5. Part Two, Chs 9 to 10

FRIDAY EVENING – NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

“If you’re gonna sit scowlin’ across the street an’ actin’ like a cat on hot bricks every time someone passes by, you might as well go to the dang dance!”

“I’m not scowling. I’m thinking whether to stick…”

Supposedly, we’re playing a quiet game of blackjack.

“Hit me.”

If only. The way he’s been acting yesterday and today, that’s just what I wanna do!

“Hit me, again.”

I take a sip of my beer, wince at the sourness. “Sheesh, Heyes, this is the worst saloon in town. Let’s move to…”

“Nah. I like the…” he looks round for anything to like about this place, “…the piano.”

“There ain’t no one playin’ the piano!”

“Uh huh. That’s what I like. Nice an’ peaceful.”

I roll my eyes. ‘Course I know what he really likes ’bout this place. You can see the Church Hall from the window.

There’s a flutter of muslin and a few girlish giggles from across the street. Heyes lifts his cards so he can pretend he’s looking at them, not at the new arrivals.

“Just the Coopers,” I say. Lizzie Cooper looks good. Hey, so does Louise Skinner the schoolmarm. So does …

“Huh? Oh, that dumb dance? I’d forgotten it was tonight, Kid.”

“Let’s hope you don’t have to talk us outta any tight corners, Heyes, ‘cos if you can’t lie better’n that – I hafta tell you, you’ve lost your touch!” I take another look at the smiling, respectable folk milling around the Church Hall. “She’s not with ’em.”

A wide-eyed innocent look, “She? She – who, Kid?”

I stare at him. “Pffftttt!” I think that sums it up. “There she is – in the yellow – with her aunt.” I take another pull at my beer. “Pretty roses. I like flowers in a girl’s hair.” Pause. “Nice to see her getting a chance to laugh and relax.”

That’s it. He cracks and stands up to take a good look. She IS laughing at something someone’s said – her nose has that little crease across it and her eyes are all crinkled. Music strikes up. She slips her arm through her aunt’s and gives a little skip as she pulls her into the Hall. Will Rutherford follows behind carrying two spangled shawls.

“She told us she liked dancing,” I remark. “Reckon she don’t mean to miss any of it.”

Heyes looks as if he’d been banking on winning with four aces only to see someone lay down a royal flush. I guess Nell was supposed to show up looking miserable and gaze down the street, hands clasped together, sighing ‘If only HE was here!’; or, even better, not show up at all, but sit home kicking herself for not keeping all her evenings free on the off chance Joshua Smith came back to town.

“Well,” I stand up, “silent piano or no silent piano, this place is too dang exciting for me.”

“Are you going to the Silver Dollar?” he glooms, draining his glass and standing up too.

“Nah,” I give him a friendly smile. “I’M goin’ dancin’, Heyes. Gonna show the doc just what a fine job she did on this leg. Like you keep tellin’ me, we’re not joined at the hip, huh.”

He’s speechless. I stride off before he stops being speechless, ‘cos – with Heyes – it never lasts long.

-oooOOOooo-

“What time d’ya call THIS, Kid?”

Heyes stops pacing our room and stares at me as I shut the door.

I blink at the clock. “I call it ten past midnight. Why? Were you worried I’d turned into a pumpkin?”

He scowls. A pause. I smile at him and sit down to pull off my boots. If he wants to know, he’s gonna hafta ask. More pause. I start to unbuckle my belt.

“Did she – y’know – ask where I was?”

I try out his own wide-eyed innocent look. “She? She – who, Heyes?” His hands go to his hips and the scowl deepens. “Oh! You mean the doc? I’ll tell you somethin’…”

I make him give an “Uh huh?” before I carry on.

“That woman is one popular lady! Didn’t sit out once! And for a gal who likes her food, she’s sure light on her feet – when we stripped the willow…”

“YOU danced with her?”

“Well it’d be kinda dumb to sit sulking in my room and miss the chance, huh?”

“I’m not sulking! And you stripped WHAT?”

“The willow. I’da thought with all the dang readin’ you do, you’d a come across that! I danced with her aunt too. Nice lady. They’ll be ‘at home’ all weekend.”

“Huh?”

