|Primary Characters:||Matthew, Cloud Dancing, Dorothy, Preston A Lodge|
|Description:||Matthew is still brooding on his shortcomings as sheriff. Help comes from an unexpected source. Preston A Lodge meets who he believes is the lady of his dreams. But the lady has a secret. How will that affect their relationship? But it seems there are others who face a greater challenge.|
Matthew Cooper sat on an old tree stump, carving a piece of wood. After the attack on Jake Slicker and Hank Lawson a few months back, Matthew had turned in his sheriff’s badge. He hadn’t been able to protect his friends and thus, he had failed as a sheriff.
These days, he spent most of the day helping Sully, or doing odd jobs around the town. More of the former than the latter. Sully did his best to cheer the young man up, but most of his words fell on deaf ears.
Dr Mike watched her patient with a great deal of concern. He was suffering from a severe bout of melancholia. Nothing she could say or do would bring Matthew out of it. Colleen and Brian tried too, but it was as if the normally so cheerful young man had lost his old joie de vivre.
One morning, in early fall, Sully and Matthew returned from the forest, carrying armfuls of firewood. First Sully, then Matthew dropped their loads at the foot of the chopping block.
Matthew wiped his brow, then rubbed the small of his back.
Sully watched the young man for a moment, then decided to leave him at the house. Whenever they could, he and Michaela tried to invite him over for dinner. It was getting late. The sun was low in the sky and there was only a little newly cut wood left.
“Why don’t you stay here? There isn’t a lot left. I’ll get it.”
“Are you sure?”
It was as if Matthew couldn’t muster enough energy to care. His eyes slid indifferently by Sully, staring at nothing much.
“Yes. You go on up to the house.”
Matthew nodded slowly.
On his way back to the forest, Sully stopped a few times and glanced back towards Matthew and the house. He could see Brian sitting on the front steps, watching his brother anxiously. Matthew’s state of mind was affecting them all. Sully shook his head.
Once he was out of sight of the house, he felt a little better. Being outdoors always cheered him up.
He bent over to pick up the last of the firewood. When he looked up, Cloud Dancing was standing only a few yards away, smiling peaceably.
“Hello, my friend.”
Sully’s face was split by a wide grin.
“I hope you are well.”
“Yes, I am. But -”
“Yes, there’s no change. He’s still as wretched.”
“It is not good when the mind is suffering. If you like, I could take him on a vision quest. He is of age, and more.”
Sully glanced keenly at Cloud Dancing. He knew this offer wasn’t made lightly. A vision quest was a serious matter. The fact that Cloud Dancing was making such a generous offer, was a token of his close bond with Sully. Sully bowed his head in recognition of his generosity.
Cloud Dancing’s smile seemed to hint that for a friend such an offer was no more than he deserved.
“Thank you. I will talk to Matthew about it tonight.”
“I believe his spirit will regain its balance and he will find the right path.”
“So do I. I -”
“It’s getting late. I must be return.”
“Walk safely, my friend.”
As soon as Sully had returned to the house, he began to wait for an opportunity to speak to Michaela alone. If possible, he would prefer to discuss Cloud Dancing’s offer with her, before he mentioned it to Matthew, though he was fairly certain the boy would be pleased. Sully knew how fond both boys were of the Indian.
On the night they would set out, Cloud Dancing came for Matthew at sunset. Cloud Dancing had prepared Matthew in advance so from the moment they saw each other and bowed in greeting, no word was spoken. Unlike many other white men, Matthew had learned to walk silently, although not as silently as Sully or Cloud Dancing himself.
Their passage through the forest mainly went unnoticed by anyone less attentive than a wild animal or an Indian. The rustle of a leaf, the whisper of dry grass, that was all. A wild beast might make more noise as it passed.
They walked for a long time, measured only in the number of paces. A cloud hid the moon, which was new and did not cast much light in any case.
At last, they arrived in the spot Cloud Dancing had chosen. There he left Matthew. A vision quest was to be faced alone.
Matthew felt the gravity of the moment, but didn’t flinch. Instead, he experienced a rare feeling of expectation. He’d felt nothing remotely like it, for many months. The guilt was numbing. It was his constant companion. What little sleep he got was interrupted by dreams.
But tonight wasn’t for sleeping and Matthew found he was able to push the thoughts of his failure to the back of his mind. The thought of the undertaking he was facing, banished all other thoughts.
He lost track of time and long before the culmination of his quest, Matthew ceased to feel impatient. Contenting himself with listening outwardly and focusing inwardly, he sat at ease, not having much difficulty staying awake. Calmly, he meditated on his shortcomings, but also on his achievements and more than all that, on who he was. His place in the world.
When Cloud Dancing returned to take Matthew back, he found a changed young man standing before him. There was a new light in his eyes and his tread was lighter than before. Cloud Dancing nodded approvingly. He knew the quest had been a success. The young man’s new purpose was evident.
Aloud the two men said very little.
Matthew was astonished to realize that not until now did he feel any hunger pangs at all. More urgent was the need to drink. They stopped at a stream and refreshed themselves. Cloud Dancing pulled out some bread from his pack and offered Matthew some of it.
He ate and drank gratefully, filled with a new appreciation for something as simple as a piece of bread and a handful of water. Everything he saw and heard and sensed was somehow clearer and seemed to have more substance. He found that he had no trouble seeing himself and his way forward.
