Cassie leaned forward on the wagon seat, squinting anxiously into the incandescent sunrise. The riders were a blur in the heat waves, but she was sure one was Pete. More than likely the unidentified rider was only another drifter. Still, her stomach would be tied in a knot until she was sure it wasn’t her father. Not that she was likely to see him again - especially out here in the desert, hundreds of miles from their little Texas ranch.
As she watched, the horses plunged down a dune, sending a spray of white sand into the dry air. No, it wasn’t her father. Even at a distance it was obvious that the man was much taller and he rode with a proud kind of grace that her father never possessed. Her breath escaped in an unexpected sigh. That familiar yet annoying pang of disappointment took its place. Was it the little girl deep inside of her that still longed for Daddy to come home - even after being abandoned?
She removed her sombrero and mopped her forehead with the rolled up portion of her shirtsleeve. Ridges of sparkling white sand surrounded the camp like a sleeping dragon, soaking heat from the sun - resting now so it could spit its fiery breath at them later in the day. The gypsum sands of New Mexico Territory were relentless in their search for new victims.
Tucking a wayward strand of curly brown hair back into her bun, she replaced her hat and wrapped the lead lines around the wagon brake. With a final glance at the approaching figures, she dropped from the wagon seat and sauntered over to join the men at the cook fire.
Davis handed her a scalding cup of coffee, his chocolate gaze scrutinizing - probably searching for some indication of congeniality. A resolute shrug indicated his search was futile. Undaunted, he opened the conversation.
“It looks like we’ve got company.”
She accepted the coffee and scowled into the tin cup.
“Probably another greenhorn Pete had to pull out of a scrape. We’re already late getting started on account of him and the saddle bum will probably use up another half-hour of daylight eating our food.”
Fritz shot her a sour look.
“What made you so bitter about men?”
The big German accepted a cup of coffee from Davis and squatted beside Royce at the fire. His dark eyes reflected the disapproval in his tone.
“A woman your age ought to be looking for a husband – or already married, not chasing all over creation in pants, trying to act like a man.”
“I wouldn’t think of acting like a man,” she answered in a flippant tone. “I can do better than that.” His caustic expression served as a catalyst to her boredom. “Anyway, what’s so terrible about a woman wearing pants?”
Fritz glared at her. “Don’t you ever read the Bible?”
Nothing made the hours pass faster than a lively discussion, and Fritz was always fair game. She tossed out the verbal bait and waited for him to strike.
“Of course I read the Bible. In no place does it say a woman shouldn’t wear pants.”
Fritz pointed a stubby finger at her.
“Not in so many words, but it says women shouldn’t dress in men’s clothing.”
Yes, he took the bait and he was running with it. She smiled sweetly.
“So who says pants are men’s clothing? Didn’t Jesus wear a robe?”
Davis chuckled softly. “I believe she has you there, Fritz.”
Fritz shot Davis a warning look and abruptly stood, glaring down at Cassie.
“You’re deliberately missing the point. Women aren’t supposed to assume a man’s role.”
She shrugged. “Maybe that’s what it means, maybe not. Anyway, what is a man’s role?”
Fritz studied her warily. He hated it when she won an argument. He gave the question some thought before responding with an illusive and general answer.
“A man’s role is to feed his wife and family.”
“And if he doesn’t? Then who is supposed to feed them?”
He focused his attention on the coffee in his cup, swirling it while he avoided her probing gaze.
“Then a woman has to do the best she can on her own.”
He knew he was being backed into a corner. His determined gaze finally shifted to her face.
“I’m not against a woman having a job, as long as she sticks to work meant for women.”
Cassie’s brows arched. “You mean like cooking? Or helping with the plowing or hitching up the team? Or maybe driving the family wagon in for supplies or ...”
“I get the point,” he interrupted brusquely. You hired on as a cook. We’re short handed so you wind up taking care of your own team and wagon. Why Pete hired you instead of a man, I’ll never understand.”
That wasn’t the point she was trying to make, but maybe a man would never understand what she was talking about. She didn’t mind tending the team. In fact, she enjoyed it. What she didn’t like was the idea that when she finished paying for the ranch, her father could come back and claim it. A woman could do all the work but somehow the man got the credit and benefit. It wasn’t fair but that was how the law read – and how most men felt. Not surprising, since they made all the laws. Getting upset about it wasn’t going to change anything, though, so she forced a grin as she met the troubled gaze of Fritz.