“That means gentlemen are welcome to call.” Pause. “If’n they aren’t busy sulking.”

“I am NOT sulking!”

“Are you gonna call?”

“No! We might not be here! You keep sayin’ we oughta move on. We mighta moved on!”

“Are we movin’ on?”

Long pause. I meet his eyes and wait. His forehead furrows as if he’s wrassling with a problem.

“No!”

“You’ve gotta finish a touch more sulkin’ first, huh?”

“For the last time, Kid. I am NOT sulking!”

“Heyes! If your bottom lip stuck out any further birds’d use it as a roostin’ spot!”

“Hannibal Heyes does NOT sulk! He bides his time. She was lookin’ for me tonight, huh? You’re not gonna tell me she wasn’t hoping I’d show up.”

I shrug. He’s right, but there’s no need to tell him that. Her face fell when she looked over my shoulder and saw I was on my own. Sure, she’d too much pride to let it spoil her night – and I tip my hat to her for that! – but, she was disappointed.

“And you’re not gonna tell me she won’t be hoping I call over the weekend?”

I’m not gonna tell him nothing!

“We appreciate stuff more if we hafta wait for it, Kid. Come Monday – she’ll be in a real appreciative mood. THEN I’ll go call.”

I change my mind. I am gonna tell him something.

“Heyes,” I say, turning down the lamp by my bed, “…you’re a jackass!”

-oooOOOooo-

MONDAY – NARRATTED BY NELL

“Do take a seat. What seems to be the trouble?”

I hear the chair scrape, as I slip the last set of notes into the folder and file them under ‘R’.

“It’s my heart, Doctor.”

I swivel round. HIM! What is HE doing here? Then, hoping all the mix of silly emotions I am feeling does not show on my face, I tell myself three things.

Firstly, not coming to a dance and not calling on me is hardly a crime; maybe I only imagined he was interested. Things I imagine are not his fault. I have been telling myself THIS most of the weekend in the intervals of trying to convince myself I do not give the snap of my fingers whether he calls or not.

Secondly, even apparently healthy young men are allowed to feel ill and visit a doctor.

Thirdly, it is not usual for young men to ask for me rather than Doctor Cooper. BUT, he did watch me work on his friend so, possibly, he thinks I am exceptionally good at my job. Quite right too!

“Your heart? Well slip off your jacket and unbutton your shirt, Mister Smith.” I warm the end of the stethoscope in my palm. He may have behaved like a – I do not know a good enough word! – on Wednesday evening, but no patient of mine suffers cold steel without warning. “The Henley too, please.” I place the metal circle on his chest. “Breath deeply. In. Out. And again. Good.” It sounds fine to me, well, maybe a touch fast as I bend my head closer. “Why are you concerned, Mister Smith? Have you experienced pain?”

“Not so much pain, more of an ache.”

“Hmmm? Would you raise your shirt at the back, please? That’s fine, thank you.” I listen again. Nothing unusual. Heart and lungs both normal.

“Ever since I left Arcadia, my heart’s been aching – y’know, heartache.”

I stiffen. Is he doing what I think he’s doing?

“And this last week, I’ve noticed my heart races at certain times…”

He touches my hand.

“It pounded like a drum when you walked through the door on Tuesday and I saw you for the first time in…”

He’s got a whole speech worked out. Not just words; the smiles, the charm, the dimples, the earnest looks from the smiling brown eyes, it is all there. An apology for how he behaved Wednesday – he was just so disappointed when I didn’t show up. I let him finish. I do not hear it all because, before the end, I am so incandescent with anger I am watching his lips move without the meaning reaching my brain.

How dare he? How DARE he?

He comes to a stop, smile still in place. “So what’s the prescription, Doctor? Can you help me?”

I take a calming breath. There are now a few hundred women doctors across the country. Possibly in a few years it will reach a thousand around the globe. I do not claim to be an Elizabeth Blackwell – I did not have the fight she had – but I did fight. I fought long and hard to be allowed in to medical school. Once there, I had to prove I was the equal of any man every single day in a system which treated me as anything but. I had to rely on the goodwill of lecturers to allow me in their classes – and swallow my rancour if they refused. I had to put up with the behaviour of male so-called colleagues running juvenile campaigns to bar women. I had to put up with abuse and ridicule and rules that at one point would forbid me to move without a paid chaperone or to sit in the presence of a male visitor even if he lounged in front of me for hours and, at another, would abandon me alone in the roughest slums of city. I did not do all this to have someone who I thought… Someone who I was beginning to…

“Mister Smith, how did you expect me to react to you walking in here to make a joke of my professional status…?”