Not until he was almost back at Dr Mike’s house, did he feel how tired he was. Cloud Dancing left him within sight of the house.
Despite Brian’s excited questions about the vision quest, Matthew said almost nothing to his brother. He merely ruffled his brother’s hair, smiled and turned to go to bed. The comfort of the bed was in stark contrast to the days and nights he’d spent in the forest, but he savored it all the more, for having known the silence and the emptiness out there.
The people of Colorado Springs had grown used to vistors coming and going, since their new preacher had become known all over the territory. Certainly, people had come before, but their numbers had been like a tiny creek, compared to the mighty Colorado River.
Receiving visitors became commonplace and so it was that on the morning when a certain young woman arrived, no one paid much attention to her. She was well-dressed and asked to be taken to the hotel, but didn’t mention her business in the town.
Since the lady, Miss Della Hall, was obviously an educated lady and one with certain means, she soon called attention to herself. She ordered a new dress sewn up and she asked about a banker. Someone introduced her to Preston A Lodge III and it was safe to say he was charmed. Soon the pair were seen together on every social event of any distinction, and naturally, she was taken to see and hear the preacher in church.
However, such was not her fancy and in the weeks to come, she was being invited to the homes of the more well-to-do citizens of Colorado Springs. Her attentive manners and elegant poise, soon became the talk of the town. And sure enough Preston A Lodge was almost always by her side.
It didn’t take long for him to gather up his courage and ask the lady to dinner at his house. As was evident to most of his neighbors, Preston wasn’t the most socially adept of men. Still, after Miss Hall had taken to showing up at Preston’s bank seemingly without any particular errand, Preston was beginning to hope that her visits were a pretext and that was how he came to think of the dinner invitation.
He decided to make the suggestion during an outing in his private carriage. It must have been obvious to Miss Hall that her gracious host was on the verge of making some kind of announcement, but of this, Preston was blissfully ignorant.
Eventually, he drew himself up and posed the question.
“Miss Hall – I would be honored if you’d dine with me tonight.”
Della smiled, appeared to consider the offer, while Preston breathlessly awaited her reply.
“Why, yes, I would love to, mr Lodge.”
“Preston. My name is Preston.”
“Preston. And you know my name is Della.”
He bowed courteously, secretly more pleased than he wished to let on. She had accepted.
With only a week left for his preparations, he went out of his way to order in delicacies from Denver. He wanted everything to be perfect. It had been a long time since he’d met a woman who led him to have such high hopes for the future. To observe all the proprieties, he invited Dorothy Jennings and Loren Bray, so that Della wouldn’t doubt his intentions.
In a way, the dinner was a success, but only halfway into the dessert, Loren managed to say something that offended Dorothy and she said something to him, that had him stalking off in a huff. Dorothy made her excuses and left soon after, leaving Preston crestfallen and dismayed.
However, Della merely smiled and put her hand over his.
“Please, do not concern yourself, mr Lodge – Preston. I must confess that I much prefer to find myself alone with you. Mrs Jennings is a very nice lady and mr Bray is very kind, but – you see, it is you I wish to get to know better.”
Preston felt his cheeks heat up, but he couldn’t help smiling. That was so much what he had hoped to hear, he almost couldn’t believe it was true.
“I – see. Well, I suppose – So, Miss Hall – Della – where are you from?”
“Chicago – I see.”
“What about you?”
Preston told her a little about his past, but felt tongue-tied and awkward. He couldn’t help wondering if he passed muster. If Della really was serious about wanting to get to know him. It was rare for a lady to appreciate him. He knew he was gauche and maladroit. Somehow, it was as if he couldn’t learn to interact with other people. Women especially. Yet here she was, smiling attentively, leading him to believe that she really did enjoy his companionship.
“And so – I thought I’d try to build something on my own, something worthwhile, something entirely my own accomplishment. Out here – well – there’s still opportunities, for a man like myself.”
“That’s a very fine plan. It does seem as if you’ve succeeded.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Not at all.”
“What about you, Della? What brought you out here, to the west?”
Della appeared to hesitate, then in lieu of a reply, she reached for her glass of liqueur, and took a sip.
“Oh, you know, I always wanted to travel, and then I came into some money and I thought I’d see a little of this fine country of ours.”
“Well, I hope you’ve found it worth the trip.”
“I have. Most assuredly I have. This is beautiful, just beautiful. The mountains and – all of it.”
“I’m glad. You see, I believe in this land. I see a future out here, for many more people from back east. From other countries too. It isn’t all about myself and about making my fortune. I have a vision about how this town could one day be great and the entire territory – But you must think me a fool to chase a chimera, a mere phantasm.”
For a moment, Preston’s face had lit up, now, it lost some of its animation. Something moved in Della’s eyes and she seemed about to say something, then she too, appeared to have lost some of her vivacity.
Preston was struck by his conscience. It was getting late and here he was boring a lady like Della with his foolish dreams. It was clear that she was tired and needed to return to her hotel room.
When he suggested that she might wish to retire, she didn’t demur. Preston had his carriage brought out and the horses harnessed to it, then drove Della back to the hotel himself.
The following day, Della did not make an appearance until late in the afternoon. Preston couldn’t help looking out the window, several times during the day. In the short time Della had been in town, he’d grown used to her visits. They always brightened his day. He began to worry that perhaps last night hadn’t been a success after all and that Della had tired of his companionship.
