The tales one heard … she looked around in hopes of seeing Indian chiefs and warriors in their warpaint. Perhaps even Red Eagle, he of her daydreams, war-whooping as he galloped bareback at the head of an invading band. But she saw no Indians, war-whooping or otherwise. Nor were there any Mexican banditos, or gunslingers in a high-noon duel.
She saw none of these things, as Mrs. Avery hurried her to the hotel where they'd be staying the night, but she did see a sheriff strolling along in his long duster, the star glinting in the savagely bright sun. And she saw a genuine dance-hall girl, it had to be, with a painted face and a silk dress the color of rubies and wine.
The next morning, after a night spent in an uncomfortably hard and narrow bed – and Mrs. Avery told her to enjoy it while she could, as they'd be wishing for beds in the next few days to come – they boarded the stagecoach.
It was larger than Emma had imagined, its passenger compartment having two rows of padded leather seats facing each other past a central bench, which had no backs and those who sat upon it had to grip handhold-loops that hung from the ceiling. Trunks, boxes, and crates were loaded into the rear and lashed to the roof.
Clutching her valise, Emma settled onto the front row of seats, facing backward, Mrs. Avery on her right and the wall of the coach on her left. Other passengers joined them, jostling and crowding, until the compartment was full. Some, those who didn't have money to rate riding inside, climbed to the roof and made themselves as comfortable as they could.
She had expected the journey to be far worse than the train, jouncing and jolting, creaking, thudding over the rough road. But the stagecoach's compartment was suspended in a web of leather straps, which cradled it and made it a far easier ride. But they were packed in, and had no room to move about or stretch. Their meal breaks were too short, usually when the coach stopped to swap out teams of horses.
The nights were terrible. On some, the coach did stop and they were able to get out and sleep on the floor of a barn or other large building, but more often the drivers would merely switch places, and the passengers were left to doze as best they could while sitting up, or leaning.
Anything to have broken the monotony would have been welcome. A grassfire, a flood, an attack by desperados. Yes, Emma thought, highwaymen of the West, sweeping around the stagecoach on their fast horses. Masked men, bandannas drawn up so that only their avaricious and merciless eyes showed below the brims of their hats.
Banditos, swarthy and brutal … the thunder-snap of gunfire as they shot the driver, and the armed marshal who rode with him. The panic of the passengers, forced out of the coach, forced to line up. Robbed of their valuables.
And there would be one among the robbers, the leader of them, a handsome Mexicano with a scar and eyes the color of coffee, who would seize Emma. Mrs. Avery would shriek and plead in protest but the others would shove her away as Emma was dragged to the leader's horse.
He would look down at her, mockery in his voice but desire smoldering in his gaze. Perhaps he'd flash a knife and cut the stays of her gown, causing the bodice to spring open, revealing the swell of her breasts through her thin chemise. His men would hoot and cheer, and one of the stagecoach passengers would make some bold attempt to defend Emma, only to be shot for his pains and go down, bleeding, into the dust.
Then the leader would pull her onto his horse, making her sit in front of him, astride, legs indecently spread. His arm tight around her waist, his hand cupping her breast, he would shout his commands and wheel the horse away.
She saw herself there, astride the horse, the saddle horn pressed in a hard knob in front of her, the desperado's denim-clad loins snug against her bottom – and a hard knob there, too, oh, yes, as they rode and the motion of the horse bumped them together. The saddle horn rubbing, rubbing her indecently, and the desperado's hand coarse but warm on her breast, gently pinching her nipple through her chemise.
It could be, even, that he might push her forward, make her lean against the neck of the horse as he gathered up the yards and yards of cloth of her skirt and petticoats. If she slid back a little, the saddle horn would poke into her belly, and her backside would be presented to her captor. A quick slice with that same knife and her pantalets would be cut away.
He could unbutton his denims, all without slowing the steady rocking pace of the horse, and though she would be unable to see the stout and meaty length of him, she'd feel it as he rubbed it between her buttocks, then hoisted her hips enough to work himself under her, and maneuver the tip of his erection into her.
A single rough stride by the horse would throw them together, driving him all the way in with a sudden thrust that elicited a shocked cry from Emma. He would hold her by the hips, pulling her rhythmically against him as the horse ran and ran.