“Maybe Pete didn’t like your cooking. Anyway, my point was that women are expected to do all the things I’m doing on this job. They just aren’t expected to stray too far from the homestead in the process – or get paid for it.”
Fritz smiled wryly. “You’re a mighty fine cook, but it isn’t safe out here for a woman.” He sobered and watched her intently as he spoke. “Don’t you know people talk about a woman who spends weeks out here with men - and men start to get ideas.”
That last statement strangled the life out of the discussion. Of all things, why did he have to bring that up? She met his accusing gaze coldly.
“Men get ideas when their wives are at home trying to be everything a man expects of them. Anyway, why do men have to act on every idea that crosses their mind?”
He almost winced at the rancor in her tone.
“Did some man deal you a lousy hand?”
She shrugged and turned away from him. The conversation was getting too personal.
“Let’s just say I learned the hard way that I can take care of myself.”
Royce snorted, unfolding his tall gangly frame from the ground.
“Sure, ‘til someone snatches that whip out of your hand and gives you the spankin’ you’ve been asking for.”
She ignored his implication that women should be punished like children. She let her stern gaze rest on each of the men before responding.
“Until men learn the meaning of the word no, I’ll protect myself in the way that has proven most effective.”
Davis gulped the last of his coffee and turned the cup up side down on a rock so it would drain.
“Cassie, a woman as good looking as you should be used to saying no.” His dark eyes twinkled. “Tell me the truth. If we all treated you like one of the guys, wouldn’t you be a little disappointed?”
She stared into her cup, not wanting to say anything that would add fuel to the torch she suspected he was carrying for her. At forty he was still an attractive man, but a romantic relationship with him was the last thing on her mind. Valuing his friendship, she had developed a knack for turning the conversation on a less perilous course.
“I appreciate the fact that you guys watch your language around me and make sure you’re all busy at the camp fire when I need privacy. It’s nice to have that special respect.”
Davis rubbed his jaw reflectively. “Sure.”
His gaze shifted to Royce. “Let me make one thing clear. If any one of you lays a hand on her, you’ll be answering to me. A woman has a right to protect herself – any way she can.”
Royce snickered. “Davis, don’t you think you’re a little old for her? You and Fritz are both old enough to be her father.”
Three pair of hostile eyes turned on the sandy-haired youth. Cassie sent him a measured look over her coffee cup before she spoke.
“And you’re too young.”
“Too young?” Royce sputtered, puffing up his chest. “I’m pert near twenty-one. Anyways, yer only a few months older than me.” The freckles stood out on his pale face.
She shrugged. The day was getting hot and it took too much energy to argue. Not that it needed hashing out anyway. Her age must have been mentioned at least a half-dozen times in the last six trips. Boys younger than Royce were working unsupervised. Yet working girls his age were usually either wives or soiled doves.
Fritz tossed the rest of his coffee at the fire and stood.
Pete joined them, waving a gnarled old hand to indicate his companion.
“This here is Chauncey Bordeaux. He’s going to be ridin’ with us to Ashley.”
The statement was flat, obviously intended to discourage argument, but Cassie couldn’t resist.
“Eating whose food?”
Bordeaux dismounted, surveying the camp, landscape and men in one rolling glance. He appeared unperturbed by her caustic question.
“I’ll live off the land,” he responded casually.
Her laughter lashed out in the clear air, seizing his attention.
He tipped his hat back, fixing her with a bright blue gaze that stunned her vocal cords.
The laughter gurgled to a halt in her throat. His eyes were captivating, by far the most attractive feature in his darkly handsome face. There was something familiar about that face, yet she was certain she had never met him before. She couldn’t have forgotten those eyes.
He took a visual survey of her from the boots up, his unabashed gaze lingering on her straining shirt buttons. A flood of heat washed up her throat to stain her cheeks. He lifted one dark brow quizzically.
“I said something funny?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. He wasn’t the first to use that tactic to intimidate her. She inclined her head to indicate the endless sand, broken only by an occasional yucca or chickweed.
“If you can find anything out there to eat, you’re welcome to it.”
Hopefully her voice sounded more composed than she felt.
Davis was watching Bordeaux intently with an unreadable expression. He started to speak and then Pete cut in.
“Bordeaux, this saucy little peach is Cassie Rinehart. She’s got a sharp tongue, but she could make shoe soles taste like fine steak.”
