“Stop pushing,” chided Clara playfully, pushing her sister away. “I can’t see.”
“Well neither can I,” said Susan, the disappointment evident as she stood on her toes, using Clara’s shoulder for leverage. “Wait let’s move behind those crates,” she pointed to a stack of boxes at the entrance of the alley, “bet we can see ‘em from there.” Clara nodded enthusiastically at Susan’s mischievous grin. Keeping their heads down, they snuck over and stood behind the crates.
“Perfect,” whispered the two girls in unison.
From their vantage across the street, the two girls giggled as they watched the boys looking at the *poster*. The young men that held their interests were riders for the Pony Express and the announcement that held the men’s interest was the one the girls had put up the day before. The two were part of their families’ troupe and would be performing the next night.
“You think they’ll go?” asked Clara timidly.
Just two days before, as she and Susan were scouting the town for their family, she’d run into one of the riders – literally. And right now, she was watching him as he laughed with his friends.
“Oh Clara,” said Susan in an overly dramatic way. “We don’t even know ‘em so why are you worried either way?”
“No reason,” replied Clara casually, though she knew her sister wasn’t fooled.
“It’s that Indian isn’t it?” Susan poked her sister in the side but there wasn’t a hint of rancor in her tone.
“Stop it,” mumbled Clara, squirming away. But when she looked up at Susan, she grinned bashfully.
When she’d exited the general store, she’d bumped into the rider whose name she learned from the store owner was Buck Cross. Mr. Tompkins had yelled at Buck but the young man hadn’t even acknowledged that he’d heard him. A tingling sensation had slipped up Clara’s spine as he’d stared at her. She’d felt as if she was made of *glass* and that he could see right into her soul.
Her sister’s giggles brought her back to the present. “You silly girl,” teased Susan, “are you sure you should be puttin’ all your eggs in one *basket*?”
Clara’s brow furrowed. “What?”
“I mean there’s six of ‘em.” Susan laughed as Clara rolled her eyes. “So why pick one…even if it is a fine lookin’ basket to hold your eggs.”
The more she attempted to keep a stern expression the more Susan teased, until finally the two girls were laughing so hard, they didn’t realize the noise they were making.
“You girls havin’ fun?”
Startled out of their revelry, Clara and Susan looked up to see the very same boys they were supposedly spying on standing in a *horseshoe* around them. The two sisters exchanged nervous glances and stepped back. A disgusting squishing sound broke the silence as Clara put her foot down, and she realized she’d stepped in something awful. Unable to look, she closed her eyes and squeezed Susan’s arm.
“Ewwww,” moaned Clara as Susan couldn’t help but giggle. “I can’t move my foot.”
Suddenly a hand cupping her elbow caused her eyes to fly open. There he was, standing right beside her, so close she could smell the leather, hay, and the clean scent of soap. Completely mesmerized, she watched as he squatted down beside her, his hand trailing down to her hand.
“Put your hand on my shoulder to keep your balance,” he murmured and she did. It looked almost like he was going to propose and Clara swallowed hard. His lips curved into a soft smile. “May I?”
Confused, Clara stared at him. “He means can he touch your foot you ninny,” whispered Susan, though not so much that the others didn’t hear her. Clara blushed brightly and, glaring at her sister elbowed her in the ribs. The muffled laughter from their audience had both girls blushing now.
“Well?” Without looking at him, Clara nodded stiffly. This was the most humiliating and yet the most thrilling moment of her young life. The rustle of her skirts and a slight breeze, and she knew that he’d pushed them aside. Her whole body shivered as his hand wrapped around her ankle. If she hadn’t been wearing her boots, his hand would actually be touching her skin. That thought sent new waves of giddiness through her and a high-pitched giggle escaped.
“That poster said you both sing,” said the smallest of the group, “but I think y’all should do comedy.”
Everyone laughed as Clara and Susan exchanged curious looks. By the shape and size of the petite rider, and that his voice seemed to change while he was talking, the sisters figured they weren’t the only two actors in this group.
“Okay make that five,” muttered Susan, and another round of giggles burst from the sisters. Bemused, the boys shook their heads.