When the stagecoach came to a quick halt, breaking Emma's reverie, she was almost disappointed when it turned out that they had only reached another of the way-stations to swap teams of horses, and that they were not, in fact, under attack.
As the journey progressed, more and more of the people disembarked, and those who were left had more room to make themselves at ease. The central bench was abandoned first and became a footrest for those in the other seats. There was room inside for everyone, which was a blessing to those who had been up on the roof when they encountered torrential rain.
Emma had nearly lost count of the days. They ran together, blurred, like charcoal drawings smudged with a thumb. She only knew that she would be happy to see Mr. Carson now, if only because it meant an end to this eternal stagecoach ride. She fell into a lulled daze.
Until she saw the cowboy.
He joined them at one of the meal stops, bantering with the driver and paying what looked like far more than the usual price of a ticket. Emma could hardly look away from him, though she was careful not to let Mrs. Avery notice her interest.
The cowboy was young, not more than a year or two past her own age, but he had a carefree confidence about him that Emma immediately envied. His hair was dark, tied back with a rawhide thong, and dusky beard-stubble shadowed the tanned planes of his cheeks. His eyes were a faded sagebrush green, crinkled at the corners from squinting into the sunset, making him look even older.
Butter-colored chaps and brown woolen pants hugged his slim hips and legs. She thought his boots might be real snakeskin. His shirt was dark flannel with leather lacing, open enough to reveal a V of tanned skin and wiry black hair. Gunbelts crisscrossed his flat belly, and a broad-brimmed hat was tipped back far on his head. A tied red bandanna lay loose around his neck.
He carried a saddle and saddle bags, a canvas haversack, and a bedroll, all of which he slung into the luggage compartment. He leaned against the side of the coach and took out a tobacco pouch, rolling a cigarette as he propped one dusty boot against the spokes of the big wheel and surveyed his fellow passengers with idle curiosity.
When his gaze happened upon Emma, and found her looking directly at him, that idle curiosity changed. She was sure she did not imagine the glint of appraisal in his eyes. But he touched the brim of his hat and tipped his head politely enough, and Emma had to turn away quickly or Mrs. Avery might have seen.
The meal was, like all the ones they'd stopped for so far, a quick affair of smoked pork served on brown bread with butter, coffee made from ground beans mixed with charred and crushed rye grain, milk by the dipperful from a barrel, and molasses pie. When it was done, the few remaining passengers boarded the stagecoach and settled into their by-now-habitual poses and postures.
The cowboy – she had heard him introduce himself to the driver as 'Jake' – sat across from Emma, in the corner of the coach as she was, with his booted feet on the center bench. He nodded to her again, and to Mrs. Avery, with a touch of the brim of the hat and a murmured, "Ma'am," to the latter, the very soul of politeness. Then he tugged the brim low over his face, and crossed his arms, and appeared to doze off almost instantly.
The heavy food in their bellies, and the endless dull routine of the ride, soon put the rest of them to sleep as well. Even Mrs. Avery's head fell back against the seat, and raspy breaths that were not quite snores issued from her.
Emma could not sleep.
She kept stealing glances at the cowboy, admiring the long lines of his legs, the open V at his collar, and what little she could see of his cleft chin and his mouth. He had, she decided, a good mouth. Lips not too soft, but not too thin. She wondered what it would feel like to stroke his face, to feel the scratchy stubble and the trail-worn skin.
Jake. She liked it. A good name, a good strong cowboy name. He did not belong here, in this stagecoach with dumpy Mrs. Avery, and that balding man who looked like an undertaker, and the fat man with the white muttonchop sideburns, and the scrawny man with the spectacles, and the washed-out woman with him, who had a sickly-looking baby on her lap.
No, Jake didn't belong here. He should have been out on the range, tall and easy in the saddle. Singing, maybe. Emma had heard that a lot of cowboys could sing. Riding along, and at night he'd be hunkered down at a campfire, eating chili out of a tin cup and getting ready to sleep in that bedroll under a black sky made brilliant with stars.
She started to place herself, in her imagination, there with Jake in that bedroll. The two of them naked and cuddled together, their bodies close and warm while the cool night air stirred their hair around their faces, and the distant howl of the coyotes made music to the moon.
Stop it, Emma Louise, she mentally told herself in her mother's voice. That was the last thing she needed, to start thinking about the cowboy.
