped free and her hand moved down the line to the next button, she kept her gaze focused on Jamie.  She’d imagined many times disrobing for him.  But not like this.  If she kept her eyes on his and the way they devoured her in their unique blue heat, she could pretend it was just the two of them, their wedding night.  It really wasn’t so hard, then, she thought as she pulled the shirt off her shoulders and let it drop into the snow on top of her coat.  She shivered in the winter wind, nothing but her thin cotton chemise left to stop the cold.  But the heat in Jamie’s eyes warmed her from the inside out.
“Hurry it up, Injun,” Carl panted, wetting his lower lip as his eyes followed the movement of Julia’s hand.
And she realized there was a way to distract him.  Ripping her gaze from Jamie’s she began to watch Carl instead.  The pistol he’d held to Jamie’s head had begun to waiver as his arm tired and his attention focused on her.  Instinctively slowing her movements, she bent over as she pushed the trousers over her hips and let them slide down her legs.
“That’s it,” he whispered, a fevered light in his eyes.
“Uh, I need some help here,” she murmured as seductively as she could manage through her inability to breathe properly.  “I can’t get them off over my shoes and... the snow is too cold.”
Carl stumbled as he rushed to her side, dropping the pistol on the ground when he fell to his knees in front of her.
“I knew it,” he muttered as he reached for one foot.  “I knew ya wanted me.”
“Wanted you to drop the pistol, you bet,” Julia murmured as she pulled back and kicked him in the chin as hard as she could with both legs still trapped in her pants.  She had enough force to throw his head back and push Carl onto his back.
She jerked her trousers up and held them closed with one hand even as she bent over and began scrambling through the snow, searching for the pistol with the other.  Just as her hand closed over the cold steel of the muzzle, her head was jerked back by the handful of hair Carl had wrapped his hand in.
“Thought ya could put one over on me, did ya?  I ain’t so stupid as that.”
Dragging her kicking and squirming into his embrace, he wrapped both arms around hers to hold her in place and plastered his mouth on hers.  But she’d managed to hold onto the gun and get it turned around.  Just as she was about to cock the trigger, Carl’s hold on her relaxed, his eyes widened and he fell away from her with a surprised grunt.
Without Carl’s possessive clutch, Julia fell to the ground as well, crumpling in place.  Still cradling the pistol with her finger on the trigger, she looked up into the grim face of her Aunt Lou.
“What took you so damned long?”
“Had ta wait ‘til ya had him occupied and distracted.  What took you so long?” Lou responded with a warning bite in her voice.  She bent over and hit Carl in the back of the head again when he started to stir.  This time he slumped over, finally completely unconscious.  “Least I got here before you shot him.  Woulda hated havin’ ta take ya home in handcuffs.  Yer Pa woulda killed me fer sure.”
“He was holding a gun on us, on Jamie,” Julia sputtered.
“So?” Lou shrugged.  “You’da been acquitted at trial fer self-defense.  Wouldn’ta changed me havin’ ta arrest ya.  Things ain’t the way they was ‘round here when I was young.  They’ve gotten civilized.”
Without waiting for another word from Julia, she knelt down at Jamie’s side and carefully began inspecting his injuries.  “Didn’t stop you once ya made up yer mind ta do something.  ‘Sides, I couldn’t get a clear shot at him ‘til ya got him distracted enough fer me ta leave cover.” Pointing at Jamie’s leg with her chin, she added, “Check that leg.  Is it as bad as it looks?”
“Would you two stop chattering like a pair of hens and help me out here?” Jamie muttered through gritted teeth. v“It’s cold, I’m barely holdin’ on ta my wits and I hurt,” he complained.
Julia knelt on Jamie’s other side and ripped open his pants’ leg to inspect the flesh beneath.  The material unexpectedly tore all the way up to the hip, leaving his muscled limb completely bared to her gaze.  Julia flushed at the sight and what it made her feel, especially sitting there staring at him while he was barely conscious, under his mother’s gaze.  She tentatively reached out and ran her hand up and down the skin, marveling at how soft it was, despite the tensile strength of the muscles beneath.  The sight of the bruises already mottling his thigh distracted her from her growing curiosity.
