"Mr. Callahan? I think I know where we are." Dusty was scanning the distant horizon, his eyes screwed up in imitation of a thoughtful frown. Mr. Callahan, riding Blarney alongside the gently rolling stagecoach, looked up at his little pal, his own face shifting with subtle emotions that resolved themselves into a picture of tentative and slightly hopeful curiosity.
"You do, Dusty? Where?"
"We're somewhere in the Midwest."
Mr. Callahan let out all the breath he'd been unconsciously holding in a huge sigh of exasperation. "Dusty! I know that! I know we're 'somewhere in the Midwest'!"
"Well, now I know it too," the young scout grinned. "Two heads are better than one, huh Mr. Callahan?"
"Unless one of those heads is yours," Mr. Callahan muttered, deflated.
The stagecoach continued bouncing along, the Brookhavens happily ensconced inside.
"Mrs. Brookhaven sure is nice, ain't she, Mr. Callahan?"
Mr. Callahan wondered why he was still riding alongside Dusty and his inconsistent conversations that changed tack so wildly and suddenly.
"Like yesterday, when we were pickin' blueberries? Mrs. Brookhaven was the only one who helped out. Lulu didn't want to get blueberry juice all over her hands, and Betsy was still sore at findin' out Mrs. Brookhaven was her chaperone."
"Well, at least the chaperone business is all out in the open," Mr. Callahan said resignedly. "Last thing anyone needs on this wagon train is people keeping secrets from each other."
"And you know what else she said?" Dusty looked down at Mr. Callahan with a grave expression. "She said she likes bein' rich but sometimes it stops her from havin' fun."
Mr. Callahan raised a finger to his lips. "Shh," he whispered, inclining his head towards the main body of the stagecoach. "She might hear you!"
"It must be good to be rich in some ways," Dusty carried on at the same volume. "You can buy anything you want. But it's important to have fun, too." At that, he nodded sagely.
"Nicely put, Confucius," said the wagonmaster with a beaming grin.
Dusty peered over at his friend quizzically. "Mr. Callahan, I'm Dusty. You okay? Is the sun gettin' to your head?"
"I know who you are, Dusty," the wagonmaster chuckled. "Confucius was an ancient Chinese philosopher. He said a lot of wise things. I was being funny."
"You were getting me mixed up with an ancient Chinese dead guy and you think that's funny?" Dusty looked mildly indignant.
"No, Dusty, I..." Mr. Callahan shook his head. "Never mind."
"I wonder if people will remember things I've said after I'm dead," Dusty mused.
"Dusty, people don't even remember things you say while you're alive."
Dusty was unaffected by Mr. Callahan's gentle ribbing. "You know what else Mrs. Brookhaven said? She said that if I was just a little bit younger, and she was just a little bit older, I could almost be her son." Dusty now wore an expression of beatific contentment. "That's a nice thing to say, ain't it Mr. Callahan? I ain't never been someone's son before."
Mr. Callahan, as ever, kept his dignity. "What about your own parents, Dusty?"
"Oh, yeah. Well, I meant someone else's son. Not just my own parents. If I was Mrs. Brookhaven's son, I'd be rich."
"I thought you said it wasn't important to be rich?"
"I said it was good to be rich, but important to have fun." Dusty frowned and almost looked inward to his own thoughts. "Didn't I say that?"
Mr. Callahan laughed affably. "Dusty. Never mind other people remembering what you say- you can't even remember what you say."
# # # #
On the covered wagon that was following along about three hundred yards behind, Betsy was sitting next to Lulu and gazing forlornly at Dusty.
"I hardly saw him at all yesterday," she sighed. "Mrs. Brookhaven didn't leave his side all evening. All that laughing and giggling. And I swear she kept touching his arm."
"Oh, Betsy- they were just having fun," Lulu replied sympathetically. "Poor old Mrs. B never gets the chance to cut loose. Does her good to get away from Mr. B now and again."
"But not with Dusty! She's meant to be chaperoning me, and you're meant to be chaperoning him." Betsy stared miserably at her showgirl friend's tumbling blonde curls and impressive cleavage which wobbled with every jolt and shudder of the wagon. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. "Oh! I don't know which is worse!"
