Fetchin’ Cousin Minnie by Bsoiree

Fetchin’ Cousin Minnie
by Bsoiree

Chapter 1

“Be ’bout a week, Ah reckon,” the mellow, alto voice proclaimed. Without thinking her hand ran across the tight leather vest pocket where she’d slipped the metal star when she took it off. She pressed the cool metal item further down into her stiff pocket with her thumb. She was out of her jurisdiction now and not traveling on official business.

Deep blue eyes fell over the man before her. The tall beauty stood a half a head taller than the slim, wiry man. She dug out her shot bag from her other vest pocket and pulled out enough coin for payment. “Keep ‘em fed an’ groomed an’ mah wagon ready, if’n ya would. Come ta think on it, Ahl deal out fer ten days, jest ‘n case.” She dug around for more coin. “Ya return a fee that ain’t used?”

Slim nodded as he made his notation before his attention went back to the woman. Normally his eyes would have been on the horses, since they were his main interests. And these dappled grey geldings were superb specimens. But he couldn’t seem to lift his eyes from the impressive, blue-eyed, black haired beauty before him.

This must be that woman they’d all heard so much about! She easily stood six feet tall or more and was wearing men’s ranch clothes from her tall, worn cowhide boots to her sweat-stained wide-brimmed western hat but there was no mistaking her womanness.

Her face was strong but strikingly beautiful with intense azure eyes outlined by long curled black lashes and an expressive mouth. Her leather vest hugged her torso, adding lift to the soft contours of her small but feminine bustline. It fit snugly at the midriff above her leather belt and emphasized the flat muscles of her stomach. A single holster hung lower on narrow hips. Underneath the vest her collarless man’s faded blue linen shirt was clean but threadbare and topped with a well-worn blue-gray calico bandanna.

“Takin’ the stage?” he asked conversationally, “Sheriff?” he added to check and see if he was right. He had a slight Texas drawl to his words. She winked in return and patted the bare spot on her vest where her star normally was pinned.

The evening stage ran west through this small forested mountain pass town while a good day or more ride out into the Antelope Valley a rail line was underway. So far it wasn’t completed, though word was that they were making steady progress. On the flat this stage turned north just after reaching the valley floor, paralleling the rail line that was many miles to the west.

A wide, warm smile graced the features of the tall brunette. “Yep. Ahm gettin’ mah Cousin Minnie an’ fetchin’ her back ta the ranch. Ain’t seen her in fourteen years!” Sparkling blue eyes danced under the wide Stetson. Their fervent blue was even more noticeable against sun-bronzed skin, high cheek bones, and beautiful long black hair.

“Best hurry, than,” Slim warned. “I heared that stage a’ridin’ in ten minutes ago. They only stop here long ’nuff ta eat supper, spit an’ change hosses. ‘Bout thirty minutes er so. Then they’re out ag’in. No delays.”

She nodded and reached a long arm into the back of the buckboard under a corner of the wagon sheet. She pulled out a carpetbag and her buckskin jacket then grabbed her carbine from under the seat.

“Ahm leavin’ mah fixin’s,” she pointed to her hotroll and camping materials as she quickly spread the canvas sheet corner back over them.

“Yep,” he nodded.

She tipped her hat, “Thanky kindly, Slim.”

She turned and jogged down the boardwalk to the hotel stage stop at the end of the street, the livery man’s shocked eyes following her progress. How did she know his name? He licked his lips. That tall, breathtakingly beautiful gal was said to bear the stamp of a woman with the know-how and gumption of a Sheriff outlaws feared a’plenty! And still she was said to be resurrecting a first-class ranch. Could there be a more perfect woman? Even Texas didn’t have better.

He looked around guiltily. She knew his name! Good thing his wife wasn’t here to see him a’gawkin’ like this! Wait till he told the fellas he’d waited on her and she’d called him by name!

The passengers, in fact, were queuing to climb back into the coach from inside the hotel dining room as she arrived and got into line. Blue eyes surveyed the scene. From the looks of it, this coach was going to be packed. The stage workers took her bag and put it in the boot under the driver’s feet and her rifle went with a few others that were lashed down for safety. If’n thar war gold aboard, it woulda gone war mah bag jest got stuffed, she mused.

Like a small Napoleonic general, the short driver proudly strutted out past the line of passengers and climbed imperiously into the box, taking the reins from one of the workers who tipped his head in deference and hopped down. The man skillfully worked the reins through the fingers of his left hand as the passengers watched with respect. Ahl betcha his feet work them brakes like a dancer’s, Gaine considered, and he’d need to. This section headed downward at a steep winding pitch. He’d have to manage the brake plus the ribbons of his six-in-hand as well as control the slack and render the cracking of his silver ferruled whip if needed.

The driver was a hardy soul with large hands and feet and a shock of brown hair galloping out of his hat in all directions. He quirked a bushy brow and the workers picked up their pace in loading. His bearing required and received respect from absolutely everyone around him. The nervous six mountain horses were bred for this kind of work.

All the passenger seats on top were already taken by eight armed men of different sizes and shapes, half of them in Army blue, that half each sporting a new Springfield Army issue rifle. The tall brunette’s eyes ran discriminately over them. So’s why the armed escort? War they assigned ta ride? She hoped not. She just wanted to get to Sacramento with no trouble.

Most folks didn’t carry weapons when they traveled by stage. But it had been a short time since the outlaw Vasquez had been captured and having road agents going after a stage was still considered outlaw sport. Robberies in the vicinity had everyone on edge. Ain’t gonna attack with’n this kinda firepower a’gin ’em, she decided, ‘lest thar’s somethin’ extry val’able..an’ whar’d they put it, if’n thar war?

The driver’s boot appeared to be holding mail and luggage with little room for much in the way of a large express box. The boot in back and the rack on top also seemed to be carrying only luggage and mail. Course, looks could be deceiving.

The crowd moved forward and the tall brunette silently cursed her luck. She hated being trapped inside. She put her hand on the door entrance nearest the coach’s large, heavy ash back wheels to pull herself up the step and inside. Them wheels gotta weigh near a thousand pounds apiece, she mused.

She’d heard the rear seats were the most comfortable if you had to ride inside and were usually surrendered to the ladies, although the front with their back to the driver was better protected from dust and weather but could be bouncy. There were a number of ladies on this trip so she was surprised to see an empty seat by the back window. She lifted her eyes to the young woman whose father had just gruffly instructed her to take the middle back seat while he sat by the window. Green eyes met hers and she froze. An age old familiarity was there, like seeing old friends after a long interval. Only she was certain she didn’t know this lady.

Gaine smiled tentatively, a smile that was briefly returned before she sat beside the young blonde woman on the leather seat with little room for her long legs. While the coach jiggled with each of the passengers’ movements, she adjusted her holster a bit so she was not unnecessarily poking the young lady’s hip with the Colt revolver handle. The others behind her in line continued filing in to fill the other seats.

The blonde’s wheezing, rotund father sat alongside his daughter by the far window, taking the lion’s share of their four foot bench. His expensive, tailor made pant legs were well dusted with a light grey ash supplemented with road dust. He was making obnoxiously loud, guttural throat noises as he cleared his nasal passages and spat out the window opening on his side.

At the same time, his large, beefy hand withdrew his gold watch from his vest pocket and clicked open the case. His eyes assaulted the reading as though he were the timekeeper for the stage company before clicking it shut with a scowl and replacing it in his vest watch pocket. An expensive gold fob held it in place.

On the opposite side from the rotund man, with his back to the front wall of the coach, sat an Army officer, a dashing young man of good looks and confident knowledge of same. His sword was wedged out of the way across a lower corner of the door to the floor and his blue forage cap rested on his knee. On his belt hung a battered tin cup. He smiled pleasantly at both her and the young woman beside her. The tall brunette folded her jacket neatly in her lap and smiled back.

The young officer was impressive. With his neat and trim blue uniform, broad chest, near six-foot frame, handlebar mustache, otherwise clean-shaven face, sultry eyes and shoulder-length light brown wavy hair, sun streaked with lighter highlights, he indeed looked very buoyant and handsome. This was a man who turned many women’s heads. Though parted in the middle, a few errant locks of his hair, which he might normally have kept in place with grease, fell loosely across his forehead with a boyish casualness.

Next to him was a totally mysterious, full figured matron, her body covered head to foot including long black gloves and a great mass of obscure veiling fully encircling her somber hat. The veiling bottom tied loosely at shoulder level, leaving only a shadowed peek at her caliginous features. Ladies on the stage often wore veils to slow the dust but rarely so complete a veiling. Though it was hot, a black mantilla sat on her shoulders over her long dark dress.

The tall brunette studied the matron for a minute–how she held her head and moved her arms. Likely a bilious wida uv unromantic years in them dark colors, she decided, Still in mournin, looks like. She maht take quite a bouncin’ a’sittin’ thar.

The mystery woman exchanged a few muffled words with the woman filling the final seat on that end. She was a middle-aged black woman with the same matronly figure clad in a dark hat and matching subdued maroon dress with black gloves. One assumed she was the mystery lady’s servant or traveling companion. She also wore a dark, austere hat, but it had only a small front veil.

“If’n ya like, ma’am,” the tall brunette said to the mystery woman. She stopped the loading passengers with her hand, politely removed her Stetson and held it in her hand, “Ahl swap places with’n ya.” She ran a hand through ink black tresses, “Ah heared that’n thar kin be a mite bumpy–sortta like sittin atop a mustang’s first interduction ta human attachments. Now, Ah done rid me a heap a’ wild broncs so’s the turmoil’s better suited fer the likes a me.”

The woman did not speak but merely raised a gloved hand in a “stop” position and shook her head, “no”. She signaled for the others to continue coming in. The black lady next to her smiled politely at the brunette. “She’s jest fahn,” she said in a flowing Southern drawl. “Thank ya fer yer generous offer, anyways.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the tall brunette replied, replacing her hat. The small blonde watched in appreciation. That was a gallant move.

Hustling in to fill the middle bench were three drummers, the first wearing checked trousers, a baggy sack coat, stiff paper wingcollar with thin bow tie and waistcoat, black shiny shoes tied up in bowknots and a snappy bowler hat. The others were similarly attired without the checks. They looked as though they would normally grease their hair heavily with bear grease but all had traveled enough to know they would end up looking like potato patches within minutes from the whirling dust if they did so. So their ungreased hair swept in directions completely of the wind’s liking.

They chose to face the back of the coach, trampling Gaine’s toes on their ingress. The blonde’s feet were pulled tight against the seat under her long skirt, her father’s remained boldly in the way, untouched. Why ain’t they a’facin’ the front? Most folks does! Gaine grumbled to herself. There was little enough room for her legs without having to share the fifteen inches of available space with them.

The doors were slammed shut and the six fresh horses at the front of the carriage shifted nervously in place, anxious to be on their way following the road that ran under a canopy of pines beside the river on its winding way to the valley below. This was the evening supper stop on the stage route, and it had the sweet heavy scent of pine. The tall brunette had ridden in her buckboard a full day and most of another from her ranch in the foothills further north to get here before it left.

Constantly replaced horses would take the passengers rapidly down from the mountains and west into the countryside. Others would then pull them north through the dark to where they’d spend their night at an outlying road ranch. After an early breakfast, they’d be on their way again as the sun came up. On the third night they’d finally arrive in Sacramento and she’d meet up with Minnie either then or the next day, depending on when her cousin arrived from Virginia City.

A crack of the whip and from a standstill the horses shot from their place by the hotel at a wild and furious gallop. Everyone grabbed for something to hold onto including the leather straps that hung from the ceiling as the coach rolled back then forward again. The tall woman felt the small hand of the young woman beside her clasp onto her knee.

“Sorry,” the blonde murmured softly, removing her gloved hand quickly as the movement evened out to a rolling gallop and everyone became readjusted again.
“Gaine Sargos,” the tall brunette smiled, turning her deep blue eyes onto the small blonde, her smooth contralto voice adding to her appeal.

“Excuse me?” the largest emerald questioning eyes she had ever seen looked up at her. They were outlined with long, blonde eyelashes, a freckled spattering on nose and cheeks, a short, cute button nose and an equally disarming smile that instantly captured the tall brunette’s interest.

The young lady’s hair was parted in the middle and severely pulled back under her homespun bonnet, giving her the air of someone older and more stern than her features might describe. But for all that, rebellious curly tendrils escaped here and there and poked out under her bonnet’s edge. Her faded floor-length dress was simple and clean but prissy, low at the wrist and high at the neck, like a school marm’s might be. Her light kid gloves were a bit larger than her delicate hands.

Gaine wondered how old the young beauty was. She might have been anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five.

“My name…it’s Gaine Sargos,” the brunette smiled radiantly and the young woman returned the smile.

“Meghan Fitzgeraldson” she replied softly, a warm smile on her face.

“Be quiet, Meghan!” her father’s stentorian voice boomed. Apparently his nasal passages were now clear. “I’ll not have ya talkin’ with strangers!” Then he muttered under his breath, “Pity Granger got off.”

“Yessir,” she mumbled and dropped her eyes to her gloved hands now folded in her lap, but there was a touch of fire she tried to hide in her downcast eyes as she glanced back at the tall woman briefly before a soft pink climbed to her cheeks.

Gaine decided Granger must have been sitting where she was sitting now. The small blonde was paying close attention to her and seemed embarrassed by her father, so to preserve tranquility, Gaine let the man’s comment pass.

The old man grunted, huffed, then leaned forward with some difficulty. He twisted his large form the tall brunette’s way and with blunt rudeness, his hard grey-green eyes moved imperiously over Gaine with obvious disapproval. She raised a sculpted brow at his blatant scrutiny, unperturbed. This was a man, she decided, who was used to having his opinions count for something.

“Vagabonds!” he snarled sitting back to cast a compatriot’s look the drummers’ way, expecting their total agreement, “Incapable of redemption…the lot of ’em!”

Gaine tensed but a deeper blush rose on the downturned face of the man’s daughter at the insult. The blonde had never seen as impressive a woman before and felt horror at her father’s words. Gaine wondered if the drummers really had been agreeing with anything this repugnant man said. The salesmen, for their part, glanced at her unwavering gaze and looked elsewhere. Gaine again decided not to pursue his comment because of his beautiful, embarrassed daughter.

The dusty road wandered around under the pines before the road suddenly narrowed and the terrain began to drop precipitously. All the curtains were open and they saw themselves descending rapidly now in the midst of a deep gorge darkened around each curve by intense shadows. Accidents were not at all uncommon along these narrow, winding mountain roads. Through the haze of dust rolling in the large windows they could hear the scream-like complaint of the brakes’ pressure and smell its heat as the driver rode it mercilessly. The horses were dramatically reined back, the shouts of “whoa, whoa” filling their ears but the speed of the coach did not diminish all that much.

Gaine pushed back her hat and sat up tall to judge the perilous ordeal. Would they be forced to jump for their lives? It happened often enough. She quickly surveyed the situation and kept her hand on the large window opening. She knew exactly where to place her foot for extra leverage and carefully moved it as close as she could. There would be a second’s pause should the situation develop. Jumpers from the roof would be a concern, though unavoidable.

She glanced at the blonde beside her, where her arms were. Then she looked around. Everyone’s eyes were frozen out the drop off side as the rear wheel of the coach flirted with the precipice. All too rapidly the coach flew around each curve. She found herself praying there wouldn’t be any ruts to break the wheelspokes or jump them closer to the edge. That would be inescapable disaster.

“Oh, dear heavens!” Gaine heard the small blonde beside her utter as they flew around another curve. The two older ladies across the way were squeezing each other’s hands in terror and the drummer’s faces had gone white as they clutched their bench. They had all sidled towards the uphill side as the rear wheel by the old man edged the very rim of the road, dropping gravely dirt off into the abyss. The Lieutenant was gripping the downhill window on his side, his jaw bravely set, his eyes flicking into the chasm directly below his window.

Gaine wondered why the driver hadn’t chained the wheels and taken them down slowly. It seemed steep enough and certainly treacherous enough. But this team was sturdy Morgans. Were six Morgans sturdy enough to resist the pull of the carriage from the abyss if they had to? Few were better at such roads. But the carriage weighed plenty! She saw the passengers frozen in place.

“Doan fret, folks! We bees fahn,” Gaine comforted. “Horses er sturdy, driver’s ‘sperienced.” She prayed he really was but kept her grip on the window! “Jest n’ case, though, keep yer eye ta tha UPHILL door n’ winders. That thar’s whar ya jumps from.” A coach full of wide eyes shot her way and she chuckled, “But we ain’t gonna hafta.” She knew, however, that if they did, she was pulling the blonde out with her!

The girl’s father did not so much as look Gaine’s way. He sat staring in place. In what seemed like hours of holding their collective breath as they whipped screechingly around all-too-tight curves, the road suddenly turned a bend, leveled, widened and the steep dropoffs vanished behind them. The coach entered an area of rolling brush hills where scrubby junipers went flying by.

The passengers exhaled in unison and sat back, some murmuring soft prayers as the fine powdery dust now billowed in the windows and permeated everything within. One of the drummers murmured something and crossed himself. “We made it!” the Lieutenant said with a short laugh. Others nodded mutely. Once assured of their safety, the curtains were drawn to stop the thickly rising dust.

“We should NOT have to put up with that danger!” the old man growled, closing his window shade. “We paid enough not to!” Gaine agreed to herself. There were better ways to handle that section of road. All of the drummers nodded their heads in accord with the old man. He withdrew a cigar from his pocket and bit off the end, spitting it to the floor. From the muffled moans from the other ladies across the way, it was not a new occurrence.

One of the drummers’ hands went to his own pocket where cigars were resting. This man gave the young woman’s father a look of query but Gaine caught his eye and gave him a withering stare that stopped him in his tracks. He slowly withdrew his hand. That’s why them fellers face this a’way, she thought. They wanna git permission from him ta smoke! Well, who made him boss?

She looked over at the paunchy man, but he intentionally did not grace her with his eyes. He kept one hand in his coat pocket, nervously jiggling the coins in it, possibly looking for his lucifers. That man’s shore nuff a wild stampede an’ he ain’t ’bout ta be corralled by stern looks from ana’body, ‘specially from me, the tall beauty decided. E’en them dropoffs only frized ‘im temporarily.

The coach now rocked forward and back like a cradle, keeping the occupants’ attention inside. Slowly the passengers found themselves relaxing. While the bright California sunlight was subdued within along with the dust, the heat of day was not. Oppressive heat settled around everyone. Handkerchiefs were brought out by the drummers to wipe their sweaty brows. Even though the coach had stood open while the group was inside at supper, lingering was the heavy odor of a great many passengers held captive inside all day.

“I am Lieutenant R. L. Pottsington, the Post Quartermaster from Fort Derwood, at your service ladies.” The man in uniform’s flirting brown eyes fell on the tall beauty. He gave a small laugh of relief, “I believe, before we risked our lives back there, you said your name was Gaine?”

“That’s correct,” Gaine answered, looking at him around the drummers in the middle. She heard the “snick” of the lucifer as the blonde’s father struck it and began to puff on his cigar. The haze and odor quickly filled the rocking coach. The smoker shook the flame before sliding the dead match stick out the slight side opening of the canvas curtain. Then once again his hand went to the coins in his coat pocket, forcing his daughter over to give him even more room for his elbow.

“A most unusual name,” the Lieutenant replied with an encouraging grin, “but unerringly charming, if I may say so, ma’am.”

The tall woman laughed a deep, rumbling laugh that helped the others relax even more. “Ma’am, huh? Lordy, that thar done makes me feel ancient! T’war mah Gramma’s family name,” she moved over a little to allow more room for the blonde who was now pressed firmly against her as they leaned around a curve, still rocking to and fro at the same time. “Common ’nuff name ‘n mah family.” Suddenly they were jostled up and down till the ruts in the road jumped the wheel out. Gaine was glad ruts hadn’t been on the drop-off road. She shifted her knees that were tightly dovetailed with those of the drummer on the bench.

Lieutenant Pottsington flashed his chipper smile at both women as everyone leaned one direction then corrected for the next curve and leaned the other. They heard the brake clamp on the wheel again as the driver leaned his weight onto it for the downward pitch. Gaine pushed the canvas curtain to peek out the slit. “Ain’t nothin’,” she remarked, sitting back comfortably. Everyone sighed.

“Say, them Army boys up top, they be a’ridin’ shotgun fer sum partic’lar reason?”

The officer gave a small chuckle. “No, there’s nothing to protect on this run but us as far as I know. They’re the drivers that’ll be bringing supply wagons back to the fort. Two to a wagon. They’re under my command.”

“Ahh,” Gaine replied. A young officer with men under his command. Impressive.

The Lieutenant again threw his most charming smile their way. Notwith-standing the older man’s opinion, he wondered if the tall brunette had any idea how fascinating she was…a beauty in men’s clothes! Dauntless, unafraid, totally gorgeous! He got the feeling she was completely unaware of her impression.

While he attempted casualness, his back was ramrod straight against the back wall, giving testament to his chosen military career or to the meet with death he had just escaped. Naturally of a light complexion, the Lieutenant’s skin now showed he had spent a good deal of time outside. His reddish-tan looked ruddy and healthy with warm brown eyes completing his dashingly mellifluous look.

The blonde’s green eyes raised shyly his way. Her smile implied how impressed she was before she braced herself for another turn. Gaine saw her respond and felt a jolt of jealousy. She averted her eyes to her own hands, perplexed. What ‘n tarnation war that ’bout? she pondered, not fully understanding the swell of possessiveness she’d suddenly felt toward the blonde.

“She’s taken!” the young woman’s father shouted at the Lieutenant. He leaned forward with another grunt and released in his pocket the coins he’d been jiggling. His free hand now came up with a wagging finger punctuating his remarks. His bushy mutton-chop beard thrust forward along with his chins, and his cold light eyes narrowed on his prey. “So don’t you try your dastardly ways with her! I know you Army men! You only have one thing on your mind!”

“And that is?” the Lieutenant defiantly retorted with a calm and innocent raising of his brow. Gaine decided she liked this officer.

“You know what it is! You’ve been aping grins at her all day! Stay away from her or I’ll contact your Commander! I know him personally! I know a great many important people!” The man glared at the young officer then sat back and puffed again on his cigar, not dropping his searing gaze.

A momentary concern passed over the young officer’s features at the older man’s words and the officer’s jaw tightened. He looked away causing the older man to smirk. The carriage leaned as they rounded another wide curve. Again the sound of the brake was heard but the drop was not precipitous. Gaine noted the blush that came to the young woman’s down-turned face. She was once more embarrassed by her father’s outburst and Gaine didn’t blame her.

She’s took? Gaine hadn’t considered that. She sighed in disappointment but saw no bulge of wedding ring in the woman’s glove. An’ they done rid tagather all day? They musta all boarded on t’uther side a’ the mountains at Jubilee City whar that thar ungodly hot desert be.

Suddenly a loud bugle note was blown from atop as they approached their first swingstation. The horses would be changed there. They had just such a change about every hour or for each ten or fifteen miles. Gaine sat up and rolled her blind to carefully watch the few men in the station as they pulled in, aware that most of these men were drifters and that some were on the dodge from the law.

To let in fresh air at the terminus, both doors and all windows were opened while the horse tenders unhitched the spent team and hitched the fresh. The blonde’s father climbed out, put out his cigar, took an available shovel and hurried off in the arid air to find himself some privacy behind the chaparral and greasewood as did a couple of the drummers and a number of the men from on top. The drop offs had had their effect on people’s digestive systems. The other drummer silently climbed out and quickly lit up his cigar outside. Gaine took that moment to quietly inquire how the young woman was doing.

“Fine,” she put her gloved hand momentarily on Gaine’s arm, making the tall brunette’s whole body tingle. “Thank you,” Meghan whispered, withdrawing her gloved hand and folding both daintily in her lap. She wanted to say “You made me feel safer just sitting by you,” but she didn’t. Meghan could feel her cheeks flushing and was glad the lighting inside was shadowed. She wished she could control her blush, but this amazing woman next to her seemed to make her heart beat faster and her cheeks flush at the slightest word. With her emerald eyes softly veiled under blond lashes, she glanced several times at Gaine.

“Ah figured we’d make’t past them drop offs safe ’nuff,” Gaine smiled.

“I’m glad to be past there,” the small blonde replied. Gaine chuckled. She was completely aware of the blonde and the short looks the woman had been sending her way. She was lovely! More than lovely! And Gaine felt an instant alliance with her, not to mention the surprisingly unbidden twinge of heightened pulse!

As they spoke, the Lieutenant inquired how the older ladies were doing. The servant replied they were greatly relieved to be on more solid ground and to have the cigar smoke stopped.

The blonde’s father returned with a grunt and a scowl, as he heaved his way inside. Once seated, he withdrew his pocket watch and snapped it open. He sniffed. Everyone deduced from that that the stage was running late, which, in fact, it was not. Nor would they have wanted to encourage the driver to hasten.

The others piled back onto the stage and the whip was cracked. Ten minutes were allowed at each stop and this had taken fifteen, but they had made extra time going through the drop offs, so they were right on schedule. The horses tore off in a cloud of dust and the window curtains were rapidly drawn again.

Once more the older man withdrew a large cigar from his pocket and bit off the end. The need for a smoke after a harrowing event was past. Gaine shot him a withering glance which he totally disregarded. He nodded to the drummers as he struck his match, giving them his permission, but they looked toward Gaine who gave one slight move of her head, which they all took to mean “no.” They did not withdraw their cigars.

The cloud of potent cigar smoke rapidly accumulated inside the closed coach as it leaned and rocked at the same time. The young officer’s brown eyes moved back to Gaine. “Are you visiting?” he asked cordially, ignoring the heavyset man and the smoke and odor he was dispensing. It was stiflingly hot. Gaine wondered why everyone was ignoring the foul odor and allowing the man to smoke.

“In a manner a’ speakin’ Ah reckon Ahl be a’visitin’,” she replied. An effulgent smile crossed her face. “Ahm goin’ ta meet up with mah Cousin Minnie an’ fetch her back ta the ranch. Ain’t seen her in fourteen years.”

“That’s a long time,” the officer replied. “Is she an older lady?”

“‘No. Young n’ single with scores a’ suitors. Her Momma claims she be the purtiest young woman a’ marriageable age. We war younguns tagather a’fore thar family moved on. This here’s the first chance we’ve had ta see one t’uther since’t.” Gaine grabbed for the leather strap as they pitched around a tighter but not alarming curve.

“I hope you get plenty of time to visit then. Family’s important.” The Lieutenant coughed lightly.

“Oh, we’ll have heaps a time. She’s plannin’ ta stay a spell. Ah ‘spect the townsfolks er gonna be pesterin’ her ta be the local school marm. Last Ah heared they was figurin’ on mergin’ thar herds so ta speak an’ startin’ a school ag’in if’n they kin find someun with ’nuff larnin’ ta run ‘t.” She turned to the young woman, “S’cuse me,” she said softly after joggling into the blonde as the coach jolted out from yet another rut.

“That’s nice,” the Lieutenant smiled.

“Ah thinks so,” Gaine replied, letting her thoughts go to Minnie. What trouble they got into as children! A year apart in age, together they were a real trial to their parents. Minnie always took every dare and Gaine loved her for her derring-do. She hoped her cousin hadn’t lost that streak.

Gaine removed her Stetson and smoothed her long black hair with her hand before replacing her hat again. She flicked the hair off her sweating neck to help cool herself then felt the small blonde lean into her again at still another turn.

The tall beauty’s thoughts drifted to how busy she’d been working to rebuild the ranch and its stock since her Pa’s passing. Her parents had both passed and her siblings had all married and moved away. She was the youngest, and she’d loved the place so she stayed. Her “family” now consisted of her wranglers. She’d grown up with some of them. Sure, there were a few of the townsfolk who were closer than most, but she hesitated to designate them as “family”.

Then out of the blue she’d received word from Minnie, who in her usual style had just written that she’d decided to visit. Gaine eagerly looked forward to seeing this rascally cousin and the trouble they could always seem to find. Even if her cousin was more subdued now, it would be fun having her there.

They traveled for a while in silence. Then both women across the way began to cough gently as the old man puffed away, his eyes contentedly half closed. Their handkerchieves were held in front of their veils by their mouths and noses. They flapped politely at the smoke since their veils did little to stop smoke. Gaine thought he’d take the hint. He shut his eyes completely and continued to smoke.

Gaine’s eyes began to water. She felt the heat and stench becoming overbearing in the jostling, rocking coach as it rocked and leaned at the same time. She saw a greenish tinge arise on the features of the small blonde beside her, who kept her eyes down and her mouth clamped shut, making neither complaint nor comment about the odor as the coach swayed around the bends then plunged ever downward, rocking to and fro. But the young blonde’s father puffed on, imperially immune to the discomfort of anyone around him.

Well, she’d ask him to put it out, Gaine decided. She wasn’t shy. “This here coach bees ta full ta permit smokin.’ We’d ‘preciate it if’n you’d cease with yer ceegars since’t thar a’botherin’ tha ladies,” Gaine said politely across to the blonde’s father. The others looked at her with badly concealed amusement.

“Go to hell!” the man replied without so much as a glance her way. The two women across the way gasped at his language and the Lieutenant rankled. The drummers, who’d been chatting softly among themselves, grew instantly quiet.

“That’s no way to talk to a lady! And in front of other ladies, too!” the officer scolded righteously.

A snarl crossed the heavy man’s face. “That’s not a la…”

Gaine had drawn her Colt and was now pointing it at the father’s cigar. Her smile was gone. Her blue eyes burned ardently upon him. Everyone inside froze. “Put yer ceegar out!” she demanded, “Er I’ll do it fer ya!” The coach swayed but her aim remained steady.

“Here, I’ll open the curtains. That’ll help,” the Lieutenant said nervously. His experience in the west had been clear. If someone drew a gun and pointed it, they weren’t shy about using it. And all too often bystanders died from errant shots.

He rolled open the canvas flaps on his side, then strained to reach over the drummer to open the one by the obnoxious man. Again dust came flying in only now on that side. It trapped some of the cigar odor inside along with the flying grit. Outside the window it was plain that the pines and drop offs had fully given way to low lying scrub on rolling hills.

Gaine’s eyes did not leave the man’s face. He held the burning cigar in his hand beside the open window, deciding whether to challenge this heretic in men’s clothing or not. He could hardly consider a woman with a gun as a threat or even think her worthy of his time.

Just opening his mouth to give her a surly reply, Gaine squeezed the trigger. The loud blast startled everyone as the lit cigar end went flying out the open window onto the dry dirt road leaving a trail of small dancing, dying sparks in its wake. Everyone’s hands flew to their ears except the man’s. The horses started, causing the carriage to jolt momentarily before being pulled back.

The old man froze in place with a small unlit cigar stub remaining in his hand. His eyes grew into enormous spheres as he examined the stub but a slight grin was forced back by the small blonde whose eyes, with her hands over her ears, sparkled with spirit. Silently she sent a look of complete admiration the tall woman’s way.

“That’ll do it,” Gaine said and replaced her Colt in her hip holster. There was not a trace of repentance in her features. Suddenly a face appeared outside the window near the rotund man. It was upside down bobbing down from the top.

“Conductor says don’t fire out the windows with the coach so full!” the man called, his head lopping outside their window. He was obviously holding onto the rail and leaning over. “Startles the horses.”

“All right,” Gaine called back, “We done resolved not ta smoke ‘n here, neither.”

The face disappeared then reappeared again. “Conductor says that’s a good idea. Shouldn’t smoke when the coach is full. Bothers the ladies.”

“Right,” Gaine murmured and settled back into her seat, tipping her hat forward almost over her eyes and crossing her arms as she got more comfortable. The breeze from the window felt good even if the dust was thick. She pulled her bandanna up over her nose to shield herself. She could feel all the eyes in the coach on her except the old man’s. Of most importance were the green eyes beside her and for some unknown reason, it seemed extremely important to Gaine that this young lady think well of her.

Gaine wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a faint “thank you” from under the veil of the mysterious woman across the way. She glanced down at the worn grey fringe of her undershirt sticking out at her wrist and nervously pulled down her shirt cuffs to conceal it before casting a quick look the young blonde’s way. Ah hope Ah din’t startle ya ta bad, she thought. But the lady’s look was more of wonderment than anything, so Gaine assumed she hadn’t.

The blonde’s father did not look her way nor did he utter another word. For a long time he stared at his cigar stub then he flicked it out the window as though it were biting him. His attention then moved far away to the rouge forms of the distant spotty clouds. The piney foothills and the blushing pink-tipped mountain peaks were rapidly fading behind them as they relentlessly moved downward.

The Lieutenant looked over with a look of supreme awe. This woman was amazing! The drummers’ eyes held more fear than anything else. No one spoke.

A threat made and carried out, a gun drawn and fired were enough to bring introspection from all save Gaine, whose thoughts moved on to the beautiful young blonde beside her. For some unknown reason this young woman had awakened something in Gaine-a deeply buried feeling, a yearning for female companionship, a need for the soft allure and company of a woman, a puzzling though, in truth, not a wholly unknown want quite different from what she felt regarding her Cousin Minnie’s visit. Gaine drew her hat forward, further over her eyes to consider everything in private. They rode in silence, the warm body of the blonde pressed against hers.

At the next stop the outside lamps on the coach were lit. Gaine again surveyed the workers but didn’t recognize any escaped convicts. The doors were slammed shut and the fresh horses tore away at a gallop in an all too familiar billowing cloud of dust. She noted that these horses were now gamy roan mustangs, matched as a team. No longer were they the sturdy Morgan’s used above.

The coach swayed and bounced through the remnants of the day’s end and into the ambiguous moonlit night as they continued up and down but mostly down the many winding turns of the very dusty road. Though not steep nor precipitous, the darkness made the trip through the foothills dangerous and the horses were held back more than usual on their descent. Gaine kept her window open and her senses fully alert. She could hear the coyotes out in the wild.

One stop later they hit the floor of the valley and the coach leveled out and turned north. Long stretches of the land were much more flat now and the rich smell of sagebrush perfumed the air. Dust was again so thick that the curtains were closed. Coordinating the lead team with the swing team and the wheelers became child’s play and the driver could be heard laughing and talking with the Conductor till the sounds of the rumbling coach took over once more. Passenger’s eyes weighed heavy in the darkness and occasional soft snores arose.

The approach horn awoke those sleeping. As always the curtains were rolled up and the doors opened as they waited for the teams to be switched. In the crescent moonlight they first heard then distinguished the constant cadence of a horse approaching at a gallop. The rider drew rein, handed his mount off to a livery boy, then joined the coach while his dark steed was unbridled, unsaddled and turned out into their corral till the rider returned.

They all watched this lithe shadowy figure approach the carriage, climb on the outside and then they heard and felt him move across the top. He had to have squeezed himself behind or between the luggage up there. Gaine wondered if she should try to do the same but at this point she didn’t want to leave the green-eyed beauty beside her.

Ten minutes almost exactly and the coach tore out again with fresh bay horses this time, leaving behind the last faintly distant view of the few coach workers with no other signs of humanity for miles. Gaine knew this area and wondered if she knew the fellow who’d climbed atop. She hadn’t recognized the horse, but, of course, it was dark. The rolling sandy road ahead glowed a strange bluish white in the moonlight as it snaked along the basin.

Now the carriage swung to and fro like a cradle as the horses moved along their familiar sloping run. Though the dust was overwhelming, they left the curtains rolled. The carriage jostled rapidly as they rattled across a dry rocky creekbed then jarred along rutted roads crossing gullies and dry washes, settling into a fast trot. Straining, the horses lathered pulling the filled coach up heated inclines of the rolling hills while crescent moonlit shadows ate the landscape as they rushed by. Summer heat was heavier here on the valley floor.

Mosquitos flew in through the open windows with the thick dust and tormented them all till they again lowered the curtains. The sun had gone down hours before and each person tried to snooze in what little space they had. Gaine felt the skirts and warm body pressed next to her and shut her eyes in contentment.

It was just before midnight when the clatter of the horses’ hooves brought them dashing out of the darkness to the soft barn lanterns of the road ranch where they would bed down for the night. They called this place the Outcountry Hotel and several stages passed through here. It was fairly new and considered very modern. Passengers headed to the train could transfer to the stagecoach that headed that direction most likely the next day. This coach would continue north skirting the mountains, clambering through the flats and foothills at first light.

Clouds of dust settled in the thickly powdered mesquite by the road behind them then swirled around the coach as the horses finally came to a halt by the corral. The Conductor alit from the box and chocked the rear wheels of the coach. No one’s legs wanted to hold their weight as they climbed out. Instead they were forced to move about stiff-legged until their body’s equilibrium was again established. The passengers milled a bit then congregated back at the coach.

Sonorous buzzing sounds and the repeated whirring chirp of the crickets chorused loudly in the warm night air. The myriad of mosquitoes were particularly bothersome leaving blood marks with each successful swat and everyone was anxious to get inside, hoping it would be better.

“Wonder why they’re botherin’ ta stop,” a man who’d been riding on top said quietly to his neighbor. He swatted his ear as they stood beside the coach waiting for their luggage. “Not gonna be here long ’nuff to warm a bed. Lots a’ these companies run their stages night and day.”

“Let the driver rest, I reckon,” his friend replied. Gaine smiled. She doubted that letting the driver rest was ever a serious consideration. The only reason she could see to stop on long distances was because of the time schedules. They had to make connections with other stages, some coming from the train, some from the mines plus they had to arrive at the bigger towns further north at a decent hour. It was all about profits. And it was the passengers, plus the mail the stage carried, that meant profits. So that meant stopping.

Gaine was grey with dust. Like everyone else, she stepped aside and raised a cloud just brushing herself off. Finally she whapped her hat against her legs a few times and decided she was done. She moved back into the main group.

Meghan’s father roughly yanked the small blonde to his side away from either Gaine or the Lieutenant. Immediately Gaine bristled! How dare he treat Meghan that way! She wanted to walk over and punch the abhorrent man in the nose! But he did have certain legal rights that she must keep in mind. She pushed the star in her pocket down further and grimaced as she held her tongue but her eyes stayed on the small blonde.

Meghan clenched her jaw and cast her eyes down. There was no dignity in being jerked around particularly in front of a woman she was so unreasonably drawn to, yet she maintained all the stature she possibly could under the circum-stances. Her stomach had battled butterflies since they’d left home. And certainly the trip had been rousingly diversionary. But she dared not forget the terrible peril ahead for her. She did not look up.

“He’s quite a charmer, isn’t he?” a deep voice said behind Gaine as they waited for their luggage to be unloaded.

It was the Lieutenant. He was so close Gaine could almost feel his mustache rustling against her hair. They stood about the same height and he almost breathed in her ear when he spoke. A faintly pleasant scent of citronella wafted past her nose. Gaine frowned. “Yep. A right decent sort, wouldn’t ya say?”

The Lieutenant laughed and backed up a step. “At least he’s quit smoking. He smoked all day before you got on and a couple of the drummers joined him from time to time.”

“Ya shoulda asked ’em ta stop.”

“We did. He was semi-polite to us, but refused to quit. The drummers just followed his lead, and the fellow in your seat also smoked. We were outnumbered. All day I thought his poor daughter was going to be ill though she never made a peep in complaint.” The officer snickered, “But you had quite the solution to the problem.” He quickly swatted a mosquito on his cheek.

Gaine chuckled softly. “Mah new Colt sixshooter. T’is right accurate.”

“I’ll say!” the Lieutenant replied admiringly.

They both watched the old man and his daughter collect their bags as they were thrown down and walk toward the building.

“They were sleepin’ I tell ya,” one of the boys in blue standing near them was saying to the soldier beside him. Gaine and the Lieutenant grew silent but tried not to show that they were listening. This fellow had been sitting closest to the driver. “I saw ’em! Both the driver and the Conductor! Slept for a good half hour or so that last stretch before we got here! Good thing the horses knew where they were going!”

“I’ll be! How many ways can a driver figure ta kill ya? I thought the Army was a dangerous living, but stagecoaches have it all over that!” his friend replied.

Glances were shot back at the conductor and driver who were standing, stretching in the dark shadows of night away from the passengers. The horse tenders were loosening the traces and marching the released horses by lantern light into the shed to be stripped of their harness within, while one man had pulled aside the oiled leather flap and was tossing down luggage from the rear boot while another was lowering the large trunk-like case tied on top that belonged to the mysterious woman.

“I’d best offer help for the old lady and her companion with their luggage,” the Lieutenant said quietly, “they have quite a lot of it.” Then he added softly, “They had to pay extra, you know. And by the way, I did offer to try and get her the most comfortable seat when we first got on in Jubilee City, just in case you think I hadn’t acted as a gentleman.””

“Any jogglin’ she done thar din’t seem ta bother her none,” Gaine said, smacking a mosquito that had landed on her hand.

“It didn’t,” the Lieutenant agreed, “The chance of falling off the cliff seemed more of a bother to her!”

Gaine laughed a low, rumbling laugh, “Well shucks, Ah pondered the meanin’ a life mahself on that little stretch a mountain tee-rain!” The Lieutenant joined in her laughter, “Didn’t we all!” He squeezed her shoulder once before hurrying off. She didn’t much like being handled, but she made no fuss over it.

She watched him walk over to his men, who followed him as he offered their readily accepted help to the mystery woman. The woman’s outfit gave no opening to mosquitoes. Maybe that thars why she sports ‘er veil, Gaine thought, smacking still another mosquito from her own face. Maybe Ah outta git me one! She watched the mysterious woman pull the hidden waist cord attached to the hem of her skirt to lift it above the thick dust as she moved to the front door.

“Ta late ta keep that thar dust off,” Gaine chuckled to herself as she watched the woman. “Maht as well jest walk right on through’t.”

The woman and her companion did have a lot of luggage. The Lieutenant and two of his men carried the cases. The others went back to wait for their own bags to be tossed down. Gaine saw she’d have to wait till the man on top finished with the back boot and got to the front boot where her rifle and bag were stored. She brought her eyes to the building and noticed that the waystation had a well near the front and in the back, an outhouse.

Sweeping her eyes around her, Gaine bypassed the corrals, stable, blacksmith area and building and saw a darkened, hill-rimmed plain lit by the slivered moon, with little else but some brush, a heap of mosquitoes, a smell of sage and a few clumps of dark-shadowed trees huddled together in the distance. Gotta be a marsh er a slough, she decided, with oaks and willas by it. They ain’t cottonwoods. Wandering through this plain in a lighter shade was the dusty road they were now paused upon. But even it succumbed to the dark and distance.

Now that the dust was no longer rising, the night smelled warm and fresh. The insects’ noises loudly filled the air with their evening melody. A seductive light wind began to caress the passengers as they waited, the fragrance of the warm earth perfuming their surroundings. She heard the frogs and knew there was water somewhere nearby. Gaine shut her eyes and inhaled deeply.

“Cicada,” one of the drummers said softly to one of the others, “and these danged mosquitos!” Gaine opened her eyes and looked at them and smiled. No, she thought, ya only hears cicada in the daytime er ta dusk. But them mosquitas er shore ’nuff pesky!

The station building was a long, low adobe building that felt immediately cooler when they stepped inside. The well-used screen door had a rip but did a fair job of keeping out the swarms of flying insects. On a rickety wooden stand against the wall was a tin washbasin with an old mirror above it. It was instantly swamped with customers. Near it was a pail of water and a piece of yellow lye soap.

The tall brunette noticed that the mysterious lady and companion both had out their handkerchiefs as they waited, the Lieutenant and his two men standing quietly to the side with the ladies’ luggage at their feet. She’d wipe her hands on her pants if she could ever get to the water. She reproved herself softly for leaving her canteen in the buckboard.

The small blonde was brushing herself off while her father scowled nearby. The station agent was assigning rooms and noted that the train stage was already in and every room would be full. There were four ladies and two rooms left for them. Gaine would be sharing with the man’s green-eyed daughter. She felt a thrill at that thought.

Once the young lady’s father heard that information, however, he went storming to the Conductor, his fierce pale-grey eyes flashing. “It’s an outrage!” she heard him holler across the room. “First you damn near kill us on the road then you do something like this! She knew without looking that his mutton chops must be jiggling and she chuckled to herself.

“I won’t stand for it!” he yelled. “She’ll not share a room with that..that creature!” Gaine saw the passenger’s faces turn from him to her, remembering her freeness with her gun. But Meghan was beside him blushing furiously and Gaine decided she couldn’t raise a fuss. Not with Meghan there. She heard him say something about her taking a wild shot at his cigar, endangering everyone’s lives. She heard the words ‘biologically defective’ and ‘unbalanced’ and chuckled. Ya ain’t got no idea how ‘unbalanced’ Ah kin be! she grinned to herself, but keep it up, feller, and ya jest maht git yerself a good look-see!

The Conductor muttered something soothing in return. She gave up on getting to the water and headed for her room. She had wanted to get a glimpse of the mysterious lady’s hands when she removed her gloves to wash but exhaustion was the greater master at the moment than her curiosity.

The much touted first-class hostelry end of this home station turned out to be one long room partitioned off with walls of muslin stretched on thin wooden frames with equally thin wooden doors. A metal bed for two, a chamber pot beneath, a battered wooden chair and a small wooden stand with a candle in a holder were the only items in each and they took up most of the available space.

Gaine propped her rifle against the adobe wall by the head of the bed before lighting the candle. Well, at least the bed legs weren’t standing in glasses of coal oil. That would mean there was a serious problem with bed bugs. She quickly pulled back the covers but spotted no flat bugs racing for shelter underneath. Relieved, she replaced the cover.

She hung her holster and hat on the chair, threw her jacket on the seat then sat on the bed and pulled off her boots and socks, stuffing a sock inside each boot. Then she took off her vest and shirt and dropped them in a loose pile on her jacket on the chair before she pulled off her grey, longsleeved undershirt.

She glanced up and saw two small, green lizards roving about on the ceiling and walls and gave them no further thought. She took her nightshirt from her carpet bag and pulled it over her head, shaking her long hair loose. Then she removed her trousers and long undertrousers and dropped them on the chair as well. She scratched the swelling mosquito bite on her hand and one on her neck. Durned things! She was sitting on the bed cleaning her rifle when the young blonde woman shyly came in carrying a pair of expensive men’s boots.

“Uh, I think we’re sharing,” Meghan said cautiously, averting her gaze from the tall brunette decked out in only her thin nightshirt. The blonde’s stomach flipped with the giddiness she felt when she discovered she’d really be spending the night with this intriguing woman.

“Howdy. Din’t mean ta hog the chair,” Gaine smiled. “Ahl move mah fixin’s.” She left her guns and cleaning supplies on the bed and hopped up to remove her clothes from the chair. She knew she should ask herself some pertinent questions about how she felt about this blonde, but ignored the thought. It wasn’t the first time she’d had such musings. They’d never felt so intense before was all.

The brunette’s primitive, handmade nightshirt hung loosely over her tall physique with her highly defined shoulders, pert breasts and flat stomach. When she turned and bent over, it pulled up but still flowed across sleekly outlined back muscles, narrow hips and strong thighs where it ended above her knees with threads hanging raggedly from the unsewn hem.

Gaine folded her clothes and placed them neatly on top of her carpetbag in the corner as the young woman patiently waited. She hung her holster over the bed post with her jacket over it and her hat on top. She worked quickly. What was it about this young beauty that had her hopping like a water drop on a hot griddle?

The blonde’s heart thumped wildly as she viewed the tall woman before her. No one had ever affected her this much, certainly not any man. She’d never been interested in fellas. Even as a youngster at school when her father beat her because she’d talked with the Johnson boy, she hadn’t been interested in him. It was his older sister she’d been intrigued with and was asking the boy about. Only her older brother, who reported her to her father, didn’t know that. She’d kept that truth about herself deeply hidden.

Gaine heard the blonde swallow. The young woman was trying not to stare at the brunette’s bare, nicely muscled calves, ankles and feet, painfully light in color opposed to her deeply tanned face, forearms and hands. The lower part of her body had never entertained a ray of sunlight it appeared.

The small blonde would have grinned at the disparity if the brunette had not been the most beautifully imposing figure she’d ever seen. And she was quite sure the tall beauty had no idea of the figure she cut. The gown, however, was very poorly made. I wonder who dresses you? the small blonde mused. They don’t sew very well. I could do much better, if you were mine. Then she paused and wondered at that thought. Gracious, what am I thinking?

The young blonde shyly sat on the chair and rustled around in her bag, withdrawing the materials to polish the boots. She proceeded to clean them with a diligence born of obvious experience. Once they were shining, she rose, took something from her bag and left the room with them. Gaine sat on the bed watching in wonder. What kind of a man has his grown daughter clean his boots for him? Well, it was obvious what kind of man he was.

The young woman returned, her hands and face wet from washing them in the main room’s basin. She was wiping each carefully on a cloth she had wet and wrung out. It was a small scrap of what might have once been a boy’s worn shirt. She held a bar of homemade soap aside. She wrapped the soap in the rag and set them aside. Quietly she began to unbutton the front of her dress. She turned her back to lift the dress over her head. She had older sisters and was never shy undressing around them, but this felt completely different.

