Finally, one night when she was remained sitting there fanning herself because the sizzling heat of the day still lingered, he checked to make sure her daddy's bedroom light was out. Clay took off his clinking spurs and walked quietly over and sat on a porch step near her.
"Hot day." He said quietly as if he was in church. Perhaps he was worshipping Felicity just a bit, if he was honest.
"Did you hear we're having a revival in town? A traveling evangelist is coming and will stay for a week with services every night. Will you come?" She spoke in a soft, velvety voice that blended into the starry night.
Clay took his hat off and ran his fingers through his sweaty hair and thought hard. There was a reason that he'd hung back from church since he'd been home. But he also noticed that the new preacher man in town was single, handsome, and of a marrying age, and that he had been making a few too many visits lately to his foreman's, usually managing to wrangle an invite to stay for supper. Clay decided then and there he'd throw his sweat stained felt hat in the ring along with that preacher's derby. So he said, "Sure, I'll come and will ride in with you and your folks, if it's alright with your pa."
"I'm sure he won't mind," she surprised him with a brilliant smile like a shooting star flashing across the sky.
It was such a sight that he found himself suddenly a little light headed. Must be the heat, he thought. "Just let me know when you're leaving." It was the last thing he said before someone started making noise in the house. Clay managed to slip away into the barn before her pa opened the screen door looking around before making sure Felicity came inside. The man had ears like an elephant, big and floppy and didn't miss much. He could hear a rattler shaking it's tail from clear across a field and must have heard his young boss flirting with his daughter on the porch in the dark.
The war had been hard. Terrible. Horrific. It still played through his head coming uninvited from time to time. Clay fought hard not to drop to the ground any time one of his cowboys fired their gun without warning. What was worse was that his foreman's son, Felicity's brother, never came home. He died at Shiloh. He and Clay had been as close as brothers growing up together and working on the ranch side by side. They had even joining up at the same time. But Clay had been able to stay in the cavalry while James had been in the infantry when he had his horse shot out from under him and another horse was not to be had.
When Clay came home from the war, it was to find that both his parents had died of Yellow Fever. His foreman Sam, Felicity's father, had kept the ranch running, even when Confederates desperate for food had confiscated many head of cattle. Then it was the North who raided and caused his herd to dwindle even more. Sam had kept the ranch running with old, broken down cowboys and kids still wet behind their ears who were too young to be sacrificed on the altar of war. So, everyday when he rode home, it was to an empty house, except for faithful old Essie who cooked and cleaned for him before going home to her husband each evening after serving him supper.
Clay was glad to join Sam and his family when they drove their wagon to the tent meeting. Some people traveled so far that they had set up tents all over the church yard. Clay was astonished blurting out, "This reminds me of an army camp!"
"There's probably a few more women and children here than in the army," Felicity teased.
Clay was warmed by her easy company sitting beside him. "Reckon you're right, now that you mention it. But aren't you a little surprised so many folk have gathered like this?"
Sam just grunted, Felicity's mother waved to friends, while Clay scooted closer to Felicity to send a message to onlookers that she was with him. "If we get separated, save me a seat beside you when the service starts, okay?" he whispered close to her ear letting her sweet flowery smell make a dead place come alive. It made him realize how dead he had been inside though he'd survived the war.
"Of course," she offered up one of her smiles that made his heart thump back to life.
"Thanks," he said looking into her eyes and lingering. Then he pulled himself away and said, "Hey, I think I see one of my old cowboys over there. Fancy finding Les here! Sam, do want to go with me to see if he wants to come back and work for us?"
"Sure, he was a steady hand," his foreman replied.
Clay wound up his business as soon as the little portable organ started wheezing on the platform. His long legs strode down the center aisle to find that indeed, Felicity had saved him a place by putting her Bible down on the seat beside her. Even better, it was on the end of the aisle.
"If church was always in a tent, I might think about coming more often," he whispered to Felicity as she flipped through pages to find the hymn. But deep in his heart Clay knew the real reason he avoided church. But he wasn't ready to be that open, instead making up many shameful excuses for not attending services. The new minister probably thought him a heathen.
"How Firm A Foundation," was heartily sung swelling the tent before dissipating outside where the song joined the birds in the trees. Clay realized he'd never sat with Felicity in church, and it made the experience sweeter though he still found himself sweating like a greased pig. His hand was shaking as he took hold of the hymnal. When his fingers touched hers, he calmed down and stayed grounded.
But as the preacher's fervor built, Clay became more nervous. He wiped his sweaty hands down his canvas pants. Soon he was running his hands through his hair. Felicity kept glancing over at him looking troubled.
It was when he closed his eyes to pray that it hit him, exactly what he'd been afraid of. He heard the battlefield cries of the wounded, so many calling desperately out to God. Clay's heart began to race. He was there. When it was hard to breathe and tears were beginning to pool, Clay got up and escaped like a dog with his tail tucked between his legs. He went over to the wagon to wait for the others. Clay took deep breaths and wiped the sweat and tears away with his sleeve. The horrendous scenes faded away.
Felicity was the first to come to the wagon he was leaning up against and took one of his hands in hers. Her eyes filled with tears. "What is it Clay? What happened?"
Clay pulled his hat down and tried to hide his face under its brim. But he figured she deserved an answer. "I can't do this, Felicity. I'm sorry. I read my Bible, I believe in God and try my best to serve him, but whenever I go to church, especially when we bow our heads to pray, it all comes back. Maybe someday I can do it, but not now, not yet."
He took a deep breath and confessed what he'd never told any other soul, "When I close my eyes, I'm there, hearing the wounded calling out to heaven for help, help that I couldn't give them, not even for your brother James. It was terrible. It still is."
