A/N I apologize for the delay! Life, you know. Thanks so much for the awesome reviews and alerts! Also: Buccee's, lol.
Distress Pt. 1
So fades the lovely blooming flower
Frail smiling solace of an hour
So soon our transient comforts fly
And pleasure only blooms to die
"You are certain McKinney said Buccee's?" LaBoeuf asked me for what must have been the third time. I heaved a great sigh and nodded my head curtly. LaBoeuf blew air from his nose like a horse and shook his head. "I have known Buc Walters for many years and have never," he emphasized the word, cutting the air with his hand, "ever suspected him of running anything but a reputable and respectable business."
"No one knows what is in the hearts of man but the Lord." I said absently, not really allotting much attention to his doubts. We had ridden since dawn, southward and soon to turn west, passing many farms and homesteads along the way. Texas seemed a ripe and fertile country and I noted that I had yet to see so much as a sticker burr. By evening the rolling farms outside Waco gave way to tall, lonesome pines that creaked and cracked us hello as we rode by.
I shifted again in the saddle, unable to find a place to appease my aching backside. Spookie was a sweet tempered and beautiful horse but she had a rough trot and an even worse lope. Indeed it seemed she only had two comfortable speeds: very fast or very slow. I attempted discretion about my saddle woes but LaBoeuf, who was never without at least one eye on me it seemed, took notice.
"We will let soon and make camp for the night. I imagine you are suffering already from the long hours in the saddle, being unaccustomed to the task of hard riding as you are." He boasted, one hand on his hip and the other resting on the saddle horn as was his habit. "I myself have ridden for days on end without setting so much as a toe on the earth. A Ranger learns to disregard his own needs and sensitivities while in pursuit of a criminal."
"Did you shoot straight from the saddle then or is your body so well trained as to not take so much as one sip of water during those arduous days of travel?" I said saucily. I do not normally speak so crudely, but his continual boasting did not need to go unchecked and I was mighty tired of it. Once he caught my drift, his head whipped in my direction and I was gratified to see a bit of color in his cheeks. He looked away just as quick.
"I see that tongue of yours is no more honeyed now than it was before." He grumbled.
We had passed the day quickly; I listened to LaBoeuf as he rattled away about his adventures during the past few years. I did not believe the majority of it but he was a good storyteller and very entertaining. He spoke with clarity and his cadence flowed along comfortably with the clopclopclop of the horse hooves. As he spoke he articulated his words with his hands, especially when he was "telling a good one." The man was a talker. One might almost forget we were in pursuit of a criminal and imagine rather we were just out for a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride.
The sun soon dipped low on the horizon, darkness coming soft but quick in the shadows of the pines. We made camp in a little copse of ash trees that managed to claim their own straggling piece of sunlight from the thick evergreens. There was a crick nearby where I watered the horses as LaBoeuf set up camp. By the time I returned he had a cheery cook fire going. I shooed him away and took over, placing his spindle legged skillet over the fire and throwing some thick portions of bacon in it. They soon began to sizzle and pop and I added heaping portions of cornmeal I mixed with water to fry in the fat. LaBoeuf watched me work openly.
"You do get on very well." He observed. "Though I am not surprised, knowing your obstinacy."
"I am not one to let something hold me down." I said proudly.
"I know it." He said, catching my eye. "So Mattie Ross, what have you done with yourself these past six years?" I noted he knew the exact time as well I as I did. "Or should I say, who have you been haranguing?" He said the last bit with a smile that crinkled the corner of his eyes, proud of his joke. I ignored it, shrugging my shoulders as I set two camp plates down on a rock near the fire to serve our portions into.
"There is always work to be done." I said noncommittally, taking my seat with my plate in my lap not too far from his side. Before he could handle his spoon I reached over and slipped my fingers into his hand, bowing my head.
"Gracious Father, we thank you for what we are about to receive. We ask that you would bless us and give us wisdom on our journey and to grace Frank with a speedy recovery. Amen." I attempted to pull my hand from LaBoeuf's then but found it arrested there. I looked sharply at him only to be stilled by the sudden tenderness in his blue eyes trained on our joined hands. His hand was warm and calloused and wrapped around mine like a bear paw.
"It is not an unpleasant thing to have company on a journey, for all I may carp against it." He said earnestly. After another moment he released my hand from his. Immediately it protested against the sudden lack of warmth so I occupied it with my own spoon, fearing it would drift back to him of it's own accord.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, LaBoeuf cleared his throat and spoke. "Your mother, she is well?" I glanced at him then, surprised by this sudden exchange of pleasantries.
