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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Bearpaw: An Old West Tale - 19. Chapter 19 Skittish

It's hard to break old chains...

Skittish

 

 

Jubal purchased two bags of oats from the cool, dimly-lit feed mill, loading them up before heading on to the mercantile for a badly-needed set of new clothes. When he entered, it be right full of folks, and damn awkward for a fellow to get around in, so he kept his head down as he hurried to find what he came for. If he hadn’t such a need for them clothes, he’d have left without stepping inside.

Holding up sand-colored britches and a shirt to see they should fit well enough, he noticed folks be watching. That urge to run hit him hard, but he didn’t give in, choosing two more loaves of that good bread Lucas said was always available. Moving quick as the crowd allowed, he added a slab of salted pork bacon from a barrel to replace what he’d ate from the larder. About done, he saw nails were now back in stock, so reckoned he couldn’t leave without taking advantage, buying some of each size they had.

There was still plenty at the farm, but he’d used a lot of nails for the peaked roof, the loft, and the staircase, and there was lots of fencing to be done in the coming weeks—not to mention Lucas’s plans for adding to the barn.

He learned from overhearing Mrs. Campbell the proprietor that two supply wagons had arrived from the south that very morn, with more expected to arrive soon, and that meant the mercantile and other businesses be well-stocked again. That should please his friend for sure. No need for any more trips along that South Road what had proved dangerous to travelers. He asked about a new razor for Lucas that he said was for hisself, but there weren't none in stock. He was told to keep checking, though, because three had been on order since spring.

As he put his purchases in the back of the wagon, some of them folks what he didn’t know from Adam had followed him out to give good wishes for Lucas, and some said their thanks to him for making the Prescott gang pay for their crimes. Word moved quick in a town, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about the attention he was getting. He wished he’d worn his kerchief since a lot of them stares were focused on his neck. He mumbled a few words in response, doing his best to be mannerly, but gave no encouragement for conversing.

Other folks, a couple of families it looked like, be walking up from the church to check out what had arrived, and they obviously knew who he be, making a beeline straight for him it seemed. It made him nervous as a hound caught with a chicken in his mouth.

He returned their greetings, but once everything got stowed, he hopped on the wagon quick and drove Dinah around back of the hotel, relieved to be out of sight of that damn crowd what had been milling around him like a herd of hungry cattle. Likely still were... and talking 'bout him and his neck. A better kind of excitement grew as he pulled up to the hitching post. He needed to be calm though, not showing any of what lay beneath the surface. No one needed to see him fretting over a man he’d only known a short time, especially now that he be on the mend. He’d learned people could mind their business for the most part, but it only took one of 'em to get a group riled.

Lucas slept, a soft snore the proof of it, so Jubal stayed quiet coming through the door after making sure Dinah was well settled with the wagon brake in place. The snoring stopped, and a deep breath came from the man as his head turned towards him and the sunlight coming through the window. “Jubal,” he said through a yawn. “Was expecting you a lot sooner. Thought you were coming in the early morn. Something keep you at the farm? Hey, your face be smooth… you look good like that.”

The man was a sight with his newly shorn curls tousled, his pretty eyes sleepy-looking, and his voice low and raspy. He thought of that first morning he woke up beside him, wild hair and all, and swallowed down what seeing and hearing him made him feel.

It made him weak, and that annoyed him to no end. Getting hisself and his emotions under control, he answered the man. “Yep, I finally took some time for shaving. Figured you needed some good rest. Besides, I expect you had plenty others looking in on you. Lots of folks in the town.”

“There are?”

“Church goers, appears like, all wearing their Sunday best.”

“Ah, it be that day, is it?”

“The sabbath? Don’t keep track of days, but there sure seemed a lot of them asking about you and giving their wishes.”

“They be good people.”

“If you say so,” Jubal said.

“And you don’t?” Lucas asked, confusion showing up on his face.

