Miles and miles of dirt, ‘cacti’ and rocks. The heat inside the stage was stifling and the carriage’s only occupant fanned herself most ardently with her sandalwood fan. Normally, the intricate carving on the fan would have been a point of amusement, but after hours and hours of rocking and lurching inside the stage, the ache in her behind had grown and found its way into her head.
Restlessly, she shifted her skirts and felt the most welcome breath of air against her legs. If she had the courage, she’d lift the curtain again and ask the driver how much longer it would be until they reached Rock Creek. The only thing that stopped her was the thought of incurring another scathing look from that dirty, dirty man.
“Oh ho!” The call came from the Driver’s Box. “We’ve got company!”
Two shotgun blasts reported over her head and a smile smoothed over her face, “Finally.”
“Ya.. Get up!” The driver snapped the reigns and the passenger of the stage found herself thrown against the opposite seat.
“Oh!” She smoothed her hair and righted herself on the seat, grimacing as the carriage lurched over another bump in the road. The coach swept down a hill and she flung her arms out and braced her hands against the insides of the coach. “Dear Me...” Shots came from behind the coach and shouts could be heard, riding closer and closer.
A large jolt and her hat nearly fell in her lap, held on only by a hat pin and a prayer. Shots echoed overhead and she clasped her hands over the edge of the seat. “Will they just give up already! OH!!!!”
The coached stopped in an instant and she found herself on her knees. “Whoa!” The team whinnied as they ground to a halt, pawing at the ground beneath their hooves.
Once she was certain that they had indeed come to a stop, she pushed herself up and landed her backside onto the leather seat.
“Stay inside Miss!” Came the call from the front. “They look like a dangerous lot! No tellin’ what they want.”
“I expect it’s our strongbox ma’am,” called the shotgun, “but a woman as pretty as you is sure to catch their eye-”
“-so you best be hidin’ your pretty little face until they’re gone.” She finished the line for them, she’d heard it every year of her life for the last four and it never changed. “Unfortunately, this is the first year I wore a hat!”
Horses thundered up along side them and several more shots were fired. “Keep your hands up! We’ll be takin’ all yer valuables!”
“You can’t mean the strong box!”
Raucous laughter found it’s way inside the coach, “Of course we mean the strongbox and any other valuables you’ve got hidden away inside.”
Rolling her eyes, she pulled out a tiny silver gilt mirror from her reticule and listened for the rumble of the wagon to pull up behind them. Several minutes grinded past as did the silence outside her window. There was a tiny rumble outside... male voices. “Where is he?”
“He was with us over that last ridge, did you lose him?’
“Me? Why are you blaming me?”
“Cause you were the last one over the hill...did you see him?”
“I thought I saw him, there was enough dust flyin’ up in the air for two carriages.”
“So why didn’t-”
The stagecoach door flew open and she climbed out onto the top step, hair and hat askew, “Are we about ready to take the picture?”
Five pairs of eyes stared back at her, “We ain’t even finished the robbery yet!”
“Yeah.. and the ...the..” He was new, his pale skin dotted with freckles and a rather liberal sunburn across his cheeks. He looked about for one of his ‘partners in crime’ to help him out.
“Kidnapping,” his companion provided. He was older, perhaps in his twenties with a handsome face. His looks were only marred by the growth of whiskers on his chin, short but thick and wiry.
Tired and hot, she had her own priorities. “Well, let’s get it over with... its been a long day and I’d really like to make it to Rock Creek in time for the evening meal and a bath.”
She shook her head, at least the youngest one had the temerity to look a bit sympathetic, tipping his hat to her, “We’re mighty sorry miss, we thought Mr. Albright was right behind us.”
“Spoiled brat” The third ‘outlaw‘, who’d remained quiet until this moment finally grumbled the comment under his breath.
“I heard that,” came her sassy retort.
He leered and bobbed his head, “It’s all part of the act ma’am.”
“Fine.” She smoothed her skirts and stepped down out of the coach, “why don’t we get the robbery and .. kidnapping,” she nodded to the younger man, “over with and call it a day...” The three on horseback drew their weapons, the quiet one shot a single bullet into the sky. She covered her ears after the fact and continued, “We’ll just tell my fa-”
Shots came from over the hill to their left. “Drop your weapons!”
