Chapter 24. Courting Western.
Now from the days when it was always summer in Eden, to the days when it is mostly winter in fall latitudes, the world of a man has invariably gone one way...the way of the love of a woman—Charles Dickens.
The next day found Dannie and Sophie in the Hopewing mercantile. Sophie was browsing through the ribbons and bonnets with Dannie standing beside her. She was there supposedly there to lend advice, but in reality Dannie was far, far away, lost in a world where cupid ruled as king and lovers resided in houses built of clouds. At first Sophie didn't realize just how distant Dannie was, but when it dawned on her that Dannie nodded and said 'yes, yes' to just about every question, the young blonde became rather upset.
"Dannie, are you here to help me or not?" She questioned angrily. "I need an honest opinion, which do you think is better, the blue or the green."
"The green," Dannie absently stated, thinking of pale green eyes and the cowboy the belonged too.
"Are you sure? Look, the blue matches my eyes. Perhaps we can buy some of the blue material to make a new dress to go with the ribbons."
"Do what you think is best, Sophie." Dannie was getting tired of the endless questions; they were distracting her from more pleasant thoughts.
"If I knew what was best, do you think I would be asking you!" Sophie burst out, her patience wearing thin. "What is the matter with you, Danielle Preston? Why won't you help me?"
Before Dannie had a chance to answer, the door to the mercantile opened and Jake and Sam walked in. Dannie caught her breath and looked down, a shy, happy smile playing on her lips. Of course she had hoped that Jake would pop by the store as well. How wonderful when things finally turn out the way you want them too.
Jake lost no time in making his way over to where Dannie and Sophie where standing.
"My, you're up early," He directed his words towards Sophie. "I was sure the sleepin' beauty would still be asleep after all the dancin' she did last night. Honestly, Sophie, your stamina amazes me."
Sophie rolled her eyes and turned back to the ribbons. Dannie giggled softly, and forced her eyes to look up into his. This was the Jake she had always known, clad in old, faded clothes, and his hair sticking out all over the place with dust in it. How many girls would die of jealousy if they were to find out just how thick his hair was, but he didn't seem to be very big on taking proper care of it.
"Howdy ladies," Sam tipped his hat to the girls. "We keep bumpin' into each other, it is a strange game of a fate to be sure." He winked at Jake, who laughed quietly.
"What are you doing here?" Dannie asked, directing the question to both men, but looking at Jake.
"Stockin' up on supplies," Sam replied. "We'll be headin' back to the Cora Belle when we are done."
"So soon?" Dannie frowned. Jake was leaving today? How unfair was that.
"Aren't you like leavin' too?" Jake questioned.
"Nope, we head back tomorrow mornin'," Sophie stuck her head out from the cotton fabrics she was examining.
"Oh," Jake did some quick thinking. "It's not like we have to leave today, we're in no hurry to get back."
"We're not?" Sam raised his eyebrows. "Does the boss know that?"
"Sure, sure he does," Jake winked at Dannie, who giggled quietly to herself. "Now I can see Sophie is busy buyin' up the entire store," Jake mused loudly. Sophie stuck her head out again and scowled at Jake. He ignored her and turned to Dannie. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing at the moment."
"She's supposed to be helpin' me," Sophie retorted. "And I won't have you distractin' her!"
"Oooh, distractin' people is what I do best!" Jake taunted.
Sophie's less than kind reply was stopped by the little bell at the door sounded as Cal Jennson walked in. Noticing Dannie he walked straight up to her. Jake eyed the man with a jealous gaze, ready to strike him should the need present itself.
"Good morning, Miss Preston, Miss Martin," Cal tipped his hat to the two ladies. "Miss Preston, I meant to ask you this last night, but quite forgot, did Mr. Martin pass on the letter from England?"
Jake inhaled deeply. Apart from being competition himself, this guy had to bring in competition from across the sea as well.
"Yes, he did," Dannie politely stated, acutely aware of the murder in Jake's eyes. "I was very perplexed to find out it came to you."
"No, no, it didn't come to us, Mr. Martin must have understood wrong. I was at the post office and Mr. Henshaw said there was a letter for you, but Mr. Martin had already left and I offered to take it to him. I hope it was nothing serious."
"Only a bill." Dannie was in a hurry to get away from the topic of Paul's last letter. It had caused her enough trouble already.
"I see." Cal nodded his head. "I was rather disappointed when I was not able to purchase your basket, Miss Preston," he said after two seconds of awkward silence. "But I think I was even more surprised when it was Wade here who actually won the bidding. I didn't think you were the kind who would buy a basket."
"Yeah well, I like surprisin' people," Jake snapped.
