Buck settled deeper into the saddle. He was only about two miles out from the way station in Big Sandy. Once there he would change horses for the final leg of his run back to Rock Creek. He was looking forward to getting home. With the pouring rain on the way out and now the mud, this run felt like it was lasting a week instead of just two days. He missed his own bunk, Rachel's cooking and Cat.
He missed Cat most of all. In the weeks since their picnic, they had become much closer. With his working at the MacKay ranch a day or two a week, he often saw her while they both worked with the horses. Cat also came into town often and would stop into the way station. They also went riding together regularly, sometimes back to the meadow and sometimes to other places of interest around Rock Creek.
They had both made an effort to follow Cat's suggestion at the picnic that they should get to know each other better and take it slower with the kissing. Not that they weren't kissing at all, he thought with a smile. Just the other night, before he left on this run, they had shared a rather intense kiss goodbye, until Cat's little brother came out on the porch and interrupted. Buck suspected that Ian actually disturbed them at the request of Cat's father. Ian certainly had no problem barging in and peppering Buck with numerous questions about the Pony Express, but Buck thought the timing seemed a little too convenient.
Callum MacKay was definitely keeping a close eye on his daughter's activities with Buck. Buck didn't find this too difficult, and he understood the older man's concerns. Although, he did initially think MacKay was going to prevent him from spending time with Cat altogether. The day after that first picnic with Cat, MacKay had stopped Buck to have a conversation specifically about Buck and Cat's relationship. Remembering it now still had the power to make Buck nervous.
He had been in one of the MacKay ranch barns tending to the horse he had been working with earlier, when Callum had appeared.
"Buck," he hailed jovially. "How has your first day of work here been?"
"Good. I've enjoyed it."
MacKay nodded. "That's good. That's good." He paused then before continuing. "I spoke with my foreman, Douglas. He says you have a nice light touch with the horses."
Buck smiled, happy his work met with approval. "I enjoy working with horses like this. For the Express we break the ponies for a hard job, but I think training like this gives you a better horse."
Callum nodded his agreement, and a silence fell between the two. Buck continued rubbing down the horse. "Buck," Callum abruptly broke the silence. "I need to speak with you about Catriona."
Buck immediately suspected the worst. Teaspoon was wrong, and Callum MacKay had no interest in letting a half-breed Indian anywhere near his daughter.
Unaware of the grim thoughts he had caused, Callum continued speaking. "I'm concerned about the amount of time you were gone yesterday on your picnic. I know you left here at eleven in the morning and weren't back until late in the afternoon."
Realizing that maybe it wasn't his Kiowa background that was the problem, Buck immediately began stammering out an apology. "I'm sorry. We got to talking and didn't know so much time went by."
Callum smiled, feeling, just for a moment, a bit of sympathy for the young man in front of him. "I spoke to my daughter, and she told me the same thing. Now I don't believe either of you are lying to me, but I remember what it was like when I was first spending time with my wife. It's easy to get carried away."
Buck flushed slightly, remembering those moments when he and Cat did get a little carried away, but then hastened to reassure the older man. "I would never do anything to-"
Callum raised his hand, effectively cutting Buck off. "I'm not questioning your honor. I think I have a good measure of the kind of man you are, and I also trust my daughter. But, as I said, it's easy to get carried away."
Buck took a breath, ready again to promise he would never do anything inappropriate with Cat.
"Also," Callum continued firmly before Buck could speak, "there are those who aren't as understanding as I, and they might think poorly of Catriona. You need to have a care for her reputation, lad."
"Yes, sir," Buck answered. He knew Cat's father was right, and with him being part Indian, folks would always think the worst of his actions.
"Now I'm not saying you can't spend time together," Callum went on. "I just expect you to be more mindful of the time or be in the company of others."
"We will," Buck agreed.
"I'm glad you understand, lad," Callum said. Then with a warning look, he added, "I'd hate to find my trust in you was misplaced."
"No, sir, it won't be," Buck immediately promised.