She stared into the dying sunlight, shock carved in her expression, “Who is that?”
The three gunmen looked at each other in askance, “We ain’t got a clue.”
“Well, we’ve got company,” the stubbly one ducked as a shot flew overhead, “and he ain’t friendly. I’m outta here!”
The first reined in and rode off past the stage. The shotgun and the driver slid down to the ground and each clamored up behind one of the other riders.
“Let’s go Johnny!” The stage driver drove his heels into the younger man’s mount. With an outraged cry from the horse they took off after the first man.
She called out to the third horseman and his rider, “Where do you-,” they thundered past, “where do you think you’re going?”
The one that had dared to leer at her before had the nerve to wave at her, “We ain’t paid enough for this lady.”
Then she was alone.
Alone, except for the lone gunman barreling down toward her.
She was tall, tall and gorgeous. That was his first impression. The look of fear on her face was all too real. Her hands pressed open against the outside of the stagecoach while the men around her brandished weapons. “Drop your weapons!”
The men turned around at the sound of his voice. Raising his gun level with his eye he shot another bullet, his first few shots had caught their attention and all he wanted to do was give her a chance to get away. ‘Besides, I’m up against 5 men, my pride’s gonna get me killed one of these days..”
He sunk his heels into his horse’s flanks and leaned over her neck. They raced down the slope together, both intent on reaching her side... where are they going? “Stop!”
‘What am I saying? Five to One? Leave ... leave, I don’t need to get shot!’
He slowed his mount as they approached the stagecoach and took the time to look around. You never know when there‘d be one more waiting.
She was pushing herself up against the outside of the coach like she was tryin’ to wish herself through the wall and back inside, “It’s alright,” he told her, “They’re gone-”
“Who do you think you are!? If you’re going to rob me,” she threw her little drawstring purse at him and gaped as it bounced off his chest, “Then... hurry..up and,” her voice shrank word by word and nearly stopped as he slid off his horse. She tried to move away from him, but only pressed herself up against the coach again, “and... take my money.”
He held her purse out to her by the strings, “I ain’t here to rob you.” He smothered a bitter laugh as she snatched the purse from his fingers, his tightlipped half grin eased her fright a bit. “I tried to rescue you.”
He shook his head as she stalked away from him. She threw open the door to the stage and whirled around to level him with a withering look, “I didn’t need rescuing, and now .. thanks to you-” she leaned into the stage reaching for one of her bags, only the curved arch of her bottom visible beyond the gaily painted door.
He couldn’t help himself, her soft skirts, well they really ..um... fitted her well. A big lump lodged itself in his throat. “and now thanks to me-?”
A large overstuffed tapestry bag hit the dirt near her feet. She straightened and set her gloved hands on her hips, “Thanks to you, I’m alone.. in the middle of NOWHERE!” She took a step forward, her brown eyes flashing golden sparks, “My father’s expecting me... and the... I mean.. the ...well .. you know.. UGH!” She kicked at the dirt, sending a cloud spreading through the air, “Why am I explaining this ... to you?”
‘Alright,’ he thought, ‘she’s pretty, but the next time she scolds me like a schoolboy, I’ll-’ “Look Miss, If you don’t need me... I guess I’ll be headin’ on home.” He turned and walked back to his horse and in one smooth movement he swept up onto her back.
She stared at him, her pale skin coloring with anger. “Wait,” she whispered, “Wait!!”
He turned back toward the hill he rode in on and was about to send his mount into a gallop when ‘she’ ran out in front of him. Her bun hung down at her neck, thick waves had escaped their pins, “You can’t just leave me here!”
He pulled his hat brim down a bit, “I can’t, can I?”
‘That tone,’ he certainly could prick her anger, “No you can’t, it’s your fault I’m left here alone. Now, you’ve an obligation to see me safely to the next town.. no matter how far.. or how long we have to travel-”
Rolling his eyes at her exaggerated gestures and moaning voice, he nodded his head along with the cadence of her words, “Just over the hill.”
She stopped in a moment, a puzzled look on her face, “I’m sorry... what did you just say?”
