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.
“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’?”
“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.