Oak '03: This Moment

It was supposed to be a special day, damn it. Just him and me. Us. Celebrating us. Hell, more than celebrating. Becoming. Really becoming an us. Not a him and me, an us.

One month ago, I finally took the chance. I've been trying to get him to notice me for the longest time – since day one, really. I mean, he `noticed' me – how could he not, we work together! But you know what I mean – NOTICE. Big letters. Underline, "dot the `i' with a heart, make the `o' a smiley face" kind of notice.

God, I'm pathetic.

Four weeks. I told him last night that tonight was gonna be special. I was brought up to respect the little things, and this was a BIG thing. This was the big moment when we went from being two people who work together to two people who are courting each other. And man, I've been courting. Everything I can think of. Picked the lock and left flowers in his room, anonymously paid for a bottle of his favorite whiskey to show up at his table, wrote little notes and poems and left them in little places I knew he'd find them, like tucked in the cinch of his saddle or snuck into the pocket of his coat when he puts it over his chair in the saloon. Never sign my name, of course. But he knows they're from me.

When I found out he likes chocolate cake I talked Martha at the hotel into making one for dinner one night. Didn't tell her why, even though it cost extra since chocolate's hard to come by this far west, but the look on his face when she brought it out... it was all worth it just to see that look. And he knows it was me, cuz I snuck a note under his thigh at the table. That took some doing, making sure he knew the note was there without any of the others seeing me do it. Fooling Ezra is especially hard, but after three years with these guys I've learned a few things about subtly and subterfuge.

Subterfuge. Ez taught me that word. Love that word.

I keep thinking about how two weeks ago I wouldn't have thought for a second about doing all this stuff. I knew I was crazy about him, and I was pretty sure he felt for me, but no way would I have tried to court him. Not until that night in the stables. Me'n'Buck had rode a late afternoon patrol and my horse had thrown a shoe so we were late getting back to town. Late enough that the others had been worried. So when he saw us finally pull into the stables, he was right over there with us asking why we were late, making sure we were okay. Buck laughed it off as no big deal – which it really wasn't – and went his merry way to hook up with whatever lady he'd promised his attentions to for the night.

But he'd stayed behind, hovering a little, while I fussed with my horse. At first I wasn't sure what to think, but there was something about him... something in his eyes that made me stop for a moment.

"You okay?" I asked him. He was looking odd at me, and all he did was nod. Just once. Kind of jerky. "You were worried."

"Yeah, I was."

"I'm sorry."

"Not your fault."

I remember staring into those eyes – those eyes that are so often dark and hard to read, shuttered to the whole world. But for that moment, I could see *how* worried he'd been.

For me.

Okay, so I get into trouble sometimes. But I never, EVER thought he'd worry about me like that.

Don't know what made me do it, but I stepped closer to him and put my hand on his chest. God, he has such a nice chest. "I'm okay. I'm here," I found myself saying. Really stupid, huh? But it just came out of my mouth. Well, we all know sometimes my mouth goes before my brain kicks in. But he seemed to get the point.

"Yeah," he whispered.

I know why he's so scared of this. Really, I do. First of all, there's his history. Enough to put any guy off any relationship ever again. Then there's the whole guy-guy thing. If you haven't had the experiences I've had – and I'm just assuming he hasn't – it's probably a tough thing to wrap your head around. The age difference... well, that's kind of obvious. But then, they all seem to think I'm too damn young for everything but a change of diapers. I've kind of gotten used to that – they think just because I grew up in a big city I'm stunted or something. Sheesh.

But I'm not as dumb, or naïve, or even as young as they all seem to see me. And I know how to read a guy's eyes when he's crying out with his soul for something but he's terrified to ask for it. Maybe terrified of getting it, too. I learned long ago that if you want something, you gotta try for it or you're never gonna have it.

So we're standing there, so close together... I couldn't help it. I kissed him.

Gentle and light, just once. Almost the kind of kiss you'd give your old Aunt Sadie. Except this kiss had potential. Potential for good, and for bad.

I pulled back to see which I would get.

His eyes were wide, surprised. I gotta wonder if he realized before that moment that I knew... well, what I knew. I think I actually scared him – didn't know that was possible till that moment. Sure, he would get worried. Never thought he got scared.

And now I think he wasn't worried about me and Buck being late – he was scared. About me maybe not coming back at all.

So when I kissed him, it was like I opened the shutters on all the windows. He'd closed `em and couldn't see out and couldn't see what I felt for him was the same as what he felt for me. But I opened the shutters with that kiss.

It was wonderful watching the light fill him up, too. Took a second, but then he was smiling and I coaxed ever so gently for him to bend down and kiss me back.