Bordeaux raised his brows again. “Oh?”
He walked back to his horse and untied something from the saddle. Returning, he tossed two rabbits to her.
“See what you can do with those.”
She made no effort to catch them, letting them fall at her feet. She ignored the meat, fixing him with a cold stare.
“You killed them. You cook them.”
Turning on one heal she stalked off to her wagon.
The men guffawed until Davis’s voice broke in, low and steady.
“I don’t think she’s as impressed with your hunting skills as you are, Bordeaux.”
She climbed into her wagon and dropped onto the hard seat. Davis should know such needless defense was embarrassing for her. She sullenly glanced back at the group of men. Bordeaux was retrieving the rabbits from the sand. She should have accepted the rabbits. The fresh meat would have been a welcome change, but nobody was going to get away with throwing food at her - least of all an arrogant saddle bum. She noted the worn but relatively new clothes that clung to his lean frame. Maybe he wasn’t a saddle bum, but only a greenhorn would think he could live off the barren land that surrounded them.
She shifted her attention to his mount. One thing was obvious about Bordeaux. He was an excellent judge of horseflesh. His bay gelding had the sleek lines of a racehorse and the look of endurance as well.
Pete’s gravely voice cut through her thoughts like sand on a frying pan.
“Bordeaux, this is Casey Fritz, Hank Royce, and John Davis.”
If Pete had another name, nobody knew it. He was just Pete. At sixty-two, he was as wiry as any of his men, and twice as cagey.
Cassie tapped her boot toe against the footrest and shifted restlessly in the seat while the men exchanged greetings. How did men have the gall to criticize women for being talkative? She cleared her throat.
“If you guys are through socializing, we’d better get moving. The day isn’t getting any longer.”
Bordeaux chuckled. “Go ahead. I’ll catch up after I cook these rabbits and clean up the camp.”
Pete nodded complaisantly. “See you later, then.”
Apparently Pete wasn’t concerned about Bordeaux getting lost. Of course, even a greenhorn could follow the wagon tracks they would leave in the sand. Hopefully he wouldn’t wander off and get lost. She had to decline the last trip because it coincided with her monthly cycle - and this trip was cutting the time close. She had come prepared for such an emergency, but any delay might prove embarrassing.
When all the wagons were ready, she snapped the whip over the back of the mules. The wagon groaned into a slow roll. The four freight wagons pulled into a single line behind her. Each day they changed positions in line so that no one ate the dust from all the wagons every day. Today it was her turn to be in front. Being in front carried its responsibilities. She watched for soft areas where a wagon might get stuck. If one wagon got stuck, the rest would have to stop while one of the other teams was unhitched and added to pull the wagon out. Then they would have to hitch them back up again. Since each wagon had three teams of horses, that could become time consuming and time was their enemy.
The going was slow on the sandy trail. The heavy wagons pushed on. The wheels of the Conestoga wagons had been modified with wide rims to even the load on the sand. As the big wheels turned, they tossed sand up and over the rim. All that churning of sand and dust disguised their trail to some degree, but nothing could hide the trail of so many heavy wagons.
It didn’t take more than a few hours of sun for the desert to become an inferno. The white sand was almost as blinding as snow. Cassie folded the lip of her sombrero down to protect her face from the scorching sun.
Her thoughts turned to Bordeaux. What was he doing out here alone in the middle of the desert? Their freight wagons used this route to deliver supplies to the tiny town of Ashley, but few people traveled the desert. That was why Pete chose the route - less risk of being robbed.
She mopped her forehead again. Only a few more trips and the loan on the ranch would be paid. Actually, she had enough money to finish paying the loan if she depleted her bank account at Bradley. That was something she didn’t want to do. The money she earned from each of the trips across the desert was devoted entirely to paying off the loan, but the money she earned working at the bank was set aside to purchase supplies until the ranch started paying for itself.
Two times she had been back to visit her siblings, both times at Christmas. It had been two years since their mother had died - three since their father had run off with that harlot. Unable to locate him, Cassie had finally agreed to leave the twins with Mr. & Mrs. Hertz, their neighbors. The Hertz’s had not been blessed with children and were adamant that they would love taking care of the twins. Tammy and Timmy would be thirteen this fall. Before long they would be grown.
