Saturday, November 30, 2013


a short story
by Celia Jolley
Carrie's heart was pounding out of her chest as the whoops of the Cheyenne made every hair stand on end.  The better to scalp you with, she thought bitterly.  Their wagon train was too small and had become an easy target.  Though they had started out with over one hundred, diphtheria had wiped out two-thirds of the train.  Now they were down to the thirty wagons circled and firing into the dusk.  She loaded the rifle for her father as fast as she could while he alternated with a pistol.
"Save the children, save Carrie,"  her mother pleaded desperately.  Carrie didn't know if her mother was praying or talking to her father.
He looked up as if frozen in time staring into her eyes with his blue gaze, "You two scoot over to Hank's wagon.  Your mother can load for me, but he's the best shot we've got.  Carrie, you load for him."
Carrie grabbed her brother's hand and made a dash for it crouching low.  She didn't say anything to the trail scout, but just grabbed his spent rifle from him and began the reloading.  A scream pierced the war whoops.  It was her mother.  She watched in horror as she saw her bent over the bloody figure of her father as an Indian broke through their barrier and raised his tomahawk over her mother's head.  Carrie clutched her little brother to her chest so he would not see what happened next.  Hank's rifle barked, and the brave's body flew back.  It was too late.  Hank grabbed her arm as she tried to run to her parents and shook his head.  As suddenly as the pandemonium broke interrupting a peaceful dinner around campfires, the last Indian jumped his pony as the Cheyenne melted back into the sagebrush in silence.
"Stay with him," Hank ordered then went over to where her mother and father lay.  Carrie saw him feel for their pulse.  He looked up sadly and shook his head.  Her brother never made a sound but shook violently.  The scout pulled a blanket out of the wagon and covered their bodies.  Then he went around to the other wagons.
Carrie went up with her brother tucked under her arm as Hank talked with the trail boss and the other men who gathered.  "We're down to seventeen wagons with barely enough drivers left.  The Stovers and the Hardees were all scalped, lost mostly men though.  We have two more widows and these here are the only orphans," the boss said matter of factly.
"I'll take care of them," Hank said.  "They're only going as far as the fort anyway.  We're a couple more days out,  if we drive hard."  He ruffled Nate's hair as the boy stared with a blank face at the men around him.  Carrie only sighed and shook off a tremor.   "I can drive their wagon and Cook can drive the supply wagon without me spelling him.  You don't need me scouting now.  We know there's Indians out there and I can do more good staying here with my rifle."
The bodies were hurriedly buried and covered with rocks though she knew the Indians would most likely dig them up to take what they were wearing then leave them for the prairie wolves.  They had seen other graves so desecrated on the trail.  Carrie reminded herself that her mother and father were really in heaven where thieves could not disturb. The trail boss said a few words, but it was Hank who prayed the Lord's prayer followed by, "Into Thy hands we commit their spirits."  It was eerie in the light cast by the wagon left still burning, but at the same time comforting hearing those words from a friend.  Muffled sobs from the widows broke the silence, but Carrie and Nate made not a sound.  It had not come up from their broken hearts yet.  Though their eyes saw the burial, reality had not hit with a full fist.
Hank laid down with the two orphans with an arm around each.  Carrie laid her head up against him  in great need for comfort.  She and her brother held hands across his chest.  Their even breathing came before hers as the violent scene replayed over and over in her mind.  When she shuddered, she felt Hank's hug tighten though he never fully awakened. 
As she woke, he was looking kindly down on her with a lantern lit.  It wasn't till she sat up that she realized his shirt was soaked with her tears.  He had laid aside his leather coat but his homespun green sleeves were still damp to her fingers.  

It was before dawn when the wagons rumbled on.  Carrie strained to see the rock mounds in the gloaming until a hill swallowed them from view.    Nate never looked back, never said a word, and had never shed a tear yet.  The two of them sat on either side of the scout on the wagon seat.
Finally, Hank broke the silence.  "That was some fine reloading you did for me."
"Pa sent me.  Said you were the best shot we had."
"I'm very grateful.  Not every girl knows how to do that."
"They should out here with the savages."   Her tone was hard, and he looked down at her. 

"How old are you?"
"Fourteen.  How old are you?"
"Twenty or there abouts.  Tell me about your uncle and aunt at the fort."
"We haven't seen them since we were very young, before Nate can remember.  He's an Indian Agent there.  Those were probably some of his friends."
"I doubt it.  The Cheyenne are from further north, not the tribe from around here.  They probably were passing through.  It's harder to find game so they are ranging further south than usual now that the buffalo are gone.  I found their sign, but they were far enough ahead that I hoped they had not seen us.  We were on the watch anyway, circling early, just in case.  I'm truly sorry about your folks.  I admired your father greatly and considered him a good friend."
Suddenly Nate crawled back into the canvas of the wagon, and they heard his sobs breaking. 
"It's best he lets it out.  I was worried that he had held it in this long."
"I think I cried enough for both of us last night.  Sorry about your shirt."  She then followed after her brother to hold him in his grief.
That night, Carrie cuddled her brother while Hank slept under the wagon bed. 
"Think we'll get to the fort today?" Nate asked the scout next to him the next morning.  Carrie knew he had idolized Hank favoring him above all the other men in the wagon train.  The man wore leather as that of a trapper.  His  boots had fancy Spanish spurs and his hat had a Indian beadwork band.  Carrie looked over at his profile.  His tanned face was half hidden by a beard.  When you are a scout, there's no time for shaving.  But his nose was fine and the eyes were gentle as he listened to her brother's talk.  Carrie remembered the man underneath his trappings, the green sleeves that had held her in her sorrows.
"That's the plan.  After supper, you keep your eyes peeled and call out when you see the flag."  The meals were eaten cold, not stopping for fires in their hurry to get to the fort and the safety it would provide. 
About the same time Nate called, "Flag, I see the flag!"  a bugle sounded from within the gates."  Carrie sighed with relief and laid her head against Hank's shoulder and wept.
His arm came around her hugging her close, "You're safe now, hun, under the protection of the United States government.  Your aunt and uncle will be mighty happy to see you."
"And sad they won't be seeing my ma and pa."
Nate was standing dangerously on the seat, hollering and waving, until Hank pulled him down.  "I wouldn't want to lose you now this close to safety.  If you fell, you'd get crushed by the wheels of the wagon, squirt."
The gate was opened for them, and they were met by a curious crowd, mostly soldiers with a mix of civilians and even Indians.  Carrie looked into the sea of faces for her aunt and uncle.  "There they are!"  She hardly waited for the team to stop before jumping down and running into their arms followed by Nate.  Hank went to help the trail boss make the report. 
A generous late supper was provided for them by their aunt and uncle.  Hank was included with them though the trail boss was dining with the Major.  It felt odd to be sitting at a table eating off china, after sitting on the ground eating holding tin plates around a campfire for so long.  Carrie felt as dirty and wild as a prairie dog and wanted a hole to hide in.  The kin were kind, but strangers really.  She was grateful that Hank was still hanging with them.
"You should hear your niece sing, Ma'm," he was saying.  When Carrie glared at him, he added, "when she's done with her mourning, that is."  He smiled back and went on in spite of her challenge,  "It was a real pleasure after the long days on the trail to sit around a campfire as her Pa fiddled to listen to her sing the old songs, prettier than any bird you could imagine."
"Her mother could sing, I remember.  It was the Welsh in her.  She could harmonize with anyone, with any song, a real gift.  I look forward to hearing our Carrie some day," the aunt said with tears in her eyes.
"You sure it was Cheyenne, Hank?" her uncle needed to know for sure. 
"Yes sir.  We had a few dead braves to tell the tribe by.  Believe you me, I know a Cheyenne when I see one dead or alive.  It was none of your people, I can assure you."
"That's good to know, but we are always concerned when another tribe comes that they will try to  recruit for the warpath.  Hopefully it was just a hunting party that couldn't resist going after some spoils."
"You call my parents 'spoils,?'" Carrie was standing up with her fists balled."
"Of course not dear.  They were precious to us as well.  He just meant that is what the Indians were after." 
Carrie allowed her aunt to pull her back to her chair while her uncle sized her up with a hard look at her outburst.  She hung her head and kept quiet over the rest of the meal.  Nate was too busy gorging himself with the delicious food to notice much else.  Embarrassed by her actions, she stole a glance over to Hank.  He winked and looked kindly at her.  Oh, how she did not want him to go and leave them here.
Her parents' plan had been to spend the rest of the winter at the fort with the kinfolk then to move on to Oregon with the first wagon train that came in the Spring.  That is where Hank was going.  He had a homestead there.  This was just a job he took on to put a little money in his pocket, he'd said.  The scout preferred the trapping, hunting and fishing there where he described the lush beauty in glowing terms.  Carrie already hated this dry fort on the sea of the prairie with soldiers' eyes upon her every move.  She knew Nate would probably adjust.  He was already following his uncle's every move, but Carrie knew she could never be at home here. 
The wagon trail boss decided to wait and see if another group would show up that they could join to find safety in numbers while Hank was anxious to move on.  He spent time with them often when he wasn't out hunting game with the soldiers whose assigned duty that was.  Carrie knew he was chomping at the bits to move on.
When another train arrived, Carrie knew he would be gone the next morning.  She felt his loss, a new grief, and her heart was already breaking.  Her kinfolk gave a nice dinner for him to thank him once again for his care for their orphaned niece and nephew.  Everyone was happy, but Carrie was silent.  Every time she looked up, though, his eyes were on her.  Finally, after the dishes were cleared, her aunt went to a small portable piano and said, "Why don't we have some songs."
Music was irresistible to Carrie, and though her heart was heavy, she sang with the emotion.  She did not see her aunt and uncle exchange pleased glances, but noticed Hank's eyes glued to her soaking in the music.  
Finally, her aunt closed the keyboard and turned around on the stool.  That was lovely, Carrie.  You are so like your mother," and she wiped her eyes.
Hank thanked them for the supper, gave Nate a thump on the back, then took his leave.  Carrie followed him out the door and grabbed his hand.  "I don't want you to leave, but I know you have to.  Promise you'll come back and take us to Oregon with you someday.  My parents never planned for us to stay here."
"Oregon's a long way, sweetheart.  I don't know if I'll be back," he said honestly but as gently as he could as if the girl was his little sister.
She fell against him hugging him for all she was worth crying her eyes out.   She slipped her thin arms up under his coat and felt the thin cloth of his green shirt and the warmth underneath.  He hugged the little thing back and kissed her hair.  "Hon, you are going to be alright.  You are growing up to be a real beauty.  Your uncle will have to fight off a whole passel of soldiers until you pick the one you want.  Maybe you'll find one who wants to take you to Oregon some day."
"I want you, Hank.  Promise me you will come back.  I'll wait for you."
Hank swallowed hard.  "I can't promise, but if I do ever see you again, I'll seriously consider that.  Is that good enough Carrie?"
"I promise that."
He left thinking he'd never see that sweet thing again.  Those poor kids had made a hole in his heart he didn't know if he'd ever be able to patch.  As the days stretched into weeks and months, he had plenty of time for them to intrude on his thoughts daily until the daily busy of living finally took over.