All the laughing threw Clara off balance and she squeezed Buck’s shoulder hard. “Sorry,” mumbled Clara as she looked down at the handsome man at her feet.
“It’s okay. And this is just mud,” reassured Buck as he removed a bandana from his pocket. Graciously, he wiped the mud from her boot, put the dirty neckerchief into his coat pocket, and helped her move to drier ground. She felt flushed as he stood next to her not leaving her side.
“You were lucky,” said Susan, nodding her head towards a pile of manure not far from where they were standing. The girls’ faces wrinkled in disgust.
“Not so lucky for you.” Susan glanced up to see the dark-haired rider, the one she and her sister found out was supposedly a gunman, pointing at the ground. She followed his finger down to where she was standing.
“Oh that is just nasty,” grumbled Susan. “Really, could men not spit their *tobacco* where people walk!”
“Well, most people don’t walk behind crates,” said the rider as he imitated what Buck had just done and squatted down beside her with a handkerchief in his hand. “What were you both doin’ back here?” Susan’s eyes widened and she gazed at her sister.
“Um,” hemmed Clara, “we were just…that is we thought we’d –”
“Look at the sights Sweetwater has to offer,” Susan cut in, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. Clara pursed her lips and clenched her fists to keep from doing bodily harm to her sister. The soft chuckle beside her made her close her eyes.
Jimmy stood up and smiled, stuffing the bandana into his back pocket. “Well, welcome to Sweetwater.” He touched his hat and continued, “I’m Jimmy, this here’s Cody, Lou, Ike, and that’s Bu –”
“Buck,” said Clara softly, staring at the man beside her. Realizing she’d actually said his name aloud, Clara turned away quickly but not before she saw the crooked smile and the spark in his eyes. “Heard that hateful man yelling your name.”
“Who? Tompkins?” asked Cody. “Buck ain’t special, Tompkins yells at ev’rybody.” But Clara hadn’t really heard him; she was concentrating on not looking at Buck.
“Guess we’ll be buyin’ tickets to the show,” said Lou playfully. A nervous silence settled on the two couples as Buck and Jimmy eyed Lou irritably.
“‘Scuse me fer interruptin’,” said an odd looking man with a bowler hat from behind the riders. The two sisters immediately liked the man as he tipped his hat and winked.
“Teaspoon,” said Cody, as if he was surprised to see the station master in town.
“Yes Mr. Cody,” responded Teaspoon, “do ya’ think you all can break away from this meetin’? I don’t believe the supplies will float into the wagon on their own.” Again, he doffed his hat to Clara and Susan and strolled towards Tompkins’ store.
“Gotta go,” groaned Lou. “Nice meetin’ ya’ and I guess we’ll see ya’ tomorrow night.” She tugged on Cody’s and Ike’s arms to get the two going.
“Nice to meet you both,” said Jimmy, though he only had eyes for Susan. “I’m definitely lookin’ forward to the show.” Taking Susan’s hand he bowed over it and kissed it. By her expression, Clara thought Susan was going to faint right there. Lou continued to tug on Cody, who found Jimmy’s actions very interesting.
“But, but,” stammered Cody, who was trying to stay but Ike decided to move to the other side and help Lou get Cody moving.
Clara watched the odd scene with little interest because her thoughts were on the man standing next to her. What should she say? Should she ask if he was going to the show? Or should she play coy and disinterested? So many doubts filled her head that she didn’t know what to do. Finally, Buck made the decision for her. He cleared his throat and she turned to face him.
“I best be getting over there,” he said softly. “It was nice to meet you.” For a brief moment, she thought he’d kiss her, which was silly but she hoped he would. As he started to leave, she stopped him.
“Here,” she whispered. Into his hand, she pressed a ticket. “Please do come to the show.” She released his hand quickly and dropped her eyes, clasping her hands in front of her.
“Oh I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said softly. He brushed his hand against hers, turned, and ran across the street.
“My, my,” murmured Susan as she laced her arm through Clara’s. “What a handsome pair they are.”
A slow, beguiling smile spread over Clara’s face. “Susan my dear, I believe we’ve found our baskets.”
A/N: word list prompt from Raye