Hat Creek Trouble

By Bryce Blackburn

Adventure / Romance

The One about Marriage

“Find anything interesting?” Needle asked, tossing a bag of flour into the back of the wagon.

“Newt bought me two dresses and a hat.” I told him, gesturing to the two boxes to set in the back. He then moved a few things around so the boxes wouldn’t fall out of the back.

Needle nodded as he wiped sweat off his brow with the edge of his sleeve. “Did I forget anything?” Needle asked Newt.

Newt looked over the goods. “Bacon?” He asked.

Needle looked horrified and jogged back into the building, away from the loading dock. After a moment he came back with a slab that could feed the Hat Creek Cattle Co. for a month. Well, I imagined, not quite that long, maybe. But it was one of the largest hunks of meat I’d seen in an awful long time.

Newt and Needle went inside to pay for the groceries, telling me they’d only be a moment. I didn’t mind; I liked the chance to people watch. It had been the main sport Gerry and I shared while we’d been living together. He hadn’t even known the term before I met him, but he made it such fun. We’d go sit at a mall or main thoroughfare and make up stories about who they were and what they did for a living.

I liked to make up reasonable guesses, like I could read the person. Gerry, however, enjoyed making up outlandish stories, as if they were the Prince of Nigeria who enjoyed all things Hello Kitty or the Half Blood Queen of Agrabah who liked to re-create the moves in Flashdance.

It was easy to pretend Gerry was sitting next to me on the wagon bench, whispering in my ear how the plump lady crossing the street from the barber’s was a High Priestess for the Greek Gods, who had a box of Twinkie’s in her basket.

“Hey you.” A man called out and I didn’t realize he was talking to me until he started to walk towards me. “You daft?” He asked with an accent.

“Excuse me?” I asked, more because I wasn’t sure what he was asking.

“Are you daft?” He asked slowly, his Russian accent getting more pronounced.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, glancing towards the loading dock and not finding either Newt or Needle close enough to see.

“You must be stupid or something. Whores belong in the saloon.” Another man said, coming to stand next to the first man, who then pointed across the street to the bar.

“I’m neither stupid, nor a whore. Your English is atrocious.” I said, hoping to confuse them with larger words.

They both looked confused for half a second before Newt stepped into their line of sight. “These men bothering you, Miss McCrae?” Needle asked from the back of the wagon.

“Not at all. They were just leaving.” I said with the coldest tone I could muster.

“You boys best get on then if you’re gettin’.” Newt said, never taking his eyes off the two Russian men.

They just scowled and walked across the street to the saloon they’d tried directing me to.

I sighed heavily when they left, not realizing I had been holding my breath.

“Can’t take you nowhere.” Needle said as he jumped out of the wagon then immediately jumped back on his horse.

“Honestly, I understand that.” I said as Newt released the break on the wagon and we headed out of town.

“You always save me.” I told Newt, leaning on his arm a bit. “My hero.”

He smiled, watching the road instead of replying. But I didn’t need a reply. I just needed him on the other side of the bench to lean on a bit on the ride back. We talked less on the way back, but it was a comfortable silence. I didn’t feel the need to fill it with chatter or non-sense.

When we crossed under the sign for the Hat Creek Cattle Company, we were met by the sight of the Captain, Dish, Pea Eye and Jasper.

Captain Call came over to help me out of the wagon. “Lovely hat.” He said briskly.

I didn’t say anything as they began unloading the goods. Most of them were stored in the barn and the men took them off. Dish was kind enough to hand me my dress boxes though. I gave him a smile and carried the boxes inside and set them on the table. I ran my fingers over the boxes a few times before the door opened again. I picked the boxes up and set them in the corner opposite from the firewood, but on the same wall as the fireplace.

“Did you enjoy the trip to town?” Captain Call asked from the doorway.

“Yes, thank you Captain. And I very much appreciate the dresses.” I said, figuring the money hadn’t come from Newt directly. The captain nodded. “Should I start lunch then?” I asked.

“If you’d be so kind.” He said politely before leaving.

