“Oh, Pa! What should I do? I know you thought the world of Aaron and Ma said I might…but Mr. Hooper claims he has the right over me. Does he, Pa? He’s nice enough and kind…and I really do think he cares, but he’s not you! Oh, Pa!” Sophia slumps down despondently, her mind and heart muddled.
The crackle of footsteps coming along the path is heard. Sophia remains motionless, pressing her fingers to her lips warily. A hand pushes open the gate and a man steps in. He pauses.
“Sophia? You here?”
She sighs in relief and gets up, “Over here, Aaron.”
Aaron walks over and looks down at the grave at Sophia’s feet. He removes his hat.
“Even’ Mr. Vale.”
Aaron was accustomed to speaking to his friend John Vale anytime he was at the cemetery, odd as it might seem.
The young people stand there for a few minutes observing a strained silence during which they look at each other and way. Aaron fiddles with his hat and Sophia her apron. Finally, knowing the silence must be broken somehow, Aaron reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls something out.
“Sophia, I want to show you something.”
She looks up and lets him take her hand, turn it over, and place something in it.
“That saved my life this last time out.”
When she sees the mangled locket laying in her palm, Sophia sucks in her breath and looks up at him, mixed emotions in her face.
Aaron tells her, “I’ve carried that locket close to my heart ever since you gave it to me the day before your mother married Mr. Hooper. I took it as a promise. I’ve kept it as a promise. What I want to know, is the promise ruined along with the locket? Your picture, Sophia, is destroyed. Are we?”
Sophia closes her hand around the locket and holds it to her—tears filling her eyes.
“Aaron…” her voice is pleading.
“I have to know, Sophy. Make up your mind. Either you keep your promise and we defy the old man, or tell me to get out of your life forever. I don’t know about you, but I can’t keep this up any longer. I love you and if you won't marry me, I have to go--for a while at least. Pa understands and he’d send me off with his blessing.”
Shocked, Sohpia gasps, “You aren’t thinking of leaving?!”
He lets that terrible question ring in the air for a moment before answering very firmly, “I am. Provided you are through with me.”
“I’m not! I’m not!” Her voice is panicked. Grabbing his arms, she plead, “Please, Aaron, don’t leave!”
Aaron gently shakes himself free and walks off a pace or two before spinning around.
“Sophia! We can’t go on like this! You practically said so yourself yesterday. My mind is made up—either you marry me or I leave. It’s as simple as that. I have to remove myself from temptation.”
Sophia sinks down on the ground and through her tears moans, “Aaron, I don’t know what to do! I do want to marry you…I love you…but I don’t know if it’s right under the circumstances. Pa would have liked it, and Ma wants me to marry you, but Mr. Hooper hates you…but he’s my step-father and it would be disrespectful to disobey him!”
Aaron's jaw gets hard and he clenches his fists. He picks up a stone and hurls it into the darkness viciously. Sophia looks up, a frightened look creeping across her face. Suddenly and more calmly, Aaron strides over, gets down on one knee (John Vales’ stone is between them evenly), grabs her shoulders and gives her the tiniest shake.
Very deliberately, he asks, “Sophia Vale, when you handed me that locket eight months did you, or did you not intend that to be your promise to marry me?”
Sophia looks down at her clasped hands. Suddenly, her back becomes rigid, and she lifts her head slowly, an almost wild look in her eyes. She takes a deep breath.
“Yes, I did, Aaron. More than I realized.”
Aaron nods fimly, “You see, that fixes our problem. We are engaged with your mother’s blessing. Mr. Hooper has never had the authority to forbid me to claim my own.”
No longer unsure of where she stood, Sohpia throws her arms around Aaron’s neck. He laughs and helps her to her feet.
After a moment, Sophia almost whispers, “How do you propose we get away with it?”
Aaron pushes her away and looks in her face, “I’ll talk with Pa and Pastor Davis. I hadn’t thought that far yet. It only just now came to me that we had the answer to our dilemma all along.”