“Don’t know them, but I reckon I don’t like crowds pushing around me, staring and smiling and talking like they do know me. Makes me nervous as hell.”

“Can see that, but once you get to know the people of Bearpaw, you’ll see for yourself.”

“I suppose. Met some good ones already,” Jubal said, realizing how he might sound to someone as friendly as Lucas.

“And you’ll meet more. Anyways, there’ve been a few folks stop in—not church goers—but you’re the one I wanted to talk with. Them wildings still around?”

“Last night they were, and they appeared relaxed at the sight of me, but not so this morning. They were up over the ridge, and the stallion called them away as I was trying to get a looksee. They ran away hard enough it’s got me worried some. Disappeared from sight, out to the northeast I reckon.”

“Wonder why they left like that? You make any noise?”

“Not a sound. They be wildings, though, so nothing’s for certain. They did eat last night's oats up, so that be a good thing.”

“Expect they’ll return before long. Could have smelled wolves or bear or something else. See you brought the wagon,” he said, his curiosity showing in his raised brows.

“Yep, needed some more oats and nails, and a few other supplies.”

“Nails? Thought I had plenty… more than enough?”

“Oh… yep, you do, but supply wagons came in this morning so I took the opportunity to stock up. Got a lot of fencing to do, and maybe more work to the barn.”

“Suppose that’s true. Did you put them on my account?”

“Paid with coin.”

“All right… I’ll pay you back when I get up and around.”

“No need, Lucas. Weren’t much a’tall.”

“Well, we’ll talk about that. I’ll be getting you paid too.”

“No need for that either.”

“Why not? We had us a deal.”

“That be true, but I figured we changed it with plans to share a herd of horses between us.”

Lucas sighed as he stared at him hard. “A deal is a deal, and why are you hanging back there at the door like you afeared of getting close?”

“Ah… you was sleeping, and I reckon I shouldn’t stay long.”

“Why in tarnation not?”

“Don’t want to be no bother, is all.”

“Bother?” Lucas tried to sit up, but failed, grunting at the effort. “Something… anything happen to make you skittish?”

“Ain’t skittish… just….”

Lucas snorted. “Seen you skittish when I ask the wrong questions, and I know what it looks like. Come sit and talk to me… be obliged if you would. Can you do that?”

“Surely.” Feeling foolish for acting different with his friend because he feared something he shouldn’t need to, he moved over and sat in the chair. For the first time in a long while, the guilt he’d been carrying felt heavier than he could manage. Lucas’s hand was again laying only inches away, but there weren’t no reason to touch it anymore.

“Tell me about the new mares. Reid mentioned you finding the third after he found the second?”

“He did?”

“Yep, he was in a hurry cause of a ruckus on the street, but I got some of the story. Only remember their color from that night, so what they be like?”

He took a few breaths before he answered. It was others he had to be careful of, not Lucas. “Third one’s just as pretty as the other two. Little head and long neck and big rear on the one what was picketed down over the ridge. Haven’t ridden her, but she looks to be a good mover.”

“And the other one… the one Ronnie rode what Reid found? What do you think of her?”

Jubal snorted at hearing the name. “Too damn good for that man. Same quality as the other two for sure. Seen her trot and lope and she moves real pretty. Reid thinks she’s built for speed, and that appears to be so with them long legs and deep hip. How you feeling?”

“Been eating good, and can turn over if I need to. Doc don’t want me to, though. Caught me on my side and gave me holy hell. Too much strain on muscles, or some such thing.”

He was still staring hard at Jubal, and he could see he had questions. He was a man what noticed the least little thing for sure. “Saw you can’t sit up yet.”

“Probably could, but not worth the pain, or dealing with Doc Vance.” His look softened, and there was finally a grin. “So, you got four mares now, same as I’ll have when we catch that filly.” His grin grew bigger.

“That’s what Reid says, but it don’t feel right I should have all of them. You can take your pick of the two. I’m keeping my mount—she fits me just right—and I have no need for two more.”

