‘Those clouds are so beautiful!’
A warm hand closed over hers. “Huh?” ‘School, I’m still in school.’ she wrinkled her nose as she presented her teacher a sheepish grin, “Sorry Miss Laurie.”
“Dara, did you hear the assignment?”
“Assignment? NO....” her words trailed off with her widening grin.
Miss Laurie looked down at her prized pupil and couldn’t help but smile. Two long braids were like bookends to the sweetest little heart shaped face she had ever seen. “Well,” she cleared her throat and looked around the room, “For any of you who didn’t happen to hear the assignment-” two girls in the back of room snickered behind their hands, to which Miss Laurie leveled a stern look, “is an essay on ‘What is Love?’.”
‘What is Love?’... the words were scrawled across her slate before she really thought about it. Looking up, Dara stared right into the eyes of Billy Gentry.
Billy smiled doe-eyes back at Dara, nearly making her gag. Her eyes retreated back to her slate.
Miss Laurie moved back to the front of the class, “and because tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, the essay will be due the day after.”
School was out just a few minutes later, but Dara was still sitting in her chair. Miss Laurie stood at the door watching Dara, wondering what was wrong.
“Hey Dara! You need someone to walk you home?”
Her little face darted up like a cornered bird. Immediately as she took in the mob of boys, Dara colored and hid her face behind her slate. “Go away.”
Miss Laurie hid her laughter behind her hand. This was a common occurrence. Dara at the tender age of eight was the sweetheart of the schoolhouse, at least where the boys were concerned.
The boys waiting at the door where momentarily distracted by something down on the main street and Miss Laurie wrapped her ruler on her desk. Dara shot up from her chair, grabbed her slate and her books and tore out the back door.
It was too late, she was gone, but because of her outburst the boys saw the empty classroom and rushed for the backdoor trying to catch up with her.
Miss Laurie collapsed at her desk, a smile on her face. It didn’t matter how old they were, the boys loved Dara. To the older boys she was the little sister they wanted and to the younger boys she was the girlfriend they aspired to; but to Dara it was just a big mess.
Dara reached the refuge of her house in seven minutes flat. Lou heard her coming from a good distance away and watched the gathering cloud of dust rumbling down the street. Standing by the wash line she shook her head over the look on Dara’s face. You’d think she was being chased by a rabid pack of dogs. “Mama!”
“Open the door!”
Lou paused in the middle of hanging a sheet and called out, “It’s open!”
Like a shot, Dara had scaled the three steps to the porch and dashed through the door, nearly sending it off its hinges.
The boys skidded to a halt in the yard, “Good afternoon boys.”
“Good afternoon Missus Hickok.”
Louise smiled at how the boys managed to gasp out the greeting after making it across town at a dead run. She knew a part of it was because of their last name. As Marshall of Rock Creek, James Hickok hadn’t lost any of his skill as a shootist, in fact he’d only gotten better. None of these boys wanted on his bad side.
The window behind her opened up, “Go Away!” *BANG* It slammed shut rattling the glass.
“Hellfire! What’s the commotion?” The boys took a collective gasp and backed up a step. A moment later, ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok stepped out onto the porch.
The boys all froze; even without a gun he was intimidating. Lou noticed the balled up newspaper in his hand and shook her head. Jimmy didn’t like to have his ‘quiet time’ interrupted, especially not by a bunch of love-sick boys.
“Well?” Jimmy leaned down toward the pack of shaking children.
Lou hid her face in her apron; she hadn’t missed the quick conspiratory wink in her direction.
“M..M..Mr. Hickok sir?”
“Yeeeesss?” He did his best to glare at them.
“W...we...we just c..ca..came to see that Dara got h..home safely.”
“Well, she did.”
They all looked at each other whispering. Little Bill Gentry stepped forward. “Sir?”
Jimmy looked at him, curious. The boy had spunk even at his young age. “Yes?”
“Does Dara have a beau?”
Lou’s eyes widened in shock at the earnest expression on the young man’s face.
Jimmy straightened to his full height and crossed his arms, “Let me see...” He looked off into the distance, a mask of thought on his face.
“Daddy!” The pleading voice slipped out through a crack in the door.
“No... no.. don’t think she does.”
“What!” The door clicked shut behind him and what sounded like Dara’s little fists pounding on it in a fevered rhythm.
A quick look to Lou who was doubled over on the ground in laughter and Jimmy turned back to the group. “Anything else?”
