Category: The Quick and the Dead
Word Count: 3200
When Cortland Wells rode into Santa Fe a year ago, Marshal Jim Hanley hired him as his Deputy. As far as Cort was concerned, life was good. His life of 23 years had been hard thus far, and he was determined to do everything to make it as uncomplicated and devoid of human presence as possible. No girls, no friends, no socializing. He got up, did his job, ate and slept, and would have repeated the cycle forever had not Donna Dumont came to town.
It’s not that Cort didn’t interact with women. The women he had known most of his life either sang and danced, or entertained in some other manner. They were as superficial and transitory as Cort. He was polite to the other women, commonly referred to as “ladies”; some of the older women felt maternal towards him. But as far as “young ladies” went, he tipped his hat, held open doors, or assisted them in his capacity as Deputy. He didn’t moon after them or get friendly with them. It never occurred to him to even imagine any type of involvement with such primroses.
Marshal Hanley had been married to his wife Patricia for 25 years. She was one of those women who had affection for Cort. The Hanley’s only child drowned many years ago. Patricia, knowingly, and Jim unknowingly, “adopted” Cort. He was not only unaware of any attention from them, but was also unaware of his growing attachment to the Hanleys.
Cort was leaving Johnson’s Fruit Market with an armload of apples. As it was April, they were good and juicy—almost as good as he remembered them as a child. He had one half eaten when he saw Donna for the first time. She had crossed the street and was heading his way. Her head was straight up and she appeared more mature than most her age.
“That’s Donna Dumont, the new teacher.” Cort turned to see Mrs. Hanley standing next to him. “Oh,” he said, looking away.
“Have you met her yet?” she asked, certain he hadn’t. Cort mumbled something and kept walking. Patricia smiled. There would be a woman for him at some point of time. She knew it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to get through to him. She would have to be a very special young lady.
A few days later, Cort was sitting in front of the jailhouse reading the newspaper. The spring sun was out, and the breeze made it a perfect afternoon. He heard a woman’s voice and looked up. It wasn’t the usual soft, sweet tone; but one of a more experienced, secure nature. It was the new teacher; she was talking to a friend. Her hands were emphasizing something they were discussing but her movements were slow and graceful, not quick or over done. She turned Cort’s way, getting the feeling that she was being watched. When she caught him staring, she made a face and continued talking. Cort, slightly embarrassed, returned to his newspaper.
A week later, Cort was back out front reading. The warm sun took the edge off the cool afternoon and he was tempted to take a nap. He spread his crossed legs out in front of him and pulled his black hat over his eyes. About ten minutes later he heard footsteps on the wood planks Santa Fe used for sidewalks. He peeked out from under his hat and saw Miss Dumont. He pushed his hat up and watched her approach. There was something attractive about the way she walked. She moved in a fluid, confident manner; her skirt swayed back and forth in an appealing way. Most of the women in his life were bosomy and hippy. A lot of the respectable women in town were on the chunky or “healthy” side. Donna, even though she was tall, was slender and less endowed. It was a curiosity to him. The other thing that fascinated him was her skin. Her face was smooth and clear, like the women in paintings he had seen.
Just as Donna was passing him, she looked up and caught him staring. She was a lady and wasn’t used to being observed. In her mind it was rude. “Haven’t you ever seen a woman before?” she asked sarcastically. Offended by her tone, Cort became defensive.
“Yes, I’ve seen a woman before. I’ve seen lots of women before.”
Imagining that he was referring to ladies of ill repute, she stuck her nose in the air and marched off. Something caught Cort’s eye; Jim was standing next to him.
“What’s wrong with her anyway?” Cort didn’t wait for an answer; he got up and went inside. Jim smiled.
When Donna got to the schoolhouse, she complained to her best friend and fellow teacher, Christina Beebee. “The nerve of him spying on me like that!” she said indignantly.
“He wasn’t spying,” Christina laughed. “Maybe he thinks you’re pretty.”
