A Trip to Claremont

(Part Nineteen of the Ranch Days series)

By Maz McCoy

Three men of the Bar T head into town, not – I repeat, not – because they want to see a certain woman. Oh as if we believe that!

"Can I go?" Jed asked.

"I already told Heyes I'd take him," Jeff Collins stated as he checked the bridle on one of the horses harnessed to the wagon.

"But he went last time." Jed knew he sounded like a whiney kid as he watched Collins examining one of the horses' front shoes, but he was feeling like a whiney kid. And Heyes had gone on the last trip to town.

Collins released the horse's foot and stood up gazing directly at Jed.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with the doctor's niece would it?"

"No."

"Hmm."

"It's not I just…" Jed sighed. "Forget I asked." He turned and walked away.

"Kid!"

Jed spun, his gaze hopeful.

"Go find Heyes and bring him up here."

Jed' shoulders dropped. With a nod, he headed for the bunkhouse. Collins watched him go. Sure it had nothing to do with the pretty young niece the doctor had staying with him. In the same way that his urgent trip to town had nothing to do with one Rosalind Tanner, the pretty niece of the couple running the flour mill. Nope this trip to town definitely had nothing to do with a man's need to see a woman. Yeah, and there went a whole flock of flying pigs, heading over the barn. Smiling to himself Jeff shook his head and climbed up onto the wagon seat. With a flick of the reins he turned the wagon around, pointing it in the right direction. Jed and Heyes stood to one side as he applied the brake. They were both out of breath. Collins jumped down. The boys waited, well aware that the foreman's decision was about to be made.

"So you both want to go into town, huh?"

"Yes, Boss."

"Yes, sir."

"And this has nothing to do with the doctor's niece?"

"NO!" they chorused.

"And you wouldn't be lying to me about that, would ya?"

A pause.

"If I happened to see her, I wouldn't be unhappy about it," Heyes informed the boss. Jed frowned. What?

"Uh huh. Jed?"

"What he said."

"I see." Collins looked from one boy to the other. If he wasn't mistaken they were both wearing their best shirts. This was something of a coincidence, because he happened to have put on a brand new shirt just that morning. "Get in the wagon boys."

Broad grins followed by good natured shoving followed as they scrambled into the wagon bed. Collins climbed back up. He hoped he wasn't going to regret this.

"ALL RIGHT THAT'S ENOUGH!" Collins pulled the wagon to a halt and applied the brake. He turned slowly, clearly taking time to calm his temper, before looking directly at the two young men seated behind him. They had been bickering about this and that for the last couple of miles. He was a patient man but even he had his limits. His expression grim he looked from Jed to Heyes and back again. He was not pleased. Not pleased at all. "If either one of you says one more thing before we get to town you'll find yourself walking back to the ranch. One. More. Thing. Do I make myself clear?"

Neither boy spoke.

"I said, is that clear?"

Jed looked at Heyes. Collins sighed.

"You can answer that."

"Yes, sir."

"Yes, Boss."

"Good. Now both of you, shut up." He turned his back to them well aware that at the moment he did so they glared at each other. Jeff shook his head. Sheesh, had he ever been that young?

The slow plodding of the horses and the rocking of the wagon soon had Jed and Heyes dozing in the back. The hypnotic swaying of two equine rear ends lulled Collins too. His mind began to wander as he drove a trail he was all too familiar with.

Would she be pleased to see him? Would she even remember him from the barn raising? There had certainly been a… A what? A spark? A connection? Yeah, there had certainly been a connection between them as she held his hand under the water to stop his fingers burning. He'd felt his heart doing that weird flip-flop thing it had done when he first set eyes on her standing next to Nathan's woman, looking up at him. Miss Rosalind Tanner. She was a little older than usual to still be called Miss. Wonder why that was? Guess he'd have to ask her that. Real subtle like, of course.

He flicked the reins as the wagon started up a slight incline. Miss Rosalind Tanner sure had pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes and soft- well soft looking- hair. He hadn't actually had the opportunity to touch it. Yet. He smiled. Wouldn't that be something? Running his fingers through her hair.

His smile faded. Would she understand? Mary. If there was some way that she knew? He didn't love her any less. Losing her didn't hurt any less. He could still remember every detail of that fateful day. Remember every anxious moment. His gut still twisted at the thought but… He just needed… What did he need? He guessed Bill was right. He needed to move on. Miss Rosalind Tanner stirred something inside of him that he hadn't felt since Mary had been by his side. Something he hadn't felt in a long, long time. He just…

THUD! CREAK! BOUNCE! DAMMIT! WHAT THE HECK?

"Didn't you see it?"

