No Hardship at All
Sara Willoughby is one very lucky young lady—just some fluffy fun with our Laramie boys.
(Thanks to Hired Hand for the always excellent beta)
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Even before I began my journey west, I’d been forewarned that it would be filled with much difficulty, but that I would be rewarded by the awe-inspiring scenery along the way. I had no idea how true that advice would prove to be. And who would ever have guessed that the best scenery of the entire trip would be found in the rugged, untamed countryside just to the west of Cheyenne, Wyoming?
It was only my second day of travel aboard the Great Overland stage and, sadly, I had already learned for myself, and to my deep regret, that this mode of transportation was hot, dusty, cramped, bumpy, and rough. I was dearly longing for the comfort and smooth though swaying ride of the train on that early morning when I once again boarded the coach, heading west out of Cheyenne on the way to Laramie. An older man named Mose with a rather odd, colloquial mode of talking, was the driver, and I the only passenger. Though I had been told Mr. Mose was the best at his profession, I was soon entirely unsure of that, considering the endless jounces and jolts of the coach I was forced to endure that morning.
The myriad discomforts of the journey soon had me deeply regretting my decision to travel to Rawlins, where I was to join my sister and her husband for an extended visit. Just when I thought I could not bear the jolting one single moment longer, the coach suddenly bucked with the viciousness of a wild bronco, nearly throwing me from my seat. A loud cracking noise immediately followed, as of wood snapping, and then I heard Mr. Mose shout to the horses, “Whoa, whoa, boys, whoa!” and the stage slowed and stopped.
I peered apprehensively out of the coach’s window. We were certainly not at our appointed stop. We had come to a halt in the midst of the wilderness, along another of the endless stretches of empty, dusty roads. I could see nothing but hills, jumbled piles of large odd-shaped rocks, and stunted evergreen trees. There was not so much as a single building, much less a town, within sight.
I could hear Mr. Mose grumbling, and then the driver climbed down from his seat, walked back and opened the door of the coach, politely doffing his hat to me. “I’m real sorry, ma’am, but it looks like when we hit one’a them there chuckholes, she plumb done cracked a wheel. We kin keep on a’goin’, but we’re jus’ gonna hafta take it real slow and easy, limp on in to the next relay station. It’s not too furr, mind you, ma’am, only about three, mebbe four miles more at most. We’re fixin’ to be a bit late ‘cuz a’this, Miss, a little behind schedule, an’ I apologize furr that, but those boys over t’the Sherman Ranch, Slim an’ Jess, they kin prob’ly fix ‘er up and get us back on the road real quick. Those two are right handy with chores of ever’ kind, everythin’ from horseshoe nails to axles to six guns.”
I was a bit unsure of the translation of the driver’s statement, but I was able to ascertain that the rough road had damaged one of the wheels of the stagecoach, which could, apparently, hopefully, be repaired with only a minimal delay by the skilled employees at the next stage stop. “I trust you will do whatever is best, Mr. Mose.”
He smiled. “Yes, ma’am, thank you, ma’am. You jus’ hang on real tight, and don’t you worry yourself none a’tall. We’ll git you on yer way jus’ fine and dandy.”
“Thank you, driver.”
“Yur welcome, ma’am.” He chuckled as he closed the door and returned to his perch atop the driver’s box.
Thereafter we proceeded through the hills at an extremely slow pace, the horses held to a sedate walk, the coach now swaying only minimally compared to the formerly rough ride. Though the slow movement meant much less of the choking dust that constantly found its way into the coach, the air inside the vehicle very quickly became stifling hot. I fanned myself and hoped we would quickly reach this relay station.
We had traveled only a brief time and just a short distance when Mr. Mose stopped the stage once again. I heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats and then men’s voices: the driver was talking to someone. This went on for several minutes. Curious, I leaned over and looked out of the window and discovered one of those scenic wonders that I had been advised I would find in Wyoming.
A young man was talking to Mose. He was seated on a stout, dusty dark brown horse, a color called bay I believe. He sat very straight in the saddle, displaying nicely formed, proportionally wide shoulders and a narrow waist, and was wearing one of those wide-brimmed hats that westerners favor. I watched as he dismounted gracefully from his horse, his athleticism evident, and then he stepped up to the coach, opened the door and looked in at me, politely removing his hat and holding it in his hands.
Oh, he had a very nice, very rich, and very deep voice that was most pleasing to the ear. His face was lean and tanned, very pleasant in appearance with regular features and animated eyebrows under thick and wavy dark hair. His smile was boyish and engaging. But it was when those blue eyes met mine, eyes with a roguish gleam to them and of a startling deep blue in contrast to the dark, almost black hair, that I was thoroughly entranced.
Oh, my. I do believe the temperature had suddenly jumped at least five degrees, perhaps ten. I fanned myself furiously.
“I’m Jess Harper, ma’am.”
I confess, I was speechless, still staring at the newcomer, and totally oblivious to the inappropriateness of what I was thinking about Mr. Jess Harper. They were definitely thoughts of a sort that would not have met with the approval of Miss Marinell Lookinlad of the Upper Amberville School for Genteel Young Ladies.
