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Underneath the Pines


Robert Cullen
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Originally published on Fri Jan 5th, 2018 @ 3:07pm

 

A figure garbed in a simple, white cotton dress, sauntered about on the edges of town. She paused every now and then to pluck a summer bloom from the earth and to adjust the violet bow at her cheek. She wore her bright auburn hair half-pinned beneath a straw hat to help keep the sun off her fair complexion. The day had been particularly warm, but not so uncomfortable that it could keep the girl inside. 


Cecilia thought about the young man she met, as she placed another wildflower in her new basket. She had been given the money to purchase a new basket, having told her father the supplies she had carried were too heavy and basket handle poorly fashioned. He cared little and provided for his daughter without question. As long as she continued to bake for him, Mr. Atwood was unconcerned.


Beneath a pine, the young lady came to rest. She spread a handkerchief at the base of the tree and sank to the ground to rest upon it, not wanting to dirty her simple gown. She produced a small paper fan and fanned herself with it, eyes closing partway as she enjoyed the little breeze on her skin. It was the perfect end to a beautiful day and a welcome beginning to a serene evening.


Emerging from town, on foot but leading his mule, Robert was in a good mood. It had actually been a profitable day. Most people wouldn't think it was much, but he had just made himself a few dollars for once. His panning had netted him a few small bits of gold ore, and he had parlayed that into some currency, less than twenty dollars but better than anything he'd done since he first arrived in the area. Of course, only a few coins were now left in his pocket as he had then paid off some of his standing debt at the general store. Finally, because he could for once, he had splurged and bought himself a bottle of some rather cheap whiskey at the saloon. He would keep it then in his cabin and imbibe a little each day or even use it to wash his hair, the alcohol did make the scalp feel better though if you got it in your eyes, it stung like all hell. The bottle was now snug inside a small satchel hanging off the mule's saddle. Now he was heading home, that being his small cabin a few miles further and just off the road almost hidden behind a tree line.

 

He was deep in thought and almost missed spotting the young lady sitting up against a tree trunk off to the side. A second look to ascertain if the individual was injured or something and Robert suddenly recognized her! It was that girl who threw her basket during his encounter with the blacksmith's assistant.

 

Cecilia...ummmm, At...something. He was too busy looking at her to commit her full name to memory. Even though it was a small town, he was none too sure they'd ever see each other again. Yet there she was. Doing exactly what he had no idea but, yes, it definitely was Cecilia.


The late afternoon summer air was warm and heady. Though she fanned herself, Sissy could not stave off the lull that longed to overtake her. If she didn't get to her feet and start moving once again, her eyes would fall shut. There was no telling the danger that might befall her, or embarrassment for that matter.


She inhaled deeply and closed her fan, tucking it back into her pocket. She focused her eyes on the scarlet and fushia Indian Paintbrush flowers that lined her basket. From her wrist, she drew a length of white lace ribbon and tied it around the stems of the flowers. 


Robert stopped dead in his tracks, his faithful mule then did too, it seldom was in any real hurry to get anywhere, a content plodder. Clearing his throat first, he then called out.


"Ah....Miss.....Cecilia! Are you alright?"


She was admiring the small bouquet she had fashioned when she heard her name. The voice was male but did not come from her father nor her brother. It was the young man whose behalf she had intervened upon about a week or so ago. She placed the bouquet back into her basket and rose to greet him.


"Mr. Cullen," she greeted him, "Yes, I am quite alright." She smoothed her skirts before stepping from the shade of the pine. "How lovely it is to see you again. Who is your friend?" Sissy smiled brightly at him, having thought of him a few times since making his acquaintance.


While he was glad nothing was wrong with her, her inquiry confused him for an instant.


"My friend?" he started then caught on when he glanced back to.............his mule?


Cecilia giggled at the confused splayed across Robert's face. She assumed he would know to whom she was referring.


"Your mule of course!" she answered before moving to close the gap between them.


"You mean Abercrombie here? I wouldn't exactly call Abercrombie a friend...more like an employee of sorts," Robert duly answered with a grin.


Suddenly he remembered his manners and removed his battered felt hat, "Nice ta be see'in you again too, lass."


Sissy studied the grey beast for a moment before finally asking "Is Abercrombie friendly?" She wondered if she might stroke his muzzle.


"He can snap at folk jest so ye know," Robert warned her honestly.


"Oh, well, perhaps it's best I leave Abercrombie alone then..." she said more to herself than to him. She would have liked to make friends with the handsome beast, but Robert would have to do.


The girl fiddled with the hem of her sleeve, working up the courage to invite him to keep her company. She smiled nervously before finally asking, "Are you and your employee busy this afternoon? Perhaps you'd like to join me?" 


