Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, chapter 10

Chapter 10
Julia turned at the sound of someone knocking at the dispensary door.  Brushing her hands free of the dust from the herbs she’d been grinding into a powder with the metate, she turned to see who was there.  The knock meant it wasn’t family.  Family would just barrel right on through, even if the door were locked!
Opening the door, she smiled when she saw a familiar face.
“Leaning Bear!”
The tall man from the nearby Meskwaki reservation leaned nonchalantly against the doorframe, much as he seemed to lean against anything handy, at any time, rather than stand straight on his own two feet, thus his name.
“Come on in,” she urged, reaching out to grab one of his hands and drag him into the house.  He pulled off his otter fur cap to reveal his shaved head with only a scalplock of hair left on top, held up by a porcupine roach.  She laughed affectionately at the sight.  His peers dressed mostly the same as whites these days.  But Leaning Bear insisted on wearing traditional clothes, at least when he was out ‘in public’ as he termed it when he roamed amongst the nearby white towns.  The leather moccasins, breechclout and leggings and poncho, with no shirt beneath, were his own private rebellion.  “What are you doin’ here?  Everyone alright?”
“Yep,” he smiled, shrugging.  “Just heard you were back in town and thought I’d drop in and see you all dressed up like a white lady.”
“Well?” she asked, twirling obligingly so he could check out her bright blue and grey checked dress with black braid trim at the edge of the collar and sleeves, along the waist and dancing around the bottom flounce of the skirt.
Leaning Bear grunted.  “You look like a white woman alright.  Guess that’s to be expected, the way you were raised and all those years at school.”
The smile dropped off Julia’s face at his words and she turned back to the counter and the grinding she’d been working at.  Picking up the metate stone she ground it against the larger base stone with all her strength as she muttered, “Clothes can’t change who you are.”
“What’s wrong, Wiggle Girl?” Leaning Bear asked in concern, using her childhood name.  “Having trouble with those white boys next door again?”
Julia shook her head slowly, refusing to look at him in fear she’d start crying.  She’d done enough of that the last couple of days.  “Just facing…. reality, I guess.  There’s no room for a mostly native woman in this white man’s world.  No matter how smart she is or how hard she tries to fit in.”
Leaning Bear grunted in silent acknowledgement of the truth of her words as he leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest.  The move brought a slight smile to Julia’s troubled face, it reminded her so much of her Pa.
“I’m thinkin’ ‘bout openin’ a medical shop at the reservation,” she said in sudden inspiration.  “At least all my knowledge could do some good there.”
“Thought you studied languages and literature.”
Julia shrugged.  “I spent more years studying at my parents’ sides than I did learning from books in Iowa.  And that knowledge just seems more useful right now.”
“Your help wouldn’t be turned away,” he sighed, turning his head to peer through the window that overlooked the wide open prairie beyond the ranch grounds.  “Lord knows it’s hard enough on the reservation.  Even the people the white men send to help us are second hand, at best.   And they don’t send half the help they promised.”  He turned back to look at Julia, peering searchingly into her face.  “But you shouldn’t come if you’re just trying to run away from your troubles here.  Deal with them, then, if you still feel the call, come set up shop.  We’ll welcome you with open arms.”
Pushing himself to his feet, he strode to a cupboard where Buck kept his supplies. He opened the door and pulled out a package.  Holding it up for Julia’s inspection, he asked, “This mine?”
She nodded.  “Pa said he put a little extra willowbark in there.  Thought you might need it with the winter months comin’.”
Leaning Bear smiled.  “Tell him I said, ‘Thanks,” he said and confidently toward the door, opened it and stepped out.  His hand still on the handle, he turned back to Julia and added with an insouciant grin, “You figure out your problems here and come join us, I’ll be the first one in line, little Wiggle Girl.”
Jamie watched from behind the half-opened barn door as Julia bade a smiling farewell to the tall familiar form of Leaning Bear.  The Meskwaki warrior was one of many Indians from nearby reservations, and more than a few there weren’t so nearby, who visited the ranch to pick up medical supplies from his Uncle Buck.  Leaning Bear had been coming around since they were all children.  But it seemed he’d been around much more often than was necessary in recent years, Jamie thought with a distasteful moue.  He’d never really worried about the man before as a rival for Julia’s affections.  But now…. something was wrong and he didn’t know how to fix it.  He knew what his Ma would say, ask her what was wrong.  But Julia wouldn’t even talk to him.
For the last several days she’d been avoiding him like the plague.  He recognized all the signs, the sudden need to get something in another room when he entered, the refusal to look his direction, because he’d played the same game not that long ago himself.  What he couldn’t figure out was what had sparked it.