Lulu laughed. "Betsy, honey, don't you worry about it. Everything'll work out just fine. You'll see."
# # # #
Dusty jumped nimbly down from the driver's seat. They had pulled into yet another of the small clearings that Mr. Callahan was so good at finding, and the big wagonmaster had decided they'd stay there for the night as it was cool and shady and there was water nearby.
The first thing Dusty did was pat the horses and tell them what a good job they'd done that day. They tossed their heads almost as if they understood, but Dusty had decided a while back that they weren't half as smart as Freckles. When he'd told Mr. Callahan his theory, his big friend had laughed and replied, you're not even half as smart as Freckles- and come to think of it, neither am I.
After petting and thanking his two horse team, Dusty decided to open the stagecoach door for Mrs. Brookhaven. Just as he approached the door however, it flew open and conked him on the nose.
"Oww!" Dusty's hands flew to his face and he gave a muffled cry and spun around in a circle as a puffed-up but bewildered looking Carter Brookhaven emerged from the vehicle.
"Why, Dusty, dear boy, whatever is the matter?" the old banker demanded. "You look like one of those dreadful Indians doing a war dance!"
"You hib be od de dose!" Dusty exclaimed, his eyes streaming.
"I'm sorry, Dusty, I can't hear a single word you're saying with your hands in front of your face like that." Mr. Brookhaven turned his attention back to the open door and extended his arm for his wife to take hold of. "Come along, darling. Time for our evening constitutional."
Daphne Brookhaven stepped down from the van and gasped as she saw Dusty bent over with his face in his hands. "Oh! Dusty, whatever is the matter?" She rushed immediately to his side and began fussing over him.
Mr. Brookhaven raised his eyes to the sky and sighed loudly and irritatedly. "Daphne, dear! Do come along. It's probably nothing. He probably got stung by a mosquito or something equally bizarre."
"You doe ge' stug by bozkitoes you ge' bip," Dusty muttered as Mrs. Brookhaven gently attempted to prise his hands away from his nose.
"Sorry, dear boy," Mr. Brookhaven said dismissively. "You're completely unintelligible. Not that you ever are intelligible, even when you aren't jumping around like a wounded hare."
"I said, you don't get stung by mosquitoes, you get bit!" Dusty shouted, his face finally exposed.
Mrs. Brookhaven winced at the sudden noise, but calmly turned the young scout's face towards her to get a better look at what was troubling him. "Why, Dusty! Your nose is bright red! Whatever have you done to it?" She fixed Dusty with a look that was a cross between anxious mother and intrigued eyewitness.
"The stagecoach door hit me when it opened," Dusty pouted, fixing Mr. Brookhaven with a look that was a cross between aggrieved son and soldier injured in the line of duty.
"Well, whatever were you standing there for?" Mr. Brookhaven fixed Dusty with a look that was a cross between embarrassed culprit and cuckolded husband.
"What in the name of jehosophat is going on over here?" Mr. Callahan had arrived and was fixing all of them with a look that was just cross.
"Mr. Brookhaven hit me in the face with the stagecoach door!" Dusty accused, pointing directly at the banker with his arm fully outstretched.
"It was an accident," Mr. Brookhaven drawled, already tired of the sideshow. "What did he expect? He was standing right in front of it!"
"I was coming over to open the door for Mrs. Brookhaven," Dusty carried on. "That's what a gentleman does, ain't it?"
"Dusty! Hold your horses and calm down," said Mr. Callahan gruffly.
By now, Andy, Betsy and Lulu had also wandered over, all wearing expressions of restrained intrigue. "What's goin' on?" asked Lulu, her hands on her hips.
"I was gonna open the door for Mrs. Brookhaven, only Mr. Brookhaven opened the door first and hit me in the face with it," Dusty pouted again, wiping his wet eyes for effect.
"Sounds like an accident to me," mused Mr. Callahan.
"Oh, but it was an accident!" Mrs. Brookhaven sighed, patting Dusty's face. "Wasn't it, Dusty? It wasn't Carter's fault, he didn't know you were trying your best to be a gentleman."