“Me pick one? No, that don’t feel right to me. I don’t need any more either. You were stole from—I never lost anything but some blood,” he said like it weren’t of no concern.

Jubal winced at the man’s humor. Those memories weren’t funny to him and never would be. “I wore that blood so I know damn well what you lost, Lucas, so you’ll be picking a mare, and that’s the end of it.”

Lucas’s lips twisted down and his dimples deepened, showing his regret. “Never should have made light about such. I know what you had to do… what you did for me. Doc said you were covered in my blood, and says not many would have had the guts or the smarts to take a hot poker to my wounds… and that it surely made the difference between living and dying.”

“He said that to you? That it made the difference?”

“Yep. He thinks mighty highly of you and what you did… and so does Reid.”

Jubal dropped his gaze, feeling embarrassed.

“I think highly of you too, Jubal. Had lots of time to think, and I ain’t never had a friend like you in my whole life.”

“I like us being friends.”

“Do you?”

“Course I do. Don’t it seem so?”

He nodded. “It does, but sometimes you be hard to read. I know I said I wouldn’t pry, but if you ever have something to say, you can. You can trust me. You recall saying the same thing to me?”

Jubal’s eyes widened. He surely did remember, but hadn’t thought much about it after what happened. “Yep… it was just afore you got shot.”

“And you meant it, I hadn’t a doubt. And I mean it too, and we have that conversation to finish at some point.”

“About Reid and you?”

“That’s part of it. But now ain’t the time. I just need to know you won’t be running off.”

“Why would you need to know that? I said I wouldn’t be going nowhere.”

“But you looked skittish when you showed up, and I got this feeling in my gut you’ve been spooked and….”

“Well, maybe I was turning something over in my head, but I won’t run out… not without telling you.” The man’s brow creased enough Jubal regretted saying that last part.

“I reckon that’ll have to do,” he finally said, his face suddenly unreadable to Jubal. “Then we’ll have us that conversation when I get home.”

“Know when that will be?”

“If’n I had my way, it’d be today,” he answered with a scowl Jubal found amusing.

“Reckon Doc won’t hear of it, and I can’t say I don’t agree with him.”

“Could lay at home just as easily, and I can swallow real food now.”

“But you can’t even sit up yet, which means you couldn’t even get to the outhouse.”

His next words had them both smiling. “Reckon that’s true enough, and I got no desire to shit myself.”

“Well, considering Doc didn’t expect you to wake for a week or more, laying here don’t seem too bad a situation to me.”

“For you maybe. My ass be sore as the dickens from staying flat the day long, worse than a day and a night in the saddle, I tell you. Prefer my own mattress to this one.”

Jubal snorted, trying not to laugh at the poor man. He didn’t succeed, and Lucas soon joined him, holding his belly as it shook.

“All right, I’ll be patient… since I got no damn choice.”

“Glad you’re seeing it right. So, when does Doc think you’ll be up and about?”

“Said three more days be possible this morning. Might let me get up sooner to move around some.”

“Three days ain’t so bad.”

That scowl came back for a few seconds before Lucas sighed. “I suppose. Anyways, Reid told me all you did that day. I didn’t know you swam down the crick and busted in the back of the cabin?”

“Was the quickest way to get my gun. Only had ten minutes, and besides, he could have seen me going through them trees on the north bank—they ain’t very good cover for a growed man. And I didn’t bust into the cabin—just pried a board off and squeezed through.”

“With your bare hands!”

“Weren’t that hard, ‘cept the nails squeaked loud enough to near give me a heart attack.”

“Jesus! And that was after you swung out onto the roof.” He shook his head as he stared him in the eye. “I could never have done any of it… never could have come up with such a plan.”

“Don’t believe that a’tall. If I’d been shot, you’d have figured something.”