Callum nodded his acceptance. "Good." Then with an amiable clap to Buck's shoulder, Callum headed down the aisle of the barn. "We'll see you next week then, lad. Thanks for your work today."
As soon as Callum exited the barn, Buck dropped back to lean against the stall door behind him. He had been standing so tensely during the conversation with Cat's father that afterwards when he relaxed it seemed as if none of his muscles had the strength to hold him up. He reviewed the conversation in his head and realized it was a good thing. He could see Cat; he just had to be more aware of the time and how long they were alone together. He exhaled deeply and let his head drop forward.
"Is it safe to come out now?" Kid's voice interrupted Buck's solitude.
Buck's head promptly snapped up. "Did you hear the whole conversation?"
"Yeah, sorry," Kid answered, slightly embarrassed. "I came in through the tack room, and when I heard who was talkin', I thought it best if I just stay quiet and not interrupt."
"Yeah, you were probably right," Buck agreed. "Sorry you had to hear that though."
"Don't worry about it," Kid reassured him. "I think it was worse for you. Can't blame the man for worryin' about his daughter though." Both riders considered that thought for a moment, then, in an effort to break what had become a serious moment Kid spoke again. "Good thing for me and Lou that Teaspoon ain't an overprotective papa."
Remembering Kid's comment still brought a smile to Buck's face, but his memories of that day were cut short as the way station at Big Sandy came into sight. He had made better time than he had expected. With the fresh horse he was picking up here, he might make it to Rock Creek in time for lunch.
Rachel hummed quietly to herself as she hung the laundry out. She was thankful the sun had come out after all the rain in the past two days. She had been concerned that everyone would run out of clean clothes if she couldn't do some wash today. Although the weather had turned cooler, it was still warm enough that the wash should be dry by nightfall.
"Rachel, Rachel," called Lou, breaking into the station mistress' thoughts. The female rider was practically skipping towards Rachel in excitement.
"Lou, Lou," Rachel replied teasingly. "What're y'all so excited about?"
"I have a plan," Lou confided. "You know how I can't seem to find a new, ready-made dress to wear to the harvest dance?"
Rachel nodded in response. "I seem to remember you complainin' about that the other evenin'."
"Well, Kate is coming to lunch, and she's bringin' her new issue of the Godey's Lady's Book. We'll choose a dress pattern I like and then some material, and I'll sew a new dress." Lou finished her sentence on a triumphant note, happy to have solved her dance dilemma.
Rachel smiled at the younger woman's enthusiasm, but was hesitant to fully endorse the plan. "That sounds like a great idea, Louise, but are you sure you'll be able to finish the dress in time? I won't be able to help you much. My sewin' skills are only good for simple mendin', and makin' a dress is a big project."
"Don't worry, Rachel," Lou reassured the older woman. "I know what I'm doin'. My Ma took in sewin' to support us before she got sick. I used to help her."
"If y'all are sure then," Rachel replied.
"I am, but I have a favor to ask. Can Kate and I use your parlor while we go through the patterns?" Lou asked quickly, then added an explanation. "I don't want Kid to see, and you know how the boys will be."
Rachel smiled slightly at the thought of the boys' reactions to a bunch of dress patterns spread out on the table in the bunk house. "Of course you can use the parlor. I might even have some cookies left from yesterday's baking for y'all."
"Thanks Rachel!" Lou exclaimed. "I have to go get ready." With that she turned and headed back towards the bunk house in what was most definitely a skip.
Rachel laughed as she watched Lou go. "Don't go far!" She called after the excited rider. "As soon as I finish hanging this laundry, I'm putting lunch on the table."
As Lou came around the side of Rachel's house into the stable yard, she saw Cat riding into the yard on her black mare. Lou quickly changed directions to intercept the other girl. "Did you bring it?" she asked excitedly.
Cat laughed. "Why yes, I'm just lovely today, Louise. And how are you? Isn't the weather just beautiful after all the rain?"