Concentrating on the injury, she began to gingerly push and prod at it to get a feel of the bone wrapped in all that interesting skin and muscle.
“Ow!” Jamie suddenly screeched, pushing her away with surprising strength.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “Sorry.”  But she went back to her probing, trying to be a little more gentle.  Finally, “It’s definitely broken,” she said.  “I can feel both ends.”
“I guess it’s a blessing the bone didn’t break through the skin,” Lou sighed, rocking back on her heels.  “But if it’s broken there’s no way he can ride.  Not even double.”
“What are we going to do?” Julia asked,
“We’ll have to build a travois,” Lou answered.  Looking at her son, she added, “It’ll still hurt like you ain’t never felt before.  But it’ll be easier than tryin’ ta ride.”
“Let’s just get this over with,” Jamie sighed, letting his head fall back against the tree trunk.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, chapter 11

Chapter 11
Jamie tried to lose himself in the rhythms of his racing mount.  He welcomed the sharp pain of the cold wind as it tore through his inadequate clothing.  He hadn’t been dressed properly for his impromptu ride and the prairie had no pity on a mourning man.  That was exactly the way he wanted things.  The more physical pain he took on, the more it distracted him from the pain in his chest.  He could barely breathe, but he could blame the cold air for his troubles, not a chest paralyzed with loss.
Leaning down over his horse’s neck, Jamie urged it on, trying to outrace his troubles.
Julia sat by the window, staring out into the afternoon sky, grey with clouds.  Abe’s impassioned words to her still ringing in her ears.
We could be happy, sure.  But is that enough?  I had parents who were deeply in love.  I want what they had.  And I just don’t see that spark with us.  You have it, though, with your Jamie.  Don’t let others’ prejudices steal it from you.  You wouldn’t let them keep you from getting your degree.  Don’t let them take your happiness instead!
Was he right?  Was she letting what others thought get in the way of what she and Jamie could have.  When it was just the two of them they’d never worried about white or Indian, about male or female.  They were just… Jamie and Julia.  Could they be happy with that, despite the reactions of people like Carl?
She began nibbling on the fingernails of her right hand as she contemplated the possibility.  The sounds of her family, both her families, celebrating the holiday enveloped her in a blanket comforting warmth as she did so.
It wasn’t until he realized his horse was struggling that Jamie slowed his pace to a walk.  That’s when he realized tears were streaming down his face unchecked.  The salty moisture freezing before it reached his chin.
He hastily wiped the tears away with his sleeve and looked around him.  Without thinking about it, he’d headed in the direction of their favorite thinking spot at the swimming hole.  Shrugging to himself, he let the horse continue on its way, unchecked.  If he couldn’t have her, at least he could have his memories of her.
Maybe, someday, that would be enough.
“Have you seen Jamie?”
Julia turned haunted eyes to her Aunt Lou and shook her head.
“No,” she said, barely above a whisper.  “Not since shortly after breakfast.  He… he … went for a ride.”
Without another word, she resumed her vigil at the window, watching as the clouds blocked out the lowering sun and darkened the prairie sky.
Jamie never heard the gunshot, just felt the pain of the bullet tearing open the flesh of his back.  The force of the impact had him startling forward in the saddle momentarily, then slumping over to slide completely off and land in a nearby ditch.
His mount, still young and easily excitable, took fright at the fall and the follow-up gunshot that struck his flank.  With a bellow of pained anger the animal bolted.
“I’m gettin’ worried,” Lou said, standing near the front windows of the Big House, Kid’s arms wrapped around her from behind.  “He’s been gone all day.  He left his chores completely untouched fer the others ta do.  And he didn’t take his winter gear with him.”
“He’s not stupid, Lou,” Kid sighed, resting his chin on top of her head wearily, trying to hide his own nagging worry behind logic.  “He knows how ta handle the prairie.  He’s a grown man, ye’ve got ta let him be.  We rode out in a lot worse than this, with a lot less preparation than he’s had.”