“No… no I wouldn’t have. I’d have given myself up to try to save you maybe, and then got us both killed by doing so. You be a tough one, Jubal. Men that tough are usually hard, but you ain’t even a mite that way. You’re decent and kind… and like Reid said, you went and put me over yourself.”

Jubal scoffed. “Don’t think I’m tough at all. Wish I was… wish I wasn’t fearful like I am, but Vincent used to say fear can keep a fellow upright.” He felt discomfort at Lucas’s stare. How did the man get him to reveal such?

“Vincent sounds like a very smart man.”

“Yep… he be that and more.” Swallowing nervously because he once again thought he said too much, he met Lucas’s gaze and saw he was still being watched close. This time he could read his expression, though, and it looked like a man feeling sorry for another. It made him uncomfortable, but he was saved by Reid coming through the inside door.

“Thought it was time I checked in, but see you already got someone to complain to. Afternoon, Jubal.”

“Good day to you, Reid. You can take over and sit with him a spell. He ain’t been complaining too bad,” he said with a grin, until he saw Lucas’s face.

“Why you be in such a hurry? You only just got here?”

“Don’t want to take up another’s time with you. Besides, I got bacon what should be in the larder to stay cool.”

“That bacon is smoked and salted, so it’ll be fine,” Lucas said in a sharper tone that he’d ever used with Jubal.

“How are things out at the farm,” Reid asked as he looked from one to the other. Yep, he’d heard it too. “You getting any closer to catching them wildings Lucas mentioned?” He pulled the other chair closer to the bed and sat, waiting for an answer.

Jubal was surprised at the question… that Reid knew about them wanting to trap the wildings. “Hard to say,” he answered. “A step forward and maybe a step back. Never can tell with them.”

“I heard the plan, and sounds to me it could work, though it might take some time.”

“We’ll see,” he said finally chancing a glance at his friend. He was quiet, but he didn’t look annoyed… not anymore. He was, though, of that Jubal was sure. Fact is, he was right about Jubal being skittish.

Reid be a smart one, and he was pretty sure the man had him figured out, and Jubal had that strong urge to run, an urge he was all too familiar with when he feared being exposed.

“Well, don’t give up. Meantime, you given thought to putting all that money in the bank for safety? Was just in there and talked to Ralph—he be the manager—and he says the bank has expanded to more towns again, so you can travel about anywhere without worrying for getting robbed.”

Jubal felt Lucas’s gaze settle back on him. “Haven’t given it any thought. Got a good hiding place for now, I reckon.”

“Just be sure it is. What you got planned now you got it all back?”

Lucas cleared his throat, and his eyebrows rose high. “Jubal? You got all your money back?”

“Ah… yep, I did.”

“Why… how come you didn’t tell me such? That be a big deal, don’t you think? You planning on traveling somewhere new what has a bank?”

The questions felt like accusations to him, making him feel poorly since Lucas appeared hurt if he was any judge. “Suppose it is a big deal… thought you knew about the money, I guess,” he answered, finding it hard to meet that gaze.

“How would I know if you didn’t tell me? We just had us a talk and you didn’t say nothing about it, and not yesterday either.”

“I… I should have, but money hasn’t been on my mind, what with everything going on and you laying here not moving for days.”

Lucas nodded as if he understood, but Jubal sensed something different as the man turned his attention from him.

“That’s true enough,” Reid said, interrupting the sudden tension. “He wouldn’t even take the coins I tried to give him from Ronnie’s saddlebags.”

Lucas’s gaze found him again, and he peered at him through narrowed eyes. “Why not, if’n it’s your money by right? That don’t make no sense a’tall.”

Jubal focused on Reid, not knowing how to explain, and not really wanting to admit he was heartbroken at the time. Seemed a foolish thing now, and he was feeling cornered after the sheriff’s words.