It was a shock four years later walking up to the trading post, when a blonde youth ran up to him yelling like a wild Indian, "Hank, Mr. Hank, boy am I glad to see you."  The only problem was, Hank didn't have a clue who he was.
"You don't know me, Hank?  I guess it's 'cause I'm pert-near a man now.  I'm Nate, Nate from your wagon train!"
Hank was shocked and held him back by the shoulders to look at the lanky kid nearly as tall as he was.  "It sure enough is you hiding behind all those inches and peach fuzz."  He clasped him in a bear hug.  "What are you doing out here in Oregon?"
"Our uncle took a post out here as an Indian agent.  We made it to the Northwest after all.  Surprised, ain't you?"
"Stunned, more like it."
"Wait till you see Carrie, she's the stunner.  You have to come to supper tonight.  Aunt and Uncle will be glad to see you as well.  Come with me to the Agency.  "Won't they be surprised who I found."
Hank shook hands with the uncle and felt welcomed by both he and his wife.  She invited him to supper even before Nate could tell her he already had.  "Carrie's not at home, but I know she'll be tickled pink to see you."
"Let's not tell her.  I want to see the surprise on her face when you walk in tonight," Nate said gleefully.
"Alright, Nate.  Can you be here at six, Hank?"
Hank nodded then went on to conclude his business selling his hides.  He'd accumulated quite a pile and needed the room in his cabin so he had finally come to town.  A lot had changed.  The town was multiplying faster than fleas on a dog.  There were many of the local tribe who hung out, hence the need of the Indian Agent.  The townsfolk thought of them as pests, so tempers simmered.  He knew Nate's uncle would have his hands full.

Nate took the luxury of a bath and a shave at the hotel since he had a pocket full of money from the sale of his hides.  It sure would be a treat to have a home cooked meal by someone other than himself.   He felt an out of proportion eagerness he noticed, but didn't ask himself any questions thinking how great it was to see Nate again.  He could appreciate the surprise the kid planned for his sister.  He wondered if she would remember him much, especially with his beard shaved.  He tried to remember how long it had been, but then got busy figuring what he needed to stock up in his cabin to last him a while.  He didn't come to town often. He was busy in the store until nearly six o'clock.  He wanted to move his wagon to the Agency so it wouldn't be left unattended.  Nowadays, things could disappear as fast as in any city back East.  Crime always followed the first settlers.

Nate answered the door and put his finger to his lips and motioned him to follow.  The family was standing around the dining room chairs, waiting for his arrival.  The table was beautifully set with china, candles in silver candlesticks and crystal glasses. 

"Glad you could make it," his host greeted him with a wink and offered the chair between him and a young woman whose back was still to him.  "Carrie, I believe you've met our guest before."  She turned, and the color drained from her face, a face lovelier than he could have imagined.  Her uncle went on laughing, "Do you know who this gentleman is?"

She seemed to plunge into his eyes and finally came up for air, "Of course, it's good to see you Hank."  She gave him a fleeting smile looking more like she had seen a ghost.

"Ha!  That was a good 'un!  Quite a surprise, huh, sis?"  Nate roared.  "I thought you was going to faint for a minute." 

Her color came back as she flushed and looked daggers at her brother.  "We knew he was in Oregon.  It was only a matter of time before we ran into him.  Everybody comes to the trading post at one time or another."  She spoke as if the Oregon territory was the size of a postage stamp.

"Let's pray," her uncle silenced them.

All through the meal, Hank kept stealing glances at her.  He wondered if he would have recognized her if he'd met Carrie outside of her family or this home.  She had changed from the poor little thing he'd taken under his wing into a lovely wild bird, who might fly away at any moment.  She did not speak to him during the meal and never met his eyes again though Nate made up for it in asking him questions.

"Dear, please take our guest into the front room while Carrie and I clear the table.  We'll serve the dessert and coffee in there," Carrie jumped from her chair as if released from a cage and began stacking the dishes. 

"You sure struck her dumb, Mr. Hank," Nate sniggered.  "I think that was the best surprise I've ever seen on her face before."  He laughed some more.  "I was afraid she wouldn't recognize you without your beard, but she knew it was you as soon as you sat down.  How long's it been?  Four years?"

"That's about right, Nate.  You sure surprised me running into you in town today.  I wouldn't have recognized you if you hadn't said something."

"Ahh, I ain't changed that much.  But Carrie, she's the one who's changed the most from a kid to a real lady.  Uncle can hardly beat the fellas off who want to come courting, but she won't have any of it.  Guess she's picky.  I reckon she can afford to be.  Carrie won't give the time of day to any of them so far."  Nate could carry on a whole conversation all by himself.

"Nate, you should give our guest time to talk.  How's your homestead doing, Hank?  Have you proved up on it yet?"

"Yes, it's all mine.  I put in an apple orchard and try to add to it a little more every year.  I'd rather do that than put all my crops in the ground only to be plowed under each year.  I like to plant something that lasts, like a tree.  I still have plenty of time for fishing, hunting, and trapping.  I just plant enough hay and garden truck to feed me and my animals and barter for the rest."

"I remember you telling me about how much you loved to fish and hunt.  Will you take me sometime and teach me how?  Uncle is too tied down to his business to go off into the mountains," the boy begged.

"Sure, Nate.  I'll do it.  Every man in Oregon needs to learn to handle a gun, a trap, and a fishing pole.  That's just about the best fun a man can have." 

"What's fun, Mr. Hank?" Carrie came in and set a cup of coffee down in front of him.  He saw her slender fingers and looked up at her fine figure, and into a face so perfect a man would be ashamed of his own reflected in her eyes."

He forgot what she asked and just lingered in her eyes looking for the child she used to be.  All he could see was womanly, with no girl leftovers. 

Nate filled in for him.  "Hank was saying he'd take me hunting and fishing with him sometime.  He said it's the best fun a fella can have."

"I don't know as I'd have recognized you, Miss Carrie," he finally got out.

"I'd know you anywhere, with or without a beard, Hank."  She spoke so softly probably no one else could hear, so softly he wondered if he'd just imagined it.  "Four years is a long time waiting to see somebody."

The missus tried to open up the conversation saying, "Carrie is quite accomplished now.  She is sought after with her singing voice, though we don't allow her to go just anywhere she's asked.  One man tried to convince us she could go on a singing tour clear to San Francisco.  Of course, we put our foot down."

"I did not want to go anyway, Auntie.  I have no desire to be on stage.  I just love music, and it makes me happy if it brings joy to others."

Hank remembered her crystal clear voice as a girl and wondered how it had ripened, evidently as something quite desirable.  "I'd like to hear you sometime."

"Not tonight."  She knew her aunt was about to push her forward, but tonight she didn't trust her voice.  It had rocked her down to her toes to find Hank beside her at the dinner table.  She couldn't have been more surprised than if her mother and father had come back from the dead, as he was one in the same, a ghost from her past, a loss she never expected to recover.  She wanted nothing more than to touch him, to feel his heart beating, to find out if he was really, truly there, as silly as it might seem.

The young man was still staring at her as if he was trying to find pieces of her from the past, that little slip of a thing he had remembered so well.  He didn't know that the girl who had been so lost had found herself in Oregon looking for him in every face that past her on the sidewalk or rode by.  Now that he was here in the flesh, she did recognize him instantly, and registered the shock he felt when he saw her full grown. 

Nate couldn't stand the quiet and plied Hank with questions.  It was getting late, too late for him to make it home so he'd stay at the hotel, that is if there was a room available.  Hank took his leave and was brave enough to take Carrie's hand she offered wondering if she felt the electric jolt at the touch.

"Hope we see you more often now that you know we're here," she said throwing him the lifeline he desperately wanted.

"Sure thing.  Now my trips to town will offer more to look forward to than a peppermint stick."  She smiled, her first real smile since he'd seen her today.  "It was mighty good to see you and your brother again, Miss Carrie.  I hope to hear you sing again one of these days too.  It'd be worth a whole trip to town if I didn't get anything but a chance to listen to your purty voice once more."

This time she gave him one of her broad smiles, and he could finally see the Carrie he'd known on the trail, the carefree girl before her parents were killed.  "I expect that'll be possible one of these times.  Good night, Hank." 

He realized he was still holding her hand and let go as if it was a hot ember.  "Goodnight, Carrie.  Thank you folks for the good supper.  A bachelor like me doesn't get that opportunity often, you know."

"Then you best get yourself a wife," Nate said matter of factly.  "Just make sure she's a good cook first."

"Among other things.  Good night Hank." The uncle laughed and shut the door.

The hotel clerk offered him a skeleton key and just said, "I can't quite remember how many fellas came in tonight, so just try the doors and look in to see if the bed's occupied.  Hopefully, you'll find an empty one.  If so, we'll settle up in the morning."  He yawned and went back to sit in front of the fire.  Hank scared the dickens out of a couple of men opening their doors and looking in before he found an empty room.  He locked it but wondered if the clerk would send somebody else up to search late that night with another skeleton key.  Instead of that, thoughts kept intruding tromping all over his sleep keeping him restless.  What a difference a day can make.

Hank threw himself into his work with his orchard and garden, then tramped off through the mountains but could not shake off thoughts of her.  She hovered like a halo over his mind.  He smiled whenever he thought of Nate grown into a gawky stage, but frowned at his thoughts of Carrie, thoughts that he couldn't put a halter on as that of a little sister.  His heart pounded like a frisky colt kicking dirt up around a corral.  He found himself continuously searching for a reason to go to town, but always came up empty.  He didn't need anything.