Felicity boldly grabbed his arm and laid her head on his shoulder. Her touch was comforting. "Oh, Clay, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine what you've been through, what you've seen, and what my brother went through. I only hope he died quickly and did not suffer. But I would never expect you to always act like those terrible years never happened. Our nation survived, and slaves are free, yet at such a great price. Thank you for everything you did, Clay. You are my hero." She was looking up at him with tears escaping.
Clay promised himself then and there that he would never let her down, but only replied, "If you knew, you'd never call me a hero, sweetheart, but thank you. I just did what my commanding officer told me.
"Thank you, Felicity. That means a lot, but I think I see your dad heading over here like he'd like to lock me up. It might be best if you unhanded me, not because I want you to, you understand. If it was up to me, I'd love nothing better than to have you close to my side always."
Felicity looked swiftly up at him as if to gage whether he meant what he said, but dropped his arm leaving it cold. She took a step away and stood up straight though her skirt was fisted in her hands. Her father stalked over with his brows furrowed staring Clay down.
Clay swallowed then bravely spoke in front of God, Sam, and Felicity. It was a high stakes gamble, but he decided to put all his cards on the table. "Sir, Sam, I'd like permission to court your daughter."
He felt more than heard Felicity's gasp. Sam stood by the wagon drumming his fingers and spearing Clay with his glare. The quiet was heavy though they were surrounded by the noisy gathering of most of the county who was here for the tent meeting.
Felicity's mother fluttered over. "Felicity, help me set up our food for the potluck. I hope I brought enough." She worried over food. He was worried his foreman would reject his suit.
Felicity looked over at Clay flickering a quick smile before dropping her eyes and walking away to follow her mother with the dishes they had in the bed of the wagon. But she kept glancing back at him making hope surge.
The men's silent stand-off continued. Finally Sam broke the tension. "It's not that I don't like you, Clay. I even respect you the way you've stepped in to fill your father's boots, not an easy thing to do. But, to be honest, I care for my daughter more, a lot more. I wouldn't be a good father if I didn't try to protect her. She's all we've got left. Her mother is not over losing our James. I must be very careful here. Then there's the other problem. Because you are my boss, I'd not like our relationship hurt, or even my employment threatened if your pursuit of my daughter sours in some way.
"Call me Sam, for goodness sake, Clay!"
"Alright, Sam, my intentions are honorable. Honestly, thoughts of Felicity were my last thoughts every night during the war, and she was the motivation to stay alive during those awful days, months and years. I knew that she was just a young thing when I left, but I dreamed of her, of the woman she would grow to be. When she came home, truly every thought of Betsy just dried up and blew away like a tumbleweed. I knew I could never marry another and was ashamed of myself for getting tangled up with the likes of Bets. My only excuse I guess is that I was just plain lonesome. I was used to being surrounded by men with deep camaraderie. Coming home to an empty house was hard."
"You have to know that I never approved of you chasing after that Fillmore gal. In hindsight, I figure now it's more likely, you got caught when she was chasing you." Sam admitted. It was obvious to everybody that she was figuring on tying the knot with you."
"It was a huge mistake. However, if you let me court your daughter and if it leads to marriage, she would live out her days right here at the ranch, just like you. Now as to that young preacher who's been hanging around, he may be a fine fellow, but you've got to realize that preachers don't stick around anywhere too long. You'd most likely be seeing Felicity pulled away to follow her man, if indeed it did lead to marriage. I hate to think about it, but you've got to know that I'm against the man, not personally, but just that he's not the one for Felicity. I am."
"I'll admit, I'd love having Felicity here, staying on the ranch where she was born. She hated being sent away to school and was homesick the whole time. The girl loves your place. It's home. Besides, she's probably had a crush on you since she was a young thing, something I've not encouraged because I was always afraid you'd break her heart. You almost did with that fling with Betsy. Even I could see that. But if you are sincere and want to court my daughter, you have my permission. However, if you hurt her, you will answer to me, even if you are my boss."
Clay stuck his hand out and shook Sam's hand. Felicity appeared. She had probably been hovering about and had heard most of the whole conversation. She hurried over and stood next to Clay.
"Thank you, Daddy." Her hand found Clay's, and he gladly wove their fingers together.
Sam walked off hanging his head trying to hide his smirk.
Clay pulled her up close. He wanted to kiss her, but just hugged her instead and whispered into her hair, "Is it alright with you, Miss Felicity, if I come a-courting?" he drawled.
"You've been doing that since you've been home whenever you sat on your porch playing your music. I always pretended it was for me. That's why I'd make excuses to sit out there so I could listen. Now you truly will be playing for me. Bring your instruments when you come calling, and I'll think about letting you court me," she teased with a sweet blush on her cheeks.
Clay's hollows felt filled with feathers, feathers that fluttered and tickled down deep. But when they settled, they made a nice place to lay his heart. He sighed, he was that happy.
Then she shocked him just when he felt he'd tucked his heart into a comfortable spot. Felicity looked up sweetly and said, "Will you marry me, Clay?"
He looked at her all a flutter, but he didn't have feathers in his brain and quickly answered, "Yes, I'll be glad to marry you, darling!" He swung her round to tight hug like he'd never let her go.
She just grinned, put her fist in the air and announced gloating, "He said, yes!" I've wanted to hear you say that to me ever since the town's celebration. I swore to myself that if I ever had half a chance to ask you, I would!"
"If you had asked me there in that stable, I'd have said yes back then. As soon as I kissed you, I knew you were the one for me. Howsoever, I never dreamed you'd be the one asking me. I may be just an ol' cowpoke, but only a stupid one would turn down an offer like that! But I have a feeling, there'll be plenty of times down the road that you'll be asking me things, and I'll fall right in the habit of saying yes right quick-like because I sure do love you and always will." Then he asked, "Can I kiss you?"