"I'll say," Cal mumbled under his breath. He didn't like this Jake Wade fellow, not after yesterday. Turning his back on the cowboy, Cal focused his attention on Dannie. "You buying hair ribbons, Miss Preston?"
"Not I, I don't need hair ribbons, Sophie does."
"She's here to help me out," Sophie once again explained. "And I would appreciate it if you would all leave her alone, because I can't make up my mind and you're all distractin' her."
"My apologies," Cal smiled. "But I fear when Miss Preston is around, it is very hard to leave her alone."
Dannie gave a tense smile and turned towards Sophie, hoping if she pretended to be busy, Cal would leave her alone. Cal wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere. He stood by quietly as Dannie and Sophie compared colors of ribbons and fabric. Jake stood quietly as well, waiting for Cal to leave, and preparing himself for the fact that he may just have to kick him out.
"I think that color would go well with your hair color, Miss Preston," Cal pointed out as Dannie picked up a cream colored ribbon.
"Perhaps, but I don't need one," Dannie politely stated.
Jake walked up closer to where Cal stood. "Calvin Jennson, you can stop being sweet on Miss Preston right about now," he told him in a low voice.
Cal turned to face him, his eyes filled with contempt. "And you are?"
"I'm the guy tellin' you to lay off!"
Cal suppressed his laugh, not wanting to attract attention. "Mr. Wade, just because you were lucky enough to have an evening with Danielle Preston yesterday doesn't mean you can go about telling me what I should or should not do when around her."
"Don't tempt me, mister," Jake's voice grew severe. "Keep your distance from her or I'll give you what for."
Cal tossed his head a little. "Listen, until I see a ring on that little finger of hers,I will keep as close to her as I darn well please. You may like Miss Preston, but for now you don't hold any more claims on her than I do."
"Oh I don't, don't I?"
"Not at all!"
Dannie had noticed Cal and Jake where standing close together, and though she could not hear what they were saying, the looks on their faces and the tense air that hung around them spoke of trouble.
"Is everything alright, gentlemen?" She asked in a worried voice, leaving the ribbons and Sophie to try and sort out the problem.
"Everything is fine, Miss Preston," Cal reassured. "Just a little misunderstanding, but I am sure we can sort it out, can we not, Mr. Wade? Sort it out like gentlemen, instead of common brutes?" Cal's voice was challenging and it lit a fire in Jake's eyes.
"Oh you want to sort it out? We can sort it out alright, sort it out old school."
"Old school?" Cal lifted his eyebrow.
"Yup," Jake leaned closer to Cal, the muscles on his arms tensing. "Just you, me, and four fists between us."
Cal lowered his voice to an aggressive tone. "Oh, that sounds mighty tempting!"
Dannie couldn't believe what was happening. "Stop it the two of you!" She commanded, placing herself in between them. "Your behavior is very juvenile! There is no need to fight over me."
"Then perhaps you could settle the quarrel between us," Cal offered. "I am sure you know what it is we are fighting over."
Dannie cringed as both Cal and Jake looked earnestly at her. Why where they putting her through this?
"Cal, I, I," she stuttered, wondering how best to handle this very delicate situation. "I truly hope I have not led you on, or given you any false hope, and if I have, I apologize."
Cal's lip set in a firm line, while Jake's shoulders straightened out victoriously.
"You never led me on, Miss Preston," Cal stated at last in a reserved voice. "You behaved in every way a perfect lady."
Dannie hated the look in his eyes. It was obvious he was more than disappointed and it was enough to break her heart. The fact that Jake seemed to be less than sensitive to Cal's defeat wasn't very helpful either. Perhaps it would be best if Jake and Cal weren't together in the same place.
"Jake, I must go to the post office, will you be so kind as to walk me," Dannie said in a quiet voice.
Jake's already very broad smile broadened even more. He nodded and stepped aside, allowing Dannie to walk first. With a smug look at Cal, Jake followed Dannie, but just as he made his first step, Cal stuck his foot out and Jake stumbled to the ground, causing no small noise. Dannie turned and her hand flew to her mouth to try and keep from giggling. Sophie laughed loudly at Jake's unceremonious descent to the floor. Mr. Farrington and Sam turned from their conversation and chuckled.
"As the sayin' goes, pride comes before a fall, ain't that right, Jake ol' boy?" Sam joked, his eyes twinkling at Cal. Jake quickly picked himself off the floor, his face burning in anger and humiliation. Without a moment's hesitation he turned around and swung his fist into Cal's stomach. Poor Cal bent over, gasping for breath.
"Jake!" Dannie exclaimed, quite horrified over what had just happened. Hadn't she just told the two of them not to fight over her? Jake didn't unclench his fist, he just stood waiting for Cal to stand up straight again. The store had gotten quiet after Jake's display of violence and Sam decided to break things up before they got out of hand.