Billy, beaming with joy, shook his head, “No.. sir.. I gotta get home.” Billy started running, leaving the other boys behind standing still in shock. He stopped at the corner of the first street, “Tomorrow!” he crowed. "Tomorrow is VALENTINES DAY!” He disappeared around the corner.
When Jimmy looked back down the other children had disappeared like ‘magic’.
Inside, Dara sank down against the door. “Daddy! You.. you.. traitor!”
Laughter came down the stairs, “What happened now, Dara, Dad finally sold you to the gypsies?”
A petulant lip stuck out beneath the button nose. “Leave me alone, Louis!”
Dara hung her head, set her chin on her knees and wrapped her hands around her legs. She watched as her brother’s dusty old boots touched the tip of her shoes. A rough tug on her left braid shocked her, “Ow!” She took a swing at his knees, only to have him dance out of the way.
“Good try, Squirt!” She kicked out with her fooot and her thick wooden heel hit its mark eliciting a howl of outrage.
Dara laughed and peeked out at him from her thick bangs. “Go away!”
He leaned over and messed her bangs before he sat down on the cushion of the window seat. “I’m not doing anything. It is my house too.” He leaned back and pulled aside the curtain behind him. “Will you look at them!”
From her seat against the door, Dara’s curiosity was piqued. She scrambled onto the window seat beside her brother and leaned forward until her forehead touched the glass. Her mother and father where outside by the laundry line, but she couldn’t see them clearly through the waving curtains of white sheets.
She was about to turn away when the wind outside seemed to still and the curtains settled, hanging from the rope like tired flags. She watched as her mom picked up a shirt from the basket and took a wooden pin from the bag she had slung across her shoulder; holding the shoulder against the rope she settled the pin over the two and reached down for another.
Her Daddy held one in front of her face and Mama, well Mama laughed and laughed. She snatched the pin from Daddy’s hand and finished the other shoulder. Before she could reach for anything else, Daddy wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her cheek while he held her close. Mama didn’t look upset at all, she touched his shoulder and turned her face so Daddy could kiss her. She was all smiles after that.
Dara turned and sat down, her back against the window. “Why do they do that?”
Louis caught the apple that he’d been tossin’ in the air and turned to his sister, “Do what?”
“Hug and kiss all the time.”
Louis shrugged his shoulders and took a big bite out of the apple. “’Cause.”
“Because they love each other.”
Dara shook her head, “Why?”
Louise rolled his eyes heavenward, “Why what?”
“They kiss because they love each other? Why?”
“Cause that’s how you show it.”
Dara nodded, considering his words, “So you kiss and hug because of love.”
“Yeah, Love and Babies.”
Dara’s face turned green. “Babies?”
Dara thought of Billy Gentry saying he wanted to marry her and have babies. “Eewwwww!”
Louis took another bite of the apple, “That’s what I say too.” He crunched through his bite and wiped the juice off his chin, “Hey Squirt I gotta go. I’m goin’ over to the livery to help shoe some of the horses... I’ll see you at supper alright?”
She barely heard him; she was still turning the information over and over in her mind. “Supper? Sure.”
Dara was still sitting there when Louise and Jimmy returned inside. Louise set her empty laundry basket on the window seat beside her, “What has you down, sweetie?”
Her little face looked up at one parent... then another. “Just an essay for school.”
Jimmy sat down beside her and pulled her closer to his side, “You want me to help?”
Dara looked up and smiled when she saw him. she reached up and touched his hair, “Naw... that’s alright Daddy, I’ve got tonight and tomorrow. It’s due on the day after Valentines, but thank you.”
Jimmy Hickok, feared lawman, turned to mush with his daughter’s words. He set a hand on her cheek and smiled, “Anytime darlin’, anytime.”
They left her sitting there while Jimmy washed up for supper and Louise headed for the kitchen.
After supper, Louise and Dara sat at the kitchen tape with piles of colored paper, paste and ink. Leaning over to her daughter, Louise licked her index finger and wiped a smudge of paste off Dara’s nose.
“Mama,” Dara whined.
“What is it, Dara?” Louise reached for another piece of paper.
“I’m not a baby!”
‘Surprise’ dawned on Louise’s face, she’d only heard that same phrase everyday for the last three years, “Oh?”
Dara’s face set in concentration as she held two hearts together to dry.
“You sure this has nothing to do with the boys that followed you home today?”
She shrugged, “Everyday... no, not them.” Setting down the hearts, Dara dipped her pen in the ink and printed her name on the paper. “We saw you and Daddy outside today.”
“Me and Louis.”
“Yeah, you and Daddy were huggin’ and kissin’....and Louis said that you do those things when you’re in love and ...” her nose scrunched up, “and BABIES.”