“He has a strange way of showing it.”
“I’ve heard rumors that his life hasn’t been the best. Maybe nobody taught him how to express himself.” Donna reluctantly allowed that it might be possible.
The next day Donna once again found herself in the position of having to pass Cort’s scrutiny. He seemed to be napping again. Goodness, she thought, didn’t he do anything but snooze all day? She could cross the street, she reasoned. But she wasn’t going to do anything that would give him satisfaction. So, looking straight ahead, she attempted to walk by him.
“Can’t take a compliment?” he asked from under his hat. It was as though 24 hours hadn’t passed, and they were continuing yesterday’s conversation.
“Compliment? You think gawking at a lady is complimentary?” Then she remembered what Christina said. “Telling me that you like my hat would be a compliment.”
“No….That would be a lie.” Donna stopped in front of his crossed legs. “I don’t like your hat.”
“Why would I tell you I liked your hat when I don’t?” Donna’s mouth dropped open. Cort pulled in his long legs and pushed his hat up. He didn’t understand why she was so taken aback. “Has someone told you the hat was attractive?”
“Yes. Several men have commented on it.”
He looked thoughtful. “Well, I don’t know why they’d say such a thing. The truth is it looks like an ostrich sitting on top of your head.” Had his face been within reach, Donna swore she would have slapped it.
“And it’s plain as day.”
“So, why they’re lying—.”
“I don’t know.”
Donna turned on her heel and stomped off, her perky face red as a ripe raspberry.
From inside, Jim observed the exchange between them. He had to chuckle. Cort was too inexperienced when it came to dealing with proper ladies; and Donna was only used to proper gentlemen.
When Donna got a chance, she related the latest encounter she had with that ill-mannered Deputy. Christina looked at her friend’s hat and half-smiled. Cort was right, the feathers were overpowering. After Donna left, she laughed out loud. Neither of them had any idea how to handle the other. If they kept running into each other, they would definitely become encounters to remember.
More than a week passed. Cort had stopped sitting in front of the jailhouse and Donna found a different route to reach the school.
Eventually Cort grew tired of avoiding the chair out front and Donna resented taking the long way to work. As it happened, they both made the decision to return to their former ways on the same afternoon.
Cort had a new book he borrowed from one of the other teachers. As he was reading, Donna saw him sitting outside and almost crossed the street. She shook her head and proceeded; nobody was going to make her change her course. She was determined to ignore him. She’d show him how much she cared about his opinion.
Cort saw her impending approach and ducked inside the jailhouse before she noticed. As Donna walked past the chair, she turned to make a face at him—-but the chair was empty. That only made her angrier as she huffed off.
A few more days passed. Although they wouldn’t admit it, both Cort and Donna missed seeing each other. Cort knew he found her appealing to some degree; although he was certain she’d never allow him near her. It bothered him that she was mad at him for, what in his opinion, was no good reason. Donna, under the subtle direction of Christina, admitted that Cort was nice looking—in a barbaric sort of way.
The following Monday, Donna was on her way to the schoolhouse. Cort was napping again.
“I like that hat much better,” he said as she approached. Donna didn’t appreciate the fact that his hair was thicker and wavier than it had any right to be. Nor did she like that his strong, dimpled chin caused her heart to skip a few beats.
“Humph! What makes you think I care about your opinion?”
“I’m not saying you do; I’m just trying to be nice,” he said, pushing his hat off his face. He was frowning.
“Don’t strain yourself,” she said, continuing on her way. Cort got up and stormed into the jailhouse, mumbling. Jim looked up.
“Got yourself an admirer, huh?”
“Admirer? She can’t stand me. Quite frankly, the feeling’s mutual.”
“Flirting? Believe it or not, I’ve been flirted with before. And snotty, derisive quips had nothing to do with it.”
“Some women don’t realize they want to flirt. I think she finds you attractive but doesn’t want to admit it.”