By the time he had given up all hope of seeing Della again that day, she arrived at the entrance to the bank. It was right before closing time, and his employees were already sweeping the floor and putting everything away.
Preston’s face lit up and he hurried from his office, crossed the floor and met Della at the door.
“Della. I – I was beginning to wonder if perhaps you were unwell.”
“Not at all. I merely – had a lot on my mind.”
There was something rather amiss about her manners today. Even Preston, who was not the most observant of men, could see that. She appeared ill at ease. Preston began to wonder if perhaps she was about to tell him she was going to continue her tour of the west or – that she had met another admirer, with whom she would now be spending her days.
However, she gave no indication of anything being wrong, and after another fifteen minutes or so of conversation, Della seemed to come to a decision about something and she excused herself and left. Preston was left standing in his office, watching her receding back, through the window, not much the wiser about the purpose of her visit.
On her way back to the hotel, she decided to visit the general store, to buy some handkerchiefs. There was a seamstress in town who embroidered quite lovely handkerchiefs and other linens. The prices were quite ridiculously low, and anyway, Della had taken a liking to them.
As she stood bowed over the drawer containing the seamstress’ work, over by the window at the back of the store, she happened to overhear a name that made her take notice.
“I suppose I shall have to. There’s only the one bank in town.”
“Yes, why not ask Lodge about a loan – I mean – you’ve had an account for almost two years now and -”
“A loan? I want him to invest in my project, but I don’t want to – this might not be a good place to discuss this -”
“Well, there you go then. He could come in as your partner and -”
“I suppose so, but that bloody fool is hopeless when it comes to greeting customers or -”
The other person laughed, not very kindly, or so Della thought, greeted some lady who had passed him, then continued his conversation.
“I know what you mean. Such a bloody fool with all that money. Life really isn’t fair.”
“Maybe he’ll get married. A hostess to sweet-talk them, and he can handle the finances himself.”
“Marry? That idiot? I doubt it. What woman would want to marry such a blundering fool? Oh, it’s getting late. My wife will have my hide if I’m late for dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Somehow, it was heartbreaking to hear Preston discussed thus, even if privately she had noted his social ineptitude. Despite all that, there was something touching about him that – She sighed and put down the lace, she’d been inspecting, and left the store, deep in thought.
After the vision quest, Matthew had decided to accept the responsibility of being a sheriff again. He knew that no one else wanted the job and in the time he’d held the appointment, he had found he quite liked it. Knowing that his friends and neighbors relied on him to keep them safe, filled him with a sense of purpose.
Then one day, he received word that a notorious female swindler had been seen in the territory. The message included a description of the woman and the name she was known to use, at least one of them.
The name was one that was familiar to him. After all, the lady – or woman – had been staying in town for more than a month now, Just like everyone else, Matthew hadn’t been able to help noticing that Preston had been her constant companion even from the first week of her stay. It pained Matthew to have to disappoint his friend, but he saw no other option.
If this had occurred before his vision quest, Matthew knew he would have wanted to ask someone’s advice, Sully’s, Dr Mike’s or Cloud Dancing’s. However, he now felt capable of dealing with the matter on his own, albeit rather reluctantly.
He made his way to the bank, where Preston could be found on most days, especially since Miss Hall’s arrival.
Sure enough, Preston could be found in his office. Though the door to the office was standing partially ajar, Matthew knocked, to call its occupant’s attention. Preston met his gaze and gestured for him to come inside.
“Well, if it isn’t sheriff Cooper. What can I do for you?”
Matthew glanced over his shoulder towards the door, returned to close it behind him, then cleared his throat to broach the delicate subject.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news. Today I received a warning about a notorious swindler who is known to be traveling around the western territories. In the past six months or so, there have been reports of her having entered our territory.”
Preston raised his eyebrows.
“The message included a description of the woman and – the name she’s been using. It might be her real name, but – well -”
“I see. Why are you telling me this?”
“Preston – there’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it. The name is – Miss Della Hall.”
Preston’s face suddenly lost all trace of color and Matthew began to fear for the banker’s health.
“I’m sorry -”
With an effort, Preston regained some measure of control over himself.
“Thank you. I – appreciate the warning.”
“She’s – apparently, she’s managed to swindle a number of men out of their life’s savings or other assets.”
“I see. Thank you. I’ll – bear your information in mind.”
Matthew sensed that Preston wished to be alone, so he excused himself and left. As he was leaving, he glanced worriedly over his shoulder. Preston looked stricken, devastated even. So the rumors about his attachment to Miss Hall were true. Matthew felt sorry for Preston. It was about time he had some luck with a lady.
That evening, Della came to seek Preston out. By that time, Preston had managed to recover somewhat. He gave no indication of having had any forewarning.
“Preston. I was wondering if you would have dinner with me at the hotel. It would please me to be able to return your hospitality.”
“I – thank you. That would be most pleasant. However, I was hoping I could have the pleasure of your company again. At my house tonight. I would love to dine with you at the hotel on some other night.”
“In that case – I’d love to.”
“Shall we say at eight?”
Della inclined her head.
Dinner this time was a more intimate affair, with fewer fancy ingredients sent for from afar. After dinner, Della asked if she could powder her nose. Being one of the few citizens of Colorado Springs to have indoor facilities, despite everything, Preston couldn’t help feeling a touch of pride as he gave his guest directions to the small room.
