by Leah Wyett
Hazel started to cry. Hal was smiling. She put her hands on either side of Heath’s face and said, “Yes! Yes! I will be your wife.”
Hazel and Heath saw Hal off on the morning train. Hazel cried again when Hal kissed her cheek and said, “I love you, Punkin’.” before he left. She was so excited to begin her new life, but so afraid to leave her old one behind.
“I love you, too, Pa. I’m scared that without you and Ma, I won’t know what to do.”
Hal held his daughter back at arm’s length and said, “Listen to your heart, Hazel. I think you’ve discovered that it’s always right.”
When she and Heath got back to the house, Heath asked her if she wanted to go for a horseback ride. She had yet to see the perimeter of the ranch and he said he wanted to take her down and show her the place where the river runs through it. Hazel changed into riding clothes and a warm jacket and she and Heath went down to the stables. He told her the mare she was riding was called Wildfire, but in reality, she was the gentlest horse he had on the ranch.
Hazel laughed. “I’m not glass, you know, I won’t break. I’m actually a very sturdy farm girl.”
“I’m sorry.” he said. “I just have this overwhelming desire to protect you.” She grinned.
“Any other overwhelming desires in there?” she asked him. They were finally alone, and she wanted that kiss. Her own boldness shocked her.
Heath needed no further invitation. He stepped in closer and took her in his arms. Hazel had never felt anything like it. She was dizzy from the desire his touch sent coursing through her body. He placed his soft lips on hers he gave her the kiss she had been waiting for and then some. She had never kissed a man before, but her own lips responded as if on instinct. Hazel felt like her belly was on fire. When he pulled back, she still had her eyes closed and she said,
“That was….I mean….” Heath kissed her again. This time, when he finished, she said, “Incredible.”
Heath laughed. “Was that your first kiss, Hazel?” She opened her eyes and nodded. “Mine, too.” he said.
Hazel took a deep breath and then she said, “You’ve never been with a woman?” It was unusual. He was twenty-six years old. She thought that surely he had kissed a barmaid or two. Maybe the one escort that he’d had over for dinner.
“Not a single one.” he said. “I thought it was worrying about my appearance but I know now that I was saving it all for you.”
“I’m falling in love with you, Heath.” she said. “You make me feel things I’ve never felt before, but I definitely want to feel again.”
“I’m already in love with you, Hazel.” he said.
“We’re going to have an amazing life together, aren’t we?” she asked him.
“The most amazing.” he said.
John sat in the saloon along the bar, drinking his whiskey. He felt the girl sit down next to him before he turned and looked at her. “Hey, cowboy.” she said.
“Hey.” John said, turning back to his drink.
“You look lonely. Are you looking for some company?” the yellow haired girl with the bright yellow dress and ruby red lips asked him.
“Not tonight.” he told her. “Thanks.” The girl leaned in close and pressed her bosom against his arm.
“I’ll be right over there by the piano, if you change your mind.” she said.
John smiled at her, to be polite. He wasn’t going to change his mind. There was only one thing on his mind lately, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He finished his drink and as he was walking out of the saloon, he heard a voice say,
“I heard Quasimodo found himself an Esmeralda.” John stopped and for a few seconds, he tried to urge himself forward. The sad thing was, he wanted to fight...he was itching for it. He had to find some way to release the tension that had been building in him since Hazel arrived in Texas. He spun around on his boot heel and the whole room seemed to go silent.
He glanced around at the tables close to the door. No one was saying anything, so he smiled and said, “Better a Quasimodo than a coward.”
That did it; the man with the mouth pushed himself back from the table and stood up. His name was Frank McClellan and he used to work for Heath. He was fired for stealing from the other ranch hands, and obviously he was holding a grudge.
“I said it.” he admitted. “I saw that girl get off the train. She must have smelled the money from wherever she came from. Either that, or she’s blind.”