Lou snorted.  “Please, these children aren’t half as grown as we were at that age.  We’ve coddled them.”  Then added, much more quietly, “Maybe too much.”
“We’ve also taught them to take care of themselves,” Kid whispered reassuringly, nuzzling against her neck as he hugged her tighter.  “And he’s got yer smarts.  He’s fine.  You’ll see.”
Lou subsided, but continued to worry.  This wasn’t like her eldest child.  Not at all.  Something had happened.  She felt it in her gut.  A searching glance across the room showed Julia still seated in the chaise lounge, chin resting on her arms as she nibbled at her fingernails and stared out the window in the direction in which Jamie had presumably ridden.
Jamie stared up at the gloomy sky, wondering what had happened.  He was numb, except where he hurt.  His leg felt like it was on fire and he couldn’t move his head without someone pounding a sharpened railroad spike through it.
“Julia,” he whispered, the word lost in the increasingly fierce prairie wind.
Lou walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands dry on the dish towel she’d been using to help Dawn Star clean the dishes.  She paused at the entrance to the living room and looked straight toward the seat Julia had occupied all day long.  She still sat there, staring out the window and Lou’s eyes followed hers.
It was getting dark out.  The sun set early this time of year.  And her boy still wasn’t home.
“I’m going out,” Julia suddenly announced to the room in general, practically jumping out of the chaise lounge in which she’d been ensconced.  “Something’s wrong.  He wouldn’t stay out after dark, no matter how mad.”
Lou dropped the dish towel over the back of the nearest chair and moved toward the door, meeting up with Julia just short of the entrance.
“I’m goin’ with ya,” she said.  “Yer right, somethin’s wrong and I’m not leavin’ my boy out there ta freeze ta death.”
Kid looked up from the checkers game he was playing with Buck and sighed, shaking his head.  “We’d better go along, if nothing else to protect the boy from his mother’s wrath when she realizes she worried over nothing.”
Buck laughed tensely.  “You sure about that?  She’s been known ta be right when she gets a feelin’ somethin’s wrong.”
Kid tossed an odd look at him, almost a warning glare, as he reluctantly moved over to where his wife and Julia were huddled together, rapidly laying out plans.
“If yer gonna start a search ya might want ta start with the proper clothes,” he muttered, plucking at Lou’s skirts.  “You two ain’t gonna get far dressed like that.”
Lou looked at him and nodded briskly.  “Yer right.”  Turning to the younger woman, she began to issue orders like a general.  “Julia, go change.  I’ll meet ya at the barn in five minutes.  We’ll start our search to the west, since ya said that’s the direction you and Abe saw him ridin’ off in.”
Without another word, she wrapped her scarf around her head and tossed the end over her shoulder.
Julia turned toward the stairs but stopped when she heard Lou’s pained gasp.  Spinning on her heel she ran to the door Lou was holding open and peered out, over the shorter woman’s head.
Jamie’s horse was trotting into the yard, looking around, seemingly bewildered.  The young horse looked blown and… was that blood streaming down its flank?
Julia pushed past the gathering cloud to grab the horse’s trailing reins.  Then she turned to examine the animal’s flank, running her hand gently, soothingly across the shivering skin as she crooned to the frightened animal.
“He’s been shot,” she breathed.
“I told you my boy was in trouble,” Lou stormed, smacking Kid upside the head with the back of her hand as she rushed toward the barn.  “Now we’re goin’ ta find him.”
Julia was right on her heels.
Kid jogged to catch up with his furious wife and grabbed her arm, dodging her reactive strikes until he had hold of both her arms.  “Will ya calm down long enough ta talk ta me,” he gritted out.  “I’m just tryin’ ta help.”
“Like ya helped by tellin’ me he was fine and ta let him be, he’d make it home on his own?  Well that obviously ain’t the case!”
“I was wrong.  I admit it.  But how could I have foreseen this?  Tell me?  What in the last twenty years would lead you to believe one of our children would be shot off his horse?  Well?”
