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.
"How old are you?"
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."
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..."
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.