"Oh sure, Jed. I saw it all right. I just drove the wagon straight into the dip for the heck of it." Blue eyes fixed on Collins. The wagon wheel was well and truly stuck in the mud. Collins took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. Dammit! "No, of course I didn't see it!"

The frustrated foreman sighed as he looked at the wheel once more.

"All right, boys. Time to start pushing."

"Us?"

"Yes, you."

"But…"

Collins' eyes narrowed.

"You got some objection, Heyes? Think real hard before you answer that."

"I guess not."

"Good." Collins looked at Jed and gave a heavy sigh. "Jed, take the reins."

"Why does he…?"

Eyes narrowed. Heyes shut up.

"He's the lightest. Unless you'd prefer to push the wagon with me on board?" Jeff looked at Heyes, waiting.

"No, sir."

Jed climbed up onto the wagon and settled himself in the seat. Taking hold of the reins, he glanced back, waiting for the foreman's signal. Heyes and Jeff braced themselves against the back of the wagon. Collins gave a nod, Jed, "HEYUPPED!" and flicked the reins. Collins and Heyes pushed and pushed and PUSHED and…

"Dammit, Heyes, PUSH!"

"You two sure are muddy," Jed observed, somewhat unnecessarily as Collins and Heyes stood side by side looking up at the wagon that was now free of its muddy trap. They were both covered in mud from head to toe. Faces, shirts, pants and boots; particularly boots.

"Terrific, just terrific," Collins muttered as he looked down at his clothes. He was certainly going to make an impression on Miss Tanner, assuming she let him anywhere near her looking like this.

Collins gave his pants legs another whack with his hand and a cloud of dry mud rose into the air. All that trouble he'd taken making himself presentable was wasted. Heck, he'd even bought a new razor for the job. Miss Tanner was sure to take one look at him and realise she'd made a very big mistake.

He pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the general store and Heyes and Jed jumped down onto the boardwalk.

Collins gave a sigh and climbed down to stand beside them. He cast a glance up and down Main Street and then looked across the street and…It was her…Rosalind. Miss Rosalind Tanner was standing there, basket in her hand, outside the mercantile. She'd seen him and she smiled at him, inclining her head slightly. Jeff touched the brim of his hat and smiled back. Then he just stood there, staring.

Jed looked up to ask Collins something and realised the Boss wasn't moving. He turned to see what had caught his attention and, there she was, the lady from the barn raising. Jed looked at Collins, looking at the lady. Jed tugged at Heyes' sleeve. Heyes looked up. What? Jed nodded and his friend followed the direction of his gaze. There was Jeff Collins standing there looking across the street at a woman. He had a silly smile on his face. The woman was smiling back. Well I'll be, the Boss is smitten. Heyes smiled. So that was why the foreman of the Bar T had decided to ride all the way to town to collect supplies instead of sending one of the ranch hands. Collins you sly old dog.

Somehow Collins realised they were watching him. He turned and the boys tried their best to look as if they hadn't noticed the object of the man's attentions but he knew better.

"Take care of the horses!"

Heyes and Jed exchanged a glance as the Boss strode into the general store.

"There she is," Heyes pointed and sure enough there was Miss Clementine Hale, in the doorway of the doctor's office bidding a lady farewell.

"Come on." Jed moved from behind the wagon but Heyes grabbed hold of his shirt, pulling him back.

"Wait!"

"What for?"

"I'll go first."

"I saw her first, Heyes!"

"Not today you didn't." Heyes pushed passed him and headed across the street. Jed made a grab for his friend and tugged Heyes back against the wagon.

"I. SAW. HER. FIRST!"

Heyes smiled, which riled Jed even more.

"She's not your type, Jed."

"And just what is my type?"

"Not Clementine."

"Maybe we should let her decide?"

"Maybe we should."

Heyes grinned, smugly. Jed scowled.

"Then let's both go see her!"

"Lead the way, Jed, lead the way. Just don't sulk on the journey back when she's chosen the better man."

"I'll remind you, you said that when Collins asks you why you're so grumpy." Jed walked faster and Heyes quickened his pace to keep up.

"Good Morning, Mister Collins. It's nice to see you again." Rosalind Tanner transferred her parcel to her left hand as she closed the door to the dress shop.

Collins touched the brim of his hat.

"It's a pleasure to see you too, ma'am." He looked across the street but the boys had disappeared. He looked down at the wooden planks of the boardwalk.

"Mister Collins?"

Jeff looked up and straight into Rosalind's eyes. Her beautiful blue eyes. Sheesh, help him, he was struck dumb.

"Jeff? Are you all right?"

He cleared his throat.

"Yes, ma'am. I…Er…"

"Are you all right? You're not hurt?"

"Ma'am?"

Rosalind pointed to his mud splattered clothes.

"You look as if you've been in quite a battle."

