The Barn Raising
(Part Eighteen of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
"We're goin' without ya if you don't hurry up!" Nathan bellowed at the closed door.
"I'll be there! Jus' leave me alone will ya? I can't do this if you're standing outside."
"I'm only sayin'…"
"Go saddle your horse or something!"
Nathan chuckled and walked away from the closed outhouse door. A few moments later the door opened and Hannibal Heyes emerged, tucking his shirt into his unbuttoned pants. When he was decent, he ran to catch up with the wagon as it pulled away from the barn. Marty, riding in the back as opposed to on his favourite horse, held out a hand and hauled him up. Heyes collapsed in the back beside Jed.
"They have an outhouse at the Snyder ranch you know?"
"I imagine they do, but they don't have one beside the road on the way there do they?"
"Don't need one on the road there, you just go…"
"Will you two shut up? I don't want to hear about your trips to the outhouse." Marty turned to look wistfully along the trail.
The young friends exchanged a smile but changed the subject.
"Who's gonna be at the barn raising?" Jed asked.
"All the big ranches will send a few hands to help out. The smaller farms will probably all come. It usually turns into a fine party once the barn's built." Marty spat a gloop of tobacco juice over the side of the wagon.
"Any idea what they'll have us doing today?"
"Well, I don't s'pose they'll need you to plan it for 'em, Heyes." Nathan called from his seat up front holding the reins.
Heyes decided to ignore that.
"Oh, I heard he was leading the construction teams," Gerrard added.
"Nope, he was definitely building it all by himself." Bill turned to look at Heyes.
"Ha, Ha! Just 'cos none of you have got my abilities to organise things."
"Trouble is Heyes, we ain't actually seen these abilities you're always boasting about."
"Well, Nathan why don't you let me organise our team today?"
Nathan turned to Bill who sat beside him.
"What do you think?"
"Sure, why not? Okay Heyes, first you see Mister Snyder and ask him what he needs doing, then find out where the other men will be and then tell us just what you want built and where."
Heyes beamed at the thought of being in charge.
"I can do that."
Jed shook his head, convinced they were going to regret this.
The Snyders were a young, newly-married couple who had been given a sizeable piece of land by the bride's father, as a wedding present. As was traditional in the county around Claremont, folks from all the surrounding farms and ranches turned out to help build a barn for their new neighbours. The fact that this was also the opportunity for a party and get-together didn't do any harm either. As the women laid out the pies, cakes and stews they had brought, the men gathered, tool belts at the ready, to discuss the important task of nailing the timbers together in the right order. For this, Heyes edged his way to the front of the crowd; they were gonna need his help.
Among the ladies watching the men doing their manly thing was Annabelle Eldon. Her eyes sought out Nathan as he stood leaning against one of the first posts planted in the ground and listened to Heyes giving his instructions. He appeared amused by what he heard. She smiled. He was a fine, handsome man; a kind, considerate man, so unlike her first husband. She shivered involuntarily at the bitter memories. Nathan was nothing like Wilbur Eldon, nothing at all. She smiled again; cherishing the warm feeling inside, watching him gave her.
A hand on her shoulder, pulled Annabelle from her dreaming and she turned to see Rosalind Tanner, her new best friend. Rosalind had arrived in town just two weeks ago to help her aunt and uncle run the flour mill. Having met Annabelle in the general store one day, the women soon struck up a friendship when they discovered their mutual love of books.
"Which one is he?" Rosalind asked, her eyes scanning the men trying to identify the one called Nathan she had heard so much about.
"Over there, leaning against the post."
Rosalind examined the specimen.
"Hmm, not bad."
"Not bad? Rosa, he's gorgeous."
"So, you are smitten?"
"Yes. Yes I am."
Rosalind smiled and her eyes fell on another equally handsome man now talking to Annabelle's beau. He stood a few inches taller than Nathan, his arms muscled from hard work and…He turned to look directly at her and she blushed, having been caught staring and turned swiftly away.
"Who's that?" she asked in a whisper. Annabelle looked in the direction of her friend's nod. The man touched the brim of his hat to her and she waved.
"That's Jeff Collins, the foreman of the Bar T."