And that WASN'T an Aunt Sadie kind of kiss, no sir.

Ain't never even kissed Casey like that before she went to San Francisco last spring so's she could attend that finishing school - can't help wondering what Nettie thinks the school can do for her that Ez can't, but it's her money. But then, Casey and I were never as serious as everybody thought we were. Funny thing, I remember a time when I was seriously thinking about marrying her one day, had Buck helping me write that stupid letter, and then I realized that it just wasn't like that between us. Casey and me are good friends, pals even, but I never actually pictured making love to her.

Course, Buck would say that's cuz I've never done it so I don't know what to picture.

Buck can be such a jackass sometimes.

He didn't believe me when I told him I'd done it with a whole bunch of girls – well, okay, maybe a `whole bunch' is a bit of an exaggeration, but there've been three. I was only nervous in Wickestown cuz I'd never PAID one before. Momma taught me it was an act of love, and here Buck was breakin' it down into a business transaction. Not like I wasn't aware people did that, but I could never get my head around it.

Wonder what Buck would think if he knew it wasn't just girls I've been with either. Or that my first time with another boy was when I was fourteen. That my first time EVER was when I was thirteen, and the girl was sixteen and thought I had potential.

Hell, he'd never believe me. Hell, I still can't get him to believe I'm twenty-three and not nineteen.

Wonder what he'd think about this.

Course, if he KNEW, maybe I wouldn't be sitting around this stupid campfire with the five of them keeping me from being able to comm... commem... ah, hell, what's that word Ezra taught me? Means to remember or memorialize something. Maybe it's not the right word anyway – I mean, you usually want to memorialize something that's dead and gone. And this sure isn't. It's alive, and good and I want to celebrate its existence by moving to the next level. By going from courting to loving.

I want him to be my lover. That was supposed to happen tonight.

I had the whole day planned. Even got it started off right. Sweet-talked Inez into making those egg-and- bean burrito things he likes for breakfast – Buck would flip if he had a clue I knew the right way to sweet talk Inez into doing me favors. And there was even fresh orange juice, which is damn hard to come by at this time of year out here, but I guess there was a late crop that traveled real well in a new railroad car they've designed that they put ice in to keep stuff cool.

He loves orange juice – reminds him of when he was a kid and he visited some relative in Florida, he says. That must have been one hell of a trip from where he grew up, but I guess when you've got relatives to go see, you somehow manage to go see them once in a while. Look at Ez and his mom – she travels all over, and he used to, but they still get together every so often no matter how far apart they are.

Well, in their case maybe that's not such a good thing...

Anyway, he was wearing the bracelet I left him last night on his pillow. Not that you'd likely notice unless you were looking, but I was and it was there, tucked up inside his cuff. Made it myself out of some beads I got trading with Rain for one of my dime novels for the village kids; they look like cats- eye marbles, kind of, but brown and made of wood. I strung them with a needle I borrowed from Mrs. Potter by telling her I needed to fix my socks. Had a real hard time convincing her to let me do it myself rather than having her fix the pretend socks for me; nice lady, but boy can she be persistent!

I left him a note with the bracelet telling him what it meant, cuz I read about that kind of thing a long time ago in a history book. An Indian tribe back east believes that a string of wood beads represents life, and something about how the more closely the beads are strung together, the more love will be experienced in life. Or something.

I put my beads right next to each other, and told them it was my love for him.

So. So far, so good. Bracelet, breakfast. I planned to beat him to his horse before he left for morning patrol and tuck a Saguaro flower in the horn of his saddle – told him once it reminds me of him – a graceful blossom born on the branch of a prickly cactus. He laughed at me when I said that, but he also blushed.

He's so damn cute when he blushes.

Bet Buck's never seen him blush. Vin neither, I bet. I love that I can make him blush.

Like he did after our first real, non-Aunt-Sadie kiss. It was too perfect. He bent down and laid one on me like he wanted to eat me alive, and I remember wrapping my arms around him and pulling him even closer. He rested his hands kinda shy-like on my waist, but I wasn't having any of that – I just pulled him right up against me, so's he would know *exactly* what I felt for him, and I let one hand stroke his butt while the other held on to him for dear life in case he panicked and tried to let go.

He didn't.

I remember him moaning my name as he pressed against me, as I was nibbling on his neck and jaw after he had to stop for breath. I knew we weren't gonna do anything else right then – hell, I could tell he was pretty dazed by just kissing me. So I pulled back just enough to look in his eyes and smiled.

