A shrill whistle pierced the air above the bustle on the train platform.
No, no. That couldn't be her escort.
WHEEEET! A second call echoed the first, turning the heads of passengers boarding and disembarking from the train.
Opal Bright shaded her eyes with one gloved hand, her other balancing a large hatbox against her hip.
Surely the dust-covered man a head taller than those around him wasn't her father's chosen emissary.
But when he waved his once-white Stetson above his head and began shouldering his way across the crowded train platform, Opal's hopes plummeted.
"Miss Opal? Opal Bright? Your father sent me. I'm his foreman, Charlie Welch."
She tried to keep her lips from pinching as she considered the man, from the tips of his mud-covered boots to his patched and frayed woolen shirt to his warm, brown eyes and half-smile. She failed.
Mostly because she was irritated at having to wait so long. It was another sign how little she mattered to her father.
"You're over an hour late. And how dare you-you whistle at me as if I were a-a cattle dog to be called to your side!"
His expression didn't change, except for a tiny quirk at one corner of his mouth. "Miss, I'm sure you'd like to get out of the warm sun for a bit. Allow me to escort you over to the café."
She barely resisted the urge to stomp her foot, like little Susie back at the orphanage was prone to do. "I don't want anything to eat and I don't want to accompany you anywhere. I've come for one reason."
"What reason is that?" he asked, voice suddenly harder than it had been before. Those brown eyes appraised her and she suddenly felt as if this cowhand was looking for fault.
"I'm here for the gold."
His eyes widened infinitesimally before going cold. Suddenly, he yanked her by the elbow, pushing through the crowd and taking her with him.
"I'll thank you to unhand me." She tried to wiggle her arm loose from his grasp, without success. Her hatbox bobbled and she nearly dropped it. An upset "mrrow" emerged from inside. A sound Opal hoped Charlie hadn't heard.
The cowhand ignored her and bodily escorted her down the rough wooden steps from the platform to the dusty street below.
"Let. Me. Go." Opal yanked against his hold, but only succeeded in possibly giving herself bruises. His iron grip didn't slip.
"There isn't any gold." He spoke loudly, throwing the words over his shoulder. Almost as if he spoke to someone behind her.
"But--" Opal gasped as he dragged her through a muddy spot between two buildings, ruining the hem of her traveling suit. The only nice gown she had left.
"I don't know what you're talking about, but keep yer trap shut," Charlie hissed, leaning close so she got a whiff of leather and soap and man. It was enough to make her shiver.
"I'll thank you not to behave so familiarly," she bit off, annoyed at her thundering heart. "You're entirely too close."
"Well, I'll thank you," he mimicked her with a wrinkle of his nose, "not to make such a fool announcement in front of God and ever'body. You've got a coupla mean-looking fellas interested in your arrival."
A glance behind the broad shoulders shielding her from most of the boardwalk revealed he was right. Several unsavory-looking men followed them a few paces back.