It had all started after that confrontation with Carl.  Sure, Carl’d been an ass, but when wasn’t he?  She’d never let that get to her before.  Was it because he’d fought back?  What had she expected?  He wasn’t going to stand around and let that ass insult his sweetheart.  She knew he had a temper, though he did his best to keep it under control, and was more than a bit protective of those he… cared for.  His reaction should’ve come as no surprise to her.  But hers sure had surprised him.  They’d known each other all their lives and he still hadn’t figured her out.
Of course, Pa said he’d yet to figure out Ma, too.  So maybe it was that whole man/woman thing.  Jamie sighed.  He just didn’t know anymore.
“Hey, Harry, you been past the telegraph office?” Tompkins, Jr, asked as he packed up the last of the other young man’s purchase.
“No, why?” Harry asked, perplexed.  Usually, if there was a telegram for the ranch the office just sent it out with Marshal McCloud, aka Aunt Lou.
“Benton was in here earlier looking for the Marshal.  Said he had a telegram for your sister, Julia.  But no one’s seen the Marshal today, either.”
Now Harry was even more confused.  A telegram for Julia?  “I’ll stop by there, next,” he answered.  “Thanks for the heads up.”
Harry looked down at the slip of paper in his hands as he sat on the seat of the buckboard and frowned slightly.  It was from that Abe fellow.  He wondered what it said, but forebore to actually open the folded paper.  It wasn’t his and Pa had drilled the importance of respecting his sibling’s privacy into him from day one, not to mention the sanctity of the mail, even if it was a telegram and not a real letter.
Slipping it into his jacket pocket, Harry unwrapped the reins from their place on the brake and prepared to head home.  He just hoped it contained good news.  He didn’t know what had happened between Julia and Jamie, but she was moping around like she’d lost her best friend. Heck, for all he knew she had.  Something needed to change.  And soon.
“Abe’s coming back!” Julia squealed in excitement after reading the short telegram.  “He got the job in Plum Creek , but they don’t want him to start until after the New Year.  So he’s asking if he can come spend the holidays with us!”
“And I take it you plan to tell him he can,” Buck smiled gently at his daughter.
Julia blushed as she looked up at him.  “May I?” she asked belatedly.
Buck laughed.  “Of course he’s welcome.  He’s a fine young man with a good head on his shoulders.  And, apparently, a good job lined up.”
“What’s goin’ on with you and my sister?”
“What?” Jamie asked, startled by the unexpected question.
“You heard me,” Harry demanded.  “What’s goin’ on with you two? I thought you were finally gettin’ down ta some serious courtin’.  Now she can’t seem ta stand bein’ in the same room with you and is all excited about this Abe fella’s return.”
“Abe’s comin’ back?” Jamie asked in surprise.  “I thought he was off to start a new job.”
“Turns out it don’t start ‘til next year and he wants ta spend Christmas here.  Sounds ta me like he’s the one doin’ the courtin’ around here.”
Jamie turned away from his friend and started raking up the hay from the stall with unnecessary vigor.  “Julia’s her own woman.  Does what she wants,” he grunted.  “I can’t control her, no one can.  Ya oughta know that by now.”
“I also know she’s been hankerin’ after you fer most of her life,” Harry said.  “So what’s goin’ on?”
“You’d have ta ask her that,” Jamie said shortly. “If she answers ya, I’d sorely love ta hear what she says, ‘cause she ain’t talkin’ ta me.  Now… ya gonna help with chores or just chatter my ear off?”
It was Christmas Day, one of her favorite holidays of the year.  Uncle Kid sat in the corner surrounded by the younger children, dressed up like Santa, as he did every year, handing out gifts.  Her entire family was here, including her oldest sister with her Cheyenne husband, Grey Wolf, and their new baby.  Even her best friend from college was here, her eyes came to rest on Abe where he sat with Victoria and Rose, laughing at something one of them had said.  He looked up and caught her eye.
She shook her head, smiling sadly and turned away to walk back to the kitchen to help her Ma with the last of the breakfast preparations.
“Hey,” Abe called softly.  “Don’t run away from me, too.”
She turned at the touch of his hand on her arm, just as her Aunt Lou squealed, “Kiss!”
The rest of the room, or most of it anyway, took up the chant, “Kiss!  Kiss!  Kiss!” and Julia sighed in resignation as she looked up at the mistletoe she’d forgotten about hanging in the doorway over her head.