Cort looked at his boss incredulously. This was way too complex and confusing. “If a woman likes you, she lets you know. That’s all there is to it.”
“Well, maybe she’s not used to flirting and has a hard time expressing herself.”
Cort snorted. “She has no trouble ‘expressing herself’ to Sam Jergens or Paul Fields.” Jim’s eyes twinkled.
“How do you know who she flirts with?”
Cort’s chin stuck out defiantly. “It’s my job to notice everything.” He didn’t care whom she showered her attentions on; that was their problem.
“Oh, Donna,” Christina shook her head. “Why do you antagonize him so?”
Christina sighed; her friend could be so bull-headed when she put her mind to it. “If you keep locking horns with him, you’ll never be friends.”
Donna opened her mouth to protest. “What makes you think—?”
“Donna, I know you so well. The last time you made such a fuss over a man, he married another woman and you moped for months. The time to express interest is while they’re still interested in you….not once you’ve chased them off.”
“That was different! Cecil Evans was a banker, a gentleman. Cort is an ex-outlaw, for pity’s sake.”
“What does that matter? Do you know that Mr. Evans wasn’t?” Donna laughed.
“Christina! Mr. Evans? An outlaw?” Christina gave her an exasperated look. “No, I don’t know positively that he wasn’t anything but a kind, rich, law-abiding citizen. But I’d bet against it.” Christina didn’t say anything; she was certain Mr. Evans was beyond reproach also.
“At least admit you find Cort attractive.”
“Attractive?” She thought about those blazing deep blue eyes and his long, thick chestnut hair and shrugged. “He does have some redeeming physical attributes.” Then she had second thoughts. “I’d never be able to hold my head up if I got involved with him. What would proper people say?”
Christina waved her hand, dismissing such a notion. “Not as much as you think. Certainly the people whose opinion mattered wouldn’t have anything bad to say. Donna, you aren’t back East anymore.”
Donna knew it was true. Most people out here were more accepting of others’ mistakes.
Several days passed before Cort and Donna crossed paths again. Cort was outside the general store helping Mrs. Gracey load up her wagon. He pretended that he didn’t see Donna approaching.
“Good morning, Deputy,” a pleasant voice said. Cort turned around slowly. Donna hadn’t noticed how tall he was before.
“G-o-o-o-d morning,” he said hesitantly.
“How are you this morning?”
“It’s a very pleasant morning.”
Cort looked behind him; was she actually speaking to him? “I reckon,” he drawled softly.
“You have a nice day.”
He looked after her, puzzled. “Uh, you, too.” He didn’t see Mrs. Gracey grinning as she piled her children onto the wagon.
Donna was very pleased with how her chat with Cort went yesterday, and was determined to be friendly today. Unbeknownst to Cort, Jim had discreetly struck up a conversation with her, trying to soften her towards his young Deputy.
Cort was standing outside the fruit market, eating an apple. He saw her walking towards him and resisted the urge to duck into the store. Donna smiled at him from under her green bonnet. Cort sighed; it was another unattractive hat—much too large for her petite head.
“Good morning,” she began.
“Uh, good morning, ma’am.”
“What do you think of my new hat?”
“Uh, it’s a fine looking hat.” He blinked rapidly, hoping she’d let it go at that.
“Why, thank you.”
She stopped in front of him, which only made him more nervous. She was so slender, he was afraid he’d bump into her and knock her to the ground. Besides, she had the prettiest eyes; they almost hypnotized him, making him want to get lost in their depth. None of the other women in his life had such an effect on him.
“I’m walking up to the school and was wondering if you’d escort me.” The voice was too sweet. He looked at the building, which was a short distance up the road. Donna knew what he was thinking and got impatient. “Oh, for pity’s sake. Are you going to escort me, or not?”
“Escort! Do you know what the word means?”
“I don’t want to be accosted and I was willing to let you protect me.”
This attitude was too much for Cort. He snorted. “Accosted? Nobody could get near you with that hat on.”