Gaine discreetly kept her eyes down as she cleaned her repeater to the sound of Meghan’s dress and petticoats being carefully shaken to remove dust then stacked neatly on the chair. Normally Gaine, too, was not at all modest but in this case it seemed proper and honorable to lower her eyes since her mouth had already gone dry simply by the presence of the blonde. Little girl’s dresses buttoned in the back, but this woman’s dress buttoned in the front and Gaine noticed she was definitely not a little girl. No, she was every bit a grown woman!

The tall beauty leaned the rifle on the wall and pulled her new Colt from her holster on the headboard and began to break it down to clean it. She was very pleased with this gun so far. It was extremely accurate and she could pull off six shots in seconds. Five, she told herself. She always rested the hammer on an empty chamber when she carried it. She had made some of her own bullets and had them in her holster belt. But the mercantile now sold ammunition and this gun and the empty belt slots were filled with such easily obtained rounds.

Emerald eyes fixed on the tall woman for a moment until the young blonde’s soft voice asked, “Uh, would you help me with this, please?” She had watched the woman cleaning her gun, and her heart seemed to lodge in her throat. Why did this brunette have such an effect on her? She had a gravely dangerous problem to consider, and these feelings were nothing but distractions!

The tall beauty looked up to see Meghan trying to get out of her corset. Stars! Gaine’s heart nearly stopped! The young beauty was totally gorgeous! Her bonnet was off. Her honey-blonde hair was down and delicately fell in natural curls on soft, peaches and cream skin peeking out from her white chemise. And her figure was exquisite! In fact, everything about her seemed perfect.

With trembling hands Gaine helped undo the lacing until the corset was loose enough to remove. She felt a line of perspiration break out on her upper lip. A tender smile of thanks was her reward. Gaine returned to the bed, cleared her throat and dropped her intense view to her sixshooter while the young woman removed her corset, turned her back and pulled off her chemise, quickly pulling on her nightshirt. She reached under it and wiped her torso down with her damp rag, then climbed out of her underdrawers.

Her under clothes were also shaken crisply toward the empty wall away from the bed to remove the dust then folded neatly on the chair with her dress on top. Gaine could see nearly invisible patches that had been skillfully sewn on the worn dress. Then she noticed paper stuffed in the bottom of Meghan’s high-topped buckled shoes. They must need resoling. Her hose had also been skillfully darned. Funny-her father’s clothes were tailor made and had the look of one very well off.

The young woman sat on the bed beside Gaine and ran her rag over each of her feet and calves before folding the rag neatly and placing it in her bag. Beguiling green eyes lifted in candlelight to deep cerulean blue once Gaine’s cleaned pistol was slipped into its holster.

“Which side do you prefer?” the blonde asked nervously. Her rounded swell of bosom was apparent under Meghan’s light cotton gown. Gaine felt her hands get moist and she peeled her eyes away from them. She wiped her palms on the sides of her nightshirt and tried not to look.

“Doan matter. You choose.”

The blonde chewed her lip then giggled skittishly before she crawled in and shifted across. Gaine moved in beside her. They both made much of trying to settle comfortably on their own side before the brunette blew out the candle. Gaine felt her heartbeat increase with the nearness of the small beauty. She worked to calm her mind. She scratched the bite on her hand, then her neck.

Meghan looked through the pale reflected light from other cubicles’ flickering candles to the face of the woman beside her. With her amazing smile and those blue, sexy eyes, the small blonde was completely spellbound. And the sense of intrigue that surrounded this formidable woman who dared wear men’s clothes and allowed few verbal demands from anyone!

Gaine cleared her throat, “Uh, ya polished yer Pa’s boots?” she finally asked politely, even though it was obvious that was what the young woman had done.

“Yes.” Seeing Gaine’s expression she added quickly, “Uh, I don’t mind really. We’re always told wasting time is a sin.”

“Uh huh. But Ah spect yer brothers done that job when ya war ta home.”

“No,” Meghan licked her lips, “my sister always complained that the boys were treated like little princes.” She chuckled quietly, shut her eyes and moved her hand to Gaine’s shoulder. She touched lightly then pulled back. It was obvious she was one of those women used to talking with her hands at least with the females in her family. Gaine had not seen the woman purposely touch her father. “No. It was our job to polish their boots and father’s.”

“Oh. He gots ya doin’ it ever night then?”

“Uh, yes.” She looked over curiously. Wasn’t that all right? she wondered.

“Ah,” there was a short pause, “Yer Pa ain’t none ta pleased you’re a’sharin’ with me.” Gaine had met this type of man before and he bore watching. Meghan blushed. It was Gaine’s turn to chuckle softly. She lowered her voice. It was easy to see the shadows of others who still had their candles lit. The voices of the other passengers carried easily into the spaces. She dropped her voice to a low whisper, “Speaking a’ sech, whar t’is he?”

“Uh, on the far end,” Meghan breathed shyly, still embarrassed by her father.

“Who do he be a’sharin’ with?”

“The, uh, Conductor placed him with one of the men from on top I guess. At first I thought it was supposed to be one of the drummers, but when I went back, it was one of the men from on top,” the small blonde confided softly.

“Ah see. One a’ them boys ‘n blue?”

“No. One of the others.”

“Ahh. Yer Pa knew the feller then?”

“Uh, I don’t think so. They were talking but I don’t know about what. They quit talking when I took his boots back.” Then she added, “But he always does that.”

“Uh huh.” Gaine scratched at the bite on her forehead.

There was a long silence while Meghan gathered her courage. Then the young woman put her hand on Gaine’s arm and whispered, “I’m, uh, glad to be here with you, Gaine.” Gaine shivered and her heart began to flutter at the thought, but she silently reprimanded herself, She’s taken! She’s taken! She doan mean it as nothin’ but bein’ po-lite!

The blonde continued, “I thought we’d, uh, be friends…I mean, from the minute I saw you, uh, I don’t know–destiny or something. Did you feel it or am I being silly?” She stopped herself, knowing that for as little as she had talked, she was babbling. And what must this tall beauty think of that?!

Gaine felt the loss of the contact. “Mm, destiny? Ah reckon. Yep, Ah figure we’d shore be friends, if’n ya’d like ta be.”

“Oh, I’d like to be!” Meghan’s hand again appeared on Gaine’s arm and gave a small squeeze as the small blonde whispered excitedly, then mused, “My father’d hate that. He’s never let us have friends. Besides, I think you frightened him.”

A laugh popped out of the tall woman. She could still picture his face gazing at his tiny cigar stub. Meghan withdrew her hand and Gaine put her arms up, her hands under her head as she lay on her back trying to relax. She felt the bed move as the blonde turned on her side towards her. “You’re not afraid of him at all, are you?” the blonde inquired in a whisper.

Gaine snorted. “No, Ah shorely ain’t.”

The brunette hadn’t seen him at his most vicious and had no knowledge of what her father was capable of inciting, but Meghan wondered if that would change the brunette’s opinion any. “I’m so sorry for how he acted,” she sighed.

“T’warn’t yer fault. Shucks, Ah’v seed t’uther fellers like yer Pa. They gots an inclination ta be plumb full a themselfs.”

“Yes, he is. Aren’t you afraid of anything? Even the drop-off didn’t seem to frighten you much.”

“Ever ‘n anon Ah be, Ah ‘spose, but Ah done trained mahself ta know Ahm capable n’ inventive n’ Ah jest gits past it. See, bein’ a’feared a’ somethin’ kin freeze ya jest when ya most needs ta act. So’s Ah plan. Ah already done figured how we’d git out that thar stage winder right quick, n’ how Ahd pull ya out with’n me, if’n we hadta git’n a hurry. Ah trah not ta give fear no moorin’.”

“You were going to take me with you?”

“Yep. Uh, kin Ah ask ya somethin’?” Gaine turned her face toward the small woman. “Yer Pa said yer taken. How old do ya be?”

“Twenty-one,” Meghan replied. “How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Twenty-four,” Gaine responded. “Ya doan look twenty-one ‘zactly. Ah’da guessed younger maybe. An’ Ah means that thar fer a compliment. So’s yer Pa plannin’ ta marry ya off? Er do this be yer choice?”

“It’s definitely NOT my choice,” the young woman whispered emphatically.

She doan wanna get married! Gaine easily detected the recalcitrance in the force of the blonde’s words and it made her unreasonably happy. Besides, she agreed with Meghan’s basic reaction. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be a forced affair. It was supposed to be entered freely by both parties. Arranged marriages were less frequent than in the past, but they still happened too often in Gaine’s estimation.

“Ya doan wanna marry this feller?”

“NO!” Then the blonde softened her words, “Lendal’s…brutal! Father says I’m the most rebellious of all the girls and need the heaviest hand.” Suddenly she found words pouring out, “He said I had to wait till Lendal was available. Father married my sisters off when they were sixteen, so I guess I’ve been lucky. Apparently Lendal’s ready now. That’s where we’re going. We’re supposed to meet him in Sacramento and then I’m to be married. He’s a close friend of my father’s. They grew up together.”

The blonde paused, marveling at how easy it was to talk to this remarkably beautiful woman. Then she blushed at how she’d been rambling on again.

“This feller’s a personal friend a’ yer Pa’s? How old do he be?” Gaine mindlessly scratched her bites. Old men marrying young girls was fairly common.

“A couple years younger than my father. His last wife, uh, ran off.” Meghan paused. How much did she dare say? She had to consider her safety, yet that was exactly what she felt around this woman…safe. And very beguiled. Which could make her unsafe but she couldn’t seem to control this attraction. Besides, this might be the only time she’d ever get to talk alone with the tall beauty.

“Wait. If’n she run off, he still bees legally hitched ta her.”

“Yes, well, that’s, uh, why father had me wait all this time. She ran off a number of years back. Lendal had to do something so he could get married again. I don’t know what. Something legal I guess. A divorce maybe. I don’t know. He has a close cousin that’s a Deputy where he lives. Father said once that if anybody could find that runaway hussy and drag her back where she belonged it would be this cousin. But I guess he didn’t find her, so maybe he isn’t that good a lawman after all.” Meghan shuddered at the thought of the Deputy.

“Did they have childerns?”

“Yes, eleven. The youngest is about six and the oldest are older than me.”

“Eleven childern and she run off?! Sounds like a far species a’ monkey shine ta me!” A jolt of alarm caught Gaine in the stomach. Wrinkles claimed her brow and fear for this small woman swept over her. “Ah hopes t’war investigated!” It certainly sounded like something that should be thoroughly investigated and not something this young woman should be involved in. Her Pa done knowed ’bout all this an’ war still promising her ta that thar man? T’is got a worse stench ‘n the spatter a’ one a them aggravated polecats!

“Uh, I think the Deputy cousin investigated. He found she just ran off.”

“Uh huh,” Gaine could see a very unpleasant situation edged with deadly ramifications. She did not want this young woman to be involved in it.

“Yer a’ age. Ya could and should say “no”, Meghan. Ya doan even hafta be a’ age ta say “no”.” Women often did what they were told, but supposedly they did have the right of refusal in marriage, even if many dared not use it.

Meghan was silent for a minute. Did she dare trust this woman? One word from her and Meghan’s life would be at risk beforehand. There were things her family never spoke of. She knew better than to trust any stranger. She chewed her lip. Did she dare? Time was running out. She had to take some chances. She sucked in a breath, “They’d kill me first!” she whispered so it almost couldn’t be heard. “If my father didn’t, Lendal would. But please don’t ever say I told you that.”

Gaine nodded. A chill ran down her back as she considered what Meghan had said. One might say with over-dramatic sentiments that their father or their beau’d kill them but these weren’t spoken as overdramatic sentiments. A former wife that had eleven children gone missing? Gaine was more than wary.

Meghan sighed, “She ran off once before with her newborn, I know, and a nearby Sheriff brought them back. Mother said it was horrible, she didn’t have a chance.”

Gaine gritted her teeth. This small beauty must NOT become involved in this! One of the problems with man’s laws was that they were written by and for men. A woman had to near die to get out of some situations and even when she did die, a percentage of men considered it “just”. It was hard fighting that kind of edict. Not in her town, though. And not this woman, not if she had anything to do with it! No, Meghan must not be subjected to that kind of danger!

So there was more of a sinister nature to her father and his attitude than just being an obnoxious bully! She wondered what other harm he’d done to her. Or what he was capable of trying to do. And it made her furious to consider either. Well, this Deputy fellow might explain her Pa’s acting like he had such high-placed and powerful influences. A Deputy certainly could spell trouble.

“Ah reckon that thar Deputy feller’s from Sacramenta since’t that’s whar yer a’headed.”

“No. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure they’re both from a small town somewhere near Oakland called Miner’s Flat.”

“Then why stop ta Sacramenta?”

“Oh, we’re meeting Lendal in Sacramento ’cause father has some business there. We have to wait for Lendal to arrive. He had some business, too, I think.”

“Ah see.” Gaine wanted to yell that Meghan must not follow through with this. She wanted her to explain exactly what she’d meant about them ‘having her killed’, but she feared she knew what the blonde meant. Now she needed to calm herself so she could impassively consider it. And to do that, she needed to set aside any attraction that she had for this small blonde.

Meghan wanted to tell her more but wasn’t sure she dared. Not yet. “I, uh, hoped I’d get a chance to talk to you, Gaine.” She didn’t reach out in a touch this time.

The tall brunette could feel the lady’s angelic green eyes on her as they lay side by side and she wanted to laugh out loud in abject nervousness. Gods! Ahv done faced rustlers n’ t’uther killers an’ ain’t never felt nowheres near this twittery!

“Talk with me?” Gaine felt her body react to the beauty beside her and she shifted in the bed. She ached to pull the woman into her arms, comfort her, tell her everything would be all right, she’d protect her. Forever. The brunette had never met anyone that made her feel as protective as Meghan did. Afraid of showing too much of how she felt, Gaine opted to react lightly. “Well, uh, we shorely din’t git no chance ta pleasurably pass ar time a’chewin’ the rag taday.”

“No, we didn’t,” the young woman softly chuckled, this time putting both hands on Gaine’s elbow that was near her. “But I enjoyed how you put an end to father’s smoking. Thank you.” Another small squeeze and she pulled her hands back.

Gaine snorted. “Sa much fer the romance a’ travelin’ by stagecoach, hey? Near dropped off’n a cliff, pow’rful hot n’ dusty, potent ceegar smoke whilst bein’ packed tagather like sardines ‘n a bouncin’ tin.” Then Gaine blushed at using the word “romance.” Did the young blonde think she was trying to romance her? Was she trying to romance her?

Gaine hurried on, “So’s point out which steer ya wanna brand, Meghan, and Ahl done gee the lariat a twirl er two.”

Green eyes fluttered. “I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”

Gaine brought her arms down and turned onto her side. “Oh, uh, Ah meant ya pick yerself a topic an’ Ahl hash t’over with’n ya.”

“Oh.” This was it. She had to take a chance. “I, uh, wanted to ask you to, uh, help me get away! Please?!” With effort she kept her hands to herself.

Gaine’s mirth disappeared. She was greatly relieved that the young woman wanted to escape this dangerous planned marriage. But another part of her was trying to consider all the serious ramifications of the plea. “Get away ta whar specifically, if’n Ah might ask?”

“It doesn’t matter. Anywhere.” Meghan moved back a little.

“You’re a’runnin’ off?”

“Yes.” The blonde felt herself holding her breath as she waited for Gaine’s reply.

“But ya doan know ta whar?”

“No.”

All right! Gaine thought. Start a’thinkin’. Whar could this beauty go whar she’d be away from her Pa an’ her intended an’ still be safe? An’ how’d it be arranged? An’ when? An’ which laws, if’n any, hafta be broke ta do it?

Gaine knew that as an officer of the law herself she’d give a minute’s thought to the last question. But in the end it wouldn’t make any difference. She was concerned with justice, not following untenable laws. When her town’s officials approached her, pleading with her to take the job of Sheriff, a job no one else wanted, she told them she wasn’t old enough. She was just seventeen at the time.

They made concessions because of that. She told them the wording for the job had the wrong gender. They made concessions for that. Then she told them she’d refuse to swear to uphold the law. That surprised them! They’d always known her as a law-abiding citizen. She remembered their shocked faces. She explained that she would take the job but only by swearing to uphold justice to the best of her ability, not the law.

They fussed but she explained that she felt justice wasn’t always tied up with the law. There was a natural justice that was antecedent to any equity determined by man or his laws. And man’s laws were made by men for the benefit of men. If they hadn’t noticed, she wasn’t a man. She was a woman. She couldn’t even vote to change the laws they wanted her to risk her life to uphold. So she would not make promises in that regard.

From the age of seven she had grown up in her little town and they all knew and trusted her. So the town fathers had grudgingly made concessions for that.

In the end she became the Sheriff on her own terms. She remembered how riled some of the men in town were when she’d first arrested old Shorty because he got drunk and beat his wife. She chained him in her barn overnight since they didn’t have a jail. She’d charged him and she’d made him work cleaning stalls in town for his keep the next day or two to pay the fine. She’d even told the wife she’d make sure she got away with no problems if she wanted to leave him.

“What will become of me and the children?” the woman cried, “We have to stay. Do you know what it means if we don’t? We’ll starve!” So Gaine offered to have her and the young ones stay at the ranch. The woman could work there as a housekeeper. The wife wrung her hands but in the end she stayed with Shorty. “He’s not so bad when he’s sober,” she’d told Gaine. “He doesn’t mean to hurt me.”

“Doan matter one way er t’uther,” she’d told the woman, “he’s gonna get hisself invested in mah barn, if’n he doan rearrange his ways. Ahl arrest him shore, ever time! Ah doan give a hornswaggle if’n he means ta do it er not!”

And Shorty had quit beating her and the children. A couple of the more gladiatorial fellows in town had complained to the Mayor about what she’d done. “She’s no right to interfere between a man and his wife!” they’d said loftily. She’d simply dropped her tin star on the Mayor’s desk and said, “Hire one a’ them!”

She wasn’t even halfway back to her ranch when a thundering herd of riders surrounded her, pleading with her to come back and get her badge. Their town no longer had killings in the saloons every weekend. And of more concern, there were gangs of rustlers and desperadoes working in their area. She had outright knocked off one group and managed to keep the others from stepping foot in their area. Everyone knew the kind of shot she was and the sand she had to back it up.

She heard the anxious breathing of the young woman. This small blonde was serious in her request, Gaine was certain of that much and thankful. But this problem would take careful consideration. She could see where just walking away with her would not be a likely scenario with someone like her puffed up Pa.

“Is this here somethin’ ya just invested yer thoughts in? Er have ya pondered on it fer a goodly while?” Blue eyes searched the shadows for the solemn features of the figure right beside her. More candles had been blown out in the other cubicles, it was darker, and she heard snoring from the room beside them.

“Oh, believe me, Gaine, I’ve thought about it a lot.” Hands were placed on her arm again. “But I didn’t know until he woke me in the middle of the night last night that we were heading to Sacramento today. That’s how he works. He had mother pack me a bag before he woke me.” Meghan’s hands were pulled back, “I’ve saved a little money…not much. It was very hard to do. But I can pay you.”

“Pay me? Uh, no…but yu’ll need it ta support yerself.” Gaine rubbed her forehead. She’d need to think on this now that she knew she had permission to act on Meghan’s behalf. There was more here than just sneaking the young woman out a back door to a saddled horse and giving it a swat.

What kind of help would she need to give? What could she give? Who did she know between here and Sacramento that might help–or even in Sacramento? Business contacts, but no one to help really. Further north towards Canada she had a sister and even some cousins, and there was Cousin Minnie’s family in Virginia City. Would she have to involve Minnie? What would she think of this?

She breathed deeply, “Uh, what sort a’ bizness do yer Pa foller?”

“He owns a wagon shop. They make different kinds of wagons. And he does know some important people, but only because they’re customers. They’re not really his friends and there aren’t that many of them. Ours is a small town, though, and people do listen to him. And he always makes sure things are done his way.”

Gaine knew the town they came from. She’d once ridden to Jubilee City with some fellas from Tucker’s Wash. They’d been tracking a couple of horse thieves east through the woods over and down to the chaparral with its red shank and sage till the desert flora turned less friendly and became thorn scrub. They crossed a series of drops till the dried streams began to head east through weak bedrock channels to the basins. The further they descended, the higher the temperature soared till she was sure it was hotter than the hub of Hades itself.

Then the salt flats appeared, most plants disappeared but beyond in a small valley of scant scrub along the wagon road the town suddenly materialized from nowhere. An oasis of sorts. It wasn’t that big–no bigger than her own home town. She didn’t remember seeing the small blonde anywhere. She’d have remembered that! Only one she really recalled was the Sheriff, a play-by-the-rules kind of man. Misguided in her mind, but not a really bad sort. Needed with’n all them saloons they gots, Gaine figured.

Gaine thought about Meghan’s Pa. A wagon shop would be important in a small place…the kind of commerce that kept little towns alive. And folks likely did knuckle under to him. But his would be a case of the big frog in a little puddle.

“T’is yer Pa some kinda friend a’ high account with’n Gov’ner Booth er Presi-dent Grant er a party a’ that thar ilk? Ta hear him spout, he accommodates his hours a’ recreation with jest such personages.”

“Heaven’s, no!” Meghan replied quickly. “He does deal with the Commander at the fort, though. And he knows Lendal so Lendal’s cousin or any other important friends of his would probably help father, too. And he has some business acquaintance in Sacramento he’s planning to meet. I don’t know who. Otherwise, the people he knows are notable in our town, but I think that’s all.”

“Umm.” Gaine was quiet for a long time. Exactly what would she need to do to help? She would help, of course. What kind of trouble could it mean for her, not that she’d ever run from trouble? But it was always best to know. A man had full rights and control over the women in his family, usually until they were married and the husband took over. However, Meghan being of age would lesson her father’s legal rights to some degree she was sure. Yet how much could be up to a judge. And that didn’t always bode well for women! Judges were always men, and too often they came with a full “the man is in control” point of view.

No, this was going to have to be done in secret, and Gaine hated working that way. Normally she wouldn’t, but she knew in her heart she’d do anything for this lady. More so than any other woman she’d ever met. Most likely she wouldn’t turn away any woman who asked for help, but for sure she wouldn’t turn Meghan down. She’d spend her life protecting her, if the small blonde wanted or needed as much, not that she dared think that way at the moment.

No, there were nuances of laws and there were things men in power considered “in the common good” that would work unfairly against this small blonde. Not to mention the problem of supporting herself over time. That was nearly impossible for a young woman. Everything pointed to needing a man to get by. Unless, like Gaine, they were willing to buck tradition.

Suddenly the tall beauty felt very tired. She was glad she wouldn’t be breaking her own sworn duties. She WOULD be working for justice. But they could count on the young woman’s Pa knowing his every legal right and advantage. She’d bet both the father and prospective husband were savvy men, at least in how to work the law. And with this Lendal’s cousin being a part of their legal wheel of fortune, they’d deal themselves some plumb fortuitous cards and there’d be no doubt of that! She’d need to keep that in mind and not underestimate them.

“What does Lendal do fer a livin’?”

“He works with mules, I think,” the young blonde whispered. “I don’t know if he has any other kind of business or not.”

“Uh huh.” They were just the kind of men who’d make much noisy ado about the law and use it to their own advantage while skillfully using underhanded and downright criminal means of getting their way. She’d bet on that! But then, that could be their downfall, too. She’d be mindful of that as well.

Gaine’s hand ran across her forehead. A successful escape from such men required a sound plan. She raked her fingers back and forth across her forehead thinking. Minnie would take it as a dare, she’d almost be willing to bet on that. She grinned. She could count on Cousin Minnie, unless she’d changed a heap.

Meghan was worried at the silence. Had she given more away than she should have? She knew the dangers she faced. Had she put herself in more danger by telling Gaine? If the woman didn’t want to help, she just had to keep quiet.

“I want you to know that I’m running away whether you help me or not. I’m going to sneak out when we get to Sacramento. Please don’t say anything!”

Gaine was surprised at her words. Course I’ll help ya, she thought. But how? How? “Uh, do ya know ana’one ta Sacramenta?”

“No. Like I said, he doesn’t let us meet other people.”

“Ah conjectured maybe relatives er past neighbors er somethin’?”

“No.”

“Anaone ya could go stay with’n?”

Meghan had already considered that question many times. She had older sisters but her father would get to their husbands instantly if she left. “No.”

“Uh, Ah comprehend.” Get away. First things first. “Does ya got eny plan ‘n mind?” Gaine inquired.

“Not yet. I saved the money. That took years. Now I just have to get away from him. Then I’ll worry about the future.”

“Uh huh,” Gaine let ideas run through her mind for a few minutes but she was so very tired. She had worked hard at home deputizing fellas and making sure things were set up so the town had some ready protection while she was gone. Then she’d spent most of the night cleaning house for Cousin Minnie when she brought her back. She’d been so excited she hadn’t slept all that well on her way to the stage. Then the thing with the cliff. Now it was all catching up with her.

She stretched her tense six foot frame and yawned fretfully. She’d come up with something. At last she leaned toward Meghan and whispered, “Listen, Ahl help yus, a’ course.” Suddenly her arms were full of hugging blonde who had thrown herself across the small open bed space.

“Thank you, Gaine. Thank you!” Meghan felt incredible relief as she snuggled into the tall woman’s arms.

Gaine’s lashes fluttered. A lightning bolt of desire flashed to her groin as she felt the small, soft but firm and fit body pressed along her own. She felt the curves and the press of face against her rapidly pounding heart.

“Uh, yes,” Gaine bumbled, gently returning the hug and trying to still her emotions. She forced her mind back to the problem at hand. “But ya gotta have a good plan, Meghan. Ah gotta ponder on’t, all right?”

The girl pulled back and Gaine sighed in both regret and relief. “Yes,” Meghan replied. “I can’t thank you enough.” Her hand gently stroked Gaine’s cheek before returning to its owner. “My knight,” she said softly and pressed a soft kiss on Gaine’s cheek. Gaine’s heart nearly thumped out of her chest.

For a moment the tall brunette glowed. Then her hand rose frantically to her forehead. She resumed rubbing her fingers querulously across. But again exhaustion won out. She stopped her hand. “Ahl sleep on’t, all right?”

She could feel the smile in the dark. “Yes.” A small hand came to her arm, leaving a tingling where it touched. “Thank you so very much, Gaine.”

“Yer welcome, Meghan,” a husky voice replied. Gaine wondered how her own voice got so husky all of a sudden. She turned her back to the young woman and shut her eyes. She’d better get some sleep and quit thinking about that beauty next to her. Her life had certainly become more complicated all of a sudden.

It was smotheringly warm and she and Minnie had just spilled the milk in the well, fighting over who would get to drink first from the container. It was kept in the bucket near the bottom to keep it cool. They’d drawn the bucket up to the rim when no one was watching and hadn’t meant to spill the milk container when they lifted it out. She looked at Minnie. She was about eight and that would make Gaine seven.

Her cousin spoke. She was stating the obvious. They were gonna get a lickin for this. Again! Cause with milk spilled in the well, the whole well had to be cleaned out. Drained and cleaned. It was a horribly hard job. They knew they weren’t supposed to go near the well.

She saw their mothers cutting switches and hollered, “Run, Minnie!” Her heart began to pound. She was running as fast as she could but they’d caught her! They were all over her! They had her pinned down. Her eyes flew open and she felt arms and legs tangled around her body, holding her in place.

Her heart was about ready to erupt. She was breathing rapidly and glanced down at blonde hair billowed out across her chest. “It’s just a dream,” Meghan mumbled. “Go back to sleep.” Green eyes did not open.

“Uh,” Gaine dropped her head back on the pillow. She was acutely aware of the blonde using her as a body pillow. She let her breathing calm. Then she carefully looked down again at the shadowy blonde hair on her chest. She wanted to touch it, stroke it. It looked so silky.

Gently she brought her hand to smooth the blonde’s curly hair with the lightest of touches. Gods, it was soft and kissable! An ember had been ignited inside her.

Stop! she told herself, realizing what was happening. Now that she was awake, the young woman’s body pressed against hers was building an all consuming ache far different than the smothering she felt in her dream. The blonde’s head was pressed against her heart, held inside her arms. It felt completely natural and right. It was comforting and at the same time far too stimulating. It was exquisite torture. Oh, this here ain’t good, she deliberated.

“Shhh, it’s all right,” Meghan mumbled. She nestled her head further onto Gaine’s chest, her leg slipping between Gaine’s before a soft snore was heard.

Gaine lay with her eyes wide open, afraid to shift. Finding it hard to breathe, she very slowly moved but her body was loathe to leave the embrace and entirely too aware of the blonde’s body. Together in each other’s arms was like coming home. There was great comfort in that. At last she heard others moving around and slowly began to extricate herself from the blonde’s hold by shifting up toward the head of the bed.

“What time is it?” the young woman mumbled.

“Time ta git up, Ahm a’thinkin’,” Gaine managed to sit up. Reaching out, she scratched a lucifer she’d left by the candle holder and lit the candle. It was still dark out but they’d have eaten and be gone by the time the sun was fully up.

Meghan blinked a few times then wide green eyes looked up in the flickering candlelight. Instantly the young woman scooted back to her own side. “Stars, I’m sorry if I took up your side,” she blushed a deep crimson that Gaine found totally charming.

What she must think of me! the small blonde thought to herself. I was all over her! How embarrassing! Then she licked her lips and nervously glanced at the beautiful woman beside her. Gods! She is wonderful…so beautiful, lithe, strong! She’s easily the most intriguing woman I’ve ever seen! And she’s going to help me!

“Ah wants first chance ta the warsh basin this mornin’,” Gaine wanly smiled, without remarking about where the young woman had slept. Her body had been stimulated but she did not want to think on that.

The tall brunette pulled back the covers and swung her long legs out of bed. From habit she shook out her under trousers before she pulled them on then shook her trousers and slipped them on, buckling the belt before sitting back on the bed’s edge to shake out and pull on her socks. One had a hole in the heel, but she was aware of it. One of these days she’d sew that, she mused, if she had time.

“Uh, do you find trousers comfortable?” Meghan asked shyly.

“Yep,” Gaine replied, hearing no censure in the small blonde’s voice. “Ah does a heap a ridin’.” She grinned her most charming smile. “Sides, can’t expect ta do the jobs gotta be done ‘n long skirts. Doan make no sense not ta wear trousers!”

“Yes,” Meghan said softly. She noticed that the tall brunette wore store-bought blue-yarn socks that needed mending. Evidently the tall beauty didn’t have anyone to do her knitting or mending. She wondered who the brunette might have at home that cared about her. A fellow to court her, maybe. It was a devastating thought and the blonde chewed lightly on her lip.

“I’ll wager you can hardly wait to get back home to, uh, I don’t know, maybe your own fella that’s courting you,” Meghan said tenuously. “There’s probably a lot of them interested.”

A long arm reached for Gaine’s boots, shaking them out well before stepping into them. “Naw, I doan got no fellas a’courtin’ me,” Gaine replied. That brought a hint of a smile to the blonde’s face. Meghan continued to watch but turned her face when Gaine glanced back her way.

“Ahl be busy ’nuff takin’ care a’ Cousin Minnie.”

“That’s right,” Meghan mumbled.

Gaine’s mind was spinning. She felt a need to sort her thoughts. Being around this small blonde seemed to send her reeling. “Ahl see ya ta breakfast,” she remembered how Meghan’s father handled her and frowned. Did she dare say anything? “Yer Pa al’ays sa rough with’n ya? It ain’t right, ya a lady an’ all!”

Meghan smiled sweetly. “He is, yes. Don’t worry. I’m used to it, but thank you.”

Gaine still didn’t like it but set it aside. “We ain’t likely gonna be a’sittin’ tagather ta breakfast.” She turned her back to pull off her nightshirt, shake out and slip on her grey undershirt that clung to her body.

Meghan’s eyes widened as she surveyed the taut back and shoulder muscles of the tall woman that exuded strength yet still maintained a soft grace. To have such a build this woman obviously worked very hard physically!

Gaine could feel eyes on her as she shook out her well-worn linen shirt, slipped it on and began to button it. Meghan caught her breath as the fitted shirt stretched across defined arm muscles. She had never seen such a woman before!

The blonde forced herself out of bed and hastily began to make the bed. The brunette’s long, muscled legs in formfitting trousers did not escape a quick glance as she worked, and the blonde noted that the tall beauty’s hips that normally held her low slung holster were narrower than many women’s hips.

Gaine moved to give her some room as Meghan worked. “Yer a’makin’ the bed?”

“Yes,” Meghan replied, almost finished. She was very skilled at this and very fast as well. She fluffed the pillows and put them into place, drawing the single blanket up to them.

“Ya done a good job.” The bed did look freshly made, at least as freshly made as it ever looked. Gaine doubted that the sheets were washed all that regularly and the blankets likely never.

“Thank you. It’s one of my jobs to make sure all the beds at home are made first thing in the morning. I do mine and all the boys’. It’s second nature to me now. I’ve done it forever, it seems like.”

“Uh huh. But, uh, doan they got someones ta do that here?”

Megan stood up, a blush covering her cheeks. “Sorry. Habit, I guess,” she rapidly began to change her clothes. Oh, what a fool Gaine must think I am! she worried. Why didn’t I think about that? Of course you don’t make the bed at a hotel! The host’s wife does that. That was so stupid!

The tall woman continued working her shirt buttons in silence before grabbing her kerchief. Then Gaine gazed at the small blonde in her chemise who was wiping her damp cloth over her arms and neck then reaching under and scrubbing under her arm pits. The warmth of Gaine’s feelings for Meghan played across her face. Straight white teeth glowed in the flickering light of the candle as she smiled at the blonde encouragingly. For a moment the world seemed to fade away as the two gazed into each other’s eyes. Meghan felt better with the brunette’s dazzlingly warm smile. The strength in Gaine’s blue eyes was mesmerizing as she met questioning green orbs.

“Uh, did you sleep on it?” Meghan asked softly as she set aside her rag and soap and slipped her corset over her chemise. Blue eyes enlarged at the way the wrapping suddenly pushed up and emphasized the young woman’s ample bust.

Gaine found herself swallowing with some difficulty. “Huh?”

“Did you sleep on it?”

“Oh, uh, I slept,” the brunette replied rubbing a hand across her forehead. Gods! She needed to keep her mind on exactly what could be done and how and not the small blonde herself! A good, workable plan required a good deal of thought. There was no room for failure. “Lemme mill t’over taday. All right?” She grabbed her hat, stuck it on her head and then reached for her holster.

“Oh,” there was a bit of disappointment in the young woman’s voice. “All right. I truly appreciate that you’re willing to help. I don’t want to push you.”

“Push me? No. Ya ain’t. Tacklin’ this kinda stir requisitions a heap a’ thought if’n yer hankerin’ fer yer freedom.” She slipped the pointed leather end of her holster strap into the buckle at her hip, set the pin then slapped it down tight before she tucked the v-shaped end into the guard. She reached for the thin straps to tie the end down to her leg then decided against it. She’d need to shift the whole thing to keep it from poking Meghan if they sat together again. “An’ Ah knows ya wanna rid yerself a’ them despised, uh, afflictions ta yer liberty.”

Afflictions to my liberty? Oh, my father and Lendal. “Yes, I understand.” Meghan nodded. She was struggling with the corset ties as Gaine was ready to move out of the room with her rifle, jacket and carpetbag. Though it was still dark out, they heard a number of the other people beginning to move around in their cubicles and saw muffled light and shadows as candles were lit. Then they heard the agent ring his hand bell to awaken everyone. “Stage north,” he called.

“Help me with this?” Meghan asked before Gaine could leave. She threw a shy smile Gaine’s way. Meghan looked at the tall woman and noticed that her hands trembled as she moved to help. The small blonde turned her face away with a touch of a thrill. Did she dare hope?

Again Gaine aided with the young woman’s corset, helping her tighten the back lacing with shaking fingers, although she refused to pull tighter as the young woman requested. “Ya gots ta be able ta breathe,” she muttered softly as she leaned forward toward the blonde’s ear. Meghan shuddered lightly.

“You’re kind,” the blonde replied, turning in the small space to face Gaine. “I knew you would be.” Her emerald eyes caressed the tall woman and the brunette suddenly found it hard to breathe again. Slowly her lips moved down toward the blonde’s. Gaine blinked rapidly, froze, mumbled something about seeing Meghan at breakfast and fled.

Meghan stared at the closing door. Had they nearly kissed? Being with the tall beauty certainly left her a’simmer both with hope and something much different from hope. There was no denying the compassion and caring the tall woman offered her. And she was sure she hadn’t mistaken what nearly happened. Stars! Waking in Gaine’s arms had certainly left her body with a distinct craving. She’d wanted that kiss! Wanted it desperately!

In the hallway, the tall rancher blew out a breath. Her mind was whirling and her body more than aware. She had to get control of herself! A rush of feelings had waylaid her and it had little to do with helping this young woman escape, although that was a given. She’d nearly kissed her! In most circumstances a kiss by a decent women was considered a commitment! And Meghan was certainly a decent woman! But between two women? Would that be the same? Gaine thought it would. Neither was the loose type who kissed anyone without meaning! She looked at her hands, amazed by the uncharacteristic tremor.

T’is jest the pressure ta git her free, she conjectured, knowing how far off base she was. Thar’s sa much ta ponder. That’s what t’is. Ah jest hafta not let them cogitations a’ mine go a’ridin’ off lickety-split if’n thar ain’t no need fer nothin’ but a discreet trot, she told herself. Ah got Cousin Minnie ta ruminate ’bout after all not jest this young lady. But that wasn’t the crux of her distress and she knew it. She’d nearly kissed the woman! She’d wanted to kiss the woman!

She licked her lips and rubbed her eyes once. It would have been a life altering kiss! She already felt such an attraction to the small blonde. Like she’d always known her yet she wanted nothing more than to know her better. And Heavens! That embrace she awoke to…the young woman’s head on her chest and her soft, beautiful body wrapped around her, the blonde’s leg between her own.

Her body certainly hadn’t been confused! It had reacted with moist, unreasonable urges. And she’d nearly kissed her! She let out a shaky breath. All of it struck a tiny spark of fear in this woman who feared precious little! One kiss and her life would nevermore be the same! And that was what was making her hands tremble.

She heard the far-off sound of a bugle and knew the stage from the upper foothill mines was riding into the ranch. She’d have to hurry to beat those passengers to the facilities! She ran to the outhouse leaving the chamberpot for Meghan.
Chapter 2
At breakfast Gaine sat on the bench next to the matronly woman of mystery, blue eyes furtively watching the door for the small blonde to enter. A tin platter, knife, fork and tin cup were at each setting. Gaine used her shirttail to wipe something unknown from inside her cup.

The driver sat holding court imperiously in a chair at the head of their table, his eleven foot, handmade rawhide whip coiled and hanging on the wall behind him. It had been oiled and the silver ferrules on the stock shone. The Conductor was at the head of the next where most of the men from on top were seated but he gave up his seat to move to the side when the whip, Mr. Bishan, of the other stage strolled in and hung his own impressive handmade whip on the wall.

The other stage had unloaded but there were only about five weary-looking passengers from it, two men and one ragged young woman and her two small children. They sat at the ends of the tables. Gaine wondered where they’d sit in the coach, but then considered they might be catching the opposite stage to Jubilee City or, more likely, the one to the train.

The mysterious dowager at her side again enveloped her bulky figure in a dark outfit complete with long black gloves. She smelled of lavender. She was seated to Gaine’s right and her companion just beyond that. The brunette noticed that the woman ate by moving her utensil under the veil, which she had loosened enough below her neck to allow such movement. She did not show her face or even her neck at any time.

Ah reckon ‘er husban’ passed ‘n t’is a grievin’ thing. Er..er maybe that thar’s one a’ them recent travelin’ fashions di-rect from Paris, France. Prob’ly writ up in some fancy society column, Gaine mused, surreptitiously examining the hat and dark veil. Yep, that must be what t’is. Er maybe, she chuckled to herself on this thought, maybe t’is a wanted outlaw tryin’ ta git ‘way as ‘n ole woman. She glanced at the woman’s glove covered hands. They didn’t seem big enough to be a man’s. She looked at her own. They did. She shrugged.

The tall rancher didn’t do enough traveling to have any idea what the latest fashions might dictate. The traveling she normally did tended to be on horseback to nearby ranches or through nearby towns in pursuit of horse thieves. Her family had moved from the deep south to California when she was very young. She remembered little of life or fashions back there. And in the fall she drove cattle, but you didn’t run into ladies of high fashion doing that, either.

She’d been in a few of the big frontier towns but hadn’t spent any time noting what was in vogue. Of course, she’d gone into her own town often enough. She’d spent most of her life there. It changed when the gold mine closed and again when the copper mine opened. Ranches and farms steadied the economy between times. A number of folks moved on, some new moved in. It was a small place with one long street boasting a mercantile, a couple saloons, a church, an eating-house, a few other businesses and hardworking patrons. Faded sunbonnets and well-worn dresses were all too common. Most ladies wore shoes, but some didn’t. Not in the summer anyway. And not till they got to the store. Then everybody put them on. The mercantile was the height of their fashion.

Gaine strained again to see the ambiguous woman’s face, but the veil was very good at giving only impressions. Although the tall brunette was now willing to reevaluate her former supposition. This woman might be younger than middle age. Something in the sound of her voice the few times she’d spoken and the way she moved her arms…Gaine couldn’t quite pinpoint it. However, what little jewelry she wore was definitely that of an older woman. She was an enigma.

Hands often gave away the true age of a woman, and Gaine looked carefully. But the lady’s hands were covered with long gloves. They seemed small for the size of her body. That wasn’t so unusual. She likely had tiny feet, too, but her skirts covered them. The brunette looked around but everyone else seemed to take the mysterious lady at face value and didn’t seem at all interested in observing her. Probably figure she’s an eccentric wida woman not worthy a’ their interest, she decided. And maybe she was.

The Lieutenant eagerly sat down on Gaine’s left, first leaning his Springfield against the wall by Gaine’s rifle near where the driver was regally eating and haughtily avoiding discourse with his lessors, those other passengers who still wanted to talk about their ride through the drop-off area.

“Hear tell that thar Springfield a’ yourn got itself a hair trigger when ya set it ta. Ain’t that true?” Gaine asked as the Lieutenant sat down.

“Why, yes, that is true.”

“Ya gotta cock the hammer then push the trigger for’erd with’n yer thumb ta set it, ain’t that right?”

“Right again,” he smiled. “Although normally it’s a regular service trigger unless it’s set otherwise.” These rifles were new and he wondered at her knowledge.

“Yep. That’s what I heared.” She took a bite of her food then her eyes went back to his new rifle. “Gots that thar reg’lar buckhorn sight,” she leaned back in her seat to get a better view. “An’ ya got peep and globe sights. How fer on the peep?

“Um, ’bout seven hundred yards, I guess.”

“More n’that, Ah betcha. Ya Army fellas gettin’ right fancy. Ya like it?”

“Well, I haven’t had it long. But yes, I do like it, so far at least.”

“Um hmm. Ah see all them t’uther fellas a your’n gots ’em, too. Ain’t they only fer officers?”

The Lieutenant smiled a sly smile. “I’m the Quartermaster. MY guard comes prepared.”

“Ah,” she grinned back. You had to respect an officer who looked out for his men.

He flashed her his most charming smile. She did not encourage him, but neither did she discourage him. She usually got along well with fellas, although they were never in any of her romantic notions. The town fellas back home knew not to even bother trying to court her and the punchers treated her like the ranch owner that she was.

The officer’s uniform, his dark blue wool frock coat and light blue trousers with a darker blue welt trim, looked freshly pressed and absolutely dust free after a day’s hard travel! His sword shone with freshly polished vigor. And his uniform bore none of the aroma of having a sweaty body trapped in it the day before.

Gaine marveled at that. Did he have himself a multitude of clean uniforms in his bag or spend his evening sprucing this one up? She took a deep breath. There was a pleasantly faint scent of citronella emanating from the man. She glanced his way. My, doan he cut a shine though?

She discretely turned her head from one of her own arm pits to the other. She tried to sniff the air a bit without drawing attention. The last thing she wanted was to be offensive, not with the small blonde riding in the coach beside her. For a second she considered–when was the last time she’d cared whether her shirt was clean and didn’t smell or not? She couldn’t recall that she’d ever given such thoughts much substance. Last night, however, she was mighty glad she’d worn a clean nightshirt, even if she didn’t get to wash up before donning it.

Now she wished she’d brought more clean clothes so she’d have an unsullied shirt when she sat by the small blonde all day. Except that she didn’t have any other fresh clothes at home. Clothes hadn’t elicited a grim effort of will on her part and she had only enough to get by. When they wore out, she got or made new. Well, tomorrow she’d wear the faded maroon shirt in her bag she’d saved to wear when she met Cousin Minnie. It was her only other shirt and it was clean and pressed.

Maybe when they got to Sacramento she’d buy one of those white boiled shirts. Course, there was no real occasion for such a purchase, so she discarded the idea.

The Lieutenant’s brown eyes twinkled. His impressive boots had been highly polished along with his brass buttons. His light brown, nearly blond mustache was neatly trimmed. It was a bit shorter than the day before, and his hair was wet and in place. His hair had been his only feature that looked disheveled the previous day. He’d been as dusty as everyone else, but nothing but his hair had looked disorganized. Now he was all spit and polish.

“Harvested some of them whiskers a’ yern’?” she asked with a quirky grin.

“Just a touch on the ends,” he smiled in return and his hand automatically went to one end and twisted it. He was surprised and pleased that she had noticed.

She saw Meghan enter with her father, who again had a grip on his daughter’s arm and yanked the young blonde as far away from them as he could get them. The hair on Gaine’s neck bristled when she saw how roughly he was handling the blonde. Gentlemen were not supposed to be bullies, and this man was a first-class bully. Of course, Gaine didn’t think of him as any kind of a gentleman!

The young woman looked over and they exchanged a quick glance. The blonde’s soft smile was so sweet it could make the angels cry and Gaine felt her heart strings respond. Gods, she wished she’d put on her clean shirt today! And she wished she had a better idea of how she was going to help the sweet lady. She saw the old man verbally snap at his daughter and instantly Meghan demurely turned her attention to him then to her lap.

Gaine was ready to go over and drive the man to the floor. How dare he treat Meghan that way? But she forced herself to not respond in any discernible way.

The tall brunette glanced over again, but the blonde did not look up from her meal. Her father, however, spit to the side in the aisle then glared back at Gaine with a snort, moving his mouth to mumble something. Meghan still didn’t look up. The tall rancher defiantly let her eyes drift over both of them and the meal they were eating before bringing them back to those around her. The Lieutenant watched with admiration. He wished he had as much sand as this tall beauty.

The sky outside was becoming pale, drowning out the light of the stars, and all the shadowed forms had turned dawn’s blue. After a speedy breakfast, the luggage and mail were loaded rapidly. A goodly portion of the mail they’d been carrying had been placed on the coach headed to the train where it would reach its goal more quickly than staying on the stage. Gaine slipped on her buckskin jacket. She was used to wearing it, hot or not. With her height, it gave her even greater presence.

A rooster crowed as they moved to board. The few rifles from those riding inside were again bundled together and strapped down to prevent accidents. Those on top kept their own in the crooks of their arms or safely wedged them at their feet. Once they started, all rifles atop were carried barrel to the sky. The Conductor always carried his shotgun loaded with buckshot and wore a handgun as well.

Gaine ran her eyes over the men on top, paying particular attention to the ones not in uniform. Wonder which a’ them fellers her Pa shared with’n last night, she mused, an’ what they jawed on. Her Pa ain’t the kinda fella ya kin gin much trust!

All together there were four men not in uniform plus the ranchhand that got on late, making five. She didn’t recognize the young wrangler, though she thought she might. One businessman had been replaced by a worker from the train. It occurred to her that one of the things road agents sometimes did was to send one of their gang as a passenger to get the drop on everyone before the others rode up out of nowhere. Such a plant would ride on top in the back. But any one of these fellas with their rifles in their hands could be a potential Trojan horse.

She scrutinized the men’s faces. Several looked particularly scruffy and rough, dirty clothes, bushy beards and long scraggly hair down below their shoulders. But most men had beards and shoulder-length hair. And not everyone tidied up to travel. It wasn’t necessarily an indication of their character. Some of the most notorious thieves were handsome rogues who dressed neatly and acted with a refinement of manner suited to fancy gentlemen replete with swallow-tailed coats and high top hats…until they’d smile handsomely and mercilessly gun you down without so much as a “fare ye well”.

One large man caught her eye, mostly because of the way he refused to return her gaze. He was tough looking, with bushy brows and a jagged scar that ran under one eye to his scraggly beard. He was a grisly man, built like a bear, dressed in shabby clothes that he’d obviously lived in quite a spell. He shore ain’t no parlor folk, she determined. An’ Ahl jest betcha a herd a folks runs fer the camphur bottle when he done knocks som’un down!

His light brown-grey pants, held up with suspenders, were heavily stained with dirt, particularly so at his knees and below. His rough spun cotton shirt was grey with wear and stained around the stomach. He wore a dusty black sack jacket, more grey than black from the dust. His dirty felt hat brim was rolled in front, his ears sticking out at the sides, and the bell-crown came to a soft peak.