Instead, he took a bushel of apples over to his nearest neighbors, a promise kept.  He enjoyed watching the rangey kids chomping away with juice running down their chins.  The adults caught up on whatever news they'd heard that somehow or other made it up to their neck of the woods.  Politics seemed as far away as the far ocean having little to do with their existence.  It was the neighbor's news from town that shook Hank in his boots.

"Have you heard about that songbird in the settlement?  She's goin' to give a concert as a fundraiser for the church.  The refreshments offered afterwards would be worth the trip in, but it's too far with a family.  It's something a single man could make a trip worthwhile for though."

"When is it?"


"Can you send your boy to take care of my stock for me again if I go?  Do you need me to get anything in town for you while I'm there?"

The young man took their list then high-tailed it home.   He left at dawn the next morning.  A generous burlap bag of apples was tied it to his saddle.  Nate would like to bite into them for a fact.  Everybody liked his apples, but Hank was thinking of a pair of rosy lips and pearly whites opening for a taste. 

It was a good thing he came to town early enough to get a good seat.  The church was full an hour before the concert with a crowd spilling down the stairs and out into the yard.  She came in a side door at the back while her family was escorted to the reserved front row.  He wished he had the nerve to squeeze in next to Nate, but kept his seat.  What a fortunate twist of events to have visited his neighbors and find out about the concert yesterday.  Some things were meant to be, he was sure of it.

Hank thought he had died and gone to heaven until the last song when Carrie put him in agony.  He thought she had seen him but she kept her eyes elsewhere until the last selection.  As she sang it, she never took her gaze off him piercing him to his soul.  He did not miss an arrow aimed at his heart by each word of the lyrics of "Greensleeves."

"Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my true love, Greensleves.
Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world part
But my heart remains in captivity.
I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.
If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.
Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.
Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.
Ah Greensleeves, now farewell adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my true love, Greensleeves. 
The audience erupted in feet pounding, clapping, and whistles coming to their feet.  Hank lost sight of her.  He had to wait over an hour for a moment with Carrie though Nate had hovered around him like a moth to a lantern.  She finally came forward with her hands extended.  He pulled her close and kissed her on the top of her head as he had done when she was a slip of a little thing.  When the young woman stepped back, he realized what liberties he'd taken.  "Sorry, Miss Carrie, but your singing took me back to those happy times around the campfire.  I wouldn't have missed tonight for the world."

She did not let go of his hand, and he found himself walking her home.  He didn't know if heaven could promise better than this.  Every brush of  their shoulders touching was like a flash of lightening with his heart booming in answering thunder.  When Hank came back to earth, he saw that her aunt and uncle had taken Nate in hand walking ahead with the kid looking over his shoulder winking at him.  Their walk slowed as he was in no hurry to end this treasured moment.  When he felt her shiver, Hank took off his coat and put it over her shoulders.  Under the moonlight she fingered his sleeves sending shivers up his arm.  Still wearing green sleeves?

"They're pretty thread bare, but yes.  My Ma made them for me, wove the fabric herself.  They're a comfort of home I've always cherished."

"The greensleeves in the song, some say, come from a knight wearing green on his sleeve as a symbol of fidelity."

She had laid her head on his arm breathing in the scent of many a campfire and pine tree combined.  "Have you remembered yet?"

"What am I suppose to remember?  I remember the little singing bird from the wagon train who has flown her cage to reach for the sky."

"Nothing else?  Didn't the song bring anything to mind."

"It brought plenty to mind, but perhaps not proper enough for me to speak of."

"Try me."  She had pulled him to a stop and turned him to face her.

"Oh, Carrie, I have no right to speak."

"You have every right.  Do you remember what I made you promise?"

Hank's thoughts were spinning, all mixed in with the words to the song she sang tonight and to a farewell years before.  He tried to slow down and call to mind what that child had said to him as they parted..."You had me promise you..."


"Promise that if we ever met again..."

"Promise what...?"

Hank ran his hand through his hair, and finally admitted, "Help me out.  You seem to remember more clearly than I do, as stirred up as you make me feel just now."

She ran her hands up his arm now, driving him crazy but not looking into his eyes, "I said I would wait for you, and you said, if you ever came back, or if you saw me again, you promised to seriously consider...that is, if you ever saw us again..."  She looked up into his steady gaze.  "Here I am.  I've waited for you."

"I said I would come for you and take you home.  Is that it?"

She nodded demurely looking down.

"You've been waiting for me?"  He said it amazed.  "You were just a kid.  I can't hold you to that if you don't want me to."

"Didn't you listen to the lyrics of the song, Greensleeves?"

"I didn't miss a word.  'My heart remains in captivity..."

"Come once again and love me," she finished.

Her face was turned up to his and he kept his promise, once forgotten, now sealing it with a binding kiss as she gripped his sleeves of green with his jacket falling from her shoulders unnoticed in their embrace. 


A short story
By Celia Jolley


"A most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature--
to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles,
has a gentleness of character so adaptable to recommend them.
He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity."
Jane Austen

Nate pulled the wagon up and tied the reigns well behind the train station.  The old plugs  might still have some bolt left in them seeings how the train wasn't something they visited every day.  He was sorry he had opened his mouth to ask his neighbor if he needed anything from town.  He was sorrier when his friend had asked him to bring home his granddaughter from the Cinnabar Gulch Depot.  It wasn't the kind of hauling Nate had in mind.  Being neighborly had its limits.  But when Buck started his limp, bent over holding his back, he begrudgingly said okay.  She was probably some flippity-do-dah from finishing school back east.  He heard she'd been orphaned by her parents and was now moving west to be with her closest relative who happened to be his neighbor.  Buck needed a girl around the place like he needed a hole in his head, but orphans tended to be inconvenient like that.

The black iron train could be felt as well as heard rumbling down the tracks puffing its smoke like a skillet on fire.  It never failed to get his heart beating.  Nate berated himself forgetting to ask Buck what she might look like in case more than one female got off the passenger cars, however unlikely that might be.  He didn't really know whether to expect a pesky girl-child or an old maid.  Then a womanly form emerged from the cloud of steam.  She wasn't either of the above.  Nate was tongue tied and more shook up than bronc-busting a wild mustang. He just stared at her like the rest of the men who liked milling around the depot waiting for something interesting to transpire, and it just did.  He wondered why no one came forward to grab her bag, then realized that was his job.   His mouth was already hanging open, but nothing came out, so he took her bag and led the way to the wagon.  When he finally got the nerve to look over his shoulder, he saw he had made her practically run after him with his long strides.  He stopped and waited taking in her flushed cheeks, and long lashes as she looked down to carefully step around manure piles and ruts in the dirty street.   Glancing up, she flashed him a smile that about melted him into his boots.  Now, he was perturbed.  No town gals had ever shaken him up like this.  He had no idea what was the matter with him, but he answered her bruskly when she asked his name.  "Name's Nate."

"I am Miss McNair.  Am I to assume you are taking me to my grandfather's ranch?"

"Yes ma'am, we're neighbors.  Buck's sorry he wasn't able to make the trip to town: he's some crippled up with rheumatism."

Nate had no idea why he felt he had to make excuses for Buck.  The man should have been here to claim her for himself. He was beginning to think his neighbor was a coward afraid to face his own kin.

"Oh, then he probably will need me to help him out around the house.  I do so want to be helpful, not a burden."

Coming to the wagon, he tossed her bag in the back and turned to face her.  She practically ran pell mell into his chest.  He had to put up his hands on her shoulders to keep her from the impact.  It shook him worse than colliding with a stampeding steer.

"Oh, excuse me, Mr. Nate.  I wasn't looking where I was going so bent on watching where I stepped.  Is this your wagon?"

In answer he picked her up by the waist and plopped her on the seat before she could blink.


He guessed he wasn't use to handling females.  She was so light that it was lucky he didn't accidently pitch her over the other side.  "Sorry, Miss. Your trunks should be off the train by now, and I can put them in the back and take you to your grandpa directly."

He kept his eyes straight ahead ignoring the looks of the folks who had gathered to take in the sight of the newcomer.  Most had heard that Buck's granddaughter was coming, but didn't know when she would arrive or in what condition. 

"Is something wrong, Mr. Nate?  People seem to be gawking."

He managed a quick glance her way before jerking his eyes away saying, "You aren't the average run of the mill kind of visitor we get in these parts.  People just kind of hunger for something different once in a while, and you're it."


He noticed she was trying to smile, but looked half scared.  Of all things, crying out loud, she was still wearing her mourning black.  People should have a little more respect than to stare.  "Too bad you didn't have a black veil to hide behind so you wouldn't look so conspicuously pretty."  It wasn't what he had meant to say at all.  Instead of slapping himself, he whipped the hind ends of the old plow horses with the reigns, and they switched their tails as if he was a pesky fly. He decided right then and there that he had better not try to talk much on the way back to the ranch.  No telling what else his tongue would get twisted up saying.  He just loaded up her trunks and left town forgetting to stop for the things that he had asked the grocer to get together for him.. 

A mile out of town, it dawned on him that he had not picked up his order at the store and suddenly burst out, "Dang!  I forgot my coffee."

When she gasped, he felt he should apologize for something but didn't quite know what.  Oh yeah, it was his cheap swearing.  "Sorry, miss.  My ma taught me better than that.  I'm not used to being around a real lady.  You aren't anything like ol' Buck."

"Tell me about him.  I don't have any memories of my grandfather.  I was born after my parents moved back east and don't know quite what to expect.  There was just the one letter he sent that said to come on out to stay with him."

Nate grunted.  He had written that letter for Buck and had tried to soften up the edges a little for the man's granddaughter.  He'd of tried harder if he had known what species of female she had turned up  being."

"Buck and I each run some cattle, grow a little feed and a few provision crops to tide us over.  There's nothing fancy about ranch life.  I reckon it's been over twenty years since he's had a woman at his place."

"Yes, my grandmother has been gone longer than that and that's about how long it's been since mother married my father.  My father was a minister, you know.  Is there a church near by?  I didn't notice one in town."

Nate propped his hat up off his forehead and wiped away the beaded sweat with his sleeve.  "Yes, there's a Baptist and a Methodist church.  People go one or t'other."

"Which one does my grandfather attend?"

"Well, I don't think he's been going lately, with his rheumatism and all."  There he was making Buck's excuses for him again.

