(Part Twelve of the Ranch Days Series)
By Maz McCoy
"I don't even know these people," Jed complained as Heyes did his shirt up at the collar. Jed's face turned red as Heyes pulled tighter. "Heyes, you're choking me!"
"You've grown, again."
"It's not my fault."
"If they want you to wear a tie you're going to need a new shirt."
"I can't afford a new shirt."
"Then you'd best not expect to breathe." Heyes pulled the collar tight again.
"What's goin' on boys?" Henry asked as he entered the bunkhouse. He took one look at Jed's face. "Sheesh, you tryin' to kill him?"
"It won't do up."
"Can't stop him growin', Heyes. He'll hafta wear one of yours."
"Can I wear your blue one?" Jed asked, hopefully.
"I guess." Heyes clearly wasn't happy at the idea. He searched through his things and held out a pale blue shirt. Jed pulled the one he wore over his head, then slipped on Heyes' one. The sleeves were too long but at least he could breathe. He rolled the sleeves back and looked at Henry.
"What do you think?"
"It'll be fine. What they got you doing anyway?"
"We're greetin' the guests and holdin' their horses. Then when the ceremony is over we're invited to join in the dancin'," Jed recited.
"Got any particular partner in mind?" Henry exchanged a look with Heyes. They knew Emily was on her way back.
"Uh huh. What about you Heyes?"
"I don't think Susanna's invited on account of her being a wh…OW!" Jed touched his head where Heyes had just hit him.
"You know better than that."
"Well, she is." Heyes moved swiftly. "OW! Sheesh Heyes that hurt!"
"It was meant to." Angry brown eyes fixed on Jed.
"Stop fightin'! Heyes, Jed's only repeating what he hears about those girls."
"Well, he don't have to!"
"You mean she ain't chargin' ya?" Jed asked innocently. Heyes balled his fist and Jed took a step back. "Well?"
"Shut up!" The dark-haired young man turned away.
Jed looked to Henry for advice and the man shook his head. It was best to leave well alone. Jed did up his shirt collar.
"Henry, do you know how to do up a tie?"
As the guests arrived at the church two smart young men from the Bar T greeted them, and stood holding their horses until they were collected by the men stabling them. Jed had received high praise for a sweeping bow he gave to one lady and was now using it on everyone. Heyes nudged his arm.
"D'you want to take the next one?"
Jed looked at the approaching carriage and smiled.
"Howdy boys," Willard Culver called as he pulled the carriage to a halt. Jed quickly ran forward. He smiled and bowed as Culver helped his wife from the carriage.
"Good day, Mrs. Culver."
The owner of the Bar T turned to the young woman still seated. She moved across the seat and eased herself out of the carriage, taking her father's hand.
"Good Day, Em…Miss Culver."
"You sure are formal," she giggled.
"Jed's doing a fine job," her father praised. Mark, his son climbed out of the carriage and gave Jed a knowing smile. His father took his women folk by the arm and led them up the steps into the church. Emily looked back over her shoulder and smiled at Jed.
"See you later at the dance, Jed?"
"Sure." He smiled, then blushed when he realised Heyes was standing behind him.
"Good day, Miss Culver," he mimicked.
Later that day, when the Mayor's daughter had married her long time beau Peter Paterson, the townsfolk gathered together for dancing and celebrations in the newly built town hall. From the side of the room Jed watched Emily dance with a short, stocky boy whose parents owned the hardware store. When the music stopped the boy bowed gallantly and escorted her back to her family. Jed saw his chance and slipped through the crowd.
She turned and smiled as the fiddler began to play. Emily looked beautiful in her blue dress. Jed didn't know what to say. They hadn't had a chance to speak to each other since she'd returned from her aunt's and now here she was looking…Looking so…Looking like… Like a…
"Jed?" She looked at him, hopeful.
"Hi." Jed swallowed.
"Hi, Jed." He smiled again. She waited. "Did you want something?"
"Did you want something?"
"Oh…er…Yeah. Can I have this dance, Miss Emily?"
