Once I’m finished with the horses, I head around to the pump beside the bunkhouse. I push my sleeves up to my elbows and prime the pump, then wash off my hands and forearms in the cold water. It feels wonderful on my hot, dusty skin, so I take off my hat and dip my head beneath the rushing spray. Cool tendrils trickle down the back of my neck and furrow under the collar of my shirt. I feel the icy chill harden my nipples beneath the rough cloth. As the pump runs dry, I shake the excess water out of my hair, then pull up my shirt a bit to rub my face with the relatively clean undershirt beneath.
It’s when I have my shirt up, my stomach exposed, that I realize I’m not alone.
Quickly I smooth down my clothing and turn to find Boss Daddy’s only daughter standing on the bunkhouse porch above me. She looks as fresh and pretty as a plucked daisy, her gingham dress clean and starched, her crinoline petticoats a rush of lacy foam above her buckled heels. Her long hair is pinned up in a bun at the nape of her neck, the color the same pale chestnut of the sandy ground in shadow. She has piercing eyes that seem to reflect the blue sky above.
The faintest smile toys at the corners of her heart-shaped lips when I catch her watching me. “Evening, Mr. Nat.”
I touch the top of my head, searching for my hat, but it’s hanging on the handle of the pump. I quickly pull it on, tugging it down over my ears, then almost immediately whip it off again and lower my head. “Evening, Miss Lucille,” I mumble. I don’t dare look at her direct.
When I don’t say anything further, she sighs. It’s a delicate sound, and it stirs my insides in ways I won’t let myself think about. “I ‘spect you’re just about ready to head on into town,” she says.
I nod. “Yes ‘m.”
She leans down over the porch railing and smiles at me. I stare hard at the ruffle on her skirts but I can feel that smile above me, as warm as the dying sun. “Mr. Nat,” she murmurs, “you can look up at me, you know. It’s just the two of us out here at the moment.”
“Boss Daddy’ll have my hide if I’m too friendly with you,” I mutter.
“Boss Daddy doesn’t have to know.”
Her voice is even lower than before, and I hear the rustle of her petticoats as she drops down to crouch in front of me. Before I know it, I’m no longer looking at her skirts but at her face between the slats in the porch railing. Her pretty features are framed by wisps of blowsy hair that managed to escape her bun. Her nose and cheeks and forehead are slightly darker than the rest of her skin, as if kissed by the sun. She’s the most beautiful lady in Junction -- hell, in all the west, I’d reckon. How something so delicate and soft is descended from a hard, brass man like Boss Daddy is beyond me.
I clutch my hat in both hands and press it hard against my stomach. “I ... uh, I really should go, Miss Lucille.”
She half-closes her eyes seductively. “Don’t you want to stay a while with me, Mr. Nat?”
Truth is, yes, I do. But her daddy isn’t the only thing I’m afraid of. “I must go,” I say, more sure of myself this time. For good measure, I plop my hat onto my head and turn away.
I don’t get far before I remember my manners. Turning back to her, I remove my hat again and bow. This time I don’t let myself get drawn into the prison of her gaze. “Good night, Miss Lucille.”
She’s still squatting in a very unladylike manner, and when she sighs, she leans her forehead against the railing. “Good night, Mr. Nat. Pleasant dreams.”
Her words chase me all the way into town.