"I hope I can walk if it's not too far or hitch a ride if he is so crippled up.  It seems like I've come at an opportune time if he's that laid up."

"Oh, it comes and goes.  Most times he 'pears to be just fine.  But when he stops to rest on Sunday, he just kinda seizes up."  There he went again.  Buck owed him big time for this.  "I'm afraid it's too far to walk, the ranch being nearly ten miles from town and all.  If he can't take you this Sunday, I'll try to come by for you since I have to go pick up the groceries I forgot."  He didn't know where that came from.  Those words just kinda snuck up on him bypassing his brain completely.

"You shop on Sundays?"  She seemed shocked.

"Well, not exactly.  The orders all ready paid for and boxed up.  I just have to bring it home."  It wasn't that warm of a day to be sweating like he was.  He had to use his handkerchief to wipe his face and neck.

"Oh, I see."  Perhaps my grandfather will be feeling up to going to church Sunday after all, I hope anyway."

Nate got the point.  She didn't want to go with a Sabbath breaker to town if she could help it.  "I know the ladies of town would surely like to make you feel welcome."  The ones closest to her age would more likely be eaten up with green-eyed jealously, but perhaps the matrons would be kind having their hearts touched by the thought of the young thing left to survive in the wilds with ol' Buck Henderson.  As for him, it was going to cramp his style for his Saturday night checkers game with his neighbor.  Now he'd have to get all spruced up before going over to just hang out with the old man.

As the miles went by, they both gradually let their defenses down, and got to know a preview of each other's stories, kinda neighborly like.  Shoot, any kin of Buck's couldn't be too bad even if she was a citified female sort.  He could spend the rest of his born days just looking at her loveliness.  Her smile was to die for.  He'd have to spend each and every week dreaming up ways just to see that splash across her face like sunshine on a snow bank all sparkly like.  Nate was sorry when the ten mile drive had gone by lickety-split.  "Here we are."

The front door gaped open and Buck staggered out the door to greet them.  He looked like he'd been stabbed when he saw his granddaughter and grabbed for the porch post.  "My goodness, I thought for a minute it was your mother coming here to see her old Pa.  You are the spitting image.  Come here, little gal."  The old man's dog was wrangling himself in a knot grinning and whining a greeting as if he'd whelped her himself.

Miss McNair hopped down before Nate could offer her his hand.  She went sobbing into her grandfather's embrace.  "There, there, darling.  I miss her too.  Something's just not right when a daughter goes before her old man.  You must miss her something fierce and your pa too."

Nate had never seen this side of Buck and busied himself getting the two trunks down from the back and carried them one at a time into the house while the two shared their grief.  Nate stopped and stared in the doorway.  Well good for Buck.  The place was practically shining.  He had been busy cleaning while Nate met the train.  It even smelled half way decent with a bouquet of wild flowers filling the air with their nonsense.

The two walked in still hugging and sniffling hardly noticing Nate standing around hat in hand.  The stew on the stove was sure smelling mighty fine, but far be it from him to ask to stay for supper like he usually would.  People could say what they might about Buck Henderson, but the man could cook.

As if reading his thoughts, Buck offered, "Seeing as how you hauled my precious cargo home from town, you might as well join us for a little supper, Nate."

"Don't mind if I do, thanks, neighbor."  Nate began setting the table like he usually did when he dropped in at dinner time.  "I'll have to high tail it home soon as the dishes are done to see to my livestock though."

After dinner, Miss McNair was beginning to look a little wilted.  It had been a long cross-country trip for a bitty little thing like her.  Buck had best let her go to bed with the chickens.

"Do you have everything you need to put her up, Buck?  I've got an extra blanket if you need."

"That might be a good idea.  I was thinking I need to rig up a partition to give my little lady some privacy."

"I'll drop it by tomorrow after I move the herd to a different pasture."  When Buck went out to his barn to do chores,  Nate insisted on her sitting in the only comfortable chair while he did the dishes before taking his leave stealing glances while he dried the plates.  Buck came in just as he finished up.

"See you tomorrow Miss McNair.  Thanks for the dinner, Buck."   The young woman was barely holding her eyes open sitting by the fireplace with her feet propped up on a log petting Buck's hound Sweet Lips.  Nate was surprised how much she seemed to be right at home in her grandfather's house.  He hated to leave and go back to his cold, empty cabin after seeing the difference a woman could make just filling a place with her essence.

"Good night, Mr. Nate.  Thank you for bringing me to my grandfather's."  She gave him one of those smiles that could warm him all the way home.  If that's all he had to live on the rest of his life, he could die a happy man.  That Buck was one fortunate ol' buzzard.

 "Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing;
but I have never been in love; it is not my way,
or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall."
Jane Austen
By the time Nate got home and stirred a fire up in his own stove, he felt his good sense returning allowing his head to float back onto his shoulders.  He shook himself, "Wow, I don't envy Buck keeping fellas at bay.  They'll be circling around his granddaughter thicker than bees on honey.  He rubbed the ears of his dog who eagerly looked up hanging on his every word.  "Good boy.  It's fine being just the two of us fellas around here.  I'll keep my Saturday checker night with Buck, but will keep myself scarce otherwise.  I don't like how I nearly lost my senses over a pretty skirt."  Just saying it took his mind back to Miss McNair's figure from the tips of her toes stepping around the piles in the street to the whisps of her hair escaping around her beautiful face and everything in between.  He'd always thought his dog had the prettiest brown eyes in the world, but now knew it wasn't true.  He'd seen prettier.   
To be on the cautious side, he found Buck out working his cows and gave him the extra bedroll blanket as promised without having to go by the cabin. 
"I wished you'd come up to the house and help me nail it up.  I'd like your advice on whether I should add a lean-to and the best way you think I ought to go about it."
"Sure thing, Buck, but can it wait a couple more days till I come for our Saturday checker game?"
"You that busy?  I'll just go about it by myself."  Buck feigned being hurt.
"No, I'll come by.  I'll ride with you now, if you're ready."
Miss McNair acted like it was normal to be setting the table for three when he walked in the door. 
"I'll have dinner on the table in two shakes of a lamb's tail."
"No hurry, Miss.  Your grandpa and I are just hanging a blanket for your privacy.  What'd you think, Buck?  Did you want to attach it to this beam?"  The ceiling was low enough that Nate could hammer it up without standing on anything.  Buck just handed him the nails.  It was done before she called them to the table.
"I'm perfecting the habit of dropping in at just the right time for a bite to eat.  Thanks."  Nate said it, but eyed the cornbread suspiciously.  It didn't look quite the same as Buck's.  Before he could take a bite, Buck bowed his head and prayed.  Nate was caught off guard.  He'd never heard the man pray before.  He put the butter knife down and bowed his head respectfully. 
She passed the men steaming bowls of beans.  Nate stopped in mid-chew.  The beans were still hard, barely worth eating.  He looked at Buck who signaled him to shut-up and chew.  Nate was sure going to miss Buck's cooking.  The little miss needed some lessons, but Buck would have to tip-toe around the subject delicately so as not to discourage her.  Feigning fullness, Nate refused seconds and scooted back to make his escape.  Buck stopped him.

"What do you think about a lean to."

"Will it be for you or Miss McNair?"

"For her.  I'll just keep on sleeping here in the main part, but she'll need her own space."

"You'll want to put it where she can best take advantage of the heat.  How about cutting through the wall here near the fireplace.  That way she can keep her door open at night to let the heat come through."

"Now you're thinking.  I'll haul some lumber home from town on Sunday."

Nate looked at Miss McNair to see what she thought about this business on the Sabbath.  She raised her eyebrows but kept her eyes downcast and her mouth shut.

"I'll come by after work every day for awhile to help you build it.  We should be able to pound it out in a few days." 

"I appreciate you going to all that trouble.  Thank you."

"See you Saturday, after supper," Nate said purposefully.  Even he could cook beans better than what he just forced down though the cornbread was surprisingly good.

Come Saturday, Nate jumped in the creek after a full day of riding, and froze any trail dirt left on him.  He was starting his winter beard at least, so it cut down the shaving time.  He just heated a bowl of leftover beans and crumbled stale crackers in and was on his way as soon as he could swallow.  His dog was happy to lick the bowl clean.  He sure hoped Buck taught that girl a thing or two in the kitchen sooner than later.  He'd become accustomed to looking forward to the weekend shared meal with his old buddy and would miss it.

Nate braced himself for meeting up with Miss McNair, but didn't prepare himself for the line of horses tied up to the porch rail.  She was drawing more flies than a fresh cow pie.  Buck was relieved to see him.  The old man scowled back towards the room full of uninvited gawkers. 

"Seems, my granddaughter's rounded up a whole herd of longhorns.  Come in if you dare, partner," he grumbled.  "They're a little edgy jabbing each other enough to start a stampede.  Good.  You didn't wear any cologne.  I couldn't stand another whiff of man perfume."

Sure enough, the room smelled like somebody had spilt whole bottles of scent and mixed it together till it reeked like the musk of a skunk.  Miss McNair looked pale and backed into a corner like a lamb among wolves.  She came over to greet him grabbing his hand and pulling him over to sit by her.  "So glad to see you, Mr. Nate."

In spite of the company, Buck calmly set up the checker game in front of the fire where they ignored the walls lined with suitors.  Still, Nate stole a few glances at Miss McNair who was nervously chewing her lip listening to men interrupting each other with braggart stories of prowess.  Fish-Face Slokum was saying, "The other day I roped two steers at one time with a rope in each hand."  Cootie Crawford was saying, "I noodled me a granddaddy catfish that was a hundred pounds at least."  Baby-face Cunningham offered, "I shot a cougar at two hundred yards who had just downed a six point buck, a two for one deal."  Fatty Henry said, "I wrestled a six hundred pound bull to the ground, took the branding iron out of my teeth and marked the sucker all by myself." 

Finally, Buck had all he could take, pushed the checker board over and croaked.  "You fellas all need to high-tail it outta hear before you singe Miss McNair's ears with anymore of your whoppers.  Tell you what I'm going to do, boys.  You can come out one at a time from now on Saturday nights till the October boxed lunch auction.  After that, my granddaughter can pick who gets a second invite.  Taking a pack of cards out, he shuffled and handed them out.  You go figure where that leaves you in the line-up, but get. 

Outside, you could hear the men jousting, "My Queen takes your Jack...I got the Ace!" and so on as the horses carried away the pack of suitors.