But how could she not, with him right there in front of her?
She had to get her mind off him. Carefully, not wanting to wake Mrs. Avery, she rummaged in her valise for the copy of Harper's Bazaar she'd brought. She knew that frontier women coveted the eastern periodicals, which were sometimes their only way of keeping up on current fashions. That was why so many of them dressed in styles that hadn't been popular since before the War Between the States, the poor things.
Her eyes kept straying from the page, studying Jake. She wished she could see more of his face, and have another glimpse of those faded-green eyes.
Harper's wasn't holding her attention. With a furtive check of her fellow passengers – all still sound asleep, Mrs. Avery's raspy breathing by now having progressed to genuine snores – she sneaked out one of the books from deep in her valise. It fit neatly between the pages of Harper's, so that if anyone happened to wake, they would see her doing nothing more than perusing the articles on whether bustles were more flattering than crinolines, and just how much lace, flounces and ruffles were in style this year.
Soon, she was lost in Diary of a Fallen Woman, which told of a southern belle who'd been rudely – though rapturously – used by Yankee soldiers and then escaped to become owner of a gambling hall in New Orleans. She was just at the part where the belle was down on her hands and knees, being taken from behind by a handsome former slave in exchange for a night's lodging, when she realized that she was being watched.
She'd been breathing quickly while her free hand played over her neck and cheek and lips, and now caught herself with a gasp and a jump. The book tumbled out of the pages of the magazine and landed between her feet. She dropped Harper's Bazaar, as well.
"Didn't mean to startle you none, ma'am," drawled the cowboy in a low, amused voice.
No one else woke. Emma pressed her palm to her bosom, feeling the rapid beating of her heart. She looked down for the book, saw it half-covered by her skirt and petticoat.
"Let me get that for you," he said, and moved smoothly from his seat so that he was kneeling on the stagecoach floor, leaning over the center bench.
"No, thank you, no," Emma said, trying to hook it with her foot and pull it further under her skirt. If he picked it up, he was bound to read the cover, and she would die on the spot of mortification.
But her high-buttoned shoe, instead of obliging, kicked the damned book out from under. It skidded to Jake as if she'd done it on purpose.
"Wellnow," he said, scratching his chin as he studied the cover.
A thousand replies – denials that it was hers, protestations of ignorance – rose and subsided. He wouldn't believe a one of them. She only sat there in silence, feeling like she was about to catch fire from the burning blush in her cheeks.
He glanced at her, lips twitching in a smile. "Good book?"
She swallowed and her throat clicked dryly.
"Ain't read this'n myself," he remarked, and handed it back to her. He picked up the magazine as well, then looked at the hem of her skirt and the toes of her shoes. "Anything else I can help you with down there, ma'am?"
Emma snatched the book and Harper's in shaking, indignant hands that weren't sure if they wanted to slap the cowboy or seize him by that bandanna around his neck and haul him to her for a kiss.
He, too, checked the status of the other passengers. Satisfied that no one had stirred, he settled back into his seat and regarded Emma from the shadows beneath the brim of his hat.
"Thank you," she whispered with what dignity she could muster. She stuffed the incriminating item to the very bottom of her valise and closed both its clasps as if she expected the book – and its companions, some of them even worse! – to come leaping out like obscene jacks-in-the-box.
"Read a few, though," he said. "Always did wonder how much like'n the real thing they were."
"I wouldn't know," Emma said, opening Harper's with a snap.
"Nor'd I," he said, grinning. "My brothers, I got five of 'em and I'm the young'un of the bunch, been trying for years t' encourage my education. Took me around t', well, sportin' houses, if you know what I mean."
"Sir, please!" But thrills were racing, racing in her. She wasn't half convinced this was real, and thought she must have fallen asleep after all to be dreaming this conversation.
"I was always a spot too shy back then, though," Jake said, shaking his head ruefully, as if amazed at his own foolishness. "Never did mor'n kiss a few. Name's Jake, by the way."
"Emma," she said.
"Right pleased t' make your acquaintance," he said, touching the hat brim again. "T'ain't often t' see a pretty lady like yourself, way out here."
She tried to read, tried to ignore him. But the light was fading from the day, the sky all around them a riot of flame and color. She closed Harper's and stowed it away, then sat and folded her hands in her lap and looked wistfully out the window.