"I love you, you idiot. Figure if I have ta smack you upside the head with a frying pan to get you to understand that, I will, but I know you love me too and I ain't gonna let this go, you hear me?"

He gulped and nodded, and then he smiled. It was this sheepish little boy smile that just blew my mind. After everything he's lived through in his life, there's still a shy, uncertain little boy in there who wants to know what it's like to be loved again. Not just have sex – hell, he's gotten that with the local workin' gals. But to be loved.

Like I love him.

Like I know he loves me.

And that was *supposed* to be tonight.

I thought I was gonna spit tacks when Buck wandered into where the rest of us were having breakfast and announced that Sheriff Seymour over in Beaver Falls needed us to come get the Warner boys. He was supposed to deliver them to us for the trial on Monday, but the moron says his deputies backed out at the last minute. Right. More like he never bothered to hire any to begin with, cuz that would'a come out of his month's expense. Like Travis won't reimburse him? But, it's too late now, so Buck told him we'd come get'em. All nine of `em. Which means all seven of us need to go.

Well, probably only five would really have been necessary, but why not promise seven? Not like he knows I had plans for tonight. Special plans.

Not like he knows about us.

So here we are sitting around a campsite in the middle of frickin' nowhere, guarding a bunch of cattle rustlers too stupid to realize they should'a removed the brands before trying to sell the stolen heads in the same territory. All damn seven of us.

Mary's madder than a cat in a mud puddle. Ever since she started dating the new guy who took over the grainery, she's been more stuck up than the prissy daughter of the fat-cat lawyer my ma worked for. Got her nose so high you can see her brains without strainin' your neck. Think she was mad after the whole Ella thing, and Chris tossing her aside for an old flame? That weren't nothing to a month later when she tried to help him `forget his troubles' and he finally just came out and said he likes her as a friend but he's not looking for a new instant family. Oh, that just got her dander up.

Buck likened her to a hornet's nest, and we treated her like one – all kept as far away as we could but still be polite. And the next time the judge came to town, Buck and Ez pulled him aside the second he stepped off the coach and set him straight on things. Judge wasn't too happy about Mary's new view of his hired guns, but I think everybody was relieved that she's finally given up the idea of roping Chris into her picture of the perfect life, with him cooking her dinner and washing her linens.

Wonder what she's say if she knew about me.

Gotta smile at that.

He's sitting across the fire from me right now. Sitting back, smoking his cheroot, talking quietly with Vin about something. Probably the best way to get home, since it's a good bet the rain last night was enough to cause Passer's Creek to rise. Makes the usual trail rather iffy. Ezra and Josiah are guarding the prisoners for now – Buck and I are supposed to take the watch at midnight. I should be trying to catch some sleep – Buck's already snoring like a grizzly over there near where Nathan's sleepin' – but I can't. I'm too annoyed that my plans got screwed because of that dumb ox Seymour.

I keep catching Chris glancing at me – I think he knows I had something special planned.


I dump my coffee into the edge of the fire and get up. "Can't sleep," I tell questioning eyes. "Gonna go check Toby's shoes, make sure the new one's okay." I look at Chris a moment, hoping maybe... well, either he'll take the hint or he won't. Not much I can do about it if he don't. I walk away to the little grove nearby where we tied the horses – the grass looked better there than where we set up the camp closer to the road. I really do stop to check Toby's shoe, but since Yosemite did it himself, I know I don't really have to.

I take a moment to look at the horizon, where the sun is setting. There's just a little bit of light left from the sunset to make the ground all different colors. Reminds me of a painting I saw when Momma took me to a museum once – said everyone should be able to appreciate art. At the time I didn't think much of it, but now I can remember it and understand what she wanted me to see. Beauty like the sky tonight. Like the bluff that Vin likes to go to when he's feeling restless.

Like Chris's eyes when he's looking at me that special way.

"Shoe look okay?"

I don't turn, but I can't help but feel a big smile spread on my face.

He came.

"Yup, Yosemite did a good job."

"He usually does."

Chris steps up next to me, puffing on his cheroot, looking at the same sunset I'm looking at. I wonder what he sees when he looks at it.

"What'd you say?" I ask. I know he'll know what I mean.

"Thought you looked upset about something."

"He believe you?"

"It's true. Ya been itchin' yourself all day."

I frown. I guess I didn't realize I'd been that ornery all day, but it makes sense. Been so mad about my plans being ruined, and I've never been great at hiding my emotions. Course, most people misinterpret what they see in me, so it's never been a big deal.

"Yeah, I guess."

"I'm sorry, JD."

"Not your fault. None of ours, really."

"Seymour's an idiot."