Louise froze for a second, “Babies, well... ah... yes.. but-”
Dara waved it off, “Oh that’s okay. I don’t need any details or nothin’. I ain’t planning to have any soon.”
“Well that’s a relief.”
“Grandpa Teaspoon... he’s a real important man in town isn’t he?”
“Yes, I’d say he is, why?”
“Just wonderin’. You know, no matter who’s talkin’ to him, when I go to see him he always spends time with me...me!”
“Well you know-”
“I mean, me! He’s real important, but he always takes time for me.”
Louise nodded and handed two more hearts to Dara, “That’s right honey, ‘cause he loves you.”
“But we ain’t blood or nothin’.”
“No,” Louise had a wistful smile on her face, “No, not blood, but something just as good.”
Dara stopped with her paste brush in mid air and looked at her Mama. Louise started to hum while she cut a stack of red hearts. She loved it when Mama hummed, she sounded so happy. Dara knew she loved her parents, and sometimes her brother, but Grandpa Teaspoon was her favorite. He told the best stories, even if he did always smell like onions.
At bed time, Dara had just pulled her nightgown over her head and was climbing into bed when she heard a soft knock, “Dara?”
She rolled her eyes, “Louis!”
“I just wanted to see what you were doin’.”
“It’s bedtime, Louis.”
“I know, brat.” He hung his head, “Just wanted to find out about those girls.”
Dara froze. She knew exactly what he was talking about. She’d had some trouble with some girls from school and believe it or not Louis had actually helped her.
“They’re fine. They ain’t come near me since.”
Louis nodded, “Good. I was ah-- just checking.”
Dara climbed in under the covers, “Thanks, Louis.”
He flashed her a grin, just like their Dad, “Sure thing, Brat.”
Just as her eyes were drifting closed, Dara heard the solid footsteps of her Daddy, just outside her door, “All set for bedtime darlin’?”
Dara nodded, “Uh huh. You and Mama too?”
Jimmy smiled, “Yes ma’am, us too.”
Settling in against her pillow, Dara hugged her cloth doll close, “You gonna kiss her goodnight too.”
She wasn’t certain, but it almost looked like Daddy blushed a bit. “Oh...yeah...I’ll kiss her goodnight too.”
“Like you did outside?”
“Like when you helped Mama with the laundry.”
Jimmy sighed, “Saw that?”
“Well, yes, like when I helped her with the laundry.”
“Louis explained it to me.”
“Yeah, about love and babies.”
Jimmy considered the legal ramifications of strangling his first born, “He explained about babies?”
Dara looked up, Daddy’s voice sounded strange, “Yeah, that when you love someone and want babies, you kiss. Like you and Mama did.” She looked toward the door, “Are you and Mama gonna have another baby?”
Jimmy swallowed hard, “Uh... well-”
Dara waved him off, “It’s okay.. I don’t need to know, just curious.”
Sighing, Jimmy leaned over and rumpled her hair, “Curious?.. That you are, that you are... now get some sleep.” He leaned closer and brushed a kiss across her forehead. “Love you sweetie.”
She yawned and curled up in bed, “Love you too Daddy.”
Daddy made it into the hallway just outside her door. Soft voices swept into her ears. “She asleep?”
Mama’s soft laughter again, “She ask you a lot of questions?”
“When doesn’t she?” They both paused, “You know, Lou? She reminds me more and more of you every day.”
“I know tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, but what’s say I give you a bit of your present now.” Dara could almost ‘see’ him smile.
“Present?” Mama sounded real happy. “What is it?”
Daddy had the best laugh, all rumbly and warm, “Let’s go downstairs and I’ll show you.”
Their voices disappeared down the stairs and Dara wiggled up to sit against the wall on her bed. Thoughts raced through her head like mustangs in a dry river bed, wild and rambling. Dara tried to set them aside and fall asleep, but they kept tumbling around inside until she couldn’t hear anything except the words in her head.
She threw back the covers and crept out into the hall. Striking a match to flint she lit the lantern on the hall table and took out some paper, a pen and ink.
As she wrote, she didn’t happen to notice her tongue poking out from between her lips or the furrow that parted her forehead. She wrote several drafts, crumpling the papers that didn’t quite work. Finally, satisfied, she folded the paper neatly and blew out the lamp before returning to her room.
The next morning on the way to school, Billy Gentry met her at the corner. For once he didn’t try and kiss her. Dara blinked at him, confusion in her owl eyes. He asked her about her dad and she answered his questions. As the school house came into Dara was more confused than ever, Billy was not the same icky boy he was yesterday.