"Just 'cause I ain't rich," Dusty muttered, looking mortally wounded.
"Now, Dusty. One doesn't have to be rich to be a gentleman," Mrs. Brookhaven smiled gently, reaching up to push a hank of hair out of Dusty's eyes.
"But it certainly helps," finished her husband, still standing at the open door and looking even more mortally wounded, his bushy eyebrows ascending and fleshy jowls wobbling.
"One doesn't have to be rich to be a lady, either," Betsy whispered to Lulu as she watched Mrs. Brookhaven fussing over Dusty, "and if I weren't a lady, I'd go over there and throw a bucket of cold water over her!"
# # # #
When no-one was watching, Betsy slipped away from camp and followed the path Dusty had taken to feed and water the horses. She listened out for the snorts and snickers of the animals as she hurried along, her skirts lifted away from her feet as she moved quickly over uneven ground. At last she caught up with Dusty and took a moment on the edge of the clearing to look at him before he noticed she was there. Her face broke into a broad, loving smile as she realised he was chatting away to the horses just as easily as he talked to people, if not more so. The horses even responded now and again with little snorts of air through their nostrils as he clanked their buckets and wandered between them, checking their hooves for stones and stroking their necks and flanks.
Finally she moved forward down the small grassy slope that led to the creek and called out to her friend, excited to have these precious moments alone.
Dusty looked up on hearing his name, and he grinned back in delight when he saw who it was. "Hi, Betsy!" he called, pulling himself up straight and hitching his thumbs into his belt. "What are you doing out here?"
"I snuck away," Betsy grinned back. "No-one knows I'm gone!"
"Gee, you know they'll send out a search party," Dusty told her.
Betsy shrugged. "I'm so quiet, no-one ever notices I'm gone until it's too late," she laughed. "So, what are you doing? Just feeding the horses?"
"Sure," Dusty shrugged back. "Want to help?"
"Well, not really, I mean, it's not that I don't want to help, I was just coming to say hello, and..." Betsy wanted so badly to kiss him, but she also wanted to hold back and let him come to her, just like Lulu had suggested. She fidgeted, not really knowing how long it would be before any of the others realised both Dusty and she were missing from camp at the same time.
Dusty meanwhile, had moved down the line of horses to his beloved Freckles, who whinnied softly at his master's approach. "Freckles likes me, don't you, Freckles? Yeah." Dusty murmured, nodding along with the pony who bobbed his black and grey head up and down. "Freckles knows I'm a gentleman."
"Oh, yes. How is your nose, Dusty?" Betsy asked. Besides a little out of joint?
"Oh, it's okay. I guess." For all the fuss he'd made earlier, Dusty now seemed almost disinterested in the question. He was running his fingers up and down the sides of Freckles' face and the pony was rumbling happily in his throat, batting his long black eyelashes.
"If it's any help to you, I thought Mr. Brookhaven should have looked before he opened the door," Betsy went on.
"Hmph," Dusty replied, gazing up into Freckles' eyes.
"Dusty...?" Betsy said hesitantly.
"Hmm?" Dusty was completely distracted now, nuzzling his cheek against Freckles' soft, velvet snout.
"I might only have a few minutes," Betsy went on, hoping against hope that he would take the hint and kiss her.
"For what?" Dusty said, letting Freckles chew gently on the brim of his hat.
"For...for being here. You know...alone."
"You're not alone," Dusty said, tickling the long wiry hairs on Freckles' chin. "You're with me. And Freckles, and Blarney, and Bessie, and..."
Betsy watched, dismayed, as Freckles flapped his big, rubbery lips against Dusty's face and deposited a smear of horse spit across the young scout's cheek. "I know, Freckles," Dusty murmured in a low, cooing tone. "You like me, don't you? Yes, you do."
"Well, gosh, Dusty, perhaps you and Freckles would prefer to be alone?" Betsy said, suddenly feeling stupid for chasing after Dusty in the first place and realising she couldn't kiss him now, even if he wrapped both arms around her and swept her off her feet. Not with horse spit all over his mouth.
