“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” -Ray Bradbury
“There were women,” Jude murmured, leaning his back against the porch rail; his hands moved lazily as he spoke, spinning circles over folded knees the way a leaf catches the breeze. The smell of the autumn evening around them hinted at crisp-edges, the first frost ready to bound from the red and golden tree line like a loose animal. Contentment had settled deep into Jude’s bones, even along the ruined meat of his left shoulder. “Just not the right kind of women, I ‘spose. You have to remember, before the war, I was to court only women of gentile upbringing.”
A sharp laugh erupted from Dettie’s chest as she tugged off her boots beside him, mud flinging down the backstep like tar flicked from a brush. Her braid caught the wind and whipped against Jude’s arm, loose beneath the rag scarf she wore more often than not. Out the corner of his eye, Jude noted the planes of Dettie’s face softened around freckles and two dimpled cheeks when she smiled.
“‘Gentile upbringing.’ That does sound awful: our poor Jude, paraded about for young women, flocking in fancy dresses and rose-watered skin, swooning at his velvet voice and work-hardened hands. I cannot imagine the horror,” Dettie mocked. Her tone was teasing and good-humored in the spare foot of space between them; a sudden ache filled Jude’s chest at the thought of her finally allowing him to become her friend. I wonder how long it’s been, he thought, since she has laughed with someone other than her sisters.
The slam of the screen door cut off Jude’s reply, replaced with the sound of Adele’s footsteps bounding across the porch as they both turned. She was clothed in boy’s attire and soaked to her knees below faded breeches, giggling and frenzied as Ike-Dog danced between her feet. Sunburnt cheeks glowed under a familiar old hat, stained and bent from weather and war – and, for an infinite second, Jude forgot to breathe.
“Tell me what you keep in your hat,” Jude had asked, reins loose in his hands as the two men made their way toward Kansas City. “I’ve seen you look inside it a hundred times.”
Remi smiled with a sort of hesitance Jude had never seen on his friend’s face– a face never unsure even in the most dire of circumstances. Yet, he pulled the hat from his head and passed it to Jude without a word.
Inside the band was handwriting, large and sprawling, that of a child.
“Addie? Is that what it says?”
A nod from Remi as he replaced the hat.
“My girl, Jude. My little girl. Adele Claire.”
Adele squirmed away from Ike-Dog and threw herself down next to Dettie, revealing in her fist a feather of tufted turquoise and copper. “I found it by the creek just before I heard your horses coming in. You ever seen a more perfect turkey feather? I’m guessin’ a tom – for such a big, flat feather. No tail feathers though.”
Dettie feigned serious-study, holding the feather with the tips of her fingers and spinning it in the light above Adele’s head. Her brows knit with thought and, not for the first time, Jude wondered at the love she exhibited toward this wild-eyed, wild-hearted little girl.
“Bet he’s a beautiful bird. Probably gotta beard on him as long as you are tall,” Dettie nodded, handing back the coveted prize. “You’ll meet him again, I’m sure. Speaking abouts, Crocket asked me a few days ago if you wanted to learn to shoot. Told him I planned on teaching you but wouldn’t mind him bein’ there for second thoughts.”
Adele’s eyes brightened, a mischievous glint flickering around her green irises.
“Take it we wouldn’t be tellin’ Momma,” she half-whispered, leaning into Dettie, spinning the feather between her tanned, growing hands. “You are the only one who thinks I can do anythin’.”
Jude rose, Ike-Dog instantly at his feet, and rattled the hat on Adele’s head with soft hands as he passed behind her. Her grin was big and unguarded next to Dettie’s watchful eyes; he could see, between patches of fading sunlight, all the similarities between the two. Freckled noses and dark lashes, eyes the tender green of prairie-grass on cloudy days like two emeralds set in chiseled, square faces. “Best I go inside so I’m not caught up in these secret, feminine dealings. I’ll be seein’ you both at supper.”
©️ Pearl Bayou