"Mama is doing well enough as to be expected. She is of a delicate nature and low spirits. She has Victoria to dote on her and soon she will have the welcome distraction of a little one in the house." My voice held a drop of wistfulness as I thought of home and of Victoria eagerly awaiting her new babe. "I am to be an Aunt." I told LaBoeuf proudly. He smiled and cocked his head towards me.
"Congratulations are in order then. You did not say your sister was settled."
"Yes, she had been Mrs. Clarence Throgmorton the Third for a-" Here my statement was cut short by LaBoeuf being throttled viciously by a bit of bacon. "Mr. LaBoeuf!" I pounded my fist between his shoulders. He coughed and sputtered and I quickly handed him his canteen from which he took a long draw. "Are you sorted?" I asked, kneeling down next to him with my hand on his shoulder. His face was beet red and there were tears in his eyes but he nodded, still coughing.
"I am sorted." He stammered. I set back down to allow him some dignity. After a few deep breaths and throat rattles he seemed well enough.
"Pardon me." He finally said roughly. "You were saying your sister was married."
"Yes, to our neighbor's son, Clarence Throgmorton. They make a smart match, for he is intelligent enough and she is beautiful." I did not feel like elaborating on Clarence and I's past… or lack thereof. I felt his blue eyes on me and looked up to meet his gaze, surprised to see an oddly pinched look on his face.
"And you yourself have never married." He stated quietly, almost to himself.
"I have not, as I told you once before." My confused reply came equally as quiet.
"I suppose the task of managing your family's farm has been relented to Mr. Throgmorton's shoulders then." He stated.
"It has." I conceded, not without a slight tinge of bitterness creeping into my voice. I could feel LaBoeuf's eye on me as I pushed my fried corn biscuits around on my plate absently.
"It is what is only right and proper." He said sagely. "Though I have not often known you to be one to yield to what is right or proper." This earned a glower from me but I held my tongue, considering our current situation.
"Clarence does a fine job managing the farm." I grumbled, hating every word. "Though there are some things we do not see eye to eye on, such as the best day to plant. I believe it is best to take an average of past frost dates and good rain days to come up with a median day that falls well between. We have always kept meticulous records of such in our family. Clarence always plants by the moon phase, superstitious mumbo-jumbo if you ask me. I have told him so on many occasion."
LaBoeuf chuckled. "I have no doubt of that whatsoever." We finished our meal in silence and I felt the conversation over until LaBoeuf spoke again with a serious set to his mouth and eyes.
"So where does that leave you, Mattie?"
"There is the house to manage, as well as the barnyard and such. There is always work to be done." I repeated my sentiment from earlier.
"I do not see you content with such a life, knitting stockings comfortably by a fire. I propose that is the real reason why you insisted on accompanying me on this dangerous manhunt. You are not cut from the same cloth as the rest of your sex."
I felt my face grow hot and indignant. "How dare you profess to know me!" I scowled. "It is impertinent and I will not stand for it!You are as pompous and vain as ever in all your superciliousness."
"You may say what you wish of me, but you do not argue that what I say is truth." His blue eyes sought mine and I turned away in anger.
"I do not argue with fools, it is an imprudent waste of my time." I said haughtily. It burned me up inside that this man of all should understand me so well.
I heard LaBoeuf sigh heavily beside me and tap out his pipe on a rock and toss another handful of sticks on the fire. After a good while, it was LaBoeuf who broke the silence.
"Have you ever seen it rain amphibians?"
"I…what?" I turned to him, forgetting my anger in surprise.
"I myself have witnessed a toad storm."
I had no response to this, so he continued after filling his pipe with tobacco.
"I was near Lubbock when it happened. There was a storm off to the nor'east, and a bad one. I could tell by the greenish cast to the clouds; the way the wind pulled towards it. About the time I figured I ought to high tail it out of there, something heavy and wet hit the brim of my hat, knocking it clean off my head. Spooked my horse something fierce, that same Appalachian pony you will remember, and she took off like a shot without me. I went to retrieve my hat when something else made a loud, wet ploppin' sound directly to my left. It was a toad, facedown on the ground and all splayed out. As I was mightily and understandably puzzling over this, there came another ploppin' sound, and another and so on. It was raining toads from that great big green storm cloud. About that time, the loudest, wickedest bolt of lightening straight from the hand of God hit the ground not too far from me. I laid out flat as one of those toads and prayed to be spared. Before long the wind shifted and that storm moved off to the east. There were toads everywhere but not one drop of rain. It did not take me long thereafter to find my horse; I only followed the scent of burnt flesh and hair. That one wicked lightening bolt had struck her down. Had it not been for those toads, I would have been struck down as well."