"What?" Dusty finally appeared to acknowledge Betsy's words, but by the time his brain had processed the information she was already half way back up the grassy slope, her skirts clutched in both hands and her long dark hair streaming out behind her. "Now what was that all about?" he asked himself. He watched her for a few moments more, then shrugged and turned his attentions back to Freckles.
# # # #
Betsy skulked back into camp feeling miserable and thwarted. And I was right, she thought as she slipped easily back into her routine while the others went about their business, no-one even noticed I was gone.
She sighed and picked up the item of clothing she had been mending, which happened to be one of Dusty's shirts that was fraying slightly at the collar. She held it to her face and breathed it in. Even after several washes she could still smell him on it, a subtle scent like burnt woodchips.
Between the double acts of Dusty and Mrs. Brookhaven and Dusty and Freckles, Betsy wondered if she stood any chance at all. She sighed again and set quietly to work on the shirt.
She didn't know how much time had passed when she caught sight of someone approaching out of the corner of her eye. She glanced up to see Dusty standing there. He looked vaguely sheepish, although Dusty had a tendency to look vaguely sheepish even when nothing had happened to cause it.
"Hi Betsy," he said a little awkwardly. He seemed to be holding one hand behind his back.
"Hi, Dusty," Betsy replied, equally awkwardly, and blushing.
"Here, I got these for you," Dusty blurted, whipping his hand out from behind his back to reveal a bunch of small and slightly wilted flowers. "I don't know what they are. With my luck they'll be poison ivy."
Betsy stared at the little flowers, looking for signs of malevolence. They were small and innocuous with scrubby looking leaves and pale orangey-yellow heads, nothing frightening about them at all.
"They're not making me itch, if that's what you're worried about," he said, defensively.
"Oh, no! I'm not worried about that at all!" Betsy said, reaching for the flowers with delight. "I'm just very surprised. I can't remember the last time anybody brought me flowers!" She put her nose to the tiny petals and inhaled deeply. They smelled of nothing at all. The only thing she could smell was the pungent and lingering scent of horse.
"They ain't much to look at, but they were the only ones I saw growin' nearby that Blarney hadn't eaten," Dusty explained.
"They're beautiful," Betsy smiled. The thought that he had bothered to pick anything for her at all meant more to her than what they looked- or smelled- like. With just that one sweet gesture, he had redeemed himself in her eyes.
"One other thing," he said, shyly. He shifted from foot to foot, staring at his boots. "I...um...I think I was meant to kiss you, wasn't I? I mean, when you came by to see me just now. Only, I was too stupid and I didn't."
"Oh, Dusty!" Betsy couldn't believe what she was hearing. She hoped he had reached that conclusion by himself and hadn't been struck by a freak bolt of lightning or something.
"You know I ain't a quick thinker, Betsy," he said sheepishly.
Betsy's heart melted like warm syrup over a gentle flame. "Dusty, of course it would have been lovely if you'd kissed me, but, well, I suppose I overreacted a bit by storming off like that. It wasn't very grown up of me."
"Well, it was only after you'd gone that I thought of it," he admitted. "When I realised that Freckles' lips ain't half as warm and sweet as yours."
"Plus, you don't spit on my face or tickle me with a scratchy ol' beard."
Betsy laughed and shook her head. "Thank you for noticing," she smiled, knowing that in a roundabout way he was genuinely complimenting her. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. You're shaped different." He looked at her then, and the way his blue eyes danced over her made Betsy flush right through with a sudden tingling heat. "A lot different."
Betsy didn't know how to respond to that, although her body didn't seem to be having any trouble at all. She clutched the small bouquet of flowers tightly and stared back at him, wondering what exactly was going through his mind.
The silence was abruptly broken when Mrs. Brookhaven seemed to appear out of nowhere and descended on them both with a big, beaming smile. "Dusty! I've been looking for you everywhere!" she cried.
"Oh, Hi, Mrs. B," Dusty said, switching his attention effortlessly from Betsy to the banker's wife. "I was just tendin' to the horses."