"Oh no, we just had some trouble with the wagon on the way in."

She smiled. Sheesh, she had a pretty smile. Jeff looked down at his boots again.

Rosalind resisted the urge to shake him and Jeff looked up.

"Ma'am, could we, I mean can we walk?"

"Yes, of course."

They set off along the boardwalk. Collins tried desperately to think of something to say but nothing that he thought she'd be remotely interested in sprung to mind. Cattle prices. The cost of feed. The impending winter snows. Nope. Couldn't see any of that interesting her. What should he say? When they reached the steps down onto the street Rosalind stopped. He looked up. Was something wrong?

"Am I so terrifying you're struck dumb in my presence?"

"No! I…I'm sorry, really I just…" He removed his hat, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. "It's been a long time since I did this."

"Took a stroll along the boardwalk?" she asked, deliberately misunderstanding him.

"No, I mean, this…" He waved his hand between them.

"If I remember correctly I did invite you to knock on my door."

"This isn't exactly knocking." He smiled then sighed. "I'm pretty useless at this aren't I?"

"Yes."

Jeff laughed.

"Can we start again?"

"Of course. Good morning, Mister Collins."

"Good morning, Miss Tanner. I sure have missed you."

Now it was Rosalind's turn to be struck dumb. Her mouth opened but no words came out. Jeff turned his hat around in his hands as he spoke.

"Truth is, I haven't stopped thinking about you since the barn raising. I had to drive the wagon in myself just to get a chance to see you." He looked up, meeting her gaze. "If I've said too much or overstepped the mark, I apologise but…"

"You're doing just fine."

Jeff relaxed. A little. Rosalind smiled.

"I've thought about you too. I was beginning to think you were never coming into town."

"Got here as soon as I could."

"I'm glad."

"Would you join me for a cup of coffee?"

"Unchaperoned?"

"In the cafeteria? I doubt we'll be alone."

"Lead the way Mister Collins."

"May I help you with that?" He pointed to her parcel and she let him carry it as they walked across the street to Mirabelle's Café.

"You sure do look pretty today, Miss Hale," Jed smiled as he turned his hat round in his hands.

"Clementine. I asked you to call me Clementine."

"Well, Clementine, you look beautiful." Heyes smiled. The word beautiful was a much bigger compliment than pretty. He smiled triumphantly at Jed.

Round One to Heyes.

"Oh you two are just full of charm." She looked from one young man to the other. They had been waiting outside her uncle's office when she'd emerged not a minute ago, adjusting her new hat. She'd stopped to reposition a pin and…There they were, grinning at her like two fools. Two rather handsome fools at that. "I was just going to Mister Taylor's. Would you gentlemen escort me?"

"Yes, ma'am," Jed replied and she linked her hands in the crook of their offered arms. Clementine looked from one young man to the other.

"Have you grown taller since the barn raising?"

"He hasn't," Heyes informed her, pulling himself up to his full height.

"His head's a lot bigger, I'll say that," Jed muttered.

"No fighting. I disapprove of men brawling in the street." Heyes smirked at Jed. "Unless of course, they happen to be fighting over me." Clementine gave Jed the benefit of her most flirtatious smile.

Jed smiled back.

Round Two to Jed.

"Who's Mister Taylor?" he asked as they walked three astride along the boardwalk.

"He's the town photographer. He opened his store just two days ago and he's offered to take my picture to use in his window as an advertisement. I've never had my photograph taken before."

"I'm sure it won't do you justice." Clementine stopped suddenly and looked at Heyes.

"You think it will look awful?"

Clearly that was not what she wanted to hear. Heyes thought quickly.

"I meant to say that no photograph could capture your true beauty."

"Why you are a smooth talker, Mister Heyes." Clementine smiled, gazing at him out of the corner of her eye. "I like that."

Round Three to Heyes.

Clementine looked from Jed to Heyes, a thought clearly working its way inside her head.

"Oh say you'll do it!"

"Do what?" Heyes looked at Jed but his friend didn't have a clue.

"Come with me."

"I thought we were," Jed stated.

"I mean have your photograph taken with me! Then I'd have something to remember you both by when you're out there working on the ranch, so far away. Breaking horses and herding cattle. If I can sweet talk Mister Taylor he might even make a copy for each of you and then you could keep one under your pillow and…Wouldn't that be romantic? Keeping a photograph of your sweetheart beneath your pillow?"

"I guess." Jed's lack of conviction didn't win him any points. Had she said sweetheart? Clementine turned to Heyes. It was his turn to do better.

"I think that's a wonderful idea, Clementine."

Clementine smiled. Jed glared at his friend.

Round Four to Heyes.