"Ha ha," Lou replied with a grin. "Sorry. I'm just a little excited about doing this."
"Mmmm, I never would have noticed," Cat teased, and then dismounted from her horse. "I have it right here in my saddle bag." She reached up to open the bag and retrieve the magazine.
"Wait," Lou said. "Leave it for now. Rachel is about to serve lunch. We'll get it after, and use Rachel's parlor to go through the patterns. I want to surprise Kid the night of the dance with my new dress."
Cat smiled conspiratorially. "Okay, I'm assuming then that I shouldn't mention anything about it to anyone." She glanced around the stable yard casually as she spoke.
"If by anyone you mean Buck, then the answer's yes," Lou teased. Then she added with a laugh, "And you can stop looking around for him. He's not back from his run yet."
Cat blushed at Lou's words. "I thought maybe he'd be back by now."
Lou shook her head negatively. "Not with all the rain the last couple of days. It would slow him down for sure." Lou paused a moment and then suggested, "Let's take your mare into the barn and give her some hay and water. By the time we're done with that Rachel should have lunch ready."
After eating lunch in the bunk house, Lou and Cat settled down on the sofa in Rachel's parlor to begin flipping through the pages of the newest Godey's Lady's Book.
Cat frowned as she riffled through the pages looking for the patterns. "I haven't looked through the dress patterns yet, but the dress on the cover is pretty. I think the style would look good on you."
"Show it to me again," Lou requested.
Placing a finger in the magazine to hold her page, Cat closed the cover and turned it so Lou could see. "I think that neckline would be flattering."
Lou frowned at the drawing. "You don't think it would be too low?"
"No, but if you felt uncomfortable you could add a lace insert to make it more modest," Cat opined.
"I don't know," Lou hesitated. "Those flounces would need a lot of material. I might not have enough money to buy all I needed."
Cat nodded. "Let's look at the other dresses. I'm sure there are other good ones."
The two began studying the different patterns. Some they rejected immediately as being too plain for a dance, while others just weren't in a style they liked.
"What about this one?" Lou asked, pointing out a high-necked dress pattern.
"Only if you want to be Teaspoon's niece, the spinster," Cat replied firmly.
Lou laughed. "It's not that bad."
"It's boring," Cat said as she determinedly turned to the next page. "You can do much better."
Lou's eyebrows rose at the drawing of the next dress. It was very fancy and rather low cut for wear to a Rock Creek event. "Here's a dress for you Kate. I think Buck would like seeing you in that."
Cat had already started to turn to the next page. She looked closer at the previous drawing, and her eyes widened. "Um, I don't think I have enough up top to fill out that dress." She giggled then added, "Unless I padded, then it might work." She shot Lou a mischievous look. "Maybe you could do that. You wanted to surprise Kid, didn't you?"
Lou blushed then joined in giggling. "I think that would be more of a surprise than Kid could take. I can just imagine the look on his face."
Both girls broke into full laughter at that thought. Catching her breath, Cat gasped out, "And imagine the looks on the faces of the old town matrons, like Mrs. Miller!" This thought kept the pair laughing even longer.
Unnoticed by the two in the parlor, Rachel came to the door and was leaning on the jamb. She smiled to see the two young women enjoying themselves so thoroughly, particularly Lou. The female rider didn't have enough chances to enjoy the company of other young women her age.
"Have y'all found a dress pattern?" Rachel asked, startling the pair from their laughter. She moved into the room to look at the drawing the young women were studying. "Hmmm…I'm not sure that's exactly right for the harvest dance." Her comment sent both girls off into gales of laughter again.
"We're still looking, Rachel," Lou reassured the station mistress.
Rachel nodded and settled down in the wing chair opposite the young women. "I'll just set here and work on the mendin' while y'all keep lookin', if that's all right."
Cat glanced up from the book and nodded. "We could use your help, Rachel. The only dress Lou liked so far was plain."
"I'd like your help, Rachel," Lou chimed in.