I then hung my hat on the hat rack and went about starting the beans cooking. I had just pulled the biscuits out of the fire when the boys filed in and set their hats on the hat rack.

“So when can we see those pretty dresses?” Needle asked as he scooped beans onto his spoon with his biscuit.

“Tomorrow, I expect.” I said before biting off some biscuit.

Needle, Newt and Dish seemed to feel this was an acceptable answer.

The rest of the day continued slowly until I went out to wash the dishes after dinner. The men sat on the porch, swapping stories and whiskey. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dresses. I loved both of them and was excited to show them off the next few days. I was halfway through the dishes when I realized I wanted to tell Gerry about them.

Suddenly, I was hit with a wall of sadness when I realized I wouldn’t be able to tell Gerry about it. Not ever if I couldn’t remember what to do when I had to go back in time. If I didn’t remember Gerry’s instructions, I’d never be able to tell him; about the dress, about the guys, about Newt.

He’d like to hear about Newt; I thought. Gerry was always trying to get me to go out with friends of his boyfriends and a friend of a friend of Omar’s. He’d like that I found a nice guy, even if we weren’t going together right now. And I’d get bonus points for a cowboy.

But the crushing thought of never seeing Gerry, my best friend, again, was terrifying. I forced myself to finish the dishes, but I had no strength to take them up the hill to the house. The sun was setting in the mountain range behind me, casting the world in shades of orange, pink and red.

I realized that I would’ve paid good money if I’d had it to get Gerry here. Or take me back, as much as I’d miss Newt and the guys. I sat there on the little hill, watching the life on the other side of the lake. A small herd of deer watered themselves until they heard a noise and bolted back into the forest.

If I looked out the corner of my eye, I could see Gerry sitting there in his salmon jeans, laughing at how silly he’d think they were acting by running when nothing was obviously chasing them. So when Newt sat down next to me, I was slightly startled.

“Captain and I was getting worried about you.” He said.

I nodded. “Well, I appreciate it. I’m fine. Just sitting here.” I said, probably a little too quickly to be convincing.

Newt nodded, like he hadn’t noticed the speed of my words, which I was sure he would have. “Somethin’ you wanna talk about?” He asked, a bit awkwardly.

I shook my head, starting to stand up. I picked up the tub before I realized I didn’t want to go back to the cabin and the company of the other five men. I liked being here on this hill with Newt, who hadn’t moved. I set the tub back down before setting myself down. I didn’t know if I wanted to talk to him, but I definitely didn’t want to talk to the other guys. “I miss Gerry.” I said simply.

Newt nodded. “I coulda figured as much.” He told me.

“I’m scared I’ll never see him again.” I added. To this remark though, he said nothing and it made me feel a little bit emptier then I already had. “What if he forgets me, Newt?” I asked, not really meaning to. “What if he finds a new best friend and forgets all about me.”

“How anyone in their right mind could forget someone like you is a wonder to me.” He said quietly while looking me in the eye.

I looked back across the lake and there was a long silence, where all we did was watch the retreating line of red and pink. After a while, I realized something was troubling Newt. About the time I was going to ask, he spoke up.

“Would you wanna marry me?” He asked, catching me off guard.

I thought about it for a moment. “I suppose I might.” I said. “Why do you ask?”

He was silent for a moment, making me think of Woodrow. “That lady at the store brought up wedding dresses and you got a kind of funny look on your face. And I wanted to know what you’d say if I did ask you.”

I nodded, still not sure about the subject. “I’m just not sure if I want to get married.”

“A respectable lady like you should have no problems with suitors.” He said, looking as if he wasn’t sure the word was correct.

“I don’t think that’d be a problem. I just don’t know about the business of getting married.” I said.

Newt was silent. Despite the lack of words between the two of us, I was hoping I hadn’t upset him. He seemed to like the idea of marrying me for some reason, but then the whole issue with Gerry was brought back to the front of my mind. I didn’t want to promise Newt anything I could follow through with and end up breaking his heart.

“Do you think if you love someone, time or distance shouldn’t matter?” I asked him, remembering the words Angelica had told me earlier.

