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.

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