"Most of the afternoon's over," he observed wryly but quickly added, "I got time though.....and Abercrombie...he won't mind none."


"Evening then," Cecilia quickly corrected herself. Why did this man make her feel so foolish? 


"We can take a walk if you like. Unless you'd rather sit under this tree with me and share some honey cakes?" Sissy smiled at him, hoping to convince him that she was worth more than a passing glance.


A walk or something tasty to eat? Now that wasn't a hard choice to make, Robert smiled.


"I've always been quite good at....sitting. And can hardly say 'no' to something sweet," he informed her...or for that matter, someone sweet.


Sissy smiled at that and stepped back over to the shady pine and lowered herself back to the ground. She patted the spot beside her indicating that he ought to sit with her. 


"Umm, sure," he nodded then eased the mule over to another tree and wrapped the reins around a low hanging branch. The beast didn't have much ambition and would be fine there for awhile, he was confident.


"Does Abercrombie like apples?" she asked, glancing back at the mule. Perhaps if she charmed the mule, she could charm Robert as well?


"I would think he does, most horses and mules do...or so I have heard," he nodded.


Though, what did it matter? Why did Cecilia care if this young man liked her or not? Sure he was handsome and his eyes breathtaking, but there was more to it. Robert Cullen has trouble written all over him.


Sissy lifted an apple from her basket as well as small cloth parcel. She unwrapped the parcel and offered him a piece of the sweet cake she had promised. 


He took the apple with a quick "He sez thanks."


Then he gave it to the beast who chomped on it with zest. That taken care of Robert lowered himself down to sit next to her, but not too close, it would not do to be too forward, this was a proper lady. Glancing down at the cake, he swallowed then reached for a chunk of it with two fingers.


"Thankye," he nodded then bit into it, "Ohh, that is sooo good, miss." He finished it off next bite.


Cecilia giggled as she watched the mule crunch the apple. "I wonder if he likes sugar cubes?" she said, thoughtfully. If Robert cared to see her again, perhaps she would bring Abercrombie a few extra treats.


Robert shrugged, "Don't know, that I know he never had one." 


The young woman nibbled at a piece of the honey cake herself. She smiled brightly when Robert complimented the baked goody. "It gladdens me that you should find my baking so delectable," she said, her eyes sparkling appreciatively. 


Robert nodded though he did not know what 'delectable' meant for certain, he figured it was same as 'good' as she looked pleased.

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"Tell me about yourself, Mr. Cullen?" she asked, offering him another treat.


"Don't mind if I do," the young man accepted without hesitation.


"First off, miss...I'd be fine if you just call me Robert or Bobby, not used to anyone callin' me mister and besides makes me sound so...old," he requested then ate a bite before continuing.


"Not from around here but then you knew that much....born in Ireland but me da and ma moved then to this country...New York. We were poor in Ireland, we were poor in the new world too," he smiled though it certainly wasn't a happy statement.


The girl silently nodded, understanding he was from a land she could barely imagine. She paused her nibbling, listening intently, even setting down her small piece of cake. 


"I be sparin' ye all the grief of the rest 'cept my brother and me came on out to the frontier to make our fortune. He died though..." this time there was no smile, just a look of resignation, it served no use to mourn.


"On my own since then and pannin' fer gold in these hills...hopin' there really is something like 'luck of the Irish', I sure haven't seen it none," he was back to his usual happy go lucky self.


The pretty smile Sissy had been wearing quickly faded into a somber gaze. Her heart ached for him. How could someone so young have endured so many tragedies?


"Oh, Robert! How tragic!" she bemoaned, reaching out to him. She placed her hand on his and gave him a gentle squeeze. "I reckon you must be quite resourceful to have survived such adversities."


He glanced down at her hand and where she had placed it, surprised but it was certainly a pleasant one. 


"I do what I have to, no other way for it, ya know," he gave a little shrug.


"Yes, but, it's not fair, is it?" She frowned at him. She held him still as if it might somehow make his life better. Though, it was only after another long moment that she realized she still touched him. Trying not to blush, she took back her hand and wrapped up the empty cloth and placed it back in the basket.


Sissy passed him another honey cake as if he might be half starved, "Here, sugar, have another!"


"Thankye....I don't want to eat all of yours though. But I will make this the last one," he took it and took a bite.


"I bake something new nearly every day. You're more than welcome to all of my sweets." she teased. 


All of them huh? Robert couldn't help but glance at her as his eyes mentally wandered up and down her feminine frame. Was she even aware her words could be taken quite differently by some men? Not him though...no, he wasn't even thinking about such things. Nope, just a friendly conversation was all. He needed to say something to get his mind off such thoughts! 