"Of course." She held out her hand. Jed took it in his and led her onto the floor. "I thought you'd never get here. Horace is a sweet boy but he stepped on my toes so many times I think I have bruises and he blushes at the smallest thing."
Jed made a mental note to do neither.
He held her soft warm hand in his, his other hand rested on her waist as they stood an acceptable distance apart. His eyes met hers. For a moment neither moved or said a word. Jed swallowed.
"It sure is good to have you."
"What did you say?"
"To have you, back. Back. That's what I meant. It sure is good to have you back."
"I'm glad to be back. It was nice at my aunt's but I love the ranch. I missed it."
"Emily, I…" Someone bumped into him and Jed remembered what they were there for and they began to side step.
"What were you going to say?"
"Just that I…" He side stepped around another couple.
"Aww, Jed that is so sweet. I missed you too."
Jed wasn't sure he wanted her to think of him as sweet. That wasn't right at all.
Heyes watched as Jed led Emily around the floor. He saw the way his friend looked at the girl. He sure had it bad for the boss's daughter. And that was the problem. She was the boss's daughter and there was no way Willard Culver would approve of a serious relationship between Emily and a ranch hand with no money or prospects. Heyes didn't know what Jed would do when the reality of the situation caught up with them. Maybe it never would. I mean they hadn't done much more than hold hands and smile stupidly at each other, at least he hoped not. Sheesh, was he going to have to have that conversation with Jed? Jed knew the facts, growing up on a farm it was hard not to, but when it came to men and women? Oh boy. He was going to have that talk with his friend. For now he was happy to see Jed enjoying Emily's company but he wasn't sure if he was ready, or able, to handle a kid with a broken heart. He had no intention of losing his heart to anyone, ever. The voluptuous Susanna was a nice girl to spend time with but, nope, he wasn't going to lose his heart to a woman. It was just too much trouble.
On the dance floor, Emily moved closer to Jed, so that she could feel his breath on her cheek when he spoke. He had such amazing blue eyes and he had filled out some, since she'd been away. She could see the outline of muscles beneath the sleeves of his shirt and the shape of his face was changing in subtle ways. Maybe he wasn't still a boy after all.
Jed smiled and his whole face lit up. He was tall and strong and she knew the other girls were jealous of her handsome suitor. She smiled up at Jed.
"I hope you've behaved yourself while I was away."
"Sure I have."
"You haven't been courting any other girl?"
"No! The Boss keeps us so busy there ain't time for anything else."
"Oh, so you would have courted another girl if you'd had the time?"
Emily stopped dancing and dropped his hands.
"That's not what I meant."
"Then just what did you mean, Jed Curry?"
Her eyes opened wide and he knew she expected a reply and quickly. And it had better be the right one. His mind worked overtime.
"I mean, there isn't anyone but you and even if I'd had the time I wouldn'ta wanted to see any other girl." He studied her face. Had he said the right thing? Out of the corner of his eye saw her brother, Mark, watching him as he waltzed Louisa Sutcliffe around the floor.
After what seemed like an eternity, Emily smiled.
"I'm pleased to hear it." She held out her hands. Jed took them with trepidation and gave a sigh of relief.
When the music stopped Jed kept hold of Emily's hands. She smiled then leaned forward to whisper in his ear.
"Shall we go outside and get some fresh air?"
"Are you feeling faint?"
Emily looked at him without saying a word. She waited.
"Oh, right, yeah, right, okay let's go outside." Jed turned to lead the way. His eyes scanned the room, hoping no one saw them as they slipped outside. However two brown eyes watched his friend leave the hall.
Outside Emily led the way towards the shadows of the trees.
"Emily, I don't think we should…"
"Shh, come on!" She pulled him into the trees and behind a large trunk, then turned to face him. "Do you want to kiss me?"
Jed's mouth fell open in surprise.
"Do you want to kiss me? You can if you want. I sure want you to."
"Emily, I don't…"
"You don't want to?" She looked disappointed.
"No, no. I do. I really do." Heck he'd been thinking about doing just that as he watched her with Horace. Sheesh. He couldn't do this here, could he?