I stared at him for a long while.
"Toads?" I finally managed to croak. He winked at me, a smile playing at the corner of his lips.
"As I live and breathe." He said, settling back on his pack with his hands behind his head. I felt a smile then, twitching my lips and no amount of effort could control it. That smile soon turned to a grin, which soon turned to a full out, side clutching howl of laughter. LaBoeuf chuckled at my mirth.
"That was a hundred and twenty five dollar pony, I'll have you know." He said dryly. "And one never really gets the scent of smote horseflesh from your nostrils." He took a deep breath. "Yes, it is still there today."
Eventually I fell back on my blanket, wiping tears from my eyes. LaBoeuf wore a pleased smile like the cat that got the cream.
"You are beautiful when you laugh, Mattie Ross."
I felt the smile slip at once from my face. I sat up and turned to lash him for nettling me, but I stopped short when I saw his face. He was no longer smirking. The humor was gone from his eyes, replaced by anxious honesty.
"You ought not say such things." I told him sternly, though my rebuke did not come out as icy as I wished. What I meant was you ought not play with a girl's heart.
"Maybe I ought not, but it is the truth." The seriousness in his eyes had me utterly disconcerted.
Without another word I gathered our plates and cooking pot and took them to the crick to wash. I scoured them furiously with some gravel then splashed the frigid water on my burning face.
When I finally returned to camp, LaBoeuf had slid down on his blanket and covered his eyes with his hat. I was very glad for it.
I was uncommonly chipper the next day, though I refused to believe it some rosy afterglow of the night before. LaBoeuf assured me we were nearing Buccee's Trading Post and I was right glad to be getting on with our pursuit. Also, the day was warm and lovely – the dark pines had given way to rolling hills carpeted with pink and blue wildflowers as far as the eyes could see and the air was filled with birdsong. It was quite unlike anything I had ever seen. I threw back my cloak and hat against the warmth and LaBoeuf rode comfortably in his faded blue linen shirt.
"You do indeed hail from a beautiful country." I conceded to LaBoeuf. He near fell from his horse from the compliment. I did regret it though after an endless tirade in which he praised his beloved state, even through us stopping past midday to stretch our legs and water the horses.
"And in the hills to the west run waters as clear as those in Eden itself, cold and refreshing, so full of fish a man has but to dip in his net down in the water-"
"Have you heard anything of Rooster, Mr. LaBoeuf?" I asked, searching for a change of subject before I said something downright ugly. I squatted down at the creek's edge to fill my canteen. After a few moments of silence I glanced up at LaBoeuf to see if he heard me. He was standing next to me, looking down with a pout on his face that would challenge Victoria in its absurdity. Silence stretched on but for the chuffing noises of the horses in the grass nearby and the happy trickling of the creek. Somewhere nearby a woodpecker assaulted a tree in search of bugs.
"I asked if you heard tell of Rooster." I repeated. He turned from me slightly and fiddled with removing his gloves.
"And there she said it again!" He mumbled sullenly, raising his eyebrows in disdain. I confess now that my eyes did linger a moment on the slight downturn of his lower lip.
"Mr. LaBoeuf?" I prodded.
His blue eyes shot me an exasperated look when I spoke.
"You would call on that old codger with such familiar appellation but continue to use the utmost decorum with me!" He grumbled, pulling out his canteen roughly and stooping to fill it. "I have taken for granted the thought that we were friends."
After a moment of dissecting his statement I felt a smile tug at my mouth. "Mr. LaBoeuf!" I scolded, "Why, you are acting like a petulant child! All because I called our old pard Rooster by his common name?" I couldn't help but goad him on. He whipped up to his feet quickly and swung his head around towards me so fast his hat slipped off. I caught it just before it fell into the water. His cowlick stood up from his head like a crown, making him look even more like a sulky little boy than before. I had to cover my face with his hat to hide my laughter at the very thought.
"And now you make me the object of your fun!" He cried indignantly, roughly pulling his hat away from my face and causing me to stumble.
Suddenly I found myself pulled up against him, one arm wrapped securely around my waist, his other and mine both still holding his hat. My laugh caught in my throat as his breath washed over me and felt the quick rise and fall of his chest against mine.
"Mr. LaBoeuf…" I said breathlessly. He gave me a stern look and I feared another wholloping with his hat brim. "I call you thus because you never asked me to call you otherwise." I finished quickly, pulling his hat from his grasp and plunking it securely on his head. His cheeks flushed and I leaned back to relieve myself from his grip but he held me fast. "You may let go, I am in no danger of falling." I scolded; pushing my hand gently against his chest, for my heart was truly not in the action.