As he chewed, he now asked her, "So how 'bout you be tellin' me about yerself then, seems only fair don' it?"


It was the question she always dreaded. She always told the truth, yet twisted the story differently each time. Getting kicked out of school was not her proudest day.


He surely was curious.


"I grew up in the South. I was just a child when war broke out. I reckon it was best that way. Anyhow, Pa wanted a new life for us and moved us up here. There's five of us kids. But my younger siblings are back east attending boardin' school." 


It was definitely the truth, just a few stories left out. 


"South huh? Well, me da ...he fought in the war...in the Union army. He joined one of the New York Zouaves....those lads wore some real fancy uniforms - not just blue but bright red too...only time in his life he ever got to wear something fancy, da said," Robert smiled.


Cecilia nodded and added "My Pa didn't fight. He refused to leave my Ma and the rest of us kids behind." She left out the fact that she was sure money had something to do with it.


"So you finished yer schoolin' then? Did you like it?" he pursued the discussion, eager to learn more about this gal. 


"Not exactly," she started, chewing her lower lip for a brief moment. "I was feelin' homesick. And it was decided I could probably obtain useful skills by comin' to Kalispell."


Half of that was true, but still, she omitted the fact that she was expelled. She worried what people, Robert in particular, would think if they knew what had transpired to beget her expulsion.


Robert blinked, "Oh? This little place? So then....what useful skills did ye learn then, girl?" He doubted this small town had anything of value to teach a well to do young miss.


Cecilia smirked at him, "Well, you just ate some of it." She always had an affinity for cooking and baking, but there wasn't time for that in school.


"Oh, and ye couldn't learn that in a big city?" He still didn't get it, but it was true she did not have baking skills if the rest of her recipes tasted as good as this one.


"I'm to learn how to ride a horse too one of these days," she added. Not that she looked forward to such task. 


If Sissy learned anything, it was how to be more independent and resourceful than she could be in Virginia.


"Well, well, that could prove quite useful out here on the frontier then," he nodded approval, "I have learned just enough to stay on Abercrombie here but then he don't gallop about like some fool horse."


"Then you'll have to let me bring you some goodies so I can put these skills to better use," she grinned. 


He smiled, "That'd be most generous of you, but I don' imagine yer folks approvin' of you visitin' the likes a me." 


"What makes you say that?" she frowned, shifting in her seat, "And what makes you think I'd listen if they forbid me?" She couldn't help the smirk that formed. Robert didn't know her well enough yet, but he would soon learn that Sissy had a mind of her own.


"Just a guess is all," the young man gave a bit of shrug, "I've been known to be wrong in me life though."


She eyed Abercrombie. He was lovely to look at and perhaps to even pet, but she wasn't sure about riding him or any other steed for that matter.


"It's a wonder that these beasts are so mild-mannered," she sighed, bringing her attention back to Robert.


"Oh, they aren't....not always. Stubborn as a mule is not just a sayin' ye know? When they get in a foul mood, they can make a lotta noise and kick ye if ye ain't careful," he warned her.


She laughed at that and shook her head, "Well, I just mean that they don't actively attack us. I don't know about Abercrombie though..." Perhaps if she gave him a taste for sugar cubes, he would less likely be stubborn?


Robert huffed, "He won't attack ye none, trust me."


Sissy chuckled and shook her head, "I was only teasing!"


"I never did ask, but where were you headed this afternoon?" 


"Home....I got me a small cabin a few miles outta town, nothin' fancy but it's gotta roof and is close ta water," he answered her.


"Well, then you ought to tell me what you fancy, and I'll bring it over," she grinned. Her mind was already churning thoughts of what she might tempt him with. 


Robert could actually fancy a lot of things....well including the young lady, but he wasn't about to be bold enough to say that. He settled for a quick, "Really?"


Sissy blushed, realizing the impression she might be making. Her enthusiasm was something she always had difficulty quelling.


"Forgive me, Robert. I don't mean to be so forward. It's just not every day I meet someone as affable, let alone handsome, as you." She cast her gaze downward and bit her lower lip, feeling silly for opening her pie hole.


"Don't know what affable means but handsome...now that is certainly kind of ye, lass. And there is nothin' needed to forgive. I must be honest and admit yer not like anyone I've ever met...but in a good way you see," he hastened to make her feel better.


She bit back another apology as she explained, "It just means to be friendly and likable." 


"I suppose I should take pride in that," she smiled. Cecilia didn't mind being unusual for it didn't do her any good to be just another cookie cutter, young woman. Not that she had that in her.


