The Point of No Return, Chapter Eight
Waiting at the stagecoach stop with Agarn, O'Rourke looked around for the major. The stagecoach had arrived about five minutes ago, and he could tell that the driver was impatient to get back on the road.
"I wonder where he could be," muttered O'Rourke.
"I don't know, but here comes Jane," said Agarn.
O'Rourke turned and saw Jane and Robert coming their way. Jane had her hands wrapped around her upper arms as if she was cold, and he couldn't tell by her face if she was upset or just squinting against the sun. As he watched, he saw her glance up, let her arms drop, and try to smile. He looked over his shoulder to see that the major was approaching from the opposite direction with his bag in his hand.
All three of them arrived at the stagecoach stop at about the same time.
The major put his bag on the coach. "Well, men, I guess this is it. I hate long goodbyes, so we'll just keep this short and sweet."
O'Rourke and Agarn saluted, and the major returned it.
"It's been great having you here, Major." said O'Rourke, reaching for the major's hand.
"The men will miss you," added Agarn,
"Sergeant, Corporal." The major shook O'Rourke's hand, and then Agarn's. "I've enjoyed working with both of you again. I always tell anyone who will listen that F Troop is the best outfit in the army."
He moved over to Jane and took both of her hands in his own. Leaning forward, he kissed her on the cheek and murmured into her ear, "I hope you're very happy, Jane."
"Thank you, Wilton," she said unsteadily.
The major closed his eyes, and he lingered with his face next to hers until his expression was neutral again. He straightened abruptly, smiled, and held out his hand to Robert, "Take good care of her, Robert."
Grasping the major's hand, Robert said, "I intend to."
The major nodded toward each of them once again and boarded the stagecoach. The driver cracked the whip, the stagecoach drove away, and just like that, he was gone.
They all stood and watched the dust settle.
O'Rourke turned toward the others to make a comment about how good it had been to see the major again, but the words died in his throat when he saw Jane's face. He must be turning into a big softy – the longing on the major's face when he kissed Jane's cheek had about turned him into mush, and now the loss on Jane's face was doing it to him again. She didn't even notice that he was watching her, her eyes instead pointed toward the stagecoach that was by now certainly out of sight. Robert had already started back in the other direction.
"Jane," Robert said, clearly oblivious to her emotional state. "Let's go eat lunch."
As if his words had awakened her, she jerked slightly, and then followed him. O'Rourke looked over at Agarn. He could tell that Agarn had seen it all, too.
"C'mon, buddy," said O'Rourke with resignation. "Let's get back to work."
He took a couple of steps, paused until Agarn fell into step beside him, and together they walked back to the fort.
Robert sat at the table in his kitchen while Jane lit the stovetop, put a spoonful of lard in a skillet, and got a plate of sliced ham out of the icebox. She was usually chatty while she cooked, but today she was quiet. When she put two slices of ham in the skillet and began to poke at them with a fork as if they'd run away if she didn't keep them pinned down, he finally spoke up.
"Jane, are you all right?"
She ducked her head and kept her back to him. "Yes, I'm fine." She didn't sound fine. He wondered if she might be mad at him.
Finally, she faced him, and he was surprised to see that her eyes were damp and her nose was red. She swiped at her cheek with the back of her hand and said, "I'm sorry. It's just hard saying goodbye to him all over again."
He frowned and looked more closely at her. "What did he say to you?"
"Just… that… he hoped I'd have a happy life."
"No, that's not what I meant. I heard him say that. I'm talking about whatever it was he said yesterday or the day before."
She put down the fork and grasped one of her hands with the other, looking everywhere but in his eyes.
Alarmed now, he stood, "Jane, I know he must have said something to you. I didn't realize it until now, but you haven't been yourself. I can't remember when it started. Was it yesterday? Did he do something to upset you?"
"He…" She swallowed. "He told me not to marry you."
"What?" He clenched both hands into fists. He had never hit anyone before in his life, but he thought that if Parmenter were standing before him, he'd gladly punch him in the nose. "He said that to you? I thought that he was supposed to be a gentleman!"
She looked into his eyes as if she were pleading with him. "He said that it was too important to stand on honor."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him no! That I was going to marry you!"
Suddenly realizing that what he heard in her voice wasn't distress over an unwelcome advance but pain, he felt the anger drain out of him, and he had to sit down. "Is that what you want?" he whispered.
She had picked up the hem of her apron and she was worrying at it with her fingers.
When she didn't answer, he said more firmly, "Jane? Is that what you want?"