After a minute, he continues, “But you’d better be sneaking home before Mr. Hooper misses you. Find
a way to tell your ma…I want to make sure she doesn’t object.”
Sophia, who had started to slip off, spins around and grabs Aaron’s hands: “I will…be careful—dearest…”
She dashes off and Aaron suddenly plumps down on Mr. Vales headstone.
“Well, sir, I hope you approve. As for me, I’m wild with joy, but subdued at the same time…Mr. Hooper is going to kill me when he finds out.”
Aaron leans against the barn wall while his father saddles his horse. He speaks calmly, but not without a tinge of worry, "So, you see, that’s the only problem left. If Mr. Hooper finds out that Sophia and I are gettin’ married, I’m afraid he’ll try to kill me—with his bare-hands preferably. He’s bigger and stronger than I am and I seriously think my life would be in danger.”
George turns to his son, “Aaron, let’s you and me go talk to Reverend Davis. He’s a wise man—as well as a brave one—and I imagine he will be able to give good counsel.”
Aaron smiles slightly, “I was going to suggest that myself.”
George and Aaron ride into town. James Hooper spots them from the blacksmith shop. He hails George as they pass: “Hold on, Burke!”
George pulls up and looks down at the man. Hooper's face livid with anger.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Hooper?” George's manner is cordial, yet guarded.
Hooper explodes, “Bah! Who’d you think you are anyway, taking it upon yourself to lecture my son!?”
George speaks slowly and pointedly, “Mr. Hooper, your son jumped mine. I hardly think it is necessary to explain—if you had been in my position you probably would chewed the boy out no matter whom he belonged to. I was only attempting to put straight a few misconceptions he had about Bartholomew—and I fully admit that Bart could have been a little less showy with that shotgun.”
Apparently, Hooper doesn't care what the truth is, nor does he have a desire for peace, “Get down off that horse, Mister. I’ll teach you not to mess with my boy again!”
George ignores him, “Come on, Aaron.”
Mr. Hooper grabs the reins, “Oh, no you don’t! You’re gonna git off that horse…”
George's face contorts with irritation and he starts to swing from his horse. Abruptly, he stops, hearing ringing through his head the words he had just give to his son the night before: "It takes more courage and strength to stand by and hold one’s temper than it does to pitch head-long into a free-for-all. Son, I know how you blood boils…you are my son. My hot Burke blood runs in your veins. Stand fast, Bartholomew. Do not give in to taunts—you don’t have to prove yourself…”
Reseating himself firmly into his saddle, he remarks, “Mr. Hooper, allow me to take my own advice…good-day, sir.”
Both Aaron and Hooper look at him oddly, having no idea what on earth he was talking about. George frees his horse's head with a jerk and rides off, followed by Aaron. Hooper stares after them for a moment before shouting, “You coward!”
Suddenly, George wheels his horse and barrels down on Hooper, stopping short in front of the man. He leans down and looks him right in the eye.
“Mr. Hooper, I suppose you have your reasons…but I can’t think of a thing that I ever did to you to cause you to stoop so low. If you have a bone to pick with me, spit it out. There is more to this than the fact I scolded your son for pouncing on mine. Believe me, if it had been the other way around, my boy would have gotten whipped for such behavior. What is the matter with you, man?”
Hooper’s eyes narrowed: “Mister Burke, you better quit throwin’ your weight around here. You aren’t welcome.”
George sits up slowly and thoughtfully, never taking his eyes off the other man’s face.
“So that’s it!” He speaks as though he had finally discovered something of great interest.
Aaron had ridden back over, somewhat cautiously.
George's voice carries somthing of both amazement and disgust, “Money! Wealth! Influence! Mr. Hooper, if you want people to respect you, do your job with integrity and be a good citizen and neighbor. The amount of gold one carries in his pockets doesn’t make him a man to be respected."
Hooper bellows, “If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it! Now stay away from me and my family!”
“As you wish, Mr. Hooper.”
Once again, the Burkes’ ride off. Aaron sighs, “Well, that isn’t going to make this any easier.”