Lou stilled in his arms and just glared up at him.  Kid sighed.  “I was just tryin’ ta tell ya you’d be better off changing, like ya’d planned.  Buck and I can saddle the horses.  We’ll do this search right.  Think like the Marshal ya are, instead of like a distraught Ma.”
Lou inhaled a quick, deep breath and nodded shortly.  Still not speaking, she ripped out of his grip and stomped off, changing direction toward the house.  Kid sighed.  It would take awhile for her to forgive him for this, even longer for him to forgive himself.  He shared a worried look with Buck.  But first, they had to find his son.  What had happened?
“Alright, Kid, you and Buck ride toward the Tarkoski’s, check if he’s there, get Janusz out searching as well, if he isn’t.  Rachel can come here with the children, if she wants.”  Lou paused in her spate of commands to think a moment, then turned to the older boys, including Jed and Willie.  “You boys head toward town.  We don’t know which direction he went and who knows who might’ve seen him or what he’s done.  Spread out to cover all approaches.  If you don’t find anything, roust out my deputy and get him in on the search.”
It was as if having put on what she considered her work uniform, from the men’s, well boy’s, boots to the star on her chest and the hat on her head, had forced her to push aside her frantic grief and worry until she got the job done.
“The rest of you men, head north.  Check all the regular riding paths we use.  Don’t stop until you reach Canada, you hear me?”  The gathered hired hands nodded in understanding.  Finally, Lou turned to the young woman mounted at her side.  “Julia, you and I’ll ride west.  You said that was the direction he was headed when he left?”
Julia nodded.
“We’ll check the riding trails there, the swimming hole and any other favorite spots you two might have out there.  I don’t care how private or hidden they might be, you’re going to tell me where they are,” Lou ground out firmly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Julia said, ducking her chin and blushing slightly.  Then she shook her head and looked over at her Aunt Lou, calmly sending the searchers off on their various tasks.  There was no time for embarrassment, or even fear, now.  They had to concentrate on the task at hand and find Jamie.  Before it was too late.
“Let’s ride,” Lou said urgently and kicked her horse into motion.  Julia turned her mount and followed at what quickly turned into a hard gallop.
“Here,” Lou said, handing over a piece of jerky she’d pulled out of her saddlebag.  Julia looked at it with distaste and Lou smiled dryly.  “You need the energy in this cold.  You’re no help to him if you drive yourself into a state of exhaustion.”
Julia nodded quietly and ripped a bite off with her teeth.  Something about the necessary force of the motion was slightly satisfying to her need for urgency and force, so she chewed heartily with renewed relish.  Glancing over, she saw Lou swallow the last of her first mouthful and tip the canteen up to her lips.
She’d always loved and admired her Aunt Lou.  But her respect for the older woman had grown by leaps and bounds this night.  Not since that first moment of frantic fear had she lost control or not thought about what had to be done to get Jamie back.  She’d been tough as leather and dangerous as a rattler all night.  It was no wonder the town had kept her on as marshal all these years, despite her being a woman.
“Chew,” Lou ordered quietly and Julia shook her head to free it of the noisome thoughts and fears tumbling about even as she obeyed Lou’s command and took another bite of the tough jerky.
Jamie drifted in and out of awareness.  One moment sure and certain he was dying, the next feeling the warmth of a friendly fire.  Maybe God hadn’t decided yet exactly where he belonged, Jamie thought to himself at one point, and had chosen not to let him die until He’d made up His mind.
Buck stood up from the tracks he’d been investigating and turned back toward his horse.
“Well?” an impatient Kid asked.
Buck simply shook his head and remounted.
“If it wasn’t him, who was it?” Kid demanded impatiently.
“The Unruhs from over by Fairbury,” Buck said quietly.  “They’ve got a horse with a particular notch in the shoe.  Easy to recognize.”
Kid seemed to deflate with the confirmation that they had tumbled down another blind alley.  Buck reached over and punched him lightly in the arm.