The first time he’d invited Della over, he’d given her a tour of the house, something which he was now beginning to regret. Only a few minutes after his guest had departed in search of the aforementioned facilities, Preston began to feel apprehensive. Quietly, he walked out into the passage leading to the room in question. He heard nothing.
Making his way closer to the room, he thought he heard a noise coming from further away. He followed the noise and walked into his study, where he found Della, a look of anguish on her face. She dropped a small object which clattered to the floor at her feet.
Preston closed the distance between them and picked the object up. It was a key with a familiar shape. He now noticed that the right hand drawer of his desk was standing open. Pulling the drawer out further, he realized that there was an exact duplicate of the key already in the drawer. Apparently, Della hadn’t come to steal the key to his safe, she had come to substitute it for a key of exactly the same appearance.
Holding the key up to the light, Preston realized that they weren’t exactly the same, as he had first assumed. There was a slight difference between them.
He stared at Della. Her face had lost all trace of color and a look of distress could be read in her eyes.
“What were you doing?”
“I came to – return this and to – take away the key I had substituted for it.”
“I see. Why?”
Della began to sway on her feet, and Preston felt he couldn’t in good conscience leave her standing like this, no matter what she was guilty of. He pulled out his chair and offered it to her. Without a word, she sank down on it. Her eyes seemed suspiciously moist.
Despite himself, Preston was beginning to weaken. After all, he reasoned with himself, no matter what Della had done to others, she hadn’t taken anything from him. Not yet. At least he was reasonably sure of that. He would make sure, first thing in the morning, when he returned to the bank and he fully intended to open his safe and go through it. On the other hand, he didn’t know what Della had done to trick so many other men into turning over their money to her, one way or another.
“You won’t believe me, but I came to return the key, as I said. I – I couldn’t bring myself to take anything from you.”
Her hands shook and Preston didn’t think she was a good enough actress to feign such despair. It was plain that she was losing her struggle to keep the tears at bay.
“Just let me go. Forget you ever met me. You know what I intended to do. What kind of woman I am. Please let me go. I will – return home and never steal from anyone again.”
“First tell me if you’ve made any other plans concerning my property.”
“At the bank – I was going to forge your signature, but I didn’t. I haven’t taken anything from you and I wasn’t going to. I couldn’t.”
Preston knew he was a fool, but he couldn’t bring himself to torment her further. His duty was clear: he ought to turn her over to sheriff Cooper, but somehow, he didn’t want to. His feelings for Della hadn’t changed, but now they were accompanied by such excruciating pain, his mind shied away from anything to do with her.
“Very well. I will take you back to the hotel.”
When he returned, he was loath to unlock the safe, lest after all she had managed to make away with all his worldy goods. Part of him didn’t care what she’d done. His heart was wounded and he could spare no thoughts for material possessions.
In the morning, with a heavy heart he went to the bank to make sure all was in order. He found that it was so. At least Della hadn’t lied about that. He sat behind his desk, trying to focus on his work, to steer his thoughts away from Della, but couldn’t. In the end, he pushed back his chair and left the bank. It was no use. He would have to see her again, and if possible, find an explanation for her actions – here – and in the past.
However, when he arrived at the hotel, he found her gone. She had packed her posessions and settled her bill. The bellboy told him she was last seen heading for the stagecoach stop. Heedless of his loss of dignity, Preston ran in that direction, fearing she had left, never to return.
He arrived breathless and covered in dust, appearing very different from his usual well-groomed self, only to find her in the process of climbing aboard the stage coach.
She caught sight of him and again, tears glimmered in her eyes, but she didn’t stop. As the driver’s assistant was about to shut the door behind her, Preston called out and the young man stopped in mid-movement.
Tossing a few coins to the driver, Preston managed to make him wait for a few minutes, then jumped into the stage coach himself and sat down on the seat opposite Della.
“Wait. Don’t go yet. I have to know why.”
“Please, do not question me. Just let me go. I swear I -”
“Please. Stay. Tell me why you – Explain to me. Make me see why you chose such a -”
“Mr Lodge -”
She drew in breath and stared at him as if she couldn’t believe her ears, then bowed her head in acquiescence.
“Preston, it’s no use. Why won’t change what I’ve done. To countless others, if not to you.”
“Then tell me why I was different.”
She blinked away a few tears and turned away.
“It’s no use. Let me go.”
“No. Please, explain. I want to understand.”
When she saw that she couldn’t sway him, she at last agreed to leave the coach and to have her luggage taken back to the hotel.
This time, their conversation took place in the salon of the hotel, empty at this time in the morning. A servant was taking away a few candlesticks, but at Preston’s urging he left the room.
A look of desperation in her eyes, Della gazed into Preston’s face, overcome with emotion.
“You are quite determined to force the truth out of me?”
“I beg you to tell me.”
“Very well. When I was seventeen, I became an orphan. I had no relations or friends to take me in. There was a man who – courted me, or so I thought. He was very courteous and I believed – that he would ask for my hand in marriage. However – it soon became apparent, that his intentions were different.”
Della’s distress increased. Preston hurriedly assured her she need not go on, but Della seemed to brace herself, then rallied and continued her account.