As they ride by the Hooper house, Sophia is hanging laundry with her mother. Both women look up and smile. Sohpia waves. Aaron returns the wave and smile, while George dofts his hat.
Mrs. Hooper (formally Mrs. Vale), a pretty woman, trots to the fence: “Mr. Burke!”
“Ma’am?” George had always liked the Vale's and Mrs. Vale's second marriage had not dimmed the high esteem he held her in.
She was glowing, “Sophia told me…I’m thrilled. Though I am a bit worried about what James will say when he finds out. You reckon you could get them away for a month or so while he cools off?”
George watches Aaron and Sophia a moment as they discreetly try to hide the looks they are sharing, laughs suddenly, then becomes very serious.
“Certainly, Mrs. Hooper. I will do everything I can. However, I have just been warned by your husband to leave his family alone, so I don’t think it would be most wise for him to catch us exchanging pleasantries…Good-day, Ma’am.”
Mrs. Hooper nods with an unhappy look crossing her face then turns back to her washing. Sohpia dimples up as Aaron winks at her as he turns away.
The Burkes are seated in Reverand Davis’ office. He is behind his desk, books and papers spread about it, unheeded at the moment.
Aaron is speaking, “My biggest concern is Mr. Hooper, sir. He can’t stand us Burkes for some reason and I doubt he will receive the news with any goodwill.”
The pastor inquired, “He lit into you a few days ago didn’t he, Aaron?”
Aaron nods, “Yes. I did rather stand on my right to at least talk to Sophia—pointing out that her parents never minded and indeed his wife had given me her blessing. I don’t suppose that helped matters any.”
Davis agrees, “I don’t imagine, but then again, like you say, he has no right over the girl—especially since you were already engaged. I’m just surprised that you haven’t come to me sooner.”
Aaron runs his hand through his hair, “Well, sir…Sophia was uncertain and afraid to make the step against
Mr. Hooper. She’s such a consciousness girl and didn’t want to be disrespectful. Then again, we didn’t have a parson for several months.”
“Or a justice of the peace for that matter…and Bowen refuses to perform a wedding. He says he isn’t qualified.” Goerge seems uncertain of Bowen's opinion of himself.
Davis smiles, “So, what exactly do you want me to do? I mean, other than perform the ceremony.”
Aaron muses, “What should we do with Mr. Hooper? I don’t want him to get into trouble, but neither do I want to be the brunt of his fists again."
Here he gingerly touches a bruise on his cheek.
Davis smiles slightly, “Would you like me to talk to him about how his behavior is un-Christian…he is envious and harming his fellow church members. This is not to be put up with. Really though, I didn’t realize he was a problem.”
Aaron admits, “He’s really gotten nasty the last few months. He wasn’t so bad for a while…maybe he suspected that I was seeing Sophia on the sly and that got his dander up.”
“Mr.Burke, you have tried speaking with him?” Davis turns to face the older man.
George nods, “This morning, in fact. All I got in return was insults and orders not to come near his family. We had always been friends with the Vales so being forbidden to speak to Mrs. Va…Mrs. Hooper, is going to be rather hard. She’s a kind lady.”
Davis assents, “She is that. A good woman, always ready to help those in need." He pauses, then says, "I will go and speak to Mr. Hooper about his conduct this afternoon.”
Mr. Burke advises, “Take someone with you…he’s a big man and I’m afraid not overly careful when it comes to throwing punches.”
The parson inquires micheviously, “You?”
George laughs, “I think that would be foolish under the circumstances. He would lock down before he started to listen if he saw me.”
The evening air is warm. Aaron sits on the front porch staring out over the land with a mixture of emotions on his face, day-dreaming. By now his brothers know what is going on and they stand around in various attitudes, watching their eldest brother as the light dims. George leans back with his pipe, paternal love and pride obvious to even the causual observer.
The sun goes down over the ranch, lightness of heart and tension about equal in the breasts of the Burke's old enough to really understand what was fixing to transpire.