"Speakin' of forward...well, I happen ta think you are quite the pretty one yerself. I imagine the boys line up ta dance with you at those rich folk parties," he declared.


She glanced sideways at him and shook her head incredulously, "I'm a pushover. I add everyone to my dance card." She gave him a bit of a shrug, knowing full well she was too polite to ever turn anyone down.


"No favorites then huh?" he shrugged, it did not surprise him actually, she seemed very nice and accepting...well, she accepted him didn't she? And he was way below her station. As her parents would realize even if she did not.


Cecilia giggled, "Well sure, some are better dancers than others. I'm not fond of getting my toes smashed." 


"Maybe if you ever get that bath I'll let you take me to a social," Sissy giggled.


He sniffed one of his armpits for a second then shrugged, "I don't know...it's hot work, and I sweat then. Not everyone has their own bathtub I'll have ya know. Like I said though...I bathe...in the river."


"I hope you have a bar of soap at least!" she teased, pretending to wave away his stink. "Oh!" she exclaimed, it just dawning on her, "Do you know how to swim? I've never been in water deeper than my bathtub."


Robert blinked, interesting.

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He grinned for a moment then explained his amusement, "Tell ya, darlin', when I strike it rich, first thing I'll buy will be a nice big bathtub."


"Perhaps you ought to build a great big home to go with it?" she smiled. 


She felt guilty. She was born into wealth, and she wondered what made her more deserving that Robert. She thought what the consequences might be if she chose to help him. Not to be charitable, but because she liked him. Perhaps convincing her father to hire him as a foreman, if he was qualified of course. She wanted to see him succeed. It wasn't fair that he should have to wait for his dreams to come to fruition.


"That'll be on my list too...well, not that I can make a list. I can't write," he shrugged, lack of education never really was a big deal to him.


It was her turn to blink at him.


"For example, lass....you are educated n' all, but you canna swim. I can swim just fine. All us kids used to swim in the river near home as much as we could in the summer," he pointed out. Those had been some of the good times in his young life.


"How about we strike a deal then? I'll teach you to read and write if you teach me how to swim?" The suggestion brought a smile to her face as it gave her an excuse to see him again.


Robert considered it for a moment, "Not sure that's fair, lass....I mean to you. It'll take me a long time to learn to do all that, and I can have you swimmin' in a day."


Not to mention where on earth was she going to teach him. She could hardly bring him into her home? Her parents would not be pleased, he was sure of it.


Cecilia's face fell, and a frown replaced her smile. "Oh, I understand..." was her only response. What was the point in pushing it? Robert obviously held some reservations about being around her. He had dismissed her when they first met and now, it felt like that all over again.


"Umm, alright...you do, huh?" Robert frowned also, he had apparently hurt her feelings he was guessing. Wait...she was moving then.


Sissy held back a dejected sigh as she got to her feet. She dusted the invisible crumbs from her skirts as she spoke, "I suppose I shou'd be getting back before it gets too late..." She wasn't going to beg and plead with him. If he wanted to get to know her better, he'd have to make the effort this time around.


Quickly he scrambled up onto his feet then too, trying to figure out what to say. He wasn't about to agree to months of lessons on something he had little real interest in, pretty gal or not. Children went to school for years to learn that stuff, he was too old for such nonsense. Yes, he was interested in her but not as no school marm.


"True, a lady shouldn't be wanderin' 'round in the dark then should she? Well, thank ye fer the sweets, I really liked 'em. Yer a fine baker you are," he talked as she began to walk.


Should he just let her walk off...........like the last time? Angry, sad, whatever she was. So how was he to stop her, grab her by the arm? One didn't do that to a lady especially a proper one like Cecilia.

Cecilia had knelt to collect her basket, knowing full well her mother would wonder should she return without it a second time. With a half smile, she told him, "It was my pleasure. I look forward to our next run in." 


"Ahh, lassie. If yer of a mind to truly learn ta swim, you come on by my cabin sometime....it's just further down this road, you can see it thru the tree line on that side of the road," he pointed toward the north side of the road out of town.


"I'd be happy ta teach ye but.....don' bring no books or pencils....maybe just a big towel to dry off with," he added.


The girl paused in her step, peeking over her shoulder at him. She shrugged and sighed, "Perhaps." 


Oh, he was going to burn in hell for this, he just knew it. And he'd probably arrive there right after her parents killed him for catching him with their precious daughter.


A smile flickered on her face, and she quickly turned back to the path ahead of her. "Goodbye, Mr. Cullen!" She called before she disappeared out of sight.

Edited by Wayfarer (see edit history)
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