It was his turn to sing-song an answer to her, “The next town.. is just over.... the hill.”
She turned three shades of purple. “Then why didn’t you say so?” The scathing outburst was shocking even to her own ears.
He shrugged, “You never asked.”
She turned and tried desperately to control her temper. Winning for just a moment, she turned back to him. “Well, what are you waiting for... get my bags.”
His face pursed up like he had bit into a lemon, “Your what?”
She walked right up to his knee, “So you can take me to town.”
“I’ll take you, but those bags stay here.”
Drawing herself another inch taller she slanted her eyes at him, “My bags go.. or I don’t go!”
He looked up into the setting sun and caught sight of a bird circling around, “Well, suit yourself, but the longer we take.. well then that bird up there may just decide he’s hungry enough to take a bite out of one of us.”
Her hands grabbed at his leg, her nails pinching into his skin through the thick fabric, “What bird?”
He pointed out the silhouette of a large winged creature in the sky, “Right there.. that vultur-”
She screeched and swung up behind him on his horse. He smiled as her arms wrapped around his waist, she held him so tight he could barely breath. “Let’s go,” she commanded.
“Fine, we’ll get you to town and you can hire some poor wretch to fetch your bags back for you.” He clicked his tongue and his horse looped toward the hill top. “By the way... what’s your name?”
She went rigid against his back, “What do you need to know that for?”
“Don’t you think I deserve to know-”
“What you deserve is a swift kick--”
“What? I don’t think I heard-”
“Never mind!” She knew he wasn’t goin’ to give up, “Lorilei... my name is Lorilei McKay.”
“Lorelei.” There was laughter in his voice. The sound grated on her gentle born nerves.
She set her spine ram-rod straight, “And what is YOUR NAME?”
He goaded his palomino into a teeth clattering gallop, “I’m James Hickok, at your service.”
They arrived in town as the sky was darkening in preparation for a storm, “Providence smiles on me again!”
Jimmy smiled as she huffed out the statement. ‘She sure has a temper‘. His smile doubled.
They pulled up outside the Saloon, not because it was the best place to stop, but Lorilei saw some familiar horses outside and wouldn’t stop pounding on his back until he turned around.
He lifted his shoulder between them, tryin‘ to block her stinging blows. “Hey... stop that!”
“You’re not listening to me!”
He whirled around, “I ain’t got no choice but to listen to you, you’re screamin’ in my ear!”
She leaned back an inch and nearly slipped off the back of the horse. “Oh my goodnes-”
Jimmy grabbed a wrist and hauled her back up behind him. “Will you stop yellin’ and hold on?”
She grabbed onto his shoulders and held on, diggin’ into his arms, “I’m holdin’.. I’m holdin...”
He threw her a look over his shoulder, “Now, button it.” Sundance wheeled under Jimmy’s unspoken command and they circled back to the Saloon. The three horses he’d seen gathered around the stage earlier that day were standing at the hitching post, meekly bobbing their heads into the water trough.
“See they’re here.” Her tone was triumphant and irritating.
“Well, now you’ll see that what I said is true!”
“That your ‘father’ hired them to rob you? For fun?”
She nodded, “Exactly!”
“Strangest family I’ve ever heard of!”
She shrugged as if it was an afterthought. “It’s my vacation!”
Jimmy shrugged, “Well, lets go.”
She held out her hand. The kid gloves she wore were now lightly soiled with dirt and the tip of one finger had been worn off sometime during this morning’s misadventures.
He looked at it with confusion and a measure of disdain, “What’s that for?”
She represented her hand, “my hand.”
He shook his head and rolled his eyes up at the gathering clouds, “I ain’t dumb!”
Lorilei’s mouth gaped open, “What! I never.. what makes you...when did I...? Oh! you are so infuriating!”
‘I feel the same way.’
“You’re supposed to help me down.”
“Down?” A curious brow arched over a suspicious eye.
“Yes,” she sighed, “down.”
“Fine.” He took her hand in his and slumped down in the saddle, waiting.
Lorelei scooted back over the rump of the horse and slid her left leg back. She felt for the raised walk with the toe of her leather boot. Gripping Jimmy’s hand with all of her strength .. she slid down farther, ‘This horse is a giant.’