His scowling eyes, when they did dance her way, were hard and there was something about the way he moved them that caught her attention– besides the fact that he was riding in the back row on top. She’d keep him in her sights.

Once back in the coach, the passengers found the seating was much the same, much to Meghan’s father’s disgust. Two of the drummers had been replaced by railroad workers. Only the drummer with the checked trousers remained of the original three. He was a whiskey salesman. This time those on the center bench faced the front, giving Gaine more room for her long legs.

She settled in next to Meghan, a surge of cheer at the reunion but careful to give no reaction that could be observed by anyone. Meghan did the same. They almost appeared cool to each other, but their hearts were pounding in joy!

A cloudy mist sat over the stationhouse as the first fingers of dawn slipped across the horizon painting the rich orange-golden coloring back across the vast array of sweeping plain and a species of lighter, cheerful blue sky bled across the broad early morning canvas. They’d ride up and down among the foothills and in some cases go through old, all but abandoned gold mining towns. Silver and copper were still the rage, though many of those were washed out as well!

Meghan’s father withdrew his gold pocket watch, snapped the lid open and gazed at it as though it contained the clandestine discoveries of the faculties of life. He always held it so others couldn’t see the time, only he. His brows furrowed with his own opinion of the stage’s schedule. He snapped it shut with a sniff of disapproval and jammed it back into his vest pocket. Gaine cast a glance. It wasn’t likely that old man’d be engaging in any civil dialogue nor extending any cordial remarks regarding the weather today.

“Morning. Gonna be a hot one today,” the drummer remarked. Soft greetings and mumbles of agreement were heard throughout the carriage, including from Gaine. The old man scowled. Meghan smiled in greeting but said nothing.

With the familiar crack of the whip, the horses again flew from their places and passengers’ arms grabbed for steadying holds. The air inside the coach was much more pleasant but again the curtains were drawn to prevent the billows of dust from overtaking them.

They bounced along peacefully. The blonde’s father resentfully fingered his cigars, but left them in his pocket. Nor did he jiggle his coins. The opposite row tried not to smirk, but it was obvious the man was vexed and they were pleased at not being inundated with his brazen cigar smoke.

The small blonde stole a glance at the woman beside her. She felt such an immediate sense of belonging with her. She didn’t understand why. She’d never felt like she belonged anywhere or with anyone. She hoped the tall beauty felt it, too. Because the stakes for Meghan were life and death, as she well knew.

She glanced at her father’s sour demeanor. Not much longer! I’m getting away! I’ll not marry Lendal! But I’ll need to be extremely careful! I’ll need to stay away from you and from Lendal and anyone you both might know…and the law. I don’t want to be dragged back to be handed over to either of you like Ruby was.

The Lieutenant looked over at them with a cheery smile. The small blonde liked this friendly officer even though he had been reluctant to stand up firmly against her father as Gaine had done. Still, he had voiced enough opposing views to make her father huffy. And he seemed to be very gentlemanly. If they ran into trouble, perhaps he would be of help. What harm was there in being friendly? She smiled warmly in return.

‘Were the accommodations to your liking, mademoiselle? I trust you slept well?” the Lieutenant responded to Meghan’s smile.

‘Yes, very well, thank you, sir,’ she replied politely with a soft blush.

Suddenly Meghan’s father backhanded the green-eyed young beauty in the face with the back of his large, meaty hand…a loud, hard, deliberate smack, catching everyone by surprise. Meghan’s hands rushed to her face and Gaine’s to the Colt under her open jacket.

“No!” Meghan breathed softly aside to the tall woman whose gun was being lifted from its holster. She pressed her leg against the tall brunette to still the rise of the gun. “No,” she breathed again.

‘You heard me tell him to leave you alone! Don’t you dare encourage him! I’ll not have it!’ her father growled.

‘Ladies are not to be struck!’ the Lieutenant said tersely, half rising.

‘This is my daughter, young man,’ the older man rumbled, ‘I have every right, legal and otherwise, to strike her and any woman in my household! I’ll thank you to keep your thoughts on the subject to yourself!’

Gaine was livid! Her entire body tensed and her features solidified. Only her eyes were snapping and her gun was in her hand! But Meghan had said “No” to her and it made Gaine pause. What to do?

The rotund man was completely enamored of his own power and appeared immune to Gaine’s anger. He turned to the men in the center row who had turned back to watch him with dismay and a degree of disgust. ‘A man must keep a steady hand on his womenfolk,’ her father said ecclesiastically, rubbing one hand down one side then down the other of his bearded jowls, smoothing the bushy whiskers. ‘It is man’s duty and I am a man who accepts his duty!”

He sat back with a satisfied smirk while his daughter sat beside him with her face buried in her hands. Gaine couldn’t believe his audacity! The hand on her gun twitched. One bullet, that’s all she asked! One well placed bullet! It would solve so many problems. She gritted her teeth. But undoubtedly she’d hang for that one little piece of lead.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked Meghan tenuously. Meghan barely nodded her head. She was mortified and did not want her father to see and get further angered. Her nose was bleeding and she sniffed softly to keep it from dripping but it was hard to tell if she was crying or stopping the blood. She brought a handkerchief tucked in her sleeve to her face and Gaine saw tears in her eyes.

Gaine was finding it hard to control her gun. She itched to kill the man and damn the consequences.

‘Don’t talk to her!’ her father demanded of Gaine in deep, rumbling stentorian tones. ‘I’ll not have my discipline questioned!’

‘Strike ‘er ag’in,’ Gaine replied coldly, looking over at him with a totally fearless gaze, her hand still on her Colt, ‘and yer name ain’t gonna be on no list a’ possible survivors!’ Her eyes had contracted to a cutting glare of blue-grey steel. Her voice nearly shook she was so angry!

Meghan pressed her kerchief against the bleeding, her gloved hands going back to cover her face. Her father sneered back at Gaine tauntingly, ever so pleased with himself. Meghan caught a glimpse of Gaine’s face and was startled by the cold, steely flash in the tall woman’s eyes. It was frightening!

Suddenly Gaine knew what to do. She pushed the gun back into its holster and leaned forward a little more to face Meghan’s father. In so doing, she brought her hand and arm forward away from the Colt and hung both arms loosely on her knees. She leaned close enough to breathe on the back of the workman’s neck on the bench before her.

‘Ah reckons mah whistlin’ lead messenger in a duel a’ honor would disfigure ya…,” she glared into his taunting eyes, making him blink. Fast as a whip she reached her long arm past the blonde to the man before he could raise his hands in defense and smacked him hard with the back of her toughened hand, catching mostly forehead and eyes, ‘Right thar!’ The slap echoed in the coach like the crack of a whip. She withdrew her arm quickly and awaited his response.

She’d caught a bit of the sensitive part of his nose with her strike and knew it had stung, for moisture came unbidden to his eyes.

His fleshy hands flew to his face, ‘Wha…you’b ‘it be!’ His hands covered his nose and forehead. Obviously he was not used to being struck. ‘Dey all sab it! You’b ‘it be!’ He slowly removed one hand off his nose, sniffing, checking his hand for blood but there was none. He wiped his eyes quickly. ‘You bitch! You’ll be more than sorry for that!” he snarled, “They all saw it! You’ll go to jail for this!’

Gaine snickered then sat back with a grin. Wanna call a Sheriff? Ah knows one, she chuckled to herself. One didn’t usually go to jail over a swat, though men could be very fussy about how womenfolk behaved. Still, usually that kind of thing was solved between the two opponents. The law in the west for the most part had better things to do than quibble over such picayune events.

‘Why, Ah war merely demonstratin’ what WOULD happen if ‘n ya abided with’n yer bullyin’ ways. If’n Ahd a’wanted ta truly strike ya, yer nose’d be broke. Be yer nose broke? Course not. Whadda ya think, folks? Did Ah do ana’thin’ ta this here fella ‘cept demonstrate mah point?’

No one really wanted to be involved in this dangerous dispute other than the young officer who felt it was his fault that Meghan was struck in the first place. While laws often were engaged to keep women in their place, ladies were seldom placed in jail. And for sure no one wanted to defy this particular woman! The Lieutenant shook his head enthusiastically. “You merely demonstrated, Gaine!”

Momentarily the group waxed restive, yet they all silently nodded their heads in an antiphon of agreement. The jowly man growled in rage and spit out his words, ‘You can’t strike me and get away with it! I know important people!’

‘Ah see,” Gaine said calmly, “Bees ya a’challengin’ me, then?’

Silence fell in the coach as the iron words dripped with chilling intent. THAT was the more expected and prevalent solution to this problem, though almost never engaged in by a woman.

The brunette leaned forward again and gazed at him with a weltering, brow-raised gaze. All eyes were on the man. The jolting and creaking of the carriage as the bodies inside rocked forward and back together in concert, the soft rumble of the wheels as they spun and the rhythmical cadence of the thuds of the horses’ continually pounding hooves hitting the softened dirt were the only sounds to be heard in the shadowed carriage. It was as though everyone had drawn a breath.

Outside the sunbaked landscape rolled by prairie-like, dry, unpopulated and wild with only an occasional steer, horse or sheep from a far distant ranch out on the bunch needlegrass or under a small copse of black-green oaks always visible in the golden rolling hills. Inside all eyes remained on the silent man.

Gaine’s eyes narrowed and her jaw tensed . ‘We kin settle this’n right easy come the vera next change a’ hosses. Ahm shore someun kin rustle ya up a shootin’ iron.’

The young blonde’s heart was pounding. Gaine was defying her father? He might have to fight her in a gunfight? Could he hurt her? He was used to getting his own way! No one ever challenged him! But she didn’t think he knew that much about guns. She kept her hands to her face but the bleeding had stopped. Her breath was held in her lungs, her own humiliation abandoned.

The tall brunette’s blue eyes had steeled and her mouth was a tight line, the rest of her body wound like a taut spring. There was no doubting that she was a very dangerous opponent and she was focusing in on the heavy man to her right.

No one even breathed aloud. Out here disputes were often solved at the bullet end of a gun. It happened all the time. Nearly always between men, however. There were marshals, sheriffs and deputies who tried to keep the peace but still they had a hard enough time maintaining law and order with people used to handling their own destinies. And that fierce independence hung heavy in the air and ran through the hearts to some degree of most of the western citizenry. Folks understood it and tried to keep out of each other’s way. If they weren’t involved, they tried not to interfere.

Wild mining boomtowns were the worst and too often the unseemly sorts took over with a “might makes right” idea of justice. Vigilante justice, or injustice as the case might be, could sometimes be had at the end of a rope but calling someone out and gunfights were all too often the violent ends to a dispute in any of the places, no matter how serious the problem or how civilized the town.

Meghan’s father quit looking at his hands for blood and looked around. The silence puzzled him. ‘What? Challenge you?’ he sputtered looking into her eyes and seeing for the first time the trouble he was in. Then he drew in a heavy breath, breathed it out and calmed himself.

A woman was challenging him? How dare she!? He had to think! To not accept would make him look like a coward. But neither was he fool enough to do anything like accept a challenge he wasn’t a shoe-in to win. ‘I don’t have to challenge you! You’ll go to jail! You’ve already made your mistake.’

‘Ah ain’t a’goin’ ta jail! So’s either challenge me er stop yer jawin’! Ahm perpared ta make orphans a’ yer childern an’ a wida a’ yer wife at the vera next hoss change. You’ve seasoned this here atmosphere ’nuff with yer bluster and bullyin’. Strike a lady ag’in, eny lady, and Ah won’t have ya hoppin’ no twigs with mah new Peacemaker here, Ahl drop yer worthless carcass on ’em! Ya’d best understand that!’

He glanced back with hatred at this armed female so willing to confront and defy him, calling him a “worthless carcass”! Deciding there was something seriously wrong with any woman that would think she could deal with a man in such a manner, yet recognizing that whatever it was that demented her also made her uncommonly dangerous, he looked around to the others.

Seeing no support from anyone, the man sat back and crossed his arms. “Humpf!” he declared. The first bump in the downward road, however, forced him to uncross his arms immediately to grab for a hold.

Had they looked outside they’d have seen the greasewood, picklewood, salt grass and shadscale giving way to golden dried grass as they rose again to hillside oaks and pines. Further up the hills were the evergreens, the pitch pine, sugar pine, false cedar and even some Douglas spruce by the higher mining towns. But they weren’t going that high. They were crossing up and over to the next crest.

With the man now silent, Gaine began to relax. She looked at the small blonde who kept her hands before her face, her eyes downward, a sad countenance surrounding her. I shoulda killed the sonuvabitch, the brunette resolved letting a murderous gaze fall back on the man. Might yet! He did not return her gaze.

The stage began to pitch as they hit the upward curves. They rode for a while in uncomfortable silence heaving back and forth. Meghan dropped her left hand to her skirts, adjusting them slightly and gently brushing Gaine’s leg in doing so. It was as though she were calming the tall beauty, letting her know she was mollified and it worked. Gaine felt better with her slight contact.

Softer blue eyes fell on the blonde and saw the slightest corner of a melancholy smile directed her way through the glove and handkerchief of one hand.

“Ya all right?” the brunette asked tenderly.

“Yes,” the young woman replied, her hand remaining across her face. A touch of blush was at her neck and cheeks. It was obvious that although she felt better, she was still embarrassed by the slap and did not really want any more attention being focused on her no matter how much she liked having Gaine care.

‘Tell us about your Cousin Minnie,’ the Lieutenant remarked nervously, hoping to ease the tension back to a more relaxed and less dangerous state. ‘I believe you said you were on your way to pick her up.’

Gaine nodded, thought for a minute then couldn’t help the smile that always broke loose when she thought of her feisty older cousin. Minnie would have slapped the old man! She was sure. And she’d probably have kicked him in the shins as well! Course, then Gaine would have had to protect her with her life.

She laughed aloud. Before long she was entertaining the others with tales of the trouble she and her Cousin Minnie had gotten into as young girls during the few years their families had spent together on the ranch.

She told about when they first got to the ranch and the boys caught small water snakes and put them in the girl’s boots. They wiggled their toes inside before they discovered them. Minnie took off screaming and the boys laughed heartily till their mothers paddled the fellas for bringing snakes in the house. The girls learned right quick to always shake out their clothes as their parents had told them to do anyway.

“So’s we figured we’d get ’em back with them horny toads that whar ever’whar,” Gaine said. “Them little critters whar right cunnin’ but Minnie and me whar terrible good at catchin’ ’em. Ya had ta be extry gentle with’n ’em cause they had a ferocious propensity ta surprise ya t’utherwise.”

Gaine looked around the listening crowd, “We done brought ’em in a’fore dawn one mornin’ an’ slipped ’em right gentle inta the boys’ boots. They found ’em easy ’nuff when they done awoke an’ laughed an’ shook ’em out rough-like onta the floor. That riled them small jagged critters an’ they done shot blood right outta they’s EYES back ta the fellas, surprisin’ ’em good. Them critters could shoot three feet er more…a stream a blood!” The older ladies gasped.

Lordy!” Gaine chuckled, “Ya ever hear fellas scream? T’is right pitiful!” she laughed. “T’war mighty unnervin’ ta the household! Got ever’one up. Course we had ta catch them lizards tender-like and move ’em outside. Our Mommas’ din’t paddle us fer once’t cause they figured them boys had ‘t comin’.”

And Gaine had to keep the boys from pummeling Minnie later whenever they trapped her with revenge in mind. She told about the tadpoles they put in their brother’s glasses of milk. The boys drank some of them. They both got paddled for that, but it was worth it, she claimed.

The sound of another wagon ahead had them drawing up the blinds and braving the dust to see what was happening outside. They peered through the thickened dust at a company wagon going the same direction loaded with shelled corn for the horses. Quickly they lowered the shades again as they passed.

‘One Easter,’ Gaine continued, ‘our Ma’s made us each one a’ them matchin’ calico dresses from a bolt they’d had on special ta the mercantile. Theys put us ‘n ’em with bows ‘n our hair and theys’d both scrimped and saved ta buy us them new, shiny store-bought little girl shoes. Theys bought ’em big so’s we could wear ’em a goodly while. Theys war sa proud when theys slipped ’em ‘n our feet and done hauled us off ta church. We war quite the news that day!”

She chuckled, “See, we couldn’t afford much ‘n the way a Sunday meetin’ clothes so’s this war mighty ex-ceptional. Afterwards we war ta stay lookin’ fresh and clean. T’war Sunday an’ company t’war a’comin’ fer a cold Easter dinner. T’warn’t allowed ta play none on Sundays nohow, so’s we figured we’d just walk aroun’ eyein’ the animals like usual, so’s out we went.’

Gaine removed her hat and ran her hand through her black hair. ‘But ya know, them shoes theys puts little girls inta are a mite slippery. We climbed us up ‘n them rails batwixt them pig pens whar we al’ays walked. It’d rained and the pigs had theyselfes a big old walla hole full a’ sticky mud ta one side right by the fence an’ they war a’wallowin’ away in’t, happy as could be. We war real good at balancing our way ‘cross’t them top rails. We din’t weigh much a’ nothin’. So’s off we went, our arms out like tightrope walkers.”

A smile emerged from Gaine’s lips, “Minnie’s Ma looked out the winda and near had herself a heart attack! She yelled at Minnie and it startled her. Well, Minnie screamed, stepped on the end a’ one a’ her big ole shoes and began to slip and she grabbed fer me. I war ahead a’ her.’

She chuckled to herself for a minute as she recollected that experience. ‘Yessir, down we both toppled off’n that thar top rail right inta the pig walla! Splat! The pigs war a squealin’ and we war a thrashin’ an’ the boys war a’rollin’ on the ground a’laughin’. Lordy, we war a sight! Our Pa’s had ta scrape the mud off’n them new shoes and our Ma’s stripped us right down and thrust us inta a big ole tub a water. That mud t’war mighty sticky. The company done a’rived a’fore they got us cleaned up.’

For the first time Meghan chuckled aloud along with the others and the sound was delightful. It completely enraptured the Lieutenant and was like balm to Gaine’s feeling of helplessness at stopping the earlier occurrence. She wanted to wrap her arms around the small woman in a hug, but instead she presented a casual demeanor to the warm welcome she saw in the blonde’s eyes. Lord! This small blonde was so attractive and how she stirred both Gaine and the Lieutenant, physically and emotionally! Gaine worked to keep bland features.

‘Did ya get a lickin’ that time?’ the Lieutenant asked, bringing his eyes back to the tall brunette.

‘Uh, no. Our guests war real po-lite like and intent on preservin’ decorum. So’s they all said how nice we’d looked ta church. And they laughed at the whole shebang, cordial like ya understand. They figured gettin’ us clean t’were an exception ta not workin’ ta the Sabbath. Minnie and me, heck, we war jest happy ta be back in cumf’table clothes. Our Ma’s war plenty riled, but they din’t paddle us none that time.’ Then she added, “An’ though mah Ma scrubbed an’ brushed mah hair a’plenty, Ah still found little globs a’ that thar mud stuck ‘n thar fer months afta’wards.”

The stories eased the strain and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Gaine was fervently aware of the youthful caress in Meghan’s laugh, the remembered smell of her hair, the memory of her hand resting on Gaine’s arm and their almost kiss that morning. The Lieutenant also sat transfixed, smiling at the blonde. Meghan’s father sat brooding.

When they stopped to change the horses, they opened the shades and saw the wagon of corn ride in to be unloaded. Instead of getting out to watch, however, they stayed inside the coach to listen. All except Meghan’s father, who got out looking for the Conductor, who was busy speaking to the man with the wagon of corn. Before he could thoroughly voice his complaint, it was time to leave.

He climbed back in just in time to hear the Lieutenant laugh and ask Meghan if anything like that had ever happened to her. She saw her father and dropped her gaze to her lap. Gaine gave the old man a hard look. He was angry and scowled back, but went no further. Gaine began to tell about the time she and her Cousin Minnie were told not to go near the abandoned mine. Their parents said it was dangerous. They said the girls’d get lost and their families would never find them again. Well, the girls figured they had a solution. Course, they didn’t tell their families about it.

One morning they took a long twine from the barn and rode together on old Bobby to the mine. They tied the twine on a rock outside the mine entrance, hobbled the horse to graze then went in unrolling the other end. They went deeper and deeper, crawling over places where the ceiling had collapsed and taking a different direction each time the path split. They couldn’t understand how the twine was stretching so far.

Finally they decided to walk out and halfway back they found the other end and the rock. They’d been dragging it with them, which was good because it left a trail in the places where the path wasn’t hard packed and smooth. They spent all afternoon locating the drag marks to guide them out and made it just before it got too dark to see inside. Their parents never heard about that experience.

Gaine told about Uncle Lester who was a big tease. He was a short man and he teased them mercilessly. So one day when he was helping her mother get out the canning supplies, Lester looked around for the milking stool he usually stood on to reach the top shelf in the pantry. They had taken it, but the two girls quickly pushed what looked like a thick block of wood with an old flour sack towel on it. He stepped on it only to sink to the bottom. They had replaced his stool with the large mass of bread dough her mother had rising on her breadboard.

The coach passengers heard the bugle and knew they were riding into another swing station. Sulking and fearful that the Lieutenant would attempt to talk to his daughter again, the old man stayed inside this time. Gaine’s stories continued. Time seemed to be flying past and it seemed like only seconds before they lowered the shades once more and headed out again at a gallop.

The oppressive heat cooled slightly as they wound their way up into the trees and across the finger hills. As they swung and swayed around the bends, others told of things they had done as youngsters. The other ladies did not contribute but the drummer and rail workers had very interesting tales to tell of their misbegotten youth. Gaine’s father did not contribute nor did Meghan.

Gaine noted that Meghan’s face had a large mark below her left eye from her father’s strike. It was bruising but she would most likely be all right. The blonde, for her part, couldn’t help enjoying the stories.

At lunch they arrived at a mostly deserted mining town. They climbed out, most of them happy and laughing. They stretched their legs then moved to the tables set up outside in a grove of oaks. The only inhabited building in town was a square-fronted hillside store-public house and tavern combined, surrounded by a few abandoned ramshackle cabins embowered in climbing roses.

Meghan’s father was seethingly irate, and he pulled the Conductor to the side and regaled him with what had happened, giving everything his own twist and warning that he had friends in high places that would think unkindly of the stage company for allowing this. Why, that woman had struck him, he claimed, called him names and even tried to challenge him to a gunfight! What kind of miscreants did they allow on this stage? They should throw her off immediately!

Gaine watched for a few minutes then caught sight of the man with the scar. He was ready to slip into the tavern but Meghan’s father was waving him over. Gaine inched by Meghan and whispered, ‘That’un thar the feller with’n yer Pa last night?’

Meghan looked then quickly glanced away as the man shifted his unwelcome attention to her. Gaine received a hasty “Yes,” and embarrassed smile in return. Just the nearness of the tall woman and Gaine’s whispering in her ear had sent shivers down her spine. Gaine nodded and quickly walked away.

The small blonde felt the loss but saw her father glance her way and instantly dropped her head although she had a grim look of defiance on her face that he could not see. She continued looking down while her father and the burly man moved aside and spoke intently. Finally her rotund father huffed his way to Meghan and grabbed her arm. He glanced at Gaine’s warning look. Her hand went to her Colt and he paused. He did not yank as he was wont to do but instead gingerly led his daughter to the furthest seating area.

The Conductor watched Gaine and talked quietly with some of the others. Gaine moved to the tavern entrance to peek inside. She decided that calling it a “Public House” dignified the notion. The floor was dirt, a sleeping corner had bunks of boards where one could throw their own blanket and there was not a chair to be seen inside. She could see fleas hopping in a ray of sunlight in the corner by the bar and much of the rest of the ground had been used as a spittoon. She hastily left, sure there’d be no talk of “stocks” or “claims” or “ledges” in there any more.

The meal was meager…tea, crackers, jerked antelope. Afterward the Conductor took the tall brunette aside and asked if she’d like to sit on the top. They could use her skill with guns there in case bandeleros were laying in wait along the way. There’d been problems and they knew there was a group in the area.

Gaine debated whether to explain what had been happening inside but the Conductor added, ‘I heard what’s been goin’ on with that miserable old man. But the driver wants ya atop. He don’t want us to have to waste time burying that jackass. Too much diggin.’

That brought a snorted laugh from Gaine but it also settled the situation. The whip’s word was law. ‘All right. I’ll be sodded down with that herd on top,’ she smiled, “and stake out mah spot thar but Ah gots a condition.”

‘What’s that?’

‘Put that thar Lieutenant fella next to the young lady and one a’ them young Army fellas ‘n his empty seat. Thar sense a’ chivalry might add a little pertection fer the ladies.’

She was actually thinking that having an Army underling inside might bolster the Lieutenant’s fortitude in opposing Meghan’s father. She liked the young officer, but he wavered at standing up enough to the belligerent man. “And warn that ole man that if’n he strikes that thar young woman ag’in er any t’uther woman on this here trip, he’ll be a’dealin’ with me. And he ain’t gonna find no favor with’n that a’tall!”

‘Done!’ the man agreed. “I’ll make them moves and tell ‘im, ya bettcha. Have Old Ben git yer rifle out an we’ll be a’pushin’ the wind a’for ya can turn about!”

Gaine caught a quick look from Meghan’s father as the Conductor made the changes. This here’s hasta luego, ya ole rattlesnake, not adios, she thought, glaring back at the repugnant man. Ah ain’t fergettin’ ’bout the likes a’ you! Not fer one second! An’ ya’d best not be a’botherin’ Meghan none, neither! She turned and climbed on top, praying she wasn’t leaving Meghan in further danger.

Inside, the old man was perturbed. He didn’t want to sit in the middle with others on either side of him. But having the insolent, flirting Lieutenant who’d snickered at his being struck sitting next to Meghan was nearly unthinkable. The man had been oogling his daughter all morning! In many ways he was more unbearable and threatening than the crazy woman climbing on top.

In the end the old man scolded and threatened Meghan, kept her in the middle and sat in his normal place. A look of triumph filled his face when he considered that the tall, improperly dressed crazy woman was no longer sitting inside with them. And he was particularly pleased because HE had caused her to be moved.

Gaine, for her part, enjoyed being outside but worried about Meghan. On top her concern drifted to the burly man whose eyes stayed away from hers and whose thick neck was involved with a dirty, large grey handkerchief. Big ’nuff ta be used fer a face coverin’ in a hold up. Wonder if’n he’s done used that thar neckerchief fer that? Have Ah chased a gang a’ yer’n? her meandering thoughts drifted into such corrals. No. Ah ain’t chased nobody Ah ain’t caught!

He sat in the last row, his rifle pointed upward but surreptitiously angled toward the riders in front. She moved into the empty seat on the opposite end of his row, also in the back. The ranchhand sat behind her amongst the luggage, chewing on a plug of tobacco and spitting periodically over the side.

Gaine let her repeater ride pointed to the sky but oriented slightly in the burly man’s direction. She saw him take notice with a start. She swept her blue eyes over him with a look of cold suspicion. If’n Ah war gonna rob me a stage, Ah reckon Ah jest might send this here fella out as a passenger. He looks fast ’nuff ta get a drop on most ever’body. And with’n his rifle already directed that a’way, it’d be easy as ropin’ a yearlin’.

But if he was a plant, why hadn’t they attacked yet? Surely they didn’t want him to ride the whole three day’s distance. He’d been riding on top when she’d first climbed into the coach. His clothes were filthy, like a man who spent his time out in the wild. But he’d spent the night sharing that room with Meghan’s father. Normally outlaws’d only ride a short way from their get on spot to where the gang hoisted the hold up…which spoke towards his presumed innocence.

Still he made her uneasy enough to keep her alert. And he was consortin’ with the old man now. No tellin’ what that old sap-head was willing to pay him to do. The man flitted his eyes toward her, the sun lightened the white jagged line of the scar on his face, making it very pronounced, and he looked away. Knife wound, she decided. In his quick look she thought she picked up a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

Do that feller know me? , she wondered. Or know a’ me? She had a bit of a reputation at home. She and her posse had chased a ruffian or two around enough ravines, low hills and prairied savannas before they hauled each back, often slung over a horse, their activities permanently halted. And they’d put one group of three rustlers six feet under on the spot to end their little romp. Other towns had been harassed of late, but hers had not. Yes, she’d keep watch on him.

She held on and viewed the passing scenery. The river ahead was a small sandy stream, fast but easily forded, running brown from the mining still occurring above in the hills. The splashing water rose in huge drops as the horses galloped across it. The golden grasses and oaks delineated the rolling hills and panoramic scenes of the flatland below opened up at occasional turns on the downward runs.

Gaine became surprisingly akin to maudlin with each passing mile, though she rarely allowed herself acquaintance with that particular emotion. The railroad was being built through the wide valley floor below and civilization would be right behind it. Open rangeland far as the eye could see would no longer exist. Cities and towns would spring up like they had in the gold fields.

She knew large cattle and horse ranches would give way to smaller farms, maybe more sheep ranches and orchards. There’d be city farmers, lotsa fences and urban development. The land’d be tamed and restricted just like back east and life would nevermore be the same. Progress, bah! she brooded.

At the first afternoon horse change, Gaine and the young wrangler both left their rifles and climbed off the father’s side of the coach to stretch their legs. The old man also climbed out, grabbed a shovel and hustled into the brush. Gaines’ and the young wrangler’s glances flashed into the coach through the open door at the same time. They landed on the youthful, sweetly feminine face of the blonde who returned a wide, welcoming smile.

The cowhand leaned toward Gaine, his plug of tobacco in his hand. His raspy young voice met her ear, ‘Wouldn’t mind a’tossin’ my rope ’round that little filly,’ he muttered as he bit off a chaw and rolled it about in his mouth. “Friskiest fillies make the best mares!”

Gaine rankled but kept it hidden. Her eyes ran over the young man. He had to be younger than her–nineteen or twenty maybe. Just a kid, but he was a typical puncher, tempered by hard work and his sinewy muscles showed it. He wasn’t tall, no more than five foot six or so. He had curly dark hair, a nose that had been broken and a thin scrawny mustache, stained at the corners by tobacco use. His dark, dolorous eyes were solitary and unthreatening and his battered boots matched his well-used, dusty pants, vest and stained bandanna at his neck.

‘Her father’d take exception. Claims she’s done took,’ Gaine glanced back in the direction the old man had gone. She was not about to forget about him. She hooked her jacket back behind her holster. The puncher’s gaze followed hers.

‘He’s pert full a’ hisself,’ the young man said and she nodded in agreement. She’s taken all right, Gaine thought, clenching her jaw, but not by who her Pa figures. Then she blinked a few times wondering where that thought had come from! Just because she planned to help Meghan didn’t mean she could be territorial. It was the young woman’s life, after all. She hadn’t kissed her and sealed their fate together, even if she’d wanted to at the time. And still did.

Gaine glanced off at the horses dancing excitedly at the ends of their traces as they were being switched, the new team anxious to be on the road, the old anxious to be fed and watered. Young stablemen bustled everywhere.

‘We miss you,’ the Lieutenant said softly, coming up behind her unseen. He had gotten out of the other side of the coach and circled from behind as they spoke.

Gaine spun and had her gun drawn and cocked before the last words were out of his mouth.

“Dear God!” he said, freezing before rapidly thrusting his hands into the air.

Gaine slowly lowered the hammer and replaced her gun in her holster. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “Ain’t usta havin a body sneak up a’hind me!” She had to quit thinking of the blonde and stay alert! She never let anyone come up behind her like that!

The ranchhand’s eyes had widened as had those of everyone watching. It was undoubtedly the fastest draw anyone there had ever seen. Had she not stopped in time, the Lieutenant would be lying dead upon the ground.

The Lieutenant’s arms lowered and one hand went to his chest. “Didn’t mean to startle you. Next time I’ll give fair warning! Kick some dust up or something.”

“Fair ’nuff,” Gaine blushed. The Lieutenant was one of the last persons she would have chosen to draw on.

The Lieutenant chuckled and stepped closer. ‘Now that my heart’s gone back into my chest….I was saying how we missed you. No more stories of you and your Cousin Minnie.’ He made a sad face, drooping his mouth and his gamboge mustache followed in such a way that caused her to laugh.

‘Be ya ridin’ all the way ta Sacramenta?’ she asked. The cowhand wandered off to watch them finish changing the horses. She glanced behind her and saw the burly scarred man take a shovel far off to the side. It appeared that he had also been watching. She turned just enough to talk and still keep an eye on him.

‘Yes,’ the officer replied. ‘I see you’ve made a friend already.’ He motioned his head toward the young wrangler.

‘Mmm,’ she replied. ‘Same occupation, basically. So, what happens when ya get ta Sacramenta?’ she queried. ‘Ya goin’ visitin’ er maybe t’is yer home?’

His glove covered hands brushed some dust off his blue wool shirtcoat. He wasn’t sure if she was flirting with him, but he took it as a compliment that she probably was. She was a beautiful and dangerous woman and danger only added to her appeal in his eyes. He adjusted the belt at his waist. ‘Unfortunately,’ he sighed putting both hands then behind his back, ‘No. I am traveling on Army business. I have to catch the Central Pacific late train then the last sternwheeler to San Francisco. I have a meeting at Fort Point, uh, the Presidio, actually.’

‘Stars! It’d be a heap closer ta get off ta Knight’s Ferry er Stockton and go from thar. Yer a’goin’ hours out a yer way by journeyin’ clean out ta Sacramenta.’

She glanced in the direction of the burly man and saw that he had spoken a few words with the old man then jogged over by a dark oak on a small rise. Strange that he should go that far and uphill too. There was brush cover much closer.

‘You’d think so,’ the Lieutenant grinned, now crossing his arms loosely in front. ‘But the Western Pacific, which is nearmost, doesn’t have a connecting timetable. This is the only schedule that makes the right connections to get me to San Francisco in time. None of the others have a connecting stage, train or boat even though we get to those places earlier and they’re closer. ‘Sides, I need to go into Sacramento anyway to escort my men.’

Modern times and all that thar progress! Gaine thought to herself, Politicians touting all them new miracles a’ transportation, rail lines a’stretchin’ out ‘n ever which way. It shore ain’t always perspicacious. Crow still flies ‘n a straight line but people get plumb potwalloped. “So’s you an’ yer boys er a’headin’ fer San Francisca?”

“No, just me. They’re picking up their loaded supply wagons in Sacramento. They’ll start right back to the fort as soon as they get them and I’ll follow by stage later when my meetings are finished.”

A thought occurred to Gaine and her head tilted, “They a’takin’ them wagons–Ah assume theys covered–anawhere nears the hotel whar this here stage stops?”

“Yes. They’re regular Army supply wagons..not conestogas, of course, but covered. Two men to a wagon. And as a matter of fact, they go mighty close to the hotel. I could have them go by if you’d like to see them pass.”

“Ahl buy them fellers a ceegar, if’n they wanna stop ta the desk,” she grinned. “Ahl leave ’em thar fer em. We doan thank ar boys ‘n blue ’nuff these days.”

“Cigars? I’m sure they’d like that! Thank you.”

“Ahd leave one fer the likes a’ you, too, Lieutenant, if’n ya war gonna be thar.”

“I’m not. And I don’t smoke. But thank you anyway.”

“What time them fellas gonna go by the ho-tel, war ya thinkin’?”

“Bout an hour, maybe two, after the stage arrives.”

‘Uh huh. An’ what time do this here stage arrive ta Sacramenta?’ she asked. “If’n ya knows.”

She watched the burly man by the tree swing easily into the branches. Now that was strange, indeed. He didn’t have his rifle with him, but she still moved out of any possible line of fire.

‘Just after six. For me there’s only about an hour’s time between getting there and the train leaving. Fortunately the train station’s just down by the river, only two blocks from the hotel.’

“Shame you’ll be a’headin’ out sa soon!”

He looked at her sadly, ‘Why? Did you have something you wanted me to do?’

She smiled widely. ‘No, ‘cept I woulda liked introducin’ ya ta Cousin Minnie. Ahl point them boys an’ the wagons out ta her if’n she’s thar by then. She’s a’comin’ in from Virginy City somewhar ’bout then. She’s a might good lookin’!’ She’d be your type, Gaine thought with amusement. And though Ahd like fer ya ta have a little more sand ’bout ya, ya wouldn’t be that bad a match fer her. ‘Sides, she’s got plenty a’ sand fer the both a’ ya.

‘The pleasure,’ he bowed slightly, ‘would have been all mine. She sounds like a fascinating woman.’

‘That she be! Uh, war the old man treatin’ his daughter well?’ Her eyes followed the old man as he grunted and huffed back to the stage.

‘He didn’t strike her again, if that’s what you mean. But he all but threatened her with her life and she’s terrified of even looking in my direction, I’m afraid.’

In a perverse way that actually made Gaine feel better. Not that Meghan had been threatened and certainly not that the woman was struck by her father. But she had felt a tension totally unrelated to the father when the young lady had spoken pleasantly to this handsome officer. Then to have her riding right next to him. Well, she knew that was silly and that what she felt was suspiciously akin to jealousy. She recognized that fact immediately but pushed it back from her mind. ‘It’s shore ’nuff a shame. She done merits better.’

‘Yes, she does,’ he agreed. ‘Her father has been saying some very uncomplimentary things about you, by the way.’

Gaine laughed her deep rolling laugh. ‘Ah kin ‘magine. So’s far Ahv done shot off his ceegar and smacked him one in the puss.’

‘He’s made some…I don’t know, almost threatening remarks. You might want to watch your back. And he’s already told me he’ll be speaking to my Commander at the fort if I so much as smile at the young lady. Actually, I don’t get along that well with the General, so I’ve tried not to create too much of a problem. I can’t afford trouble with the head man.’

‘In what manner war he a’threatenin’ me?’ she asked. ‘Ahm ready fer his challenge.’

‘No, it’s more about his powerful friends, having the Sacramento Marshal throw you in jail, that kind of thing.’

‘Ah see,’ Gaine had a plan she was working on for Meghan but she’d need to keep her eye on her father for sure.

“I see you’re watching that fellow with the scar over there. Brawny man.” They both directed their eyes to the husky fellow now making his way back in a hurry. He was carrying his shovel and Gaine noticed he was no longer wearing his neckerchief. “Any particular reason?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Jest a hunch,” Gaine replied. “He done shared a room with’n the old man an’ thar’s somethin’ cagey ’bout ‘im…Ah dunno.”

“Do you think the old man hired him to harm you in some way? I certainly wouldn’t put it past him!”

“Dunno. Maybe.”

‘Well, you be careful!’ The officer ran his eyes over the man, who finally moved behind brush cover so the coach separated him from their view. “Tell you what I think. We’ve had troops sent out to bring in marauders,” he replied. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised to find him in any gang that was brought in.”

“Mmm. Yep. Maybe he’s fine and maybe he ain’t. But if’n ambushin’ a body an’ shootin’ ‘im in the back t’were the workings a’ the day, nothin’ ta say he wouldn’t be a’sittin’ smack dab in the saddle on that kinda hoss. But then thar’s nothing ta say t’utherwise, neither. Jest a hunch.”

The Lieutenant looked at Gaine seriously, “I know what you mean. Let me help you keep an eye on him.”

Gaine laughed. “Thanky, Lieutenant. ‘Preciate it.” She glanced in and saw Meghan’s father with his watch in his hand and a scowl on his face. “Lordy, that man!” Meghan looked out to see Gaine’s affectionate gaze upon her before blue eyes turned toward the team. “Whoa! Hosses er switched. Reckon we’d best enter the fray, er t’will be left a’hind.”

The new horses were eager and the Lieutenant hurried for his stagecoach door while she and the cowhand scrambled from the short wheel in front to the driver’s seat above the front boot then back across the top seats to their places in back. The burly man was already there, his lever action saddle gun in hand.

They all grabbed their rifles and brought them to a relaxed pose, ready to continue on their way. All guns pointed to the sky, but Gaine’s carbine was once again not that far off the direction of the large man, who did not look her way. She would need to make very sure not to turn her back on him.

Gaine liked riding on top. You could see forever and sat above most of the rising dust. Her hat blocked out the unrelenting sun. She was used to that anyway. The air was hot but the breeze was bracing and there was little conversation. But she missed Meghan. She mentally began to work out details of her plan. Her thoughts ran to the small blonde inside the carriage and a tender smile graced the brunette’s face accompanied by a renewed firmness of conviction. She WOULD get her away safely, or die trying!

With some short stinging snaps in her face, the only disadvantage of the open air was again made known. The wind flipped her hair around too much, snapping it annoyingly in her face. Maybe she’d braid it like she did on long rides. She hadn’t taken the time that morning.

She removed her hat, clamped the wide brim between her knees, put her rifle at her feet firmly under one foot, pushed her jacket behind her six-shooter and began to plait her thicket of dusty, long jet black hair into a braid that hung part way down her back. She pulled a thin rawhide strap from her pocket that she used for such occasions and tied the end. Then she retrieved her rifle and resumed her vigil.

Halfway to the next horse change they passed the southbound stage. It had fewer passengers although there were still those riding on top. They watched the others pass by and a few waved at them and they waved back.

They entered a draw and Gaine could see that it was a perfect place for an ambush. She stayed with her gun pointed above but angled in the direction of the large man. He flicked his eyes her way a few times. She turned in her seat so that she faced him. Her peripheral vision gave her a view of everything on top.

“Let’s watch keerful ‘n here, fellas,” Gaine called to the others. ‘Watch fer eny obstacles they maht put n’ the road ta stop us. N’ all wayside brush n’ rocks jest maht hold ambushers. Keep alert!’ The authority in her voice was clear and their attention became much more intense. Guns moved off to the many hiding places that might be found around them. She did not shift her own gun, however, nor did she check the rocks and other hiding places. She kept her eyes on the grisly man and he was very much aware of it.

‘Specially watch whar the timber flows down n’ fingers out n’ the draw. Some a them outlaws lahks ta hide thar ‘n aim ta a lead hoss ta bring ’em down n’ stop the run.’

Everyone stayed alert as they made their way through, but Gaine’s eyes never left the burly man. She breathed a silent, feathery sigh of relief when they came out of the area into an open plain again and the driver whipped the horses up to make time.

At the next stop they were again down on the plains just below the hills. Gaine dismounted along with some of the others but dared not look in to glimpse Meghan. Her father sat staring daggers out the window at Gaine. Instead she stepped behind the coach out of his view and watched the folks milling around. The horses were being switched with no problems and some of the passengers moseyed off a short way into the brush.

She saw the burly man walk briskly to the corral and talk with one of the men working there. The large man extracted a roll of money, pulled off some bills and the worker roped a strong, useful bay and put on a bridle and saddle.

Greenbacks, Gaine thought. Lordy! A small pilla size roll! She had some of her own, but nothing like that. Hmm. An in this here economy! Wonder if’n he war paid ta gin me a share a’ difficulty? He done appeared ta be cheek by jowl with’n the old man. She brought her eyes back to Meghan’s father who now stood just outside the carriage door, glaring at her, narrow-eyed with a touch of superiority as he puffed on his cigar. Yes, she wouldn’t put it past him at all.

The burly man put a foot in the stirrup, took the reins and swung his leg over. He threw a fierce glance at Gaine before he rode away toward the hills. She watched him ride to the top of a swell and disappear. But why ride off?

“Figure he war a’fixin’ ta get off here?” she asked the Lieutenant, who had noisily walked up beside her. She’d heard him get out of the stage this time.

“Dunno,” the Lieutenant replied. “Strange. Out in the middle of nowhere. Not another person for miles. Guess we won’t have to help you watch him after all.”

“Reckon not. Be right back.” She quickly moved to the corral and asked if the man had left his horse there and, if so, when.

The hand smiled. “No. Was my horse. I sold it and he paid plenty. I’ll ride one a’ the stages out. I’ll buy two horses an’ all their tack for what he paid.” That certainly seemed strange to Gaine. But she’d file it in her memory for the time being. She had other things to ponder at this point.

She saw Meghan’s father grind off his cigar on the side of the carriage, stick it in his pocket and huff back into the carriage. How inconvenient. He doan get ta finish his ceegar once’t he fires it up. She saw the Lieutenant wink as he followed the older man in and she chuckled as she rushed back and crawled up on top.

Once they were off again Gaine glanced far up to the eastern hills and thought she saw the trailings of dust made by more than one rider. She sat up straight. It was too far to be the grizzly man and the amount of dust suggested more than one rider moving quickly. She focused her eyes but without a glass to check, she saw no more than that. She decided she’d best keep herself ready for anything.

A hawk swirled in lazy circles above the ground, patrolling the skies. Gaine saw but didn’t hear the “vidididid” of a western meadowlark from a nearby bush over the clattering noise of the stage. Occasionally a roadrunner would emerge on the flat and sprint across an area, only to disappear under the fragrant shrubbery.

Her eyes studied the landscape but whatever created the dust had disappeared. Her thoughts drifted to Meghan’s problem and she let her mind mull over the factors. She began her problem breakdown by asking herself the “what ifs” while trying to come up with plausible solutions.

She sensed the gun more than saw it. She spun in place and surprised the young cow puncher behind her, whose rifle was pointed in her direction. Instantly he moved it to the sky. “Uh, sorry,” he muttered then spit over the side. “Warn’t payin’ no heed.”

“Ya’d best make damn sure ya ain’t lettin’ it happen never agin,” she warned, “This here ain’t no storm ‘n a washbasin Ahm referrin’ ta!”

“Sure, Gaine. Meant no disrespect. T’were an accident. Sorry.”

Gaine wondered if that was true. Or was he a part of those she needed to watch? She killed anyone that pointed a gun at her with intent. Did he have intent? Gods! She couldn’t afford to be lax but she didn’t need to be paranoid either. He was only a boy, but he was tough enough to grind his heel on many a man’s tasks, she’d warrant. Robbery and murder were certainly in that corral and she fervently hoped he wasn’t partaking in any of that particular round-up.

She thought about what she knew about him. He’d entered the stage alone in an area she was familiar with, yet she didn’t know him or his horse, which did not speak for or against him. He could have been working on any ranch. He’d said little but stayed in the back with the topside luggage. Unfortunately, that put everyone’s backs to him and gave him an opportunity to pick off anyone if he was part of any group of desperadoes. But she had no idea how good a shot he was. Course, that close, it wouldn’t matter much.

Her blue eyes were disquieting as she centered their troubled directness on his face. “Ah tend ta shoot pronto on point a’ threat, boy! Ya could find yerself down with yer boots on an’ a lick a’ bullet ta yer heart if’n ‘t happened again. So’s Ahm gonna figure yu’v took yerself fair warnin’.”

“Yep. I savvy. Ain’t gonna happen ag’in.”

“Make damn shore it doan. Cause Ahl kill ya without givin’t no extry thought, if’n ‘t do.”

He nodded and leaned his gun so that it pointed behind the coach.

Gaine sat back and let her gaze go out over the scenery. The stage rose again crossing the winding hill of a mountainous fingerling. As she half-gazed, half-thought, she saw a fox then noticed black-tailed jackrabbits cavorting and scampering through the nearby brush. She wondered when the milieu had changed to the long eared variety.

Several of the men laughingly pointed their rifles the rabbit’s directions but each time the Conductor turned back and informed them they mustn’t be firing. It would disturb the horses. Occasionally coveys of quail would rise from near the rock outcroppings beside the road before the galloping horses pounded by. The flying dots would quickly circle and settle back into the cheesebushes and sage further off by the road.

Gaine concentrated on Meghan and what it would take for her to get away from her father and how many different situations could arise in her doing so. She hoped the sweet green-eyed lady was being treated well inside the carriage then took her thoughts to the woman’s escape. She thought of the intended husband and what would happen if he was already there waiting.

In the distance to the east were pronghorn antelope. Didn’t see them that much any more. Maybe the hint of dust clouds she’d seen earlier had been from a herd of some animal or another. But she discarded that idea. She could usually tell the difference. Whatever it was, it had been moving in a steady straight line.

In the early evening mule deer were seen heading toward a shallow stream they had forded. Barely visible behind a rock a coyote stopped and sniffed the air before giving the stagecoach a look of scorn and padding away. Gaine turned and watched the animal, hoping to catch sight of its mate. Usually coyotes hunted in pairs, but she didn’t sight the second one this time.

The sun dipped lower in the sky and shadows began to play across the now wind-swept land as they rolled up and down across the hills. Darkness when it came, would hold its own danger.

They stopped for supper at a way station rife with bugs so large the cowpuncher claimed they could be broken to saddle. When the driver sat, the first course was served. It was large pewter basins of soup placed along the table with spoons within each. Everyone waded in, eating from the basin closest to them. Gaine suddenly whipped off her hat and whacked desperately at a large cockroach darting across the table, drawing most everyone’s attention. For its size it was fleet of foot. She swept it to the floor then quickly stepped on it, crunching it under her boot. She was glad they would not be spending the night there. The floor was littered with crushed bugs.

Meghan’s nerves were on end. She wished Gaine had been able to stay beside her instead of the Lieutenant. Aside from the earlier humiliation, her father snarled at her constantly, leaving her less time to concentrate on her escape and gird herself for it. Then he became extremely smug and that always bode ill for someone. She knew his malevolence was directed at Gaine and that worried her.