Emily leaned closer, placing her hands on his chest. Yep, he'd definitely filled out.
"So? Mark's nowhere near. You're perfectly safe."
"I'm not worried about him."
Jed's eyes focussed on her soft lips. He licked his own and swallowed, bending closer. She closed her eyes as his mouth lowered onto hers. He heard her gasp and slid his hands around her waist pulling her against him. Oh boy, it felt good to hold her, to feel her body against his. Her hands moved behind his neck holding his mouth against hers as he felt her lips part and her tongue...Sheesh!
When they finally broke apart, she bit her bottom lip and smiled. Jed found himself grinning too.
"Wow." His eyes fixed on hers, sparkling in the moonlight. When she'd kissed him like that he'd…I mean he had feelings for Emily that…He'd not felt like this before. Now he knew what Heyes had been talking about when he told him how…
Someone was walking nearby and they froze, waiting for whoever it was to pass.
"I guess we should go back inside." He didn't want to let go of her hand.
Emily nodded, still surprised by her own reaction to Jed and the warm fuzzy feeling inside her. When they saw no one around, he led her towards the door. Neither spoke, each lost in their thoughts about what had happened and how they felt. They entered the brightly lit hall and came face to face with the Cavalry.
"William!" Dropping Jed's hand like a hot potato, Emily ran to William Brody's side. The six foot tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man dressed in a smart uniform, scooped her up in his arms and swung her in a circle.
"Well, Emily, don't you look as pretty as a picture?"
"I didn't think you were coming."
"Miss the chance to dance with my favourite girl? Are you crazy? You're such a gorgeous young lady." He turned to the men from Fort Elliot now under his command. All were smartly dressed in freshly pressed uniforms, their eyes eagerly scanning the room. "Gentlemen, enjoy yourselves, but behave." With a nod and a smile, the men spread out each homing in on a young woman regardless of whether or not she was with anyone. William turned his attention back to Emily.
"You look beautiful, Emily. You sure have grown up since I saw you last. May I have the honour of the next dance with you and the one after that too?" He saw her glance at Jed and noticed the blond boy for the first time. "It's Ned isn't it?"
"Well, you don't mind if I take Emily for a twirl around the floor do you? Show her how a cavalryman dances?" Before waiting for a reply, William caught hold of Emily's hand and led her onto the floor. "Thanks Ted."
Jed watched as Emily danced with her soldier. He leaned against the wall and tried his best not to be jealous; jealous of a six foot tall man in a uniform who had every woman in the room drooling over him. Sheesh! It wasn't as if he'd been looking forward to the dancing. It wasn't as if he'd been counting the days until Emily returned. It wasn't as if they had an understanding, although after that kiss in the trees he thought... Perhaps he'd been wrong? Had he misread Emily's response? He didn't think so. I mean she'd used her tongue to…Well, sheesh, he didn't know girls even knew about things like that.
Brody twirled Emily around and she laughed. Jed sighed. It wasn't as if there weren't plenty of other girls he could dance with. Other girls he could…It was just…Heck he thought they had a special friendship and…Oh damn!
Jed turned to see a girl about his age standing beside him. She wore her hair tied back and sipped lemonade from a tall glass. Pretty blue eyes fixed on his.
"Hi," Jed replied. "Not dancing?"
"My partner went missing. He does that a lot."
The girl followed the direction of his gaze. "Emily Culver?"
"William's so handsome. They make a lovely couple."
"Hmph." Jed turned and their eyes met. "I'm Jed Curry."
"I know. I've seen you in town a few times. I'm Elizabeth Schroeder. My Pa owns the lumber mill."
"Would you care to dance, Elizabeth?"
"I'd love to, Jed."
She put down her glass and Jed led her onto the floor.