“No, not quite what you must think. He had a house of – ill repute. When I realized what he wanted, I – ran away. I made a living as a seamstress, a nanny, a governess – anything I could do. One day, I met an older man who became quite infatuated with me. He – I’m afraid I led him on, not in ways you might believe, but – the worst part was, he was sweet. His intentions were pure, I’m sure of it, but by then, I was desperate. You can’t have any idea of what it was like, struggling to make a living, and constantly having to watch over my shoulder for men who would take advantage of a woman on her own.”
Preston couldn’t help squeezing her hand reassuringly.
“I – took what I could, then moved on to the next city. After a while, I – began to actively seek out such situations, where I could – you see what I mean. In the end, when I was afraid I would be recognized, I decided to come out here and start afresh.”
“I see. That explains why you began to – do what you did. Can’t you tell me why you decided not to do the same to me?”
Again, she was overcome with emotion and Preston began to feel he was being too cruel. He was about to give up and leave Della in peace, when she took a deep breath and fixing her gaze on a point behind his left ear, she began to speak again.
“You must know how I – Can you not see that I – Are you determined to make me say it? I could not bring myself to do it because of my feelings for you.”
Suddenly, Preston knew she was telling the truth. He had feared some sort of subterfuge, but when he heard her speak so candidly and without artifice, he knew she was guileless. No matter what the consequences, he knew he wanted to believe her and to trust her, despite all he knew about her.
“I know. You can’t forgive me. That was why I wanted to go, never to see you again. I can’t bear to see you and know that I lost you because of my culpability.”
“No, you misunderstand me. I do understand and I – forgive you. Let us speak no more of the past. If you give me your word, you won’t try to deceive me again, i will trust you.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When Preston had caught her in his study, she had been sure she had lost him forever. All that had been on her mind was to substitute the key again, so that he might never learn of her true intentions. That he would somehow forgive her and give her another chance, had seemed too much to hope for. All she had allowed herself to believe was that he would let her go, before the sheriff found her.
“Preston. I – If you will trust me again, I swear to you I will never attempt to deceive you or anyone else.”
“Then all is well. When the sheriff comes to ask about you, I will deal with him.”
“You are too kind to me. How will I ever be able to repay you?”
“Think no more of that. Now, I was hoping you will want to stay here. Make a fresh start for yourself.”
“Oh, I’d love to. I know I shall be happy here.”
“I hope so. I know I’ll be happier knowing you are here.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he dared to take her hand and raise it to his lips. Her warm smile led him to believe there would be more to hope for in the future. He didn’t think he’d made a mistake. When it came to business, his instincts were sure. She would not deceive him again. For the first time in his life, Preston felt the beginnings of true happiness.
Mrs Dorothy Jennings was going to visit her friend, Dr Michaela Quinn. It was a fine day and Dorothy decided to take the day off and spend all day at Michaela’s house. Secretly, she found herself hoping she’d run into a friend of Michaela’s fiance Sully – Cloud Dancing. She had never given any hint of her interest to anyone, at least she hoped so. Not even to her best friend, Michaela.
In any case, when she arrived, Michaela was alone. Brian, Michaela’s foster son was in school, Sully was nowhere to be seen, and apparently, Colleen, Michaela’s foster daughter, was minding the clinic in town. This gave the two women an excellent opportunity to catch up on the latest gossip.
“And do you know, reverend Taylor’s wife fainted dead away, when she heard Hank bear witness.”
Michaela couldn’t help smiling as she thought of Hank’s transformation. On the one hand, she was delighted that her patient had recovered so well after his ordeal. On the other, it was more than a little bit absurd, to imagine a man who had owned a saloon, with a bar and employed a number of women for purposes far from spiritual, now a man of the church. Furthermore, one who had, or so it was said, saved more than a hundred penitent sinners. More were pouring into town every week.
“Yes. I have to admit that if I hadn’t known him before his – change of heart – I would have been far more impressed. And I am quite impressed even now. He always had a way with words.”
“Indeed. Well, in a way, it’s for the best. It must be said that our town has a better reputation now, than in the past. Still, I wish that it won’t change too quickly, and too much.”
Dorothy readily agreed. More modern conveniences, by all means, but too many people coming in too short a time, couldn’t fail to change the town’s heart for the worse.
“Oh, did I tell you how pleased everyone is over Matthew’s return as sheriff? He was doing an excellent job even before, but now – well, it is quite remarkable. How did you manage to cheer him up so thoroughly?”
Michaela bit her lower lip, pensively. She knew that what Sully had told her about what Cloud Dancing had done for Matthew wasn’t anything to speak of lightly. Yet Dorothy was her best friend and if her intuition didn’t fail her, Dorothy was fond of Cloud Dancing. At the very least, she was a charitable, warm, friendly person, who did not judge a person by his outward appearance.
Michaela hesitated, then decided that telling Dorothy would do no harm.
Dorothy on her part, couldn’t fail to notice that Michaela was reluctant to tell her and wondered what on earth could be behind Matthew’s sudden transformation. Surely he hadn’t fallen in love with a new girl? To Dorothy’s knowledge there was no particular girl in Matthew’s life, not after his first love had tragically succumbed to such a horrible sickness.
“Dorothy – if I tell you something in confidence, will you promise not to mention it to anyone? Not even to Loren.”
“Certainly not. If I give you my word, I wouldn’t dream of revealing any secret you might have. Besides, Loren and I – you know we’re not really close anymore.”