She dropped the apron and began to wring her hands together. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Robert! I didn't mean for it to happen. I just looked up one day, and there he was, standing there, in the doorway to my store." She took a deep, shuddering breath, and choked out, "And it was like he had never left."
Robert put both elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands. He could hear her weeping softly in the background. Without uncovering his face, he said, "Are you breaking it off with me?"
"No!" He heard her take a step closer to him. "No, I'm not! I love you, Robert!"
"But do you love him more?" He dropped his hands. "Do you?"
She shook her head, and he didn't know if that meant no, or if it meant that she didn't want to answer his question.
"Jane," he repeated carefully, as if he were talking to a first-grader. "Do you want to call off the wedding?"
"No! I promised I'd marry you, and I will!"
He sat there and watched her shoulders heave. Her entire face was wet from tears, but she made no move to dry them. The ham sizzled behind her.
Finally, he stood. "Jane, 'because you said so' isn't a very good reason to marry someone. You deserve better, and frankly, so do I."
She relaxed slightly and her breathing slowed, and he knew in that instant by the set of her shoulders that he had lost her. He hadn't even realized that he was still holding out hope.
Well," he said. He turned his face toward the window. "If you jump on your horse and ride as fast as you can, you might be able to catch him before he boards the train in Dodge City."
"Jane, go. Just… go."
She hesitated, watching him closely, but then she took off her apron and put it over the back of a chair, and hurried toward the door. Just before she went through it, however, she whirled and came back to him. He watched her expectantly, thinking that maybe he had misjudged the situation after all, but she just pulled off her ring, lifted his hand, and put the ring in his palm. She closed his fingers around it and held his hand tightly between her own hands.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
He closed his eyes and nodded, and a moment later he heard her run out the door.
O'Rourke was standing by the corral with Agarn when he heard the sound of hooves pounding through the fort. He looked up to see Jane, crouched low over her horse's neck, hair coming loose and skirts billowing behind her, riding for all she was worth toward the outer gate.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Go, Janie girl!"
Agarn threw his hat in the air. "Yee haw!"
Jane didn't budge from her intense concentration over Red's neck, but she reached up with one hand and pulled the ribbon from her hair, and let go of it with her hand high in the air. The ribbon fluttered to the ground in a cloud of dust behind her.
Agarn punched O'Rourke's arm as they watched her vanish through the gate, but O'Rourke smiled sadly and said, "I think we've just lost our little Janie."
A shadow passed over Agarn's face, but his smile diminished only slightly.
"And I couldn't be happier, Sarge."
Jane thundered up to the hitching post in front of the train station and jumped off Red before he had even completely stopped. She kissed his nose and whispered an apology for riding him hard and leaving him wet, then wrapped the reins around the post and ran into the station. There was a train stopped on the tracks, and she knew that it had to be Wilton's.
People were milling about the station, and she quickly scanned the crowd as she ran through the building. She hadn't expected to find him there, but she didn't want to take a chance on missing him. She pushed her way out to the platform.
Some people were boarding the train, and others were standing around, maybe families saying goodbye or slowpokes who were taking their time. She stood on her tiptoes trying to see into the window of the car closest to her.
"Wilton!" she called out. "Wilton!"
She listened for a response, then ran up to the next car and tried again.
"Wilton!" she yelled at the top of her lungs. Several people turned toward her, but none of them had the face she was looking for.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Was she too late? The conductor was walking in her direction shouting "All aboard!" and as she watched even the stragglers started to move toward the train. She ran a few more steps, called his name and turned in a circle searching everywhere, and ran forward again.
Suddenly, the crowd parted, and she saw him standing far down on the platform, near the end of the train.
He was looking right at her, and he appeared to be completely stunned. She went limp with relief for a moment, and then she picked up her skirts and started running in his direction. A huge smile spread slowly across his face. He dropped his bag and walked toward her.
Now within just feet of him, she let go of her skirts and threw herself into his arms. She felt his strong grip encircle her, and he buried his face against her neck.
"Oh, Jane," he murmured shakily, his voice muffled by her hair. "I promise you'll never regret this."
Drawing back, she put her hands on either side of his face. "I lost you once. I couldn't lose you again."
He released her and backed away, holding up the index finger of one hand while opening his coat with the other. She had never been able to understand how he was able to unbutton his coat so quickly with just one hand. He took something small out of his inside pocket and knelt on one knee before her, and she covered her mouth with both hands.
Holding a ring between his fingers, he said "Jane Angelica Thrift, will you marry me?"
At first she couldn't speak, but finally she found her voice. "Yes," she cried. "Oh, Wilton, yes!"