"Oh! You say it so matter-of-factly," Mrs. Brookhaven tittered. She smiled at Betsy and noticed the flowers. "Why, those are nice flowers, Betsy dear! What are they?"
Betsy shrugged, holding the flowers out for Mrs. Brookhaven to look at. "Dusty brought them for me," she explained.
Mrs. Brookhaven took them in her delicate, gloved hand and peered curiously at them. "What on earth are they?" she wondered aloud, as though she had never seen a simple wildflower before in her life.
To Betsy's horror, Dusty reclaimed the flowers and plucked one of the better specimens from out of the middle of the bouquet.
"Here, Mrs. B," he said, handing the tiny bloom to the delighted older woman. "This one's for you."
"Why, Dusty!" Mrs. Brookhaven's voice dropped a tone and she became almost coy as she accepted the humble offering held out between Dusty's thumb and forefinger. "What a darling gesture! Thank you so much! You are a gentleman!"
Dusty turned back to Betsy and held the flowers out towards her. "Here, Betsy, you can have them back now," he said, quite oblivious to the look of chagrin on Betsy's face. "I'm sure glad you liked them and everything."
Speechless with indignation, Betsy could only watch as Dusty proudly hitched up his gunbelt and strode off across the clearing alongside Mrs. Brookhaven, whose dainty laughter drifted back on the air and sliced through the schoolteacher like a cold knifeblade. And then she noticed Lulu, who was standing at the back of the wagon with her arms folded, shaking her head as though she had witnessed the entire exchange.
# # # #
"Mrs. Brookhaven? Are you sure you're not gonna cut too much off?" Dusty fidgeted nervously as Mrs. Brookhaven placed an embroidered tablecloth around his shoulders while he sat on a wooden stool in front of her.
"Dusty, dear. It's just a trim," Mrs. Brookhaven smiled sweetly. "You'll never get a job at one of Carter's banks with hair like that. Why, you're beginnng to look like a girl!"
"I don't want to work in one of Mr. Brookhaven's banks," Dusty protested, staring upwards through his long, untidy fringe as Mrs. Brookhaven carefully removed his hat. "And I don't look like a girl! How many girls do you know that shave?"
Mrs. Brookhaven thought for a moment, then smiled charmingly. "Carter's niece, Gertrude," she said, then covered her mouth with her hand as she giggled.
"Boy, I never would have come out West if I thought I was gonna have to get my hair cut," Dusty muttered, his shoulders slumping.
"Now, do sit up straight, Dusty, we can't have you squirming around." Mrs. Brookhaven began combing his lengthening locks, pulling them forward until they covered his eyes completely.
"Hey! Who turned on the dark?" he exclaimed.
"You see? It's a ridiculous length! I'm surprised there aren't birds nesting in it. Now, where did I put those darling, ivory-handled scissors of Carter's?"
Dusty turned his head this way and that, but he couldn't see a thing. "Mrs. Brookhaven, do you know anything about cutting hair?" he asked, wondering where she was.
"Why, yes, I do. I used to trim Mitzi's hair all the time." Mrs. Brookhaven snipped at the air in front of Dusty's face- he would have lost a hank of hair if he hadn't pulled back at exactly the same time.
"Mitzi?" he panicked. "Who's Mitzi?"
"My poodle," Mrs. Brookhaven replied, advancing with the scissors once more.
# # # #
"Mrs. Brookhaven! What are you doing?"
Betsy and Lulu, suspicious of Dusty's whereabouts, had appeared around the stagecoach and were standing open mouthed with horror at the sight in front of them. Dusty was sitting on a wooden stool with a tablecloth around his shoulders- a tablecloth that was covered in clumps of light brown hair, as was the ground around the legs of the stool.
"Mrs. Brookhaven! Stop!" cried Betsy, darting forward to wrestle the scissors out of Mrs. Brookhaven's grasp.
"Why, Betsy, dear, whatever's the matter?" Mrs. Brookhaven looked genuinely puzzled. "I was only giving the boy a trim!"
"What is it?" Dusty asked, terrified as Lulu came over and stared at his head. "Am I bald?"