John continued to smile right up to the second that he threw the table between them out of the way and landed his right fist against the man’s face. Frank McClelland flew backward, knocking over the table behind him. Poker chips and cards flew everywhere and the men at the table were angry. One of them stood up and pointed a rifle he’d had under the table at John.
“You’re gonna clean this up.” the man said.
“I don’t think so.” John said as he turned to go. He simultaneously heard the shot and felt the bullet rip through his flesh. As he went down on his knees, Frank McClellan, who had been the one to shoot him in the back, scrambled to get out of the saloon before someone alerted the sheriff. John was helpless to do anything as he watched the man go. He was suddenly very cold. He lay down on the wooden floor in a fetal position and tried to get warm. He closed his eyes and did the one thing that he knew would make him warm, he thought about Hazel.
John opened his eyes. He was disoriented and his chest hurt like hell. He blinked a few times, trying to adjust his eyes to the light. The room was too bright and it hurt. He didn’t know where he was, and he couldn’t remember what had happened. He tried to sit up and a gentle hand put light pressure on his shoulder and said,
“Don’t sit up, John, just lay back and relax. You’re okay.” It was Hazel’s voice. Maybe he was dreaming. “I’m going to get Heath.” she said. She started to move her hand, but John reached up and covered it with his.
“Please…” he said. “Please don’t go.”
“It’s okay.” she said, brushing her hand across his forehead and sending waves of shivers down his spine. “You’re okay. I’m going to let Heath know you’re awake. He’s been so worried.”
That suddenly penetrated John’s pain and medication addled brain. Heath was his best friend, his boss, and the best man John had ever known. This woman was his best friend’s fiancé. The woman Heath had waited for his whole life and that he deserved. John didn’t even have the right to think of her at all, much less the way he was thinking of her.
“I’m sorry I fell in love with you.” he said. Hazel laughed softly. The sound of it was like music to his ears, no matter how much he didn’t want it to be. She didn’t even think he was a little bit serious.
“Silly. I think the medication Doc Grimes gave you has made you goofy. I’ll be right back.” she said. Several minutes later, the room was suddenly way too full. John had liked it when it was only he and Hazel.
“Hey, buddy!” It was Heath. “You gave us quite a scare. How are you feeling?”
The doctor was hovering over him now, trying to shine a light in his eyes. John felt the pain in his side and his head was confused and foggy.
He reached out, hoping to find Hazel again, but Heath grabbed his hand and said, “You’re going to be okay, buddy.” John closed his eyes and kept them shut. He wanted to go back to sleep, being awake made him feel too guilty. The next time he opened his eyes was a few hours later and he could see Heath sitting by the bed. “Hello, Sunshine.” Heath told him with a grin.
“Hey.” he said. “What the hell happened? Did I get ran over by a stampede?”
“You don’t remember?” Heath asked him. John closed his eyes again for a second and said,
“I had words at the saloon with Frank McClellan, and then….nothing.”
“The coward shot you in the back.” Heath said. “The sheriff has him locked up. I hear the “word
s” were about you defending me.”
“It’s all fuzzy.” John said.
“I’m sorry, John.” John squinted his eyes against the morning light streaming in through the window and looked at his friend. He knew that he was the one who should be sorry. He loved this man like a brother and he lusted after the love of his life.
“You didn’t shoot me.” John said with a grin.
“No, but as usual, you were having to defend my honor. Sometimes, it’s like I’m the female in our relationship.” Heath said with a grin of his own.
“You would be.” John said, closing his sore eyes again. “You’re the pretty one.”
“He’s awake again, Doc.” Heath said, when he came back downstairs. The doctor went up with his bag to examine him. He needed to change his dressing as well. When he left the room, Hazel asked,
“Why so sad? The doctor said he was going to be okay, right?”
“Yes,” Heath told her. “I just hate that it’s my fault. It makes me worry about you.”
“Why would you say that? How is it your fault that John was shot?” she asked.