“I thought you liked my hat!”
“I never said I liked it; I said it was ‘fine’. ‘Fine’ doesn’t mean I ‘like’ it.”
“I told the Marshal being civil to you wouldn’t work. I told him you were nothing but a gun toting outlaw.”
“Civil? You call that civ—? What do you mean ‘outlaw’? I haven’t been an outlaw for ten years or more. And what does the Marshal have to do with this?” With that, he crossed the street and marched into the jailhouse. Jim pretended he wasn’t watching; but the smirk on his face gave him away. “What did you tell her?”
“Obviously she likes you.”
Jim laughs. “I merely told her to be civil and you’d respond better.”
“Respond? Dogs ‘respond’!”
“People usually do, too, when they’re treated with respect.”
Cort opened his eyes wide and slapped his forehead in frustration.
Both Cort and Donna spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between talking to themselves angrily, to mumbling inaudible phrases concerning each other.
It irritated Cort that he wanted to seek her out and smooth over her ruffled feelings. It annoyed Donna that she found it appealing when he ran his large hands through his hair.
Cort decided to tackle this head on. He kept his eye out for Donna and, eventually saw her exiting a dress shop. He proceeded up the street to meet her. “All right, let’s go,” he said.
She looked at him puzzled. “Go where?”
“To the school. You wanted an escort.”
“That was yesterday.”
For once, Cort noticed, she had a very attractive blue hat on. “So, you’re not afraid of being accosted today?”
Donna put her lovely hands on her hips. “I wasn’t afraid yesterday either.”
“I see. Nice hat.” He could see her face soften.
“Are you telling the truth this time?”
“Yes.” Cort began shuffling his feet. “The problem with the other hat was—.”
“Uh. Your head was too small for it.”
Her mouth fell open. “My-my head is too small?”
“It’s not your head’s fault.” He shrugged and looked at the ground. How did he get into this mess? “It just didn’t fit into the hat.” He frowned. That wasn’t what he wanted to say. He was waiting for her verbal onslaught, but it didn’t come. There was no cloud of dust indicating she had stomped off. Cort looked up hesitantly. The corners of Donna’s mouth were twitching. Instead of angry eyes, they were laughing. “What’s so funny?”
“I just pictured a little nut inside a big bonnet.”
“Shoot! I wasn’t saying your head was that small.” Donna’s shoulders were shaking. “More like a medium sized rock. Well, that isn’t very complimentary either, I guess.”
She couldn’t hold it back anymore. “Stop! I understand what you mean.” Donna was holding on to one of the rails; tears were streaming down her face. Cort had never seen anyone laugh so hard before.
“Anyway, the hat had too many feathers and your face was lost. It didn’t really look like an ostrich…a chicken, maybe.”
Donna waved her arm at him. “No more!” she barely caught her breath. “I swear I’ll never wear that hat again.”
Cort smiled. She was very pretty…and, apparently, very happy. Through her tears, she noticed how truly handsome Cort was—especially when he smiled. Maybe Christina was right. Maybe he was just a diamond in the rough. It would be up to her to smooth his rough edges. Although, she didn’t want to overdo it—some of those ‘rough edges’ were endearing.
Jim was watching from the jailhouse. He saw Donna talking and Cort being attentive. Nobody was mad, nobody was walking away. As odd as the match was, he felt Cort and Donna would make an interesting pair. Jim made a mental note to have Patricia invite them over for dinner. Eventually they parted company, promising to meet up later to continue their discussion.
As Jim surmised, Cort and Donna turned out to be a unique couple. Their courtship was filled with volume and affection. Even after being married for five years, the townspeople could hear them disagreeing heatedly now and then. Nobody thought anything of it; they knew one or the other would eventually back down and pretend to agree with the other. It was one of those rare relationships that never lost its spark or passion.
For Cort, especially, the whole thing was an education. Trust, love, and security were never part of his previous life. But that’s what Donna was for. After all, she was the teacher.