Lulu picked up the comb and began running it through Dusty's hair, using the fingers of her other hand as a stylist would, pulling and shaping. "No, Dusty, you ain't bald. In fact, I hate to say it, but Mrs. B's done a pretty good job."
"There! You see?" Mrs. Brookhaven said, attempting to reassert herself. "There really isn't much difference between poodles and men."
"Sure can't argue with you there, Mrs. B," Lulu grinned, combing the now shortened lengths of hair around Dusty's ears. She stepped back and beckoned Betsy over. "See here, Betsy? He don't look too bad after all."
Betsy stood in front of Dusty and had to admit the enforced haircut had turned out okay. Dusty looked like a chastened puppy, but his hair was neat and tidy round his ears. She took the opportunity to run her fingers through it. "I suppose you're right," she murmured, running her fingers over his scalp, looking him straight in the eyes as she traced a fingertip around the shell of his right ear, smiling as she felt him shiver slightly. "He does look a lot neater."
"Well," Dusty said in a small voice, "as long as you girls think I look okay..."
Betsy stroked his ear again, resting her hand against his neck. "You look very handsome, Dusty," she said warmly. "But you shouldn't just let people bully you into doing things that they want you to do." She ran her thumb along his jaw, tilted his face up to look at her. He was so trusting.
"Betsy, dear. I wasn't...bullying Dusty," Mrs. Brookhaven protested.
"It's okay, Mrs. B," Dusty said, relaxing. "I know you were only trying to get me a job in one of Mr. B's banks."
"You were what?" said Lulu, turning to fix Mrs. Brookhaven with a glare.
Mrs. Brookhaven pasted an innocent look to her fine-boned features and plucked at the fingertips of her gloves while she looked benignly from Lulu to Betsy and back to Lulu. "Where's the harm in giving the dear boy a foot up the ladder?" she said, smiling at each girl in turn.
"Ladder?" Dusty said, his eyes wide. "What ladder? Mrs. B, first you cut my hair off, and now you're gonna make me climb up a ladder?"
# # # #
Betsy and Lulu were having a discussion in the wagon.
"She's taking over his life!" Betsy said, distraught. "Cutting his hair? Fixing him up with a job? Next she'll be adopting him!"
"She sure is treating him like a new toy, I have to admit it," Lulu mused thoughtfully. "I don't think Mr. B's happy about this either, bein' pushed outta the way by Dusty, of all people. This whole chaperone business just ain't workin' out, Betsy. We got a happy couple all right- but it ain't the right couple. We gotta get things back to how they were."
"How are we going to do that?" Betsy said, woefully. "We can't keep troubling Mr. Callahan!"
"Betsy?" Lulu said, leaning forward with her manicured hands on her knees. "This calls for Plan B."
# # # #
That evening, after supper, Dusty was sitting at the Brookhaven's table while Daphne Brookhaven poured him some tea. He stared at the pale brown liquid in his dainty china cup with the blue and yellow flower pattern. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his nose.
"Carter was like you once, you know," Mrs. Brookhaven was saying. "He was always rich, of course- his parents were wealthy before him. But he was once quite naïve, trusting, almost loveable, I suppose." Her eyes seemed to mist over momentarily. "Of course, he'd hate to hear me say it."
Dusty peered suspiciously into the sugar bowl before picking out a sugar lump and biting the edge off it. "If I had a lot of money, I'd use it to help people," he said, enjoying the sweetness of the sugar on his tongue. "Like when I thought I had that treasure map."
"But, Dusty, you saw how greed corrupts people," Mrs. Brookhaven said, slightly ashamed. She looked at the tablecloth. There were strands of Dusty's hair still on it.
"Yeah. Everyone left me and ran off to find the treasure, and I ended up being killed by a bear." Dusty sipped at his tea, unsure of whether he liked it or not. It definitely tasted better with lots of sugar in it. "Mrs. Brookhaven?" he asked. "Were you always rich?"
Mrs. Brookhaven twisted the large diamond ring on her wedding finger, her huge eyes almost luminous in her small, fine-boned face. She looked up at Dusty with a sad smile. "No, Dusty, I wasn't," she said.