She looked over toward the brunette, the depth of her green eyes showing much more of a message than her wan smile. I missed you. Gaine likewise had missed being beside the small blonde, but she was careful not to let her eyes wander that way too often, directing them only momentarily. Gaine was about to smile in response when Meghan’s father’s eyes darted her way. She sent a threatening scowl instead that he returned. Meghan noticed and dropped her eyes to her lap.

Gaine wrenched her attention back to her own table then almost laughed aloud when she noted the drummer stooping down with a muttered curse wiping his shiny shoes with his large handkerchief after he’d seen a roach run over one toe.

The Lieutenant drank from his own cup that he always carried with him. Gaine sipped coffee from the tin cup the host had distributed. It was mighty thin but she liked it. Aside from the presence of bugs, Gaine found the next course of supper not that ad particularly after their very light dinner. Beef and beans with sourdough bread was tasty though she found the beef a touch leathery. Finishing up with spicy dried apple pie, the meal was most satisfying.

“Well, Ah’m full as a tick,” she smiled to her companions as she rubbed her stomach. They had cut dark specks out of their food, unsure as they were about the multitude of bugs and how much of the pie was actually ‘spice’.

Gaine climbed back with the wrangler among the large pieces of luggage tied atop after dinner. This was a particularly dangerous time. She did not want to worry about what might be hiding out there in the landscape with rifle power as well as the young ranchhand beside her. She moved to where she could watch both. Instead of sitting, she crouched. Make mahself a smaller target, she said to herself. The young man did the same.

Once the horses flew off she shifted innumerable times to stay comfortable and noticed her companion doing the same. The landscape went flying by and cool blue eyes were busy observing it all. The sun went down and the evening, despite the danger, was pleasant as they swayed among the hills in the crested moonlight. Still she wiped her hand across her brow eliminating the nervous sweat that had gathered there. There was just enough moonlight to keep the darkened surroundings in view.

They headed down into a canyon and she kept a steady vigil as the horses pounded along the lowering, winding, darkened trail. A shot on a downward trajectory had a much better chance of hitting her than one trying to shoot up. Her eye caught a quick movement along the canyon ridge above them. She instantly shot, aiming low and to the side to frighten rather than harm. She heard the shot hit a rock and ricochet aside, echoing along the canyon walls. There was no return fire and she observed no more movement.

The young man beside her squeezed off a ricocheting shot in the same direction. She found that to be to his credit but reached a hand out. “Hold yer fire,” she said to him. Everyone atop the stage moved their guns in that direction. It could have been an animal or even an innocent person headed for a far-off ranch. Or it could be something far more menacing. Whatever it was, hers was a warning shot and from the sounds of it, so was the boy’s.

“What was it?” the Conductor called back, his gun following the darkened rim.

“Dunno. Maybe nothin’.”

“Did ya hit it?”

“Din’t aim ta. Just a warnin’ shot case there’s ana’one there a’thinkin’ we’re free pickin’s down here.

The canvas curtain by the Lieutenant was rolled up and his head came bobbing out the window. “What’s happening?” he called.

“Jest warnin’ shots. Likely nothin’,” Gaine called back to him.

“You want me to climb up there with ya?” he called.

“Naw. It ain’t nothin’. Ahl call if’n we need ya!”

“All right.” The Lieutenant drew in his head.

“Anyone hurt?” Meghan’s father asked almost hopefully as the Lieutenant began to close the canvas curtain again. The older man’s tone of voice was priggish, showing no surprise. That alone drew everyone’s perplexed attention his way. But the coach was dark and it was impossible to discern his expression.

“No. Gaine fired a warning shot. Don’t know at what, but no one was hurt,” the Lieutenant replied. Meghan quietly exhaled in relief.

“Humphf,” the old man snorted. Meghan looked his way wondering what he might have had to do with the whole thing. She knew that smugness of his all too well even if she couldn’t make out his features.

The Conductor on top held his shotgun tight. He encouraged the driver to keep the horses at the fastest pace possible even in the dimmed light. He was busy scanning the rim from side to side as they moved along. He would not be napping this evening.

“Keep yer eyes skinned, fellas, an’ look powerful sharp,” Gaine called.

Up and down the canyon, among the rock outcroppings and huddled motts of squat, dark trees on the edge of the rim the eyes of the men on top of the stage peered through the moonlit darkness in solemn quest of movement. Gaine would almost bet they were being followed. She could feel it.

The tall brunette hated this state of affairs. All she wanted was to arrive in Sacramento in one piece. There was no chance she could form a posse and go out after any outlaws if they struck and got away. Not with Meghan needing her help and Minnie coming to meet her. Her cousin was not going to believe all the complications that had erupted on Gaine’s way to fetching her as it was. However, knowing Minnie, she’d find it all an exciting adventure.

After a long siege of continual alertness, they finally pulled out onto the waving gold grass of the savannah where views seemed to go for miles and ambush spots were much harder to find. Everyone relaxed, some wondering aloud if there really had been anything out there. Gaine remained ready, however, as did the puncher beside her. There’d been something there all right. Neither let down their guard all the way till they got to their stop for the night.

When at last they stopped, the sky was sparkling and magical, as though a huge bowl of stars had been overturned above them. A creamy white band of billions of specks of light spread across the sky. One almost felt that a reaching hand could touch the glittering diamonds above and draw them down. The sounds of the crickets were joined by frogs and the howling of a distant family of coyotes. The fragrant perfume of summer scented the warm night air.

Few words were spoken by the men from the top. They were particularly glad to be arriving somewhere safe. Gaine wondered how safe it actually was. She took her rifle and hopped down. Stage stops weren’t any safer than a running stage as far as she was concerned. They could be attacked easily and sometimes were.

“Keep yer rifles handy tanight, fellas,” she suggested. “Jest a precaution.”

She checked her vest pocket. Her badge was still there. First thing she’d do would be to clean her rifle and sixshooter. She usually did that nightly anyway. She thought of Meghan and suddenly a panicked thought came to mind. She looked around and saw the blonde’s father starting to crawl out of the far side of the coach. Meghan would be behind him. Would it be like last night? Would they get to spend the night together? She prayed they would, but if they did, she’d have to clean up! Stress tended to pour perspiration out of her.

“What was it?” the Lieutenant asked as he rushed to her side.

“Baheld me some movement thar ‘n the rim. Din’t wan’ ’em gettin’ no fancy thoughts ’bout us being empty tins on no fence post.”

“Are ya sure? Sometimes heat makes things seem to appear that aren’t really there.”

“They was thar,” she replied shortly. Then she added lightly, “whatever t’was.”

“I’ll put my men on revolving guard tonight,” the Lieutenant said assuagingly, “two hour shifts. That way they’ll each get some sleep and we won’t be left unguarded while here.”

“Thank ye,” Gaine replied. “Ah think that thar’s a right perspicacious accommodation. An we all ‘preciate it.”

The Lieutenant flashed his boyish smile and Gaine couldn’t help enjoying it. He was such a rake, but a most enjoyable one.

They watched Meghan and her father head for the building, their bags in hand. The small blonde carried her own and he carried his. Blue eyes tracked the small blonde’s graceful figure in the lantern light, her small waist, softly swaying hips and loose strands of blonde hair tiredly escaping her bonnet edge. Meghan dared not glance back but Gaine yearned for her quick smile. Ah missed ya, sweet Meg.

The worker struggled to lower the mysterious lady’s heavy leather cloak trunk tied on top. The Lieutenant got his bag and rushed off to help her and her companion with all their luggage. Gaine waited with the puncher for them to get to the front boot where both theirs were stored. “Ya done good,” she muttered to him. He nodded. She stooped to pick a dust-covered wildflower. She gave it a couple of quick flicks, but a coat of dirt remained on it.

She held her smile upon learning she’d be sharing with Meghan again. But instead of going to their room, Gaine carried her carpetbag, rifle and flower and went calling at the room of the mysterious woman and her traveling companion. The Lieutenant had already left them. Another modern home station made much ado about by the stage company. Gaine decided it was built by the same people. The rooms were like their first night’s lodging although there were pegs on the wall this time and no chair. The two women were surprised to see her but cordially invited Gaine into their small cubicle.

“Was there somethin’ out there, Sugah?” the companion drawled, motioning for her to sit beside her on the bed. The mysterious woman slowly lowered her matronly form atop her hearty portmanteau while the candle danced their enlarged shadows around them.

Gaine sat down and smiled at the pleasant southern drawl the black lady had. “Yep. But ar shots eased its’ ambitions some, Ah reckon. Lieutenant’s posted guards so’s thar ain’t gonna be no depredations committed tanight.”

“Won-der-ful!” the companion drawled. The pace of her words was slower than Gaine was used to, and she found it charming. “That mis-rable old man acted like he maht a’ known somethin’ ’bout it,” the woman intoned, “but then it’s hard telling with folks like him.”

“He do anathin’ in particular?” She twisted the flower in her hands as she talked.

“No, just the way he sneered an’ almost acted, I dunno, hopeful almost.”

Gaine laughed. “He kin drag ’round that ole mule a’ hope all he hankers. Ain’t nothin’ but extry baggage far’s Ah kin see. So’s–are the two a’ ya headed ta Sacramenta ta stay?” Both women looked at the flower but said nothing about it.

The mystery woman replied, which was a surprise, explaining in a wavering voice that from Sacramento the two of them were catching the late train that made the connection to the ferryboat to San Francisco. They had arrangements they dare not miss. They wouldn’t be staying at the hotel in Sacramento.

“Lieutenant’s a’doin’ that same thang,” Gaine tilted her head at the sound of the mystery woman’s voice. Waver or not, it was much younger than she had been expecting but she gave no reaction. Instead she begged a favor of them and the mysterious woman hesitated before guessing why the tall rancher was asking, although the brunette would not confirm it. The less she confirmed, the safer Meghan would be. She set aside the flower and dug out her shot bag to pay for the favor, but the mystery woman reached over and stilled Gaine’s hand.

“No need. My pleasure.” Then, to Gaine’s surprise, the matron removed her hat and veil in front of the tall brunette while she and the black lady named Betsy watched from the bed in the flickering light of the candle. The woman removed some pins and shook out long wavy brown hair.

“Lawsy!” Gaine blinked. In front of her was a spunky young woman, most likely Meghan’s age or even younger with a definite flash in her friendly brown eyes. Her cupid’s bow mouth was drawn up in a provocative smile and she was very comely, Gaine noted. Gaine sat openmouthed staring at the young lady.

‘Catchin’ flies, Sugah?’ the girl grinned roguishly, peeling off her long, black kid gloves to reveal young, smooth hands, ‘My disguise…’til I get where I wanna be.’ Her smile flitted coquettishly, her voice betraying a bit of a Louisiana accent.

‘Uh, ain’t folks gonna figure who ya be by yer, uh, companion here?’ Gaine turned to the black woman, Betsy, who was sitting beside her on the bed.

The mystery girl laughed, ‘They’re looking for a young woman with her maid.” She tossed her head to throw back her long hair, “I don’t fit their description.’

‘An’ futhermore, young lady,’ Betsy drawled, looking straight into Gaine’s eyes, ‘No one’s gonna remember me. I’m just a servant woman traveling with an older lady. They’ll know my skin color, a’ course, but they won’t be able to accurately describe me. I have this little veil, I rarely speak to the others or draw attention to myself. Why, I’ll bet anything that no one on the coach could give you a really good description. They think of me as a servant then dismiss me from their minds. All servants look alike to them.’

Yep, and all them folks a’ any t’uther race does, too, the brunette agreed mentally. ‘Ah reckon t’would work,’ Gaine decided.

‘Well now, we haven’t been discovered yet,’ the young woman laughed. ‘And we’ve been at this a while. We came from New Orleans two months ago using a number of different stagecoaches to get here.’

Gaine’s eyes grew round as the mystery woman unbuttoned the front of her dress and pulled out a series of small pillows from inside her corset and tossed them atop their other bags. Gaine nervously twirled her flower again.

“Ah hah, Ah sees how ya do that,” Gaine smiled, modestly moving her eyes then to the door as the young woman buttoned up her loose hanging dress to conceal the corset beneath.

“Yes, she’s wearing one of my dresses and corsets,” Betsy chuckled. “Girl’s no bigger than a feather in a windstorm, but with a few pillahs….”

“Yep,” Gaine agreed. It hadn’t looked like pillows. The corset had squeezed them into a lady’s shape. ‘Whatcha runnin’ from, if’n Ah might ask?’ Gaine queried.

‘Same ole story. I have no intention of marrying the man mah Daddy chose. Mah Daddy may be wealthy and powerful, but I tole him I’m not the type to be led ’round by a ring in mah nose an’ he jest laughed. He kept assuring me his choice is not a bad person. I don’t care. I don’t wanna marry some old codger. I don’t care how wealthy the codger is or how much it will help Daddy’s business. I have passage waiting on a ship out of San Francisco that will eventually get us to New York City.”

“Yer sailin’ clear ’round ta New York?”

“Yes. Well, to Panama at least. We’ll get the train across and then board another ship on the other side. But if I weren’t otherwise engaged with what I’m doing, I might fancy spending some time with that Lieutenant. He is a handsome and gentlemanly devil!” She leaned forward, “And he always smells so good!”

“I heared they’s fever some folks git travelin’ across’t thar in Panama. An them big ole snakes an’ ‘gators ever’where!”

“There’s fever to be gotten traveling here. Or even staying right where you are. And snakes and gators are old news to us.”

“Ah reckon. But ain’t thar lots quicker means ta New York from New Orleans,” Gaine proclaimed, puzzled. She ignored the comment about the Lieutenant. “An ain’t the Santa Fe near finished goin’ west ta Los Angeles? That’s a heap closer and shore wunt a took ya two months.”

“Yes, but mah Daddy will be looking those directions all this time. When we finally get to New York, he’ll have lost interest in those ways and be looking elsewhere. There’s a young man I’ve wanted to know better that lives there. I’ve written and he’ll meet me. If it works out, we’ll marry–if he’s not too stuffy. If he is, I’ll head for Europe. I’ve relatives there. Fortunately my Momma’s Daddy left me very well taken care of. And Momma’s makin’ sure I can get my hands on it without Daddy’s permission. I don’t have to depend on him. I will no longer be his chattel to be used for the benefit of his business!’

‘Ah understand,’ Gaine nodded, although she had no real reason to understand at all. Her family had never pressed her about marriage. She had grown up as the youngest of six, left to work on her parents’ ranch when the others married and moved away to start their own farms and ranches elsewhere.

In fact, mention of marriage was never made at home. Course, before she knew it, Gaine found herself handling more and more of her father’s duties after her mother yielded up her strength and died of an outbreak of fever when Gaine was sixteen. So marriage was not a concern of anyones’. Her heart ached for the loss of her mother, but her father seemed to lose his way completely and was never the same thereafter, so she had that loss, too. It wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone when he passed on a year later at an early age, leaving Gaine alone on a ranch sorely in need of resurrecting at the tender age of seventeen. Every effort of hers had gone into the ranch since.

‘We surely miss you, honey,’ Betsy told Gaine, putting a warm hand atop hers as she spoke. ‘My, my, how that old blowhard can go on without you there to shoot off his cigars and smack him upside the head once or twice.’

‘It was only once,’ Gaine blushed.

‘And how I enjoyed that ‘once’ after what he did to that poor little girl. He should be ashamed of himself.’ She folded her hands in her lap. The young woman sat on her portmanteau nodding her head in agreement.

‘Yes, he should!’ Gaine concurred, setting the flower on the bed beside her.

‘Well, you just come back down and join us,’ the older woman said.

‘The whip wants me ta ride up top. Had the Conductor ask me. Ah reckon he doan want me a’shooting the old buzzard.’

‘Such a shame,’ the black woman replied. ‘I was looking forward to more tales of you and your Cousin Minnie.’

‘Me, too,’ the young mystery woman grinned.

A wide smile came to Gaine’s face. ‘Ahl be a’seein’ her tamorra night. Kin ya believe it? Seems right strange afta’ all this here time. Fourteen years. Sa much done took place o’er them years. Ah kin hardly wait.’

“She’s lucky to have you,” the black lady said.

Gaine did a quick sniff of her shirt and her face became serious. “She ain’t gonna be a’thinkin’ so if’n she catches scent a me downwind, Ahm a’feared. Ahd best git n’ head out to that thar warsh basin ‘n clean up. T’is late.”

“Wait! Take a wash cloth!” the small brunette jumped up and opened her case. “I finally found where I put them. You’ll like it and I insist.” She didn’t wait for Gaine’s reply. She rustled around, pulling out a thick, expensive washing rag. “And here’s some of my special soap. I have plenty. Betsy makes it. Put it in your case.” She included a bar of fragrant, lavender soap. Betsy smiled proudly. ‘Least we can do for your big reunion.’

Gaine slipped them in her carpet bag, graciously thanked the two women, gathered her things and quietly shut the door behind her.

Betsy and the young woman watched the door after she left. “My, oh my,” the young girl intimated. “Now THAT is an exciting woman, Betsy. I rarely find any woman that interesting, but lawsy!” Her eyes remained on the door. “If Thornton weren’t waiting for me in New York, I’d be tempted to take some time off and follow her right out to her ranch. There’s so much to learn. Did you see her eyes when she swatted that miserable old man after he hit his daughter? Such a defiant and….almost… reckless gleam!’

‘Yes, she doesn’t take a lot of flapdoodle from anyone! And that’s the truth!” Betsy declared. ‘Mmm, mmm.’

‘Indeed! Why she literally reeks of challenge and intrigue and adventure.’

‘Mm hmm,’ Betsy agreed.

The young lady got very quiet as she sat thinking. She lifted her eyes to Betsy and a rascally grin appeared, ‘How do you think I’d look in trousers?’

‘Oh, child!’ Betsy exclaimed.

‘They’d be a right fine disguise! Think what fun it would be!’

‘Oh, child,’ Betsy wrapped her hands together and began to wring them.

‘I could walk right into saloons, why there wouldn’t be any place I couldn’t go! Why, you could wear them, too, and come with me if you wanted!’

‘Oh, child,’ Betsy worried. ‘It’s so drastic, don’t you think?’

‘She does it!’ the heiress pointed to the door.

‘Yes, but she’s very skilled with a six shooter to back up her choices.’

The heiress nodded slowly. ‘Yes, that is true enough, I suppose.’ Then she hopped up. ‘Well, it’s late. We’d best get some sleep.’

Betsy rose from the bed and shook the dust off her gloves. The heiress stood and began unbuttoning her dress. ‘But it’s something to think about,’ she muttered.

‘Oh, child!’ Betsy exclaimed, shaking her head. Then her lips pinched together. ‘I am NOT wearing trousers! Don’t even think about it.’