"Are you not?" His voice was barely above a whisper and his face had taken on that same soft look again. "Mattie, I'm asking you to call me by my name."
"No." I shook my head. "We are business partners in this venture and should treat each other as such. Now unhand me." The hurt that crossed his face pained me. Still he did not relent, only pulled me tighter.
"Very well. Then when we are in town or other such places, you may call me LaBoeuf. But, when we are on the trail with no one but each other for company, it's Mattie and Samuel." I could see he was going to be a bulldog on the subject and I was relishing the feel of his arm around me more than I wanted to admit and longed to be free of it.
"As you wish." I said. He gave me a chastising look and I sighed. "As you wish, Samuel." He watched my mouth as his name left my lips and my voice softened as I said it, such as one who reveals a great secret.
"I said once I thought to steal a kiss from you." He said, his brow creasing slightly in reflection. I felt his free hand traveling up my arm. A nervous flutter erupted in my stomach.
"You decided I was too young and unattractive, as I recall."
"I believe I have changed my mind to that respect." His fingers were on my neck, and he brushed my cheek with his calloused thumb. My eyes closed as his lips sought mine.
I have been kissed before, only twice, but enough for sufficient knowledge that this kiss felt much different than anything I had felt before.
His kiss was gentle, seeking and slow, yet I could feel him shaking with restraint and his heart pounded fiercely beneath my palm. He kissed me once, twice, three times then pulled my face closer to his and kissed me again, a bit rougher this time, his whiskers pleasantly scratching my chin and lip.
When he pulled away and his blue eyes opened to mine. I felt as though I could both melt into his arms and run away in terror at once from the way he looked at me, both tenderly but with a wolfish hunger.
"You have many looks, Mattie, but I believe this could be my very favorite." He said, a smug smile beginning to form on his lips.
"And just what look would that be?" I said, pleased to hear some vinegar back in my voice.
"Looking very thoroughly kissed. By me." He added pompously.
"I suppose I should look kissed." I conceded. "Though how thoroughly is a completely debatable point."
He started to protest and I covered his lips with mine to silence them. I could tell already I would need the Lord's help in practicing moderation with this man so I pulled away quickly and twirled out of his grasp while he was distracted.
"We are wasting precious time here, Samuel." I said fetching the horses. "If your curiosity has been satisfied, I suggest we move on to Buccee's before the daylight fades and see what information we can gather therein." He frowned at me, a little of the pout still left in his mouth.
I looked at him expectantly, waiting for a "leg-up" next to my horse. He sighed and shook his head before yielding and coming up behind me. He placed his hands on my hips and leaned over me, kissing me softly on the neck. Icy fingers tickled my back and I turned to glower at him. "My curiosity has not been satisfied," he said, kissing me again just below my ear, "but you are right… for now." Then he hoisted me up on Spookie and I set out in her rough jarring trot so he would not be privy to the grin that crossed my face.
We did not make it to Buccee's Post that day, forcing us to set up camp once again. LaBoeuf, Samuel, promised we would arrive first thing in the morning. He spoke little after our encounter by the creek and one would almost say he looked quite troubled by it. The silence was welcome by me to allow me also the opportunity to mull over what had happened.
He asked me to call him by his Christian name. Samuel. I turned the name over in my mind. He was the first person besides family I had ever called by their first name. Not only did he ask me, but he seemed so desirous of it, as though he craved the intimacy of it. Then there was the kiss…. I shivered involuntarily again as I replayed it again in my mind. The feel of his soft lips and rough chin on my neck would not leave me soon.
So what did it mean? I did not know LaBoeuf to be a man given to flights of fancy and false passions… Then again how much did I truly know of him at all? I stole a glance at him across our little campfire. His brown was creased and his eyes trained firmly on the ground as he ruminated on something seemingly unpleasant. Could it be he regretted his actions? My heart gave a little turn at the thought. I lived to rationalize, to understand and to sort away, but these feelings refused to be classified.
"Mattie." He finally spoke, after our dinner had been put away and there was nothing to do but wait for weariness to turn to sleep.
"Yes, Samuel?" A ghost of a smile drifted across his lips at the mention of his name. Still he did not look my way.
"I behaved wrongly today. I have been castigating myself for it since. It was insalubrious and improper of me to steal a kiss from you when you have already put your trust in me to behave as a gentleman and respect your virtue on the venture. I do not expect it, but I do ask for your forgiveness."