“He’s always defending me. The man who shot him said something ugly about me, and John just can’t walk away when that happens. I wish he could. I don’t need to be defended from some two bit coward who would shoot a man in the back.”
“What did the man say?” she asked. Heath didn’t want to tell her. Somehow, although he really did think the man was a no account, he was afraid if he said the words to his sweet Hazel, that, to her, they would ring true. He promised himself after the picture debacle that he would never lie to her again though, so he said,
“He said something about Quasimodo and Esmeralda.” he said. “I’m glad the sheriff found him hiding out at Miss Clem's. He won’t be seeing daylight any time soon.”
“Who is Quasimodo and Esmeralda?” she asked.
Heath smiled, “I’m surprised my avid reader hasn’t yet read the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“No, I haven’t. Is Quasimodo a bad guy?” she asked. “Is that why it made John angry?”
“No.” Heath said. “He’s a pathetic, deformed guy.” The doctor came down the stairs before Hazel could say anything else. She was so angry, she wanted to go find that man and shoot him herself. No wonder John couldn’t walk away.
“He was asking for you, Heath.” the doctor said. “I’m going to get. He has a clean bandage on and I left more at the bedside. Miss Morgan, if you wouldn’t mind helping him with a change before bedtime.”
“Yes, sir.” she said. Then, looking at Heath, she said, “You go on up, I’ll show the doctor out.” Hazel walked the doctor to the door and thanked him. Then she went to the library. She was happy to see that the books were organized in order. She found what she was looking for right away and sat down in the chair to read it.
Quasimodo was described as “hideous” and a “creation of the devil”. He was looked upon by the general populace as a “monster”. Hazel closed the book, and saw a passage on the back about him being a hero. The oaf who was throwing stones had obviously not read the book. She put it away and went back out to the parlor.
“There you are.” Heath said.
“How is he?” Heath grinned.
“He’s as ornery as ever. He’ll be okay.”
“Good.” she said. “Heath, do you think Mr. Lee could take me into town?”
“Of course, but if you need something…”
“There’s just something I’d like to do, if you don’t mind. I’d also like to check with the postmaster to see if John has any mail. Maybe a nice letter from a lady would cheer him.”
Heath came over and pressed his lips to her forehead. “You’re so thoughtful. I’ll go find Lee and ask him to hitch the carriage right away.”
“Thank you.” she told him. By the time he came back, she had on her wrap and gloves. “I won’t be long.” she told him.
Mr. Lee was a nice man, but not very talkative. The ride to town was a quiet one and once they were on Main Street, he said, “Where to, miss?”
“The jail, please.” she said.
He looked at her like she had lost her mind. “But, Miss…, I don’t think Mr. Heath would like it if I took you there.”
“I have business there, Mr. Lee. Heath said I could go wherever I needed to go, and I need to go there.”
Lee looked like he was dead set against it, but he took her. When they arrived, he tried to come in with her and she said, “I’ll be fine. I just want to speak with the sheriff.” Lee stayed behind but she had him really curious.
Hazel walked into the sheriff’s office. “Hello?” she said. A man in western dress with a gold star pinned to his chest came out from the back.
“I’m sorry, Miss.” he said. “I was finishing up my lunch. How can I help you?”
“I’d like to see your prisoner, please. Frank McClellan.”
The sheriff looked at her suspiciously and said, “Are you kin of his?”
“No, sir,” she said. “I’m Heath Key’s fiancé.”
The sheriff looked shocked. She figured he already knew about her, apparently the entire town did. He was likely shocked that she was here to talk to Frank. “He’s an ugly character, Miss. Are you sure you want to subject yourself to him?”
“I’m sure.” Hazel said, simply.
The sheriff shrugged as if to say “suit yourself” and showed her to the back where there were two cells. One of them held a man who was lying on his back with his hat over his eyes and the other the sheriff told her was Frank. He looked up when he heard them and when he saw Hazel, a nasty smile spread across his lips. He stood up and came over to the bars where they stood.