Silk has a way of screaming as its being torn apart.
Her foot set down on the uneven wood and she found herself staring at the saddle blanket beneath Jimmy’s leg. “Oh no.”
“What was that!?”
“What?” She sounded unsure, even confused.
Her shoulders heaved another breath out. “My skirt.”
A heavy rumble rippled through the air and the sky split open drowning them in water. Lorilei felt it warm and think down her neck... the pins in her hair fell out, landing chunks of wet hair on her shoulders. “OH!”
Jimmy slid of Sundance and walked up to her, “You oughta get inside-”
She looked up, anger seething through her eyes and the rain, “You...”
Shock pure and simple, he leaned back, “What?”
“You!.. I can’t believe... ..it’s RAINING!”
“Yes... and you should go inside before-”
She whirled around on her heel and stomped toward the open doorway.
Jimmy gave in and felt a half smile curve his lip, “Women!”
Inside, no one seemed concerned about the torrents of rain pounding the street and roof. Instead, the men in the Silver City Saloon were all bent over card tables and drowning in their own problems. What did catch their attention was the drenched young woman that stumbled in through the doors. “Where are they?”
Every eye in the house stared back, blank and swimming in alcohol. All except for the five men cowering in the back corner.
The bartender tried in vain to catch her attention. “Miss.. miss.. ah... this is not really a place-” she marched past him and he had to call after her, “for a young lady.”
The bartender stepped back as Jimmy sauntered past, the pearl handled colts were identification enough. The young man shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t waste your time, she don’t seem to be in the mood to listen to anyone.”
The man nodded in agreement, more from fear than actual comprehension, but if he had had his wits about him, he would have seen the smirk on Hickok’s face.
Lorilei planted her feet a scant foot from the felt covered table. Her hands on her hips, she glared at each man in turn, “My father will hear about this!”
The stage driver was a bit too far into his cups to provide any kind of answer, but the young beamish boy that had stammered his way through the botched robbery seemed real talkative after a few beers, “We know ma’am.. and we feel awful sorry for leavin’ ya-ow!”
One of the others slugged him on the shoulder. “Keep quiet.”
“Quiet?!” Her scream even stopped Jimmy in his tracks. “You leave me out there... in the middle of NOWHERE, to face a GUNMAN!”
The younger boy looked around her at Jimmy, “Don’t look like he did you no harm-”
“OH!” She hit the table knocking a few glasses on their sides, “You didn’t know that when you left... you’re all a bunch of cowards!! Sniveling, yellow cowards!”
Before the gun could clear the table top she threw a glass at the man’s head. He got up the gumption to protest, “No one calls us cowards!”
“I just did.”
“Lorilei.” Jimmy called her and she froze, hearing the subtle warning in his voice. They all had guns.. but she ... she was angry.
“They aren’t going to do anything... not with my father on his way.”
She whirled around. “What?”
He just stared back at her.
“Look at what happened to my skirt-” she held open the torn edges of her skirt. The petticoat came open as well and Jimmy caught sight of one well turned leg wrapped in her rain soaked drawers.
He took a step forward but she turned to the men at the table. “Do you see?” They all sat forward in their chairs as she showed them the damage to her skirts and unknowingly allowed them a tempting view of her near naked leg.
“Well hell ma’am... we’re right sorry about-”
“Lorilei-” Jimmy’s tone was sharper.
“You better be..” She opened it further and one man nearly fell off his chair. “Don’t you see-”
Jimmy closed the distance and spun her around by her shoulders, “Are you out of your ever lovin’ mind?”
She stared into his face, wide-eyed in shock, “What do you mean?”
His eyes half closed as he leveled a look into her face, “You. Givin’ those gun totin’ idiots a nice close view of your legs!”
Her mouth turned into a nice rounded “O”, “I did not!”
Jimmy let go of her shoulders, “Yes you did!”
“You’re just chalk full of it...I did no such thing.”
“I think you’re just making this up... I think you’re just tryin-”
“You’re tryin’,” he smirked at her.
“Wha-” she gasped in a breath as the slight registered in her mind. “I can’t believe you just said that! I’ll have you know that I am a proper young la-”
“Proper my foot!”