He stood and put the ring on her finger. Taking her into his arms, he gazed into her eyes for a moment with a tender smile on his face, and then he pressed his lips to hers and kissed her. Hard.
She heard the conductor nearby. "Uh, sir? Ma'am? It's time for the train to leave."
Wilton continued to kiss her, and she felt her knees begin to go weak.
The conductor cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he said more loudly. "The train is leaving. Sir!" He tapped on Wilton's shoulder. "Sir!"
The whistle blew, and she heard the wheels start to clank.
Wilton finally released her. Grabbing his bag as he backed away from her, he said, "I'll be back in six days, maybe sooner if I can hurry things along at Fort Bravo."
She nodded, her eyes bright and her hands clasped under her chin. "I'll be waiting for you!"
The train had picked up a little speed, so he had to take a couple of quick steps in order to hop into the doorway. Hanging on, he leaned out.
"Be thinking about what kind of wedding you want!" he shouted over the increasing noise. "When, where, and how big!"
She trotted alongside the train. "I will! I will!" she called.
The train gave a good jerk, and he finally had to wave one last time, release the doorway, and go inside the car. She could see through the windows that the other passengers applauded as he walked down the aisle, and he gave them an embarrassed little tip of his hat before he found a place to sit. She reached the end of the platform and bounced on her toes, waving, until the train was completely out of sight.
She held her hand out and studied the ring. So. She was engaged. To Wilton.
As she started back to the station and had to consciously stop herself from skipping like a schoolgirl, she had one more thought.
Stretched out on his back on the pull-down cot in their private compartment, Wilton enjoyed the comforting rhythm of the train and the weight of Jane's head on his shoulder. She had commented that the private compartment was much too expensive, but he thought that it was the best money he had ever spent. That, and the money he had used to purchase a berth for Red in the stock car.
She rubbed his chest. "I'm so glad you were able to extend your stay until I could sell the store. I know it's silly, but I was afraid that if you left without me, I'd wake up one morning and find out that it was all just a dream."
He chuckled. "If it's just a dream, then I'm in it with you, and I hope that I never wake up."
Lightly stroking her arm, he said, "I hope you aren't too disappointed that you didn't get to have a big wedding like the one you had planned in St. Louis."
"Do you know what? I never told Robert this, but what I really wanted was a wedding just like the one you and I had, with our friends, in the church we used to attend together. But what about you? It wasn't a big military wedding."
"It was perfect, exactly as it was. I wouldn't have changed a thing."
They were quiet while she idly drew circles on his chest with one finger. Finally, she said, "Wilton, do you think that you and Emily would have been happy together?"
He studied the pattern in the ceiling that was just barely visible in the dim light. "Yes," he said. "We would have been happy. We would have loved each other."
"But no spark."
She propped herself up on her arms so she could see his face. "You know that she would have been a much better officer's wife than I'm going to be."
"No, no, Janie, sweetheart. You'll be terrific."
He could see her face just well enough to tell that she was really worried. "But I don't know anything about how to act at fancy parties," she said, "and heaven forbid we try to host something-"
He reached up to smooth a lock of hair away from her forehead. "You're smart, you're kind, you're energetic, and you've lived an interesting life. Just be yourself, and I promise that you'll be the hit of the season. Besides, they'll see that I'm crazy about you. All of the other husbands will be jealous."
She kissed him. "I don't know how I got so lucky."
He ran his arms around her back and pulled her down to him, but they were interrupted by a knock on the door.
"Sir?" said the disembodied voice. "You wanted me to tell you when we were close."
"Yes, thank you," Wilton called out.
Jane scooted over to her side of the cot when he sat up. "What is it, Wilton?"
"Come over to the window with me for a minute."
They stood up and wrapped themselves in a blanket. The train was bouncing around a bit, and they laughed when they tried to coordinate walking together while wrapped up in the same blanket, but soon he had opened the curtain and they were standing at the window. He put his arm around her.
"What are we looking at?" she asked.
"Wait just a minute… There."
The sound of the train changed as it headed out over a high bridge. The shimmer of the moon on a wide expanse of water could be seen below.
She stood on her toes so she could see better. "What is it?"
"The Mississippi River."
Relaxing against him, she said, "Things are sure different this time than they were the last time you went this way, aren't they?"
"Oh boy, don't you know it. I never thought that I could be this happy, Jane. We're going to have an amazing life together."
She smiled. "Yes, we are."
They looked out the window until the train was all the way across the bridge, and then they turned back to their bed, ready to sleep.