Jed drank his beer in one long swallow. He had no idea dancing was such hard work. After Emily had abandoned him he'd danced with Elizabeth, then Katie Palmer, then each of the Butcher twins. He paused for another beer then danced with Mary-Sue Anderson and after that with Elizabeth again. She was a good dancer and a lot of fun. Now his feet ached and he'd built up quite a thirst. Emily was sitting with her folks and William. She didn't take her eyes off the young cavalryman. Sheesh. He'd go over there and ask her to dance when he finished his beer and got his second wind. He had every right to dance with her. It wasn't like William had any claim to her. It wasn't like he'd been the one she'd taken into the trees…Or had she, on another occasion? No, he couldn't believe Emily was like that. However, the way the cavalryman was laughing with her folks and sitting so close to Emily made him wonder.
A young, brown-haired boy tapped Jed on the shoulder.
"Can I have a word with you?"
"It's kinda private. Can we talk outside?"
Jed followed the boy into the alley beside the hall. The boy closed the door, muffling the music.
"What is it?" Jed asked. The boy backed away.
"Nice work Tommy, thanks." An older boy stepped out of the shadows and flipped a coin in Tommy's direction. Catching it the boy smiled and headed along the alley. Two others who, from their resemblance to the first, were probably his brothers stepped into view.
"What's going on?"
The first boy stepped closer. He was older than Heyes, maybe eighteen or so.
"I'm Mike Raven. You heard of me?"
"These are my brothers and for your information Elizabeth Schroeder's my girl. I don't like you dancin' with her."
"She was on her own; said her partner went missing."
"That was me. I expected her to wait."
"I didn't know. I won't do it again," Jed assured him.
"I know you won't. You won't be able to."
Jed didn't like the menacing look in the boy's eyes or the implications of his words.
"It was just dancing. We didn't do anything else."
"Be glad you didn't."
One of the others stepped forward.
"Mike just wants to be sure you remember, for next time."
Jed didn't like the menacing tone and looked along the alley. There was no one else in sight and nowhere to run to.
"Where's Romeo?" Nathan asked as he caught the bartender's eye.
Standing between Nathan and Mark, Heyes leaned against the makeshift bar
"I don't know."
He sighed and Nathan glanced at him.
"Your family?" Mark asked as he took a swallow of beer and watched Louisa dancing with a ranch hand.
"Yeah. I remember a wedding in town. Remember my Ma and Pa getting all dressed up and forcing me into a stiff necked shirt." He smiled. "I remember my Ma smiling when he twirled her around the floor. I had no idea my Pa could dance like that and…"
Nathan handed him a glass of whiskey.
"I don't need…"
Heyes took a sip.
"All of it."
Heyes drained the glass.
"Now go pick one of those pretty girls over there and show 'em what a good dancer you are." Heyes was about to say something but Nathan nodded towards the far wall where the girls stood. "Go on, get!"
Heyes smiled and walked away.
"Must have been hard them losing their folks like that," Mark observed as he watched Heyes using his charm on a girl wearing a pretty green dress.
"They're doing all right. Turned out okay." Nathan smiled. "Emily seems to like Jed."
"My folks have their eyes on William for her and from the way she's flirting with him, I'd say she does too."
"S'gonna be hard on Jed. I think he's smitten."
"Well you've been playin' big brother to him, so I'm sure you'll see him right."
"Just keeping an eye on the kid, that's all."
"I know, Nathan. Reminds you of Roy don't he?"
Nathan stiffened at the mention of his dead brother's name.
"Yeah, I guess he does."
"Well old man, Louisa's promised me another dance, and as she's a whole lot prettier than you, I'm gonna leave you to your beer. Maybe you should take widow Eldon for a spin around the floor. She's been giving you the eye all night."
"Get outta here."
With a wicked smile, Mark headed across the room towards Louisa as Nathan's eyes fell on the delightful widow Eldon.
Nathan stepped out into the fresh air and found a few men standing on the porch smoking cigars, talking cows, the lack of rain and grain prices. The widow Eldon had indeed been receptive to his charms and he was promised another dance before the night was out and the pleasure of escorting her home. She'd also invited him to call on her when he was next in town and he had to admit she was a fine looking woman. He had every intention of knocking on her door.