“Don’t worry,” Buck reassured his old friend.  “He probably never came this way anyways.  Either Lou and Julia’ll find him or the boys will tumble across him safe and sound in a saloon, tryin’ ta drink away his sorrows with no idea anything’s happened.”
“I hope yer right,” Kid muttered as he clicked to his horse to get her moving again.
Violent shivers overtook Jamie’s body as he opened his eyes.  Fat, wet flakes of snow drifted down to the ground around him.
“No,” Jamie murmured, barely audibly.  The snow would cover his tracks, the horse’s tracks.  They’d never find him if a true storm set in.
“Nobody in town’s seen him since Sunday services,” Harry said as he stepped out of the bakery to rejoin Jed and Willie.  “Y’all have any luck?”
Jamie’s brothers shook their heads, their faces carrying twin looks of worry and exhaustion.
“Guess we better head over to the Marshal’s office and find Horton,” Harry sighed.
“I just hope Ma and Julia are havin’ better luck than us,” Willie said as they all turned and headed down the boardwalk.  Head bowed, hand stuffed in his coat pockets, he added under his breath, “Jamie, if yer dead and dyin’ in a ditch somewheres, I’ll kill ya soon’s we find ya.”
Frustrated, Jamie began to try to move.  Maybe, if he could crawl closer to a regular trail, that would increase his chances of being found.  Suddenly, he couldn’t stand the thought of Julia at his funeral, leaning on Abe’s arm for comfort.  The image gave him strength and he began to actually make progress.
“Oh no you don’t.  Can’t have you gettin’ outa here on yer own, or dyin’ on me ‘fore she gets here.”
“There!” Julia pointed excitedly toward an area where something had obviously stumbled around in the drifts, creating a large crater of dirty snow, some if it even looking… bloody.  She started to push her horse forward, but Lou reached out and grabbed her arm.
Julia looked at her in question and opened her mouth to object, but Lou held up a finger to her lips.
“There’s somethin’ odd here,” Lou whispered, barely heard above the rising winter wind.  “We gotta tread careful.”
“But… Jamie, he could be hurt out there,” Julia objected in a furiously lowered voice.  “We can’t waste time jumping at shadows.”
Lou shook her head.  “We won’t do him no good, if we’re dead or injured, too.  Just….” she waved a hand aimlessly at the anxious younger woman, “just let me think a minute.”
Julia grumbled a bit, but subsided, letting her eyes search the trail in the snow as far back as she could see.  Finally Lou grunted.
“Alright, looks ta me like this trail leads back ta the swimmin’ hole.”
Julia nodded.  “I know, that’s what I was tryin’ ta tell ya earlier.”
“But there’s somethin’ odd ‘bout it that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
Julia shrugged helplessly.
“You follow the trail. Think both of us know where it’s goin’ ta lead, in general anyways,” Lou continued.  “I’m gonna ride around and come up from the other direction, out of the wind and the weather.  If there’s anyone there worth worryin’ ‘bout, they’ll be busy with yer arrival when I get there.”
“Alright,” Julia nodded doubtfully.  “Can I go now?”
“No, wait here and count to 100,” Lou said.  “That’ll give me time ta work my way around without bein’ noticed.”  Looking at Julia finally, Lou smiled reassuringly.  “Trust me.  He’ll be alright.”
The tightness around the edges of her smile and eyes put the lie to her words, but Julia didn’t challenge her.  She just started counting.
“Jamie?  Are you here?” Julia paused, straightening after ducking under the low hanging branches of yet another tree.  She’d tried the obvious spot first, but Jamie hadn’t been there, nor any sign that he’d ever been there.  Now she’d spent the last 20 minutes walking through the dense growth surrounding the swimming hole.  Her hopes were waning.  “Can you hear me, Jamie?  You better not be dead, James Hunter McCloud, I’ve got a few things ta say to you!”