As it always did, memories of the twins sparked a fire of anger at her father. She had been so certain he would return - at first. At first she had hoped, even prayed he would return. But after Mother died everything changed. No one could be that hard to find unless they didn’t want to be found. As far as she was concerned, he had relinquished his right to the ranch. But that wasn’t how the law would see things. He might show up any time to claim the ranch. Once she wouldn’t have thought him capable of something so unfair. But that was when she was naive and he was her idol.
She swallowed down a lump in her throat. How could he leave them that way? If there had been discord between her parents, she had never seen any indication. He simply went into town one day and never returned. He never even said goodbye. As usual, that thought brought the sting of tears to her eyes. She dashed them away with the back of her hand. It wasn’t as if that was the most important part, so why did it hurt the most?
She shifted her weight to relieve the pressure on her hip. The landscape around them was desolate. Still, in spite of the struggle, she welcomed each trip. It brought her closer to the time when she could go back to the ranch. Its cool year-round creek and rolling hills dotted with wild flowers filled her dreams at night - beckoned. She closed her eyes and resurrected the sound of whippoorwills and running water. Her parched lips longed for the fresh cool water.
When she opened her eyes the sun was directly overhead. The mules were lathered - a condition that could be dangerous in the desert. She pulled on the lead lines and applied pressure to the brake with one foot. As the teams came to a halt, the rasp of leather against sandy wheels assured her that the other wagons were following suit. Grabbing her canteen and a feed sack, she leaped from the wagon. She rubbed each mule down with the burlap sack and wiped the nostrils of each mule with a dampened cloth before allowing herself a few swallows of tepid water. The air was miserably hot. She pulled her hat off, fanning herself with it as she squinted at a plume of dust in the shimmering distance. A dust devil? No, it was too big.
She stepped back and waved at Pete, pointing at the dust. Pete threw his feet over the wagon seat and dropped to the ground. Pulling his Winchester from a boot attached to the side of the wagon, he walked toward her. As he joined her they squinted into the heat waves, shielding their eyes against the bright sun - trying to discern something of the shadows below the plume.
“What do you think?” Pete finally asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded turning to him. “I can’t see ...”
Her voice trailed off as realized he was talking to Bordeaux.
The Frenchman had materialized from the desert on his bay. Bordeaux studied the dust through a pair of field glasses.
“Cavalry,” he announced, still studying the figures.
“Cavalry?” Pete said. “What would the cavalry be doing out here?”
Bordeaux lowered the glasses and shrugged in a way that was both elegant and masculine. He lifted the glasses again, lithely shifting his weight to maintain visual contact as his horse pawed at the sand. He made a striking figure, so tall and lean. His broad chest and shoulders looked powerful. A strange feeling of excitement filled her as she watched him.
He lowered the glasses and met her gaze, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. She slapped her hat back on to hide the color in her cheeks and scrambled onto her wagon seat. He probably thought she was all googly-eyed over him. Sure, he was good looking, but looks weren’t everything. Better to be ugly as a mud fence. If women weren’t attracted to them, maybe men could control themselves. She sighed. She was becoming a bitter old maid. Not all men were unfaithful lechers.
As they watched, the figures in the dusty heat waves finally became recognizable as cavalry - even to the naked eye. The rest of the teamsters joined them and they all waited in silence as the horses approached and drew to an organized halt.
The dusty captain surveyed the gathering with red rimed eyes that came to rest on the Frenchman.
“Hello, Bordeaux. I’m surprised to see you out here. I heard you left the territory. Who are you looking for this time?”
Cassie glanced sharply at Bordeaux. Was he a bounty hunter? Yet the Captains’ manner was respectful.
Bordeaux slung a long leg around his saddle horn and tucked the glasses into his saddlebag. All eyes were on him, but he appeared not to notice.
The captain chewed on his mustache and eyed Bordeaux thoughtfully.
“Are you looking for a job?”
Bordeaux casually lifted his gaze to the captain.
“I have one.”
The captain glanced at Pete and then addressed Bordeaux again.
“Whatever he’s paying you, I’ll double.”
Pete frowned. “He’s not ...”
“I’m not interested.” Bordeaux interrupted. “What’s going on?”
“Some renegade Indians jumped the reservation. Found a family massacred a few days ago. We sure could use you.”
“Sorry, but I have my own troubles.” Bordeaux frowned. “I saw some sign about two days back. Unshod horses heading south. Looked like a hunting party of fifteen or twenty.”