"Oh? Just, oh?" Annabelle studied her friend. "Are you blushing?"
"I have to go check on my pie." Rosalind turned to walk away.
"Oh no you don't, Miss Tanner! I saw that look. You're interested."
"He's a good looking man, who wouldn't be?"
"He's single…Well a widower."
"Not that I know of. I could ask Nathan for you."
"So you do like him."
"I haven't even met him."
"Well, that can soon be rectified. You go check on your pie and I'll make sure you get to meet the delectable Mister Collins before the day is out."
Rosalind smiled and shot a quick look back at the man. She was surprised to find him looking at her. He touched his hat to her and she smiled. Jeff Collins smiled back.
"I have to admit I didn't think he'd be able to do it," Bill commented as he and Nathan stood on a beam, high above the ground, watching Heyes organise a group of young boys. On his direction the youngsters scurried off to carry bags of nails to the teams of men hammering on the barn's wooden skeleton. He looked very pleased with himself.
"Heyes!" The young man looked up at Bill. "We need another beam up here."
"Okay, I'm on it." Heyes scanned the faces around him. "JED!"
The blond boy turned and his shoulders drooped.
"Get another beam for Bill!"
"Yes sir, right away, sir, anything you say, sir!" `
In his element, organising people, Heyes appeared oblivious of his friend's sarcasm and went to check that Jeff and Gerrard were doing what they should.
"I see our Nathan's with the Widow Eldon," Jeff stated as he watched Nathan talking to the pretty, brown-haired woman handing round biscuits.
"Yep." Bill took a cake offered to him by a young girl. "Thanks, darlin'." He winked and she walked away smiling.
"He does look kinda smitten," Jeff observed as he watched Nathan take the plate from Annabelle's hand, except that he didn't take it and she didn't let go, their hands just rested on each others. The Widow, cast occasional glances around them, checking to see if any of the other ladies was watching. To her relief, no one was, at least no ladies. Nathan leaned forward to whisper something in her ear; something he needed to lean in real close for her to hear; something it seemed to be taking a long time to say. Annabelle blushed and smoothed her hair back.
"Reckon they're about to take a walk, don't you?"
"It's what I'd do." Jeff looked at Bill and they smiled. Nathan finally had a hold of the plate. He put it down on a bench and taking Annabelle's hand, led her away from the main crowd. "Want me to bring him back, Boss? Save him from himself?"
"What do you think?"
"I think we got work to do or this barn won't be built today."
"We're a man down now."
"Best get Jed working harder then."
"You mean Heyes hasn't worn him out yet?"
They cast a glance to where the boys sat under a tree stuffing their faces with so much delicious food, then their eyes moved back towards the river, as Nathan led Annabelle by the hand along the bank.
"You sure you don't want me to go tell him to woo the Widow on his own time?"
"I'm sure, Bill."
"Are we getting soft in our old age?"
"I think we are."
"Glad to hear it. C'mon Boss, let's go show the boys how to build a barn."
They turned and came face to face with the small girl who had handed out the biscuits a few minutes before.
"You gotta go help the lady."
"In the kitchen. She needs help with the pies."
"Mister Collins hasta help build the barn sweetheart," Bill informed her.
"But I was told to fetch him earlier and I forgot."
"Told by who?"
The men exchanged a confused glance, knowing exactly where Miss Annabelle was now.
"Can you take me to the lady?" Jeff asked.
"Sure. Follow me."
Bill raised his eyebrows and smiled as his friend followed the young girl towards the Snyder's kitchen.
"I reckon we'll get the barn finished today." Heyes shoved another piece of pie into his mouth as he admired the timber frame standing just a few feet away.
"Well, under your expert instruction I don't see how we can fail." Jed stuffed his mouth with apple pie. Heyes turned to his friend.
"You making fun of me?"
Heyes looked sceptical.
"Just 'cos I can organise 'em…"
"Hey, I'm not complaining. Rather you than me. I just wish you'd…"
"Well do you hafta pick on me for all the dumb jobs?"
"You had me running back and forth carrying buckets of nails; when Gerrard dropped his hammer you had me take it back up to him; I had to fetch and carry for that idiot kid from the Rawlins place."