“I wasn’t ma…”

“Or using my consulting room to engineer an opportunity for cheap flirtation?”

His eyes have turned cold. He is angry too. At that moment I do not care HOW angry I make him. How DARE he?

All right. Most of my anger is righteous indignation that this man, a man who I liked SO much, can walk into my place of work and …

Ooooh! As if there were not enough dumb youngsters who think it funny to dare each other to go see the ‘Gal Doc’!

But, you are right, a tiny part of my displeasure comes from the question, if he does, after all, WANT to – well – flirt with me, why did he not show up and do it Friday, or Saturday or Sunday?

Is HIS time in the saloon or – or riding down to the lake – or wherever he was – is that more important than MY time healing the sick? Or at any rate being ready to heal the sick if they call and giving useful advice to the ‘off-colour’ if they don’t!

“If you want to reel off any more less than original phrases about pounding hearts and racing pulses – apparently culled from the trashier end of the romantic fiction market – please do so elsewhere and when I am not on duty. They will still be an impertinent annoyance, but they will not risk keeping my patients waiting.”

“I wasn’t meaning to make fun, ma’am, or to annoy you. ‘Course, I didn’t realise you’d had your sense of humour surgically removed when you had the so all-fired important professional status fitted!”

If he thinks a dark dangerous look and the controlled fury in his deep voice is going to impress ME one iota, he can think again!

“Let us understand one another, Mister Smith. The next time you call here during surgery hours you had better be, one, genuinely ill and, two, asking to see Doctor Cooper. Have I made myself perfectly clear?”

He glowers at me.

“I would like an answer, please, Mister Smith; have I made myself perfectly clear?”

“Perfectly, ma’am.”

“Good. Close the door on your way out.” I bend my head to my notes and do not glance up until he has left.

Well! That’s that! I press my lips firmly together. That would be pressing them together in a determined fashion you understand. NOT, because the bottom one might wobble otherwise. Pfffttt! No chance!

-oooOOOooo-

NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

Heyes slams into our room. He throws his hat on the bed, screws his jacket into a ball and throws that. The dresser is given a kick. Then another. And another. I’m guessing the last one hurt. Hurt him, that is, not the dresser.

“How did it go?” I dead-pan.

The wall is punched. The wall don’t seem to care, but a set of sore knuckles get sucked.

“…Was she in – what was it – an appreciative mood?”

I look up from cleaning my gun to see a face like thunder. I give him an innocent smile.

“Was that the sound of violins I heard floatin’ up the street?”

“That self-important, self-righteous, conceited, pompous…”

“Hey!” I am not having any of that! He flashes me a ‘sorry’ look and sits down, heavily, in the chair.

“Turned you down like a bedspread, huh?” I say, more sympathetically.

“Uh huh.” Pause. “Not that I care.”

“Yeah, I can see you’re not lettin’ it get to you, Heyes.”

“She’s nothing special!”

Well, I’m not falling into that trap. I leave my response at a grunt he can interpret however he likes.

“I don’t need her!”

“Nope.”

“Getting on her high horse! Accusing me of abusing her consulting room for a…”

“You went to her consulting room? You mean you pretended to be sick and…” I think about that. I don’t like folk messing with my gun. Nell probably don’t like folk messing with… “That was dumb, Heyes.”

He opens his mouth to answer me back, can’t find nothing bad enough to say, picks up his jacket, slaps his hat on his head and slams out.

-oooOOOooo-

CHAPTER TEN

NARRATTED BY KID CURRY

It’s getting towards late afternoon by the time I see Heyes again. I’ve ridden out to the far side of the lake to do a little fishing. Maybe a touch of afternoon napping too. He swings down from his horse and comes sits by me. Silence for a while. He picks up a stick, pokes at the dirt. He sighs. More silence Another sigh.

“Kid, I’ve been thinking – and you’re right.”

“About what?”

“About me being a jackass.”