"Jake, I think you can turn around an' escort Miz Preston right on to the post office," he ordered. "No point in leavin' the poor lady waitin' while you an' Cal disrupt the peace. Come on, off with you before Mr. Farrington kicks you out!"
Jake gave Cal one last glare before following Dani out of the store.
"How could you!" Dannie reprimanded once they got outside.
"Hey, he started it, he tripped me," Jake protested. "It's a matter of pride, Dannie, which is something we men hold very dear to our hearts. I'm not askin' you to understand, but I'll warn you right away it is best not to intervene."
"But to start fighting," Dannie persisted.
Jake laughed. "That's what happens, Dannie, get used to it. Ben had this sayin' 'it happens now as it has before, where there is woman, there will be war.' I don't know why, but if there is one thing mankind has fought over all the centuries, it is over the love of a woman. Never thought I would end up fightin' over one myself, but I guess I'm as gullible as the rest." He looked at Dannie with adoring eyes. "Once you get somethin' precious, you've got to defend it, and I ain't about to let Cal Jennson get the better of me."
"He won't," Dannie promised. "Because even though I do feel very sorry for him, I'm afraid I can't care for him, not in the way I care for you."
"And how do you care for me?" Jake questioned, a teasing smile forming on his lips.
Dannie blushed, "you shouldn't ask me that!"
Jake laughed and was about to lean over and place a kiss on those ruby red lips, but Dannie stopped with a shake of her head. "Jake, we're out in public; I don't want to cause a scandal."
Jake grumbled. "Tryin' to court you in a town is hell itself. I mean, I can't do nothin', I can't even look at you without causin' some sort of 'scandal' "
"Oh, don't go being so sour," Dannie chided. "It would have been even more difficult in England."
"Oh yeah, very comfortin'. Well, we get away from this confounded place tomorrow, so there's that."
"Only you don't exactly live on the Circle 4." Dannie pointed out.
"So? It's only a couple of hours ride. I get a free day ever week, and I'm sure I can weasel more time if I need too." Jake winked at her. "I'm afraid I'm going to be a regular visitor from now on."
"I don't mind," Dannie sincerely confessed, her cheeks going pink again. "I only hope your boss won't hate me."
"Ah, you don't need to worry," Jake gave a careless shrug. "Clay's one of the most easy going people in the world, he'll understand. I actually think you'd like him if you met him."
"Why didn't he come to the dance?"
"He don't go nowhere, doesn't like company."
"I dunno, and why are we talking about him anyways? I'd rather just talk of you and me."
Dannie laughed at this. They were interrupted by a boy running up to Jake.
"Jake, there is an Injun at the edge of the town, he wants to talk to you."
Jake's eyes lit up. "Dannie, I hate to distract you from your letter sendin', but come with me, I want to introduce you to someone." Grabbing her hand, Jake dragged Dannie down the long street to the edge of the town. A native Indian with a horse was waiting for Jake and smiled when he caught sight of the approaching cowboy.
"Howdy Tarak! This her?" Jake asked, looking at the horse with approval.
"It is," Tarak nodded his head. "And who is it you have brought with you." He spoke English very well. His voice low and deep, each word rolled off the tip of his tongue in a smooth, effortless way. Dannie was very taken with the man, the first Indian she had seen since coming to America. It was hard to guess his age, but Dannie guessed it to be somewhere in his thirties. He had dark green shirt on, and tan pants, his feet in a pair of leather moccasins. There was a belt around his waist and several strings with brightly colored beads around his neck. The smooth, black hair reached to his shoulders and a dark brown band was tired around his forehead.
"This here is Danielle Preston," Jake introduced. "Dannie, this is Tarak, he's an age old friend of mine."
Tarak looked Dannie up and down with surprise. "I never thought Jake would have a lady friend."
Jake laughed. "I never thought I'd have one either. If you wait here, I'll fetch Pony Legs and come right back. Dannie, you want to come with me?"
"No thank you," Dannie shook her head. "I'll wait for you here."
Jake nodded his head and took off. Tarak stared at Dannie with raised eyebrows.
"You are not afraid of me?"
"I don't think I have to be," Dannie laughed. "I know Jake well enough to know that he doesn't give his friendship out easily, so if you are his friend, you must be very trustworthy."
Tarak smiled. "You are a wise woman, I am glad to meet you."
"I assure you the pleasure is all mine."
"Tell me, how long have you known Jake?"
"About a year," Dannie replied, blushing a little. Tarak caught on right away.
"You must be someone very special to him."
"Oh, I don't know." The blush deepened.
Tarak laughed. "If you have caught Jake's heart, then you must be special indeed, for he does not give it out freely like some men do. Treasure it, Miss Preston, for though it is rough on the outside, it is tender on the inside. He will make you a good husband."