“Quite. Well, you see – Cloud Dancing took Matthew on a vision quest. It’s a sort of spiritual tradition that helps young people come of age. I’m not sure what it involves, but Cloud Dancing took Matthew into the woods late at night and kept him there for well over a day and a night. I believe it’s character building. Gives them a chance to ponder their place in society and – You must find all this very heathen and -”
“Not at all. How wonderful. It reminds me of something I read about Eastern philosophers. How truly remarkable. And it transformed Matthew too, in – rather a different way than Hank.”
“Oh, and I must say I was amazed to hear that Preston was going to be married, or at least engaged.”
“I know. If anyone had told me only a few months back, that such a thing would occur, I wouldn’t have believed them. Amazing, how people we think we know, can change overnight, as it were.
“At least there’s no great mystery about Jake Slicker’s change.”
“No, but I can’t help feeling that it was for the best. That poor girl and poor Jake -”
Michaela broke off before she said too much. What the people of Colorado Springs had heard about the incident that almost led to Jake’s and Hank’s deaths, was simply that two men – the third horse didn’t prove anything about the presence of another abductor – had taken both men away and attacked them. Since Michaela herself had found it hard to believe that anyone would be so utterly barbaric as those two had been, there was no reason for anyone to suspect the real truth.
“I am pleased for them both. Much the best thing that could happen to them. I hear reverend Johnson will marry them in the spring. Mind you, I think they’ve jumped the gun a bit.”
“I think everyone’s well aware of that, but considering that poor girl’s background – one could hardly say this is any worse.”
Michaela omitted to tell her friend that she and Sully too, had jumped the gun, as it were, and were still enjoying what the church would refer to as a sinful union. However, she wouldn’t be surprised if Dorothy was aware of that and understood. Being a widow herself, she must be able to see how lonely a grown woman could get and how little harm would be done by eschewing formalities in such a matter.
For some reason, Dorothy found her thoughts drifting away from the conversation with Michaela, towards the few times she’d been able to speak to Cloud Dancing alone. Something about him appealed to her in ways that Jake or Loren or even her dear departed husband never had. Perhaps it was simply the exotic in him, but she preferred to put it down to his unique perspective on life and his remarkable wisdom, despite his lack of formal education.
She became aware of Michaela’s voice falling silent and concerned that she might have missed something, Dorothy looked up and met her friend’s eye.
“I’m sorry. Did you -”
“I said, I thought I heard a rider coming this way. It must be Sully. Too early for it to be either Brian or Colleen.”
“Oh. I’d better be getting back.”
“So soon? I was about to get started on lunch.”
“Well, in that case, I’d love to.”
A few hours later, the two women sat on the porch in the slanting afternoon sun, discussing topics related to their town and the people in it.
Darkness began to fall early that time of year and Dorothy kept an eye on the sun. When she deemed it time enough to return to town, she got up and said her goodbyes to her hosts.
Sully had kept out of the way most of the time, except during lunch, to let Michaela have this time with her friend. So had Brian, who arrived somewhat later announcing that Colleen would be spending the night in town.
Sully appeared while Dorothy was getting ready to depart, and helped her onto her horse. Glancing somberly at the sky he seemed to hesitate.
“You’d better go straight back to town. I think we’re in for some rough weather.”
“Will I make it back in time?”
“You should. I doubt if it will begin much before nightfall, so just head on back without stopping on the way, and you should be fine.”
Sully and Michaela stood, arms around each other, waving goodbye to her.
At first she made good time, but when she had entered the woods, her horse suddenly began to limp badly and while she was still contemplating getting off to check on what was bothering it, it dropped a shoe and became quite lame.
Swearing under her breath, in a way far from lady-like, Dorothy was about to dismount, when suddenly a stray wind spooked the horse and it threw her. She landed well, in some bushes – no poison ivy or anything prickly – and was only slightly winded.
Far worse, was the fact that now that her horse had bolted, she would never be able to get back to town before the storm descended on her, and since she was about equally far from Michaela’s homestead, she saw no way of finding herself indoors in time.
Her situation appeared to be quite desperate, and she had no hopes of anyone happening to ride by in time to save her from spending a night out of doors. She subdued her concern and began to look around for anything that might serve as a shelter.
Knowing the general location she was in, she decided to walk on for a bit and see if the terrain further ahead offered any better cover.
She saw or heard no one approach, yet suddenly, she was startled to hear someone saying her name.
She whirled around, not quite alarmed, but rather surprised to meet someone who knew her, out here. When she recognized the by now familiar figure, she relaxed and smiled warmly in greeting.
“Are you injured?”
“No, not at all, but my horse went lame, dropped a shoe and then threw me. He bolted and that’s the last I saw of him.”
“I’m sorry. Come. I will try to find a safe place for you to spend the night, before the storm hits.”
“Sully told me about the storm. I was in two minds about leaving, but if this hadn’t happened, I would be almost back in town by now.”
Cloud Dancing inclined his head in commiseration, then made a gesture with his hand for Dorothy to walk on ahead.
“If we walk in that direction, we will come to a safe spot. I will make you a shelter and light a fire.”
About twenty minutes later, they arrived in the spot Cloud Dancing had mentioned and without further ado, he set to building the shelter he’d told her about. She was amazed to see him work. His skills were quite impressive. Most men Dorothy knew were handy with a hammer and a saw, but seeing Cloud Dancing work with nothing but a knife and an axe, filled her with awe.