“Oh that! Yeah. No question.”

“What am I gonna do, Kid?”

“Stop bein’ a jackass?” I think for a moment. “Stop bein’ a jackass AND leave town. Leave the woman alone.” Pause. My voice when I next speak comes out kinda gruff, “It don’t seem like it now, but you WILL get over her, Heyes.”

“Yeah. I know. Sheesh, we got over our folks being killed, huh? You get over anything. I’d have to be pretty dumb not to know if I leave – I’ll get over her. Eventually.” He’s very quiet for a long time. “Yeah, but… Suppose – this is it, Kid? Suppose she’s the one and… Suppose the amnesty comes through next month and I already left her… Suppose SHE is THE one. The ONE. I ‘get over her’ and that’s that. Over the other side of her is just a whole heap of nothing much!”

“There ain’t no ‘one’, Heyes. That’s just books.”

“All right. I’ll accept there’s never a ‘one’ – ‘cos if there were – what are the chances you both live in the same country, or get born in the same century, let alone meet. But suppose she’s the only ONE I’m ever gonna meet. Ever. It’s not as if I’m…” He stops. “I’m not YOU, am I Kid? I don’t meet a woman I COULD like every few months. Do I?”

He’s not trying to get at me, he’s real serious and I guess I know what he means.

“I’ve done ‘leaving town’ – that got me nowhere except outta town.”

Wherever he’s been all afternoon, he’s been thinking. There’s not much use me keep playing the ‘let’s move on’ card, he’s not picking it up. Not right now anyhow.

“Well,” I say, “…If you’re gonna stick around, at least stop actin’ like a jackass. She liked you fine before you started that.”

“Only ‘cos… No she didn’t, Kid. It’s what you said, she kinda liked Joshua Smith and he’s not even real.”

Long pause. His shoulders slump forward. His eyes, fixed on the ground, are so miserable it hardly looks like Heyes. Y’know what? If I tried the ‘let’s move on’ card now, right now, it might just work. But… I can’t. It’s dumb but I just can’t. It’d be like kicking a man when he’s down. If I can’t do that, I should keep my mouth shut. Surely I can do that? Surely?

“The stuff she liked ’bout Joshua Smith WAS real Heyes. She liked how he did all the right things to save his partner’s life before getting him into town. She liked the way he helped dig that bullet out like a real professional. She liked how he nursed him day and night, slept on the floor, emptied chamber pots, made beef tea, carted stuff to the laundry and never complained once. She liked how he didn’t wanna be a sponge so went out got himself a job and made a success outta it. She liked how he never forgot when it was his turn to make coffee or wash up. She liked how he never hogged all the hot water when he took a bath. She liked how he was real kind to young Fred Tammett when he kept hangin’ ’round. She liked how he got along with her aunt and with her best friend. She liked how he’d yap on with her about all the kinda stuff that sends normal folk to sleep. Sheesh! She even liked his dumb jokes and the way he couldn’t walk past a book without stickin’ his dang nose in it!”

Nope, I guess I can’t keep my mouth shut. I just can’t bear to see him look so – so…

A shadow of the old Heyes’ smile slowly returns. “Aw, shucks, Kid. There’s no need to get mushy!”

“Mushy? Pfffttt! ‘T’ain’t me thinks you’re some kinda Florence Nightingale in pants. The only thing stoppin’ ME spittin’ out your beef tea was knowing you’d be the one washin’ it off and you’re more ham-fisted than a sty full of hogs. It’s HER you’d got fooled!”

“Did she…?” He is gonna ask if she said any of that guff, but changes his mind. Good. So far as mush goes, I’m done for a few months now. He straightens up, I can see he’s almost back to thinking rather than glooming. Almost.

“Yeah, but… I dunno, Kid. She don’t like men carrying guns, she don’t like gambling – well, not real gambling, she don’t approve of spending night after night in saloons, she don’t like men hanging around with saloon gals ‘cos if the customers stopped paying, women wouldn’t get trafficked into prostitution and trapped into a life of…”

I musta dozed off during that bit, but it sounds like Nell. Mind you, you don’t hafta bang on ’bout women’s rights to not like your man paying for it with someone else, do ya?