Needing the outhouse he made his way down the steps and round the side of the building. Entering the alley a sound caught Nathan's attention. A shape lay on the ground a few feet ahead, Nathan quickened his pace.
"Hey, son, you hurt?" Resting his hands on the youngster's arms he turned him over. "Jed?"
The boy moaned and, as clouds drifted off of the moon, Nathan saw the blood and bruises on his young friend's face.
"Sheesh, kid, who did this to you?" Jed's mouth hurt too much. His arms wrapped protectively around his ribs as he met Nathan's worried gaze. "D'you reckon you can stand?"
Jed nodded and Nathan helped him to his feet. Supporting the boy, Nathan led the way back along the alley.
Startled faces looked at the pair as Nathan and Jed climbed the steps, to the porch outside the hall.
"What the heck?"
"Who did that?"
"Who's the boy?"
"Sheesh, he sure upset someone."
"Could someone get the doctor?" Nathan asked. "And make it discrete okay? Don't want to spoil the wedding."
The men stepped back or returned to the dance floor and a few moments later the doctor appeared.
"Nathan, someone said a boy's been hurt…?" He stopped in his tracks when he saw Jed's face. "I'll get my bag from the buggy." He headed off just as Collins appeared from the hall.
"Nathan, what's up? One of…" He let out a heavy sigh at the sight of Jed. "Who did this?"
"I don't know."
Collins crouched beside the boy, brushing blood stained hair away from his face.
"Jed, can you hear me?"
The boy nodded and Collins pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket holding it against the cut above Jed's left eye. The boy flinched.
"Who did it?"
Jed looked away.
"Dammit, boy, answer me!"
Collins ignored Nathan.
"Jed, when I ask you something I expect an answer."
Jed looked away again.
"You were dancing with Elizabeth Schroeder a lot." Collins put two and two together. "Did Mike Raven do this?"
Jed didn't reply but his shoulders stiffened.
Jed didn't. Collins looked at Jed's hands. The knuckles were un-bruised. Jed hadn't even been allowed to defend himself. Collins stood up.
"Keep an eye on him, Nathan."
"Boss, you can't…"
"Someone beats up one of my men; you don't tell me what I can and can't do."
"Jed?" They turned to see Heyes standing in the doorway. His mouth dropped open when he saw his friend's face. "What happened?"
Heyes saw Nathan cast a glance at Collins.
"What happened? Boss?"
"Someone took exception to Jed dancing with his girl."
"Who?" Heyes knelt beside his friend as the men looked at each other. "Who?"
"Leave this to us, Heyes."
"I'll deal with him," Jed said through bloody lips.
"No you won't, son."
The doctor reappeared with his bag and shooed people aside so he could see to his patient. Collins caught hold of Heyes' arm.
"I'll deal with this, Heyes, d'you hear me?" Heyes gritted his teeth. "Heyes?"
"What was that?"
"Yes, I hear you."
"You understand my meaning?"
"Good. Then you stay here and look after Jed. Keep him away from any guns and you do the same. If you don't, I'll deal with you both. Got that?"
Satisfied, Collins nodded and went back inside. Heyes sat beside Jed as he held the bandage the doctor gave him to his face.
"You got us in trouble again."
"Womp my fall," Jed managed.
"You had to upset another lovesick Romeo, huh?"
"I ha'ta dans wiv sum'on."
"And look where it got you."
"Sche nice gurl. And 'mly got soljer."
"Em-lee dancin' wid 'er soljer."
"So you got jealous of her man in uniform again? And got yourself beat up 'cos of it?"
"Thas not it. Wernt soljers. 'nother gurl."
Before Heyes could comment the doctor applied iodine to the wound and Jed hissed.
Collins rounded up some of the ranch hands and went in search of the Raven brothers. It didn't take them long to find them, sitting under a tree by the river, drinking whiskey from a bottle and laughing themselves silly. Their smiles faded when they saw the men looming over them.
As Jed and Heyes sat on the porch, a tall man with a black moustache strode purposefully towards them. Moonlight glinted off the badge pinned to his chest.