At the end of another thirty minutes the shelter was finished and Cloud Dancing was putting the finishing touches on a fire. That too, was expertly done. Dorothy, who was quite proficient in lighting fires indoors, was still much impressed.
“Thank you, Cloud Dancing. This is truly marvelous.”
Again, he bowed, but said very little.
The fire spread a wonderful warmth and Dorothy crept a little closer. She noted how conveniently the smoke blew away from them and didn’t hit the roof of their shelter only to billow down into their eyes, noses and throats.
“Are you hungry, mrs Jennings?”
“No, thank you. I had a meal at Michaela’s and Sully’s.”
“Ah. If you like, I have herbs to make a hot drink.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
He proceeded to put the herbs into a small pot, filled it up with water, from a waterskin, then left it to steep for a while. After he deemed it finished, he pulled the pot out of the fire and let it cool slightly, before pouring some of it into a cup, that was hanging from his belt. Dorothy sniffed the brew curiously, then took a sip. It had an odd, but not unpleasant taste and she drank it all, letting the hot fluid spread a pleasant warmth through her body.
As soon as she’d finished it, she handed the cup back to Cloud Dancing.
“Thank you. It was wonderful. I feel much warmer now.”
He smiled and bowed, but made no reply, poured an equal amount into the cup and drank it himself, then glanced inquiringly at Dorothy, who gratefully accepted a little more. After he’d finished the rest, he put the pot away.
Dorothy sat back and prepared herself to wait for the storm to pass. In the past hour or so the wind had picked up and a steady rain began to fall. Without the hot drink, she was sure she would have been chilled to the bone. She did not, however, feel the slightest bit sleepy.
When Cloud Dancing noted that she wasn’t about to doze off, he attempted to make conversation to pass the time.
Secretly, this was what Dorothy had been hoping for. She found that their conversation flowed freely, but after a while, she became aware of feeling – attracted to Cloud Dancing. There was no other word for it. She felt the same or – truth to tell – a greater attraction for him, who wasn’t even a member of the same race, as she had once felt for her husband and – briefly – for Jake Slicker.
It appeared Cloud Dancing felt something similar, for somehow, they ended up sitting ever closer to each other, until Dorothy breathlessly felt his arm go around her shoulder. The next few moments were rather hazy, but when their lips met, Dorothy knew she wasn’t the slightest bit sorry. She returned the kiss every bit as enthusiastically.
Afterwards, it seemed Cloud Dancing was overcome with remorse. He regarded her solemnly, in a way which filled Dorothy with dread. She was hoping he wouldn’t tell her he had no feelings for her and that he was withdrawing from her.
Instead, he seemed stunned by the gravity of what had just occurred. He searched her face, for a clue to her reaction, then eventually appeared to collect himself enough to speak.
“Mrs Jennings – ”
He hesitated, a look on his face she couldn’t quite read, then continued.
“Dorothy – I apologize. You must not think I gave you any harmful drugs to – take advantage -”
“Stop. Don’t be like all those prejudiced narrow-minded people in town. Just tell me one thing – do you regret what you just did?”
“That depends on how you feel, Dorothy. If you are horrified by what I’ve done -”
“Of course not. Can’t you tell? I – have been – what I meant to say is that I have no regrets.”
A rare smile moved Cloud Dancing’s features.
“In that case, I have to admit to you that I have been dreaming about this moment from the time we first – got to know each other.”
“That was – what I was about to say too. I’ve been hoping – but of course, I had no way of knowing if you returned my feelings.”
For a while, they allowed themselves to revel in their newfound love, but it wasn’t long until their sense of self-preservation set in. It was Cloud Dancing who spoke up first.
“Dorothy – what I would most like to do, is take you away, to become my wife, so that we may spend the rest of our lives together, but you must know how your people would view our – union.”
She nodded sadly. If she chose to take that step, she knew she would lose all her other friends and what was more, she could never again hope to walk among her peers with any hope of being regarded as their equal. Yet, part of her wanted to throw all that away. She had never fully accepted the fact that she would most likely never again know a man’s love. Friends only went so far.
“I know, but – still – I wish there was a way we could be together.”
“So do I. But it is no use wishing for what can’t be. I will – in the morning I will take you back to town.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
Cloud Dancing regarded her with so much sorrow, she only wanted to stay, right there, in the middle of the forest, regardless of the consequences, then he nodded.
“Perhaps. I will remain in the area. Now that – I couldn’t bear to leave you so far behind.”
She buried her face against his chest and wept with regret. He held her, seemingly as overcome with emotion as she was.
Towards morning, he led her back to the outskirts of town, making sure no one saw them together. Loren greeted her with a mix of bad temper and concern. She drew herself up and assured him she had been just fine, but refused to elaborate. After all, she wasn’t accountable to Loren Bray and she certainly wasn’t helpless either. Even if Cloud Dancing hadn’t arrived when he did, she was sure she would have been able to keep reasonably dry and warm.
In the days that followed, she tried to regain her sense of purpose in life. Now that she’d finally found love again, she couldn’t bear to do without it. Her mind set to work on finding a solution that might leave them both with something of what they would be leaving behind, yet making it possible for them to stay together.