“I can’t believe you just said- no one has ever said that to me.. ever!” She drew herself up in her muddy boots and stared him straight in his face.
Those sparks were back in her eyes again.
“I’ll have you know-” she began, “That no one.. has ever had the... the bad manners to say that to me..”
He grabbed her shoulders again, pulling her up against him, “Well, it’s about damn time.”
She melted the moment his lips slanted over hers.
Neither one noticed the hoots and hollers from the men at the table.
Her momentary weakness passed as she realized what was happening. Wrapping her arms around his waist she kissed him back.
Raindrops dripped from the brim of his hat into her hair, but she didn’t feel it.
Jimmy, on the other hand was feelin’ everything. From the roots of his hair to the soles of his boots, he held onto Lorilei like a dyin’ man holds onto a canteen in the middle of a desert. She pricked his anger and stirred his blood like no other woman had. Yep, he’d be more that happy to keep kissin’ her until the next decade.
“What in tarnation-?”
Jimmy was pulled out of her arms and leveled to the floor with a punch to the jaw.
He looked up as he rubbed his jaw, “Who the hell are you?”
“Duncan McKay! And who, may I ask are you, that you think you can paw at my daughter in the middle of this.. this.. drinking establishment?”
“Her father?” Jimmy looked up at Lorilei to see her nodding her head, her expression quite green.
He pointed a finger in her direction, “You, young lady, are in serious need of a hot bath. Go upstairs to my room and I’ll have the staff draw one for you.”
“Father-” her tone became a mite stronger.
“Upstairs!” He turned back as Jimmy was finding his feet again, “While this young man and I have a talk.”
She stood there rooted to the ground.
Seeing her defiant stance he lowered the boom, “You had best be ready to go. We’re leaving on the next stage.”
“You’re not serious!”
“Try me young lady.”
“Guess he forgot about us!”
Mr. McKay leveled a look at the five drunken men, “You should be so fortunate. I’ll deal with you boys later.”
Lorilei paused halfway up the stairs, “Father... you be nice-”
“Nice my dear? Nice is not what I had in mind.” He moved to an open table and held out his hand toward another chair, “Care to sit down?”
Jimmy slid the chair out and settled into it.
She said a little prayer as they disappeared from her line of site.
Less than an hour later, the storm had cleared and so had the haze from her mind. A clean dress, a bit wrinkled from its stay in her trunks, was now settled over her perfumed skin. As she did her hair before the mirror she noticed the color on her cheeks, certainly a pleasant shade, “Certainly a pleasant kiss-” ‘Oh my, did I say that out loud?’
Her father’s trunks still littered the hallway, he hadn’t unpacked.. and knowing his temper they’d be leaving as he said, on the next stage.
Well at least she’d kept a few things in her father’s bags, or she’d be forced to wear her dirty, water soaked dress with all of it’s tatters and tears. She smoothed her hands over the soft wool of her jacket, “This is much better.” ‘At least,’ she thought, ‘at least until we pick up my bags.’
She smiled as she thought about how she’d ordered Jimmy to bring her things along like a servant. She’d known that it would prick his temper and she reveled in it at the time. Now, she’d give anything to go back and live it all again. She shuffled her feet while she tried to clear her head. Jimmy Hickok certainly was a welcome distraction from the ‘usual’ family vacation.
“And where in tarnation is that photographer?!”
She heard her father’s tone and decided she’d better get downstairs before her father punched someone else. With a certain amount of trepidation, Lorilei made her way down the stairs.
Lorilei half expected to see guns drawn and tempers flaring between her father and Jimmy. She balled the peplum of her jacket in her hand and stepped lightly down the wooden steps. What she saw when she reached the bottom of the stairs made her blink and shake her head to clear her vision.
Jimmy sat at the table with her father, pouring him another beer. Her father, for his part was laughing hysterically at some unheard joke. He leaned back in his chair his eyes tearing with laughter.
She paused on the stairway, her mouth gaping open.
Her father caught sight of her first and waved her down, “Lorelei! Come here darling!”
“Father? Are you feeling alright?”
“OH! Fine darling.. just fine!” He waved his hand in Jimmy’s direction. “Young Mr. Hickok here was just telling me about your day. Quite a whopper of a story my dear.. quite different from last year.”