“She likes men to have a steady job and to do something worthwhile and to put themselves out for folk worse off. She likes…” He stops. Yup. The Heyes brain is working. “I guess we could do something worthwhile…”

We? WE? I hope that was a royal ‘we’!

“… I like plotting and scheming to get hold of money, huh? Even since we’ve gone straight, I still like that.”

Yup, with him so far…

“What I mean is, I like the plotting an’ scheming an’ silver tonguing folk outta it, not just the money. The money’s almost a bonus. I don’t hafta blow it all on wine, women, song and poker, huh? I could think up new ways to raise funds for worthwhile stuff – hospitals and education and – and, y’know, stuff. Say I strike a deal with myself – half for a good cause, half for blowing on a bad cause – that’d work. I’d have both kinda motives – and everybody wins. Huh?”

Well. Heyes can make anything sound logical. I’ve heard dumber ideas. Except of course for the one big problem.

“If we could just get our amnesty, Kid…”

Yup. That’s the one big problem!

“That last message from Lom was kinda hopeful, huh?”

Well…

“It’s been…”

Yup. That’s how long it’s been. I do know.

“I think this summer is THE summer, Kid. I can feel it. I just…”

Heyes does get like this. Every so often he convinces himself we’re weeks away from being clear. So far he’s been wrong, BUT, be fair, one day he’ll be right. I hope. Please. ‘Cos even if I’ve not quite made it into ‘I wanna do something worthwhile for the love of a good woman’ sapsville, I wanna stop running, stop lying and do SOME dang thing!

He tails off on the amnesty. More thinking. “This week, I’ve acted like a jackass.”

“Yeah, we covered that.”

“‘Course, if this was a dime novel, this’d be the time a few villains rode into town and kidnapped the doc. I’d come up with a plan to rescue her from a fate worse than death. She’d see how brave I was, how strong, how resourceful. I’d win her undying gratitude. She’d patch up whatever wound you’d picked up in the fight…”

Huh? How come I’m getting the wound and he’s getting the gratitude?

“She’d melt into my manly arms…”

I press my stomach as if to settle the heaving. “Please, Heyes. I just ate.”

He grins. “You don’t reckon the bad guys are on the way to make me look good, huh, Kid?”

“Better hope not. We’d probably know ’em. Then we won’t look good. We’ll look like we’re ridin’ out fast as we can!”

“Yeah, guess so!”

-oooOOOooo-

LATER THE SAME DAY

NARRATTED BY NELL

I am home. I am booked at the salt mine tomorrow and it is equidistant from Aunt Miriam’s place and town, so home is perfectly convenient. Besides, the Coopers saw so much of me last week. I must show some mercy!

I have planned a nice, messy, job to take my mind off – off everything.

I am sitting on the steps of the side entrance, pulling on the pair of sturdy old boots I wear to do anything potentially muddy, when I see a familiar, slim figure trot over the crest and toward the house. Him. What does he want? He is part of the ‘everything’ I want to take my mind off.

He dismounts, loops his reins over a fence, pats his horse’s neck and… Oh, bless. A tiny part of my irritation fades. He pulls out what must be a clothes brush from his pocket and dusts down that dreadful brown suit he seems to have purchased for ‘best’ together with the regrettable derby. Tatty as it is, the black thing he usually wears suits him so much better. He rubs the toe of each shoe against the rear of the opposite trouser leg, uses the brush for one last clean up back there, tucks it away, straightens his tie, takes something from the front of his saddle – oh, bless again, it is flowers – squares his shoulders and begins to stride toward the front door.

A movement on my part, I am picking up my basket of tools and my hat ready to go…

You did not think I would change my mind and stay in just because HE called, did you? Shame on you! I said a tiny part of my irritation had faded. I have plenty left!

Anyhow, something catches his eye and he realises someone is down by the side entrance. He changes course, looks, sees it is me, veers off the main path and comes around. The brown hat is swept off, so that is one improvement.

I brace myself to respond to any more nonsense if it is offered.

“Good evening, Doctor Meredith.”

“Good evening,” I respond, coolly.

“Doctor Meredith,” a deep breath is drawn in. Pause.

Oh, well, if we are going back to him looking as if he were about to say something and nothing coming out, I have better things to do. I hook my basket firmly over one arm, say, “If you will excuse me,” and turn on my heel.