Rachel smiled at both girls as they turned back to the magazine. The two continued to flip through the dress drawings, and Rachel picked up a shirt of Cody's that needed a hole in the elbow fixed. The room was quiet except for the sounds of the flipping pages.
"This is it!" Cat's voice broke the hush of the parlor.
Lou frowned. "There's a lot of stuff on the skirt," she commented.
"But you can leave that off," Cat suggested. "Just keep this drape. That's stylish right now, and then don't put on the netting and ribbon."
"Hmm…," Lou debated. "What do you think Rachel?"
Rachel took the proffered magazine and studied the drawing. "There is a lot of detail on the skirt, but I think Kate's right. It can be left off." She continued to examine the picture. "I think the neckline would be very pretty on you, Lou."
"Yes," Cat interjected. "It's not so high that it's boring, but it's not so low that you'll be uncomfortable."
"Maybe," Lou replied, warming up to the idea. "What color do you think would look good?"
"I suppose it will depend on what Mr. Tompkins has at the store, but a deep rose would look good on you," Cat answered.
"That's true," Rachel agreed. "That's not a color I think I've seen you in, Lou, but it would suit you."
Lou studied the dress again, considering her options. "I think I saw some lace that would look nice for the trim. I'm not sure though," she considered. "I couldn't look real close 'cause people would be wonderin' why a boy was goin' through the lace in Tompkins' store," she added with a wry grin.
"How are you going to buy the material and trim?" Cat asked curiously.
"Were y'all plannin' on buyin' something when you're out on a run?" Rachel asked.
Lou frowned thoughtfully. "I looked a little, but I ain't seen nothin' I liked. I was thinkin' maybe, Kate, you could be going through the fabric at Tompkins' while I was there. Kind of like when you were lookin' for the material for curtains." Lou smiled then as another idea occurred to her. "Rachel you could be there too. I could be helpin' you get supplies, and Kate asks for your help choosin' something."
Cat nodded. "That could work, and Mr. Tompkins does have a good selection."
Lou looked at Rachel. "What do you think?"
"I was plannin' on pickin' up some supplies tomorrow," Rachel replied with a smile.
"Perfect!" Lou exclaimed excitedly. "Can you be there tomorrow Kate?"
"Sure, tomorrow is fine."
Lou bounced excitedly in her seat. "Oh good. I can't wait." She looked inquiringly at Cat. "And you don't mind helpin'?"
The smile faded from Cat's face. "I, uh, I don't mind helping you pick out the material and trim, but, um, the thing is, you really don't want my help with the sewing." As she spoke, Cat picked nervously at the trim on her dress. "My sewing isn't that good."
"Don't worry," Lou reassured her. "I just meant getting the material, although I kind of figured sewin' was one of those things you'd be good at."
"No," Cat sighed. "The thread always wants to tangle up and knot, and then the needle pricks my finger, and I get blood spots on the material."
"Well," Lou responded with a teasing grin, "then I guess you won't be sewin' a shirt for Buck for Christmas."
"Nobody would want to wear anything I sewed." Cat replied with a roll of her eyes.
Rachel chose that moment to break into the conversation. "Perhaps y'all should make a list of everythin' you need to buy tomorrow, how much material and trimmin's. Kate will need to know how much she needs to buy during our playactin'."
"Do you have a measurin' tape there, Rachel?" Lou asked. "We'll need to take my measurements so we can figure out how much material I'll need."
Rachel leaned down and began sorting through her sewing basket. After a few moments she found the measuring tape at the bottom. She passed the tape on to Lou. "Do y'all need help with the measurements?"
"I can help Lou," Cat answered. Then with a wry smile she added, "I'm fine with the measuring, it's just my sewing that's bad."
"If you're sure," Lou said with a teasing grin as she handed the measuring tape to Cat.
"We've spent all this time thinkin' about what Lou's wearin' to the dance, Kate, but you never said what you're wearin'," said Rachel with an inquiring look.
"Well, I haven't really thought, I mean, I don't know…" Cat hedged a bit, not knowing how to answer.