"Sorry, Grandpa.  I never imagined I would bring that kind of trouble down around your ears.  That was awful!"

"Don't you worry, sugar.  Your Gramps can handle them for you.  Just you tell me if any of them yahoos get out of line and Nate here will clean their plow.  Isn't that right, pal."

Nate looked sharply up at his old friend's eyes and saw the twinkle and put down his initial huff.  "Sure thing, Miss McNair.  If any of them so much as drool like a cross-eyed  love sick puppy, I might have to shoot them for rabies."

After her laughter, "Thank you gentlemen," she brought over plates and forks.  Nate groaned silently afraid of what might follow.  But a beautiful pie was set before them and generous slices were plopped on their saucers.

"That looks mighty fine, Miss McNair."  Still, Nate was hesitant to taste it however until he saw Buck plow into it with a gusto.  There was only one thing finer than a beautiful woman and that was a piece of apple pie made by a beautiful woman.  Nate thought he'd died and gone to heaven.

Buck winked at his relief.  "She can't cook diddly, but she can bake.  We decided to divide the kitchen duties so we can each do what we know best.  I imagine I'll look rounder than St. Nicolas by Christmas if I keep this feasting up."

"Grow out your white beard and you can pass out the gifts at the school's Christmas tree this year then.  Miss McNair might have to doctor up your red long john's into a more presentable Santa suit though."

The rest of the evening relaxed into a pleasant time topped by seconds of the most delicious pie Nate had ever sampled.  "Don't let out this secret of your pie baking superiority or I won't be able to afford to bid on your basket come October, Miss McNair."  There he went again, saying things he didn't even know he was thinking.  Her basket was sure to go down in the town's history as the highest bidding war of all time, and he doubted that he would be able to afford it."

"You can call me Elizabeth.  Grandpa calls me Betsy."

"You can call me plain Nate, instead of Mr. then."

"All right, Plain Nate, if that's what you want."  She winked at him.  Winked!  Lord have mercy.  He'd better call it a night.


"I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a fine pair of eyes
in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."
Jane Austen
Buck insisted he eat  supper with them as long as he helped with the new lean-to.  Between the two of them, it got done by mid-week meaning Nate was going to miss Buck's home cooking and baking by Elizabeth.  She'd made the best loaf of wheat bread to go with Buck's meatloaf, then some nut bread, and cookies not to mention the pecan pie after church.  He'd ridden into town Sunday with his neighbors, but got the lumber and his order from the grocer while Buck took Elizabeth to the Baptist church.  That way the man could play the part of a saint if he wanted to in his granddaughter's eyes by not profaning the Sabbath.  Besides, Nate had given up on church a long time ago and didn't want to be a hypocrite going for appearances sake.  He liked the woman, but wouldn't bend his character to appear to be something he wasn't, a Christian.  As he waited for them in the wagon, he couldn't help hearing the hymn singing at the closing of the service reminding him of his childhood days sitting by his mother on the pew listening to her lovely voice blending with the others.  She always looked her happiest sitting in church.  Nate hardened his heart before he could journey further down that road.
Elizabeth was quiet squeezed between him and her grandfather on the way home.
"Did you meet any of the town's lady folk?" he finally asked.
Buck huffed.  Nate took it to mean that the girls had not been very friendly.
"The minister's wife was kind.  She invited us to come to dinner next Sunday," Elizabeth offered.
"You'd think she had the plague the way the others hung back and stared.   They were probably just jealous that all the single men of the pack are howling at the moon about her.  Those yee-haas fell all over themselves trying to shake her hand.  Did any of them squeeze you too hard, hun?" It was obvious her grandpa was none too happy. 
"It didn't hurt much," was all she admitted.
"I'll bet the Methodist Church got emptied of all its single mankind as they hopped over to become  Baptists today," Nate joked.
"You mean, you weren't there?  I just figured if you weren't in church with us, then you must be a Methodist."
"No, I ain't nothing, Miss McNair."  Nate let the distance he suddenly felt formalize his address of her.  He'd rather be honest, than give false impressions.
"Oh, I see."  She was quiet for most of the rest of the ride home even though they shared a nice Sunday dinner of roast beef and potatoes, green beans, and more of her pecan pie that Nate let cream run down all over.  He wanted to lick the saucer, but held back even when Buck did.  Since Nate wouldn't be riding to town to church with them anymore, he'd be missing some mighty fine Sunday dinners.  Too bad.  At least he'd have his Saturday nights with dinner and checkers to look forward to.
The following Saturday, seeing a horse already tied up to the railing, Nate remembered Buck's arrangement for Elizabeth's callers.  He scowled.  He'd hoped they wouldn't come until after supper.  This was his time with his neighbors, and they were horning in. 
Elizabeth answered the door, "Welcome, Nate.  I was hoping to see you here.
"Of course.  I haven't missed a Saturday night checker game with Buck since Halle's Comet." 
"Just in time for supper, as usual too," Buck laughed.
Nate ignored Skinny Kenny's glare as the four sat down to pan fried steak and baked potatoes. 
"We'll have bread pudding later.  It's still in the oven," Elizabeth offered.
Nate let Kenny help the woman with the dishes afraid he'd snap the smirk off Skinny's mouth with a dish towel if he dared to so much as touch her hand.  Instead, he concentrated on the game Buck was setting up.
When the clock struck eight, the old man sent the suitor packing while Nate gathered the dirty dessert saucers.  "That was delicious, as usual.  You sure do know how to bake.  I was kind of sorry Kenny got to taste your delicacies 'cause now the secret will be out."
"Don't worry, I took the credit for all the food, including the dessert, just so he wouldn't be getting any ideas," Buck admitted.  "So what was Skinny Kenny filling your head with while we were having our game?" he asked.  "Blamed fella knows my ears aren't as good as they used to be and spoke so low so I couldn't hear him."
Nate thought it had been just him.  He'd barely paid attention to the game straining to hear what notions the young man was trying to sway Elizabeth with.
"Oh, he was just telling me how the Cinnabar Gulch Mercantile would be his one day, how he planned to expand it, take over the competition, and offer Paris fashions, lace, and unmentionables..."
"That's it!" stormed her grandfather.  "Talking like that he better not show his face around here again if he knows what's up from down."
"That's fine with me grandfather.  He seems enamored a little more with the world's goods as if they were what made life worth living instead of what is truly of value.  He didn't seem to understand that it would never be enough, and he would always want more including what others had like the other store in town.  It was shameful how he talked of running them out of business as if it wasn't a real family's livelihood at stake.  He acted like I would find that alluring.  Rather, I found him quite despicable actually."
"Ha!  I knew I shouldn't worry about it.  You sure got him pegged: greed.  His father is just like him.  The apple didn't fall far from the tree in that boy.  That's why I take my business across the street."
"Perhaps I shouldn't judge too harshly.  Having gone through loss like I have, I learned the lesson of what is of greatest value when I lost my parents.  Leaving almost all our worldly goods behind meant nothing compared to how much I miss them.  Yet, I do not grieve as those who have no hope.  I know I will see them again someday."
Buck blew his nose into his handkerchief, and Nate saw the tears pooling in her eyes as they thought of those departed who they held dear above all else.  He was amazed at her words though as if she preached a whole sermon in a minute that would echo in eternity.  He tugged at his collar nervously.  "I guess I'd best be heading home."
"Are you sure you won't ride to church with us tomorrow?  You will always be welcome."
"No thank you, Miss Elizabeth.  Sunday will be another day for me on the ranch."
"Sure you won't change your mind, Pal?  I could use you to help box her in when those badgers attack."
"I'm sure you can handle it Buck.  Good night."
Nate argued with himself all the way home.  It wouldn't be right to go to church just to spend the day with her.  He knew he was a better man than most of the fellas who darkened the church's doorway.  He just wouldn't become one of the hypocrite that they were.  He'd made it fine this far without God.

"I do not want people to be very agreeable,
as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal."
Jane Austen

He didn't see Buck or his granddaughter for an entire week.  It made the days drag since he'd spent most of the previous week seeing them daily.  He'd find himself dreaming of what she would bake this Saturday or dreaming of something else he couldn't admit to.  Then he'd force his thoughts back to his cows.  He didn't even talk to his dog like he used to.  He was brooding.  Found himself swearing when he hit his thumb with a hammer or got kicked by a yearling calf.  Dang!  He'd not lost that much control over himself for a long time.  He tried to tell himself that he was a better man than that.  Just thinking about that long line of stupid suitors was enough to bring anger to boil from a low simmer.  Maybe he was just being protective.  Yeah, that was it.
Saturday night, he made an appearance early trying to beat the next caller in line, but was too late.
"Dang fool showed up before evening chores.  Made him do them for me while I cooked dinner," muttered Buck.  
Jimboy had Miss McNeil practically cowering by the fireplace.  The man had his arm leaning on the mantle blocking her in.  Her cheeks were flushed.  Nate strode over and made the swain face him and shake his hand like a man.  "Howdy, Jimboy.  How are you, this evening, Miss McNair?"
She escaped to the table and began setting it furiously.  "Fine, thank you, Mr. Nate."  He slipped into the routine of setting the table with her while her would-be beau glowered from the corner where she slipped his trap.  "Be careful, Miss Elizabeth, this guy fancies himself a ladies man and has a reputation around town," he whispered nearer her face than he ever had allowed before taking in her scent of roses as her stray hair tickled his cheek.
"Thank you, Nate."  She pulled away. 
Nate was upset that Buck had not sent him packing.  Jimboy's reputation was well known.  He'd even been rumored to have ruined a girl that he was not man enough to offer his protection to.  Nate knew he wouldn't pay much attention to the checker game again tonight.
After dinner, he noticed that she did not offer any dessert though his nose suggested she'd been busy baking. 
Buck surprised him while he was helping Elizabeth do up the dishes by challenging Jimboy to a game of checkers.  "Heard you play a good game knowing your way around the board," he said suggestively. 
Jimboy met his stare and glared.  "Yep.  I usually win."
This was one game Nate wouldn't mind watching.  It was fierce, but Buck prevailed.
"HA!  Crown you!  Sometimes the old guy knows what you're thinking and anticipates your next move.  Just a little advice to take home with you."  With that, Buck handed him his hat and shoved him towards the door.  "I trust you know your way around in the dark.  Good night, young man."
It was all he could do to keep from laughing at Buck's triumph.  Nate did break out into a full grin when Elizabeth put dessert plates and brought out a pumpkin pie.  She'd even whipped up some cream to go with us. She was an amazing woman.
"I thought I smelled cinnamon and other good stuff.  That's a sight for sore eyes."
"I told her not to waste any sweets on that fella.  That twig ain't worth hanging a possum's tail on."
"Sounds about right to me.  I don't think Miss Elizabeth will miss his sweet talking, if I'm not mistaken."
"You saw how he cornered me.  Thank you for helping me.  I don't want to waste anymore time thinking about him."  With that she snuffed out that man's aspirations, much to Nate's relief.
Saturday morning, Nate rode his horse into town to pick up some nails and a few things he needed.  He noticed a group of young men huddled around Jimboy at the Cinnabar Hardware Store and Lumber Yard.  He walked up to listen unseen behind a stack of lumber.  The crumb was talking dirty about Miss Elizabeth saying stuff about her anatomy that he had no right to come out of his filthy mouth.  Before he could walk around the wall of boards, the louse was bragging about what he had done with her.
Jimboy's eyes registered shock when Nate came around the corner and strode toward him.  The last thing that man saw was Nate's fist coming at him before he fell like a rock.  He wouldn't be spouting any more lies about Elizabeth McNair if he wanted to keep on living.  The boys around them pulled Nate off before he could do serious damage to the lascivious creep.  
"Don't believe everything you hear, young men.  Buck and I were with Miss McNair the whole time this jerk was, and he's just giving you the swill from his filthy mind.  If any of the rest of you plan to come calling, I suggest you treat her like the lady she is or you'll answer to me.  Is that understood?"  They let go of him and dragged Jimboy off who was crying like a baby looking fearfully back at Nate to see if he was coming after him again.
It took the ten miles riding home before Nate could calm down.  He had to purposely unclench his fists and his teeth and take deep breaths to unknot his stomach.  That still did not take away the vision of purity that clung to his mind like a burr.  "God help me."  Nate did not even know if that was a prayer or not.   He didn't even notice the condition his fist was in or care even when he did find it swollen and cut when he got home.