“Mr. McClellan.” she said. “I’m Hazel Morgan. I’m Heath Key’s fiancé.”
“I’m sorry.” the nasty man said.
Hazel smiled. “I’m sorry, too.” she said, surprising him. “I’m sorry that you aren’t fit to lick my fiancé’s boots. Quasimodo, you say? I guess that’s fitting, because he, too, had to put up with the ignorance of men like you. I believe that he turned out the hero in the end, did he not? You could have never been half the man that Heath Key’s is, and I just wanted to come here and tell you that I believe myself to be the luckiest girl in the world. While you sit here behind these bars, I reckon you’ll have a lot of time to think about why you’re so bitter and ugly while Heath and I are enjoying our life together. Good day, sir.” Hazel turned around then to face the smiling face of the sheriff.
The man in the other cell was also sitting up, grinning. McClellan said, “Hey!” but Hazel kept walking with her head held high.
He said it again and the man in the cell said, “Shut up.” When Hazel got back in the carriage, Mr. Lee was still looking at her quizzically. “Can we go to the post office now?” she asked him.
“Yes, ma’am.” he said, urging the horses on.
Heath and Hazel were having breakfast when he said, “So, I hear you went by the sheriff’s office when you were in town last week.”
“Yes.” she said. “And the post office but poor John didn’t have any mail.”
Heath smiled. “He’s had a letter or two since. So what was the trip to the sheriff’s office for?” he asked her.
“I’m assuming from that grin that you already know.”
He reached out and touched her hand and said, “Yes, my Esmeralda, I heard.”
Hazel made a face at him and said, “Don’t do that. The only similarity between you and Quasimodo is that you are both men with large hearts. That man who shot John is a simple fool.”
“Thank you for standing up for me.” he said, still smiling.
“That’s what families do for each other. That’s why John stood up for you too. We’re all family now.”
John was just coming into the dining room when Hazel made that statement. He stopped and looked at her. He wished he could only see her
as his “family.” He couldn’t look at her without his heart speeding up and his chest swelling. At night, when she came up to change his bandages, it was almost like a form of torture not to touch her back. She looked up then and saw him looking at her.
“John! Did the doctor say you could be up moving around?” Hazel asked him.
John grinned at her and said, “Yes, he gave me the nod this morning. I can move back to my own house today and get out of your hair. You two have a wedding to plan.”
John sat down and Sally brought him his coffee and his breakfast. He thanked her and looked at Heath. “Are we moving the rest of those cattle up from Mexico tomorrow?”
“You aren’t.” Heath told him. “The doctor said you can move around the house, not be a trail boss.”
“You can’t go.” John said, looking at Hazel. “One of us needs to be there.”
“One of us does, and I will be.” Heath said. “Hazel and I have already talked about it.”
John looked back at Hazel and said, “He’ll be gone for days. Are you sure? I think I’m well enough to go.”
“Don’t be silly.” Hazel said. “I’ll be fine here; I have everything I need. Heath has to do what he needs to do for his ranch, and you need to rest and get better.”
“But…” John said.
“No buts,” Heath told him. “You can look after Hazel while I’m gone.” he said.
John wished that Heath wouldn’t go. He looked at Hazel who was smiling at him now and he said, “Okay.”
Heath had been gone a few hours when John went up to the house for breakfast. He had spent the night before at home, giving the couple a night to dine alone and talk before Heath had to leave. He found Hazel having her breakfast as well.
“Good morning, John.” she said. “How are you feeling today?”
He smiled back and accepted the coffee Sally was giving him. “Good, a lot better.” he said. “Just sore. I saw Heath leave a while ago. Are you okay here alone?”
“I’m doing well.” she said. “I’m going to get caught up on writing to my family and start reading some of those delicious looking books in the library.”
John laughed. “That’s the first time I heard a book referred to as ‘delicious‘.” he said.