Dusty was about to say something in return, when they both heard loud shouts and laughter from the main part of the camp site.
"What on earth is that unfamiliar noise?" said Mrs. Brookhaven. "It sounds like Carter laughing!"
"Come on, Mrs. B!" Dusty said, jumping up from the table, glad to be abandoning his tea. "Let's go find out what's going on!"
Dusty and Mrs. Brookhaven rounded the corner to see that everyone else was engaged in a lively game of horseshoes. Mr. Callahan had stuck the metal pole in the ground just far enough away from the campfire so that they had light but wouldn't be in any danger of being burned or accidentally throwing the metal shoes into the flames. It appeared that the big wagonmaster was refereeing, and there were two teams involved- Andy and Betsy versus Lulu and Carter Brookhaven. Betsy was standing with her arm linked through Andy's while Lulu jumped up and down and cheered as Mr. Brookhaven launched a horseshoe at the pole.
"Oh, Mr. B, I do like a man with good aim!" the showgirl cried as the horseshoe struck the pole with a loud clang and curled neatly around it. As the haughty banker strutted back to his team mate, she threw her arms around him and planted a huge kiss on his cheek.
"I say!" Mrs. Brookhaven said to Dusty, clutching the young scout's sleeve. "How brazen!"
"Don't worry, Mrs B., that's Lulu, that's just how she is," Dusty said affably, patting Mrs. Brookhaven's hand.
"Not with my husband she isn't!" Mrs. Brookhaven exclaimed, affronted. "And Dusty, look! Look at Betsy and Andy!"
Dusty's eyes grew wide and round as he watched Betsy lean over to Andy and whisper something in his ear, then laugh musically as Andy put his arm around her waist and drew her into his side.
"How brazen!" he exclaimed, in much the same affronted tone as Mrs. Brookhaven had used.
"I don't understand it," Mrs. Brookhaven said, puzzled. "Carter never behaves like this! He never laughs this freely, not unless one of his rivals goes bankrupt! I don't understand it, Dusty!"
"And I don't understand why Andy's movin' in on Betsy when he told me they were just friends!" Dusty muttered, feeling his ears burning and his blood racing.
Betsy was throwing the horseshoe now. She laughed gaily as the metal shoe spun through the air and missed the pole by about three feet.
"Oops!" she cried, turning to Andy and burying her face in his chest.
Dusty pulled several conflicting faces at once, hunching his shoulders and curling his hands into fists. "Why, that snake!" he huffed.
"That hussy!" Mrs. Brookhaven declared, watching Lulu drape her lithe frame around Mr. Brookhaven's little, stocky one. "Come along, Dusty, we're putting a stop to these shenanigans right now!"
The two of them strode through the camp site and planted themselves right in the middle of the horseshoe arena, Mrs. Brookhaven shooting daggers at Lulu and Dusty glaring at Andy in a manner that he hoped looked more threatening than it felt.
"We-ell, look who's here. If it ain't my little pal," said Mr. Callahan loudly. "We need a Team C, Dusty, how's about you and Mrs. Brookhaven join in the fun?"
"Carter!" Mrs. Brookhaven said shrilly. "Is this what you do when my back is turned? Have fun?"
"I'm so dreadfully sorry, my darling," Mr. Brookhaven said mournfully, letting go of Lulu and pushing the showgirl to one side. "I don't know what's come over me. I'm afraid that with you paying so much attention to Dusty, I am but a rudderless ship, drifting towards the barren rocks of a deserted wasteland."
"He better not be referrin' to me," Lulu pouted, planting her hands on her swaying hips.
"Oh, Carter! Have I really been neglecting you?" the banker's wife cried, her face a picture of dramatic overkill.
"Oh, Daphne, I'm lost without your loving guidance!" the old millionaire confessed, throwing his arms wide.
Mr. Callahan rolled his eyes as the two Brookhavens embraced as though they'd been apart for half a lifetime.
"Don't ever leave me again, Daphne!"
"Oh, Carter! Never! I'm a Brookhaven, through and through!"