By now Dannie was red all over. "Goodness me, no one said anything about marriage just yet! It is far too soon. Are you doing trading with Jake?" Dannie was in hurry to change the subject.
"Yes, I have brought him a good mare and in return he will give me on that is just as good."
"Ah, I see." Dannie nodded her head and turned her attention to the horse. It was smaller than the horses at the Circle 4, with a dark brown coat that had several white spots on the back and a white mane and tail. The large brown eyes peered at Dannie from under long, black eyelashes.
"Is she gentle? May I touch her?" Dannie asked.
"If you are gentle with her, she will be gentle with you."
Dannie haltingly reached out and petted the dark brown nose. Jake came up by now, leading a bay mare with him.
"Here you are," he handed the reins to Tarak. "Just like we promised. She's five years old and knows how to take orders. She'll make you a fine horse, I guarantee."
"Thank you, Jake," Tarak smiled. "There are few white men I trust, but you are one of them. If you should ever want to do more business, you know where to find me. Goodbye Miss Preston. You are a good woman, you are kind to all creatures and to all people, you did not judge me even though I am not of your people. She will make a good wife, Jake." Tarak bowed to them and mounting his new horse rode off.
"He is very straight to the point," Dannie stated once Tarak was gone.
"Yeah." Jake stated, scratching the back of his neck, rather embarrassed by Tarak's last statement. "He's a good man for all of that."
"I liked him," Dannie smiled.
"I'm glad," Jake smiled back. "Most people are terrified of the Indians, and for good reason too. There have been some sad stories out here, but not all the Indians are bad, and a lot of the white people aren't good. I don't think it fair to jump to conclusions just because someone has a slightly different skin color. I've known Tarak for two years and he's loyal and brave and good. Many people don't approve of our friendship so we rarely meet in the town and if we do, it's on the outskirts. If he dares come here, someone will shoot him for sure."
Dannie shook her head. It was sad how prejudice could make people hate another race entirely. Nobody seemed to want to try and understand the local Indian tribes, they were just all grouped as evil, even if perhaps many of them were not. She glanced at Jake, who was busy inspecting the mare Tarak had left him, and an loving smile appeared on her lips. Yes, Jake was prejudiced too, he could jump to conclusions that were not based on anything, yet at the same time, Jake wasn't the type to just go along with the flow. He wouldn't like something just because everyone else liked it, and hate something because everyone else hated it. He followed his own conscience, and did what he thought was right, not caring what others thought or said. All these thoughts just reminded Dannie why she loved the cowboy and walking up closer to him, she stood on her tiptoes and gave his rugged cheek a kiss. He turned to her in surprise.
"That was unexpected! Pleasant to be sure, but unexpected."
"I know," Dannie laughed. "I was just analyzing you and acted on impulse. Don't try to understand me, Jake, I don't even understand myself."
Jake gave an amused shake of his head, and glancing around to make sure no one was watching, put his arm around Dannie's waist and bringing her closer to him, placed a kiss of his own on her lips.
"What are you going to name her?" Dannie nodded towards the horse.
"Apache," Jake answered in a satisfied voice. "Cause Tarak is an Apache Indian. She's a mustang. I'm going to try and crossbreed her with Broken Arrow, an American Saddlebred. Clay will hate the idea, he don't like mustangs, thinks there a nuisance, but I don't care. I want to try and try I will. Come on, let's get to the post office, we need to get that letter sent. Whose it to anyway?"
"Meg," Dannie said as they turned back towards the town. "I woke up this morning and the first thing I did is write her a long letter. There has been so much to say."
"No kiddin'," Jake laughed. "I'll bet I'm mentioned more than once in that letter."
"That is none of your business, Jacob Wade!"
Jake was about to retort something really smart, when his eyes suddenly widened and he gazed to the side a little, as though trying to catch sight of something..
"Jake, is something wrong?" Dannie asked him, noticing the sudden change in behavior. Jake snapped back to reality and shook his head.
"Nope, sorry, don't know what came over me."
"You sure you are alright?" Dannie didn't quite believe him.
"Yeah, I'm fine, just a bit jumpy," Jake reassured. "I always get a tad nervous when Tarak comes around the town. I'm afraid someone might get the wrong ideas and do something stupid. Or maybe this is side effect of all that cookin' of yours that I had to eat yesterday. Why don't you tell me more about the letter."
"The insolence of the man!" Dannie shook her head. "First he criticizes my cooking then demands to know the contents of personal letters." The two of them laughed and kept on walking, though every so often Jake would discreetly look behind him. He hoped he had been imagining it, but for a split second he had been sure he had caught sight of Bessie.