The threats bouyed her spirits momentarily, but then her mind began to go back over her fruitless search as she continued to move through the copse of trees, searching every nook and cranny.  The trail she’d followed to the swimming hole had mysteriously disappeared just outside the first ring of trees and bushes, as if the animal that made it had come out of nowhere.  And she’d found no sign of--
Julia shook her head as she pushed herself back up onto her knees.  What had she just tumbled over.  Looking back over her shoulder she saw the edge of a piece of blue wool sticking out from under the snow.  It was the exact same shade as the shirt Jamie had been wearing at Christmas breakfast.  Had it only been a few hours ago?
“Jamie?!” she shrieked as she scrambled toward that slice of blue hope and began frantically shoveling snow out of her way.

Friday, September 13, 2013

War Correspondents: The Beginning

Author's Note:  This is the first in a new series inspired by Ken Burns' The Civil War series.  It is simply a series of letters between Lou and Kid during the war.  This is a personal challenge as the format severely limits what I can say and how while still getting the story told.  I hope you enjoy.

March 15, 1862
Near Manassas, Virginia
My dearest Lou Louise Lou,
I miss you. I miss you so much at times I feel like vomiting.  You know I’ve never been good with words, but there’s the truth of things.  I knew leaving you would be the hardest thing I would ever do, but actually doing it was even worse.  Every night on the way here, I would close my eyes and see your face, tears streaming down your cheeks as you waved goodbye to me.  You have no idea how close I came to turning back.  I may be back in Virginia now, but my heart remains in Nebraska with you and our child.
I pray you are doing well.  I am sure Teaspoon and Rachel are taking good care of you, if you’re letting them.  Please, darling, let them.  For my sake, if not yours.
While I continually found myself looking for you on the trip here I am eternally grateful you didn’t come.  I won’t go into details about the trials of the journey.  It’s nothing you aren’t familiar with yourself, except for the number of brigands afflicting the country right now.  It seems like every man with an ax to grind between Nebraska and the Atlantic Ocean is taking advantage of these hostilities to carve out a little piece of the pie for himself.  I almost lost my horse three times.  And that was just in Missouri!  Thank God I left Katy with you. 
          Ever since I arrived in Virginia last week, I’ve continually found myself looking for you at my side, wanting to share some new sight from my childhood with you.  You have no idea how exciting it is to be back home again.  The sights, the smells, the sounds… the feel of the air itself.  I had no idea I’d missed it so much.  No matter how I try I simply cannot put it into words to describe it all to someone who’s never been here, never felt it.
          I returned to my hometown, near Manassas, but there was no one left I wanted to visit.  The town itself is practically deserted.  All the men are off to fight the War and the women and children have mostly left to stay with friends or family farther away from the fighting.  It’s been so close I can hear the cannons booming in the distance sometimes.
          The old homestead is still there, as deserted as the rest of the town.  I spent the night sleeping on the floor of the room I used to share with Jed.  It wasn’t the same.  Too much has changed since we were children.  I cherish my memories of our childhood, but I guess it’s official.  I’ve grown up and I can never forget what Jed did, what he was willing to do.
          Talk of the War is everywhere.  The papers all say the War should be finished within the year, especially if Lincoln continues to put idiots like McClellan in charge.  That man couldn’t find his own shadow without the help of a hundred other shadows. 
I haven’t joined up yet.  I’m not sure why not.  I had the chance.  Just a few days ago I passed a cavalry regiment leaving the area.  They were heading out to intercept the Federals, one of them told me.  But, for some reason, I’m just not ready yet. 
          So much here is familiar, is safe, is home.  Yet, so much is not.  I just need some time to get comfortable with those changes first, I guess.  I always thought you were the one who struggled the most with change, but look at me.
          I’m moving on to Richmond, now, closer to where the fighting is headed.  I hear tell the Federals are landing near the Rappahannock River, east of Richmond.  I figure it’ll give me more time to reacquaint myself with my Virginia and the changes she’s undergone since I left.  Then I’ll join up down there, I guess.
          Speaking of changes, I cannot begin to wonder how you are changing, my darling.  Already you were rounder and glowing when I left.  But it’s been two months.  I imagine the child is making her presence well known by now.  I hope and pray it’s a girl, with big, brown eyes like her mother.  I’ll have to fight the boys off in a few years, so it’s best I get some practice in now.