"Excitin' trip so far?" he asked.
"I'd hardly say so," she said. "No Indian raiding parties, no desperados –"
"Wellnow, ma'am, you'd not really be wantin' t' meet that sort," he said. "I've seen my share, and they're not like you'd be readin' about in them there books of your'n."
"I don't know what you mean," she said.
"All romanticized, is what I'm sayin'. All the desperados I've met, they've been right dirty and rough. And I ain't never met no woman been carried off by the red man and been the happier for it."
Emma gave him a sharp glare, not liking the way he seemed to know, and then belittle, her daydreams. "I have to have something to keep my hopes alive," she hissed, hardly able to believe she was talking like this to anyone, let alone a stranger cowboy. "I'm going west to marry some disgusting old man, some friend of my father's, and care for his house and his children while I dry up into a withered old crone."
"Sorry, ma'am," he said, blinking at her vehemence. "But I'm sure your husband will be right glad t' have you."
"Good for him," she said bitterly. "What about me?"
Jake pushed his hat back on his head. "Seems t' me, if you don't mind my sayin', that you shouldn't go marryin' someone unless'n it's what you want. There's some three women for every ten men around these parts, so I'd be thinkin' that a fine-lookin' woman like yourself could have her choice."
All at once, Emma could have wept. She hadn't, not in this entire long and grueling trip, but now she could.
"She's here," she pointed at the slumbering Mrs. Avery, "to make sure that I do what I'm told."
"Durn shame," he said. "My condolences."
They sat in silence for a while. Finally – maybe because it occurred to her that she could say anything she pleased to this cowboy and would never have to see him again, and maybe because the growing darkness made her feel bold and heedless – she closed it and looked up at him.
He raised his eyebrows expectantly. "Yes'm?"
"Did you mean what you said earlier?"
"What part? Was all true, if that's what you mean."
"About … about not knowing if … reality was like those books."
"Oh, that," he said, and chuckled. "I didn't mean t' say that I'd never … but pardon me, ma'am, I shouldn't ought t' be sayin' such things in your presence."
"I don't mind," she said. "It'll pass the time."
"You want I should tell you a story, then? Might not be so good as that there book of your'n, but …" He fidgeted, and she could have laughed to see that he was entirely discomfited by the frankness of her speech.
"Tell me," she said.
It was easier in the dark, as they became shadows but for what little light came in as the driver and marshal lit the lanterns on poles up by the driver's seat.
"Well, there was this one time, I remember. We had this Chinese gal what my pa had hired on t' help Cookie out in the kitchen. Tiny thing, like a little doll she was, with this golden-yella skin and kinda shy eyes. I never much looked more'n twice at her, but then this one night … I woke up feelin' hungry, thinkin' that I'd go on down t' the kitchen and see if'n I could find me some biscuits left over from supper or somethin'. And … ma'am, Miss Emma, I don't know as this is such a good idear."
"I want to hear," she said.
He sighed. "I seen there was a light burnin', and I thought good, maybe Cookie was up, maybe I could get me some gravy t' go with them biscuits. But when I walked in, I didn't see Cookie there at all. It was my brothers, two of 'em anyway. Bennett, he's the oldest, and Cal. Them and the Chinese gal. Lu Win, her name was."
"Go on," prompted Emma, finding that she could see this kitchen quite easily in her mind. Some long bunkhouse kitchen with smoked hams and onions and pots and ladles hanging on the walls, a big iron pot on a hook over the fire.
"I hadn't never much looked at Lu Win, like I says," Jake said. She heard the creak of leather as he shifted position, the scuff and thump as he moved his booted feet. "But I couldn't not look at her now. She hadn't a stitch on, and though she was still tiny, I could see that she wasn't no little girl. Her hair was all down from this bun what she usually wore it in, long and silky and black."
"She was with your brothers, both of your brothers?" Emma asked, seeing Lu Win perfectly well in that mind's eye, too.
Jake nodded. "Bennett, he was standin' behind her like, just as naked as she was, kinda holdin' her up with his arms hooked under hers and his hands … well, busy with her, up top, you know. Her head was on his shoulder and her neck bent around so's she could kiss him. And Cal, he was down on his knees, just there on the bricks, him naked too. You sure you want t' hear this?"