The young heiress laughed. ‘No, perhaps not.’ But I might!
Chapter 3
After leaving the two women, Gaine returned to the entrance of the building. She saw the Army guard standing outside. As she had hoped, everyone was finished at the wash basin and was gone. There was no clean water left, but she wet and soaped the rag in the used water and began to scrub her face, neck and ears. It smelled very much of lavender. She washed her hands then carefully dipped and patted the flower. Then she unbuttoned enough shirt buttons to reach inside the top and the neck of her undershirt to reach her arm pits.
She looked around but no one was there. Undue modesty was not much of a concern. She’d spent too many weeks living outdoors amongst the punchers to be worried about someone seeing her scrub under her arms. She scrubbed thoroughly, rinsed her rag, wrung it out and headed back to her room for the night. “Ain’t Ah the honeysuckle dandy, though,” she grinned to herself, damp flower in hand. “Maybe Ahl even warsh mah feet tanight.”
One step inside the cubicle she saw the candle wink in the draft from the opened and shut door. Meghan sat on her side of the bed in her nightshirt wringing her hands, a hairbrush in her lap. The young woman was obviously upset. Gaine barely had time to place her bag and jacket on the floor and lean her rifle against the wall before the small blonde flew from the bed into her arms.
‘Oh, Gaine! At last you’re here.’ Meghan’s arms wrapped around the brunette and slid up her back while she pressed her face into Gaine’s shoulder in a tight grip. Gaine’s presence anchored Meghan’s terror-ridden thoughts.
“Jest been a’visitin’,’ Gaine mumbled, embracing the small blond in return, her hands gently stroking Meghan’s back. “Ever’thin’s all right, Meg.”
Meghan leaned back in Gaine’s arms. ” I was so worried,” she whispered. The turmoil in her eyes pulled at Gaine’s heart. She hadn’t thought to stop at the room first and tell her she’d be late. Gaine was painfully aware that she had been unable to prevent the demoralizing day Meghan had had earlier and she kicked herself for not being more considerate now.
The tall beauty looked back gently into emerald eyes. ‘Ahm sorry, Meg. Ah shoulda tole ya Ahd be late.” She brushed blonde wisps from Meghan’s face, pressing a gentle kiss to her forehead. “Ah wouldn’t a run off.” The blonde smelled of sunshine and Gaine wondered at that. Obviously the small woman had washed off the dust of the trip in the large basin. “Ahv growed powerful fond a’ ya, ya know,” she grinned.
‘You have?” Meghan pressed back into the embrace, “And I of you.’ She gave a small squeeze then whispered, “the shadows” and reluctantly pulled away. Gaine had forgotten the silhouettes they made in the candlelight on the cloth walls. Theirs was the end room, the mystery woman and Betsy were two doors down so at least one woman from the other stage was next to them, hopefully fast asleep. Meghan stepped back with embarrassment.
“Fer you,” Gaine bashfully handed Meghan the flower, now cleaner but still somewhat worse for wear.
“For me?” green eyes lifted in surprise then went to the flower, accepting it, then clutching it to her bosom.
“Yep. Ah hoped ya’d like it.” Gaine immediately took the blonde’s free hand, pulling them both to the edge of the bed. “Ah ain’t gonna leave ya,” Gaine whispered as they sat and she began to pull her boots off.
“I wasn’t afraid that you’d leave.” Meghan’s eyes went to the flower, then she brought it to her nose to inhale. “I was worried about where you might be,” a nervous smile was directed Gaine’s way. “He’s not a nice person, Gaine. No telling what underhanded thing he might have tried to do to you or who he might have paid to help him.”
Gaine saw the flash of fire and anger in Meghan’s eyes that she tried by habit to conceal. Then the young woman began to chew her lip. ‘You’ve made him very angry,’ she remarked. ‘He’s been ranting about you. That’s usually not good.’
‘So Ah heared.’ The brunette removed her other boot then pulled off one blue stocking followed by the other.
“If we ever get a minute, I’ll darn those for you,” Meghan murmured.
Gaine grinned, “Thank ye.” She saw the fire mixed with vulnerability in the woman’s eyes, the determination mixed with fear. Then she saw the bruise that had formed below one eye and tensed at that. He had struck her, bruised her, made her nose bleed and Gaine had been too stunned to prevent it. ‘He ain’t gonna git away with strikin’ ya. Never ‘gin. Ah promise.’
Meghan reached over and tenderly touched Gaine’s hand. ‘It’s all over,’ she said caressingly. ‘You just be careful, please.” A vision she had fearfully constructed in her mind while she’d waited for Gaine returned in force and she shuddered involuntarily–an image of Gaine lying face down covered in blood, shot in the back. It was an unreasonable terror, she told herself, but knowing her father’s rage, she worried. “Don’t turn your back on him. Not ever. Please.’
“It ain’t all over,” Gaine entwined her fingers with Meghan’s then brought the blonde’s hand to her lips for a hasty kiss before dropping her hold. Meghan closed her eyes. Please don’t do anything foolish, she prayed, but she said nothing aloud. She knew how her father could drive someone to irrationality. She sniffed the pleasant floral scent. She’d often seen these flowers, but none as beautiful as this. And no one had ever given her a flower before. Not ever.
‘Tell me what kinda thing yer Pa’s a’feared a.’ Gaine watched the blonde with the flower and was glad she’d picked it. She began to unbutton her vest. ‘Cause Ahs seed him a’feared but he doan stay that way ta long.’
Gaine lifted her eyes to Meghan’s and her heart began to race. Gods, she had such an urge to press her lips against Meghan’s sweet soft mouth. Gaine shook herself from the thought and resumed undoing the buttons on her tight, figure-forming vest. “Ah know he bees ‘stitious. He doan eat rabbit–least he din’t eat none a tha rabbit theys served fer breakfast this mornin’.”
“Rabbit? No. He doesn’t eat rabbit ever.”
“Ah know. The souls of yer grandmas’ er s’posed ta’ve entered ’em, right? Er they’s s’posed ta portend a fire er some t’uther bad luck.”
“Right. He’s forbidden us to eat hare. And he always spits over his left shoulder when he sees one and says his line about ‘hare before, trouble behind’. But you’re not from the old country. How did you know that?”
“Ahv heerd a’ it. An’ Ahv watched yer Pa ‘n pondered on ‘im. Ahv done noticed whatcha might figure ta be his little side-steps ‘n di-vergences. Uh, so’s what’s he a’feared a?”
‘Well, let me see.” She sat thinking with the flower idle in her hand, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him afraid of anything, really. Your shooting his cigar seemed to have frightened him, but he got over that. The drop-off but he got over that. Uh, he was extremely mad at a customer once but he wasn’t ‘afraid’ really. The man returned a wagon and said it was poorly built and only fit for rubbish and he wanted his money back. It was a very worrisome time at home. He’d, uh, take out his anger there. My father ranted and raved and threatened to put the other man out of business.’
‘Did he?’
‘No.’
‘Why not?’
‘I don’t know exactly, except that my sister Brenna, she’s married and she and her husband both work at my father’s shop only she works in the office. Anyway, she said the man came to the shop. She said father started to shout and threaten but the man didn’t back up. In fact he moved real close and said some things to father while he poked him in the chest with his finger. She heard him say, ‘Now let me tell you who I know…’ and that’s all she heard. She couldn’t make out the rest. Father gave him back his money and never mentioned him again.’
Gaine nodded.
“Brenna risked a lot telling us. If father’d found out, he’d ‘ve had her husband beat her.”
That didn’t really surprise Gaine nor did the fact that her father had backed off. She’d dealt with a lot of male machismo, men who expected their wives to be at home working when they came back from a day drinking and carousing in the saloon, men who physically lashed out at their wives if their ego had been bruised in any way, men who bragged of their adulterous affairs but would kill their wives if they so much as looked at another man the wrong way. And she’d always found bullies like Meghan’s father to be cowards whose arrogant, controlling attacks on weaker opponents were used to bolster their own import.
But they only attacked what they perceived to be powerless adversaries. Once they were confronted and their surfaces pricked, like dough they often deflated and went to kick the dog instead. Poor dog.
‘Ya doan got a dog, does ya?’
Meghan tilted her head. ‘A dog?’ Obviously she was puzzled. ‘No, we don’t have a dog. Not now, anyway.’
‘All right,’ Gaine smiled. He picks on his wife and childern instead, she amended to herself. And the law ‘llows him free rein. She’d be happy to never have to deal with the ornery rattlesnake. But that was no option now. His actions had precluded that. So she’d deal with him. But she had to keep Meghan out of it.
Meghan had left a peg for her to hang her clothes, but she folded them neatly on her bag instead. She’d hang her holster and hat there as there was no bed post, just a curved iron bedstead.
She finished undressing, pulled on her nightshirt and saw Meghan’s face blush red as she slowly looked off, her hand continuing to clutch the flower after she scooted over to her side of the bed. Again she had been watching the brunette undress. Gaine pondered with a nervous quiver what Meghan might have been thinking as she watched. Lordy, girl, she thought, ya shore leave mah stomach a’flutter when ya’s look t’me that a’way!
Gaine got out her gun cleaning supplies, sat up on the bed and started on her rifle. Meghan looked over and Gaine’s eyes glanced back to meet hers. The young woman’s look was seductive, her cheeks now lightly flushed and her lips parted softly. “Thank you,” she breathed, bringing the flower to her nose again.
Oh, dear heavens, yer gonna be the death a’ me yet, Gaine groaned inwardly as she looked away first, her own flush on her cheek. The look had aroused her body but she diligently worked on her rifle, pushing the feelings down. She finished with her carbine and pulled the Colt out of the holster. She began to clean it.
“May I brush your hair?” Meghan whispered. “I won’t hurt you. It’ll help get some of the dust out. You have beautiful hair. Do you mind?”
“Oh, uh,” Gaine looked nervously over into green eyes. “All right.”
“Just stay there,” the small blonde put the flower on her pillow, took her brush and moved closer, nestling a knee against each side of the tall woman. Gaine could feel her warmth while she unplaited the dark braid and fluffed out her hair. The brunette sensed the blonde’s small body behind her. Her own body went on full alert.
The brush began to softly stroke. A soft moan slipped from Gaine’s mouth before she could stop it. Lordy! It felt good! There was a rustling as the blonde rose higher behind Gaine and leaned even closer. Her scent surrounded the brunette. Sunshine! That’s what she smelled like! Sunshine and rain. Gentle hands caressed her forehead and shivers ran down Gaine’s spine. The brush flowed back from her forehead in soothing strokes. Gaine shut her eyes then swallowed hard and forced herself back to cleaning her sixshooter.
There were serious problems to confront. She had to have more information. It was important. She didn’t dare give her attention to what her body wanted! ‘Uh, does yer Pa plan ta have ya stay ta the ho-tel when ya get thar?’ Gaine asked, instinctively leaning back even closer.
‘I don’t know,’ Meghan replied moving the brush to the other side of Gaine’s head and continuing to brush. ‘I think so ’cause we’re supposed to meet in the dining room at breakfast the next morning when Lendal gets in and marry right afterward.”
“Uh huh. What else did yer Pa tell ya ’bout yer schedule?”
“Nothing. I only know that much because Father was angry with me. He complained that he had to stay and wait for Lendal and that meant paying for a whole extra night at the hotel because the only stage back leaves there at four a.m. and Lendal wouldn’t be there till after eight. He said he could’ve had a late night meeting with whoever he’s gonna meet if it weren’t for me. He said that at the very least my new husband could pay for his breakfast.’
Meghan stopped brushing and handed Gaine the brush. “Would you put this on my bag for me, please?” Her clothes hung from the pegs but her bag was on the floor. Her warm hand rested on the brunette’s shoulder. She breathed in Gaine’s ear as she spoke over the tall beauty’s head. Blue eyes fluttered frantically.
The brunette hastily reached out and placed the brush on top of Meghan’s bag. ‘His missin’ the stage the next mornin’ t’war yer fault?’ She ignored the notice her body was taking of the small blonde. She finished with her pistol and slid it back in the holster then withdrew some ammunition from her belt and took out her pocket knife.
‘I guess so.’ The blonde waited till the tall woman sat back up. Then she eased Gaine’s hair to the back. “Hold still now, I’m going to braid it for you again.” Gaine sat motionless, her heart pounding in her throat as the blonde began to loop one plait over the other. Every nerve end was alert and focused on the blonde’s touch. She forced herself, however, to work carefully on the rest of her gun tasks.
“Where did I put your tie?” One hand held Gaine’s braid while the other searched the bed for the leather tie. “Oh, here it is.” Meghan carefully tied it around Gaine’s braid then put a hand to linger on both Gaine’s shoulders. “All done,” she sighed once more in Gaine’s ear, enjoying the barely noticeable quiver from the tall beauty. The ranch owner swallowed her groan. She felt her body’s moisture and clamped her legs closer together.
Meghan moved back and Gaine leaned down to slip the gun supplies back in her bag and the ammunition back in her belt. Meghan slid down under the light cover facing Gaine and moved over to give the brunette room to get in.
Gaine hung her holster on the peg and softly asked as she slid into bed, “Did yer Pa ever hurt ya bad, Meghan?” She was unsure whether she might not be stepping over some personal line.
“You got lickins when you were a child. You told us about it,” Meghan replied defensively. She breathed a long scent of her flower once more then handed it to Gaine reluctantly. “Would you put this by the candle, please?”
Gaine put the flower down on the small stand beside the bed then turned. “Thar’s a heap a’ differ’nce t’wixt a lickin’ an’ a beatin’, Meg,” she whispered. “Ah never t’war beat. Ah war paddled lots, an’ switched. T’warn’t never meant ta do me no harm. An Ah t’warn’t never struck ‘n the face. Jest ‘n mah back sides.”
“Oh,” Meghan shifted nervously in her spot. “I don’t really want to talk about it, all right?” She laid back facing the ceiling.
“Shore.” The brunette also slid down under the cover and they both took interest in different spots on the ceiling highlighted by the flickering candle.
“My children won’t ever be struck. Not ever,” Meghan breathed wanly.
“Mm,” Gaine lay quietly for a few minutes, her blue eyes darting over to check on the blonde lying beside her. “Ah hope ya woan take no off-ense, Meghan, but sometimes Ah thinks yer Pa needs a couple good hard licks from a broom handle upside his head. Might help ta organize ‘is thinkin’.
Meghan giggled nervously and the laugh worked its magic on the tall brunette.
Relieved that the small blonde was no longer feeling so uncomfortable, Gaine sat up to blow out the candle. She blew then remained seated, resting back against the metal headbars. Meghan inched up and sat as well. It wasn’t pitch black as soft light from candles further down cast their glow. Hearing snoring coming from the room beside them, they continued speaking in whispers, ‘Does the man yer s’posed ta marry live ta Sacramenta?’
‘Lendal? No. He lives in Miner’s Flat, a small town outside Oakland, but he has some business in the countryside that he has to finish before he can meet us.’
‘Ah spect ya gotta git thar a’fore six that evenin’ ta git a weddin’ performed. An’ tha stage doan git thar till six. Can’t count on none a’that, though.’
‘I suppose. It doesn’t matter. I’ll need to get away before there’s any marriage.’
‘Yep, jest a’cogitatin’. This here Lendal’s likely ta be a’wantin’ ta git t’over prompt like. He ain’t havin’ a minister do it, t’is he? Cause they kin do a service ana time.” She knew he and the minister could both be waiting when they arrived.
‘I don’t know. My father doesn’t tell me anything. Can’t I get away before then?’
‘Ahl gitcha away, doancha worry none. There ain’t gonna be no weddin’.”
“Thank goodness.”
“It ain’t mah first plan, but if’n Lendal T’IS thar when we done ar’ive, here’s what Ah wancha ta do: Ahl commence a di-version that’ll git ’em all involved. Ya grabs yer bag an’ skeedattle ta the BACK a’ the ho-tel. Chambermaids gots an entrance ‘n the back most times. From thar go ta the street ‘n cross ta the next. Than head from thar fast’s ya kin down ta the river. Train passenger station’s thar. Look fer the smoke a them steamships moored ta the river a’hind the station. T’is on Front–’bout two blocks maybe. Run. If ‘n ya cain’t git ahold a yer bag, grab mine. Ya need ta have a traveling bag with’n ya and it doan rightly matter whose.’
‘I go down the street to the train station by the river?’
‘Yep. Ahl keep ’em all busy but first yus git ta whar ya ain’t seed none bah the ho-tel. Then run quick as ya kin. Find the Lieutenant and have ‘im help ya se-cure passage ta San Francisca. If’n ya cain’t find ‘im right quick, look fer that thar mysterious woman an’ her servant. Tha’ll help ya. They outta be thar, too. Are yer savin’s easy ta git ta?’
‘No, they’re sewn in my petticoats. I had to hide them.’
‘All right,’ Gaine stretched over, fumbled in the semi-dark and grabbed her pants from atop her bag. She dug in her pocket and brought out a few bills and dropped the pants back. ‘I’ve coaxed me out a little savin’s. An’ since’t yer dress buttons n’ the front, here’s a peck to keep in yer, uh..’ she glanced at what she could see of the intense young woman’s serious face and moved her hand to between her own breasts, ‘yer, uh,’ her eyes went to the young woman’s full, round bosom under the light material of her bedshirt and the cleavage between, ‘uh, thar–whar ya kin git ta it right quick with’n yer Pa none the wiser.’
Gaine could feel the blush rise in her face although the young woman was nodding seriously. ‘Here, take mah shot bag and tuck’t, uh, thar.’ The brunette grabbed her vest, emptied her bag of coins and jammed the loose change back in her vest pocket, dropping it back on her bag. She placed the bills in the bag and handed it to the blonde, folding the blonde’s fingers over it in the darkened room.
‘What do I do in San Francisco?’ Meghan asked, her green eyes wide.
‘Haf tha Lieutenant register ya ta the Occidental Ho-tel. Ah ain’t been thar but Ah heared t’is nice. That’s why ya need ta have a travelin’ bag. They’s gonna think poorly a ya if’n ya ain’t got no luggage. There’s ’nuff fundin’ thar fer the train an’ a couple nights ta the ho-tel. Register under the name a’,’ Gaine mulled over names she’d remember, ‘Bea Silver’.’ She smiled, ”nuther cousin.’
‘All right. Then what?’
‘Then Minnie and me, we’ll come thar ta gitcha. If’n we doan make’t tha next day, stay ‘nuther night. We’ll be thar. Remind the Lieutenant that Ah ‘spect him ta behave like a well-mannered gentleman an’ not ta take advantage a ya in eny way.’ An in fact, Ah kill ‘im if’n he touches ya.
The blonde smiled at that. ‘I’ll tell him,’ she smiled. ‘I wouldn’t let him take advantage of me, anyway. What if Lendal’s not there when we arrive?’
‘Then we’ll use mah main plan. We’ll hafta play’t close, but t’will work.’ She thought for a minute, ‘If’n yer stayin’ ta the ho-tel ‘n Sacramenta and Ahm a’makin’ that thar assumption, they might have ya share yer room with ‘nuther woman. ‘Specially if’n thar busy. Gettin’ by ‘er could be a problem. But it doan matter. We’ll work ’round it. Ahl have ya come ta our room once’t yer Pa’s convinced yer sleepin’. Yu’ll git a dress from Cousin Minnie a’for she heads ta the next stage stop. Yer first job’ll be ta make yer Pa think yer doin’ ever’thin’ he’s a’wantin’ so’s he lets down his guard some.’
‘How will we, uh, I, uh, get away then? And where will I go?’ Now she was chewing her lip in earnest. Gaine took her hand.
‘Ah gots a notion, but Ah needs ta ponder on’t a spell more. Wouldja mind livin’ ta a ranch?’
‘No, not at all. I’d love it. I’ve always wanted to live on a ranch.’ Emerald eyes locked onto soft blue and the tall brunette found herself falling into the green pools. Gaine mentally shook herself loose and gently placed the young woman’s hand back on the coverlid. She looked away.
‘Doancha worry none, we’ll gitcha away an’ make shore yer well took care a.’
That sounded completely impersonal. ‘Oh.’ Meghan’s shoulders drooped at the words and she looked at the tall woman beside her in confusion. ‘I thought…uh, I know it’s a lot to ask, and if it can’t be done I’ll be thankful to get away, but….’
Gaine wrinkled her brow, ‘Whatsa matter, Meg? Ain’t this watcha wanted?’
‘Yes, but, uh, is there a chance I could stay with you?’ Her hand went to her blonde hair and she rumpled it pensively. You feel it, too. I know you do, troubled green eyes pleaded, I know it’s not just me.
‘Yep. That t’war what Ah war a’ponderin’.’
‘Oh, thank you, Gaine.’ The young woman again threw her arms around the surprised tall woman’s neck. Liquid fire shot through the tall beauty. “I want to be with you,’ Meghan sighed, hugging tight.
‘Ya does?’ Gaine froze except for her heart which began to pound furiously.
‘I…I do.’ Meghan looked shyly at the tall brunette. ‘Unless you don’t want…’ She began to draw back from the embrace.
‘No, no, Ah does.’ Gaine nodded her head and pulled the small blonde back into the embrace. ‘Ah does,’ she repeated as they both wrapped their arms around the other. Gaine shut her eyes and it was as though her heart knew that she had waited a lifetime for this. All those things in life she had thought were important became unimportant in the blink of an eye. And something she had never considered suddenly became of supreme importance. Meghan. ‘Ah does wanna be with’n ya.’
‘I missed you today,’ Meghan replied softly.
‘Did yer Pa hurt ya a’tall afta Ah left?’ Gaine held Meghan out at arm’s length and looked her over. ‘Ah swear, Ahl kill that man if’n he touch…’
‘No,’ Meghan moved back till her face was against Gaine’s shoulder. ‘No, he didn’t hurt me. I just missed you.’
‘He better not,’ Gaine clenched her teeth then ran her hand soothingly down Meghan’s back. ‘Ah missed ya, too.’ She pulled Meghan back into a closer embrace. They stayed entwined for a few minutes and Gaine added, ‘Ah din’t e’en dare look ta ya much taday. Warn’t cause Ah din’t wanna. Ah shorely did. But Ah din’t want ta make ‘im ‘spicious. Ah doan wan ‘im thinkin’ bout us bein’ tagather a’tall.’
‘I know, Gaine,’ Meghan replied. ‘And I trust you. So tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Just get us away someplace where they can’t find us.’
‘Yep. Ah will. Ah promise.’ They stayed in the embrace for a few minutes as Gaine gently rubbed Meghan’s back. ‘Uh, Ah reckon we outta go o’er ar plans afore we git ta tired.’
‘Yes.’ Meghan pulled out of the embrace then looked down at the shot bag still in her hand. She gave it a small toss and it landed on her case beside the brush.
‘Good toss,’ Gaine grinned. Then her face got serious. ‘Ah war thinkin’ that if’n Minnie’s clothes doan fit ya a’tall, we gotta have sumthin’ t’uther fer yas ta wear. Does ya gots a t’uther dress? One yer Pa ain’t gonna recognize sa easy? Doan need’t till we git thar.’
‘I have a new one my mother made me before I left.” Meghan folded her hands in her lap on top of the coverlid. “She didn’t know it was going to be my wedding dress, it was just a new calico dress that I needed. I don’t believe father’s even seen it. He never pays attention to anything she does unless he doesn’t like it.’
‘So’s yer Ma done packed it fer ya? He din’t see it.’
‘Father never does any packing. Mother did it. And she told me about it when I hugged her goodbye and she gave me her gloves. She said at least I had a new dress as a wedding dress and old gloves to remember her by. She was crying the whole time. Poor Momma. She said for me to be very careful and follow every one of Lendal’s instruction. It’s the only time I ever remember seeing her cry in front of father. She only has Murphy and Reggie left at home now.’
‘Mmm. All right, thar’s two things Ah wancha ta do tamorra.’
‘All right.’ Serious green eyes lifted to Gaine’s face. Meghan fully intended to do everything needed for her escape! And she’d do them as perfectly as she could!
‘Ah wancha ta watch that thar mysterious woman with’n the veil. Watch ever’thin’ ’bout her, study her…how she done moves, how she maneuvers with’n her hands and how she talks, ever’thin’. Then later on Ahl wancha ta tell me what ya seen.’
Meghan blinked. That was strange. ‘All right. You want to know about the woman in the veil..the old lady?’
‘Yep. Then Ah wancha ta sorta pass yer time with’n tha Lieutenant, if’n ya catch mah meanin’. I doan wan yer Pa ta strike ya none, er harm ya, I jest wancha ta afford the Lieutenant the im-pression that yer mighty edified ta’ve made his acquaintance. Jest a bit. Well, actually if’n yer Pa t’were ta ponder on’t, too, t’wouldn’t hurt. Long as he doan hurtcha none. T’is hard, Meghan, Ah know, but doan go sa far that he done hurts ya. Cause Ahl kill ‘im, if’n he do.’
‘I can try.’ Earnest emerald eyes flicked up beneath thick lashes and barely visible freckles. She would do it! Her father was very difficult in that regard, but she’d find some way to do it. ‘But be patient if he does strike me, Gaine.’
‘Ah ain’t gonna be. He done used that chance up.’
‘Gaine?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Gaine looked over innocently.
‘Trust me on this, please? If I should go too far and he does strike me, I want you to leave it alone and keep on with our plan. Our plan is the most important thing of all. I’ll be all right. Promise me you will.’ There was fire in her eyes mixed with innocence–a deadly combination, Gaine reflected. Gaine’s stomach clenched anew. Dear heavens, her heart sang, this woman is unbelievably beautiful! An Ah done be’s some hapless moth ta that thar lily-white flame a hers.
‘Promise?’ Meghan repeated.
‘Meghan, please, Ah…’ Gaine began.
‘No. Promise me, Gaine.’ Then her eyes softened. ‘Please? For me?’
Gaine looked away in frustration.
‘Please?’ Meghan waited for Gaine to look back then fluttered her eyelashes.
Gaine began to chuckle. ‘Ah doan wanna, but Ah reckon if’n Ah gotta, Ah t’will. But Ah doan wanna.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Mmm.’ Gaine grumbled then sighed heavily. ‘Well, ah reckon we outta git some sleep. We’ll be a’leavin’ right early ta the mornin’ ag’in.’
Meghan reached over and quickly kissed Gaine on the cheek. ‘Thank you.’ They both settled back on their own sides. Gaine missed the warmth of the small blonde next to her more than she ever thought was possible. She shut her eyes. She’d ached to be near her all day and there was comfort in having her nearby but it wasn’t the same as holding her.
‘Gaine?’ the blonde’s whisper was quiet in the darkened room.
‘Umhum.’
‘Would you….I mean, this is all so overwhelming. I, uh, get frightened. My stomach’s doing flips. Would you mind…’
‘T’is all gonna be fine, Meghan. T’would it help if’n Ah whar ta hold ya?’
‘Yes, please.’
‘Shore. C’mon.’ Within seconds Gaine felt the small blonde wrap her arms around her and snuggle into her arms. How had her life ever gotten along without this? The brunette’s large hands gently rubbed the blonde’s back, not allowing her tall body to pay attention to the warm firm hips now pressed against her and the soft round tantalizing swell of breasts under the thin gown.
“Mmm,” the small blonde hummed. “You smell good…like lavender.”
“Ah does?” Gaine glanced down. Thanky, Betsy. She smiled to herself, pleased that she had taken the time to scrub at the washbasin with Betsy’s soap. Safe and content in each other’s arms, they soon fell sound asleep.
The room was still dark when the tall brunette’s eyes opened to a now familiar weight. She knew it was time to arise. She felt the legs twined with her own and smiled. Meghan. Sweet Meghan. It felt wonderful. Tomorrow at this time – she forced her mind away. She dared not think that yet. One step at a time. She wanted nothing to hex their plans. Too many improbabilities could happen.
‘Don’t move. It’s too early,’ a sleep deepened voice threatened. Green eyes, however, had not opened yet.
‘T’is time, Meghan,’ Gaine whispered. ‘They’ll be a’ringin’ that thar bell soon. If’n’ ya wanna wash up er use the, uh, little house in back ‘stead a the chamber pot, you’ll hafta wake up.’
‘Don’t want to,’ the voice pouted.
Gaine chuckled. ‘Ah know, kitten, but t’is time.’
Sleepy green eyes opened on that and gazed up at Gaine. She called me ‘Kitten’! She did not scurry over to her own side but laid looking at the tall beauty.
‘You’re wonderful, Gaine,’ she whispered.
‘And you’re gonna be late if’n we ain’t up soon,’ Gaine grinned, touching her on the nose. “Ah seen how long ya takes ta dress.” The brunette reluctantly pulled out of the embrace and swung her long legs out of bed.
‘All right, all right.’ The young woman ruffled a hand through her blonde tresses and yawned. She stretched then looked seriously at the woman now sitting on the edge of the bed shaking out her clothes. Her stomach clenched. It was almost time! ‘I wish we were away from them,’ she said nervously.
‘Soon ’nuff,’ the tall brunette agreed with a soft smile.
“I’ll do my part, Gaine,” she said seriously, moving to where she could lean against the tall woman, her cheek on Gaine’s upper arm, her hand on the brunette’s back and rubbing a circle. “Whatever you say, I’ll do. I’ll even fight if I have to.”
Gaine looked down at her in surprise, “Ah shorely hope ya ain’t gonna hafta!”
“But I will, if necessary. I wanted you to know that.” She stopped rubbing and sat upright, “I’m not planning to be a helpless woman. I don’t believe in that. I’ll do my part.”
A small smile twitched at the brunette’s lips. “Ahm shore ya will, Meggy,” Gaine agreed.
Gaine lit the candle and noted the wilting flower. The small blonde reached her feet to the floor. Gaine stood to give her room. Meghan arose robotically and started making the bed, only catching herself when she had a pillow in her hands to fluff. “I did it again,” she mumbled and they both chuckled.
“It ain’t a bad habit ta have,” Gaine encouraged. “Ahm shore theys ‘preciate it.”
Meghan blushed. They were partially dressed when the hostler rang the bell.
“You’re wearing a clean shirt?” Meghan asked as the tall woman took out her clean faded maroon homespun shirt and shook it out. It looked exactly like the shirt she had worn the day before except that it was maroon and was clean.
“Uh, Ah dunno. Thunk maybe Ah would,” she wasn’t sure she should. It was the only clean shirt she had. She wouldn’t be riding next to the young blonde all day and there was no chance they’d be sitting next to each other at any meal.
“Oh,” Meghan replied, pulling on her corset.
“But now Ah thinks on it, Ah might save it till Minnie gets here.” She missed Meghan’s grimace at her comment.
Gaine rolled the shirt and put it back in her bag. She grabbed her used blue shirt and shook it out. Surely there’d be basins in each room at the hotel in Sacramento and she could wash up before her cousin even arrived. She still had Betsy’s soap. And they usually had bathing rooms with tubs at the end of each hall, though she may not have time for that.
“Would you help me with this?” Meghan asked.
Gaine took a breath and brought her fingers to Meghan’s corset, her hands shaking a little less this time. She had the greatest urge to slip her arms around the small waist and plant a soft kiss on the girl’s neck, but instead she hurriedly helped. “We’ll hafta make shore we ain’t takin’ undue notice a’ one t’uther taday,” she whispered. “T’is important. So doan be offended none.”
“I understand,” Megan said seriously. “Don’t turn your back on him.”
“Right.” Gaine watched the blonde take the wilting flower and place it with the shot bag in her cleavage. She’s a’keepin’ mah flower, she thought with pleasure as she stepped into the hall before the small blonde was fully dressed.
She glanced up to see the blonde’s father barreling down toward their room. She put a firm, noncommittal look on her face. He was not supposed to be in the ladies’ end. He brushed past her without comment. She paused to make sure he would not do Meghan harm, but he merely banged on the door and demanded that she “damn well better hurry up”.
Gaine moved into the dining area and sat with the same group, the wrangler sitting across from her. The Lieutenant hadn’t arrived yet.
They all watched Meghan and her father enter the room. He was more rough than ever, harshly yanking her by the arm and demanding her continued submission to his growled demands.
Gaine’s brows furrowed and her fists clenched at his actions. He needed to unhand Meghan! Green eyes lifted her way for just a second before moving back downward. Volumes were telegraphed in that quick look, reminding Gaine of the patience she’d promised. The tall beauty knew Meghan was all right and also knew she had to ignore this man’s actions for now.
The older man’s glance moved to Gaine, his chin lifted and she noted that his cruel pale grey-green eyes had exchanged some of their ever present sullenness. In their place was outright impertinence. What was he up to? She would deal with him, but she dared not do it too soon. His memory tended to be very short and she wanted him remembering well when they got to Sacramento.
It was clear he was well lubricated this particular morning with animosity and rancor. Gaine wondered if it was because the man he’d paid had left without fulfilling his bargain. She wondered who he’d spent the night with last night and if he’d entered any bargains then. She’d forgotten to ask Meghan. Hang on, sweet Meghan, she thought, not much longer!
The faces of the hosteler and his wife along with the driver and Conductor were all pale as they seriously stood talking near the entrance. With them was a dusty man who was breathing heavily.
It wasn’t long before both tables were buzzing with the news. The southbound stage had been robbed! They had ambushed the people at their night station and had seriously wounded two of them along with the Conductor of that stage. They’d stolen all the horses, taken everything from the express box, robbed all the passengers and headed out on the fly.
A posse was being formed and some of the men from their stage were offering their services. The fact that the outlaws had harmed unarmed people was blatant proof of their obduration. The posse would have to use what horses and tack they could get. Gaine clenched her jaw. She dared not go, much as she yearned to. It was something she always did, but this time she had Cousin Minnie and Meghan to think about.
“You going?” the Lieutenant asked as he sat beside her.
“Cain’t,” Gaine replied. “Wish’t Ah could, but Ah gotta get mah Cousin Minnie. What ’bout you?”
“No. The Army doesn’t allow that unless we’re under orders. None of the boys will be in the posse.”
“You a’goin’?” Gaine asked the wrangler across from her.
“Not this time,” the young man replied without looking up from his plate and she wondered if there ever had been a time that he had been in a posse. Or was he, perhaps, on the other side of the posse question?
The Lieutenant leaned closer to Gaine. “Badly wounded three men and stole all the horses. One man shot…in the back. That’s what that fellow was telling me. I talked to him outside before they rang the bell. I, uh, took the last guard duty instead of William or Ezekial. Guess we were real lucky to have you on top yesterday. Likely it was their group that you scared away with your shot.”
“Dunno. Shore hope they catch them buzzards!”
“Yes. And string them up!” The Lieutenant added, his eyes hardening.
“Amen ta that!” Gaine replied. She glanced over at Meghan and her father and noticed that the old man’s face appeared more somber than the last time he’d looked their way. It replaced some of his normal surliness. Maybe the news a’ innocent folks gettin’ serious wounded sobered him up some, Gaine thought.
The morning air was already thick and heavy with no breeze to ruffle the torpid summer heat. Everyone spoke in whispers as they moved outside. This time it was not because of the serenity of the dawn but the severity of the news.
The stage was delayed while they watched the volunteers mount up, some riding bareback, to follow the dusty man out of the station on the tear as they headed back down the road toward the southbound stage.
“Think they’ll catch ’em?” the Lieutenant asked cautiously.
Gaine frowned, “Dunno. Sounds like them buzzards got theyselfs a right big headstart. Reckon it depends on who they got trackin’ and which direction them hombres head. If’n they done split up, then t’is an even worse trial.”
“Sounds like you know a little about this.”
“I’ve been on mah share a’ posses.”
“You don’t say?”
“Yep.”
Gaine was glad she wouldn’t be riding inside the carriage and fervently wished Meghan could be joining her atop. She glanced inside the coach and caught the blonde’s eye. The young woman’s gaze was tinged with mixed emotions–puzzlement, fear, hope, anticipation. Obviously the news of the attacked stage had added discontent to everyone including her. Again their look lingered only a minute before the blonde’s eyes dropped to her lap, her face solemn.
Gaine saw the mystery lady and her aide hastily heading toward the coach, the boys in blue toting their bags. Betsy had a firm hand on the other woman’s elbow, aiding the apparently enfeebled lady up the stairs and into the coach. Then she quietly climbed in behind past the drummer on the bench, who moved his legs to give them room to pass. The railroad men had joined the posse and were gone but two older gentlemen from the other stage had taken their place.
Their last day. Anticipation of journey’s end had been totally overcome by the news of a stage being robbed and people being seriously hurt. The luggage was quickly loaded. Soberly the tall rancher climbed aboard. Everyone was quiet but she could feel the tired anticipation of the travelers.
The grim-faced men on top nodded to her this morning, a silent accord for her watchfulness from the day before. Where the night before some might have thought her shot a nervous reaction to some paranoid worries, today they knew she had most likely kept their stage from being the victim of what happened to the southbound stage. And they all appreciated that, all but one businessman who grumbled, “How’d ya know they were out there? Are ya in with ’em?”
Others muttered in opposition to the man’s words. Gaine stopped in place and bore her cold blue eyes into the man. “Ah most assuredly ain’t! Ah seen somethin’ an Ah shot. If’n Ahda known t’war them, Ahda shot ta kill ‘n make no question a that. So’s git them raggedy ideas a’ your’n clean outta yer mind.”
“He didn’t mean nothin’, Gaine,” the Conductor pacified. “We’s all a mite touchy this mornin’.”
Gaine said nothing but continued back. “Ya done good, Gaine,” someone called and the others murmured their agreement. She stepped between two seated men who smiled encouragingly at her as she made her way back.
Gaine seated herself on an empty seat in the last row, the puncher still behind her in the luggage. Her eyes went to the peaks of the distant mountains as the dawn exploded over the tops, tingeing the tips of the world around them with liquid gilding. Within minutes it was as though the hand of a colorist had swathed the landscape with watercolor, dabbling one color here and another there, letting them run together to make even more nuances of color.
The horses sprang to life, wrenching the coach away from their night’s lodging. The men’s eyes ran like hawks over the panorama. Gaine checked each direction herself then settled back.
Over the next section the road again began its gradual curving climb. Rocky outcroppings dotted the hillsides along with golden grass, more oaks and occasional pines. Gaine soberly mulled over the events ahead.
She stayed on top at the first horse change though the young puncher hopped down and moved into the brush as did the old man. The Lieutenant stood outside the coach and looked up. She smiled at him. She eyed the scenery dispassionately as they rode on again with fresh steeds. Was Meghan all right? Gaine hated not being able to watch over her but it was time for discretion; no one must suspect they were planning anything.
She saw the lone bedraggled house by the river as they approached. Five vaqueros were there herding a group of half-wild mustangs onto the ferry run by a pipe smoking Yankee and his cigarritos smoking wife. The woman worked as well in skirts as any of the men did in trousers and smoked as industriously as did her husband. While they waited, Gaine scowled at the derogatory remarks muttered around her regarding the Mexican horsemen, whose skill was nothing short of remarkable to watch.
At last the ferry came back and took them across and they were again on their way. The next swingstation was in a small hillside village of about a dozen families. Majestic oaks added charm to the spot and many ditches carried water from the mountain streams above that were now used for irrigation. The talk was of a small tribe of Indians native to the area that were in town to hold some kind of peaceful ceremony nearby at one of their “sacred spots”. Indian troubles in this particular area was rare these days.
Gaine knew some of the tribal members. She had worked with some as wranglers and her father had bought some horses from them at one time. She considered them friends and hoped to spot them again. She watched but didn’t see them. She hopped down for a minute but went right back up on top with only a quick glance toward Meghan and her father before waving to the Lieutenant.
The road became more traveled and bumpy, bouncing the taller inside passengers perilously close to the stage roof. The other cart wheels had cut the roads into dust filled gullies where the stage wheels would plunge before joggling out again. At one spot as they wound down one golden hill and up the next a panoramic view of the large valley floor below opened and Gaine could see smoke from a train chugging far off in the distance going the same direction as they.
Thar’s the death a’ this here stage, Gaine grumbled to herself. Once the tracks were completed, there’d be no stopping progress. She shook her head but allowed herself no further grumpiness. Instead she went back to once again contemplating her plans for Meghan’s escape. She just knew Cousin Minnie would be a big help and would find her part a thrilling adventure.
The next river to cross was in another fairly populated old mining town but this one had a fine wooden covered bridge. After that the road turned downward again and apple orchards appeared on both sides. Farms arose here and there and wagons and riders began to appear on the roads.
At every other horse change now at least one passenger was waiting. Some climbed on top, one a lady in a cumbersome dress. Because a few of the non-Army men on top had joined the posse, seats were available. At one stop the drummer inside got off, but new drummers were there to take his place. The empty spots filled rapidly with more getting on than getting off.
Was Meghan all right? Gaine hopped down, took a quick glance and strolled off.
Gaine climbed back on top then moved in amongst the luggage by the puncher to give the others climbing aboard some room. The faces had changed and it left an almost melancholy feel for Gaine. She had no idea why. She hadn’t really known any of the disembarking passengers and hadn’t even spoken to some of them. At least Meghan was all right. So far, anyway.
Meghan sat inside worrying. Her stomach was in an uproar. Normally ravenous, she was glad she’d eaten little at breakfast. Her father had been ranting to those inside about Gaine and she was powerless to stop him. She pressed her fingers to her bosom and prayed that the tall brunette wouldn’t turn her back on him. She knew her life was about to change greatly and she prayed she managed to do everything correctly. If not, it could all end badly.
They stopped for noon dinner at a very pretty mining town that had grown from a rich placer region. Ditches miles long brought water from mountain streams, once to wash gold but now, as was often the case, used for irrigation. A picturesque white steepled church nestled beside a hillside cemetery. Many town miners had left but other folks had moved in with a few empty houses still standing sentinel among those occupied. They ate inside the dusky plank-floored building that’d once been a rip-roaring dance hall.
The Lieutenant searched Gaine out and the two of them joined their usual crowd at the end of one of the tables. At first the conversation centered around the stage holdup. Then it switched.
‘Meghan’s father’s getting really bad,’ lines of consternation etched the Lieutenant’s forehead.
Gaine sat up straight, “Did he strike his daughter agin’?” Her hand went to her gun but she removed it when her eyes went to the small blonde who sat with downcast eyes.
‘No. About you, I meant. He’s said some horrible things about a woman daring to hit him and has even made outright threats against you. And he has the new passengers who don’t know what happened paying close attention and agreeing.’
The mystery woman and her companion nodded in agreement.
Gaine saw Meghan was all right and relaxed. ‘Oh, yes?’ she asked pleasantly. She was sitting across from the mystery lady but between the cowhand and the Lieutenant this time. The puncher looked on in puzzlement.
‘Ya speaking ’bout that fat old son of a…’ the cowhand looked at the warning look in Betsy’s eyes, ‘..uh, tinker? Ya mean he’s been a’jawin’ regardin’ Gaine here?’
Gaine grinned. “Ah swatted him one on the forehead fer backhandin’ his daughter. An’ Ah shot off the end of his ceegar when he warn’t gonna stop a’smoking.”
The puncher laughed. “I heard ’em jawin’ ’bout that! They was sayin’ it musta’ been one helluva..” he looked at the frown on Betsy’s face, “uh, one hullabaloo uv a shot. Shore wish’t I’d a’seed it!”
All eyes looked where the man and his daughter were eating at the far end by an elderly man in a wig. Meghan flashed a quick, nervous look their way and Gaine smiled what she hoped was a comforting, confident look in response then turned her attention to her plate.
‘Yes,’ the Lieutenant replied then turned to Gaine, ‘He’s bragging again about how he’ll have you thrown in jail when you get to Sacramento for hitting and threatening him. There are outlaws such as you everywhere, he’s maintained, and he’s said a woman like you is as bad as any man. He says you need to be disciplined, perhaps smacked in the face hard a number of times to teach you a lesson. But some time in jail would work just as well. It’s a moral man’s duty, he said and he claims he’s just the man to make it happen.’
‘A woman like me, huh?’ she grinned.
‘That’s what he said,’ the Lieutenant replied. He had no smile, just lines of worry. ‘Anytime I stood up for you, he reminded me that he was going to speak to my Commander.’
‘Well, he jest might encounter more a’ what kinda lariat a woman like me whirls than he’d ever like ta know ’bout,’ she muttered, putting her attention on what was supposed to pass as food. She studied the meat on her fork carefully, musing aloud if it was something long-tailed found scuttling through the cooking area.
The others chuckled but looked carefully at their own food. Then Gaine examined the dead flies lying legs up in what was supposed to be a kind of gravy. She fingered a biscuit and muttered how she figured one could knock over a bull at fifty paces by lobbing these missiles at him. Others chuckled. She finished what she could of her meal.
‘But he ain’t struck his daughter agin?’ Gaine asked, sneaking a look but the blonde woman was no longer looking their way.
‘He hasn’t hit her again, but he’s growled at her pretty constantly and jerked her arm hard a couple of times.’
Gaine got very quiet, then she talked in a low voice, ‘All right. Ahl take care a’ the sitjeation.’ She wiped her moist brow on her sleeve. Lord, it was sticky hot already. Today was going to be a scorcher. ‘Ahl shore be happy ta see mah Cousin Minnie and not hafta see that jackass agin. His ole heehaw ain’t a’fadin’ o’er the horizon none ta soon fer me!’
The Lieutenant laughed. ‘Yes. It’s a shame his daughter has to stay with him.’
‘Mmm,’ Gaine replied. She looked at her meal. ‘Where da ya ‘spose they got these here victuals?’
‘I think they’re old condemned Army castoffs, to tell you the truth,’ he replied. Specks on his food had been cut off and pushed to the side of his plate as well.
‘Think we could engage usn’s some butler type fella ta present these here servin’s ta the owner a’ this here stage line an’ tag ’em as “supper”? Ya know, under a silver dome an all.’ She leaned closer and said brazenly, ‘And be mindful ta serve them dead flies fer an accompaniment.” She pointed at them with her fork.
The Lieutenant laughed again. ‘I like the way you think.’
‘Well, you’d really love the way Cousin Minnie and Ah thinks when we gits tagather. She’d take them flies, mix ’em with rice n’ molasses n’ serve it right up ta ’em as fancy rice puddin’ with raisons. Put it right out in grandma’s fine china, she would.”
Gaine thought for a minute, “Actually,’ she barked a laugh, ‘we done jest that ta ar older brothers oncet. We made real puddin’ fer the family an’ a small special batch fer them boys.’ Then her face became more serious. ‘Flies n’ bugs doan hold up particular well ‘n cookin’, what with all the stirrin’ an’ such. But theys still bees dark specks. Them boys thunk it truly war raisons fer the first bite till one kicked its legs. Then they couldn’t spit that thar puddin’ far ’nuff.’ She chuckled. ‘Lordy, the hogs had theyselfs a little sweet treat that day!”
“You get paddled?”
“Oh,yeah. Ar momma’s done been terrible wrathful cause, natur’lly, doan nobody got ’nuff ta waste no food. We had ta give our’n ta them boys an’ we still done got arselfs paddled.’ She grinned, “but we war used ta it.”
‘Your Cousin Minnie sounds like a first class rascal! I’m quite sure one would need to survey carefully anything she served to eat,’ the Lieutenant laughed.
‘Yep, best watch careful if’n she be’s annoyed ta ya-least she useta be one snappy little rapscallion. Ah shore hope she still t’is. Seems like, in ‘er letters.’
“Your brothers sound mischievous, too,’ the mystery woman said in a deep, shaking voice, and all eyes went to her. She rarely spoke. She let her head tremble a little as an older person might do without knowing it.
Nice touch, Gaine thought. ‘Oh, yes, ma’am. Both hers an’ mine. They war all older and war al’ays a’troublin’ us little girls. Most war bigger an’ stronger an’ they’d try an’ make us scream, only Ahd never scream. Minnie, now, she war right talented at it. They’d hold us by ar feet over that thar pig waller and threaten ta drop us in an’ the like lest ar parents stopped ’em.’
‘The one you girls fell into in your new Easter dresses?’ the Lieutenant asked with a twinkle in his eye.
‘Yep, the very one. But we got ’em. One time we war out a’workin’ durin’ brandin’ season and Cousin Minnie and me, well, we al’ays ariss first. Them boys got frightful annoyed cause the two a’ us’d get to Big Joe’s cook wagon a’fore they would an’ eat most a’ the bacon. He thunk we war cuter ‘n kittens in a basket and he’d let us have ar fill. So them boys threatened us and badgered us and told us if we din’t wake ’em up when we got up, we’d be right sorry.’
‘What’d ya do?’ the puncher asked.
‘Well, one a’ the hands had shot this here skunk that war a’troubling Big Joe some, so’s we got us a rope ’round the carcass…oh, great post-holes. That thar fragrance war somethin’ frightful. Anyways, we got on Bobby, he’s the old gelding Millie an’ me rode tagather on all the time, and we loped along draggin’ that thar dead polecat right over them sleepin’ lumps ‘n their hotrolls. You ain’t never seen young fellas move like they done. They flew up out a thar like thar behinds war a’fire. Millie n’ me, we still laugh at that. She wrote me ’bout it not long ago askin’ if’n Ah ‘membered.’
‘What happened then?’ the cowhand asked, wide-eyed. ‘It ain’t easy gettin’ that unhappy bouquet outta nothing.’
‘No, it ain’t! An’ we got lickin’s, a’ course,’ she smiled, ‘But, oh t’war it worth it.’
Everyone chuckled then the Lieutenant looked out the door. ‘Looks like they’re loading up,’ he finished the coffee in his own tin cup, shook it, attached it to his belt, stood and assisted her as she got up from the bench. She stopped herself from brushing away the hand he had placed on her elbow. She was in polite society, after all, and he was just being polite. ‘Back to listening to the windbag. Gods, I miss your stories.’ he added.
‘I’ll snare ‘im ta the next swing station when theys swap them hosses if’n he disembarks. He al’ays does ta the stop subsequential ta eatin’ noon meal.’
‘He does, huh?’ the officer commented. ‘I’ve never noticed.’
‘Ah have,’ she said quietly. Ahv done noticed more’n he thinks, she added to herself. “By the way,” she continued, “Ya know that thar little tin cup ya al’ays pack ’round with’n ya?” She pointed to the beat-up cup on his belt.
“My cup?” the Lieutenant questioned, unhooking the item in question. “It’s not much of anything. Pretty beaten up. I need to get a new one.”
“Yep. That ‘un. Would ya sell it ta me?”
“No,” he said, and she raised a brow. “I’ll give it to you with my regards.” His face took on a huge smile and he handed the item to her with a short bow.
“Preciate it,” she replied as she took the cup. It was quite beaten and had obviously gathered considerable wear. She unbuttoned the belly buttons on her shirt and stuffed it inside, rebuttoning it again.
They climbed back into their places, the rotund man shooting acrimonious looks her way until he climbed inside the coach and withdrew his watch with a scowl. From on top she saw smoke tendrils rise moments later as they emerged from the stagecoach window before the driver even cracked his whip, and she knew the blonde’s father was smoking his cigars inside again.
‘Thunder and lightnin’,’ the young man in uniform near her stated as they both observed the smoke rising from inside the coach, ‘that man’s a case. You’d think he was a King or a Sultan or something. We sat by him at lunch and he was all puffed up. Yep, thinks he’s some kinda potent..tate or something.’
‘Yep, but he ain’t,’ she replied, becoming more angry as she thought of the man and the smoke he was exposing Meghan to. She didn’t want to be goaded into something she didn’t really want to do, nor did she want to spend time explaining anything she had done to some Sacramento Marshal. But avoiding the man was not going to be feasible. Planting the seed of fear in Meghan’s father’s miserable little mind was the best solution she could think of to back him down. And she was ready.
The next stop was a swing station between towns. They pulled up on the fly then came to a quick halt. There was only one new passenger and he climbed up on top as soon as they stopped. The fresh horses were already set to be exchanged.
A farm sat on the opposite side of the road, planted in drills of carrots and on the stage side was an orchard of various fruit trees they had passed coming in. Amongst the trees were scattered two orange trees, one with large ripe oranges, particularly near the top. The orchard ran behind the corral and on up the road. There were few signs of humans other than those working with the horses and the people from the coach.
“Doan them oranges look good?” Gaine remarked loudly to those on top. “That’n, right up thar near the top.” She pointed and several of the men looked at the orange in question a fair number of yards back down the road. The citrus sat near the top of the tree and seemed to stand out from the others. It was much larger than most and was a nice ripe shade of orange.
“Taste mighty good about now,” one fellow remarked and Gaine smiled in return.
Gaine dug out the cup and handed it to the puzzled cowpuncher beside her. “See that thar last corral post on up the road ’bout three er four hundert yards er so?”
“Yep,” he replied.
“When Ah signal ya, Ahd shore ‘preciate it if’n ya’d lope on down thar an’ sit this here cup a’top’t.
“The last post? Way down thar?” He started to rise and she put a hand on his shoulder.
“Yep. That ‘un. But wait till Ah signal, if’n ya would. Ahl point ta it.”
He nodded in reply and settled back. She left her rifle and jumped down as the young woman’s father climbed out of the coach with a series of grunts. He was followed by all the other men from inside, leaving only the three ladies seated within. All but Meghan’s father lit up their clay pipes, cigarettes and cigars.
She moved to where the Lieutenant had alighted and was standing watching. “Keep ‘im back, if’n ya would,” she said to the Lieutenant. She tipped her head in the direction of the Conductor, who was climbing down as well. “An may Ah borry one a’ yer gloves fer a short spell? Ain’t gonna harm it none.”
The Lieutenant nodded in return, peeled off and handed her one glove and headed toward the Conductor. He felt the same thrill he got when riding into an unknown situation. She was going to confront this repugnant man and he could hardly wait.
The heavy man had taken a shovel and was gone into the orchard. Out of politeness, no one looked in that direction. Gaine called to the cow puncher, “Toss me down mah rifle when Ah point up, all right?” The men smoking watched her critically. They knew what the older man had said. They also heard she’d kept their stage from being robbed. They weren’t entirely sure what to think but they all agreed, they did not approve of her unwomanly choice of apparel at all.
“Shore,” the young fellow called back to Gaine.
She took out her Colt, emptied the bullets, fiddled with some from her belt then carefully reloaded. She kicked the dust a little waiting for the man’s return.
Meghan watched the tall brunette out the window. She was so remarkable. Her moves were lithe and powerful, sure and confident. She was a warrior, through and through and undoubtedly was the most appealing one ever seen on this side of the world. She was tall, absolutely gorgeous and sported lethal blue eyes.
Gaine spotted her prey heading back. She waited till he was in the exact position where she wanted him. “MR. FITZGERALDSON,” Gaine called so that everyone could hear. All eyes turned their way at the challenge in her voice. The man looked at her with a snarl.
“Whaddya want?” he growled.
Gaine took two strides towards him. “I HEAR YA BEEN INSULTIN’ MAH GOOD NAME!” She had moved in long strides and was within three paces of the man. He stopped in place and jammed the shovel in the dirt beside him.
“Good name,” he hissed. “A woman like you hasn’t got a good name.”
“See this here glove?” she asked more quietly as his eyes went to the Lieutenant’s glove tucked in her belt. She held her sixshooter but kept it pointing down.
“What of it?” he snarled.
“Ahm ready ta publicly smack ya one cross’t the face ‘n demand a duel a’ honor.”
Duels, though less popular than in bygone days, were still taken seriously in the west, and he knew it. “Now ya think yer Aaron Burr, I suppose?” he snorted derisively.
“No, Ah ain’t Burr. But Ahl shore nuff challenge ya ta a duel all tha same.” He started to say something and she held up her free hand. “A’fore ya remark on the possibilities, Ah think ’tis only fair ya understand yer options.”
His lip curled. “Options?” He looked at the smokers. “I’m not fighting a…”
“One a three things bees gonna happen taday,” Gaine continued. “We’ll done come ta an agreement er yu’ll be shamed by backin’ outta a duel a’ honor a’fore this here crowd er yer gonna choose the duel an’ be dead. Me, Ahm a’hopin fer the last option…but t’is up ta you.”
A cocky look crossed the man’s face. “I won’t fight a woman,” he called with a cagey edge to his voice. He spoke loudly to be heard, “It wouldn’t be honorable.”
Gaine laughed a mirthless laugh. “Honorable, huh? Let’s see if’n we can’t put some grease ta that thar notion in a bit and slide it on outta the way.” She took a step back and rubbed her chin.
Blue eyes glared. “Ya been jawin’ bout whatcher gonna have done ta me with yer high ‘n mighty friends. So’s let’s chew the rag some ’bout them…them folks yer al’ays a’crowin’ ’bout an’ seem ta think Ah should be a’feared a’.’ He made no reply. ‘Well, Ah gotta agree, some’un here OUTTA be afeared, and you’d better believe, it ain’t me. Ahl shows ya why. Take out one a’ them coins yer al’ays a clinkin’ tagather.’
He looked at her with a puzzled look, but mostly his eyes went to the Colt she had in her hand, pointing at the ground. “A coin,” she demanded louder. “Take it outta yer pocket and give it a healthy spin inta the air, if’n yer man ’nuff.” She put her other hand on the glove and growled through clenched teeth, “Yer choice. If’n ya choose duel instead….” She started to pull the glove out and noted his expression. He didn’t want to have to back down from any public duel challenge, especially in front of the smoking men who were watching intently.
“Toss up a coin, then, an why doncha make it that thar lucky coin a’ yorn?”
He looked at her in surprise. How did she know that he had a lucky coin? Had his daughter told her? He glanced angrily at the coach where Meghan was, then back. ‘Look here..’ he started to snarl and she cooly cocked the hammer of the gun with her thumb, the barrel in full view of the passengers, still pointed down.
Her ardent eyes drilled into his. He thought about when she told him to put out his cigar. She hadn’t given him any time to think about it. She just told him then shot when he didn’t comply. Obviously she was crazy. He wasn’t sure what she would do but he had no doubt she might shoot.
He nervously rustled through his coat pocket and pulled out a coin. He picked the smallest in his pocket. He scoffed to himself. Did she really think she could hit a coin tossed into the air or was she going to do something else? He gave it a very high flick far out away from himself then started to run around her towards the coach. She instantly shot. The coin jumped midair then fell to the ground. She quickly took giant steps into his path. He stopped and backed up.
The team of horses the crew was changing pranced around a bit from the noise of the shot and the others reared in their traces before the driver got them under control. Jaws dropped both in and out of the coach. The smokers quit smoking. The Lieutenant ran to collect the coin.
‘My Lord,’ he muttered, bringing it to her outstretched hand. She did not take her eyes off Meghan’s father. She closed her fingers around it without once looking at it. She waited until the Lieutenant backed away again.
Gaine grabbed Meghan’s father’s meaty hand, forcing the coin into his palm and curling his fingers over it. Then she began to poke him in the chest with her finger. “Lemme tell ya who AH knows,” she grimaced. “Ah knows Colt, an ah knows Remington. Ah knows Sharp, ah knows Winchester an’ Ah even got a familiarity with good ole Henry. Hell, ah even knows Bowie right well, if’n that’s yer choice a’ weapon. An Ah kin use a bull whip ta tickle the behind a’ eny big ole hoss fly on a hoss’s rump without never techin’ the hoss, if’n that’s yer fancy.”
Finally she stopped and straightened up. She backed up two paces and stared at him with a frighteningly stern look. Then she did something that totally perplexed him. “Meet one a’ mah important friends!” She tossed her Colt to him, turned her back and took long strides to the back of the coach. Meghan gasped!
Gaine pointed to the sky then gestured to the fence and moved toward the back of the coach putting the carriage out of line of the old man’s fire.
Meghan’s father had fumbled with the pistol, dropping it. He’d quickly stooped to snap it up as her rifle was primed to sail down toward her hands. She had her back to the old man just as he shakily pointed the sixshooter her way and squeezed the trigger. Everyone gasped at the loud gunshot, but no one’s heart was beating harder than Meghan’s. Gaine instantly dropped to the ground. This was the scene Meghan had imagined the night before.
“NO!” she wailed from the window, giving voice to everyone else’s thoughts. She threw herself toward the door but the arms of the mysterious woman and her companion grabbed her, holding her back. “Let go! Please, I have to stop him.”
“He’ll kill you, too,” the mysterious woman said in a surprisingly younger voice, “Look how wild he is.”
“I don’t care,” Meghan cried, trying to loosen their hold. “Please, let me go.”
“Gaine’s moving!” Betsy said, not loosening her grip on the girl.
Gaine had a slight smile as she double rolled on the ground with her rifle away from the carriage as the shot rang out. The old man tried to follow her with hasty, jumbled steps as he squeezed off another round directed as close to her as he could, using both hands to steady the gun. Again she rolled instantly out of the way and landed on her feet then moved swiftly toward the man. He had her gun in one outstretched hand now, pointed directly at her.
“You’d better stop right there!” he demanded, his finger beginning to squeeze.
“Nu uh,” she said, stepping even closer. “Ask ’em.” Her head tipped toward the smoking crowd. His eyes flitted there and back. Gaine continued, “Look what ya done. Ya took a shot at the back ov ‘n unarmed woman. Why, yud dance ta the enduv a rope in many places fer that.”
“Self defense,” he grinned evilly, his finger still poised to squeeze the trigger.
“T’ain’t,” she grinned in return, moving carefully. “Ain’t nobody gonna agree with’n ya. Ah din’t have no gun in mah hand when ya took yer first shot.” Suddenly the butt of her rifle was swung out, slapping the gun from his hand. The six-shooter flew a yard and a half away onto the ground.
In a fluid motion the rifle was swung back into her grip. She fired at the orange on the tree she had pointed out earlier then quick as lightning she hit the tin cup the young ranchhand had just finished putting on the farthest post. The cup cartwheeled into the sky off the post and the orange careened to the ground.
She brought the smoking barrel of the rifle to the man’s forehead, smoking his skin slightly as she touched it. He stood frozen before he slowly raised his hands into the air. “Now this here’s where ya get arrested fer attempted murder,” she said quietly. “See how easy t’is? An by the way, Ah coulda kilt ya the second the rifle hit mah hand and long a’fore ya took yer second shot.”
He looked incredulously at the orange that one of the men from on top was running to pick up and the hole in the cup the cowpuncher was showing to the men pouring from around the coach to see. Cigars and cigarretos were ground out in their haste.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Well see, ah wanted them folks ta see ya a’tryin’ ta hit me ‘n the back so’s they knows what kinda feller ya really be. Now ever’ last one a’ them folks seed it. An’ yud best believe they would’a helped bury ya with good riddance if’n Ahda shot back. That thar would’a been self de-fense. An’ they’ll testify fer me now if’n Ah decides ta have ya arrested fer attempted murder….” she grinned, “by the Sacramenta Marshal.”
“I…It wasn’t a close shot….” The man’s eyes were now as round as they ever got. “I tried to miss you. And I did. I just wanted to frighten you!”
Gaine chuckled. “Nope. Them folks seed it. Ya tried right hard ta kill me. An yer credulity ’bout being picked on by a woman like me dropped a heap with’n that thar move a’ your’n. Not ta mention yer touted mor-ality. Yep, Ah’l be a ponderin’ whether ta have the Sacramenta Marshal arrest ya er not.” She lowered the rifle to the ground and everyone breathed more freely.
“First we’re gonna talk agreement. See, Ah ain’t gonna stand fer no more a’ yer insults er yer bullyin’ women er none a’ that. Ah doan wanna hear no more ’bout yer ‘portant friends er goin’ ta jail er none a’ that nonsense neither. An’ ya best not think a’ makin this here ana’body else’s problem.”
She saw the thoughts moving behind his eyes. She wondered if he knew how easy he was to read. She doubted it.
“If’n ya war ta hire some’un ta do me bodily harm, fer instance, yu’d best pray they doan never try. Ah doan take kindly ta such. This is betwixt you n’ me n’ NO’un else. An’ believe me, hired guns tend ta holler the truth ta any judge theys dragged a’fore. Anathin’ ta do less time. Not all lawmen er in yer employ, ya know, er even vera taken with’n yer notions. An’ jail’s a sittin’ thar a’waitin’ fer the likes a you now a heap more’n t’is fer…a woman like me.”
He stood staring at her without speaking. “If’n ya’d rather, if’n we war ta duel,” she continued, “Ahd let ya take yer pick a’ weapons, a’ course. Ahm ’bout as good with one choice as t’uther.” She grabbed the handful of cigars from his pocket. “An stop yer damn smokin’ ‘n the carriage. Ya already been warned oncet.”
“Duel?” she asked him when he made no reply. He quickly shook his head no. “Then we gots us’ns an agreement. Doancha be a’breakin’ it.”
She turned, picked up her pistol, put it in her holster and walked to the Conductor, handing him the man’s cigars. “Give them thar back ta that feller when we git ta Sacramenta, if’n ya please.” She headed to the carriage where Meghan sat wide-eyed, her hands twisted together in her lap.
“Yes, ma’am,” the Conductor said, placing them in his own pocket. “Tell me…” Gaine turned around to face him again. “Who are ya really?” the man asked reverently.
Gaine laughed. “Ahm jest Gaine Sargos, like Ah tole ya all when Ah got on. Ahm jest tryin’ ta go ta pick up mah Cousin Minnie and fetch her back ta the ranch. Only that thar feller ain’t give me no peace from the second mah eye lit on ‘im.” Then her face got serious. “Ya seed him take a shot ta mah back?”
“Yep. Ya wanna press charges?”
“Dunno. Maybe. We’ll see when we git ta Sacramenta.” She pulled out the glove and handed it back to the Lieutenant who stared at her with total admiration. “Thanky, Lieutenant,” she grinned and leaned toward him to whisper, “Ah think he’ll behave hisself now.” The Lieutenant laughed.
“I think,” the Lieutenant chuckled, glancing at the shovel, “it was a good thing he’d already taken care of business or he might have had to change his clothes before we could move on.”
Gaine swallowed a laugh and poked her head in the window of the coach. “Ever body all right ‘n here?” Her eyes settled tenderly on Meghan. All three women nodded. Meghan moved over to touch Gaine’s hand. “Ah think he’ll quit smokin’ now,” Gaine said softly to the small blonde, “an’ he outta be a heap more po-lite,” she added to the other two women. Reluctantly she pulled her hand away from Meghan’s with a smile and climbed up to the top of the stage.
‘We’re running a little late on this stop, ladies and gentlemen,’ the Conductor stated. Everyone including Meghan’s father headed for the stage. No one spoke to him and he kept his gaze down. For once he did not pull out his pocket watch.
“I’m mighty sorry about what I said earlier,” the businessman on top said skittishly as Gaine paused. “I didn’t mean to offend your honor, ma’am.” The woman seated on top in her cumbersome dress looked wide-eyed from one to the other. “Oh, my!” she said into handkerchief. “Oh, my, my, my!”
Gaine nodded. “Ah takes mah honor serious,” she agreed. “An Ah ‘preciates yer ‘pology.”
The crowd continued raving about the fantastic shots. They had all seen the small coin jump and mouths had dropped. The Lieutenant informed those on the ground that the shot was right through the middle of the coin. Well, it was a touch to the side, but he didn’t mention that. And since the cowpuncher had given the cup back to the Lieutenant, he held that out for everyone to see where the bullet had gone in and where it came out.
All eyes on top zeroed in on Gaine as she made her way to her seat in the luggage area. Before they had seen her clothing, her beauty and sensed the danger around her. Now they were all astounded! They had never seen such a display of shooting before! Plus she moved so adroitly out of the way of the man’s firing. Between the stage holdup and this, they had real stories to tell family and friends. Stories they’d never believe.
Gaine rustled in her vest pocket and dug out a copper. She passed it forward to the Conductor. “Fer the orange,” she called up to him. “See it gets ta the orchard’s owner, will ya?”
He passed it back. “Keep it. The orange is on us.”
Gaine held the pence and looked at the others. “Did ana’body fetch it?”
“Yep,” one of the men held out the orange. The small stem holding it on the tree had been shot away, but the orange itself was unharmed. That, in itself, was fabulous shooting!
“No, ya folks go on ahead an share,” she remarked, adjusting her legs in her spot. The man began to peel the fruit, carefully putting the peeling in his pocket.
“Hey, share that peel,” someone called. “We’d like ta prove we were here, too.” He passed around orange peel and they each put a piece reverently in their pockets.
The cowpuncher looked longingly at the copper. “Ya want this’n fer a souvenir?” Gaine asked him with a chuckle. His face became radiant and he nodded. She handed it to him and settled back while he looked it over on both sides. “Too bad that wretched feller got the one ya shot!” He spit over the side.
“Mmm. His memory ain’t none ta good. He needs’t fer a reminder.”
Those who’d sat near the heavy man during meals and listened to his arrogant comments about how women should behave, now had no intention of associating themselves with him in any way. He had tried to shoot an unarmed woman in the back and there wasn’t anyone that didn’t draw the line at that!
Meghan’s father was very quiet when they got back into the coach. Betsy’s hushed voice asked if he would show the coin. He firmly shook his head ‘no’ and stared out the window.
For the rest of the trip it was as though he was not even there. Others conversed pleasantly and the man paid them no mind at all. He stared out the window and fingered the coin in his jacket pocket. He didn’t even seem to notice when his daughter shyly answered a few questions of the flirting Lieutenant beside her.
Gaine went over her plans. She sat in the breeze coming off the moving coach pondering “what if’s” as the coach swayed and wove its way down into the valley. Occasionally her eyes strayed to small clouds chasing larger ones across the sky like riders herding strays on a traildrive. Their shadows echoed the chase across the heated ground.
At Stockton the wrangler touched Gaine’s shoulder and leaned forward. “Adios,” he muttered before he hopped down from the coach. He smiled up at her as he waited for his bedroll to be drawn from the rear boot then put a finger to the front of his hat in salute before turning and ambling into the town. A number of other passengers got off as well while new passengers took their places.
The smile in Gaine’s eyes followed the young puncher. Yet she couldn’t help wondering about him. She shrugged. Ranchers hired men every year that had questionable and sometimes notorious pasts. If they behaved themselves and worked hard, it usually didn’t matter to them. The familiar face she was waiting for appeared below and Gaine quickly hopped down to shake the man’s hand.
“Gaine! I’ve been watching for you since you wrote. So tell me the size of the herd and when we can expect them.” He smiled at the beauty, wishing all the drovers he dealt with were so good looking.
“Hiram! Gonna be a mite larger herd ‘n last year,” she smiled, glancing back at the coach. “An outta be in ’bout the same time, Ah reckon. Ah heared prices been a’runnin’ bout the same this year. Ah reckon that bees good news.” It was, considering that there were few buyers for anything and prices everywhere were dropping on most goods.
They spoke for a minute about the market conditions and he named a price. Her face clouded before another price was reluctantly mentioned. She glanced over and saw the coach was ready. “Uh, kin ya meet me later tanight ta the stage stop hotel n’ Sacramenta. Ah gotta git. We kin come ta an agreement then,” She turned more serious, “Sides, Ah might have a small favor ta ask a’ ya. Kin ya?”
He looked at her questioningly. She’d always made instant deals in the past and had never asked any favors. ‘Sure, Gaine.’ He wondered what it could be.
In fact, she hoped to use this man to escort Cousin Minnie safely to the next stage stop on his way home. Gaine quickly climbed back on and the stage clattered off, leaving him puzzled. She was young but of the old school. Her word was her bond. A price and a handshake and their deal would have been set. But she was well worth the extra effort. He’d be happy to meet her later. It wasn’t that far a ride.
A little after suppertime the stagecoach arrived on the outskirts of Sacramento. It was a large metropolis. Dogs barked, children ran alongside and the peal of a distant church bell could be heard above street noises. Every stage window covering was rolled up and the passengers gazed out in amazement at the many passing homes and buildings. People stood watching as the coach moved through the tree lined streets to finally glide to a stop deep inside the town by the corner hotel.
The city was bustling with activity. People of all nationalities were on the boardwalk and in the streets, on foot, in buckboards, spring wagons, on horseback, in covered wagons and fancy carriages of all types. Ladies with parasols and men in all manner of dress were seen.
A number of Chinese people in their cultural apparel, were busy about the streets, some carrying items balanced at both ends of a pole held across one shoulder. Many of the men had put in the rail line over the near-impossible rise through the mountains headed east. Others had done the backbreaking work of building roads. Chinese women, fewer in number, had also done their share of heavy domestic and business labor. Now they all made their homes in the city.
The hotel stood three-floors high like a three-tiered wedding cake with large columns holding up the second floor balcony. A narrower balcony graced the third floor. People were out on both, watching the streets’ activities, the long, doorsized arched windows from the rooms allowing easy access.
The main floor sported a lobby, barber shop, large dining room with a cooking area in the back, a chambermaid and porter area in the back with their own stairway, laundry and linen storage, and a large saloon on the corner near the front desk, which, by any standard, was busy. The stage office was in a small corner of the lobby.
Glad to finally have arrived and amazed by the sophistication and savior faire of this amazing city, everyone climbed out, their eyes like empty canteens filling with the fresh flowing fluidity of this urbane city. Gawking all around, they waited for their luggage. The passengers as a whole stayed away from the heavyset man and were accordingly fearful if not totally in awe of Gaine.
She drew behind the Lieutenant and whispered, ‘Goo’bye, mah friend. Be shore an’ tell the little gal adios. She’ll like it an’ it’ll annoy her Pa somethin’ frightful.’
“Are you going to press charges against him?”
“No. But doan tell him that. Ah wanna get Cousin Minnie an’ git back home, an’ if’n Ah charge ‘im, Ah gotta stay an’ go through court an there ain’t no guarantee they’d convict ‘im.”
“I understand.” He proudly held his cup with it’s two bullet holes. “I’ve got my cup. I’ll cherish it. I’m storing it safely in my bag as soon as I get on the train.”
“Listen, doan forget Ahm a’leavin’ ceegars fer the fellas. Ya shore it ain’t gonna be outta thar way?”
“No. Like I said before, they pass close by anyway. For a cigar, they’d gladly stop anywhere.”
“Well, they doan git ’nuff praise fer the work they done. Jest standin’ guard last night war helpful. Shore ya doan want one? Ah could run in now an gitcha one.”
“No, please. I don’t smoke and the cup is reward enough.”
“All right. Ahl point out yer fellas ta Cousin Minnie when theys pass bah later. She’ll be right intrigued with that…uniforms an’ handsome men an’ all.” Gaine grinned. “Uh, if’n she’s in on time.” From reading her letters Gaine was quite sure it was exactly the kind of thing Cousin Minnie would enjoy.
“If she’s not, you’ll see them anyway on your way home,” the Lieutenant advised. “They’ll be camping at China Cup Valley. They’ll make an early start the next morning. You should pass by. They’d love having beautiful women wave to ’em.”
“Ahl point ’em out an’ Minnie’ll wave her fool arm off, Ahm shore. Now doan let that old man try and pull rank with’n yer Commander thar ta the Fort. Be shore an’ tell ’bout his true nature. Ya got all kinds a’ witnesses.”
“I will,” He cast a boyish grin her way and chuckled, ‘I thought I’d bid them both adieu. And I plan to smile at his beautiful daughter and even kiss her hand.”
“He’ll likely cogitate somethin’ mighty disagreeable tawards ya,” Gaine laughed, “even if’n he doan dare say nothin’.”
“Probably. You know, it was SO good meeting you, Gaine. Give your Cousin Minnie my best. And you two stay out of mischief.’ He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her. “Uh, if I ever get to your town, I’ll look you up and we can laugh about this trip. It was one of the most memorable I’ve ever been on.”
“Well, Ahm right easy ta find. Ever’body knows me ta town…Barden’s Corner. An’ Ah ‘spect Ahd look ya up, too, if’n Ah ever got ta the Fort, that t’is.”
“Mmm. I’d like that. I’m fairly easy to locate, but let me give you my address. I’d love to have you stop in. I’d introduce you to everybody there. Or even write if you take such a notion.”
Gaine stood and smiled while the man took out a folded paper from his pocket and tore off half. Must be his orders, she thought as she watched him jot down his name and address and fold the paper over several times. “I’m sorry I have to hurry,” he said as he bowed, took her hand and gently kissed it.
She took the paper with a smile and put it in her pocket. Before leaving he pulled her into a hug then stepped away as the mystery lady and companion stepped up to Gaine. A wink and he was gone.
“Best of luck,” the veiled lady said softly through her netted disguise. She spoke to Gaine in a muffled voice. “I hope our paths cross again someday. This has been a most extraordinary journey.”
“Thank ya fer ever’thin’. You two be right heedful,” the tall rancher replied gently. “Ah shore hope ya find that thar satisfaction ya been a’seekin’.”
“We’d best hurry, ma’am,” Betsy spoke aloud to the mystery lady. “You’ll be in my prayers, Gaine,” she said to the tall beauty, putting her hand on the brunette’s arm.
“And you two in mine,” Gaine replied with a tender smile. Her hand overlapped the black lady’s hand.
“Bless ya, child. Ya tell your cousin she’s not ta let you get inta too much trouble, now, ya hear?” the older black lady squeezed Gaine’s arm lightly. “And don’t you be pullin’ any more of those dangerous feats of yours. Ya’all keep safe. The both a’ ya.” Both let go of their hands and she waggled a glove-covered finger at Gaine.
Gaine laughed. “We will. Doancha fret none.”
The rancher raised her hand in response to their parting waves. Then as the two had their luggage loaded into a buggy to head to the train station, the tall brunette turned and dashed into the hotel. On the way in she glanced out the window and saw the Lieutenant had stopped to say goodbye to Meghan and her father. The old man’s face held unconcealed annoyance at the handsome man.
The Conductor was nearby watching them, the older man’s cigars in his hand to return when the officer had gone. The officer’s hat was in one hand, he was bowing before the blonde, gently holding and kissing her gloved hand in his other hand as the point of his sword dipped out the back. His heels had been smartly clicked together.
Meghan returned a smile to the young officer. Her father looked at the Conductor then back at the young officer. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be arrested or not and it was making him very jittery. He had worried about it all the way. He’d claim the woman had threatened him not only with the gun but with a knife the others hadn’t seen. That would give him reason to shoot at her when her back was turned. She had mentioned knowing about Bowie knives.
The old man looked up and down the street. Most of these people from the stage would be leaving town anyway so no one would know. He’d take Meghan and himself to a different hotel away from the stagecoach people except that they were to meet Lendal at this one. If only Lendal were here now to help him. He kept his hand on Meghan’s elbow and pulled her back as far from the bold young officer as he dared.
A chuckle slipped from Gaine’s mouth. Meghan’s Pa looks hot n’ agitated as a fresh dropped steer droppin’ with near as much steam a’risin’ from ‘im. When she looked again the man in uniform was hurrying down the street to catch his train, his forage hat on his head and his tin cup hanging on his belt. The men under his command had already left to pick up their wagons of supplies for their long journey back to the Fort.
Gaine stopped at the desk. Minnie hadn’t checked in yet. The stage from Virginia City didn’t arrive until later and the train from Nevada would be in within the hour. But there was an envelope waiting for her. She took it, stuffed it in her pocket, and went back out to the boardwalk where most of the others were still getting their luggage. She hadn’t seen any sign of anyone that might be the man ‘Lendal.’ She looked carefully.
She and Meghan exchanged glances as the young woman’s father forced the small blonde ahead of him into the hotel. He carried both of their bags. The brunette stayed outside and watched as he registered them. Father and daughter would have separate rooms, obviously. Anything else would be indecent considering Meghan’s age. He could get a suite, of course, if the hotel offered them. But the cost, considering his frugality, would rule out that choice.
The man elbowed his way in the crowd and pushed his way to the desk, instantly calling to the clerk, “A room for Fitzgeraldson and put my adult daughter in another thrifty room close by.” He dipped the quill in the ink and began to sign his name on the next line. Mumbles of complaint at his aggression could be heard from those around him who had been waiting, but he ignored them.
“Oh, and…,” he lowered his voice and leaned forward to the harried clerk who had been busily registering guests since the earlier stage arrived. He whispered loud enough to be heard by the clerk, “Don’t put her in with that tall woman…Sargos, that was her name. Gaine Sargos. She’s not to share with her or we’ll leave!”
Meghan looked away at the words. She hadn’t expected to be able to room with Gaine. That would have been too fortuitous.
“Sir.” Another man at Mr. Fitzgeraldson’s elbow called for the clerk’s attention.
“One moment, please,” the clerk said to the other man. He quickly found Gaine’s name. “Miss Sargos is already sharing with someone else,” he replied.
“Good,” Meghan’s father retorted, then looked around nervously lest she be anywhere near him. “Oh, and I’ll pay for two nights for myself but only one for my daughter. My room can be a better room.”
The clerk didn’t lift his eyes. He continued scanning the book, mindful of the crowd. Two stages in, one after the other, and the train crowd would be joining them very soon. He could hardly wait till eight rolled around and he’d be off till the morning. He’d been working since eight that morning. “All right Mr. Fitzgeraldson,” he ran his finger down the list of available rooms.
“Sir, this scoundrel crowded in. You should be waiting on me first,” the man beside Meghan’s father demanded with a scowl at Mr. Fitzgeraldson.
“One moment, sir. I’ll be right with you,” the clerk replied. He didn’t have time for petty arguments. He saw the room number with a circle around it. That meant it was reserved for a woman but she hadn’t checked in yet. It was close to the room he could give the man. All the inexpensive rooms that faced the back were already held by drummers. No women were on that side.
He recognized the name of the woman reserving the circled room, of course. She would prefer not to share he was sure, but she didn’t have a choice if they were full. It was one of the more expensive rooms. The hotel was filling rapidly but so far they didn’t have that many lone women guests that day. He’d put the daughter there for now and move the older woman if she complained when she checked in, if there were any good rooms left at that time.
“Sir,” the indignant man said to the clerk. “I WAS here first.”
The clerk put a check by the circle. He’d fix it later when it slowed down. He underlined the man’s name meaning it was for two nights and turned to Meghan’s father, “You have a room facing the balcony as will your daughter. Both at two dollars a night. I’m afraid that’s the best we can do.”
“Two dollars for hers? No sir, a dollar and a half. That’s what you advertise.”
“That’s a room on the other side. We have none available there for women on that floor. I can put her on another floor. Otherwise, that’s the best we can do.”
“Highway robbery,” he complained, but he wasn’t about to require her to be on a different floor. He demanded with annoyance, “Close by?”
“Yessir. I’ve marked it down. You’re in 217 and she’ll be in 209. Odd numbers face the street.” The clerk faced the other man, “Yessir, I’m sorry for the mix-up. How can I help you, sir?”
“Plan A,” Gaine thought as she watched the father and daughter head up the stairs. Suddenly her carpetbag was being tossed down. She caught it, adjusted her rifle and glanced down the street toward the river.
She saw a swell of passengers moving her direction and decided the arriving train from Nevada had come in. Minnie could be on that. She felt her pulse pick up at the thought. She watched carefully for a few minutes hoping to spot her then realized that more guests would be registering at this hotel very soon.
Gaine walked quickly to the back of the crowd at the desk to wait her turn. Minnie had told her where they should meet and hotel reservations had been made by post. When she got to the front, Gaine looked but didn’t see what room they had placed Meghan in. She did see the father’s room and knew he wouldn’t have his daughter too far away.
“You sell see-gars here?” she asked as the man pushed the register for her to sign.
“Yes, we do,” he said, raising a brow. “Some very fine cigars indeed.”
“Can ya set four a’ yer best ones aside fer four Army fellas? They’s gonna be by later ta fetch ’em.”
“A dollar a piece is our best,” he said warningly.
“What? A dollar each? In these here hard times? Stars! The room only costs two dollars an that thar includes meals.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Uh, best make that the best ya got fer two bits then. Four ceegars at two bits each. I’ll dig ya out a dollar.” Nickle and dime cigars were standard, she knew. She signed and carefully counted out a dollar. She handed the money to the clerk. “Ya won’t fergit, now?”
“I’ll set them aside right now, before I do forget,” he said, writing something on a scrap of paper and putting it in the desk drawer with four cigars. “All set. Next?”
She and Minnie were on the second floor and so was Meghan, she was sure. She scanned the crowd but didn’t see Minnie. Quickly she climbed the stairs to her own room, amazed to see a small, compact writing desk and chair in the hall at the top of the stairs under a wall mounted lamp. The desk was complete with inkwell, quill and penwipe. “Ain’t that fancy,” she muttered. Hotels had certainly improved since she’d last been in one. Looking around to see if anyone was watching her, she lifted the desk lid to see if any paper was included, but none was. “Gotta go ta the desk fer paper,” she muttered. “But ya kin sit raht here an write all day if’n ya takes a mind ta.” She shook her head, ‘Fancy.’
She moved to her room, left her things, and stepped out the arched window onto the balcony. She glanced down the street but didn’t see her cousin walking from the station. She needed to locate Meghan. She knew inside rooms were saved for drummers so she should be in one of the rooms facing the balcony.
First she walked to the short end trying to spot Meghan in one of those rooms. She didn’t see her there. She turned and went back, continuing on past her own room. She saw the blonde three rooms down and tapped lightly at the window.
A couple on the balcony began walking toward Gaine. She quickly walked to the edge of the balcony and looked down so they wouldn’t tie the two of them together. Meghan watched her walk away with her first feeling of calm. Gaine knew where she was. Everything would be all right!
Gaine leaned on the balcony rail and smiled the blonde’s direction before heading back to her own room. Meghan watched till the tall woman was out of view. She wrapped her arms around herself. Oh, Gaine, she thought, I’m so frightened. I wish we could just run away right now. She took a deep breath. But I’ll do whatever you ask. Just get me away safely. Please.
Chapter 4
Knowing where Meghan was calmed Gaine. Back inside her own room she closed the window and bolted it. She lit the lantern hanging from the ceiling though it was still light out and pulled the shade. She sat on the bed and opened her letter.