The silence stretched and then, with an amused tone to his voice, he asked, “And your name, ma’am? I reckon you do have one.”
My mouth was so dry I could barely speak. But perhaps if I found the wherewithal to reply, he would continue to address me in that delightfully masculine voice. “I’m Miss Sara, Sara Willoughby,” I stammered, quite appalled at my sudden inability to speak coherently.
He nodded, the blue eyes sparkling, and I confess to being totally immersed in their depths. But then he began speaking again, and I made myself listen to not just the sound of his voice, but to the words as well. “Mose says it’s gonna take a while for him to drive this coach on to the ranch. I thought I could offer you a ride and save you the wait. We can take a shortcut over the hills and be at the ranch in just a bit. It’d be a whole lot cooler and much more comfortable than stickin’ with the stage. Safer, too, if that wheel were to come apart.” He was looking up at me, a questioning expression on his face. “You do ride?”
I would have told him I could fly, if that’s what he wanted, but instead I answered an honest, “Oh, yes.”
He put his wide-brimmed hat back atop his head and opened the door. I stood, clutching my small pocketbook, and he put his large hands around my waist and helped me down to the ground. I suddenly found myself standing in front of him, looking up into his face, my eyes mere inches from his. Their blue depths were even more amazing from such a close vantage point. I could feel a girlish blush rising on my cheeks.
We walked over to his horse, a stout animal with a kindly eye. Mr. Harper bent down and locked his fingers together to form a step of sorts for my foot. I put my booted foot into his hands, and he boosted me aboard the horse where I settled into the unfamiliar saddle, a unique cowboy style I had heard of but had never before tried for myself. Then, to my surprise, and I must admit, delight, my kind benefactor asked me to remove my foot from the left stirrup. In another surprising and graceful move he reached around in front of me to take hold of the saddle’s horn, then simply leaped up to slip a booted foot into the stirrup I had just left vacant, and quickly seated himself behind me, in back of the saddle, on the horse’s rump.
Riding in front of him I had the distinct disadvantage of not being able to see that face and those eyes, but there was ample compensation in the fact that he had his arms around my waist as he reached forward to guide the horse.
I could feel his breath warm on my neck and found myself thinking thoughts which were neither ladylike nor chaste. Surely I was blushing again, but thankfully, he could not see my face. He nudged the horse into motion, and we left the stagecoach and Mr. Mose following slowly in our wake.
After a few moments of silence he asked, “So what brings you to Laramie, Miz Willoughby?”
“I’m traveling on to Rawlins, actually. For a visit with my sister’s family.”
“Your first trip to Wyomin’ then, ma’am?”
It was quite difficult to concentrate on conversation, with him so close and that velvety voice in my ear. “Yes.”
“Do you like it so far?”
“It’s a very handsome state.”
He chuckled. “That’s an interestin’ description of it.”
“It’s very wild. And free.” Back home, it would have been quite scandalous to be riding with this stranger, no matter how charming or handsome he was. And yet, strangely, I felt very safe; I had noticed the pistol he wore on a belt buckled around his slender waist.
“The west is like that, ma’am. Big and open.”
“Have you ever been back East, Mister Harper?”
“St. Louis once. That was east enough for me.”
“So you are a cowboy, I take it?”
“A ranch hand, ma’am.”
“And what does a ranch hand do?”
“A ranch hand does whatever the ranch owner tells him to do,” he answered, chuckling again. It was a delightful sound, as delightful as all of the rest of him. “That ranch owner would be Slim Sherman, my boss; he owns this ranch an’ Relay Station. I mend fences, round up strays, cut wood, make hay, doctor cattle, break horses, get stage teams harnessed and ready; most any chore that needs doin’.”
“It sounds like a very busy life,” I commented politely.
“That’s one way you could describe it,” he sounded amused, which made his voice even more amazing, if that were possible.
“Did you train this horse yourself, Mr. Harper?”
“Traveler? Yeah, I broke him out, before I came to Wyoming, when I was still down in Texas.”
“He’s quite a beautiful animal. Is he named after Mr. Lee’s horse?”
I detected something sad and wistful in his voice. I imagine he was one of the men who had fought for the South’s lost cause in the late war of the rebellion. “And what is it that brought you to Wyoming, Mister Harper, if I may ask?”
“Call me Jess, ma’am. And it was Traveler brought me to Wyoming. Finished up with a cattle drive in Kansas and I just gave him his head. He started west, so west we went. Worked a few places a’fore we ended up here.”
“Here being the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station?”
“Yes, Miz Willoughby.”
Traveler had a very comfortable slow jog that was moving us along quite nicely. I found myself wishing the horse would move slower, because I did not want this ride to end any time soon. “And what is it that this Relay Station does?”
“We supply fresh horses for the Overland stages. Coaches come in a couple times a’day, and we change up the teams. Offer passengers a place to stretch their legs, get coffee and food, too.”
“That sounds very nice.”
“It’s interestin’ enough,” he agreed. “Lots of people come n’ go.”