"Oh it will be wonderful! I'll have something to show my father when he gets here. He'll never believe I have two beaux fighting over me."

"We're not exactly…"

But Clementine cantered right on over Jed's words.

"And you can show all the men at the ranch. The hands. And when my picture is in the window of Mister Taylor's store why you can point to it and tell everyone that there is your sweetheart." Finally Clementine paused for breath. "What?"

Heyes smiled.

"You sure do talk a lot."

"I have a lot to say."

"You sure do," Jed agreed, although she wasn't sure it was a compliment.

"So you'll do it? Have a photograph taken with me?"

Jed looked down at his mud covered boots. He looked at Heyes who was examining his own equally mud-splattered attire.

"As much as we would love to have a photograph taken with you, Clementine," Heyes began. "As you can see neither one of us is looking his best. I would hate for you to…"

Clementine turned away.

"What's wrong?"

"Why don't you just say you don't want your picture taken!" she pouted.

"But we do!" Jed stepped closer. "Honest Clementine, we do."

She gazed up at him. He had such beautiful blue eyes. A woman could lose herself in eyes that blue. She rested her hand on his arm. Jed smiled.

Round Five to Jed.

Clementine sighed. Heyes stepped next to her.

"We do Clem, honestly. But look at us. We're a mess. We don't want folks to think your beaux are no-account saddle tramps."

She looked, finally seeing passed their eyes and smiles and…Oh my, what was that on their shirts?

"Hmm, well, now that I see you in the sunlight…."

"You don't want a picture of us looking all muddy do ya?"

"No Jed, I guess I don't." She was clearly disappointed but they were so sweet to consider her feelings and they obviously wanted to make the right impression so… Clementine looked from one young man to the other. It was going to be so hard choosing between these two when she finally decided to make one of them her first-true-love. "But I would like a photograph of you. Promise me you'll…"

"We promise that when we get ourselves each a fancy suit, we'll have a photograph taken with you. It'll be a photograph you'll want to show all your friends and keep forever. How's that?" Heyes waited. Had he said enough to placate her?

"As long as that is a promise?"

"It is!" Heyes assured her. Clementine smiled. Heyes smiled. Jed sighed.

Game, Set and Match to Heyes.

"How'd it go, boys?" Collins asked as they returned to the wagon.

"Fine," Jed muttered, unenthusiastically.

"Isn't that good?" Collins pointed to a pile of boxes and sacks waiting to be loaded. Heyes picked up a box and lifted it onto his shoulder.

"He's just sulking because Clementine prefers me."

"She does not!"

"She asked me to call on her when I'm in town next." Heyes placed the box inside the wagon. "I didn't hear her ask you."

Jed picked up a sack and, saying nothing, lifted it into the back of the wagon. He looked over at Collins.

"How'd it go with Miss. Tanner?"

Jeff quickly covered his instinctive silly grin with a stern frown.

"I'm not sure that's any of your business."

"Sorry, just wondered." Jed grabbed another sack and loaded it.

"It went fine." Both boys looked up and Collins smiled. No, correction, he positively grinned. "Actually it was more than fine."

"Guess you'll be riding into town again soon."

"Yes, Heyes, I think I will."

"Can I come?"

"I'll think about it."

"I don't need to come," Jed stated sullenly as he picked up a coil of rope and threw it into the wagon.

When all the goods were loaded Collins climbed into the wagon seat as Heyes and Jed found themselves a comfortable spot in the back amongst the boxes and sacks. With a flick of the reins the team moved off. Jed cast a forlorn glance at the doctor's office as…

"WOAH! WOAH UP THERE!" Collins pulled the horses sharply to a halt. "Miss, you shouldn't step out in front of them like that! I coulda run you down."

"I'm sorry. Is Jed with you?"

Collins smiled at the familiar dark haired young woman. He gestured with his thumb.

"In back."

At that moment two heads in cowboy hats appeared over the side of the wagon.

"Clementine?"

"Oh, Heyes, Jed, I'm so glad I caught you."

"Is something wrong?"

"No, Heyes. I just needed to talk to Jed."

"Me?"

"I realise I made a terrible mistake when I told Heyes he could call on me."

"You did?" Jed could hardly believe it.

"You did?" Heyes could hardly believe it too. "Clem?"

"What I should have said was that I'd be happy for you both to call on me next time you're in town."

"You would?"

"Yes, Jed, I would."

Heyes' smile wasn't nearly as broad as Jed's.

"Will you do that?" Clementine waited anxiously for the reply.

"I sure will. We sure will."

And as the wagon rolled along Main Street once more, there was Miss Rosalind Tanner, standing outside the hotel. Jeff touched the brim of his hat and she gave a slight nod of her head. Jeff's smile broadened and he replied with a wink.

End of Part 19

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