June 16, 1875
My Dearest Gaine,
I’m not sure how to write this letter except to say I can’t begin to tell you how I looked forward to spending time in your dear company. Mother says that of course you won’t be angry with me under the circumstances. I sincerely hope she’s right.

You see, one month ago last Sunday I met a man at church named Bradley. He’s a wonderful man, Gaine. He’s five years older than I, but not enough for a twenty-five year old spinster like myself to be considered a child bride. I know you’d love him. I do and the folks adore him. He completely swept me off my feet. At first I held back but he did something no suitor has ever done before-he dared me to marry him! Imagine that, Gaine! He dared me!!!
“He shore done figured Minnie’s leanin’s,” Gaine muttered to herself. “Ah hopes that thar’s a good signpost.” She drew her eyes back to the letter.
I’ve written to both places, hoping against hope to catch you before you leave the ranch. By the time you read this, I will most likely be newly married and on my bridal tour. He’s taking me on a bridal tour to Salt Lake City and then on to Denver, where we’ll be living before the year’s out.

All the family sends their best. Mom asks if you’d please put some extra flowers on your parents’ graves for her. She sends her love and says to tell you you’re in her heart and thoughts daily.

Please be happy for me , dear soul, and don’t be too disappointed. Make my apologies to the school committee. If I didn’t catch you in time, I’ll pay you back for your unnecessary trip once I can save it from household expenses. I did so want to see you again and get caught up with all our follies, joys and sorrows since we parted all those many years ago. I think of you often, my sweet defender. But life had a different turn ready for me. Will you forgive me?
As always,
with my deepest love,
Melinda

p.s. My new last name will be Baxter. Please come to Denver and visit us. I’ll send you my new address as soon as I have it.

‘She ain’t comin’,’ Gaine said softly to herself. She laid back on the bed, more disappointed than she wanted to allow herself to be. Her heart sunk and for a few minutes she just laid there, staring at the ceiling. “Well, how damn selfish kin Ah be!” she scolded herself. She abruptly sat up. She had certainly faced worse things than disappointment these last few years.
She sighed heavily then shook her thoughts and only allowed herself to think of her cousin getting married, whereon she smiled. If it made Minnie happy, she couldn’t help but be happy for her. ‘Well, that shore changes things,’ she thought about her plan. ‘Now it’s jest the two a’ us and no Minnie ta check in.’
She thought about Minnie and though her absence produced new problems, she decided maybe it was better she wasn’t coming. She could concentrate all her time and effort on making Meghan’s escape successful. Meghan. She needed to see her and talk with her about the plan. She felt her spirits lift at the idea of getting her away and thrilled at the thought of being with her.
She folded the letter and placed it back in her pocket. She moved quietly down the hallway to Meghan’s room and tapped lightly. The door was opened quickly and she stepped inside.
‘By yerself?’ she asked Meghan while her eyes flitted around the room. The curtain fluttered softly at the breeze from the open window. They heard voices on the balcony and stayed apart, Gaine moving over to check who was out there.
‘Yes, they haven’t put anyone in here with me. Not yet, anyway. But father’s going to be back any minute to take me to supper. He doesn’t seem to want me to be out of his sight. I think he’s afraid I’ll bolt. I feel like he’s watching me every second. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t drag me into his room and tie me to the bed post for the night.’
Gaine’s eyes widened. She spun from the window, “Would he do that?”
Meghan paused. “No, I don’t think so. But he’d think about it.”
Gaine relaxed. She’d come up with a plan for that possibility, just in case. ‘Well now, relax, eat good and try ta calm his fears. An calm yer own. Ahm three doors down in Room 205.’ She pointed the direction.
Suddenly there was a tap on the door and her father’s deep voice growled for her to hurry up. They heard his hand on the doorknob. Meghan’s eyes grew wide but Gaine scooted out the window to the balcony pushing the window shut after her. She hastily stepped to the side by the building, out of view, glad to see the others looking down over the edge and not looking her direction.
Meghan walked to the door once Gaine was out of sight. Her father pushed past her as he barged in looking around. He was carrying his bag. “Is that window shut tight?” he demanded. He bent to look under the bed but the young woman moved out the door and started for the stairs to the dining room. Annoyed, her father grabbed her bag and trailed after her, slamming the door behind him. ‘Wait for me, young lady!’ he warned. “And you keep that window locked all night! Here! Carry your own case! I’m not your servant!”
“Yes, father,” she muttered, taking the case. Most people felt comfortable leaving their luggage in their rooms since hotel robbery was a very uncommon occurrence, but not her father.
Gaine stood on the balcony beside her window but she had bolted it on the inside. She glanced down to the street, but everyone there was moving somewhere with a purpose. She walked to the end door where the people from the even numbered rooms had access to the balcony. She walked into the hall then to her own room.
Shutting her door and leaving her bag but taking her rifle, she went downstairs to eat. It was late but they were still serving supper even though many folks were finishing up. She spotted Meghan when she entered but moved to a dim corner table away from them and ordered the steak special. She only glanced their way once, then she ignored the blonde completely and purposely gave Meghan’s father a scowl. He looked away quickly with a tinge of fear and Gaine went back to her meal with some satisfaction. He still remembered.
She didn’t dare have him think she was interested in his daughter in any way. But she didn’t want him to forget that she could turn him in. Soon, Meggy, she thought without looking, be brave, darlin.
Starving for good food, she found the hotel’s dining room more than adequate. She ate the last of her pie before the other two even started on theirs. Meghan’s father was taking his time, wanting his daughter under his eye constantly it seemed. The sun was going down and the lamps on the street were all lit. Few diners remained. It looked like they would be closing the dining area soon.
Gaine signed the receipt for her meal and walked out. It was included in the room charge. She glanced outside at the darkening skies then moved around inside the hotel, checking each area. The barber shop was closed but the aproned barbers were sweeping up. One was a woman, Gaine noticed with surprise, and from her style of apron it was clear she was not a cleaning lady! Ain’t times a’changin’!
Then she slid into the employee’s section undetected. There she found the chambermaid’s back door to the attached ‘necessary’ or dirt closet where they emptied the chamber pots and another door at the end of a small hall that led to the side street entrance. She saw where one could enter this area from the back stairs that the maids used and exit unseen to the street from the side street servant’s entrance.
Long strides carried her quickly back to the lobby where she sighed with resignation. Time ta throw some dust ‘n Meghan’s Pa’s eye, she grimaced. Once his daughter went missing, she was sure he’d thoroughly check matters out at the front desk. This would not only throw him off the trail but buy them time.
It was busy in the lobby and the tall brunette had to wait to get to the counter. ‘Has mah Cousin Minnie from Virginy City checked in yet?’ she asked the clerk when she finally got there. It was a different clerk this time so she gave more information. ‘Minnie Sargos. Wer a’sharin’ room 205 if’n she gits in tanight.’ From the periphery of her vision she saw the Fitzgeraldsons moving up the stairway to their rooms. He was puffing away on a cigar.
‘Not yet,’ the clerk told her. ‘The stage from there could be a little late.’
‘Thank ye,’ she replied as the clerk instantly moved to help other customers. Thar! They’ll recollect Ahm a’waitin’ fer mah cousin.
She walked to the front door and glanced down the street. Without Minnie they had to change their plan. She turned back in and slowly climbed the stairs toward her room. She saw no one in the dim halls. The hall lanterns were all lit, but the light was shadowy at best.
Gaine entered her own room and lit the lantern. A small tap came at the door. Gaine opened it and Meghan stepped in, quickly closed the door and rushed into Gaine’s arms. She was flushed with barely concealed nervousness.
She hugged the tall woman with a tight hug. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again!” she scolded, her green eyes flashing. “Do you have any idea how awful that was watching him aim that gun at you with your back turned and you without any gun?”
Gaine returned the hug. “T’weren’t near sa bad as’t looked,” she smiled. “Ah had a couple blanks in thar afta mah coin shot.”
“Gaine!” the small blonde said steadily, “then you knew you were gonna throw him the gun all along?”
“Yep. Ah wanted them who war a’hearkenin’ ta his jawin’ ta get a good look-see fer the kinda fella he truly war.”
Meghan pulled back and cast a dubious look the tall brunette’s way. “I wish I’d known! I nearly had heart failure!”
“Ahm right sorry ’bout that,” Gaine set her most comforting look and stroked hair from the blonde’s face to her bonnet. ‘Thar warn’t no way ta let ya know.”
“Wait a minute!” Meghan said. “You had two blanks?”
“Yep.”
“He fired both of those and had the gun pointed right at your chest for the third shot as you walked toward him.”
“Yep. Well, uh, that ‘un t’war a bit trickier. Had ta keep ‘im a’jawin’.”
“Oh, Gaine! Don’t do that again!” She threw her arms around Gaine again.
Gaine let her arms wrap around the small blonde. “No. Ah ain’t gonna.’ She paused for a minute then continued, ‘Uh, we done got us a problem we should outta be discussin’,” the tall brunette murmured. ‘Yer Pa’s in ‘is room?’ From observing him on the trip Gaine knew if he stayed with his normal schedule, he’d be there for at least ten minutes after his meal.
“Yes. What problem?” Meghan stepped back.
“Uh, siddown, all right? We needs ta jaw right quick like.”
They both sat on the edge of the bed. Gaine rubbed her hand across her forehead, “Uh, Ah need ya ta register ta the desk as Cousin Minnie,’ she continued rubbing her fingers across her forehead, a frown on her face. “Ah can’t reconnoiter how ta make this here work without ‘er. Yer Pa’ll figger right quick whar ya be if’n she ain’t here.”
‘What? I have to register?’ Meghan gasped. “Minnie’s not going to show up?”
‘Her letter war waitin’ here. She up’n got herself hitched and ain’t gonna make it. We gotta have her check in. T’is part a’ the plan ta throw yer Pa off.’
‘She’s not coming?’
That thought hurt Gaine again, but she pushed it down. She said casually, ‘No. Not this time.’
But Meghan saw the disappointment in Gaine’s face and felt badly. Still she couldn’t help feeling glad in a way as well. She worked hard to make sure her own pleasure at the information did not show and instantly felt guilty. How wrong was it that she didn’t want to share this tall rancher with the cousin she obviously adored?
‘I’m sorry, Gaine. I know how you looked forward to seeing her.”
“Yep, well them things happen.”
“Uh, but they’ve already seen me downstairs. They know I’m Meghan Fitzgeraldson. How can I register as your Cousin Minnie?’
‘Ah, well now, ‘member how Ah had ya watch that thar mysterious woman? Jest act like she done. Ah got one a them hats she wore an’ she even tossed in one a them shawls an’ some a’ her dark gloves. You’ll hafta carry mah bag. Yer Pa’d recognize yers sure as goats eat laundry off’n the laundry line.’
The young woman’s hand flew to her chest, ‘He’ll see me? My father’ll be there?’
‘Hope sa. But ya’ll be ‘n disguise ‘n Ahl be thar ta distract ‘im. He’s a mite flustered bah me raht ta the moment. He ain’t gonna know t’is you. Ah promise. ‘Member that mysterious ole lady? She war young, ’bout yer age er younger.”
“What?”
“Ti’s true. Ah swear. Ah know ya kin do it, Meg. Might be fun. That little lady war havin’ herself a good ole time.’
‘Fun? No, it won’t be fun!’ Meghan looked askance at the tall brunette. Her stomach was now doing cartwheels.
“No, yer right. It ain’t fun a’tall. Ah jest wancha ta relax a mite.”
Meghan scowled and began to wring her hands. ‘He’ll go down for a drink before bed. Then he’ll check my room both on the way down and the way back. So how do I do this?’ She opened the door a crack and peeked out towards her father’s room but the hall was empty. She’d said she’d do anything Gaine asked, so she knew she had to do this, much as she hated the idea.
‘Uh, well now. Try ‘n be ta bed ‘n yer bed clothes when yer Pa checks a’goin’ down. Oncet he’s gone, leave yer nightshirt on, slip yer new dress over’t and only strap on one a them petticoats, no corset er none a them t’uther thin’s …nothin’ that’s gonna take time. Ya doan wan’ no young girl’s figure nohow. Ya just hafta fit ‘n the dress. Then come here an’ slip on that thar hat ‘n shawl ‘n them black gloves. ‘Member–yer an older woman, a year older ‘n me.”
“He might see the hat if I take it in there.”
“No, come ta mah room ‘n slip ’em on. An’ leave ’em here when yer done. Now, here’s the part Ah figured. Ya kin use that thar back stairway, go inta the servant’s hall, they got a side street entrance down thar. Nobody war thar when Ah checked, but wait an’ make sure nobody’s ’bout. Go out that thar street door, come ‘n tha front doors, n’ register as Minnie Sargos. They’ll give ya mah room number, 205. An’ doan fergit ta carry mah bag.”
“I use the employee’s quarters to get to the street?”
“Yep. An try right hard not ta be seen by no one till yer ta the street. That part’s a heap important.”
“All right.”
“It’ll be dark, so’s that done makes’t easier.” Gaine smiled. “Scribble yer signin’ so’s it doan look like yer writin’ case yer Pa checks later on. Go up ‘n take off them three things ‘n mah room then down the hall ta yer room ‘n slip back inta bed. Pratend ta be sleepin’ when he done comes by afta ‘is drink. I’ll keep him down thar ’bout a half hour once’t ya’ve gone upstairs so’s ya gots time ta change.’
‘Oh, Gaine,’ she moaned nervously. She chewed her lip but squared her shoulders. “Should I use the outside balcony if the hallway isn’t empty?”
Gaine considered it for a minute, “Uh, no, Ah doan think sa. Better ta wait till the hall’s empty. Anabody seein’ a lady a’rushin’ from winda ta winda on the balcony’ll be ‘spicious. An’ ya’d never know who t’war out thar a’watchin’ ya from the dark. In the hallway ya can see well ’nuff ta know who’s thar.
“You’re positive this has to be done?” Meghan asked nervously. Her hands were shaking just thinking about it.
‘Yer gonna do great! Just ‘member that yer a mite older.’ Gaine removed her Stetson and pushed back some loose hair strands. “Sometimes ya gotta sight life straight ‘n tha eye an’ throw yer rope smack dab athwart them horns, Meghan, ta pull’t down ta its knees! This here’s one a’ them times.” She replaced her hat and enfolded the small blonde in an embrace. Megan began to relax. “Yu’ll do wondrous well,” Gaine murmured into her hair.
As far as Gaine was concerned, this small woman had already shown she had plenty of sand. She’d have no problems if she could control her nervousness.
“I’d better go,” Meghan whispered. “He’ll be by soon.” The blonde rushed back to her room. She undressed quickly and crawled into bed. She expected her father would check the windows and under the bed before he left. She knew him well.
Gaine turned the lantern very low, left her things inside and moved down the umbrous staircase lit only by the lamps’ reflections at the check-in desk below. She stopped at the busy desk to ask again about her Cousin Minnie before going into the saloon where she could watch the hotel stairway.
She moved to the long bar and ordered a whiskey. Though there were many lamps in the room, there were still darkened pockets. A faro game was running in the back and the bulk of the crowd was gathered there noisily bucking the tiger.
For a minute while the faro crowd was milling about the table, she thought she caught a glimpse of the man with the scar, the one who had been on the stagecoach and had left mysteriously. Buzzards! He done come back ta catch me unawares, she thought with a grimace. Ahl hafta keep a sharp eye out fer him!
In an instant the vision was gone. She moved with her drink in hand to get a better view, looking here and there, but there was no one even resembling him there any longer. Maybe ‘twarn’t him nohow. She stood blinking and wondered if, in all the tension, her imagination was becoming overactive. She looked at her glass of whiskey. She hadn’t had but a sip. And as it was, this stuff was little more than a watered down bracer a little old lady might have before a prayer meeting.
“Not strong enough for ya, beautiful?” a husky female voice asked. Gaine looked over to see one of the sporting ladies from the saloon, a smirk on her face.
Gaine chuckled and engaged the woman in conversation for a minute. She asked about the ladies who worked there and how they managed to get in and out without a lot of trouble from the citizenry since this was deemed a respectable hotel. Surely they didn’t live here. The woman considered her for a minute, wondering if perhaps the tall beauty was looking for ‘companionship’ later in her room. She insured Gaine that they had a system that had served them well for years. The tall woman listened and nodded her head in understanding but graciously declined the lady’s invitation to provide her with a visit.
Gaine did buy the woman a drink and watched her slug it back in one gulp.
‘Thanks, beautiful,” the soiled dove said in her gravelly voice. She winked flirtatiously before turning and heading toward the faro crowd.
Gaine wandered to a spot with a good view of the inside saloon entrance and the stairs to the second floor. She leaned against the wall, drink in hand just as Hiram walked into the bar. She felt guilty having him come so far since she wouldn’t need him to act as an escort now.
Of course, he didn’t know she’d ever intended to use him as an escort. She moved to the bar, slapped him on the back and bought him a drink. They discussed the cattle market, this year’s prices and quickly settled on the same price mentioned when they’d met earlier. They shook on it and he bought another round. She mentioned her situation had changed, she didn’t need the favor. But she didn’t say what her situation was and he didn’t ask. She apologized for bringing him all this way. His eyes went to the faro table and she suggested that he go ahead. She didn’t play and was fine where she was.
He took his drink and headed toward the crowd. She saw him settle in with the players. Again she stood against the wall to watch the door. Before long a tall, sturdy man with a bushy mustache and a shiny shield-like “Marshal” badge pinned on his rough-woven tweed sack coat ambled in and up to the bar and took off his western hat displaying a receding hair line. He ordered a whiskey. The Sacramenta Marshal, she decided. Makin’ ‘is rounds. Wonder if’n Meghan’s Pa is still sa all-fired anxious ta make his acquaintance?
The Marshal stood alone at the bar for a while scrutinizing the room, checking out everyone that was there. His coat was unbuttoned and so was his vest. His short dark tie stood out from the stiff collar on his obviously purchased boiled white shirt. His trousers, on the otherhand, looked homemade as did his vest. His eyes fell on her and remained. Then he tossed back his drink, put on his hat, pushed it to the back of his head and slowly strolled toward her.
‘You that crack shot I’ve heard so much raving about today?’ he asked stepping up to her and letting his eyes wander as politely as he could over her clothing. His voice was exceptionally deep, sonorous and nonthreateningly mellow.
‘Not sure what all ya’ve heard, Marshal,’ she smiled.
His discerning eyes moved back up to her smile. With a smile like that, he thought to himself, that woman could break any number of fella’s hearts. His voice softened. ‘Put a hole in a coin that was flicked in the air?’ he continued. ‘Can’t be that many six foot tall women in men’s clothes stayin’ at this hotel. That right? You put a hole in that coin?’ She could hear the accolade in his voice.
‘Well now, that Ah did do.’
“With a sixshooter?” He noticed how blue her eyes were, surrounded with long black lashes.
“Yep. Mah new Colt.” She patted the item on her hip and his eyes moved there.
“Amazin’!” He scrubbed a hand across his square jaw in thought. “Shot an orange off a tree then swung round to hit a tin cup on a post clean at the other end of the corral? Ya do that, too?”
“Uh, well, yep. Ah did.”
“With a rifle.”
“With mah carbine.”
“Fancy shootin’!” He continued to rub his jaw. “So’s I had to wonder why someone that’s as good a shot as you and as experienced would purposely toss her gun to an adversary and turn her back.” He leaned forward and paid particular note of the small pin holes in her leather vest. “Yer the law!” he added with surprise, his startled face whipping up to examine hers. She nearly laughed aloud from his astounded expression.
“Not right now, Ah ain’t,” she smiled, lifting out her Sheriff’s star, giving it a quick glance and stuffing it back in her vest pocket. “Ahm here fer personal bizness, meetin’ up with’n mah Cousin Minnie an’ fetchin’ her ta home.”
He did not appear to be listening. “I know who ya are!” His eyes opened wide. “By jibbers, you’re that woman Sheriff took out that Beedrix Boys gang a horsethieves singlehandedly! Ya have ta be her with that kinda shootin’ ya done today. Why, every one of those outlaws was dropped with your gun within seconds. Good Lord, I heard about that!”
“Well, they war only three fellers. And they done shot and wounded one a mah Deputies. Ah doan never stand fer none a’that kinda circumstance without reprisal.” That had been the first time she’d ever actually killed anyone. It was in her official capacity as Sheriff, happened years ago, in a nanosecond, but the memory still haunted some of her nights.
‘They shot your Deputy?’
“Yep. An they war taking bead on t’uthers a mah men so’s Ah sent ’em mah unwelcomed regards. T’were lucky, ah reckon,” she added almost sorrowfully.
“And ya got ’em all, I hear, just like that! All three…before they could even think!” the Marshal raved. “Boom, boom, boom!”
Gaine’s voice dropped and her words sounded tired. “If’n they’d surrendered, they’d be a’livin’…well, till they war hung by the court. When they ain’t gonna surrender ‘n’ t’is a question a’whose life’s up fer decision, ain’t no discussion. Criminals die, not mah Deputies.”
“Amazin!” he breathed. His glimmering brown eyes catechized her, “And they said that last night you fired at what they later thought was the outlaws that robbed the southbound stage. Conductor seemed to think you kept ’em from attacking your stage.”
“Um, maybe. Doan know. Saw movement, but din’t have no glass ta see what t’was. So’s Ah aimed to startle, not ta kill.”
“Uh huh.” He shook his head and stared. Then he pondered for a minute and added, “And that brings me back to my original question. Why throw that man a gun and turn y0ur back? Conductor said the two of ya was frettin’ with each other the whole trip.”
“Well now, actually we was ponderin’ them high ‘n mighty morals he war a’spoutin’. An Ah wondered what he’d do if’n he had a gun ‘n his hand. Then Ah tossed him mahn ta find out.”
“Uh huh. What high and mighty morals?”
“Well, see, we war havin’ this here discussion regardin’ a duel a’ honor ‘twixt him ‘n mahself. He war claimin’ he war too honorable ta duel with’n a woman like me.” She smiled slyly then ran a hand across her forehead for a minute and adjusted her hat. “Well, sir,” she continued, “Ah figured regardless a’ his elaborate jawin’, he’d show his meddle fer ever’one ta see. He done liked fancyin’ up his repeetation while speakin’ downright poorly a’ mahn. Ah figured his well a’ good regards done been poisoned an’ Ah alsa figured he’d show his true likeness…an danged if he din’t.”
“He coulda killed ya.”
“Ah ain’t that easy ta kill. But, uh, he did try, din’t he?”
“You reportin’ him for attempted murder?”
“No. He warn’t that dire a threat. An’ Ah ain’t got no time ta deal with’n ‘im. Sides, after mah coin shot, them next two rounds war blanks. How big a fool ya think Ah t’war?” She raised a brow.
The Marshal laughed. “Blanks, huh? That makes more sense. Say, mention was made about how he got all a’bluster with ya shootin’ off the end of his cigar. Ya DO that? Inside a coach?”
“Ah asked him polite-like ta desist with’n the smokin’ inside the coach. T’war botherin’ the ladies. He refused. Ah handled it.”
This time the Marshal broke out with a deep belly laugh. “Oh pancakes! What I wouldn’t a’give ta be on that journey with ya! Sounds like quite a curvet. And you were ridin’ with Mr. Russellman, too. Oh, buttermilk pancakes! A real curvet!”
‘Mr. Russellman?’
‘The driver.’ The Marshal laughed heartily, ‘That old rascal likes to drive those horses through that mountain dropoff fast as he dares. Makes it sound like he’s holdin’ ’em back, but he ain’t. Has it down to a science. Scares the begeebers out’a all the passengers. Stage company’s threatened to fire him numerous times, but he is the best driver they have.’
‘He done that on purpose?’
‘Yep. He and the Conductor bet on how many’s gonna take up the shovel at the next swing station.’
‘Why, them rascals,’ Gaine couldn’t believe they’d do that on purpose.
‘Yep. They was quite took with you. Said you made the trip right entertaining except they feared they might have ta bury that big fella and his cigars if they didn’t get here soon enough.’ He laughed a few more minutes then sobered, ‘Course, the other stage being held up wasn’t funny.’
Gaine agreed, “‘Yep. That t’were downright sorrowful!”
The Marshal sobered further. “Yep. They got Branston on their trail. He’s a good man. I’da gone myself ‘cept we’re running shorthanded here. I’m hoping he and his posse haul ’em back to swing for that dastardly deed shootin’ them three.”
“Amen ta that,” Gaine agreed. “The wounded doin’ all right?”
“Nope. One of ’em passed on. The one shot in the back.”
“Shot ‘n the back,’ Gaine shook her head, ‘Buzzards!” There was a strict code of honor in the west. You didn’t shoot women, children or stage drivers. And you never shot someone in the back.
“Exactly!” he agreed. Gaine looked him over well. The Marshal stood just under Gaine’s height. He was the curious type–polite but dogged. One you wouldn’t necessarily want on your trail. In all aspects he looked to be more of a country boy than a city fella. And she’d just bet anything he could read trail good as an Apache. It was a shame he hadn’t gone after them. She was pretty sure he’d have had a chance to catch them.
This Marshal spoke softly but he reeked of persistence. She’d met his kind before and was cut from the same cloth herself. She just knew he’d keep on till all means he could think up had been exhausted. She’d put good money on that.
‘Well, much as I’d like to see ya do any of them tricks again,” he continued, “I’d be right grateful if ya don’t go employing your guns here in town.” He leaned in and whispered in his deep voice, “Consider it a personal favor, Sheriff.”
The tall beauty’s blue eyes twinkled, ‘Ah ain’t expectin’ ta. Ahm only here ta pick up mah Cousin Minnie an’ high tail it on back home. That’s ’bout it.’
‘Yep, I heard that, too. Well, try and avoid that other fella. We don’t want trouble hereabouts.’
She smiled again. ‘All right, Marshal.’
He considered her another minute. She must have chosen to be alone. She could find company as easy as dogs found fleas with that radiant smile of hers. He tipped his hat pleasantly then pushed it back on his head.
She watched him move back to the bar, get another drink and move down to talk to some other fellows at the end of the bar then move into the crowd at the faro table. She watched the group there for a minute and instantly spotted the man the Marshal was going to need to watch. The one she’d watch. He wasn’t too far from Hiram. And he looked like he knew a trick or two. She grinned internally when she saw the lawman move near him. Yep, he picked him out right quick.
A sound of laughter interrupted her thoughts. She turned to find one of the men who had ridden on the top of the stage staring at her. She smiled and nodded in greeting and he jumped up to join her. He was staying here at the hotel, too, he told her, waiting for the morning train to the east coast. He invited her to join his table where he was sitting with some business associates.
The men hopped to their feet and treated her as though she was a celebrity. Chester introduced her all around and each man solemnly shook her hand before they all pulled out chairs and sat. Chester retold the story of what had happened, drawing out his orange peel for their perusal and their eyes examined it and her with great awe.
She answered all questions they had, letting her eyes drift to the desk in the other room and the lightless stairway behind it. She was pleased when their attention shifted to other topics and before she knew it, they were heatedly discussing politics. It wasn’t long thereafter when she saw Meghan’s father’s shadowy figure lumber down the dimmed staircase and enter the hotel saloon.
“Shucks Aaron,” one of the men was saying, “You said no man with a middle name could be elected President for a second term. But come ’72 and old General Ulysses S. Grant gets hisself reelected for a second term. Whatcha say to that?”
“Weeell, it’s an initial. All right, he’s the exception,” the man she assumed was Aaron replied. “He was the first. Look at all the others and none were reelected!”
“Like who?” Chester asked. Gaine sipped her whiskey and watched Meghan’s father. He made contact with another shadowy fellow who’d just entered from the street door. They moved to a table by that door. She was sure it wasn’t Lendal because she was very familiar with the mystery man’s badge…Deputy. That thar’s gotta be Lendal’s cousin, she decided. Interestin’ that he’s here when Lendal ain’t. Musta been sent fer the occasion. Them fellers doan take no chances, looks like. Meghan wouldn’t a’ had much uva chance on her own.
“C’mon, Chester, you know! There was John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, James Knox Polk. None of them boys were reelected.”
Gaine glanced toward the Marshal to see if he seemed to recognize this Deputy, but he had his back to them and was talking with a non-player in the faro crowd. “What’s you think, Gaine?” Chester asked the tall brunette. “You got good opinions.” He noticed her attention wandering and he didn’t want her to leave.
She brought her eyes back to Chester and took off her Stetson. She ran a hand along her braid before returning the hat. “Well fellas, thar ain’t no point in mah having no opinions at’all,” she smiled. They all looked at her with reverence. “Ah ain’t ALLOWED ta cast no vote fer president, ‘member?”
“It’s not so much that women aren’t allowed to vote,” one man said. “They just don’t have the interest or the background of information that it takes to vote.”
“Nossir,” Gaine flashed her smile. “That ain’t true. That thar ejucated woman, uh, Susan…what war her last name? Anthony. That war it. Mrs. Antony. She done cast herself a vote last year back east and she war arrested. Arrested! Nossir, women ain’t allowed ta vote, plain an’ simple. Ain’t got nothin’ ta do with interest er background. Gots ever’thin’ ta do with men havin’ the power.”
“Nonsense. It requires a great deal of reading and keeping up to date on worldly affairs to prepare to cast a ballot. Women don’t like to bother their pretty little heads, nor should they have to. Voting is not in women’s comprehension.”
“Uh huh,” Gaine grinned. “An ya figure women bees jest sittin’ back bein’ waited on hand ‘n foot by servants an’ such so’s they doan hafta bother their “purty little heads”? Ah ain’t an’ neither t’is any t’uther woman Ah know. Most work danged hard.”
“I’m not saying women don’t work hard. I’m saying they don’t have the comprehension that it takes to vote.”
“Ya think Ah couldn’t cast me no sensible ballot?”
“You’re the exception, Gaine. I’m sure you probably could cast an informed vote.”
“Uh huh,” Gaine replied. “Most womens gots a heavy load a comprehension when it comes ta raisin’ families, and doin’ their share a work an’ more, an figurin’ budgets an the like. An’ most still pay ‘tention ta what’s a’happenin’ worldwide.”
“Of course, but it takes a certain logical ability beyond all that.”
“‘Sides what it takes ta run a house full a childern an keep a farm a’runnin’?”
“It’s not the same.”
“It ain’t? Fancy that. All them women keepin’ their farms runnin’ when their husbands wended off ta war. Ya sayin’ they din’t have no idea who would make a good President? Instead fellas are just born with this here natural ability ta make them thar comprehensive decisions. Is that what yer sayin?”
“Yes. Exactly.”
“Well sir, Ah gotta disagree. Men ain’t borned with’n no special ability makes ’em better ta votin’.”
“Of course you wouldn’t comprehend. You’re a woman.” His eyes widened when he realized the challenging remark he’d made to this woman that was such a good shot. He held his breath and watched carefully to see if her hand was headed toward her gun.
But Gaine just smirked, “Nossir, ya bees wrong. Ya see that feller over thar ‘n the corner? The one drunk as a fiddler?”
All eyes turned that way. A man in very dirty clothing had draped his torso on the darkened table, his eyes shut, a bottle of whiskey still in one hand.
“Disgraceful!” one of the men replied.
“Yep. He shore nuff t’is that,” Gaine replied. “An thar’s a right good chance he ain’t larned ta read ner write ner act as no educated ‘xample ta nobody.”
“Humpf. Correct!” the same man agreed.
“Well, that thar fella kin cast hisself a vote in eny e-lection he chooses. An he ain’t gonna be arrested. But me, Ah would be. He ain’t been borned with no magical ability causes him ta cast ‘n informed vote. None a’side the fact that menfolk got the power an’ kin prevent womenfolk from their fair process.” The men looked silently at the drunken man. “A war mighta been fought, fellas, but thar ain’t no emancipation fer the womenfolk.”
One of the associates groaned and Chester rose. “C’mon Gaine, let’s go chat over there,” he suggested.
“All right, but let’s move ta the door by the lobby,” Gaine agreed. She kept her eye on Meghan’s heavyset father as she and Chester moved toward the inside saloon door that led to the lobby.
The Deputy and Meghan’s father were leaned toward each other in heavy discussion across the room. She looked to the Marshal but another man had joined him and he hadn’t spotted the Deputy yet. Instead he was headed to the table where they were playing what looked like draw poker. Must be a potential problem there. Chester watched her move her gaze back to Meghan’s father.
“That despicable old fool.” Chester said. “Tried ta shoot ya in the back. An’ you unarmed. Had us all mighty concerned.”
“Yep,” Gaine agreed. She looked at Chester and smiled. “Good thing Ahd put me some blanks in that thar gun, huh?”
“My heavens! I had no idea. Yes, it was a good thing. You must have expected him to do that. I thought you were too fast for him and just rolled away.”
“Well, Ah mighta had. We ain’t never gonna know. He war a’sellin’ that thar snake oil regardin’ the moral fortitude a’ hisself, but his deeds jest din’t match up ta them claims. Ah figured his true nature wudda showed itself once’t he had a gun in hand. An it did.”
One of the men from the table approached them. “All right, you two settle it for us. Benjamin over there says that no man who’s been a Senator has ever become President. I agreed but Richmand says that’s not so. What do you two say?”
“I don’t rightly know,” Chester replied.
“What ’bout that feller that war up fer all that impeachment nonsense–Johnson,” Gaine suggested. “Waren’t he a Senator? Or war that after he war President?” Her eyes went to Meghan’s father and the Deputy. They were still speaking intently and Gaine was sure their purpose was to keep track of Meghan. She heard Chester’s voice and when she looked up again, the other man was gone.
Chester noted her distraction but smiled, “So, tell me about your cousin.”
Just then, reflected in the mirror behind the bar, Gaine saw Meghan dressed in her new dress with the thickly veiled hat and long black gloves. She entered the hotel and moved to the desk. It was odd how much the hat changed her looks.
The desk was still busy and she had to wait. Gaine’s stomach clenched. She knew Meghan had to be nearly sick with nerves as well. She hadn’t done as good a job as the other young lady pretending to be older, but she didn’t need to. Gaine was confident that a reasoning eye would see her as someone older than she was.
“Uh, didja say mah Cousin Minnie?” she asked, stalling. She watched the Deputy get up and move out of the saloon’s street door to the boardwalk outside. A glance at the Marshal still chatting in the back showed he hadn’t ever seen the other lawman. Hiram glanced over throwing her a smile that she nervously returned.
Gaine’s lips smiled but her eyes went back to taking in the happenings across the room. She glanced in the mirror at Meghan waiting then looked directly at Chester. “I’m here ta meet her, ya know. She’s a’comin back ta the ranch. My, the trouble we got inta as childern.” She shook her head with a chuckle but her eyes went back to Hiram who was again playing faro then to Meghan’s father.
Whatever Meghan’s father and the Deputy had talked about had restored some of the natural surliness in the miserable man’s demeanor. He had risen and was moving toward the bar. She glanced over and the Marshal was also headed back to the bar. She saw the small smile of victory on Meghan’s father’s face. Gaine wondered what the Deputy had advised Meghan’s Pa to tell the Marshal. What kinda snake oil tale are ya prepared ta spin now? she wondered.
She looked in the mirror and saw Meghan still at the desk. Well, maybe she could stop the blonde’s father’s progress as he moved closer to the lawman, who had stopped again to chat. She drew a coin from her vest and flipped it casually in the air, snatching it with a snap of her hand that caught the man’s eye.
Her blue eyes bore into his, his glued to hers with a look of defiance. She ruffled her brow in challenge and casually flicked the coin in the air once more. He paused. His hand went to his forehead and the slight mark left there by her rifle barrel. He remembered her telling him that this was between the two of them and no one else. She could see him pale as he ran his fingers over the coin he had in his jacket pocket. He seemed to be considering.
That’s right, ya rotten buzzard, ya jest think on it, she thought without breaking eye contact. Ah could walk over thar and we could jest speak ta the Marshal at the same time. Ya wanna chance bein’ arrested? Ahm ready!
“Or if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s all right, too,” Chester was saying. She brought her eyes back to him with a bit of a start. Stars! she grimaced, ah feel like one a them fellers a’jugglin a hundert things inta the air ta the same time.
“Uh, if’n ya doan mind, Ahd like ta hear somethin’ ’bout yer family,” she smiled warmly at the man and saw him respond before she glanced back in the mirror. Meghan was being waited on.
“My parents live back east…” Chester started. “There were fourteen children in our family but the two youngest died of Scarlet fever.”
“Sorry ta hear it,” she responded, letting her eyes go outside to where the Deputy had crossed the street and seemingly disappeared. It was dark and the street lights did not illuminate all that much. She wondered where he’d gone. Then in a dark store entry kiddycorner from the hotel she glimpsed the sudden glow from a smoke and knew that had to be him. He was standing where he could see all the doors of the hotel from both streets, including the employee’s entrance as well as both balconies.
She glanced over and saw that the blonde’s father was considering the fact that she was blocking his passage out of the saloon to the main staircase. Apparently he had decided not to talk to the Marshal. From his movements Gaine determined he was likely considering going back to his room, but didn’t want to pass by her. She didn’t budge from near the doorway.
The same scantilly clad sporting lady Gaine had chatted with earlier approached the old man. They spoke for a minute, he pulling out his pocketwatch as the two stood discussing something while apparently referencing the watch. She quickly left, flicking Gaine a hidden wink before moving toward the back tables. The old man’s eyes judgementally trailed her swaying behind as she walked away.
Gaine half-listened as Chester talked. She nodded in the appropriate places and grunted non-distinct agreements in other places. Meghan’s father looked toward her and had all the earmarks of a man trapped. The big man took a step toward the entrance to leave and Gaine moved to stand squarely in the doorway facing Chester, who was still talking.
She narrowed her eyes at Meghan’s father and he moved back to his place at the bar. She watched the desk in the mirror, being sure to ask a few questions of Chester as Meghan finally hurried up the stairs. The blonde was moving too fast to be very old. Gaine didn’t turn to face the desk and stairs at all, preferring to keep track in the mirror. That way Chester would think she was watching the heavy man nervously standing there.
She saw the blonde’s father look toward the desk as well and again she moved so that he would focus on her instead.
Outside on the street two covered Army wagons rattled up to the hotel, two soldiers per bench. The Deputy stepped out of his doorway to try and see around them since they were big enough to obscure his view of both hotel doorways. The wagons stopped and one of the men hopped down and ran into the desk.
“Hey, ain’t them the fellas from the stage?” Gaine asked, tipping her hat in their direction. Chester waved. Gaine saw Meghan’s father look that way as well.
“You’re right,” Chester grinned. “They said they’d be bringing supplies back to their fort. Wonder what they’re doing here and where the officer is?’
“Din’t the Lieutenant say he had hisself a meetin’ ta the Fort ‘n San Francisco?”
“Hey fellas, have a good trip home!” Chester called from the doorway.
“We will!” The man got the cigars that were left at the desk for them and hurried back out the door. “And thanks fer the smokes!”
“Wonder who left ’em cigars at the desk?” Chester said. Gaine didn’t answer.
She saw the Deputy outside walking around the wagons peering inside, seeing as much as he could by street light. Meghan’s father was also watching out the window. He appeared to be very nervous at the Army’s appearance. The soldier passed out the cigars to each man. Then the wagons started up again and headed down the street while the Deputy walked back to his doorway deep in thought.
Suddenly Gaine saw Meghan’s father turn to leave through the saloon employee’s back door that led to the back of the hotel. Damn! It hadn’t been a half hour. What could she do to stop him or slow him down? She’d have to catch him in the upstairs hall and back him down the back stairs that were there. It wouldn’t be easy. He’d be worried by what he saw and would want to verify that Meghan was in her bed and not hidden away in one of those Army wagons.
She quickly bid farewell to a disappointed Chester and wished him well. She ran up the stairs. She opened the door to her room, but her softly lit chamber was empty. The young womans’ disguise items were scattered everywhere and her bag was by the bed. Obviously Meghan had taken things off in a hurry. Quietly she stepped back out and shut the door.
He wasn’t in the dimly lit hallway. Then she heard him huffing up the back stairs and she tapped then quickly opened Meghan’s door. ‘He’s comin’,’ she said quietly into the darkened room and shut the door. The young woman had extinguished the lamp and was just climbing into bed. Her room was dark.
Gaine took long, hurried strides through the heavy shadows in the hall back to the main stairway. She moved down two steps, turned and started walking up again as though she had just come from the saloon to go to her room. She knew Meghan’s father was in the back of the darkened hall now watching her. She could hear him breathing in the shadows.
Meghan was already in bed so there was no need to confront him. He had stopped and was not continuing. She purposely did not look that way but she could feel his hateful eyes on her. Well, if he wanted a show, she’d give him one!
She got to her room, opened her door and exclaimed, ‘Cousin Minnie! Ya made it! It’s sa good to see ya after all this time. Ya look simply grand, darlin’.’ She stepped into her room and heard him start moving down the hall. She closed the door as she heard him open his daughter’s door. He hadn’t even tapped on Meghan’s door this time. He’s gotta be plum nervous ’bout her a’runnin’ off, she mused, he ain’t even knockin’. Them Army boys shore done shook him up.
She listened with her ear to the door. She heard his lion’s voice growling in a warning tone. She waited. He must be checking the window, she guessed. Still she waited. Finally she heard him walking back down the hall to his own room. Now they waited. She chatted to the room as she picked up the mantilla and folded it and then gathered the gloves. They’d need to organize Meghan’s things as well as her own.
Ten minutes or so later there was a light tap on the door. Gaine opened it and a flushed Meghan was there holding her bag. “Hurry,” she breathed, “there’s people coming up the stairs.” She hastily pulled the door shut behind her.
‘Can we go now?’ green eyes pleaded, ‘I’ve got all my things from that room.’ She was wearing the new dress her mother had made her with all her petticoats pulled on over her nightshirt underneath. She had her bag with her other underclothes. “I’d already packed my unmentionables earlier. I had to dress in the dark and pack my other dress. I’d left it out earlier especially for father to see. But I’m sure I got everything.”
‘Uh, wer a’takin’ the mornin’ stage back.’
‘What? We’re waiting till morning? Oh, Gaine! My stomach is doing flips.”
Meghan stood chewing her lip. Gaine stepped forward and put her arms around the small blonde. She felt horrible that Meghan was so frightened. “Ah knows…”
“Wait! You said we’re going back? Where you got on the stage, you mean?” Meghan took two steps back, her face registering concern.
“No, ta mah town, Barden’s Corner. T’is a couple days ride away from that thar stage stop where Ah got on.”
“Oh, heavens. I…I didn’t give this any thought.” Meghan began to pace the small room. “How can I go back there, Gaine?” Large green eyes implored the brunette, “We’ll be so close. What if he finds me? He’ll look…hard.’
‘He ain’t gonna find ya. Ah pondered this heavy, Meghan. ‘Member, we ain’t goin’ all the way back ta yer ole hometown–we’re a’goin’ ta the ranch on this here side’a the mountains. He’d never think ta look thar. He ain’t got no reason ta. He’d think like yer a’thinkin’ now, that ya wunt never go back that a’way in a hundert years. An’ he ain’t gonna wanna come an’ meet up with’n ME agin.”
Meghan stopped and raised sadly etched green eyes toward Gaine. She sighed heavily. Gaine stepped forward and took her hand, “No one ta Barden’s Corner’s gonna know who ya be. Yer Pa ain’t gonna see that you and me gots no connection. Ahve worked hard ta make me an him a frightful differ’nt problem he’s a’gonna wanna abnegate like’n the plague. Ya outta be right safe thar.’
Meghan’s teeth chewed on her lower lip as she worried. She didn’t want to be that close to her old home but she wanted to be with Gaine. “Gods!” She pulled her hand back. “We have to wait till morning?’ She rubbed her hands across her face. ‘What if he has the hotel searched when he sees I’m gone?”
Gaine gently took her hand again. “He ain’t a’gonna see yer gone. Not early on, leastwise. Yu’ll be in yer own bed near till time ta leave. Ahl knock lightly three times when them sportin’ ladies from the saloon sally off. One a’ them ladies tole me they, uh, finish with’n thar customers an de-part jest a’fore the stage gets in so’s they ain’t seen. Theys go out ta the employee’s entrance so’s nobody complains an they pile inta a big ole carriages that takes ’em back ta where they got rooms up the street.”
“The ladies in the saloon?”
“Yep. The sportin’ ladies. That’s when yu’ll come ta mah room. Yer Pa’ll be tired an likely a’snorin’ by then. Ah seen him a’jawin’ with’n one a them soiled doves. Do he ever, uh, participate in sech, uh, happenin’s?”