"It is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. 
A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her."
Jane Austen
Nate wasn't sure if he should steer clear of Buck's until the next Saturday.  It would take a while for his fists to heal up, but in the end, he decided to head over as usual.  When he came in, Buck grunted and gave a knowing look.  "Sounds like you were sure busy earlier today taking care of a little problem."
Elizabeth looked up from the counter where she was whipping cream.  "A problem?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle."
"Look at your hand!"
"I'm fine.  Ran into a loco steer, but I took care of him."
She came over anyway with a jar of utter ointment.  She took his hand in her soft ones and turned it over examining the torn skin.  Then she began rubbing the ointment over his wounds.  It was all he could do to sit there and take her caresses.  His eyes hovered over her taking in her innocence and beauty.  She was a young thing and didn't understand what affect she had on a man. 
Finally she said when she was done, "Now should I offer to treat the poor cow you encountered?"
"NO!" Both Buck and Nate burst out in unison and she jumped back.
"I was just kidding.  Of course, I won't get near any of your herd."
"Sorry, Betsy.  Thank you for your help with my hands."
It was the first time he had ever called her by the pet name her grandfather used.  She blushed and turned back to her mixing bowl and spoon.
It was after supper and dark before a caller knocked on the door.  Buck let him in.  It was Skip.  He'd been called Skippy up till a year or so ago when he finally put on his man pants and settled it once and for all with his fists, but his face had paid dearly for the fight. 
He nodded to Nate with eyes simmering in unadulterated envy.  He'd been there when Nate had struck swiftly and unanswered earlier that day.  Nate hoped he'd have sense enough to keep his mouth shut around the lady and tried to cower him with a look to keep quiet saying, "Saw you earlier today.   There's no need to bore the lady with the details of our lumberyard conversation I don't reckon."
"Can't recall hearing much said to repeat that would interest her no how, seems how you were needing to nail a trap shut or something like that."
Buck snorted while Elizabeth looked from one to the other and shrugged returning to washing dishes.  With his hand in sad shape, Nate had not offered to help tonight.  Buck did.
"I'm not feeling much like checkers tonight.  Perhaps you'll play Buck in my stead, Skip?"
Buck beat him quickly and badly and was sending him on his way when Skip walked past Nate and whispered with his gleam of undiluted envy, "You think you have this sewn up in the bag, with Miss McNair.  Just cause you're neighbors and Buck's checker partner, doesn't mean you can win her attentions.  I think I can outbid you at the box social, and you and her grandfather won't be invited to be anywhere around." Then he left.
"What did he say to you?" Buck asked scratching his head.
"Something about the box social.  Seems to me that we won't be invited along if he wins your lunch, Miss Elizabeth."
"That man is green with envy if I've ever seen one," chortled Buck.
"Jealous of what?  Why?" asked Elizabeth.
Nate wasn't about to answer her that. 
Buck thought, then said, "I guess these town boys think that Nate practically bunks here receiving all your attention while I've made them wait in line for a nibble at a time over the weeks."
"I wish somebody realized I am not an object of courting but a real person here living with my grandfather because I came from back East needing a home.  I never did invite nor desire any man's undivided attention. "I wish, as well as anybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way."* (Jane Austen)
Nate rubbed his chin wondering if those comments were pointed at him, and she broke in as if reading his thoughts.
"...of course you are a friend of the family and are welcome to keep coming to play checkers with Grandfather.  I wasn't referring to you."
"I can make them stay away, sweetheart.  Just say the word."
"I'd rather get it over with, but I dread the box social and will close the door after that.  I will not mislead anyone who might think I have special intentions toward them."
Nate coughed and got up to leave.  "I'll play checkers myself next week, Buck.  I'm a little tired of seeing people lose the game in my place."
"You're on, pal.  See you next Saturday."
"Good night, Miss McNair."
She sighed as the door closed.  He had gone back to formalities because of her venting frustration at the callers.  It wasn't what she meant.
"It was a gloomy prospect, and all that she could do
was to throw a mist over it, and hope when the mist cleared away,
she should see something else."
Jane Austen 

The next Saturday, Nate couldn't make the checker game.  His cows had got into some loco weed and he had to search it out before he lost any more head. 
Elizabeth answered the door with a smile which fell when it wasn't Nate, but Chub.  He hadn't change out of his overalls or even bothered to clean up or shave.  He'd ridden his mule over because it was easier to catch and bridle than the horse.  He came in and sat at he table like he was waiting to be served. 
"Would you care to join us for dinner?" Elizabeth quipped.
"Don't mind if I do.  I heard you are quite the little baker.  I hope to marry a good baker someday who will make my meals end on a sweet note.  My little girls try and come up with something, but it's not much to brag about.  They're usually too busy with the gardening, milking, herding, sewing, cleaning, washing, fixing dinner, and such to have  much time for delicacies."
Elizabeth's eyebrows arched looking at her grandfather.  "How many children do you have?"
Her grandfather spoke through tight lips.  "What do you have six or seven, Chub, and how long's it been since your wife died."
"I have something around that number.  Haven't counted 'em lately.  The wife's been gone a year or two.  Doctor said she worked herself into an early grave.  That's why I'm careful to not overdue.  I do what I need to get by.  That's why a man has children to get the chores done.  My oldest gal is just like her mother, likely put herself into an early grave too," he bragged. 
Buck had a coughing fit just then while Elizabeth stared unbelieving at what she'd just heard. 
"Don't appear Nate's going to make it for dinner, so we might as well start without him."
Elizabeth was stingy on the portions thinking of the Bible passage, "He who does not work shall not eat."  She was glad the dessert had been kept out of sight as well.  The man was not even invited to play checkers by her grandfather.  He just outstayed his welcome sitting by their fire spitting tobacco into the flames until he fell asleep.  Elizabeth banged the dishes until he woke up and took himself home since Buck held up his coat and hat by the door.
"That was the most slothful, most despicable creature I have ever met!" fumed Elizabeth.
"His poor children have to take care of themselves and him too.  He's so lazy, they even put his shoes on his feet, I've heard.  He won't let them go to school, not even the littlest ones, afraid they'll escape doing his work for him."
"Would you care for more dinner before dessert, Grandpa?  I just couldn't bring myself to over feed the beast in case he wants to come back for more another day."

"Don't mind if I do.  "I worry about Nate not showing up, but a rancher's work is never done.  I'll check on him tomorrow after church."
"Maybe I could ride along.  I haven't been out riding in a long time."
He nodded looking at his granddaughter until she blushed. 

"I'm sure Nate's okay."

After Sunday dinner, Buck saddled two horses hoping his mare would behave herself with his granddaughter on her back today.  Elizabeth came out in a riding habit.  Good.  Buck didn't put much stock in side-saddle riding.  Maybe it was fine in a city park, but it sure wasn't safe out here where a rattler could spook a horse quicker than you could spit.

It was a beautiful day, the kind that started out crisply cold, but mellowed out into perfection.  Elizabeth breathed in the sage brush and pine.  It was truly lovely out on the range that played up against the rolling foothills with a backdrop of the mountains.  There was a dusting of snow on the peaks.  The aspen were shaking their leaves as if they were gold dust in the distance.

Nate wasn't home and they finally found him in the far pasture leading his horse by the reigns with his eyes studying the ground.  His head jerked up when he heard them and a wide grin splashed across his tanned face.  "Didn't expect to see you here."

"We're just out for a Sunday ride.  What're you looking for on the ground?"

"I think one of my cows got into some loco weed.  I need to get rid of it before any more get sick.  I just found a couple patches.  I hope that's all there is."

"That would be bad news if that started growing around here.  Nothing sadder than seeing a fine cow stagger with that.  We can help you move your herd if you like until you make sure you've got it all."

"Thanks.  I'll take you up on it."

It was a pleasant round up with only a couple of young steers breaking out to run but headed off by the quickness of Nate's cow pony.

"That sure is a good piece of horse flesh, Nate.  I knew you would make a good rancher when you first rode up on her."

Nate leaned down to pat his horse's neck.  Yeah, some females sure stand out in a herd, and he winked at Buck while Elizabeth blushed.

"You might as well come by and eat supper with us.  We have some good Sunday dinner left-overs. 

"If you don't mind my dust," Nate accepted.

After supper, Nate's curiosity got the best of him and he asked, "So, who showed up last night?"