Lou's eyes widened as she realized what the problem was. "Hasn't Buck asked you to the dance yet?" she burst out.
Cat blushed. "No," she replied in a low voice.
Lou and Rachel exchanged looks across the table. Cat was concentrating hard on stirring the sugar into her tea. "I was thinking I would just go with my Da," she said into her cup. She then looked appealingly towards Lou and then Rachel. "Young ladies do that, right? They don't all have beaus, do they?"
"Of course they don't all have beaus," Rachel responded reassuringly. She leaned forward and squeezed Cat's hand comfortingly. "Lots of young ladies go to the dances with their families." Then with a laugh she added, "That's what 'Teaspoon's niece' here will be doin'."
Lou smiled briefly at Rachel's comment and then pursed her lips. "I don't understand why Buck hasn't asked you yet. Maybe he thinks you'll turn him down?"
"I don't see how he would, with all the time we've spent together."
"I agree with you, but one thing I've learned livin' with the boys in the bunkhouse," Lou confided, "is that underneath all that big talk they can be kind of unsure about stuff. They just don't like anyone to know."
"Maybe," Cat said doubtfully.
"Still," Lou mused, "maybe I could say some-"
"No, don't!" Cat interjected before Lou could complete her thought.
"But I could just let him know you ain't goin' to say no." Lou attempted to reassure Cat.
"Please don't say anything, Lou," Cat pleaded.
"But if-," Lou tried to continue.
"Promise me you won't."
"Okay I won't," Lou stated grudgingly. Cat raised her eyebrows and looked at Lou pointedly, waiting for the actual statement. Lou sighed. "I promise."
"Thank you," Cat said with a relieved breath.
"I just don't see why," Lou grumbled.
Cat sighed. "If it isn't his idea to take me to the dance, I don't want him to ask me. I don't want him to feel like he should just because you told him I want to go with him."
"Well," Lou said, "when you put it that way, I guess I understand why you'd feel like that. But," she added stoutly, "he's a fool if he doesn't ask you."
"Thanks Lou," Cat said as she smiled gratefully at Lou's loyalty.
"Hmm..," Rachel interrupted the younger women's conversation. "Speak of the devil."
Both girls followed Rachel's gaze out the front window into the stable yard. Buck had just ridden in and handed off the pouch to Cody. Kid came out of the bunkhouse and took Buck's mount off to the stable for a grooming and some grain, leaving Buck to go wash up and find his own late lunch.
"I should get back to the ranch," Cat stated. "I still have some chores to take care of this afternoon."
Cat's statement broke up the tea party and the women all stood and began clearing the table. Once the teacups and saucers had been placed in the sink and the left over cookies put away, Rachel shooed the younger women out to the barn to get Cat's horse.
Walking Cat's mare into the stable yard, Lou smiled excitedly at Cat. "Thank you for helpin' me choose a dress pattern. And for helpin' tomorrow too. I can't wait to start sewin' this dress."
Cat's expression cheered at the sight of her friend's excitement. "I'm glad to help, Lou. I know Kid will be speechless when he sees you all dressed up for the dance."
Cat tightened her mare's girth and then mounted. As she collected the reins, Buck came out onto the porch of the bunkhouse. Seeing Cat, he waved and began walking towards her and Lou. Cat glanced quickly at him and away, then kicked her horse into a canter and rode away. Buck watched in surprise as she rode off.
"Why did Cat leave so fast?" Buck asked Lou as she walked by on her way into the bunkhouse.
"As if you didn't know," Lou snorted as she let the door slam behind her.
Buck frowned. He didn't know, but obviously Lou thought he should. He wondered what he could have done to make both females angry with him. When he left for his run he knew Cat was not upset. He didn't think she would have kissed him goodbye so willingly if she had been angry at him. He sighed. Every time he thought he understood women, something happened and he realized he really didn't understand them at all.
Author's Note: Thanks to Ellie & Raye for great beta work!
To be continued...