Meghan mutely nodded “yes”. It was not something her family ever discussed or admitted but this was hardly the time to be coy about her father’s predilections.
“Ah figured. Well, we jest gotta sneak ya ta mah room. When he sees yer missin’, first thing he’s gonna do is check on them ladies an see if’n ya left with’n ’em. Once’t he’s done trackin’ ’em down, we’ll be gone. An ‘member, Ah kin al’ays have ‘im arrested if’n need be.”
‘Oh, Gods! I’m frightened, Gaine. I don’t think I can sleep.’
Gaine put her arms around the young woman. ‘We gotta take the chance. Ya done vera good registerin’, by the way. Ya din’t look nothin’ like Meghan in that get-up.’ She kissed Meghan on the forehead. They stood in the embrace for a few minutes, neither wanting to move. Meghan held on tight in what Gaine knew was real fear.
Gaine chuckled, hoping to alleviate some of the tension, “Them Army boys went by and it set yer Pa and that thar Deputy fella off. Ahm shore theys had visions a ya a’ridin’ off with’n one a them Army fellers. T’wixt them an’ the ladies, they ain’t gonna know whar ya gone.”
“Deputy fella? Was Lendal’s cousin here?”
“Yep. He’s a standin’ watch ‘cross’t the street. But doan fret, he din’t get out thar till ya war a’comin’ inta the hotel as Cousin Minnie,” she exclaimed.
“Oh, now I’m really frightened!” Meghan tightened her hold on the tall beauty.
“Yer twenty-one, Meghan,” Gaine soothed. “And ya ain’t married ta Lendal. So’s ya ain’t breakin’ no law that ah know ’bout by leavin’.”
“But what if I get dragged before a judge? My father would demand it.”
“Well, that thar’s the reason we wanna git ya outta here without ya bein’ seed. Ya doan never know what one a them judges might adjudicate. They ain’t all friendly ta the idea uva woman bein’ independent. Some is, but some ain’t.”
“Oh, Gaine, can’t I stay with you? It’s so frightening being alone over there.”
“Ah know, but if’n yer Pa sees yer gone, he’s gonna have that thar Deputy here a’helpin’ him search ‘n no time. Ah doan believe they got cause ta go room ta room, but they’d be alerted an checkin’ ever which way. Best they not be a’knowin’ nothin’ too soon. The longer we kin hold that thar off, the better.”
“What are you going to do about the Deputy when the stage comes? He’ll see me coming out with you.”
“If’n he’s still thar an not a’helpin yer Pa check the ladies, we’ll jest walk right on out past ‘im. He saw ya come in ta register. He knows ya as mah Cousin Minnie. He ain’t gonna be ‘spicious a ya. But if’n he war, he’s gotta git by me and Ah ain’t gonna give ‘im access ta mah Cousin. No, t’is best ya jest stay in yer room till it’s time. Ahl knock. He ain’t the Deputy fer here, so’s he can’t do no demandin’.”
“All right. I said I’d do my part, and I will.” Large green eyes looked up at Gaine as the blonde chewed her lip then took a deep quivering breath. “But I’m very frightened,” she whispered. She sighed and shut her eyes, burying her face in Gaine’s shoulder.
“Ah know ya be.” Gaine enfolded her more firmly in her arms and squeezed tenderly. She hated that this was so hard on the smaller woman. “But t’will be fine. Sometimes the best move t’is one right under thar noses. T’is least ‘spected.” Gaine shut her eyes and breathed in the scent of the small woman’s hair. It felt so good holding her close but after a few minutes Gaine leaned back from the embrace and whispered. “Ah ain’t gonna be far off. Are ya gonna be all right now? Are ya ready ta go back?”
“No, but I will,” Meghan ran a shaky hand through her disheveled blonde hair.
Suddenly there was a piercing shout, ‘HELP! MOLESTER! HELP! HELP!’ Gaine pushed Meghan back, drew her gun and opened the door a crack. It was just enough to see the back of Meghan’s father in the darkened hall by Meghan’s room scooting quickly toward his own room near the back stairs, his head down and his feet shuffling quickly.
The Marshal came running up the stairs two at a time, his gun drawn, a brace of hotel porters at his heels. Gaine eased the door shut even more. Two gentlemen guests stepped out of one of the even numbered rooms further down from Meghan’s room and nabbed her father as he tried to scurry by. He was instantly angry and shouted demands that they set him free at once. They dragged him back to outside Meghan’s room where the Marshal stood scratching his head.
‘I know important people,’ Meghan’s father hollered. ‘Unhand me at once!’
Doors along the hall were opening, heads were popping out. Lying half out of Meghan’s room was a heavy grey-haired dowager clad only in her long chemise, petticoats and corset. The expensive dress she’d just pulled over her head was billowed on the floor just inside her room. The woman had obviously fainted.
‘I’ll, uh, just grab a blanket here,’ the Marshal said, stepping over the woman. ‘Shut yer eyes, folks. This woman deserves some privacy. Cover ’em up now!’
The hotel people and guests covered their eyes but the Marshal noted that the man apprehended did not. He continued to scowl at the woman on the floor. Just as you’d expect from someone who tries to shoot a woman in the back, the Marshal thought to himself. Obviously there is no honor with this man!
“Shut your eyes, sir!” he demanded and Meghan’s father squinched his mouth in protest then reluctantly did as he was told.
The Marshal threw the coverlet he pulled from the bed over the woman to cover her indecency. He stepped over her into the hall and dragged Meghan’s father to the side more out of the way. One of the hotel personnel ran the hotel’s green bottle of smelling salts up the stairs to revive the hapless woman.
‘Unhand me this instant,’ the portly man demanded of the Marshal, ‘My daughter’s in that room.’ The Marshal stood him in one place and told him firmly to stay there. He peered back over the fallen woman into Meghan’s room and looked into all the shadows but saw no one else there. He pointed to the woman on the floor. ‘You sayin’ this here’s your daughter?’
Meghan’s father growled, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not my daughter. My daughter’s seventeen years old. Meghan!’ he yelled. ‘Meghan, get out here at once! DON’T MAKE ME HAVE TO COME AND FIND YOU!’
Inside Gaine’s room Meghan’s hands flew to her mouth. ‘He’s calling for me,’ she said in a whisper. ‘He knows I’m not there. Already he knows. It’s too soon.’
‘Yep,’ Gaine said from the door. “Put out that thar lamp, will ya? Ah think we done got us a change a’ plans here.”
Megan moved quickly and turned the wick till the light disappeared. “Heavens to Betsy, what do we do now?” she whispered. She wrung her hands and stayed away from the door. Gaine kept her eye to the crack in the door.
“Jest relax,” she whispered back to the blonde, “He doan got no idea whar ya be.’
The woman in the hall moaned under the influence of the vapors and sat up with help from the night clerk. She pulled the coverlet around her girth. Then she spotted Meghan’s father. She began to scream, “Oh, he’s the one! That’s him!”
“All right, Missus,” the Marshal’s deep voice calmed, “Tell me what happened.
‘Horrible,” the woman sat upright and clutched the coverlet further around her front. “It’s so horrible,” she put her face in the wad of coverlet in her hand and sobbed before looking up again. ‘I was disrobing. I’d barely gotten into my room. He must have been watching, waiting for this opportunity to strike.’
“You just got to your room?” the Marshal asked.
“Yes. Just long enough to remove my dress and there he was…inside my room!”
“He was inside?” the Marshal quizzed. He cast a scorching look at Meghan’s father.
“Yes,’ she continued, ‘I screamed. It must have frightened him, because he didn’t even try to leave till I did. His intentions were…oh, my,’ she sobbed as they waited patiently. She paused and raised her eyes to the Marshall, ‘He had sins of the flesh on his mind,’ she whispered. The thought made her weak and she started to faint again but the vapors were hastily thrust under her nose. She pushed them away.
‘Easy now, ma’am,’ the Marshal soothed.
‘This is outrageous,’ Meghan’s father growled. ‘Who would be interested in that old bag of wind? This is my daughter’s room. I walked in to check on her. MEGHAN! WHERE ARE YOU? COME HERE THIS INSTANT!’
The large woman’s eyes narrowed at the name he’d called her and her tears stopped. She sat up straight from her slump, pointed at him, ‘There’s no daughter here, Marshal. Look for yourself.”
The Marshal stretched his head in the woman’s room as much past the sitting woman as he dared. The lamp was lit within. “Yes, Missus, I have to agree.” He turned to Meghan’s father as he withdrew his head, “Bed’s made. No luggage but this lady’s engraved case. No sign of any daughter.’
“Did ya make the bed a’fore ya left?” Gaine asked Meghan in a whisper.
“Oh, sorry,” she whispered back.
“T’were a right good thing, Ahm a’thinkin’,” Gaine replied. “Wanna watch?” She moved so they both could look through the crack .
“She was there, uh, in bed, less than a half hour ago,” Meghan’s father stuttered.
“Uh huh. So are ya saying your daughter got up, dressed, packed her bag, made the bed, then disappeared into thin air in a half hour’s time? Is that yer claim?”
“No woman could dress that fast, much less make the bed,” the woman on the floor snapped, “It’s lies, lies.” She wadded the coverlet again with both hands, pulling it around her ample bosom. “He meant to..’ she trembled, ‘do his vile deed. Ohhhh.’ She gasped and buried her face in her hands.
“I’m NOT lying, my daughter was there in bed, I tell you. Just a seventeen year old girl. She must have been kidnapped! You must help me find her.”
“Uh huh,” the Marshal muttered. They all looked at the older man with total disregard. It was pretty obvious he was trying to talk himself out of his crime.
Meghan could hear her father’s words rumble down the hall and into Gaine’s room. “That is a lie,” she hissed vehemently. “I’m twenty-one and he knows it.”
“He be’s a’thinkin’ they ain’t gonna look fer ya lest yer younger,” Gaine replied.
‘Kidnappers who made the bed before they hauled her off?’ the Marshall raised his brow. ‘Not likely.’ He rubbed his chin in thought.
‘There’s no daughter in here,’ the woman on the floor cried, ‘Never has been. And there’s no honor in this man. No, his were vile, ugly intentions. I saw how he looked at me! Lawsy! It makes me shiver to think about it. Oh, Edgar was right.” Again tears flowed. “Arrest this man, Marshal,” she sobbed, “Do your job.’
One of the men from down the hall stood with a long thin stick or piece of straw sticking out of his mouth. It was hard to tell what it was in the shadowed hallway. He moved it to the side with his fingers and chewed. ‘He was a’scootin’ right along a’tryin’ ta make his a’gittin’ away all right, Marshal,’ he said slowly. ‘Innocent fellers don’t try ta run.’ He took the thing out of his mouth and pointed it at Meghan’s father. “That feller, right there.”
He was one of the men who had captured the heavy man as he made his way down the hall. The other man with him shook his head in agreement, “Just so.”
The Marshall’s shield-shaped badge flickered reflected light from the hall lantern. He stood pensively with his hat in one hand, the other rumpling his long, lonely strands of brown hair swept across the crown of his balding head.
‘That man molested me. I demand his arrest. He was in my room and he had evil intent in his heart, Marshal. Oh, I should have listened to my dear husband,’ the grey-haired matron wailed. ‘He said not to come into the city till he could be with me. He said it had grown far too dangerous. But I didn’t listen.’
‘Shut your mouth, you stupid old woman,’ Meghan’s father demanded. The woman gasped. The older man turned to the Marshal. His face was red and splotched with anger, ‘Why are you listening to this plug-ugly female? She has no reasoning. Females aren’t capable of reasoning. You need to be listening to me. Unhand me at once. You’ll be very sorry you’ve detained me. I’ll have your job. You don’t know how many important people I know.’
‘Well, as I see it, you’re gonna be a’needin’ ’em,’ the Marshal proclaimed. ‘We’ll just be locking you up and let the judge decide.’
“You can’t lock me up. What charge?” the irate man hollered. “This’s an outrage!”
“Molestation,” the Marshal replied, then added in deep tones, “But I reckon I could tack on attempted murder for that business you pulled with that tall woman on the stage. You keep a’jawin’ that a’way and I’ll do just that.”
‘Mercy, he tried to KILL another woman?’ the victim’s eyes widened and her lashes fluttered. Her face paled. She saw the hotel employee’s hand holding the smelling salts move toward her nose and recovered instantly. ‘Why wasn’t he in jail? He could have MURDERED me. Why is he free? It’s your job to keep us safe. I’m so sorry, Edgar,’ she wailed to her non-present husband. ‘Next time I’ll listen to you, my darling. I promise.’
‘Well, now, I’m sure the judge’ll be happy to hear that you’re fine, Missus,’ the Marshal said uncomfortably. ‘This man’s not already in jail because the other woman decided not to press charges. But you be sure the judge knows we caught him right off.’ He clamped his hand harder on Meghan’s father’s arm.
The woman on the floor did not reply. Mr. Fitzgeraldson was tugged toward the stairs intensely complaining all the way. “No, stop! Where are you taking me? I demand my rights!” He and the Marshal headed down the stairs. “MEGHAN!’
“Well now, you’re a’headed ta jail, charged with molesting that fine woman so’s ya might as well stop your hollering. You’ll be examined before the judge which will commence in the morning. Dependin’ on the outcome, you’ll either be offered bond or be bound over to jail to wait for the action of the grand jury at the next meetin’ of the circuit court. And if I see that tall gal around that you tried to shoot in the back, I’ll be adding further charges.”
“You can’t arrest me for this,” the man began to babble, “Wh.. bu..I’m innocent!”
“Well, sir, yes I can arrest you. And I am. That’s my job, ya see.”
“I didn’t molest that old hag. I didn’t lay a finger on her. Who’d want to? I was merely checking on my daughter. Check at the desk. Meghan was assigned to that room. Meghan Fitzgeraldson. Check!”
The Marshal stopped at the desk but all the desk personnel were up helping mollify the agitated woman. At that moment they were offering the Judge’s wife the finest suite they had available since she demanded to be moved. Cautiously they helped her to her feet with the coverlet wrapped modestly around her. The chambermaid rushed to aid the woman while the rest stood in the hall waiting for her to dress. Other room doors shut and finally things began to settle down.
Downstairs Mr. Fitzgeraldson was pleading his case, “Meghan was assigned that room, I tell you! She’s been there all evening and now she’s gone missing– kidnapped…seventeen years old is all. We ate dinner in the dining room.” They both looked towards the dining room, but it was closed for the night. “Check with them. You can’t arrest me. You need to be searching for her.”
“Well, let me just take a look here,” the Marshal kept one hand on Meghan’s father’s arm and drew from his pocket some wire-rimmed glasses with his other hand. He slipped them on and ran his finger down the many names scrawled in the register till he found Mr. Fitzgeraldson. There was no notation regarding a daughter although his name was underlined as were a few of the others.
The Marshal wondered what that meant but there was no one there at the moment to tell him. “Nope. Nothin’ there ’bout a daughter. No Meghan here. Come on, now. We’re heading to jail.”
“Ask the clerk, they were busy. He probably just forgot to mark it. Ask him. My seventeen year old daughter, kidnapped. You must start searching for her. You can’t blame a father for being worried. Stop!”
“Uh huh. I’ve heard me some stories since I took this job. Gotta admit, you’re good. C’mon.” He pulled the man toward the door.
A listening crowd had gathered at the inside door of the saloon, one of whom was the soiled dove who had spoken with Mr. Fitzgeraldson earlier. ‘Ya haulin’ him off, Marshal?’ she asked with concern.
He pulled the man next to her and asked softly, ‘You losing business on this?’
‘Yes,’ she quirked her brow. ‘Looks like he was trying to get it for free.’
‘Mmm.’ He looked up at the crowd, ‘Show’s over folks.’ The Marshal, increased his grip and pulled Mr. Fitzgeraldson into the street.
“Deputy!” Meghan’s father called desperately across the dark street to the man in the shadows. “She’s gone, she’s missing. I’m being arrested. It’s a setup. Help me!”
“Deputy?” the Marshal asked, looking in the direction the man was calling but he saw nothing in the darkness. “I’m a Marshal, sir. One of my Deputys is ill and the other’s on vacation. So there’s no Deputy here.” Pancakes, is this man delusional now? Surely he can read my badge!
“Goddammit!” the Deputy in the doorway muttered to himself, holding his cigar behind him. ‘That old fool.’ The Marshal would not be happy to know he was there and had set up surveillance in his town! One had to be very careful about jurisdictions with some lawmen. He’d wait till they left. Maybe he could go into jail and ask for favors, one lawman to another, if he had to. And maybe he wouldn’t have to. He stepped back further in the dark doorway.
“They’re gone,” Gaine said, shutting the door softly.
“Good!’ Meghan stated, her brows furrowed. ‘I wish we could go right now!’
‘Ah know. But Ah think t’is safer if’n we stay. Doan ferget that thar Deputy’s still out thar. Ya brung all yer things from yer room? Ya din’t leave nothin’?”
“No, I didn’t leave anything, but that’s my father’s carpetbag,’ Meghan said pointing to her bag. ‘Knowing him, he’ll claim I stole it.’ She began to wring her hands and Gaine knew how horribly nervous she must be.
‘We’ll jest leave it ‘n his room, than,’ Gaine suggested softly.
Meghan smiled wanly. ‘Yes, I’d like that. I don’t want anything of his.’
“Good, we gots mine ta use. Ahl be a’wearin mah clean clothes and so’ul you. We kin leave yer old dress. T’is too identifiable. One bag should work jest fine.’
“Yes, I’ll take off my nightshirt and dress properly. Would you take out everything in the case except the dress for me, please? Oh, and can you get me a paper and something to write with?”
‘Ya wanna leave a note?’ Gaine wasn’t sure that was a good idea. She upended the entire case on the bed and pulled out the dress from the smaller items. She saw the boot polishing materials tumble out. “Ya doan want them thar polishin’ materials, neither. Leave ’em fer him ta use fer hisself fer once’t!” She tossed in the polishing supplies then began to jam the yards of the dresses’ skirt back into the carpetbag. It had a good four yards or more of skirt material.
The wilted wildflower also fell onto the bed and Meghan grabbed it instantly so Gaine could not put it back in her father’s case.
“Ya doan wanna keep that, does ya?” Gaine asked incredulously. It was wilted and barely holding together.
“Yes,” Meghan replied, clutching it to herself.
“Ahl git ya ‘nother un,” Gaine said softly. “That ‘uns wilted.”
“No, I’ll keep this one.” She put it gently atop Gaine’s bag. “Don’t forget paper.”
“Oh, right.” She shot a doubtful look Meghan’s way.
‘I don’t want father claiming I was kidnapped. And if he thinks I’ve married, they won’t consider that I’d be with you and maybe Lendal will give up.’ Her fingers tapped nervously on the bag then she stuffed her brush into Gaine’s bag and carefully added the flower with it.
‘Naw. He’ll demolish that thar note and avow kidnappin’ nohow.’
‘I know. But maybe he’ll spend his time checking with churches or judges or other wedding officials while we get away.’
Gaine spoke softly, “T’would be best fer usn’s ta acquaint as few falsehoods ta all this here as we kin.”
“Yes. I thought of that. I won’t say I’m getting married. I’ll just imply it.”
“Hmm.” Gaine hated deception and loathed that it was necessary at all. “Aw wished Ah could marry ya,” she mumbled aloud.
“You do?” Meghan’s head flew up and her cheeks flushed slightly. She wished that more than anything, but she hadn’t dared mention it. Did Gaine feel the same way? She ran her eyes tenderly over the tall brunette.
Gaine realized what she’d said and began to blush a little herself. How presumptuous she’d been. She added hastily, “Uh, yep, uh, t’would git ya from yer Pa an’ prevent Lendal from a’tryin’ ta force-marry ya.” If they could legally marry, they’d simply walk away and Gaine’d use her guns for protection. She was good at that.
The tall woman watched in confusion as Meghan’s shoulders slumped. “Oh,” the blonde replied.
Puzzled, Gaine sighed, stuffing the last yard of the dress in the case, “Ah kin rip ya off half’n the parlance the Lieutenant done give me,” she suggested, “An they gots fancy writin’ accouterments ‘n the hall. Ah’ll bring ’em in here fer ya.”
“Parlance?”
“Yep. He writ me out his ad-dress.” She drew the note out of her pocket and carefully tore off the Lieutenant’s name and address and placed it back in her pocket. She handed the rest to Meghan then quickly moved into the hall and brought in the inkwell, pen and penwipe.
“Thank you,” Meghan took the paper to the stand and started writing in careful script. ‘As I’m 21, I’m leaving of my own free will and making my own marriage choices,” she wrote in steady, firm cursive, “By the time you read this, it will be too late. Don’t try to find us. Meghan.’
“There!” she exclaimed, using the penwipe to blot what she had written. “No falsehoods. Hopefully it will keep him off our trail.” But she knew for sure what it would do was make both Lendal and her father furious. No one in her family told her father what they were going to do. He made all the decisions. She shuddered at the thought of their fury, then deciding their fury would be there regardless. She firmed her chin and handed the note to Gaine.
Gaine read it and nodded solemnly. Obviously this was something Meghan needed to do to claim her own life. “Yes,” she replied. She hurriedly replaced the writing supplies back in the hall desk. Coming back into the room, she picked up the bag. “Ahl set this here’n his room whilst ya change.” She jammed the note inside the open case and moved toward the door, “Be raht back.”
A flick of light on metal caught Meghan’s eye. “Gaine?” she asked when the tall woman got to the door.
“Yes?” Gaine turned around and Megan approached. She reached to the tall woman’s vest pocket and drew out the badge.
Her eyes widened to huge circles. “What’s this?” she gasped. “You’re….a… a…Sheriff?” She grasped the doorknob and wrenched the door open. “No!” The word was a furtive cry and she dropped the badge as though it were on fire.
Thoughts of Gaine’s betrayal flooded her mind. It was a Sheriff’s duty to return runaways. Why was she doing this…pretending to help when duty would require that she turn Meghan back to her father? She knew what had happened in Ruby’s escape. Confused and startled by the finding, she rushed out into the empty hall. “No!” she said again between choked sobs. She threw her hand over her mouth to control her sobs while she rushed down the hall.
Gaine bent to pick up the badge, jammed it in her vest pocket, then rushed after her. The hall was empty of people as Meghan rushed past the main staircase for the back one. Gaine ran close after her. As the tall brunette passed the main stairs from the lobby, she glimpsed Lendal’s Deputy cousin with his hand on the bannister, headed up the stairs. Fortunately his head was turned toward the unmanned front desk and she prayed he had not yet glimpsed either of them.
Throwing the arm carrying the carpetbag around Meghan’s waist to stop her, Gaine clamped her other hand over the blonde’s mouth. “Shh. Ain’t what ya think, Meg,” she whispered in her ear. “You’re safe with’n me. Shhh!”
She looked around frantically, her keen eyes and ears ever alert. She could hear the tread of the man’s boots on the stairs.
The Deputy eased up the stairs past the empty desk, his mind reeling. Had to be the Army boys. Why else would they be by here in their wagons? But was that old fool in on it? Was he cheatin’ Lendal? That’s the question. He whined about everyone..some flirting Lieutenant and that trousered woman in the saloon. Made a huge stinkin’ fuss ’bout her the same time his daughter’s slippin’ out. Sneaky bastard! Used the tall grubber as a diversion while the girl’s runnin’ off with the officer, I’ll just bet on it. I’ll sure as hell look for clues. Stinkin’ little bitch of his don’t have much of a headstart.
Gaine knew they didn’t have time to make it to the back staircase before he’d see them. Her heart began to pound. This was a vicious man but she didn’t want to have to shoot him. That would create all kinds of problems, none of them helpful.
She noticed they were by Meghan’s father’s room. Frantically she pushed and it opened. She dragged the small blonde in and quickly shut the door. She silently set the bag by the father’s bag then pulled a stunned Meghan behind the door.
Gaine leaned close to Meghan’s ear. “Quiet!” she demanded in a whisper, “and stay right here.” She pushed the blonde in back of her as they stood waiting.
Her back against the wall and Gaine’s tall body pressing against her in front, Meghan stood wide-eyed, terrified. No sooner did they get there than the door slowly began opening and in the crack with the lamplight from the corridor backlighting him, she could just make out the Deputy’s badge… Lendal’s cousin! He was not looking her way and Meghan turned her face away from the door and held her breath. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Gaine drew her gun.
Lendal’s cousin glanced both directions in the passageway before stepping in. Goddammit, wretched bitch! Lendal said to make sure she didn’t run off and now she’s gone. Hellfire! Lendal’ll be furious. And that means somebody’s gonna suffer dearly. It ain’t gonna be me.
He had no right to be there, but he didn’t care. He didn’t trust the whining old fool. He’d check Fitzgeraldson’s room before he did anything else. Besides, the hotel people hadn’t seen him sneak up the stairs. Only one porter had been downstairs, and he was outside stealing a quick smoke while it was quiet.
He’d already checked with that porter once the Marshal and old man Fitzgeraldson left. The stupid old man had been yelling that his daughter was missing. This porter fellow said he’d been there all evening and he hadn’t seen the girl. The Deputy had stepped into the saloon and quickly asked around. One fellow had seen the blonde in the dining room at dinner time, described what she was wearing but hadn’t seen her anywhere else.
With the lamplight shining near the door in the hall, his eyes didn’t have a chance to get used to the dark room. He stepped in cautiously. Suddenly in a ray of lamplight from the hall, he spotted the hem of the described dress sticking out of a carpetbag on the floor by the bed no more than three feet in front of the open door. “What the hell…?” He stepped toward the bag.
Swift as water over a fall, the butt of Gaine’s gun came down hard on the back of his head and the man crumpled to the ground unconscious. He’d had no time to see anything before his world went completely black. Meghan shut the door silently and stared in the darkened room at the shadowy figure at Gaine’s feet.
“Help me get ‘im inta that thar bed case some’un comes a’pokin’ ’round,” Gaine whispered to Meghan. She pushed both bags away from the bed with her foot. “Pull back them covers. We’ll put ‘im under ’em. Some’un comes in, they’ll find ‘im here a’sleepin’ an maybe they ain’t gonna call the Marshal.”
Meghan quickly pulled back the covers and they struggled to push and slide the dead weight of the large body underneath the unwilling sheets–boots, jacket and all. Once they both got him there, after much grunting and groaning on their part, they pulled the covers up to his head and left his hat on the bedpost.
Gaine grabbed Meghan’s hand. “C’mon! He ain’t gonna be out that long.” She pulled her to the door, opened it, checked the hall, shut the door softly behind them then hustled them both back to her room.
Once they were safely in the room, Gaine pulled a reluctant blonde into a hug. “It ain’t whatcha think,” she told the small woman softly. “If’n yu’ll sit, Ahl ‘splain t’all ta ya.” Their flickering lantern light outlined Meghan’s confused face.
The small blonde mutely left the embrace and sat on the bed while Gaine checked the door. Worried green eyes looked over as Gaine sat beside her. The brunette began to explain how her job did not entail the same duties as most Sheriffs’ jobs. She defined the terms of her hiring.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” the blonde asked, wanting to believe but still unsure.
“Ah ain’t here o-fficially. Ahs here ta get Cousin Minnie. Din’t seem important.”
“Not important? Gaine, it’s your duty to return me to my father.”
“No, t’ain’t. That t’ain’t ‘just’. Ahd never do that. Ah ‘splained that. Ah serves justice. Sides,” she added softly, “ya din’t marry Lendal. So’s that’ll leave him outta that thar ownership corral. We gotta ponder ’bout any a’ yer Pa’s legal rights. Ah figure he ain’t got none ta mah town.”
“They’ll come after me,” Megan said shivering. “And if they find me, I’m dead…or worse!”
“They ain’t gonna find ya,” Gaine replied. “Please trust me. Ahl git ya ‘way. But this ain’t the best time ta be out a’runnin’ ta them empty streets a’tryin’ ta git hosses. They’s gonna figure ya’d do that. Ah ‘spect that’s whar they’s r’gonna be a’lookin’. Now, they knows mah Cousin Minnie’s here. They seen ya sign in. They ain’t gonna ‘spect ya. Sides, Ah done gots me a little leeway, bein’ a Sheriff n’ all.”
“Do you think so?”
“Ah do.” She looked into troubled sea-green eyes. “Kin ya sleep now?” Gaine asked softly. “We got us’ns the time an’ we’s gonna need ta be rested.”
Meghan remained on the edge of the bed, rubbing her neck anxiously. Everything within her was saying to run, to get away as soon, as far and as fast as possible. She gazed at the tall woman. No, despite everything, she did trust Gaine and she’d do as Gaine asked. “No. I’m sure I won’t be able to sleep.”
Gaine took her hand in her own. “Ya should try. Tamorra’s gonna be a long day.”
Meghan’s eyes swept to the door. Her voice dropped to a whisper, “He could come searching here, though, couldn’t he?” She felt herself begin to tremble.
“Nuh uh.” Gaine slipped her arm around the blonde and Meghan leaned into her, “What’d be his reason ta search? He shore ain’t gonna admit he war in yer Pa’s room. Sides, hotel ain’t gonna let ‘im wake folks.”
“Will he see our light under the door?”
“Doan think sa. But let’s be shore.’ Gaine blew the lamp out.
Meghan pulled away. “Lord, Gaine! How can you stand this?” Her mind was swirling. Tears sprung to her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Shhh. T’is all right.” Gaine protectively put both arms around the blonde who reached up a hand to quickly wipe the tears from her eyes.
“Ah ain’t gonna let ’em hurt ya, Meg. Ah cares sa much ’bout ya.”
“He’s vicious, Gaine!” More tears fell and Meghan angrily wiped them away.
“Ahl git us ‘way if’n Ah gotta shoot us out, darlin’,” Gaine coaxed, snuggling closer. “But Ah ain’t gonna hafta. ‘Member, Ah outrank ‘im if’n’t comes ta that.”
But she didn’t outrank the Marshal and this was his town. The Deputy could go for his assistance, and she knew that. But what could he say? He wouldn’t want to admit he’d been checking around at the hotel without the Marshal’s permission. No. She knew his type. He’d wait in ambush if he had any idea of what was really happening. And she was quite certain he had no idea at all.
Slowly the words sunk in. Gaine was a Sheriff and Lendal’s cousin was only a Deputy. Meghan allowed herself to sink against the tall beauty. She shut her eyes. “Don’t let me go,” she whispered.
Gaine’s lips brushed across Meghan’s temple. “Ah ain’t gonna. Not never.”
Pressed together in their embrace Gaine felt the world and its troubles drift away. How was it this small blonde could do that to her with just a touch? In the dark Gaine felt the blonde’s face rise towards her. Ahm gonna kiss ‘er. Her head lowered and before she knew it, she was claiming Meghan’s soft, warm lips, giving herself to the sweet taste of the blonde’s mouth. It was new to both of them, but neither wished to stop.
At first it was tender, then it became more demanding. Meghan’s hands rose, rustling into Gaine’s hair, pulling her to herself, adding an urgency to the kiss until they were both gasping when they finally came up for air.
Meghan sighed. “Oh Gaine, I’ve wanted that since we’ve met.”
‘Ya wanted mah kiss?’
‘Yes,’ Meghan whispered. ‘But I only wanted to kiss you. No one else.’
Gaine pressed her lips back to reclaim Meghan’s once more. Meghan groaned and melted into this kiss but pulled away with reluctance before it escalated. “Have you….ever done this before?” she asked the tall beauty.
“No. Ah ain’t never felt this way ’bout no one a’fore,” Gaine sighed.
‘Me, either.’ Meghan closed her eyes and let a feeling of contentment ease the turmoil of emotions threatening her. “Could you…hold me while we wait?”
“Shore. Move over onta the bed an Ahl hold ya.” An maybe kiss ya oncet er twicet agin, she thought with a twinkle in her eye.
-***-
The Deputy’s head was throbbing. His eyes wouldn’t focus and the sheets and blankets were trapping him in place. In anger he wrenched his way from underneath, fighting the bed coverings until he sat ruffled on the edge of the bed, running his hand over the sore lump on the back of his head. He shut his eyes to avoid the wave of nausea. Then he fumbled for a lucifer and lit the center lamp.
He had to sit back down quickly with his head in his hands to let the squeamishness pass. He dragged the carpetbag with the dress towards him with his foot. Reaching carefully, he rumpled around inside, locating the note.
“Goddammit!” he stormed as he tried to make out the words. He didn’t read well, but he had a good idea what the note said. “That little bitch thinks she’s gonna tell us what she’s gonna do? That female needs lessons in obedience. Severe lessons! Lendal’ll kill ‘er and she’ll deserve it. And whoever she’s run off with is gonna get a mighty unpleasant surprise when I cut off his manhood. Probably thinks marryin’ her will keep Lendal away.” He snorted in ridicule.
He looked more closely at the note. “This is the kind of paper the Army uses,” he murmured suspiciously. “I knew it had to be the Army men.”
He rubbed his chin. “But who hit me and lifted me into this bed?” The only thing he remembered was the very faint scent of something, floral maybe. He touched the sore lump on his head. It couldn’t have been the little blonde bitch. He was was hit too high and he weighed too much. Besides, she wouldn’t dare.
He sat mulling it over. Had to be a man…no, men. Men might wear colognes that smelled like flowers. Something to cover their sweat. He rubbed his sore spot again. ” Gotta be. The officer’s men. What did the old man say his name was? Pottsington. That was it. Lieutenant Pottsington. So, how many soldiers were involved? Lendal wouldn’t be so mad about the girl slipping away if he knew there were a lot of Army men involved. And if the girl’s Pa was involved, too, well, Lendal’d keep his attention right there.
He looked around the room and saw nothing amiss. He saw the father’s bag and pulled it to himself with his foot. He lifted it onto the bed and opened it. He rustled through it. ‘No money. He knew I was comin’ in here all right.’ He shut it and dropped it to the floor with disgust. ‘The old man was in on her escape. Had to be. Shoulda been some money here. This is too well planned.’
So when and how did she get away? He thought he knew. She’da slipped out the back the minute the Army wagons first got there and when they blocked the doors, before he moved over and checked them out. Wouldn’t have taken much. She could have rushed off up the street n’ the dark, her and her officer, leaving a couple fellows behind. Her Pa probably had the extra men right in this room waiting, knowing he’d come to check. Then her Pa makes his fuss and gets himself arrested to supposedly prove he’s innocent. ‘Then the Army boys stop me from going after her.’ He laughed evily, ‘Least they think they have.’
He jammed the note back in the other bag and rubbed the sore lump on the back of his head again. “Yeah, two men–maybe three. The lump’s high. Had to be a tall man. He grabbed his hat. “So, where’d they go?”
He thought again of the wagons. Wherever the men who stayed here went, the wagons could be caught easy enough. That he knew. And she’d either be with them or they’d know where she was. Might take most of the night to catch ’em, but when I do, they’ll talk. Oh, yeah, they’ll talk sure enough. I know how the Army thinks and how they camp. They’ve got themselves a big woeful surprise a’comin’.
He kicked the bag away with his foot. His knees felt more secure and he put out the light and staggered out then decided to go out the back stairs and come in the front. The desk clerk who was now snoozing in his chair behind the counter didn’t need to know he’d been upstairs. He went around then came up to the desk. He glanced at the wall clock and noticed that he’d been up there over an hour. He stood at the desk and slammed his hand down. The clerk jumped up instantly.
“Sir! How can I help you,” the clerk blinked the sleep from his eyes.
A dangerous and sinister look shot back at him. “A man’s gonna stop by about eight in the morning asking for Mr. Fitzgeraldson. His name’s Lendal Hindlefarb. I’m leavin’ a message here for him.”
“Will he be a guest here?”
The Deputy leaned forward and growled, “You see that Mr. Hindlefarb gets it.”
“Yessir,” the clerk pushed out the inkwell, pen and a piece of hotel stationery. He looked down the register and saw the name of Mr. Fitzgeraldson. He was the arrested man. And this dangerous ruffian was associated with him. Well, that certainly was no surprise. He swallowed with difficulty.
The Deputy dipped the pen and with great effort began to print.
lendl

yer riht. shes gon. spect her fother nu. mene arme men helpin lewtent Potsinton frm the staj. 2 arme wagons stopt at hoetl last nit. I lookt. she wuz not ther bt she disaperd then and yer frend got arestd so he lokt inasent. U dasid if he wuz. I got big dowts. Im on tha armes tral.
He signed his name, folded and placed it in an envelope. He wrote “lendl” on the outside of the envelope and handed it to the clerk.
“Seal it. Lendal Hindlefarb. If you forget, it’ll be the last thing you ever forget!”
The clerk blinked. “Yessir,” he said, adjusting his short tie tied with a barrel knot which suddenly seemed much too tight. What a miserable night this was turning out to be. “How do you spell his last name?” He dipped the pen to add it.
“You figure it out.” The Deputy turned and hurried out the door. Time to get on the trail of the wagons.
Chapter 5
A short tap on the door brought both women instantly upright, their hearts pounding wildly. Meghan’s eyes filled with terror. Gaine’s Colt appeared in her hand. They’d spent several hours in each other’s arms, engaging in gentle kissing and caressing, pushing back the tension, exploring and savoring the taste, nearness and feel of the other, but restraining themselves from anything more than appropriate spooning. Eventually they felt secure enough in each others arms that exhaustion had won out and they’d dozed lightly.

“We’re leavin’,” a woman’s voice stage-whispered outside the door.

“T’is all right. The sportin’ ladies er leavin’,” Gaine got up and rushed to the door. She opened it enough to see two women heading down the hall to the back stairs.

“He got arrested,” the one whispered loudly pointing to room 217. “Cheated me out of business.”

“That’s a shame,” Gaine whispered sympathetically, keeping her Colt from view.

“The sporting ladies?” Meghan asked from the bed with a trembling voice.

“Thanks for waking us,” Gaine called in her own whisper. They waved and she shut the door. “Yep. Time ta git dressed,” Gaine walked to the lamp and lit it. She slipped her gun back into the holster.

Meghan shut her eyes to bring her heartbeat back to normal and stop her trembling. She had finally felt safe in Gaine’s arms, enjoying their intimacy till she fell asleep and the knock on the door petrified her. Her hands trembled and her stomach churned. She sucked in a breath and resolved to keep her nerves under control.

Gaine pulled out the chamber pot to use before getting dressed. Meghan sat on the edge of the bed with her face covered till Gaine was finished. Gaine understood Meghan’s shyness but knew her bladder had to be ready to burst. “Ahl give ya some, uh, privacy, uh once’t Ahm dressed,” she muttered.

“No. It’s all right.” Meghan rose and Gaine turned her back to shake out her clothes and step into her underdrawers. When she heard the pot being pushed back under the bed, she buckled the belt on her trousers and moved back to sit on the bed to put on her socks and boots.

Meghan found her bar of soap in her rag just inside Gaine’s bag and poured water from the room pitcher into the basin to wash.

“Thar’s that bar Betsy done made ‘n thar somewheres,” Gaine suggested. “Smells right fancy.”

“No, this is good. There’s plenty. It’s plain soap, though. I’ll leave it out for you.”

“Thanky,” Gaine adjusted items in their bag as she watched the small blonde brush her hair in long sweeping moves. It was a wondrously beautiful sight, she decided. She watched her part her hair in the middle then force it back and pin it in place with bone pins. She helped with the blonde’s corset. She let her fingers glide across Meghan’s soft shoulders.

“Cousin Minnie’s a little, uh, heartier than ya be,” she whispered in Meghan’s ear, although she had no real way of knowing that. Minnie had always been slim as a child. “Best leave that thar contraption loose.” She scowled at the corset, thinking such a torturous device had to be some man’s contrivance. But there was little room for it in the carpetbag so Meghan had to wear it.

Meghan placed what was left of her bedraggled flower along with the shot bag in her cleavage. She pulled on her dress, buttoned it and put her veiled hat and gloves on. The mantilla sat on her shoulders. Gaine washed thoroughly, putting on her clean shirt. She took her time and sat to clean her guns while Meghan scrubbed the blood from her handkerchief. Then she paced and peeked apprehensively out the window shade.

They did not want to arrive too early and have to wait on the street in full view. That would be the dangerous time. They needed to time it right. Both wondered about the Deputy. They’d heard nothing unusual in the hall. Gaine checked her guns again. She needed them to be reliable. There’d be no blanks in this batch.

Finally Gaine surveyed the hall and they gathered their things and headed quietly down the stairs. It was too early for breakfast and the dining room wasn’t open. But then, both were too nervous to be hungry. There were already some passengers milling quietly about the lobby and Gaine surveyed them carefully. Everyone moved outside as the coach drove up but Gaine had them stay in the doorway out of view of the balcony above and against the small portion of wall that was not glass. She wanted no line of fire from inside or out. She had more than the Deputy to watch for.

Gaine swept her eyes over the still darkened doorways across the street and kiddycorner, but saw no one in any of them. She looked in the windows to inside the hotel but saw no known threat. If the Deputy or the man with the scar were here, they were staying well hidden. She decided not to put on her badge. But she did keep her jacket tucked behind her pistol and kept Meghan behind her.

The stage was ready and Gaine moved out to hand up their case and her rifle to the man at the back boot. She was glad to see a new driver and Conductor. She wanted no repeat of the drop offs, although going up would not be as bad as going down. Plus, these men would not know Meghan. Storage, as always, was at both ends of the coach. She glanced up and just swept her eyes down in time to see the Marshal crossing the street toward them, his hat sitting back on his head.

Cussed rattlesnakes! she swore to herself, what’s he a’doin’ here? She calmed herself and forced easy strides to where Meghan was standing in the doorway. “Marshal’s here,” she said softly.

A frightened tensing of the small blonde’s body got Gaine’s immediate attention. Meghan fumbled with her mantilla. “Relax. ‘Member yer Minnie Sargos. He doan know ya. Ain’t never seen neither a’ ya.” She muttered something unintelligible then laughed as though they had been cheerfully chatting.

More people had arrived and it was getting noisier for so early in the morning. The passengers were getting ready to line up to board the stage. The sky was still dark and the morning star still glowed brightly above the street lanterns.

The Marshal glanced over at the two figures ready to get in line. The Sheriff. She’d fussed with the Fitzgeraldson man he’d arrested and, frankly, he could see why now that he’d spent the night with the man. He might be tempted to challenge the churl to a duel himself. But she was heading out so it wasn’t likely those two would butt heads again.

Oh, the old man’d get released easily enough..he’d pay his bond and go. Someone with the amount of money he was carrying in his money belt could acquire the legal means to get out of jail. But the tall beauty’d be gone by then. That relieved the Marshal. He didn’t want her killing the old fool. He wasn’t at all sure he could arrest her if she didn’t want to be arrested. She was a far better shot than he.

He looked at the small woman with the tall beauty and wondered at her outfit. This must be her Cousin Minnie. Everybody had mentioned that the Sheriff had come to Sacramento purposely to get her and take her home. But why cover her face? Was it just for dust, or was she hiding something?

It niggled him. All night the old man had yelled about having a missing daughter, but this had to be the cousin, didn’t it? This was who the Sheriff had come here to get. Most likely there wasn’t a daughter at all, though the old man had hollered about it every chance he got throughout the long, long, long night.

The Marshal waved at Gaine and quickly moved toward them. “Morning, Sheriff,” he called in a deep baritone timbre. The lawman’s dark features and large, square cleft chin gave strength to his face, but the circles under his eyes showed his weariness. His long aquiline nose offset his mustache. A western hat sat back on his head, giving the impression that he had more hair than he did. His face bore an investigative expression.

“Mornin’,” Gaine called back, shifting her jacket to the arm by the Marshal. Other passengers looked at her strangely. A few had seen her in the saloon the night before and heard of her shooting exploits. Had the man just called her “Sheriff?”

“I hear ya made yerself an arrest last night,” Gaine flashed him a weak smile.

“Yep. Seems that fella you had the upset with took a mind to do a little molesting. He was positively identified.”

“Molestin’?” Gaine snorted, “Well, Ah shore wouldn’t put ana’thin’ past ‘im. Glad ya got yer man.”

The Marshal’s eyes went to the small woman in the veil. “You must be the illustrious Cousin Minnie I’ve heard about,” he said to her.

“How do you do?” Meghan said softly and did a small curtsey.

“Happy ta make yer acquaintance, ma’am,” the Marshal’s voice rumbled softly as he tipped his hat. He moved his attention back to Gaine. “Funny thing about that fella, though,” he said. “He keeps insisting his daughter is being kidnapped while he’s sitting there in jail.”

“His daughter’s a’missin’?”

“He really does have a daughter then?” the Sheriff asked, surprised. Meghan stood very still, her hands beginning to tremble slightly. She swallowed nervously and moved them to grip her skirts.

Gaine moved just far enough to keep Meghan from the man’s full view. “Uh, yep,” the tall rancher replied, “A nice lady.” Gaine slipped her mask of composure on, casualness flooding her reserved facade. “We done shared us a room on them overnight stops a’gettin’ here. Ain’t none like her Pa war! She war nice.”

The crowd had started moving and Gaine took Meghan’s arm and led her one step toward the stage door. The Sheriff followed along beside Gaine.

“Ya don’t say. She was seventeen, was she?”

“No. Not ‘t’all. She war twenty-one. That thar’s what she done tole me.”

“Twenty-one, huh? She coulda lied.”

“She warn’t the type. Sides, why would she?”

“Dunno, exactly. You saw her at the hotel here after you got here?” Crows feet appeared at the corners of the Marshal’s eyes. He squinted them and his bushy brows furrowed.

“Ah seen ’em ta supper time. T’weren’t all that long since’t we done got here. Then later I seen you in that thar saloon and the woman’s Pa war thar as well. Din’t ya see ‘im?”

“Yep. I made note of ‘im.” He looked over at the smaller woman then back at Gaine. “You have any idea who might wanna kidnap the man’s daughter?”

Gaine shrugged, “Ah seriously doubt thar war eny kidnappin’, Marshal. That thar young lady din’t appear ta be none ta fond a’ her Pa. And she war terrible a’feared a’ the fella her Pa ‘spected her ta marry. No, seems more likely she’da run off ta git ‘way from tha both a’ ’em, if’n she’s really gone missin’. Her Pa din’t treat her none too good, ya know.”

“That right?”

“Um hum. That thar’s cor-rect. He done slapped her smack’n the face ‘n front a’ the carriage full a folks fer merely po-litely replyin’ ta the Lieutenant’s cordial remark. Now he war a nice young feller, too.”

“The Lieutenant?”

The line moved another step toward the coach. “Yep. An that woman’s Pa war forever yanking her around. T’war disgraceful, ya ask me! But ya jest ask ana’one. She war twenty-one, an ad-ult, and vera well cultivated. She war’n’t deserving a’ his malice ‘n any way Ah could see. He kept hisself a tight rein, Ah warn’t shore she war even able ta speak on ‘er own. She never done talked ta nobody ‘n the coach after that. Least afore Ah moved up top ta ride she din’t.”

“You able to speak on your own?” the Marshal suddenly asked Meghan. Gaine could see the thoughts running through the Marshal’s mind.

The small blonde felt the small squeeze of Gaine’s hand on her arm and smiled under her veil. “Why yes, Marshal,” she said. “Whyever would you ask?”

“Jest checkin’, ma’am,” he said. Gaine hid the thoughts she was thinking about the Marshal’s blasted inquisitiveness and forced herself to listen as the deep voice continued, “Her father seems to think she might have run off with some Army officer that was riding on the stage. Think that would be the Lieutenant? I understand there were a number of Army men on that stage.”

“Hard ta say,” Gaine replied as the line slowly took another step to the coach door. “Like Ah said, the Lieutenant war a fine young officer. But the young woman war an ad-ult. Certainly she war old ’nuff ta decide ta run off with’n that ‘un er not. Doan hardly sound like kidnappin’ ta me.”