“I don’t suppose it shouldn’t if you love somebody.” He said, standing up and holding his hand out to me. I took it and stood up. “I suppose if you love someone, you should just love them.” He said, picking up the tub.

I laced my arm and him and we started up the hill. Right before we rounded the corner of the cabin, I let go of Newt’s arm as he took my dishes inside.

“Took ya long enough. Were you neckin’ or what?” Jasper’s big mouth said from a corner of the porch.

My sadness about my situation allowed me to let the comment slide off my back, simply ignoring it all together. I could hear Call and Needle say something in forced hushes, but couldn’t make out the words. I let Newt return to the porch as I put dishes away. Then I moved to sit in front of the fire.

It wasn’t cold; I just sat there, gazing deep into the bed of coals. Watching the fire eased the pain in my chest that had started to make my head throb. I didn’t think about Gerry, or the dresses I couldn’t show him, or Newt, that I didn’t know about marrying. A song floated through my head and the singer’s voice in my ear whispered the whole song from beginning to end.

About the third time the song had replayed in my head, a hand touched my shoulder. I hadn’t heard anyone approach, but I wasn’t startled by it. I pulled my eyes from the fire to see who had touched me. Dish’s mouth moved twice before I realized he was talking to me.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.” I said, glancing at the door for only a second. Captain Call stood at the doorjamb, Pea Eye and Newt watching through the cracks of the door. “Just thinking.”

“About what?” I heard from Dish as I looked back at the fire. All the problems that had ebbed away when I looked at the blaze in the hearth had flooded back into me.

“Men and dresses and time.” I said simply.

When someone sat down next to me, I was surprised that it was Captain Call. He didn’t seem like the kind to sit on the floor on purpose. “Tell me about the time first.” He said kindly. “If you want.”

When I looked at the door, Dish was gone and the door was closed. “I don’t understand how time works.” I said, hoping I wasn’t getting too much into philosophy. “It’s always moving, but you look around and it’s been five years. You don’t remember how, but everything changes. You lost people and things; you gained other people and things. I don’t understand how it can do that to us.” I said, feeling all the sadness of Gerry swell in my chest.

Captain Call sat next to me for so long without saying anything, I’d feared he’d somehow got up and left. “If you’d ask me; five years ago, I was a ranger with Gus and Deets and Pea Eye and Jake Spoon.” He said, finally. “Last month, I had moved to Lonesome Dove with Gus. Yesterday, I’d decided that we best run cattle up to Montana.” He said and I looked over at him. “But I haven’t been a ranger in more than ten years. I lived in Lonesome Dove about the same time. And we’ve been on this ranch settled for a year and it took almost a year to get here.”

I just watched the fire, thinking about what he’d said.

“Tell me about the dresses.” Woodrow said.

“I love the dresses. I just wish I could tell my friend about them. He loves clothes, but I’m scared I’ll never see him again.” I said, realizing it was easier to talk to Call when I was focusing on the fire.

“And the men?” He asked, obviously trying to tread carefully as he said it.

“Newt asked me what I thought about marrying him.” I told him, but he said nothing. “I think I’d like to marry Newt, if we could work it out. I mean, we couldn’t live here. We’d need our own space. But he’s a good man and he’d make a good husband, I’m sure. I just don’t know how I feel about marrying him.”

Captain Call seemed to mill over what I said before he answered. “He’s just like his mother. She loved with everything she had and then some.” He said, seeming to say this with a regret I couldn’t quite understand.

“You loved her, Newt’s mom.” I said quietly, hoping I hadn’t broken a forbidden taboo.

He just nodded, not saying one thing or another. And for a while, we just sat there together, not talking, not moving. Then, he stood up and bid me goodnight. The boys had moved away from the porch, probably back to the barn. I didn’t know how late it had gotten, staring at the fire talking about things we couldn’t fix. And there were a lot of them as I thought it over; my loss of Gerry, which I wasn’t sure if I could fix or not, my aversion to marriage, and Woodrow’s loss of Newt’s mother.

I sighed, pulling the blanket around me and fell into a restless sleep that I couldn’t shake.

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