          All my love to you.  I hope to hear from you soon.  You can write me in care of my Aunt Tallulah in Richmond. 
          I pray this War will end soon and I will be home before our child is born. 
          With all my love,
                     your husband, Kid

April 3, 1862
Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory
Dearest Kid,
            I was overjoyed to get your letter.  I cannot believe how long it took to get here!  Nothing like when we used to deliver the mail.  Was it really so long ago?  It seems like yesterday, yet like another lifetime at the same time.  What other disruptions is this war going to cause before it’s over?
            I’m sorry. I don’t mean to complain, but I miss you horribly.  I know we agreed I should stay behind because of the baby.  But it gets harder every day.  Have you heard what happened at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennesse?  It’s in all the newspapers here.  Over 20,000 dead and wounded between the two sides, another nearly 4,000 missing.  In one battle.  I just can’t comprehend that.  And that’s what you’ve ridden into, my love.  Please, be careful!
            I continually find myself turning to share something with you, a sunrise, a beautiful flower, Katy and Lightning’s latest antics, our child’s first movements.  But you’re never there and I burst into tears.   I feel like I’m constantly crying, and usually over nothing at all.  Rachel says it’s the baby.  I’m not so sure. 
            Rachel says I should write you happy stuff, not depress you with my troubles here.  So, what’s going on here you ask?  Well, let me tell you.
            Tompkins has started courting the owner of the new bakery in town.  She’s half his height and twice as big around.  But she makes him smile, a rare sight indeed.  We’re hoping they make a match of it.  This town could use more smiling Tompkins and less of the grouch he can be.
            They’re not alone.  Rachel’s friend, that detective fellow who worked for the Express and caused her so much trouble with his drinking?  He’s back in town, sober as a preacher, and trying his damndest to court Rachel. She’s not sure she trusts him, though.  So she’s holding him off for now.  I don’t think that’ll last for too long, however.  She has a true hankering for him, I think.
            Teaspoon and Polly are settling in real nice together.  He spends most days over at her saloon now, instead of napping the day away at his office.  Just as well, seeing as how things around here are getting rougher every day.
            With all the Army units getting pulled back East for the war, there’s few left to enforce the law out here.  A lot of ruffians have been coming into town, and their first stop is usually the saloon.  It’s almost more than Teaspoon can handle on his own, or even with Barnett’s so-called help.  Many’s the night Buck’s had to come in and help them round-up the troublemakers. 
            Buck’s new livery is going great.  He’s almost got more business than he can handle.  I’m so glad for him.  And Rachel’s still teaching.  She loves that job. I think that’s part of why she’s so reluctant to let Mr. Staulder court her.  She could lose her job if she even looks like she’s thinking about marrying, or, worse so far as the town’s concerned, not marrying him.
            I got a job at the new telegraph office they were building when you left.  They didn’t really want to hire a woman, particularly one with child, but no one else could read and write so well as me, except maybe Teaspoon and he wasn’t exactly interested.  The code was easy to learn and the pay’s decent, though not as much as they were going to offer a man.  I swear, Kid, if it weren’t for this belly I’m growing right now, I’d have cut my hair and put my trousers back on just to spite them!
            But that means if you ever need anything, you just have to find the nearest telegraph office and I’ll be the first to get your message!
            Speaking of our baby, I know you said you want a girl, but I’m sure it’s a boy.  He’s just like his Pa, won’t let me sleep a wink at night and wants nothing but for me to shovel food down his throat all day.  What I wouldn’t give to have you ‘bothering’ me like that right now, Kid.  I do miss you so.
            Since you gave me a specific place to send things, Rachel and I are including a care package, cookies, a fruitcake, some of her blackberry jam and biscuits.  Don’t worry, she supervised anything I had a hand in cooking so it’s all edible.
            I’m glad you’re enjoying seeing your childhood home again, Kid.  But please, don’t forget you’ve got a home here in the Territories now, too. and are well missed.
            I love you.