“Doctor Meredith,” his voice is gruff, “…I’ve come to apologise. I acted like a jackass this morning and you were right to be angry. I acted like a jackass at the Buchanans’ and about that dance too. Though, there – I ended up cutting off my nose to spite my face, huh? Anyhow, I came to apologise – er – what’s the word when you’re not making no excuses?”

“Unreservedly,” I supply.

“That’s it. I apologise unreservedly. And I was wondering – can we pretend last week never happened? Can we pretend I’ve JUST come back to Arcadia – right now? Can I have another chance to – y’know – be friends?” This is not easy for him; not easy at all. “Do you believe in folk getting a second chance, ma’am?” He looks at me, earnestly, as he asks this.

I do not want to play games. Not even the mildest of ‘trying not to be too obvious’ games. Not after he has, so to speak, laid his cards on the table. “Yes,” I say. “Yes I believe in second chances, yes, you can have one and yes – let’s pretend you have just returned to Arcadia.”

I do not know what a second chance with me means. A chance of – what? I only know… I only know… I do not know anything. Except, ‘yes’.

Probably ‘yes’.

I don’t know. Why is life suddenly so much harder than diagnosis? I can DO that!

“These are for you, ma-am.”

The bunch of wildflowers is handed over.

“All yellows! I like yellow.”

“Yeah, I remembered.”

“Thank you. Hannah!” I run up the steps and call into the kitchen, “Hannah, could you put these in water for me? I don’t want to mess up your floor with my garden boots.”

“Evening, ma’am,” he murmurs to Hannah. Joshua’s hat twists in his hands, showing even he, usually so self-assured, can be discomposed, as the flowers are collected and he is subjected to an openly curious once-over.

“Now, ma’am. I know I can’t say ‘let’s us two go out to dinner’, but I’m not used to all the do’s and don’ts when it comes to – well, to – to…” He lets that sentence dangle. “Would you AND your Aunt care to go to dinner? My treat. To celebrate second chances.”

“No thank you, Mister Smith.” His face falls. I leave what I hope is a perfectly timed pause, before going on, “…Mainly because we have both eaten already. One dinner per evening – possibly with two helpings of pudding – is my limit.

He smiles. He is, I think, relieved my refusal has nothing to do with any residual hard feelings from this morning.

“Besides, do I LOOK as if I’m dressed for wining and dining in the nearest Arcadia gets to somewhere fancy?”

He takes a good look at my clumpy, thick-soled, boots, old snagged stockings, well pinned up faded skirt, scarf wrapping my hair under the hat and the sleeved hessian pinafore with an execrable appliqué of mustard yellow honey-bees. I bought this in a fit of cheerful bad taste as the very thing for gardening.

“You sure don’t,” he says. Realising this is less than gallant, he adds, “…Not that you don’t look fine in anything, ma’am.”

Well! I would need to resemble my namesake whose face (and presumably figure) launched a thousand ships and burnt the ancient towers to look good in this!

He stares, again, at the bobbled cotton ankles rising out of the well-worn leather. (I do not mind this. Modesty aside, I have very good ankles. It is only above the knee my legs could do with alteration. A few inches ON the length and OFF the width.)

“Ma’am, what the Sam Hill ARE you dressed for?”

“Rooting up and replanting marsh lilies.” Pause. A touch self-consciously I add, “Aunt Miriam had a flower garden – plus pond – made, to remind her of home. I like pottering around. It’s relaxing. One of those tasks you can lose yourself in.”

“May I help, ma’am?”

“You’ll get your best suit awfully muddy. The clue’s in the word ‘marsh’.”

“I’ll risk it. May I help?”

“Thank you. I’ll root, you can pass.”

As I lead the way, he says, “If you need – y’know – to invite a third, I won’t sulk and stalk off.”

“No, Mister Smith. Casual strolling – even rooting and passing – without a chaperone in a domestic garden, is fine. Particularly as…” I nod back at the house, “We can be seen from at least half the windows.” He follows my glance, sees my aunt watching us from the drawing room, with Hannah beside her – both consumed with curiosity. “You had better go say ‘Good Evening’ to Aunt Miriam,” I say, “…Then come join me.”