"Well, you're my right hand man. That's what right hand men do."
"Well I quit."
"You can't quit."
"I just did."
"Jed, I need ya. I need my right hand man."
"Then don't give me dumb jobs. I wanna build the barn not watch others do it."
"All right. I see your point. I'll give you a better job. I reckon Nathan could do with a hand. So after lunch you get to climb up there…" he pointed to the first horizontal beam, "…and build stuff."
"Thanks, Boss." Jed smiled and looked around. "Where is Nathan anyway?"
"Hello there," Jeff said as he entered the kitchen, startling the woman as she bent down to take a tray of cakes from the oven. The tray went crashing to the floor sending cakes tumbling around the room. "I'm sorry!" Jeff scrambled to pick up the cakes and the tray and, amazingly, discovered they were hot. "OW! Dammit!" He dropped the tray.
"Are you all right?" Before he could reply, she grabbed his hand, led him to the sink, and began pumping water over his hand.
"Ma'am, really it's…"
"I don't think it's burnt."
"Ma'am, honestly, it's…"
"It's just that I was concentrating so hard and then you said 'hello' and that startled me and I just lost my grip. It was so kind of you to try and help and now look…Oh I think that is going to blister…I could put some…I…wait…I don't have my things here, I was thinking I was at home but…"
"Oh, sorry, did you want to say something?"
"Are you sure I can get a word in?"
She blushed, met his eyes and…let go of his hand.
"I'm so sorry. I was babbling wasn't I?"
"Yes, ma'am." Jeff smiled again. She was pretty when she blushed. She was pretty when she didn't blush too. "I'm Jeff, Jeff Collins."
She dried her hands on her apron and held out her hand.
"Rosalind Tanner. Please to meet you, Mister Collins."
Collins wiped his hand on his pants.
"Call me, Jeff," he said as he shook her hand; her soft, small hand. He looked up and met her gaze. Rosalind had blue eyes. She smiled. "Sorry I cussed."
"I didn't notice."
Jeff looked at Rosalind. Rosalind looked at Jeff. Both smiled.
"You got it, Jed?" Nathan asked as he raised the beam and slid it into place.
"Yeah, I got it." Jed's muscles strained as he held the timber still.
"Good lad." Nathan hammered in one large nail, took another from between his teeth and pounded it into the beam. All around them the sound of hammering rang out, men yelled for nails as far below children ran back and forth. Slowly the barn took shape. "You enjoying yourself?"
"Yeah. Looks like you were too."
Nathan's eyes narrowed.
"What d'you mean?"
"I saw you." Nathan didn't say anything, he just leaned on the beam. "Saw you coming back from the river with the Wid…Mrs. Eldon."
Nathan stared at the boy.
"You did, huh?"
"And you looked happy."
They stared at each other, then Nathan smiled.
"I did, huh?"
Yeah," Jed said with a smile. "Real happy."
"I was. I still am."
"You gonna marry her?"
"What kind question's that?"
"Well, are you?"
"Hey, you two!" They looked down at Heyes.
"What?" they chorused.
"You got another beam to put up."
"He's really enjoying this," Nathan observed.
"Yeah. As if his head wasn't big enough already."
"Come on, let's get that beam before the boss-man yells at us again."
"You didn't answer my question."
"That's right, Jed, I didn't."
"'Cos I don't know the answer."
"Men and women stuff is harder than I thought."
"You got that right, kid."
"You're smiling," Bill observed as he and Collins watched a large beam being swung into place.
"So what's Miss Tanner like?"
"She's a nice lady."
"What did you two…?"
Collins turned to look at his friend. Bill smiled.
"Yeah, very nice."
"About damn time, Boss. About damn time."
"Not a bad bit of organising if I say so myself," Heyes stated, as he stood back and admired his handiwork, the completed Snyder barn. The fact that he hadn't actually hit a nail with a hammer was irrelevant. The fact that no one was there to hear his proclamation didn't matter. Without Heyes' organising skills they would still be looking at a pile of timber. At least that was how he saw it. The rest of the men, pleased with a good day's work and ready for the evening's entertainment had left him gazing at the building.