"And now, if you are through, we've got a game to be getting on with," said Mr. Callahan, wearily.
But Dusty hadn't finished yet. He strode over to Andy and Betsy as menacingly as he could and stood in front of the embarrassed looking pair with his feet planted firmly apart. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"Horseshoes?" replied Andy, innocently. "It's a game, Dusty. See, you get your horseshoe, and you..."
"Not horseshoes," Dusty interrupted, "although it sure is a fun game. I mean, all this kissin' and stuff. Who said you could do it? Mr. Callahan?" he turned and shouted across to his wagonmaster friend. "Who said they could kiss?"
"Dusty," Betsy said, shyly. "We weren't kissing."
"Yes, you were. You were kissin' Andy, and that's my job."
"It's your job to kiss Andy?"
Dusty rolled his eyes. "No. Don't confuse me, Betsy, not when I'm thinkin'. What I mean is, I'm here to put a stop to this. Betsy, you need a chaperone to stop guys like Andy gettin too fresh. And that chaperone is gonna be me." With that, he stepped between Andy and Betsy and fixed the other man with a hard stare. "Pick on someone your own size," he said, putting his arm protectively around Betsy's waist.
"Oh, Dusty," Betsy swooned. "You've been spending so much time with Mrs. Brookhaven lately, I didn't know what to do. Andy was just a convenient shoulder to lean on."
"Well, now I'm back," Dusty announced. "So nobody get any ideas!"
Mr. Callahan sighed gustily. "When Samson had his hair cut it made him weak. Not Dusty- he has to be the other way around!"
# # # #
That night, Mr. and Mrs. Brookhaven retired to the stagecoach fully absorbed in one another once more. Lulu went to the wagon, Andy and Mr. Callahan prepared for the long night of rotating watches, and Dusty and Betsy went for a short walk to the periphery of the campsite where no-one could see them.
"Your hair's cute," Betsy smiled, tickling his earlobe, now visible beneath his shortened locks. "Luckily, Mrs. Brookhaven didn't cut too much off. Although if Lulu and I hadn't gotten there in time, who knows what you would have ended up looking like?"
"I would have ended up looking like Mitzi the poodle," Dusty pouted.
"So. I guess everything's back to normal now," Betsy went on, tentatively reaching for his arm. "The Brookhavens are back together and that whole chaperone business is over and done with..."
"Oh, no, it ain't over with, Betsy. Like I said, I'm chaperoning you now."
"You?" Betsy laughed, then realised he looked serious. "You're chaperoning me? Then who's chaperoning you?"
Dusty shrugged. "You'll have to."
"Dusty! That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!"
"Really? The most ridiculous thing I ever heard was a man who coughed up a hairball eight inches wide."
"Oh, Dusty. Please be sensible, just for once! Can't we forget that whole silly chaperone business altogether? It was never our idea in the first place!" She moved closer, running her hands up and down his arms, gazing into his eyes, which were in shadow.
"But, Betsy...if we're not chaperoned, then...who's gonna stop us kissin'?"
Betsy smiled, pressing closer. "Nobody," she said softly.
"But, we ain't supposed to be kissin'."
She lifted her face to his. "Dusty, don't you want to kiss me?"
"Well, sure I do, Betsy, but not with my chaperone watchin'."
"But Dusty, I'm your chaperone. And I can promise you, my eyes will be firmly shut. I won't tell a soul."
"Well...okay, then. Maybe just one." Dusty leaned forward and Betsy sighed, preparing herself for his kiss, when the loud booming voice of Mr. Callahan came foghorning across the way, making them both jump and spring guiltily apart, not for the first time, and probably not the last.
"DUSTY!" the big man yelled. "Get yourself out here, now!"
Seated by the campfire, Andy shook his head and laughed at the look of sheer delight on Mr. Callahan's face. "That was harsh, Cal," he said as they watched Dusty come running, one hand on his hat he was moving so fast.
"Did I ever tell you how much I love my job?" the wily wagonmaster grinned as his little pal skidded to a halt and landed on the blanket beside him, his face a picture of wide eyed, butter-wouldn't-melt innocence.