"Let me do the talking," Heyes said as the sheriff drew nearer. With his mouth swollen Jed was more than happy to leave any speaking to his friend. "Evenin', sheriff."
"Boys." He walked up the steps, eyeing them as he did so. "Guess I don't hafta ask which one of you's Jed Curry." The lawman leaned back against the porch rail. "Wanna tell me what happened?"
"Mike Raven took exception to him dancing with Elizabeth Schroeder and he and his brother's beat Jed up in the alley."
The sheriff's gaze fell on Jed.
"That mouth hurtin' so much you lost the power of speech?"
"So why don't you tell me what happened?"
Heyes looked duly chagrined.
"I woz dancin' with Elizabeth. She said her partner had abandoned her. This kid asked me to speak to him outside. When I got there Mike Raven and his brothers were waitin' for me. Mike warned me off Elizabeth."
"And he did this to you?"
"Hmm." The lawman's eyes moved from one boy to the next. "Jeff Collins and some of his hands dragged the Raven boys into my jail about ten minutes ago, all drunk as skunks. Reckon I'll let 'em sleep it off in the cells. The question is what then? Want to press charges?"
Jed looked at Heyes.
"We sure do!" Heyes stood up, facing the man with righteous indignation. "Why it's a sorry day when an honest man can't attend a dance without being assaulted; when a gentleman can't dance with a perfectly respectable young lady without being beaten bloody." The sheriff looked past him to the beaten and bloodied blond boy.
"What about Elizabeth?"
"What about her?"
"Would she be involved?"
"I imagine so, when the story gets out."
"It's not a story!"
The sheriff looked at Heyes.
"Why don't you sit down son and let me talk to your friend?"
"So you're worried about Elizabeth?"
"Reckon folks won't understand. Maybe think she and Mike… Well you know?"
"Her reputation could take a knock, I'll agree."
Heyes mouth dropped open as he turned to face his friend.
"You're not letting him get away with this?"
Jed remained silent.
Jed looked at the sheriff.
"I don't reckon I'll press charges."
"I've made up my mind, Heyes."
"Are you crazy? He all but beats you to…"
Heyes' diatribe was interrupted by the sudden pounding of footsteps and Emily appeared on the porch, closely followed by William Brody. Emily took one look at Jed's battered face and moved swiftly to his side, edging Heyes away with a shove of her hips.
"Oh, Jed, I just heard! Oh my goodness your face!"
"I'm okay," Jed told her, as she fussed about him.
"No, you're not. Sheriff what are you doing about this?"
"Mister Curry and I have just sorted that out. Now I can see he's in good hands, so I'll be on my way. Good evening Miss Culver, William, Mister Curry, Mister Heyes." His eyes fell particularly on Heyes, issuing a warning.
"Sheriff," they chorused.
"You'll ride back to the ranch with us," Emily insisted. "William, go tell my Pa, we need the carriage."
"I'm sure Jed can…"
Dismissed, William disappeared back inside. Emily took Jed's hands in hers.
"I heard you were defending Elizabeth's honour." Emily's eyes filled with adoration as she brushed a strand of hair away from Jed's face.
"I think you're so brave."
"A gentleman fighting for the honour of a lady is so romantic, don't you agree?" She looked at Heyes. He shrugged. Emily turned back to Jed. "Does it hurt?" She gently touched the bruise on his cheek.
Heyes rolled his eyes.
Willard Culver appeared in the doorway.
"Emily, William said…Oh my goodness, Jed! What the heck happened?"
"I'm okay, sir, it's just…"
There was a scurry of activity that Jed found hard to keep track of. The carriage was sent for and Emily went to explain to her mother why they must leave early. Suddenly Heyes and Jed were alone again on the porch.
"Seems you got Emily after all," Heyes observed. "Women never can resist a wounded hero."
"I ain't no hero. Never even got to throw a punch."
"Well, she doesn't know that." He looked at his friend. "I can't believe you're letting him get away with this."
Two bruised, ice-blue eyes turned to face Heyes.
"I never said he'd get away with it."
End of Part Twelve