The captain eyed him thoughtfully and finally nodded.
“Sounds about right. Thanks for the information. If you change your mind, you know where to find us then.”
His gaze shifted to Cassie. “Ma’am, you stick close to these men. Those Indians would consider you a prize.”
She favored him with a bright smile. “Thanks, but I can take care of myself.”
Fritz laughed shortly. “They’d bring her back and beg us to hold her while they ran.”
Pete laughed, and even Davis had to smile. Bordeaux was watching her in a way that brought color to her cheeks again. She patted the handle of her whip with one hand and caressed the stock of her rifle with the other.
“Your concern is touching, but I know I can rely on my friends here in the wagon.”
The captain smiled and touched his hat.
“We’ll be leaving you now. Keep a sharp eye out.”
He reined his horse around and the troop trotted after him. They quickly melting into the heat waves again.
Pete squinted up at Bordeaux. “You reckon them Injuns knew we was around?”
“Hard to tell,” Bordeaux mused, still watching the retreating troop. He finally glanced down at Pete and straightened in the saddle, removing his leg from the horn and placing it in the stirrup.
“It wouldn’t hurt to be watchful, though.”
Pete nodded and glanced up at Cassie. “You don’t be wandering away from the wagons.”
Hearing the concern in Pete’s voice sent a chill down her spine. Anything that troubled Pete gave her reason to worry. He had guided wagon trains across Indian Territory and battled the Cheyenne. That much she knew from a conversation she had overheard between two men in Ashley. He was reputed to have kept a cool head during battle and wasn’t easily intimidated. Had he hired Bordeaux? No, he didn’t know about the Indians until now - or did he?
She watched Pete’s bowlegged figure lurch back to his wagon. He was like a grandfather to her. There had been an instant bond between them from the day they met. That bond and the unswerving praise of Mr. Fulton at the bank was probably why she was given the job as cook. She watched him climb stiffly into his wagon and knew a moment of sadness when she remembered that before long she would be leaving and she would never see him again.
She turned around and picked up the lines. Releasing the brake, she slapped the lines on the back of the mules and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. The wagon strained forward. Bordeaux turned his mount to walk beside her.
She glanced down at his averted face. Was he also concerned about the Indians? Her face felt hot when she thought of how she had spoken of him. He was no greenhorn, but what was he doing in the desert? She cleared her throat.
“You used to be in the army?”
He didn’t look up. “I scouted for the army a few years.”
“You said you had a job. Did Pete hire you as a scout?”
She waited for an explanation, but he rode on in silence.
“What kind of a job do you have now?”
“Looking for someone.”
She frowned. “You’re a bounty hunter?”
He finally looked up. The bright blue eyes regarded her thoughtfully.
“I suppose everyone has their rewards for what they do.”
“Do you expect to find this person in Ashley?”
He lifted his hat and mopped his forehead. His black hair reflected sunlight at the peak of every wave. He replaced the hat.
“I’m sure of it.”
“What are you going to do when you find him? She glanced at his lean hips. “You don’t wear a gun.”
His smile was disarming. “All I want is a chance to speak my piece.”
“You’re being paid to talk?”
His eyes twinkled. “Sounds like a good job for a woman, doesn’t it?”
The bay stumbled slightly and he patted its neck. How many miles had he ridden this morning? She watched him mop his brow again.
“Why don’t you ride up here with me for a while and give your horse a rest?”
He eyed the space beside her on the wagon seat suspiciously. She suppressed a smile. A little demon inside of her suggested it would be fun to chase him just to see him run. She patted the seat.
“Come on. I won’t bite.”
He looked puzzled. “I suppose he could use the rest.”
He let the wagon pull ahead and crossed behind it, speeding up to reach the seat from the other side. Winding the reins around the saddle horn, he shook out his rope and tied it to the bridle. He made the transition from horse to wagon in one smooth movement. He gave the horse enough room to walk away from the wagon and then tied the rope to the wagon.
After an awkward silence, she glanced up at him with a mischievous smile.
“You haven’t asked me what a woman is doing out here driving a wagon.”
His was a smile that reached the eyes, where a spark of guarded humor glimmered.
She laughed. This was one trip that wouldn’t be boring. Something about his flippant answer made her think he would be a master at verbal fencing. Talking with Fritz was better than nothing, but this young man had an unusual way of thinking.