When she read an account of a trip to Europe, written by a lady from New York, she suddenly thought she had a solution. It would mean Cloud Dancing giving up more than she would have to, but since his life was already in danger, and his traditional way of life already dissolving, in the wake of her people’s expansion into the west, before long, he would have to anyway. If so, would it not be easier to bear that loss, if they were together?
She made some inquiries before attempting to contact Cloud Dancing. There was no point in raising his hopes unnecessarily. On the other hand, if he would not wish to accompany her, after all, she’d better find that out sooner, rather than later.
So, after learning some facts which encouraged her, and having another idea, she decided it was time to find out how Cloud Dancing felt about her plan.
After giving the matter some thought, she decided she would have to let Michaela into the secret. She would have no way of making contact with Cloud Dancing on her own. Of course, she might simply tell her friend she needed to get in touch with the Indian, without confiding in her the reason for her request, but that struck Dorothy as a poor treatment of a good friend.
If her plan came to fruition, she would have to leave Michaela behind forever, so she liked to at least be honest with her, while they could still be friends.
So, the Monday after her decision was taken, Dorothy found herself riding back to Michaela’s and Sully’s homestead, on the same horse as the last time. It had been reshod and the leg was fine too, so she anticipated no trouble on the way.
She set about explaining the reason for her visit, and to her relief, her friend reacted exactly the way she had hoped.
“Dorothy, I’m – I don’t know what to say. I’m so happy for you. This was – totally unexpected. Of course, I see that you will be facing enormous obstacles but -”
“Exactly. That was why I felt I needed to talk to Cloud Dancing early on, before I got further in my plans. I need to know he is willing to go along with my plan.”
“Of course. I’ll ask Sully to find him. According to Sully, he’s remained in the area, so that shouldn’t be so hard.”
“He told me he would. I just didn’t know if -”
“Oh, if Cloud Dancing makes you a promise, he will never go back on his word. It’s a matter of honor to him.”
“I was hoping so, but also that he really wants to. I mean, I wouldn’t want him to feel obliged to – do the right thing by me, if he’s changed his mind.”
“I’m sure you have absolutely no reason to worry on that account.”
Sully turned out to be nearby and when he looked in, Michaela asked him to find Cloud Dancing. He nodded, a curious look on his face. Dorothy realized she would have to confide in him too. After all, he was Cloud Dancing’s best friend.
The two men returned so soon, Dorothy was quite astonished. Cloud Dancing couldn’t have been more than forty or forty-five minutes’ walk away. He appeared so pleased to see Dorothy, her concerns were put to rest.
Sully and Michaela retreated to give their guests some privacy.
The second they were alone together, Dorothy and Cloud Dancing embraced, making her leave her last doubts behind. It was some time before she could get to her reason for contacting him. She spoke gravely, for close to an hour, outlining her plan in as much detail as she could.
“I – didn’t want to go any further, before I talked to you. If you want to stay here, I – I will leave my old life behind and follow you, but – considering the situation out here – I don’t know for how many years we would be safe and -”
“Dorothy – leaving this life behind is not something I could do lightly -”
Her face fell. He was going to turn her down. She knew she shouldn’t have allowed herself to hope. But when he continued, what he said wasn’t anything like what she’d expected.
“But – these past weeks without you have been – and you are right – we might have a few years in peace, further north, perhaps in what you call Canada – and before I met you, I might have said it would have to be enough – Now, however, I would rather go with you and face the future among your people, if that is what you believe is right.”
“I do. But you would have to give up so much -”
Cloud Dancing put his hand over hers, and smiled reassuringly.
“It would be worth it. There will be that which is good, in any way of life and we could find it.”
Dorothy felt herself relax. A warm feeling of anticipation filled her. She would be married again. There would be no need to spend the rest of her life alone.
Three months later, Dorothy had packed and said her goodbyes to all of her friends. Her decision to leave, had amazed everyone who knew her, except for Michaela and Sully. Loren had had quite a lot to say in the matter, but in the end, nothing had been able to sway her from her decision.
For all the people of Colorado Springs knew, she would be going to New York. Dorothy of all people, who had appeared to be so happy out here – going back east. It was something that people would be talking about for months and years to come.
She had come to the conclusion that it would be safe to meet Cloud Dancing further east, where the Indian question wasn’t as inflamed. He would cut his hair and wear a suit, just like any white man. Dorothy had already thought of a name for him – Don Luis Amerigo Sandoval. Her idea had been that he would be a Spanish colonizer from California. He had even got on the train, claiming to be traveling from San Francisco.
On their trip east, Dorothy got to work learning some Spanish, then teaching Cloud Dancing to say a few words in that language too. By the time they reached Chicago, she felt their appearance together no longer attracted much attention. They were a married couple, the husband being of Spanish ancestry, the wife English.
In New York, they bought passage on a ship to England. Dorothy had an idea that they might settle in France or Italy, but she would make up her mind about that, once she was safely in Europe. In any case, she had no regrets. No matter what they’d lost, being together more than made up for it.
Cloud Dancing watched the cities they traveled through with wide-eyed awe, but all in all, he made the transition easier than Dorothy had imagined.
As he stood on the deck of the ship, watching the receding coastline of the continent of his ancestors, he only felt mild regret. His way of life had been lost before he’d ventured on this journey. Though he missed the forests and plains of his home, he knew that anywhere the woman he loved was, would be his home, regardless of the obstacles they would face.
He turned to face his wife and knew in his heart, that he had made the right decision.