Just as Dara had feared and everyone else had expected, Dara’s desk was covered in colorful paper hearts and candies. Miss Laurie watched as Dara gave some of her candy to other children before she sat down to read her own cards. Billy Gentry sat just a few seats away with stars in his eyes. Dara had given him a card, it didn’t matter to him that it was the same card she’d given everyone, it was HIS and it had touched her hands. Miss Laurie shook her head, ‘Poor Boy’ she thought.
It was then that Miss Laurie noticed a folded paper on the corner of her desk. She picked it up and read the title. Startled, she stood and wound her way through the desks to Dara’s seat. She kneeled down beside her and set an a hand on the little girl’s arm, “Dara?”
“Yes Miss Laurie?”
There it was, that beaming smile, “Your essay-”
“Should it be longer?”
Miss Laurie shook her head, “No dear, it’s just that, you have until tomorrow-”
“I finished it last night.”
“It’s alright to turn it in now, isn’t it?”
Miss Laurie nodded silently and set a hand on Dara’s head, “It’s just fine sweetie. Thank you for the lovely card, by the way.”
Another bright smile set her braids bobbing again, “You’re welcome, my Mama helped me.”
Miss Laurie returned to her desk and quickly penned a note, “Billy?”
Billy snapped to attention, “Yes Miss Laurie?”
She held out the paper to him, “Please deliver this note for me.”
Billy walked forward, stealing glances at Dara the whole time. He took the paper from her hand, missing it a few times as he wasn’t looking directly at it. When he read the name on the outside of the paper he had the oddest look on his face, something akin to hero worship mixed with abject fear.
He raced out the door and was back in a few minutes a broad smile on his face and his little shoulders and chest heaving from the exertion.
Later that day, Louise went down to the Marshal’s office and was happily surprised to see Teaspoon Hunter heading in the same direction. The two linked arms and walked into the office together.
As soon as he saw them, Jimmy stood from his desk and made his way over to kiss his wife and offer a bear hug to the man he’d come to love as a father, “Thanks for comin’ Teaspoon.”
Teaspoon settled into a chair near the door, “No problem here Hickok, all you had to do was ask.”
Louise slipped her arm around his waist, “Same here, but I wonder why?”
“I got a note from Dara’s teacher today-” he smiled as both faces widened in shock.
“A note?” Louise breathed, “What happened?”
Jimmy reached into his pocket and handed her a paper. “I think you should read this. Miss Laurie dropped it off during lunch."
Louise scanned the paper and Jimmy placed a kiss on the top of her head. Teaspoon was craning his neck from his vantage point by the door and Jimmy smiled, “Honey, ’out loud’ I think Grandpa is dying from curiosity.”
Louise began from the top and read Dara’s essay aloud.
What is Love?
Valentines Day. Hearts and Candy. Gifts. Some people think that is love, but not me. Love means a lot more.
Helping each other. My Mama and Daddy help each other all the time, with the dishes and the laundry. They also hug and kiss a lot, I think maybe more than others do, but that is because they love each other.
Take time for each other. Grandpa Teaspoon is one of the busiest people there is in Rock Creek. Lots of people talk to him and ask him all kinds of favors and important questions, but no matter who he is talking to he always stops and kisses me hello. I’m special he said. I asked him why and he said it’s because I’m family.
Now Mama and Daddy told me a long time ago that Grandpa Teaspoon adopted them because they were orphans and made them his family, so I say thats more special cause he loved them after they were born. Now he loves me and Louis too.
Teaspoon puffed out his chest and stuck his thumbs under his suspenders, “Smart Girl you two got there,” he said, “Smart Girl.”
Standing up for each other. A week ago, some girls were teasing me because the boys follow me home. They pulled my hair and stuck a frog down the back of my dress. Louis saw them and scared them away. He told them he’d tell our Daddy about them if they didn’t stop. That made them good and scared. They haven’t bothered me since. The good thing about it was that I don’t think Louis is that mean anymore and that frogs make good pets.
Louise turned to Jimmy and laughed, “We’ll search the room tomorrow when she’s in school.”
Jimmy nodded, “Good idea.”
I think I‘m too young to know what love really is, so I’ll have to tell you what I think it is. It’s all those little things people do for each other just because. I know I’ll learn more while I‘m growing, because when it comes to love, I’ve got the best teachers in the world, my family.
Jimmy hugged Louise to his side and caught Teaspoon’s eye over her head, “Happy Valentine’s Day sweetheart.”