Tool boxes were loaded into the backs of wagons and the men, in sweat stained shirts, took themselves off to the river to wash up as a makeshift dance floor was prepared. Before long the fiddler was tuning up, the banjo player picked at a string and the men, in clean shirts and hair slicked down, returned from the river to claim their dance partners.
Nathan zeroed in on Mrs. Annabelle Eldon.
"May I have the pleasure of the first dance, Mrs. Eldon?" he asked as he held out his hand.
"Do I know you, sir?" she teased and he moved closer to whisper in her ear.
"After last weekend, only too well." He laughed when she blushed and taking her hand led her onto the dance floor.
They soon found themselves surrounded by other dancers. Bill Napier had been claimed by one of the younger Snyder daughters and was bravely leading her around the floor despite the danger to his toes, Heyes had his arm on the waist of a pretty girl from town and was using all his charm to find out a little more about her and Jeff Collins leaned against the trunk of a tree watching Miss. Tanner as she talked to the newly wed Snyders. He ran his thumb over his burnt finger, remembering her hand taking his. Jeff took a deep breath, pushed off the tree and walked towards her.
"I can't answer that," Jed Curry stated, definitely.
"Why not? You must have a preference," the blonde girl told him.
"She means you must answer it. You know you like one of us better than the other, so which of us is it?" The dark haired girl clearly expected him to choose between them. Sheesh, why were girls so complicated? He'd enjoyed dancing with them both, he didn't realise there was going to be more to it than that.
"Well?" The blonde girl asked. He thought her name was Rebecca but in truth he'd already forgotten.
"We're waiting." The dark haired girl, Virginia that was her name, looked at him. It seemed they had now formed an unhealthy alliance against him.
"Look, I really can't pick…"
"Why not? Are we so awful?"
"Jed!" He sighed with relief as Nathan approached him. The ranch hand touched the brim of his hat to the girls. "Ladies." They blushed. "Jed, I hate to drag you away from these beautiful ladies but the Boss wants us."
"Oh, well, if he wants us…" Jed gave the girls an apologetic smile and followed Nathan. "What does he want?" he asked when they were out of ear shot.
"To be left alone, I imagine." Nathan nodded and Jed followed the direction of his gaze. Jeff Collins stood at the punch table beside a pretty woman. They were smiling at each other and talking. She laughed at something he said.
"Who is she?"
"Miss. Tanner. She's new in town."
"He likes her."
"Yeah, I think he does. You're learning, kid."
"So why d'you say he..?" Jed looked back at the girls and then at Nathan. The older man smiled, knowingly. "Oh. Thanks."
"You're welcome. I hate to see women fighting over a man."
"Still admiring his handiwork I imagine."
"I'm sure he thinks he built the barn all by himself."
"He's not that bad."
"Well, then I'd say you'll find him behind the barn with Miss. Eliza Braithwaite."
"Pretty, single and seventeen."
"With four brothers, all older and very protective of their little sister."
"D'you think I should ask Marty for my bullets?"
"I'd leave it a while. They haven't realised she's missing yet."
They had reached the punch table and Collins stepped aside so Nathan could grab two glasses and fill them.
"Everything all right, Boss?" he asked, casually, whilst inclining his head towards Miss Tanner.
"Everything's fine thank you, Nathan."
"Want us to keep you company?" Collins didn't miss the glint in the other man's eye.
"That's not necessary."
"Whatever you say, Boss." He handed a glass of punch to Jed. "Nice lady," he whispered as he passed the ranch foreman. "Come on, Jed, let's go save Heyes from himself."
Heyes wasn't behind the barn with Eliza Braithwaite. Instead he leaned against the newly built barn watching a bubbly young woman chatting excitedly to two young ranch hands. She was about his age, shorter by a good few inches, with her dark hair piled up on top of her head. She laughed at something one of the young men said and as she turned her head away she caught sight of the man in a black hat leaning against the barn.
Heyes ran two fingers across the brim of his hat and she smiled.
"Who you looking at?"
Heyes turned to Jed as he approached, then returned his attention to the girl. Jed looked too.
"Hey, that's Clementine!"