I stared at him in the firelight as my stomach twisted in a knot. He did regret it. He does not care one whit for me beyond a friend, but was merely caught in the moment, unable to resist the beastly urges of man.
Then why did he look so pained? For anyone as vain as he, admitting his nature as a man should not cause such distress. It took a while to find my words before I could utter them. I willed myself to rise to anger for him morally chastising himself while I could find no fault in it. I should be the one distressed and agitated, yet for all I should, I could find no sin.
"It is not stealing but what I freely gave." I finally stated. My voice was firm, challenging, finally causing him to look up sharply at me from his sullen reverie.
"You do not know what it is you say."
"When have you ever known that to be true of me?" I asked, raising my eyebrow in question. I stood and moved to his side to keep his eye from avoiding me.
"Dad gummit Mattie do not make this any harder than it already is!" He glowered at me then. "It was wrong of me to kiss you. It will not happen again. Goodnight." With that he flopped on his side to be rid of the sight of me.
We neither slept very much that night.
Buccee's for being so seemingly famous was not exactly what I expected. It squatted, brown and ugly, like a blemish amongst rolling hills and oak trees verdant with spring. It was a hodgepodge of a building that had been hastily added to over the years pieced together by mismatched and rusted tin. A crooked, peeling sign declared "Buccees" was off center above the front porch. It was however bustling with business it seemed, though where the patrons came from I did not know - Texans must spring straight from the trees and rocks in this part of the country. As we neared I could see several men loitering about in the shade of the front porch.
"Now you let me handle the interrogation." LeBoeuf warned as we dismounted outside the rickety log store. I looked up at him innocently.
"I would never dream of overstepping your authority, Mr.LaBoeuf." I said with mock-sweetness.
He snorted, but his face spoke of his seriousness as he eyed the men watching us from the front porch. He reached around me then, pulling my cloak back up over my shoulders and pulling it tight over my chest, his big hands clenched under my chin, drawing me towards him slightly. "You jest all you like with me, but keep that saucy little mouth of yours closed in there." His eyes lingered on my lips as he spoke and something in their clear blue depths made ice trickle down my back. He released me then, and put his hand lightly against my back as we walked. He had removed his own jacket, revealing the star pinned at his breast that winked in the sunlight. He tipped his hat at the men eyeing us warily.
A man's voice could be heard bartering from within before they even crossed the threshold. It was gravelly and good-natured. We weaved their way through an array of dry goods to the counter in the back where an older, round bellied man in a striped shirt and suspenders worked. His hair was white as snow and ringed his head like a halo, meeting bushy white chops that nearly touched an equally bushy white moustache. He had a rather bulbous red nose and liver spots on his hands. I liked him immediately.
"Well Tom you drive a hard bargain but I guess that is fair enough!" He chuckled, handing the man at the counter a sack of goods.
"Thank ya, Buc." The man rumbled and stepped out of their way.
"Well I'll be damned!" He roared as he slapped his big palm against the glass countertop. "If it isn't my favorite lawman!"
"Good to see you, Buc." LeBoeuf graced him with a wide grin as he grasped his hand warmly. The man I guessed was Buck Walters, as LeBoeuf did not seem to have the good manners to introduce us, turned his bright green gaze full on me.
"Well looky here!" He grinned, slapping LaBoeuf hard on the shoulder as men tend to do in their camaraderie. "You told me you'd never bring the Misses around to see me, you old dog!" He cried as he gave me a good look over. "She's a right pretty little thing! I always did like big brown eyes."
"I am no thing, sir, nor am I anyone's Misses." I replied tartly, turning my eyes to LaBoeuf to aid me. I was surprised to see him visibly pale, a bead of sweat breaking out on his brow.
"Buc!" He cried. "This is Ms. Mattie Ross." He emphasized my last name. I furrowed my brow as warning bells sounded off in my head. Mr. Walter's looked equally confused.
"Now Samuel, I though you said your wife's name was Elizabeth?" LeBoeuf was positively stricken then. He gave Mr. Walter's a hard look but did not dare look my way. Mr. Walter's finally got the hint and began fidgeting, stammering awkwardly.
"Oh! Well… then…"
Suddenly I felt as though I had stumbled onto shifting sands.
LaBoeuf was a married man.
Ok, I am a native Texan and I'm pretty sure there's no way you can ride from Waco to Seguin in two days. I tried to add more to make up for it but it was coming out so very forced that I gave up. So! Just pretend they have reeeeally fast horses or something!
Next update soon!