"Enough said."

"I was afraid Besty here might take a broom after him to shoo him out the door."

"I was afraid I would need a shovel.  He didn't seem to want to move very fast," she laughed.


"She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time;
but alas!  Alas! She must confess to herself that she was not wise yet."
Jane Austen

Fatty Feddie showed up next for his turn as one of the Saturday night callers.  Fred wasn't really what you could call fat anymore, it's just a name his granddad called him as a tike and it stuck.  His fat had turned to muscles on his six foot something frame, but he could still pack in his food.  He was the uncontested winner of the pie-eating contest at the fair nine years running.  The man was a hard-worker and a hard player.  He  usually finished his food off with a jug, then Fatty would wake up the next morning wondering what there was to eat again.  Nate had seen the man eat twelve eggs and a pound of bacon at one sitting, not to mention the stack of flapjacks too.  Actually, Nate was surprised he had eyes for Elizabeth seeings how he didn't have much time between his meal and his white lightning for much socializing with the women folk.  Food was his main occupation.  His conversations usually centered on what he was dreaming about eating when the work got done.

Fatty eyed the stove as soon as he got in the door and took a deep whiff of dinner smells.  "You are tantalizing me, Miss McNair.  That smells good enough to tempt a bear out of hibernation." 

"I do the cooking," Buck, stopped him short.  "You are welcome to sit and eat with us." 

The man chewed through the blessing and ate through all the dinner conversation only putting in his two cents worth talking with his mouth full a couple of times.  The rest of the meal he concentrated on his plate and was deeply disappointed when the pot was cleaned out.  He was not offered dessert.

Wiping his mouth on his shirt tails, their guest said, "Buck, you always have been the best cook in the county even if you are a little skimpy on the helpings."

"Is that a compliment?" Buck snorted.

"Are those apples from your orchard?"

"What the deer don't get first," Buck said.  "Help yourself."

The man had the nerve to put one in each pocket before chomping down on a third.

Buck grumbled, "Look out for worms.  The apples are full of them this year."

"They don't bother me none.  Can't hardly taste 'em."

Elizabeth was confounded. 

Buck hinted, "I've been waiting three weeks for that checkers game you promised, Nate."

"Nothing better than watching a game of checkers than a bowl of popcorn and a little mug of hard cider."

"I'm fresh out of popcorn and you know I don't allow any strong drink in my house, Fatty.  If that's what you are hankering after, you'd best mosey on down the road."

"Good idea.  Nice visiting with you, Miss McNair.  Thanks for the victuals, Buck."

After the door shut, Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief, "Whew, pity the woman who has to slave over his hot stove.  He's a perfect glutton."

"At least he'd be appreciative until he passed out from swiggling his jug, " Nate added.

The next week Buck asked him, "Did any more of your cows get into loco weed, Nate?"

"No, thank goodness."

"I've been praying that they wouldn't," Elizabeth said with shining eyes.

"You pray for cows?" 

"Of course.  Scripture says 'He owns the cattle of a thousand hills and the wealth in every land,' so I suppose God cares for cows as well as for sparrows."

Nate didn't know whether to thank her or argue, but let it go.

The knock on the door was expected, but Nate was surprised to see Hot Headed Hank standing there with his hair slicked back looking almost as pretty as a gal.  He thought Hank would still be locked up after his last bar fight.  He practically killed a man with his fists.  The bruises on his pretty face were fading, and his black eye only showed a smudge of purple.  Of course, no one called him hot headed to his face, but the name clung to him tighter than a burr on a darned sock.   The man could look practically pious in church then turn around a beat somebody to a bloody pulp who he imagined insulted him.  It was even rumored that he had given his own ma a black eye.  More than one man had to bravely step in between him and their daughters when a jealous rage took over.  Neither Buck nor Nate were happy to see him standing there. 

Elizabeth floated over and invited him in saying, "I saw you in church Sunday.  Glad you could make it."  Nate glared at the man over her shoulder.  The challenge did not go unmet as Hank threw his shoulders back before taking the lady's arm. 

He was all flowery in his compliments at supper.  Nate was disturbed that Elizabeth offered the man a piece of pie, even a second.  Oh, he was slick all right.  He thought Buck might choke as steamed up as he was without saying anything to rile his company.

Of all the gall, the man asked to take her for a buggy ride after church tomorrow.  Before Elizabeth could answer, Buck warned, "I told you fellas the rules.  Only one at a time until after the Box Social.  My granddaughter will decide who she will be entertaining after that.

Hank was wound tighter than a rattler about to strike, but Nate backed up his neighbor.  "I'd feel sorry for the fella who horned in on more than his share of the lady's attentions.  Why the whole passel of callers might jump on somebody getting out of turn."

Hank's eyes were slits now as he spat out, "That fella might be you, Nate.  Everybody knows you come courting Miss Elizabeth every day and twice on Sundays.  You're the one breaking her grandpa's rules, and you know it.   Maybe it's you who might get jumped when you're not looking."

Elizabeth's eyes were wide open now.   Before anyone could say anymore, she thanked him for coming and handed him his hat.  When the door closed she turned around and glared at the two men saying, "Would somebody please tell me what that was about?"

"That man is a cup of hot coffee waiting to be spilled.  He'll fight at the drop of the hat, and he'll even drop the hat.  Wrath is his first, middle and last name.  You don't want to have anything to do with him, darling," her grandpa admonished.

"He seemed gentlemanly enough and  has been going to church pretty regularly."

"Yeah, when he's not in jail for fighting.  From what I hear, he's not above striking a woman either," Nate warned.  "Going to church doesn't make a man a Christian any more than going in a barn makes a man a horse."

"Going to church wouldn't hurt you none, Nate Pearson, and then you might not act like such an a...," she lashed out biting back her words with a gasp just in time but not leaving much to the imagination.  "You both are so judgmental and I hope you are wrong.  I still think he can't be all that bad."  She burst into tears and disappeared into her room.

Nate grabbed his hat and stormed out.  There was no checker game happening this night.


