If you haven't already, read this...and then this.
Catherine wasn’t daft enough to assume that her father had no sort of scheme up his well-tailored sleeve, but—seeing as she could not find the where or the why of it—she let the matter rest as it may. “Yes Daddy.”
“You were sure to pack your work clothes as well as a bit of your finery separate from all the rest, Cate?”
“You shall listen with all good-faith and respect to Mr. Sawyer.”
“The others, you have means to listen to, only should your own good judgment come to the first moment of failing you.”
She laughed a little, “Yes Daddy.”
“Blue stays, Cate, to travel with your mother and myself.”
“Now, Cate, you’ve spent a lot of your time on that colt, and I don’t want to see him taken by some silly accident.”
Catherine made her disagreement known in her tone, “Yes Daddy.”
“Daddy!” Her objection startled some of the waiting animals. “He won’t stay calm away from me for so long. And who am I to ride from here to San Francisco? Some flea-bitten nag not worth its hide in trade?”
“Catherine Louisa Rochester Van Yorne.”
She quieted immediately at the use of her full given name, then responded with an equally lackluster, “Yes Daddy.”
Robert watched in detached amusement as the family said their goodbyes. Catherine seemed resigned to her fate, even stood waiting patiently for the cow-horse to be brought up for her to ride. Yet, as the grooms trotted the small cluster of thoroughbreds back towards the stable car, her dark mood lifted a bit at the edges. Robert had seen enough of men and animals in his life to recognize a look like that when he saw it. There was nothing at all agreeable in Miss Van Yorne’s expression.
Catherine bided her time, waiting for the moment to present itself to her, as opposed to running for it like she wanted to. There was only one chance to get the thing right, and she wouldn’t jump the gun just because she was more angry then reasonable. Just as she suspected, one horse after another loaded into the car, but Yank shied away from the restarting engine. His groom lead him around and behind one horse after another, until there were no more left, and the train whistled its last warning before departure.
Catherine could hear her father shouting orders to the groom from the car ahead, trying to give him the magic set of cues that would put the big chestnut up the ramp and safely tucked away in his stall. The gears began to turn, steam hissing free from its captivity. Now, she thought and let out her own whistle in two tones; one high and short, the other low and long. Yankee went up on his hind legs, freeing himself easily from his flustered groom, then darted away from the train with the speed he’d become famous for. Breaking likewise from the group, Catherine sprinted to a trajectory slightly in front of where Yankee headed.
They came together like the whole thing had been choreographed. She reached back behind her for his thick mane, using his momentum and the leverage of her forearms on his shoulders to hall her up onto his bare back. Firmly seated, she reached forward as the long lead swung back, and caught that almost as easily. She let him chase the train for a bit, in that moment not caring a lick what her punishment might be whenever they finally made it into San Francisco. When he had his fill of freedom, she asked her oldest friend to turn back to where her astonished escorts waited.
That was the big secret to riding Yankee; instead of telling him where to go, you asked nicely. Usually, he’d agree.
Returning to the loose cluster of lawman and cowboys, Catherine dismounted and walked Yank to the only free, saddled horse left to the bunch. She switched the tack from the one horse onto Yank, tucking his lead and halter into her roll bag. That done, she mounted, and looked expectantly at the men on the ground before her. “Shall we, gentlemen?”
The men scrambled up and on to task, looking for all the world like a bunch of little boys caught off from work by the head boss. Robert, on his blue-eyed, grey-roan mount, trotted by and gave her a short tilt of his fingers to his hat. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought she heard him chuckling as he lead the way.
Robert tried not to watch Catherine set herself up for sleep in the camp’s single tent. Or, mores to the point, he tried not to let anyone notice him watching her buckle down for the night. She moved carefully, no doubt feeling her body’s objections to a nearly seven hour ride, but she hadn’t uttered a single complaint. She laughed when the jokes were appropriate, and pretended not to hear when the boys got too colorful for the ears of a lady. She led them all in a few songs, even told a story or two to help with the passing of time.
When they’d all made the decision to lay camp for the night, Catherine had carried at least her share of chores, and neither demanded nor took more than her ration of food. She’d quietly excused herself to take care of her personal business, and then returned to sit with the lot of them around the fire. Yankee, just as tired as the rest for his day’s efforts, stood quietly with the herd, happy to be fed, watered, untacked, and not trudging along more of the same rocky sand.
After hiding another yawn, Catherine wished the men a good sleep and turned into her tent to get some of her own. She removed her hat and boots; the first serving to remind him of how much hair she had hidden up in it, and the second proving him correct that she felt more discomfort than she let on. Swatches of rust-red stained her white stockings at the heel of one foot and the toe of the other.
Frowning, Robert went to where he’d staked out his sleeping spot and pulled a tin of lanolin and bit of rag out of his saddle pack. He carried his small offering to her slowly, wondering how, exactly, he could play the thing so that she obeyed without offense.
Finding himself at the open fold of the tent before coming to any real conclusions, he attempted casual conversation. “Long day in the saddle, Miss Van Yorne.”
She started, so intent on inspecting her bloody stockings, she hadn’t even noticed his approach. “Oh! Mr. Sawyer, you ‘bout scared me out of my skin!”
“Cate,” she corrected absently. “Did you need something, Mr. Sawyer?”