Reid did explain, though, exposing him even more. “He thought them coins dirty… said you got shot because of his gold. I tried to change his mind and he finally agreed he’d take them once you weren’t near death. Wouldn’t even touch them, so I kept them for him. He only accepted them after you woke… when he was riding out back to the farm. He found the last ones at Prescott’s campsite. Had the sense to take those after he showed them to me, so he has them all, ‘cepting for two, and he has the four single eagles to equal those.”

“They were in a sack tied up a tree near Prescott’s picket line… thought it was a critter at first,” Jubal said, just to say something… anything while the two men stared his way.

“I see. Well, I’m glad to finally know you got them all back. Proves there is real justice for good people sometimes. Opens up all them possibilities for you again… to do them things you had planned.”

“I suppose, but—”

“Would you have taken those coins back if I never woke?”

“Can’t rightly say, Lucas. Admit I wasn’t thinking clear… but reckon I would have at some point.” He hung his head, figuring his feelings about the man had been seen through once and for all.

“So… what about the traveling Reid mentioned?”

“I never spoke of no traveling, not to Reid or anyone else.” Why did he feel so damn guilty as he looked in them eyes carrying what surely looked like disappointment.

“No, he didn’t, that’s true,” Reid said. “I was only saying what I was told when I went in the bank. Still think that’s where his gold belongs, but it be his choice.”

Lucas nodded, but his eyes were still on Jubal. “I see. Reckon you’re right about that. It’s the safest place, and where I keep my money. Thought you were in a hurry?” he asked Jubal, his voice flat.

His head came back up, and he saw sympathy on Reid’s face, and maybe some regret for sticking his nose in. “In a hurry? I didn’t say—”

“Said you couldn’t stay long… bacon and such. Looks like you’re itching to get out of here… anyways, don’t want to hold you up. You probably been working too hard, knowing you, and you’ve been worrying for me too, so go do something for yourself, something what you’d really enjoy. Ride them new mares or go hunting… or fishing. There’s hooks and a pole on the back wall of the barn, or you can use my rifle if’n you choose to hunt. Got good sights and shoots true.”

Jubal almost said visiting Lucas was what he enjoyed most, but stopped hisself because that wasn’t something to be said to another man, and he’d already been exposed enough. He’d let them church folk get him rattled, and now he’d upset his friend. How could he ask him to have faith in his word when Jubal didn’t trust his own self.

“Ah… happens I was thinking earlier I’d get me a grouse maybe. That last stew we had was damn tasty. They were calling this morn from the east, up close to the ridge. Might be still there, but I won’t shoot if'n the herd is near.

“I’ll wait for you to be up and about to try them new mares, though. We can switch up to see which one you like best… already got the right one for me.” The stares from both men were getting to him, and he felt like he was rambling worse than an old cowboy what had been alone a season or two. Standing up, he turned to the door. “See you soon. Don’t worry… about the farm or the animals, all right?”

“Yep.” Both men said goodbye, friendly like, but Jubal was no fool. It was more than possible Lucas cottoned on to his secret after what Reid had told him about the coins—was too smart not to—and be convinced he was considering running off… that he might be on his way to other parts soon. Lucas knew him well, and fact be, he weren’t so sure he was wrong if he was thinking such.

He hadn’t kept getting his money back—or anything else—from Lucas on purpose, but he knew what it probably looked like to the man. It was an important thing to miss, though he never would have thought so until he saw the hurt it caused with his own eyes.

He was feeling skittish, especially after today, and he had no clue yet what be the right thing to do. But as afeared as he might be at what Lucas might think of him, he wouldn’t desert the man, not as long as he needed him. Might be the wildings would be back by the time he got home. He sure hoped so, because he saw them as the only sensible excuse to stay after giving hisself away like he went and done. Like Reid went and done.

Sighing, and recognizing nothing was anyone’s fault but his own, especially not Reid’s, he climbed up into the buckboard and drove away. As much as he wanted to, he didn’t once turn his gaze towards the big window. He had no doubt he was being watched by them eyes, ones he’d waited so long to be open again.

 

*

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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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