We reached the top of a hill then, and I could see that ahead of us the trail we were on dropped down into a little valley. A small house stood there, just a simple cabin, really, and a large barn and several pens filled with horses, all of it tucked into the shelter of the hills.
As we rode up to the buildings, I saw another man peer out of the barn at us, but Mr. Harper steered Traveler toward the house. He pulled the animal to a halt and slid down, then helped me down in a most gentlemanly way. By the time I was back on the ground, brushing the dust from my traveling suit, the other man had walked across the yard and was standing behind my handsome rescuer. This man’s appearance was the opposite of Mister Harper’s in many ways. He was very tall, with blonde hair and a broad, open face, eyes of a lighter blue shade, and a wide, welcoming smile. I must say, if all the men in Wyoming are half so handsome as these men of the Sherman Ranch, I will most definitely enjoy my stay here.
“Welcome, ma’am,” he said, nodding down at me from his great height. “Jess, where’d you find this stray?” he asked in a light and friendly voice.
“Miz Willoughby, this is Slim Sherman, owner of this sorry place,” Mister Harper introduced us.
I would not have described it as sorry. True, everything was dusty as seemed to be the norm in this part of the country, and the house was plain, yet it seemed quite sturdy, and the yard and buildings all appeared surprisingly well kept.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Miz Willoughby,” the tall man stepped closer, all but elbowing past the shorter Mr. Harper as he flashed me a dazzling smile.
“Likewise, Mister Sherman,” I replied daintily.
“She was comin’ in on the stage, but Mose hit a chuckhole and broke a couple a’ spokes on a wheel,” Mr. Harper explained, stepping round the big man as expertly as any dandy cutting in at a cotillion. Putting a hand on my arm, he urged me toward the house. “He’s bringing the stage in, but it’s gonna be a while, and we’re gonna need to change that wheel.”
Standing there, looking at those two delightful visions of western manhood, I was everlastingly grateful to Mr. Mose and that chuckhole, whatever a chuckhole might be.
“I’m afraid the place doesn’t have much to offer a lady,” Slim, as he insisted I call him, explained, hurrying around to take my other arm, as if I was an invalid and needed such support. “You’re welcome to go on inside, ma’am, but it’s more than a mite cooler out here on the porch.”
And the view would definitely be much better, I thought but politely did not say aloud. “That would be fine, Mister, ah, Slim.” The two of them escorted me to a chair which sat in the shade of the the rustic home's small porch, from which vantage point I could look out over the yard. Jess brought me a glass of water, cool from the deep well, he explained, and I sipped it daintily. “This is very refreshing, thank you.”
Slim, meanwhile, had brought a small footstool from inside the house, setting it in place and watching approvingly as I rested my feet upon it. “Comfortable?” he asked.
“Very,” I replied, looking around and asking softly, in my most pleasant and unassuming voice, “There’s no Missus Sherman here at the ranch?”
I swear the tall man, adorable as he was, blushed. “No, ma’am. Not yet.”
My dark-haired benefactor’s eyes sparkled, and he looked ready to skewer his boss with a snappy retort, but the tall Mister Sherman elbowed him in the ribs and fixed him with a glare. Mister Harper ducked his head, and I was quite sure I heard him chuckle.
“We’d best get ready for Mose an’ that stage,” tall Mister Sherman said to his ranch hand. Turning back to me, he apologized for deserting me for the moment. “Pardon us, Miz Willoughby, but we do have work to do.”
The two of them tipped their hats to me and walked quickly away, but Mister Harper paused and looked back after just a few steps. “Now you shout if you need anything, ma’am.”
Immediately they went to the barn and got to work, rolling out a large wheel and carrying toolboxes outside in preparation for the arrival of the damaged vehicle. By the time Mr. Mose and the slow-moving coach made its appearance, the two young men were well prepared to go to work.
I watched with great interest as with practiced ease they unhitched the team of horses, propped up the coach, removed the damaged wheel, and quickly put the new one in its place. They worked together well, despite the sometimes sharp words exchanged, reminding me very much of my older brothers, who often disagreed and squabbled but always with an undercurrent of sincere brotherly affection. It was plain to see that, though far different in appearance, one the employer and the other the employee, these two were indeed brothers in heart.
All too soon it seemed to me, their work was completed, the stage once again bore four perfect wheels, fresh horses were hitched to the vehicle, and Mister Mose climbed back up onto the driver’s box.
It was time to leave, and I found I did not want to go.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble, ma’am,” the tall, blonde Mister Sherman apologized and smiled.
“Hope we didn’t inconvenience ya’ too much, Miz Sara,” the shorter, dark-haired Mister Harper added with a lopsided grin.
“It was no hardship at all, gentlemen. None whatsoever,” I answered. Indeed, the only hardship involved, I suddenly realized, was in leaving.
The two of them assisted me in climbing back aboard the stage, and then, in a swirl of dust and shouts from Mr. Mose, the stage lurched into motion, and I was again on my way west.
I could only hope that the rest of Wyoming would prove to be equally enjoyable.
And anywhere near as scenic.
But I do have my doubts.
---------- The End ----------
(Well, actually, it’s not the end, it’s the start of Season 2.)