We stand quietly for a minute, and I'm trying to figure out what I should do or say. Chris won't make the first move, I don't think. He's too nervous about this whole thing between us. I know that after Sarah and Adam, he sort of shut off all his feelings and refused to let anyone in, refused to feel anything for anyone. Buck's talked about it with me once or twice when he's gotten enough liqueur in him to lose his inhibitions about the subject. Says Chris is afraid of ever loving anyone ever again.

And then that thing with Ella – thinking he'd found someone he could trust after all'a that, and then learnin'... Jeez, I guess I'd like to have closed down myself too.

So I know that his admitting to loving me was a very big deal.

"I had big plans for us tonight," I say softly. As I do, I reach out and let my fingers brush lightly against his. He stills – not that he's exactly mobile anyway, but you know, more so. Then his fingers slowly intertwine with mine and he holds tight. I squeeze back, just letting him know... well, that I know. I know what he's afraid of. I know why he can't make the moves. Why I'm going to have to. Probably always, I'd guess.

"Thanks for the bracelet," he says almost so quiet I can't hear him.

"Didn't actually think you'd wear it," I admit. "Thought maybe you'd put it in your coat pocket or something." I look over at him, and he waits a moment before meeting my gaze.

"Almost didn't," he admits.

"So how come?"

"Cuz," he says. That's it. Just `cuz'.

But it's enough. I know what he means by it.

And it means everything.

I step closer to him and reach up to take his cheroot from him. I toss it to the ground and stomp out the ember so it doesn't cause a fire. He lets me. If Buck tried to do that he'd probably rip the man in half, but me, I can do that. Because he knows what I'm going to do next. I've done it a couple of times in the last month, when we could catch a quiet moment away from the others – duck behind the livery, or in the alley behind the saloon in the early morning when nobody else is awake in town and Vin's already left for patrol.

I stomp out the ember and I step in front of him. I take his hands and move them to the small of my back, right at the curve. He lets me do this, lead him, and it makes me love him even more. I know how much it takes for him to trust me this way. Buck's his oldest friend, and Vin's his best one, but I think

only me he trusts to do something like this – lead him into temptation and deliver him from the evil of his own solitude at the same time.

Hell, what a time for me to be misquoting scriptures.

I let my hands find their way up his sleeves, using enough pressure for him to feel me through his clothes but not enough to cause real friction. I reach his shoulders and let my hands trail across his cheeks, tracing his jaw line, my thumbs meeting on this chin. I wait a moment, always wanting to give him time to pull away if he needs to.

He doesn't, and I pull him down to kiss me.

I love the way he smells – like horses and tobacco, whiskey and smoke and earth. He tastes like the beans we had for supper, and the cheroot, and that funny leafy paste stuff from that New York company – Colgate I think it was; Nathan tells us it'll help our teeth not get those holes that makes him have to pull them out.

He's always hesitant when he starts to kiss, but then he warms into it. Like he needs to be reminded all over again what it's like to kiss. To tell someone you love them this way. I have to tell him first.

I don't mind.

He presses against me and I let him lean me up against the tree next to us. He feels like he has to protect me, and I guess I can see that. He couldn't protect his family, so now he makes up for it with me just this little bit. As long as I get to feel him against me, his warmth and hardness, feel his collar brushing my neck or his sleeve against my hand, I don't mind anything at all.

He breaks off and leans his head on my shoulder. I pull him close, tight, pressing my head against his hair and enjoy the feeling of his breath against my skin.

"I love you, Chris," I whisper. "This is real."

"I know," he says after a moment. "I know." There is a long quiet pause as we just hold each other. We know we can't do anything more. Not right now, not tonight. Not like I planned.

But soon. Someday soon.

"I love you, JD."

I don't say anything back. I don't have to, and I know he doesn't want me too. It's the first time he's said it. In a month of stolen kisses and tenders affections, of me slipping him tokens and he sending me secretive smiles, of him touching me briefly in moments when he knew no one would catch it, of slipping me the new dime novel he bought for me even though he told Mrs. Potter I gave him the money to get it...

This is the first time he's said it with words.

He clutches me tighter, and I still marvel how the man in black, self-said bad element, the fearsome gunslinger with a reputation that gives the bad guys pause... how gentle he is in these moments when he's letting his guard down and letting me in.

I know how precious a moment like this is.

I will never take one for granted.


I turn my head so I can see his eyes. They're nervous, like a skittish colt. I brush a soft kiss on his cheek. He smiles and closes his eyes. We only have a few more minutes before we have to go back, or Vin or one of the others might come to check on us.

But we have this moment.

Maybe I didn't need the big plan today after all.