"To love is to burn, to be on fire."
Jane Austen
The next afternoon, Nate was fixing fence when he saw her ride up alone.  She hadn't even bothered putting on her riding skirt and had her dress hitched up in an eye-catching manner, but seeing a glimpse of her face he knew something was wrong. 
"What brings you here, Miss McNair?"
"Grandpa didn't come in for dinner and it's almost supper time.  I'm worried something happened."
"It's not that unusual for something to tie a rancher up to where he has to miss a meal.  Probably nothing to fret about, but I'll come along and help you look for him."
He followed her lead as they rode over the boundary between their ranches but had to admit that he was looking more at her astride her horse than for Buck.   When she called out for her grandpa, he started looking up each gully when it was obvious the man wasn't in his fields.  Dusk was settling in when he spied Buck's horse standing in the shadows under a tree.  "There!"
They spurred their horses at a run as she called out, "Grandpa!"
His boot stuck out at an awkward angle from behind the tree, and they heard him moan.
"Over here darling.  Darn horse ran me under the tree chasing out a loose calf and knocked me clean out of the saddle.  When I woke up, my boot looked like I put it on backward, afraid it's twisted pretty badly.  Tried a couple times to pull myself up in the saddle, but couldn't quite make it.  Help me up, Nate."
They got him back in the saddle, but Nate was afraid he would pass out again and got up behind him handing Elizabeth the reigns to his horse. 
"I'll settle him in his bed then go for the doctor.  It looks like it could be broken, sorry Partner."  But Buck didn't hear.  He had passed out on him again.  Nate didn't know if it was from the bump on his head or from the pain in his leg.  Either way, it was going to be tough on the old man."
Elizabeth rode quietly beside him with tears falling freely down her cheeks.  He wished it was her that he was cradling on the horse, but banished that thought back where it came from.  He tried to take an easy path back to the ranch house, but the man moaned like a wild wind.  Night had crept in before they arrived. 
"Here, prop him up in the saddle till I can get down and carry him in."  She did, then ran ahead to open the door and pull down the covers on his cot.  "Does he have any whiskey for pain?  I know he's not a drinking man, but he might have some for medicinal use."
"I saw a bottle somewhere."  She was banging cupboard doors in her hurry and roused him.  "It's behind the flour bin," her grandpa croaked then passed out again.
Nate held him up and gave him a couple of swigs which left him coughing.  "I'll be back as soon as I can.  Don't worry about the horses, I'll take care of them when I get back with the doctor.  Just stay with him, Betsy."
She grabbed his hand, "Thank you."
Nate held him while the doctor set his leg.  He had sent Elizabeth out to shut the chicken the coop though he was sure she could hear her grandpa holler.  When she came back in, she kept a cool wash rag to wipe up the sweat of his brow. 
"Keep him liquored up tonight as long as he doesn't get too figety.  It should help him sleep.  I'll come back in the morning.
"Sure you wouldn't want to just finish the night in my bed, doctor?" Elizabeth offered.  "The night's half over."
"No, Mrs. Gustauf's twins are due any time.  I need to be back in town just in case.  Thank you anyway."
Nate went out with the doctor to ask him, "Do you think the bump on his head is more serious than his leg?  He sure is passing out a lot."
"Time will tell, but I always worry if a fever sets in after a broken bone.  It's never a good sign.  No telling how long he lay there knocked out before you found him.  It's a good thing you came along when you did.  A night out there in the cold might have done him in with the shock."  
"Miss McNair did the right thing coming to get me when he didn't show up for dinner.  She has that woman's intuition I guess."
"Yes, a woman is a mighty fine thing to have around, but I suppose you've been thinking on it yourself a bit."  With that he winked and rode off.
Nate wondered what the whole town must be saying about them adding juicy tidbits of imagination to the plain ol'fact that he and Buck were long time friends and neighbors since the war ended.  He'd admired him as a commanding officer and looked up to him still.  Buck's wife  had passed away before the war and his only daughter was married off.  He'd written Nate about the ranch next to him being for sale.  The young man didn't have much to keep him home, so he'd come.  Nate had lost his mother during the war years and felt it keenly.  His upstanding Christian stepfather came home from the war only to lose himself in a bottle.  War did strange things to a man.  To Nate it had hardened his heart against God and the church.  He'd prayed at the beginning of the war but gave up when he saw its horrors.  Buck understood him.   Elizabeth didn't.  She deserved better than what he had to give a woman.  Too much bitterness had hardened his heart though he truly wanted to protect her and more, if he was honest with himself.  No, he'd better keep his distance.
That was short lived when he went back inside and found her crying standing with her back to him.  He pulled her around and put his arms around her kissing the top of her hair.  He tucked her head under his chin and held her there until she stilled.  It came as a shock when her arms went around him, and she looked up saying, "I don't know what I would have done without you today, Nate."
He kissed her.  Darn it, he did it.  And it wasn't a polite kiss but one of yearning.  She answered it and them some until he pulled away.  "I'm sorry, Elizabeth.  I shouldn't have done that."
"No, it was my fault." She turned her back to him again hugging herself with her head hanging down.  "I've never done that before.  I don't know what came over me."
"Kissing's been going on since Adam and Eve.  It wasn't that bad," he lied.  It had shaken him in his boots, and he could tell she'd felt it too.  He was afraid he'd spoiled everything.  He could never look at her again without longing.  "Just the same, I'll go sleep in the barn."
"That's ridiculous.  I trust you to stay in here with me."
"I don't trust myself, Betsy. Come get me if he gets restless and you need me."  He left grabbing an extra blanket off the bed.
It was a sleepless night tossing and turning trying to rid his mind and body full of that kiss.  When she came in the dawn to get him, with her hair down and a her eyes luminous, he pulled her down to him and kissed her again and again until he knew he had to stop.
"Grandpa's waking," she whispered getting up to brush the hay off her clothes and avoiding his eyes.
Ashamed of himself, Nate strode off leaving her back in the barn.  Why now, when he had to stay here and help her through this?  He was such a low-down dog, he wanted to kick himself.  He had to put a stop to this.  When she came in, he said, "I won't let it happen again, Miss McNair.  I'm not a Christian man and have no business courting you. I'm sorry."
She only nodded with tears in her eyes.  "I know.  I'm sorry too."
He wondered what she was sorry about, kissing him, or that he shouldn't be courting her, or that he wasn't a Christian?  It was enough to give him with a headache.  He was so befuddled sometimes he asked himself, "Now why can't I court the girl.  I'm better than any of those toads who sit in church and act like harp playing, wing wearing saints a fire.  He tried to think of somebody else good enough for her and could come up with nary a one.
Even the widower Smith, who everybody knew had loved his young wife but tended to pinch pennies with her until she squeaked.  She was not even allowed to go to the store by herself, God rest her soul.  He'd buried her in her oldest work dress so that he might save her best for the next wife, or so they said.  
The best Christian man around was so ugly his own dog barked at him.  He was so ugly, no woman had looked twice at him even though he had the biggest spread in the county.  He was so ugly that  kids would run behind their mama's skirts when he came to town, poor man. He was so ugly that he was proud of the honor and went to the state fair and came back with a ribbon that pronounced him the ugliest man in the whole state.  He hung it over his mantle.
The only other respected Christian single man was twice her age, had buried two wives and had vowed not to put another in the grave preferring to be single.  Far be it to tempt a man from breaking his vow when it came to a woman.
These were his thoughts when Buck came back around.  Nate offered him a drink of water but he muttered, "How about something stronger."  Soon he was snoring again.  It would be best if he slept these first few days off.   He'd need to be here to offer him the whiskey cause he doubted Miss McNair would want to touch the bottle.
"I'll just ride home to take care of my chores and then return.  He should be out of it for awhile."
"I'll have a late breakfast ready." 
Nate gave himself a long lecture there and back.
A wonderful breakfast was spread on the table, but Nate had no idea what he ate.  Neither one of them dared to look at the other.  Not a word was spoken.  When she got up to do the dishes, he slipped out to the barn to take care of Buck's chores.  The hollow in the hay mocked him. He took a pitchfork to it.
The doctor came back, looked at Buck's leg and head and said, "Time will tell.  Come and get me if you need me.  Most likely, you'll have to tie him down when he starts feeling better.  Better fashion a crutch of some kind or other."
That brought a smile of relief to Elizabeth's face, until she found him looking at her hungrily.  She saw the doctor to the door.  "I'll probably be alright now, Nate.  If you don't mind stopping by in the mornings and evenings for a little longer to take care of the ranch and to check up on us, I mean, on him.  I'll have a meal for you when you come." 
"I'll start on a crutch tonight.  I doubt he'll appreciate you having to help him with his personals and will be up and about soon like the doctor said."
Nate saw to the man's needs, all he could do for now and left.  It was for the best.  If her grandpa got too much for her to handle, he told her to tie him down and come get him.  Buck had roused at that and mumbled something before going back to sleep.

The next night at supper, it dawned on him that she must have done all the cooking, and it was good, very good.  So he said, "You sure have learned your way around the kitchen, Elizabeth.  This is mighty tasty!"

"I had the best teacher.  Anyway, it's better than the half-cooked beans I first served you." 

He admired the blush that crept over her cheeks, then pulled his eyes back down to his empty plate.  He hated himself for ruining the ease they used to have with each other as friends.  He could never take back those kisses which were seared in his memory, but maybe he wasn't all that sorry.

When he took a plate over to Buck who was sitting up, sober, Elizabeth sat on his other side with a glass of cider.  Buck ate his food in the silence, then put his plate down and looked them both up and down.  "Somebody better tell me what's happened around here.  You two are as prickled as a pair of porcupines.  What's gotten into you?"

Nate just stood up and bid them goodnight.  The door shut with a little unnecessary roughness.

"Are you sweet on him, Betsy, 'cause he's sure as certain gone on you."

She jerked her head up startled that he could see into her heart.  "Does it show?"

"All over your face clean down to your toes.  The whole place is arching with enough electricity to stand my hair on end as if it was struck by lightning.  What's holding you back?  He's a good man."

"He's not a Christian, Grandpa.  You know what the Bible says."

"Yeah, you're right.  The Lord says to not be unequally yoked.  But I think the parade of fellas who come out calling shows you what a hollow Christian be.  They were like the seven deadly sins on parade: greed, envy, lust, sloth, gluttony, wrath...Did you know that Nate and I were in the war together?"

She looked shocked and shook her head.

"He's like my own son, the one I never had.  When I came home and with your grandma passed on and your mother married, I wrote and asked him to move here.  I know that he was a Christian when the war started, but sometimes a man has to chew it over for quite a while when he has seen what we saw in that bloody hell on earth.  He always acted honorably though.  When he came home to find his ma had died and stepfather a drunk, it shook the rest of his faith loose.  I believe it will come back to him someday.  He sees you, don't he?"

"He's always acted like life was as simple as a checker game.  I had no idea you've been through such things together.  My daddy was a chaplain for the Union up north.  He came back with his heart broken too, but never lost faith.   I guess not everybody can pull through it as well as you and my daddy."

"That's why ranching is so good for us.  Gives us lots of time out there to think.  I'm just now back to seeing God's goodness again since you've come.  He'll come around.  It's just his pride."

"His pride?"

"Yes, think back to the Garden.  We stuffed ourselves in the war eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a punch to the gut.  It looked like evil would still triumph even if our side won, which we did.  We'd seen so much awful death and suffering.  But the other lie Adam and Eve bit down hard on was that they could be as good as God, to question God.  Seems to me that is the one that everyone stumbles over, that if they were God, they would have done things differently, especially when it comes to evil like the war.  It's hard to trust God, when your pride tempts you to trust yourself more.  It doesn't help when he sees a parade of hypocrites like his stepfather and the sorry set that keeps tramping out here to catch your eye.  He is better than the whole lot put together.  One reason he loves you, whether he knows it or not, is that you have remained pure, as an example of what a Christian should be."

Her face flamed as she whispered, "I wish I had done a better job of that."

"So he kissed you did he?  Good.  Nothing to be ashamed of in a kiss."

Just then Nate walked back in the door.  "I was ashamed of my behavior and came back to apologize, but couldn't help but do a little eaves dropping.  I think you are right about my pride, Buck."  Nate stood there turning his hat round and round in his hands.

"Back in New Orleans when the Major-General Butler gave the order that "the Yankee soldiers shall revenge themselves for any insult or scorn, by word, gesture, or movement, which the women of New Orleans may dare to offer to the invaders of their homes, by being free to treat them in such circumstances as common women or harlots..."  I know you kept your troops from following that order.  You served a higher order and I respected that, but I know what was in the hearts of the men, and I had to admit, in myself.  In order to hold myself above such thoughts, I built a pretty high wall of pride by always comparing myself to some other guy, and it was always easy to find a hypocrite to come out on top of.  Problem was, I found I was always trying to come out on top of God too.  I'm pretty tired of setting myself above Him.  I think I'm ready to admit to my own sins instead of looking at everybody else's."

"Let's pray, son," and he held out a shaky, gnarled hand, "but then, I think I might need another draught of whiskey.  This has got me plumb worn down."

Elizabeth went over and placed her hand in Nate's while her grandfather prayed followed by Nate's confession to God.  The tears flowed down her cheeks as she spoke to God in her own heart.

Nate gave her a modest hug then said, "I still better go and do my own chores, but I'll close the door a little softer this time.  See you in the morning," he said looking straight into her eyes.  She saw something already different in his countenance.

The next morning, Elizabeth went in to stir up breakfast.  Her grandfather hadn't moved so she went about her work as quietly as possible.  With the coffee made, she went over with a cup for him.  He never slept this late. When she set it down by his bed she saw his color.  She dropped to her knees and felt his cold brow and sobbed.  That's how Nate found her.

He picked her up and held her on his lap until she was spent.  They had no embarrassment for themselves, just sorrow for their loss.  Nate realized he'd been crying for himself as well as her.  "He was a father to me.  I'll miss him."

"I don't know what I'll do.  I was so happy with him, and now he's gone."

Nate lifted her chin and made her tear rimmed eyes look into his own.  "I promise to take care of you, Betsy, if you'll let me, on one condition."

She looked so puzzled that he continued.  "That you won't put your lunch box up for auction because you'll be a married woman by then."

She grinned and threw her arms around his neck.  "You'll always be my highest bidder, Nate.  I love you."

"Oh, and one more thing, Miss McNair, I'm a fire-breathing holiness man.  It's the Cinnabar Gulch Methodist Church for me."

She smiled through her tears, "As long as you sit by me in church, I'll be happy to go with you!"

It was then they noticed that dear ol'Grandpa had died with a smile on his face.

"It's such a happiness when good people get together."
Jane Austen