Abe laughed and leaned forward to kiss her softly on the cheek.  Julia blushed and pushed him away as the rest of the room clapped, cheered, stomped and whistled in appreciation.  Her Aunt Lou took particular glee in this tradition.  Julia couldn’t figure out why.*
“Let’s go for a walk,” she suddenly suggested.
Abe looked confused for a moment, then nodded in agreement.  It took them a bit to put on their winter clothes, coats, hats, gloves, scarves, boots.  The prairie winter had finally hit the week before, chomping down on the land with a vengeance, dumping more than a foot of snow on the ground overnight.  And temperatures had yet to warm up.  They might not until spring, now.
Despite the fact the walk was her idea, Julia moved along in the white cloaked world without saying anything, turning an idea over and over in her head as she stared without seeing at the horses snuffling and stomping through the snow looking for grass.
Abe followed her meandering course through the ranch buildings until they reached the main gate and she leaned up against the fence, still without talking.
“You want to talk about it?” he finally asked.
“You remember how it used to be at Iowa State?” she asked, answering his question with a question.
Abe laughed.  “Like I could ever forget.”
“It was the two of us against the world.  We were the only ones who understood each other.  And no one bothered us about being… together.”  Julia stopped speaking for a moment and looked down at her hands.  “In fact, they seemed to throw us together whenever they could, like just happened back there.”
“Yep,” Abe agreed, nodding.  “I had more than one classmate ask me when we were going to tie the knot.”
“So how come we never….”
“Courted?” Abe asked, helping her finish the sentence.
Julia nodded.
Abe shrugged.  “Just never felt… right.”
“But it could be… right,” she said.  “If we actually gave it a try.”
“Maybe if you weren’t already in love with someone else,” Abe said gently, maybe even a little sadly.  “Someone who lives right across the yard, no less.”
It was Julia’s turn to shrug.
“That ain’t goin’ nowhere,” she muttered.  Abe winced at her sudden lack of diction, then his eyes flew wide in surprise as she unexpectedly pushed up on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his.
Despite his best intentions, Jamie found himself following Julia and Abe out of the house.  He kept his distance.  He’d promised himself that if she’d decided Abe was the one she wanted he’d butt out.  She had a right to choose for herself.  But that couldn’t kill the morbid curiosity inside him.  It was the same part of him that had his fist flexing in anger when his mother had pushed the couple into that embrace under the mistletoe.  He wasn’t even sure who he’d wanted to hit more at that moment, his mother for pushing that little game of hers -- he’d seen the wicked light in her eye and knew she’d done it a purpose to push him to action – Julia for allowing it to happen, Abe for participating or himself for just sitting back and watching it all happen.
When the couple came to a stop at the front gate, Jamie paused in the overhang of the last building, letting the early morning shadows hide his presence from the other two.  He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but could tell it was a pretty serious conversation from Julia’s body language.  He’d known her long enough he could always tell how she was feeling, what she was thinking, by how she moved and interacted with those around her.  He didn’t always know why, but he always knew what.  That’s how he’d known that the last thing she’d wanted these last couple of weeks was to have anything to do with him.
He stiffened as he saw her shoulders straighten with resolve as she turned to face the tall black man at her side.  Then she lifted her face up to his, placed her hand on his chest and pushed up on tiptoe to press her lips to his.
The anger, fear and sense of loss he felt at that moment twisted and curled inside his stomach until he felt he would throw up last night’s supper.  So.  She’d made her decision.  She’d made her choice.  And he wasn’t what she wanted.
He knew if he stuck around for anymore he’d do something they’d both regret.  With a low voiced curse, he turned and headed straight for the barn.  Moments later he came bursting out again, mounted on the young stallion she’d helped him train and raced away from the ranch, jumping the fence around the main compound rather than go anywhere near the couple by the front gate.
Julia closed her eyes as she stepped up and pressed her lips to Abe’s, praying that she’d get that same giddy feeling that stole her breath away when she kissed Jamie.  But that wasn’t to be.  Abe’s lips were soft and fine against hers, but they didn’t make her wish they were somewhere private or lose her sense of what was going on around her like Jamie’s did.
So it was no surprise when Abe’s hands came up and took a solid grip on her arms to push her away.  He stood looking down at her for a moment, before clearing his throat and speaking gently.
“I appreciate the thought,” he finally said, “but I don’t think this is our time.”
She looked a question up at him.
“I’d be honored to court you, if you were free,” he smiled.  “But I think you need to figure out what’s going on between you and that young man who just rode out of here like the hounds of hell were after him.”

*This goes back to Fighting For Love and Teaspoon’s last Christmas.

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