“Robert,” he countered likewise. “Your boots aren’t new, nor are your riding skills; but I gander that a lady like yourself has no reason to spend the entire day on horseback. Body and gear alike tend to forget themselves in the face of such a thing.” She said nothing to encourage him, but neither did she speak against his words. He continued, “I wasn’t much younger than you when I set out on my first drive west. I’d spent all sorts of time training horses for the solders in the Carolinas, so I didn’t figure it would be any different at tall to ride in a straight line for a whole day. I’d even bought new boots and chaps for the journey. The first day, I was far worse off than you are now. By the end of that first week, when we camped down, I couldn’t take either my boots or my chaps off me, seeing as they both had cut so deep into my skin. Santos, this Mexican hand, being the decent sort who—in his own words—had a thing or two to atone for from past indiscretions, gave me the greatest lesson I’ve ever gotten about life on the trail.” He handed her the tin and rag. “The oil helps the leather give into your shape faster; helps your skin from breaking under the assault. It also keeps you from getting as wet in the rains.”
She took the items slowly, as if uncertain of what he might expect as payment. “Thank you, Robert.”
While he wanted to whoop out at her first unrequested usage of his Christian name, he instead turned away from the sight of her and started back for the fire. “Give ‘em a good rub, inside and out; onceover on the sole of your foot. And don’t you be worried about returning that tin for a few days. When you can take off your boots without seeing color, you can think about getting it back to me.”
The next few days passed in much the same way as the ones before them. Catherine felt almost as though she could fall asleep in the saddle, as long as she stay on it, and Yankee wouldn’t be much affected regardless. She enjoyed some of the trip. The way the men slowly eased into the realization that she didn’t bite, and didn’t whine, and knew when to speak and when to leave well enough alone made her especially happy. As if she might finally be accepted as one of their own.
Still, not everything went easily. All the men save Sawyer still all clambered over one another for the right to serve her coffee in the morning. And she still couldn’t seem to get used to seeing some of the lot shirtless before, after, and sometimes during, the ride.
The one thing she was recognizing, slowly creeping in day by day, was her growing interest in Robert Sawyer’s—occasionally shirtless—person. Besides the salvation he bestowed upon her that first day—in the rather humble form of a grease slopped tin and dirty rag—he’d barely taken a moment to speak to her. Oh, he gave her orders…what kind of water was safe to bathe in and what wasn’t…how far to go from camp to have privacy but still be well within range of hearing should something go wrong. But as for conversation, Sawyer gave her nothing at all.
Now they were finally coming upon a true town—Dodge City, Kansas—and were all looking forward to a night of real food, a real wash, and a real bed. Sawyer led them into town, checked the majority of their firearms with the Sheriff, put their horses up at the livery, and walked the lot up to the hotel. “Mark and Travis, you two come with me. The rest of you…” he trailed off, glancing swiftly at and away from her, “…be ready to ride by ten.”
The general exuberance given off by the men at leave confused Catherine…until she saw the brightly—and scantily clothed ladies waving over the balcony of the building they all went to enter. Mind set only on a good bath, she went to enter the hotel lobby. Sawyer stepped into her path, and she knocked into him. Even though she’d seen his naked torso, the solidness of him still surprised her.
He took her waist in his hands to steady her, then set her back away from the entrance. “Boys, watch Miss Van Yorne while I procure us some rooms.”
She watched him leave with pure, extracted befuddlement.
Robert took off his hat and rose himself up as he entered the hotel. He knew there was nothing to be done about the dust and grime that clung to his person, but attitude and presence could win you a lot in a place like Dodge City. Whatever couldn’t be won by that alone, was made up by the offer of gold or cash. With that in mind, he walked up to the front desk and asked for three rooms, all in a row, preferably starting from a corner.
The weaselly little man behind the counter looked at him with dark, beady eyes. “You have to check your guns in with the sheriff before entering any establishment in Dodge City.”
“Already done, Sir.”
The man gained a marginal amount of politeness, “I see; you’ve been here before then, Mr..?”
“Sawyer. I’m afraid the first time I was in Dodge, the closest thing you had to a hotel was made up of burlap and rotting wood. The last time, I was lucky enough to stay in the curtsey of the Eurps, so I’ve never had the honor of patronage to your hotel. However,” he pulled the bills he’d pre-counted from his shirt pocket, counting four out onto the counter, “I’m now in need of three rooms. A lady travels with us, a daughter of my employer. She’ll be needing the corner room, if available, and a hot tub as soon as it can be brought.”
The beady little eyes took in the extra bills as Robert laid them down. “Oh, yes sir.”
“If possible, I’d like the same brought in for myself…in the room adjacent to my lady’s.”
“That is not a problem, sir. And when will your lady be arriving?”
“Presently, via escort, of course. If you can have the tub ready for her, I’ll be certain to introduce her to the man responsible for her comfort.”
“Yes, sir,” the man extended his hand, a lacy ruffle extending from under his jacket sleeve. “I’m Tomas, owner and manager of the Sapphire hotel.”
Robert tried not to make a show of whipping his hand off on his chaps. “Robert Sawyer.”
Tomas handed him the three keys, holding the last up special, to indicate its order of importance. “And your lady, sir?” Tomas raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
“For reasons of personal safety, requests to remain anonymous at this point and time.” Robert didn’t wait for further inquires, but went out to gather the quiet trio awaiting him on the sidewalk. “Miss Van Yorne, keep your head down and don’t speak to anyone.” He handed her the key to her room. “Go into the corner room, a bath should be waiting for you. Strip, and set your clothing outside the door.” He turned to the two men, “Boys, make sure she gets up the stairs unbothered. Open and check the third room, lock it down, and make enough of a mess to look like someone’s living in it. I’ll bring in her clothes, which you’ll have to change into, Travis. Leave what you’re wearing in the room, I’ll make sure it gets back to you. Then you two are free to join the others. Understood?”
All that decided, the trio entered the building just after Sawyer. He, himself, made a big show of questioning Tomas about the local wares for sale and recommendations on dinner. The distraction proved just enough to get Catherine up the stairs and into her room unnoticed. From there, the plan went exactly as he had dictated it.
Rather, almost exactly.