"Yeah. Remember I told you about her? She's the doctor's niece. Clementine Hale. She was in town when I got bit by the scorpion."
Heyes studied her. Clementine Hale. She sure was pretty. He'd like to know her better.
"Introduce us," he instructed Jed and strode towards Clementine before his friend could answer.
Clementine recognised Jed Curry as he approached, with the dark-haired young cowboy in tow.
"Hello Jed, how are you now?"
"I'm fine thanks, Miss Hale."
"I told you to call me Clementine."
"Clementine, I'd like you to meet my best friend, Hannibal Heyes."
They smiled at each other.
"Hello, Mister Heyes."
"It's just Heyes."
"I prefer it."
"Then I'd prefer it if you'd call me Clementine."
"Do either of you two gentlemen dance? I was hoping for a spin around the floor but those two…" She nodded her head at the two young men she had been talking to, "…They couldn't take a hint."
"I can dance," Jed boasted and Clementine smiled.
"So can I," Heyes assured her.
"Oh my, I don't know which of you two handsome gentlemen I should dance with first."
"Let's do it alphabetically. Hannibal before Jed."
"How 'bout Curry before Heyes?" Jed glared at his friend.
"Now boys, I don't want to cause a fight. Hannibal, I'll dance with you first and then perhaps you'd get us some punch while I dance with Jed?"
Heyes gave his friend a triumphant smile, offered his hand to Clementine and led her towards the dance floor. Jed could only watch and wait for his turn.
"Pretty girl," Marty observed as he handed Heyes a glass of punch.
"Yeah." Heyes took the drink and continued to watched Jed spinning Clementine around as the fiddler played.
Marty looked from Heyes to the couple dancing and back again. So that was it.
"You could interrupt them."
"I had my turn."
"Well, I reckon he's earned a drink by now."
"Yeah, I reckon he has."
Heyes handed his punch to Marty and strode onto the dance floor.
"Mind if I cut in?"
Jed shot a glare at his friend.
"It's my turn."
"I'll dance with you again, Jed, I promise." She released Jed's hand and took Heyes', who smiled at his friend before he spun Clementine around. Jed retreated to the side lines and Marty handed him a glass of punch.
"Yeah." Jed scowled as he watched Heyes and Clementine.
Marty chuckled. Oh to be young and foolish again.
Jeff Collins turned his hat around in his hands as Rosalind Tanner stood beside her Uncle's buggy. She waited. He shifted his feet and coughed, preparing himself.
She wasn't about to make it easy for him, even though she wanted to reach out and shake him!
"I was er…I was wonderin' if I might call on you when I'm in town." Rosalind tried hard to contain her delight at the request, but her silence worried him. "I don't get into town that often but I thought maybe? I mean if you'd like I could?"
Oh, for heaven's sake help him out woman!
"I'd like that." Jeff met her gaze and smiled. Rosalind smiled back. "I'd like you to knock on my door."
He smiled again, and placed his hat firmly on his head.
"Then I'll do that, ma'am. I'll do that." He touched the brim of his hat and walked towards his horse.
A few feet away Nathan stood in front of Annabelle Eldon. Her buggy stood beside a tall tree, the horses nibbling contentedly on the grass. Annabelle waited for Nathan to say his goodbyes. His eyes met hers.
"I need to kiss you," he stated.
"Everyone will see us."
"No they won't." He grabbed her hand and led her behind the tree. She didn't pull away as he crushed his lips to hers, pressing her against the tree trunk.
"We gotta go, Nathan," Jeff Collins called as he walked by. Annabelle shoved Nathan away from her and he laughed.
"Be right there, Boss."
"Kiss her and get it done with."
"Doin' just that, Boss."
Annabelle glared at him.
"Are you deliberately trying to embarrass me?" Annabelle asked and turned to walk away. Nathan caught her hand.
"See you next Saturday?"
"I might be out."
He laughed, walking backwards away from her.
"Then I'll find you."
"Yes, ma'am." He touched his hat, winked and ran to catch up to the Bar T wagon.
"I think I like barn raising."
Annabelle turned to Rosalind as she approached.
"Barn raising or the men that do it?"
They exchanged a grin.
End of Part Eighteen.