Lorilei paused behind her fathers chair, acutely aware that Jimmy’s cool gray eyes looked her over. “I’d say it was a relief, but the gunplay this year was almost too real-”
Jimmy sat up in his chair, preparing for a fight. His eyes grew sharp in the lengthening shadows, “As I told your father, I had no way to know you weren’t in danger-”
“I-” she interrupted, “I was just about to say that-”
“-and I was just about to say that we best be going, if we want to make Blue Creek tonight.”
Lorelei sputtered, “Father, we don’t really need to go today do we?”
The elder McKay lifted himself from the chair and set a comforting hand on her shoulder while he turned to address the sullen five at the back table. “You men, leave those glasses on the table and make your way upstairs. Bring my bags down and put them on the stage.”
The stage driver waved to the bartender for a refill but sat back with a cringe when he saw the disdainful look on Duncan McKay’s face, “Sir?”
“You, my kind sir, are in my employ as a driver.. am I correct?”
“Then kindly find your way to the bar and inquire about a pot of coffee.” The Stage driver stumbled to his feet and ambled past his employer, “Strong coffee.”
As the man ‘tucked tail’ and headed to the bar, McKay called after him, “I’ve already sent men to fetch the stage, I’d like you to be ready when it arrives.”
Jimmy took a step closer to Lorilei, wanting to have a moment with her... before she left on the stage. Mr. McKay had other ideas, “Mr. Hickok, tell me more about this Pony Express job you have...” They walked right past Lorilei, “it sounds fascinating.”
Lorilei stomped her foot into the floor, “Oh!”
Turning at the sound, Jimmy caught her sticking her lip out in a childish pout. He winked and saw her eyes go wide at the gesture. While he turned back he chuckled, hearing her thinly veiled curses as she stomped back up the stairs.
Duncan McKay was a man of varied interests and skills, among them was an uncanny ability to drive his daughter to the brink of insanity.
The stage screeched into town before Lorilei had a chance to get Jimmy alone and it wasn’t until she stepped up inside the stage that she felt his hand under hers again. She looked over at him, her eyes filled with questions, “Jimmy, I-”
“It certainly was nice meeting you Miss McKay.”
Lorilei’s heart fell into the dust at her feet, “It.. ah. it certainly was nice to meet you as well,” she’d stammered through the first part, but she grated out the rest with practiced aplomb, “Mr. Hickok.”
She turned away and leaned into the carriage, but Jimmy still had her hand. He pulled her back, “Lorilei-”
Her eyes shone with frustration, “Yes?”
“Don’t be angry. Your father‘s watchin‘-”
She bit back a tear, “I don’t care.”
“Yes,” he sighed, “You do... but-”
“This isn’t what I want-” They both said it at the same time, lookin’ at each other in surprise.
Her father interrupted again, “Lorelei, darling, I need to get back to my business.”
She sighed and ducked into the coach, smoothing her skirts beneath her as she settled down against the padded seat.
Jimmy closed the door and latched it shut. “You both have a safe trip.” He tapped the door and gave the signal to the driver. The stage lurched forward, pulling away from his hand. He stood there watching it, unsure of what else to do.
It ground to a halt a few buildings down the street.
Lorilei appeared, leaning half out of the window, “Jimmy!” She was waving her hand above her head.
“Crazy fool, she’ll fall and break her neck.”
“Jimmy” she called again.
He walked closer, “What is it?”
She grinned from ear to ear, “I’ll be back... just as soon as I can.”
He was a few steps away, “Oh? How do you know that?”
“I’ll find a way. I only know I will be back.”
Duncan McKay shook his head, “I thought you hated these vacations?”
Lorilei shared a look with Jimmy, “Not this one.”
“Foolish child, I just don’t understand you. Why would you want to come back?”
She leaned further out of the window and kissed Jimmy, startling him as she pressed her lips against him in a brusque kiss. Lorilei pulled back a few inches and winked, “Well hell, I’m legal.”
The stage roared out of town to the calls of the frantic horses. Jimmy Hickok stood in the middle of the street, watching as the coach disappeared around the bend, a grin on his face, “Thank God for small favors.”