-oooOOOooo-

“Deeper. You need to dig down to three times the depth of the bulb,” he instructs, confidently.

I look up at him, “Where did you learn so much about plants?”

A pause.

“On the farm I grew up on. In Kansas. My folks were farmers.”

Good heavens! That is the first spontaneous piece of information about his background he has ever given me! Ann and I never got far with the civil questions, so it is not far off the first piece of information, period.

“Are they…?”

“Yes,” he interrupts, “…All of them. During the War.”

“I’m so sor…”

“It was a long time ago.” He squelches three paces to the left. “What do you think? A clump of five here? Or seven? You said odd numbers.”

The face that smiles over at me is deliberately dimpled. Fair enough. For him, I think, volunteering anything about his background is a big step. No need for me to poke around in his worst memories.

We stick to rooting and replanting for a few minutes. My mind reverts to what nagged at it for all those weeks after he left.

“Mister Smith?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I never asked why you left town.” A pause. It seems long to me. Maybe it is not, but it seems it. “I haven’t asked why you came back either.” I keep my eyes on the root I am wrestling with. “Do you want me to?”

This pause is definitely long. I bite my tongue – that is not a metaphor; I mean I actually hold it between my teeth – to stop me being the one to break the silence.

“No,” he says at last. “Because I kinda don’t want to say and…” He meets my eyes for the briefest of moments, then looks away, rubbing his nose with a very muddy hand. “I don’t want to – to spin you a tale…” He seems to realise this is skirting the word. He takes a breath, “I don’t want to lie. Not to you.”

Does he lie? I know he is evasive, but that is hardly the same thing.

Has he lied to me? I would hate that. Hate it!

I do not think he has.

But if he lies he’d be good at it.

I take a deep breath. Deciding not to play games any more, not even the ‘man leads, woman follows’ game is not easy. Sheesh, even the game is not easy – but at least it lets us females only have to react, not write the scenes. “I have made guesses. Would you like to hear them?”

Men are not SO very different to women. If HE had asked ME that, I would have to hear! Have to!

“Sure,” he says, trying to sound light-hearted.

“Guess number one: on the night you left – after I threw myself into your arms, you believed I was – to use a vulgar phrase – head over heels about you. You didn’t return my feelings and decided the most gentlemanly option you had was to leave.”

He does not meet my eyes this time, he squelches to the next spot and pushes back a sweaty lock of hair from his forehead, leaving yet more dirt streaks on the face I long to wipe clean and… And kiss.

“I’d hafta have a pretty high opinion of myself to believe that, ma’am.”

“And, since you came back – THAT guess cannot be right, or at any rate, cannot be the whole story.”

“Kinda a shame. It was making me look pretty dang good.”

“Guess number two: you realised…” Another deep breath for me. Come on, Helen. What’s the worst he can do? I suppose he could laugh in your face – but he won’t, will he? And if he does, so what? This time next year you’ll have forgotten all about it. Well, not next year – but say in ten years time. “You realised YOU were falling for ME. You thought a – again, please forgive the vulgar phrasing – a ‘lady’ could have no future with a drifter relying on casual jobs. You thought you’d get over me if you left. You found you were wrong. That’s why you came back.”

I dare not look up. It is weak, but I dare not. If he is laughing at me, I WILL still hold up my head high tomorrow, I WILL get over it, but… Oh, please, do not let him laugh.

When he speaks, he is NOT laughing, his voice is all choked, “I reckon we agreed once before, ma’am, you’re right ’bout most things.”

I dare to meet his eyes, again. Just for a second, but…

Oh, yes! Yes!

The expression is full of surging hope! Joy!

Yes!

Then, suddenly, we both turn. Aunt Miriam is walking out towards us calling, “How muddy you both are! Would you care for a little refreshment before you go, Mister Smith? You will not be offended if I put down newspaper for you to walk on and ask you to sit in the kitchen? I won’t come any closer – I have pale shoes on.”

The man who told me his folks were from Kansas and that he could fall in love with me – he did say, that, didn’t he? – is gone.

The charm and the dimples and the smile are back. He is being wonderful with Aunt Miriam – coming in – making conversation – saying goodbye – leaving. And, we do not have one more second alone together.

-oooOOOooo-

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