Blue eyes looked impassively at the Marshal’s brown. He tried to read something in the azure, something passionate, something honest, something fugitive.. anything. But there was nothing there to read. It occurred to him never to play cards with this woman.

“Well now, according to the young lady’s father,” the baritone voice rumbled over them as the Marshal flicked his eyes to the woman’s veil and saw no eyes at all in that direction, “there was a fella that had already staked a claim on her. That the fella she was a’feared of, ya think?”

“Sounds like one an’ the same,” Gaine nodded, moving them forward another two steps. “Name’s, uh, whadid she say it war, uh, Lendal, uh,…Hindlefarb! That’s it! She mentioned ta me that thar man’s prior wife done disappeared under mighty mysterious circumstances. It bothered her a heap. An’ she said this here Lendal’s cousin war a Deputy in thar home town, an’ she war a’feared he mighta been involved with’n the disappearance.”

“That so? Could she have made this up cause she didn’t like this “Lendal” fellow.”

“Well, shore but t’ain’t likely. She war enviably noble an’ honest. An’ she acted a’feared a’ him all right. But then, she war twenty-one and shoulda been more’n free ta make her own choices.”

“Uh huh.” The Marshal rubbed his chin. “And you wouldn’t a’ stopped her from running off if you’d had a chance, would ya?”

Gaine paused for a minute, holding up the very slow moving line. She looked the man straight in the eye, “No, Marshal, truthfully Ah would not. Not if’n that’s what she wanted. Uh, we gotta git goin’ here.” They watched the family ahead of them finish climbing in. Gaine reached to help the young schoolgirl then she helped Meghan onto the stage step. She climbed onto the step herself once the blonde stepped inside.

“There some reason why your cousin’s wearing a veil to cover her whole head?” the Sheriff inquired bluntly.

Gaine rumbled a laugh as she turned on the step. “Shucks, Marshal, Ah see ya ain’t been a’keepin’ up with’n them latest fashion columns neither. So’s yull know,’t’is the definitive French style an all the go back east. Ever’one in Virginy City’s a’wearin’ ’em fer traveling these days. Ain’t that right?” she asked Meghan, who was now seated facing the front from the center back seat–the same one she had ridden in on the way there.

The woman leaned forward, “That’s right, Marshal. It’s the very latest fashion.”

“You wouldn’t wanna take the veil off for me, would you?” he asked.

“And mess my hair?” she asked with as much indignation as she could muster.

“No, I ‘spect ya wouldn’t wanna do that. Listen, you tell Sheriff James hello for me when you get back to Virginia City, Miss Minnie,” the Marshal remarked.

“I don’t know him,” Meghan replied softly, sitting back.

“No,” the Marshal looked a bit embarrassed, “I don’t expect that you do.” Gaine guessed there probably wasn’t a Sheriff James in Virginia City. Yes, this Sacramento Marshal was worth not underestimating. And thank goodness Meghan didn’t try to go along with him on his comment.

“Well, Marshal,” Gaine interrupted. She was seated by the rolled window with the shade rolled. “Like ah promised, ah din’t use mah guns here ‘n town none.”

“No, ya didn’t use yer guns,” the Marshal agreed. “You just came to fetch your Cousin Minnie home.” He stepped back and the stage moved a little from the anxious team’s prancing.

“Yep.” Gaine smiled a wide smile and the man found himself wondering again what it would be like to court a woman like that. He’d never cheat on his wife, not in a million years! But the smile that woman had could surely melt any man’s heart! It made him sit up and take notice.

There was one other woman on the stage. She and her husband were sitting together opposite Gaine and Meghan. The middle section had two small persons on it and that was the couple’s oldest youngsters, a sleepy boy of eight and a girl of about six. The mother was carrying a baby and the father had a toddler on his lap. The mother was sternly reminding the children how to behave in public.

Two men were also inside, one sitting by the husband and the other was beside Meghan. Two Chinese fellows came racing down the street and climbed up on top with the others as the Marshal watched. They were told sternly by the Conductor to sit in the very back on the other side of the luggage, which they did with their feet in black slipper-like shoes hanging down toward the back boot.

The door was slammed shut and both Meghan and Gaine grabbed a handhold, knowing what was next. Gain held her breath to see if the Marshal would stop them at the last minute. With a crack of the whip, the stage was on its way south from Sacramento. The sun had still not arisen from the previous day.

The Marshal rubbed his chin as he watched the stage leave. That veiled woman knew instantly that they didn’t have a Sheriff James in Virginia City, he thought to himself. And everyone knows the woman Sheriff was specifically here to gather her Cousin. Yep, that was Cousin Minnie there with the Sheriff all right.

Satisfied, he jammed his hands in his jacket pockets and looked up and down the dark, empty street now that the stage had turned the corner and was out of sight. It was too early for most people to be out yet.

He wasn’t sure why he was here at the hotel, really, except that the arrested man had been so adamant about his daughter being kidnapped. If she was, that was a crime and it was in his jurisdiction. He wondered if the Conductor from the northbound stage was still in town. He could verify everything. He wasn’t on the stage that just left so it must be his time off. He’d have gone home. Course the driver might wander into the saloon later that night. He stayed in town and he liked his suds. He’d keep an eye out for him before he got too drunk to remember anything.

The Marshal strolled into the hotel lobby. “Howdy, Lem,” he called to the clerk.

“Marshal, what er you doin’ here so early? Is there a problem with your arrest?”

“Maybe. You got a woman checked in last night first name of Minnie?”

“Oh, you mean the tall lady’s cousin?” the clerk asked. “Great Providence, that tall gal near drove us loco till that woman checked in. Yep, here it is. Minnie Sargos. Come from Virginia City. It was busy but I remember checking her in. You were in the saloon at the time as I recall. She wore one a’them veil things clean over her face.” He motioned with his hands around his own head. “Why do ya ask?”

The Marshal stared at him for a minute. “Just checkin’?” He slipped some wire rim glasses from his pocket and placed the ends over his ears. He leaned forward and examined the written register. “Wonder how I missed seein’ her? Sure enough, she put Virginia City for where she was from.” He followed the line of registered names before looking up at Lem. “Oh, that fella I arrested really did have a daughter, apparently.”

“That right? I wasn’t here when the early stages checked in.” He turned the register and ran his finger down the list. “Her name’s not here. You’ll have to check with Bill. He was on day duty. He’ll be checking in later this morning.”

“Yes, I’ll check back. That fella I arrested is real concerned about this daughter. Been yellin’ all night about how some handsome Army officer wooed her all the trip and her already having a betrothed here an’ all. Actually, what he said was that she was “kidnapped.” From what I’ve heard, sounds like she just ran off, and perhaps with some merit to her leavin’.”

“Well now, them Army boys can cut quite dashing figures. Yessir. And around womenfolk, well, some are like bluetailed hawks a’watchin’ chickens. And ladies, bless their souls, just can’t resist a uniform, ya know. Sometimes the Poppa’s gotta do the watchin.” Lem adjusted the small floating tie at his winged white collar, “I was thinking I might join the Army myself, in fact,” the clerk raised his eyes to the Marshal whose brows had both risen, “but I’m afraid my Gladys’d brain me good if I did!” They both laughed at that. Gladys surely would bash him over the head if he joined the Army!

“Speakin’ of this Fitzgeraldson,” Lem said, “can’t say much for the company he keeps.”

“Ya don’t say! Who, fer instance?”

“An ornery ragtag-looking cocksparrow. Come by in the middle of the night sayin’ he’s gonna leave a letter for a friend of this Mr. Fitzgeraldson… a man named Hindelfarb. You might wanna look it over before ya go. He threatened that it’d be the last thing I’d ever regret if this Hindelfarb fellow didn’t get it.”

“He threatened you, ya say?”

“He did. Why I wasn’t sure he wasn’t gonna pull his pistol and make a corn-sifter of my hide right on the spot.”

“Uh huh. Lemme look at the letter, if ya would. You don’t see a daughter listed anywhere there in the register, though, ya say?”

Lem checked again. “No. Don’t see the name anywhere.” He handed the envelope to the Marshal, who turned it over in his hands noting the seal and the crude penmanship. He offered it back. He had no right to read other’s letters.

“You want to see the arrested man’s room, Marshal? We’re gonna have to move his things here to storage if he’s not back before his paid time’s up. No, wait, let me look again. I think he paid for two nights.” He ran his finger down the line. “Yes, it’s underlined so he paid for two nights.”

“Two nights, huh? Well, go ahead and show me his room, Lem. I’ll just make sure his things are there and nothing’s been stolen. I don’t want him a’yellin’ robbery. You didn’t put anyone else in there with him?”

“No, we were a mite busy, but we filled up the third floor instead.” Lem made a face then leaned forward, “Moved the judge’s wife to the best suite we have up there. Spectacular view! The best in the hotel. Big room. We charge two fifty a night for that room regular but we gave it to her gratis. Ran a bath for her in the bathing room. No charge. She grumbled about climbing the stairs, but otherwise we’re treatin’ her like royalty since this happened.”

The Marshal chuckled as the two men headed up the stairs to the second floor. “Oh yes, I can believe that. Her word with the judge is good as wheat in the mill-hopper. Course, she’s his wife. I just hope she doesn’t get me fired once they learn this fellow really did have a daughter.”

“Be a shame to get in trouble over a barrel-headed fella like that.”

“Uh huh,” the Marshal agreed, “I’m shore tired of his snaps and snarls.”

“Judge’s wife was awful upset. Tell ya the truth,” the clerk admitted as they climbed, “I’d sure hate to be that fella you arrested. The judge ain’t gonna take any too kindly to him whether he has a daughter or not.”

“He called her an old bag of wind and said she was plug-ugly,” the Marshal winked. “Among other names. She’s not likely to forget that! And if that don’t buy him thirty days or a nice stiff fine, nothin’ in this town will!” Both men chuckled. “Listen, don’t let the chambermaids into this room till he’s back. This man’s the type to make claims..founded or not. Best be safe. Do his room last.”

“I understand. I’ll tell them.” He stopped in the hall. Lem checked the number on the door then slowly opened it. They both looked in cautiously but saw no one else there. The light from the hall flowed in.

“He musta been in bed already,” the puzzled clerk said. He pointed to the greatly mussed bedding. “Cept he was fully clothed when he was caught, wasn’t he?”

The two men looked at each other, both uneasily wondering what this meant about someone accused of molestation. “Yes,” the Marshal agreed. “He was dressed. Maybe he laid down for a spell. Funny he didn’t just lie on top, though.” The Marshal removed his hat, running a hand over his head.

Lem lit the lantern. The mess showed up much more in the light. “Just look at that messy bed. Well, I gotta get back.” Lem wrinkled his nose and hastily headed back to the desk, even though the hour was still early. The day began near dawn for their ranch customers and he didn’t dare leave the desk unmanned if someone was going to check out or in.

The Marshal sat on the edge of the bed. “Well, looky here,” he said to himself, pulling the opened bag closer to the bed. “That’s a dress! Not likely to be his!” He thrust his hand inside the bag and moved it around. “There’s a note in here.” He glanced about, knowing he didn’t have a right getting into the man’s things.

He opened the curtain. Gray dawn was breaking in the dusty streets outside and light began to ooze through the window. He opened the note and read it. “Too late by the time you read this, huh?” he said to the silent room. “Seems like they planned to marry right away before they left town.”

The Marshal was a curious man. “Wonder who did the ceremony?” He ran his hand down in the bag beneath the dress finding shoe and jewelry polishing materials. “She left her dress, a note and polishing materials. Unusual for a woman to leave a dress unless she’s got a serious disregard for the man who paid for it. Maybe her beau promised her a new trousseau.” He reread the note then his brows went up. “Kinda paper the Army uses, looks like. Maybe he was right.”

He got up and hastily walked around the room with the note still in his hand. He felt uncomfortable being in the man’s room. “No matter. Case solved. She wasn’t kidnapped,” he replaced the note in the bag. “She says herself she’s twenty-one. And a kidnapper would have kept the dress along with the victim. Well, her father doesn’t need to know I’ve seen this. The young woman’s run off. Most likely married by now. Happens all the time. And if she’s already married, she’ll be the responsibility of the new husband’s, not her father’s no matter how much he objects.”

He closed the carpetbag with the dress and opened the other bag. Inside were the man’s personal items, all of high grade but none of what would be considered great value. He carefully closed the bag, took one more look around. There were two bags. He’d be sure Lem knew that. Everything seemed to be here. He pulled the shade again, blew out the light and closed the door quietly before leaving.

On his way back to jail, the Marshal stopped for a quick coffee and bakery roll at his favorite little cafe. It had just opened for the day but they started baking long about the time the stage left. The coffee was fresh and the bakery items were hot from the oven and delicious.

Fitgeraldson was still ranting when the lawman arrived back at the jail with an extra cup of coffee and a sweetroll for the prisoner. The cafe always loaned him tin cups for the prisoners and he took great pains to return them in good shape.

“Look’s like your daughter’s gone, all right!” the Marshal hollered from the outer room, putting the items on his desk. He removed his hat and threw it at the mounted antlers used as a hat rack by the door. It missed and he had to walk over to lift it off the floor and hang it back up. He grumbled as he picked it up and hung it on the rack. Both his Deputies could hit it every single time and it annoyed him that he couldn’t seem to hit it once. “How old you say she was?”

“So! You FINALLY realized I DO have a daughter like I’ve been telling you all night long! You’ve arrested me under false pretenses,” the old man railed.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that. That’s up to the judge. But it does look like ya got a daughter all right. How old did you say she was?”

“Seventeen,” the older man growled in return. “And you should be out looking for her. She’s been captured. Kidnapped.”

“You positive she’s seventeen?” the Marshal asked with a raised brow. He stood in the doorway with the coffee and roll. “Others at the hotel seemed to think she was twenty-one.”

“Humpf,” the man replied, turning his back. “She’s seventeen and she’s been kidnapped.” Then he spun around. “You must have talked to that tall heretic in men’s clothes.”

“The Sheriff?” the Marshal asked.

“Sheriff? What Sheriff?”

“The tall woman. The one with the blue eyes and the most wicked gun shot in the west. She’s a Sheriff. Reckon she didn’t tell ya that. She’s killed a number of outlaws. She understood that she could have arrested you, but she didn’t have the time, she told me. She was just here to collect her Cous….”

“I know. I know. She came to fetch her damned Cousin Minnie home,” he grumbled. “We all heard about it a million times on the way here.” But he felt his stomach clench at the news that the strange woman that had threatened him had also been known to have killed people. And she represented the law.

“Yep. The two of ’em were getting on the stage to go back when I got there.”

“She’s gone?” Mr. Fitzgeraldson had a feral gleam in his eye. “That tall heretic’s gone? Left town?”

“Yep. Like I said, she and her cousin caught the early stage back.”

“Good! That crazy bitch,” the man ranted then let out a breath. “Good riddance. But it’s the Lieutenant you need to find. He’s the one kidnapped my daughter. My YOUNG daughter. Kissed her hand before he left like it was some kind of signal to me. Laughing at me, that’s what he did. Laughed and stole my daughter away.”

“The Sheriff said your daughter told her she was twenty-one.”

“She’s lying. The girl’s seventeen. What do you expect from someone who dresses like that?”

The Marshal handed the steaming coffee through the bars. “Uh huh.”

The older man took a sip. “Cold. The coffee’s cold. I don’t like it this way.” He set the cup on the floor and pushed it away with his foot. The Marshal handed the roll through the bars. The man examined it carefully before taking a bite.

“Cafe makes mighty fine sweet rolls,” the Marshal exclaimed.

“I’ve had better,” the large man said, eating it completely in about three bites.

There was work waiting on the Marshal’s desk and though he had been up much of the night, he decided he was awake enough to get some of it done. Before he could turn and head back to the outer room, the older man pulled his watch from his watch pocket. It was an ornate gold watch with a lid that snapped open. But he always held it so that others could not see the time.

The Marshal had taken all this man’s valuables including his money belt but had given him back his gold watch after he’d asked about the time for the ninth time within the first hour of being arrested. There was a wall clock in the outer office behind his desk, but the inner room and cells had none. The lawman had placed the other items in the store safe next door, waking Phineas Pott who lived in the back to have him open the store and the safe so that he could do so.

“What time do I go to court?” Mr. Fitzgeraldson growled, examining his watch.

“Bout eight,” the Marshal replied and moved in the outer room to do some work.

-***-

At the first swingstation Gaine and Meghan climbed out of the coach and strolled away from the others where they could talk quietly in private. The sun was rising, a long line of gold glowing across the peaks on the eastern horizon.

“Howja know ’bout that thar Sheriff ‘n Virginy City?” Gaine asked softly as the new horses were led out of the corral. They casually watched the process.

“I didn’t,” the blonde quietly replied behind her veil. “Father used to try and trick us like the Marshal did. He always assumed we’d done something wrong and most of the time we hadn’t. It was always safer to be honest but give no more information than we absolutely had to. It was the details he could misinterpret that got us in serious trouble. So he’d ask something and we’d honestly say “yes” or “no” or “I don’t know” and nothing else.”

Gaine wondered at the sickening feelings of dread Meghan must have endured each and every day growing up. She was so brave. The brunette noted how properly the small blonde stood, her gloved hands clasped in front of her. To the rest of the world she was a prim and proper lady. And, indeed, she was to Gaine, too. But so much more. Gaine smiled tenderly, “Ya done good, Meghan. From the Marshal’s reaction Ah figure thar ain’t no Sheriff James ‘n Virginy City.”

“Do you think the Marshal knows who I am?” Meghan questioned, inhaling a jittery breath.

“No, Ah think he war throw’d off’n any trail a suspicion. Doan fret none.” Gaine’s voice was gentle, more so than ever before and it caught Meghan’s attention.

“No matter what happens, Gaine, I’m glad for last night.” She wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how to put what she was feeling into words, nor sure that she should. They had kissed and such kisses were bargains as sure as if they’d shaken hands on an agreement.

“Yep. T’is how Ah feels, too, sweet Meg.” Soft azure eyes fell on the small blonde.

“I always knew it would be this way,” Meghan whispered. She glanced around. This was not really the place to begin such heartrending conversations. What they had was theirs and no one else’s. She’d wait for a better setting. “Uh, what about your parents? Are they still alive somewhere? You didn’t ever say.”

“No. Theys both passed.” Gaine smiled in memory, “Mah Momma war a strong-willed southern lady. You’da liked ‘er. She war quick ta laugh an quick ta anger an’ quick ta fergive. An’ she had herself a deep, abidin’ faith, mostly ‘n goodness ‘n love.”

“Your mother sounds like a remarkable woman.”

“She war. Her Pa’d owned hisself a large plantation with’n lotsa slaves a’fore the war. Theys war vera well off. But she din’t ne’er belief ‘n people ownin’ t’uther people an’ hated how her Pa war. N’t pained ‘er how scripture war used bah her Pa n’ the O’erseer ta do harm ta folks she done growed up with’n. So’s she got hooked up with’n some t’uther folks ‘n secret n’ she n’ mah Pa got theyselfs inta a good deal a trouble with’n her fam’ly when theys helped git a large group a ‘em ‘way ta the north.”

“They helped them escape?”

“Uh, yep. But her Pa done figgered who’t had ta be from tha plantation that done it an’ he war furious.”

“Were they married at the time?”

“Oh, no.” Gaine thrust her hands in her jacket pockets. “Her Daddy din’t never think nothin’ good a mah Pa. He din’t like ‘im aforehand, n’ he hated ‘im after. An’ Momma war a’feared he war gonna try ‘n haf Daddy killt. She knew her Pa war angry ‘nuff ta kill her, too, but din’t never think he t’would. But the neighbors woulda, if’n they’d knowed fer shore.” She shook her head, “They’s run off ‘n the middle a’ the night n’ married. Then theys had ta move all the tahm ta keep ‘way from any a’ the fellers her Pa sent searchin’ fer ‘em. Near e’er’ one a’ us childerns war borned ta a differ’nt place.”

“Where were you born?”

“Texas. Warn’t that meny folks a’livin’ thar ‘n them days.”

“Goodness. That would be horrible to have to run like that.”

“Yep. T’war stressful. But mah Daddy’s momma’s fam’ly, the Gaine family, war big and t’war ever’whar. So’s they stayed with’n them most times..uncles, cousins, aunts. An e’en went bah the last name a’ “Gaine” fer a spell when they war most a’feared.”

They sauntered back toward the coach. Gaine kicked some dust as they went. “Marshal done made me think ta mah Pa. Pa had a deep voice lahk that. He war a quiet feller, Pa war. An awful good with’n hosses. An he loved mah Momma more’n ana’thin’ ‘n this here world. His Daddy war from Greece. Grandpa done sailed over, met Gramma Gaine, married n’ they settl’d in mah Momma’s hometown war mah Pa war born but they warn’t never wealthy like mah Momma’s fam’ly war. Theys jest got by. Theys had fourteen childerns. ‘N that war why her Daddy din’t lahk him ta start with’n. Pa din’t have no high social standin’.

“I see.”

“Yep. Bah the time Ah war born theys a’ready done had five childern, each borned ta a differ’nt place…two sisters then four brothers than me. Mah Pa drove some cattle here ta Californy an’ decided this here war the place fer us’ns. So’s when Ah war seven Pa hitched up with’n ‘is brother an’ we done come out with Pa’s brother’s family an some a’ ar wranglers. Ar two fam’lies done come’d out tagather.”

“Yours and Minnie’s?”

“Yep. Pa’d hired ta have the house built by the time we got here. He done had ‘t built big ta handle both fam’lies. An’ we raised cattle. Then Ma’s younger brother, the only one ‘n her fam’ly that know’d whar we war, come out and stayed fer a’while, too. Lester. They got ‘long real good. It t’war a good time.”

“You all lived together?”

“Yep. Than Minnie’s fam’ly moved. Her Pa din’t like herdin’ cattle an’ worked a’keepin’ records fer the mine ‘nstead. But them mines done been a’dryin’ up here so’s he moved ‘em ta Virginy City.” A small smile flitted past Gaine’s face. She looked up at Meghan, “What ‘bout yer Momma? Whar wer she from?”

Green eyes looked up, “She was from Boston. Both my parents were. It was an arranged marriage. My father was in his late twenties and his family forced him to marry. My mother was seventeen. They moved out here with Lendal and his new wife just after they were married. I don’t think mother’s ever even liked my father. He’s not a likable person. And he was terrible to her. She did everything she could to protect me, but she didn’t have much of a chance.” She looked at the gloves her mother had given her, “She’s always been more a slave than a wife.”

“Ah.”

They watched as the tired horses, loose now from their restraints, rushed to the barn to be fed and watered while the fresh horses made the crew’s job of hooking them up more difficult as they pranced nervously in place anxiously awaiting their long run.

Gaine took off her hat and ran a hand through her hair. She had decided to leave it loose today. “Mah Pa al’ays useta tell mah Ma that she coulda married herself some fahn a-ristocrat. An mah Momma’d al’ays answer that she’d done been gived wealth beyond all imaginin’s. Thar warn’t nothin’ n’ the world she din’t have that she war a’wantin’, she’d say. Ain’t no a-ristocrat nowheres could provide her with’n the treasures mah Pa’d blessed her with.”

“That’s the kind of treasure I’m interested in,” Meghan said shyly with a blush behind her veil.

“Me too, sweet Meg.” She put her hat back on her head. “Me, too.”

An image from the wee hours of the morning came to the small blonde as she glanced briefly at the tall beauty–the amazingly personal time they’d spent spooning that night in each other’s arms inside that room. If Gaine had meant to divert her attention from the tension of waiting, it had worked. Instead of tarrying in terror, she remembered Gaine’s lips tenderly brushing her forehead, her eyes, her ears, then finally her mouth, their breath mixing, their tongues tentatively dancing, their hands modestly and chastely holding each other through the night, tying themselves together for all time with their kisses.

“T’is time ta git,” the brunette breathed, gently escorting Meghan to the coach.

-***-

A little before eight that morning, a livid Lendal stormed through the thick yellow pine door to the Marshal’s office, a large handplaited bullwhip in his hand. He demanded to know if Brogan Fitzgeraldson was being held there.

“He is.” The Marshal continued sorting his papers with only a quick glance at the man before him. He had heard that same tone of voice all night long from the prisoner, and he was considerably tired of it.

“What’s the charge?” the visitor sneered.

“Molestation,” the Marshal replied placidly.

Lendal’s brow went to his forehead. “What? What kind of hogwash is that? I demand to see him!”

The Marshal looked up from his desk and pulled on his ear. He stared at the man and his whip, pondering. Bull whacker, looks like. Strong, wide-shouldered, trim physique. Handmade whip, and mighty fond of it. He spoke calmly. “I can let you see him but I can’t let you into his cell.”

“Fine.”

“Leave the whip on the desk and any other weapons you might have. Then I’ll take you back. And, yes, I will check you for weapons.” He took off his glasses. “It’s my job, ya see.”

Lendal curled a lip and removed a large Bowie knife from inside his boot. The Marshal watched him drop it derisively on his desk. Time was when folks only carried a useable dirk but large Bowie’s were now all the rage.

“You got a gun?” the Marshal asked, tucking his glasses in his pocket. Most town folks didn’t carry guns unless they were going hunting.

“I don’t NEED a gun,” the man sneered. “A whip does just fine!”

The Marshal raised a brow, checked him for weapons then took him back into the inner room to the cell doors and left him outside the cell to talk with Meghan’s father. The Marshal went back out to his deskwork.

“You’re early,” Meghan’s father said with a scowl, finishing the coffee he’d lifted from the floor. He pulled out his pocket watch and hit the pin, popping it open. He looked at the time and snapped the lid closed, replacing the watch, his attached gold fob hanging proudly over his thick vest in a display of his wealth. He had been hoping the Deputy would be back with Meghan in tow before Lendal got there and had a chance to get upset. Lendal was always bragging about how good his cousin was at getting results. “It’s not eight yet!”

Lendal hooked his thumbs in his thick leather belt letting his hands tighten in a pugilistic pose. His face screwed into a snarl. “What in the hell is going on here, Brogan? Where’s my bride?”

Anger rippled through Lendal’s body and Brogan’s tone changed instantly. “I’ve been arrested on a trumped up charge, Lendal. Meghan went missing and I couldn’t get out to search. That fool Marshal out there finally decided this morning that I really did have a daughter. All night he’s claimed that I didn’t. But I let your cousin know she was missing. I told the Deputy the minute I knew, uh, when I was being hauled off to jail. So he knows about it.”

Cold grey eyes rolled suspiciously over the older man. “Oh, for Christ sakes, let’s get out of here,” Lendal growled, his hands coming free of his belt. “Do what you have to do, pay whoever you have to pay, and let’s go. I don’t know why you’ve stayed here all night.”

“I had no choice,” the heavy man whined. “This isn’t Miner’s Flat, Lendal.”

Lendal had been directed at the hotel desk to the Marshal’s office upon his early morning arrival in town. The note from the Deputy, his cousin, that had been left at the front desk sat in his pocket and he ran his hand over it with cold deliberation and annoyance. He’d halfway expected this. That’s why he’d sent his cousin when he couldn’t be there himself.

The prisoner continued, “The Marshal says I have to go before the judge this morning. Then I can pay the bond and be released. We’ll find her, Lendal. I swear we will.”

Lendal’s voice had a calmness that Brogan Fitzgeraldson knew masked a white-hot anger. “We’ll find her all right. But I think we can agree this was poorly handled from the minute you got into town. You let her out of your sight and you got yourself arrested so that she had a perfect opportunity to just walk away. Apparently she looks at you as a man in petticoats,” he scoffed. “She has no fear of you or she’d still be there quivering in her boots.” His voice was low and meant only for the older man inside the cell to hear.

Meghan’s father raised his head. Lendal was holding him responsible for Meghan’s disappearance? He’d been afraid he would. Would it destroy their silent partnership arrangement and the takeover deal Lendal’s added financing would make possible? He looked at the man’s face. Dear heavens! Lendal was lethal when he felt he’d been cheated or disobeyed.

“It wasn’t my fault, Lendal,” the older man whined. “When I checked she was in bed. When I went back she was gone and all trace of her was gone. Just that old woman was there instead. How was I to know that old windbag’d be there?”

“There’s the matter of the Army wagons. Since when do they stop at a downtown hotel? You should have known instantly that something was wrong. You could have dragged her into your room, tied her to the foot of your bed and kept watch over her the minute you checked those wagons and knew she wasn’t in them. You DID check the wagons, didn’t you? Or can’t you handle your women?”

How did you know about the Army wagons? Was the Deputy there when you got here? Why wasn’t he out looking? Warily the older man regarded the muscularly fit man on the other side of the bars. Lendal’s vicious eyes stared back at him. His face was almost handsome but for his eyes. He also had curly mutton chops, but on him they lent a strong, dangerous look. Lendal Hindlefarb had been his friend since their childhood days. They’d shared a difficult boyhood with alcoholic, abusive fathers. And the older man had always been careful not to cross the younger man and his explosive temper.

Before Meghan’s father could respond, the Marshal spoke from the doorway, “It’s time to be going to court now, Mr. Fitzgeraldson.”

The visitor looked away. He didn’t discuss these matters in earshot of anyone outside their small group. The Marshal stepped back out to his desk and rustled through the drawer for the keys then grabbed for his hat.

“I DO know how to handle my women,” the heavy man hissed in a loud whisper.

“I should think that a successful escape under your watchful eye would question that claim,” Lendal replied pointedly, his gaze not wandering. “I have to wonder if you were involved in her disappearance. She’s gone. Who’s to blame? You.”

The older man stiffened. “That’s not true. I’m not involved, I swear. She didn’t do this alone. She had to have help. It was that Lieutenant. Lieutenant Pottsington.”

“I hold YOU accountable. You promised her to me. I told you she was the one I wanted. All you had to do was deliver her. I even brought the bride price you needed, the amount you said would make me a silent partner on your contracts.”

Lendal patted the wad of bills in his pocket but his mind was reeling. Had his friend let his daughter get away on purpose? Maybe a better prospect for her had come up back home, a better business deal to be made from her marriage. Maybe he had her stashed away somewhere right this minute. Well, he’d better not have done anything like that He wouldn’t live to regret it!

“I got her here. If you’d been here when we arrived, you’d have the new bride you wanted right now, we’d both be rich with this new deal, and I’d be on my way back home,” the older man sniffed imperiously. He was not going to stand around and be accused of something he hadn’t done. Lendal had his own part in all this.

Lendal grabbed the steel bars and shook, his knuckles turning white with his rage. The bars rattled. Through clenched teeth he rumbled in a louder voice, “Don’t think you can cheat me like this and get away with it, Brogan! I won’t stand for it!”

The Marshal raised an eye to the visitor as he entered the room. “There a problem?”

“No!” Lendal replied letting go instantly. The Marshal looked at both then moved to the cell door. The clanking of the key in the lock echoed in the room. Meghan’s father didn’t look in Lendal’s direction. He knew the man’s anger was fierce. He’d wait till Lendal calmed down and then try to reason with him. He had to handle this ridiculous charge first.

“I’m leaving,” Lendal announced and spun toward the outer room.

“Wait! Come with me, Lendal,” Meghan’s father pleaded. “Please. I’ll post bond and we’ll go back to the hotel. You know I wouldn’t cheat you. I never have. Calm down. We’ve been friends a long time. On this other business, uh, I’ll explain everything that happened. The events on the trip here. Everything. And I have considerable influence with the Comman….”

“I know what happened. I’ve got my cousin working on it right this minute.”

“The Deputy? But you don’t know about….”

Lendal snorted. “Army man, right?”

“How did you…?

Lendal laughed a sinister laugh. “You don’t think I was just relying on YOU, do you? Oh no, I had my own insurance in place.”

The older man considered, He must have talked with his cousin. Was he at the hotel when Lendal arrived? Why isn’t he out looking? “Is the Deputy at the hotel?”

The Marshal listened quietly as he brought the prisoner from the cell. There was that reference to a Deputy again. Had a visiting lawman been in his town watching people’s movements without checking in with him first? And who were they watching exactly? Were they expecting the daughter to run off with a beau as it looked like she’d done? Was this some kind of family feud? He hoped not. Those could get particularly nasty. And this visitor was obviously livid.

The older man continued, “I talked to him in the saloon after he got here, you know. He told me where he was going to stay,” he glanced at the Marshal then back to Lendal, “uh, through the night. What did he see?”

Glaring, Lendal fell into step next to the lawman as they moved out of the jail. Stepping to the other side of the prisoner, the Marshal was careful of where the visitor was in relation to his own pistol. He did not expect any kind of escape attempt by either man, but you couldn’t be cautious enough. He could not say he found the visitor very trustworthy, in fact, he didn’t like what he’d seen of the man at all.

“Hush up, ya old fool!” Lendal’s brow furrowed and he looked away. His voice rose at the end of his whip crackers’ voice. And the tone left little doubt–his supremacy was not to be questioned. Not ever.

The infuriated man wore heavy boots, dirty pants held up with a thick leather belt and a grey shirt that stretched tightly across his chest. His upper body was heavily muscled and those muscles were now twitching slightly as his jaw clenched and unclenched.

“Yes. All right, Lendal.”

The Marshal was amazed at how the older man’s voice had turned from the repugnant, demanding voice he’d used all night long to that of a small boy. He watched them both with interest. So this was the intended, Mr. Hindelfarb. And his prior wife died under unusual circumstances, huh? He couldn’t help feeling glad the young woman had gotten away, wherever she was. He’d just do a little poking into the prior wife’s death.

They walked the street in silence to the courthouse and into the courtroom. Though others were there, the heavy older man watched his “friend” with visual trepidation.

This man Lendal might be the least of your worries at the moment, the Marshal thought to himself as he glanced at the older man who was looking with hope of understanding at his surly visitor. He would be going in front of the judge whose wife he was accused of molesting, the wife he’d called a’plug-ugly old bag of wind.’

That particular judge was not going to find this man or his friend near as important or threatening as they found themselves. However, the older man did actually have a daughter, so that much of his story was true. And the Marshal would have to testify to that fact. The judge’s wife wouldn’t be happy about it, but they were looking for truth after all.

Lendal stood silently in the gallery, his thumbs in his belt, throwing acrimonious looks the older man’s way. The Marshal glanced back occasionally and wondered at the man’s barely suppressed rage. Yes, he would certainly do some checking on this fellow and his missing first wife.

After a grueling two hour examination before Esquire O. Edgar Saddlinghouse, Broghan Fitzgeraldson was required to give a five hundred dollar bond, an exorbitant bond in anyone’s opinion. Failing to do so, he would have been committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury at the mid July term of the circuit court.

“That was outrageous!” the older man railed as they stepped into the street, his old starch having returned. He needed that bond money and the money from Lendal to complete the secret business deal he had arranged for later in the day. Angrily he had agreed to the bond since it was that or stay in jail. The Marshal had indicated to the court that the man did have enough bond money being held for safekeeping by the lawman. He escorted the man and his visitor back, and the Marshal got Mr. Fitzgeraldson’s possessions from Mr. Potts’ safe.

Given some privacy in his cell while Lendal waited in the outer room, Meghan’s father once again wrapped his money belt around his waist under his clothing, tying it securely. He angrily withdrew five hundred dollars in greenbacks for the bond. He counted the stack of change that had been taken by the Marshal from his coat pocket. He saw the coin with the hole in it and quickly slipped it into his pocket.

The Marshal had examined the coin before returning it and was absolutely astounded with the fact that it could be hit with a shot, much less hit near the middle. It was with reluctance that he had given it back to the grumpy older man, who finally signed all the necessary court papers and moved out to the street with Lendal, temporarily a free man.

They walked back through the now bustling streets, Lendal staying a good stride ahead and the older man huffing to keep up. “Sign for another night,” Lendal growled as they entered the stage hotel lobby.

“I already did.”

“Humpf,” he replied. They headed up the stairs to Mr. Fitzgeraldson’s room.

“Listen, Lendal,” Meghan’s father pleaded as they climbed the stairs. “This deal I’m making later today will make us both wealthy men. It’s a once in a lifetime deal. Like I wrote you, one of the owners of the Barrister Wagon Shop up north has found a way to sell the shop right out from under his partner at a very favorable price to us. He gambles and he’s gotten himself in a bit of a fix.”

“Humpf!” Lendal scoffed.

The older man continued, “But our deal’s got to be kept very quiet so his partner doesn’t find out in time to stop everything. He’s meeting me here this afternoon. You won’t have to do anything but put in your share and sit back and roll in the money. I know Meghan was part of this and she still is. We’ll find her. But I hope you aren’t planning to hold up your money till Meghan’s found. I can’t make the deal without it. And I swear, it will make you a wealthy man.”

Lendal’s fists clenched and his jaw tightened. He wasn’t about to be cheated like that. If Brogan thought he could cheat him, he’d better think again.

“Somebody’s been in my room!” the older man exclaimed as he opened the door. Both men were surprised by the condition of the bedding. The old man stared at the bed. “Someone’s been…” his eye caught the carpetbag, “wait a minute. That’s Meghan’s dress and case!” Lendal dropped his whip on the chair and yanked the dress out of the case. The note fell off to the floor.

“She was hiding in your room while you were being arrested?” Lendal growled, suddenly ripping the dress violently and throwing the pieces to the ground. Brogan froze. It took a lot of strength to rip a dress like that, even an old one.

Lendal scanned the older man’s face. They’d been trusted friends a long time, but it was looking more and more like Brogan had masterminded her escape.

“I don’t know how she’d have gotten in here without my seeing her,” he pled. He looked at the breeze blowing in past the blind. “I didn’t leave that window open.”

“Humpf,” Lendal growled again in serious doubt, his anger raw. No, it wouldn’t have been at all hard for her to get in that way.

Her father quietly picked up the note. He tried not to look at the torn dress. Suddenly his jaw clenched and his face became blotchy with anger. “This note’s from Meghan,” he bellowed. “It’s that damned Army officer whisked her away!” he began pacing the room. “I knew it. Lieutenant R. L. Pottsington. He flirted with her the whole trip. He was taunting me. Letting me know he was going to take my daughter. He’s not going to get away with this! I swear to heavens, he’s not!”

The old man was putting on a good act, the visitor decided. But was that all it was…an act? “My Cousin’s looking for the Army wagons. If she’s with them, he’ll drag her back. If not, those boys know what happened to her. He’ll get it out of them.” Lendal watched for the other man’s reaction.

“Good! But, uh, the Lieutenant was going to San Francisco. He won’t be with them. By now he probably has her tucked away somewhere across the bay.”

Is that what you hope? You know where she is, don’t you? Lendal thought grimly. He wadded the note into a small wad and tossed it forcefully at Meghan’s father’s face. “Throw this damn note away. Destroy it,” he demanded. “Nobody’ll know but us. We’ll keep to the story that she’s seventeen. You’ve got rights. You can claim kidnapping.”

“We’ll find her before the law does,” Meghan’s father replied. He made no complaint about being hit with the wadded paper. He meekly picked up the note and unwadded it. He read it again. “Don’t try to find us. Humpf. Us.”

Lendal’s voice was cold. “We need the Marshal searching. It scares them plenty when they know the law is going to bring them back every time they try and run. Keeps them from ever trying again. Especially when they understand what happens to them once they’re dragged back.” His jaw jutted out, “The minute she’s found, we’ll marry. Then I’ll take over and settle this score.”

“You’re absolutely right,” the girl’s father declared. “I’ll get rid of the note.” He tore up the note and put the pieces in his pocket to dispose of somewhere else later. “What about this officer? If he’s already married her…?”

You think that’ll make it all right to cheat me, don’t you? You think if she’s already married, I can’t do anything about it? “Officers can disappear just like anyone else.”

“Oh, but the Army…” The idea of the Army being on their trail was terrifying to the large man. He lived near a fort and knew how relentlessly they worked. And that particular officer was from the fort close to his home.

“What’d you expect?” Lendal questioned, “You’re the one that let her go.”

“For heaven’s sake, Lendal, I didn’t “let” her go. It wasn’t my fault. I swear.”

The older man sunk onto the bed. Lendal was still mad and that wasn’t good. Meghan’s father ran his hand along the sheet as he thought. He was tired. He hadn’t slept much during the night. Maybe he’d lie down for a while. He ran his hand under the pillow. Just an hour’s sleep, maybe two. “Please consider signing the partnership papers and, uh, putting in your money before we find her. We can have that deal finished by this afternoon, then I’ll stay and we’ll all look.”

Lendal paced to the other end of the room, forcing down his ire. “I’m not putting in one cent before she’s back. This is all your fault, Brogan! No one is stupid enough to get himself arrested for molestation, dammit. No one.”

The heavy man pulled the pillow onto his lap in an unconscious mode of protection and sighed deeply. Then he saw something sticking out from under the other pillowcase. A badge that said “Deputy.”

Lendal spun toward him and the heavy man instantly wrapped his large hand around the badge, hiding it. Lendal showed his teeth in a snarl then stomped to the window where he sullenly pulled aside the blind and looked out. Muted voices could be heard from people strolling on the balcony. He yanked the window closed and let the blind bounce back into place. “No one else needs to know our business,” he growled.

The badge in the old man’s hand was disturbing him. He stuffed it in his pocket. The Deputy’s been in here? Why? And why in my bed? Has he caught Meghan? If so, where is she? Where’s the Deputy? What happened here? Has he violated her and is he going to blame it on me? That REALLY would make Lendal furious!

He looked at his angry friend. What’s Lendal thinking? What game is he playing? He likes to toy with his victims. What does he know about my mussed bed? He didn’t seem that surprised by it. Was he here, too? Did they both violate her and he’s letting me worry about it? Lendal does that sometimes. How else could he know about the Army wagons? He had to have talked with the Deputy. But where is he? What’s going on? Where’s Meghan? Why break into my room?

It made Brogan Fitzgeraldson very uneasy. Something about all this was very wrong. He felt the badge inside his pocket and worried.

Lendal turned and stared at his one-time friend, his eyes narrowing to pin points. “It was Sarah that did this, wasn’t it?” His eyes glittered dangerously as he moved toward the older man. “She convinced you not to turn Meghan over to me. I know how she and Ruby used to be, whispering to each other when they did the dishes, exchanging glances all the time. I stopped that soon enough, but she’s behind this, isn’t she? Protecting her poor, sweet baby.”

The older man’s head was spinning. Yes, their wives used to help each other with chores when they lived next door to each other. And Lendal had angrily stopped that. Now he was furious again. The older man tried to remain calm. Lendal was furious, Meghan was gone, he’d spent the night in jail, he had an important business meeting coming up and now he was exhausted.”

“Why in the world would I listen to Sarah? That’s loco talk, Lendal.” Then his eyes widened. Lendal would take that the wrong way. “Uh, I mean, I had Meghan here ready for you. I expect her to be your bride. I wouldn’t cheat you, Lendal. I wouldn’t. Honest!”

A cold sneer formed across the visitor’s face. “Wouldn’t you?”

-***-

The Marshal grabbed his hat. This Lendal fellow could use a little checking into. He didn’t like the looks of the man. Once his deputies were both back he could put more time into it. Till then he’d mosey around to the saloons and ask about him.

He put the hat on his head and pushed it back. First, though, he’d get the payment to the court, talk with the clerks to get some indication of how upset the judge’s wife was with him since he had spoken on the obnoxious fellow’s behalf regarding his having a daughter. Always paid to know where he stood.

Then he’d head back to the cafe and get the two bit dinner special Clara Sue was writing on their board when he was in the cafe earlier. Four courses. He licked his lips in anticipation. Truth be told, they made a better meal than his wife ever did. But he wasn’t about to tell her that.

-***-

The tiny woman across was obviously a woman to be reckoned with. Meghan watched in wonder as the dainty woman with her flashing brown eyes and quick tongue directed her husband’s and children’s actions. The blonde had never seen a woman rule a household and she watched for a while, amazed.

The blonde sat in the middle, her leg pressed against Gaine’s as they bounced along. Despite the dust, the tall rancher had insisted on leaving the window beside her open, her face peering out. Gaine seemed particularly anxious and Meghan worried what it meant. Were they in imminent danger of being found? Was someone following them? “What’s wrong?” she appealed quietly.

A brilliant smile that made her ache to caress the tall beauty and feel her lips on her own again came her way but it didn’t erase the lines of worry on Gaine’s face.

“Ain’t nothin’…yet,” she smiled. Gaine looked at the others and added in a tone more worthy of public travel, “Jest checkin’ the view.”

Meghan sighed but said nothing. Oh Gaine, please trust me with your worries.

-***-

Lendal made his way down the stairs, past the desk and out the door, his large whip in hand. He paused on the street deciding how best to get to San Francisco. He pulled out a gold watch from his pocket. The fob was attached inside the same pocket. He hit the switch to let the lid fly open and checked the time. There was a boat, but it was too slow. If he hurried, he could make it to the train before it left. Then a paddlewheeler and with a little luck in connections, he’d be in San Francisco by early evening.

Lendal’s thoughts were not kind. The officer who thought he could steal his bride would pay and pay dearly. As would the bride. “She’ll remember this every minute of her life,” he growled. His old friend, Brogan, had become far too soft. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t. It was all his fault!

He hurried down the street to the train station and pulled out his return ticket. He’d have to trade his two tickets to Oakland for one roundtrip to San Francisco. He checked the fares, made the exchange, caught the train and slid into a seat by the window. This train would take longer. It was not the express; it carried both passengers and freight.

It wouldn’t matter. He was a vicious but always victorious hunter as his prey would soon find out. He watched the familiar landscape slide by once the train started up. People had tried to pull things over on him before. Those who lived to tell of it never tried twice. It was never wise, and it wouldn’t be now, either.

Customary places passed outside his window. Places he knew well. The train would stop often before finally arriving at the Oakland pier. But Lendal’s thoughts wouldn’t vary. He wouldn’t smell the brine, the aroma of the wet rope or hear the cheery band music being played inside the ferryboat when he changed transport. Instead he’d still feel the same thrill he felt now at the thought of catching them and making them pay. He enjoyed extracting payment from his victims.

-***-

“Theys outta be out here somewheres. This here’s the place.” They had both quietly observed the family beside them at the breakfast stop, finding little opportunity to engage in private conversation themselves. Now Gaine turned worriedly to Meghan as they rode along, her brow scrunched. She turned back and scanned the countryside through the thick dust that flowed in the open window. She’d refused to close the shade until she spotted them.

“Who?” Meghan asked behind her veils. “Who are you watching for, Gaine?”

“Them Army boys from yesterday. They was taking them wagons back ta the Fort. The Lieutenant said they’d be out China Cup way. That thar valley’s over thar. So’s we outta passed ’em. But Ah ain’t seed hide ner hair a’ ’em yet. Even way up ahead. They ain’t thar. Thar ain’t no dust trails an’ they outta be.”

She squeezed Meghan’s glove covered hand lightly then let go. “Ahl be right back. Doncha fret none,” she rose and grabbed the handle of the door beside the young children on the center bench. She smiled across at the parents. “Hang onta yer young ‘uns, if’n ya would, please.” Meghan sat perplexed.

The parents grabbed a handhold on their children’s clothes pulling them back as the door flew open in the wind and Gaine reached outside and swung herself up the side of the coach that was barreling down the road. She kicked the coach door shut and climbed to the top as everyone inside gasped.

The driver looked at her with surprise.

“Ya seen any fresh wagon tracks a’goin’ this a’way?” she asked with a quick smile as she slid into one of the empty seats behind him.

“Up there, ahead,” he nodded with his head. “Shouldn’t be climbing up here when the coach is movin’,” he scolded. Gaine put a hand by the rim of her hat to further shade the sun. She could see the tracks leading off to the side then disappearing into a small draw that moved beside a creek.

“Yep. That’s it.” Gaine drew out her Sheriff’s badge and pinned it on. “Yer gonna hafta stop whar them tracks turn,” she announced. Both the Conductor and the driver looked at her with alarm. “Ahm speakin’ fer the law now. Sorry. Ahl try and hurry, but ya gotta pull ’em o’er and wait up thar whar them tracks turns off.”

“What in heaven’s name for?” the Conductor grumped. “We have a schedule to keep, you know.”

“Ah understand and Ah bees plumb sorry. But Ah belief we gots us some Army boys ‘n some kinda terrible fix. They outta be out here ‘n this here road an’ they ain’t. Woan take me but a half hour ta investigate…maybe a mite more. An’ Ahl need a volunteer that’s good with’n a rifle.”

She looked over the faces of the few men riding on top. One fellow reluctantly put up his hand. “I ain’t the finest shot in the west,” he said slowly. “But I’m tolerable accurate at huntin’.”

“Good! Ahm gonna depeetize ya so’s ya kin help me unravel this here mystery.”

“All righty, then.” His expression did not change to either show pleasure or pain.

“Hold up yer right hand and repeat after me….” Gaine started.

Inside the coach Meghan had slid over to Gaine’s seat and was coughing through the billowing dust to see what was happening outside. Suddenly the coach came to a stop and Gaine and a man from on top hopped down. “What’s going on?” the mother across the way asked. The window covers were all raised.

There was some rustling above and Gaine’s rifle was carefully tossed down to her. The man still held his. They both turned and headed off jogging down the side road, following the tracks. Gaine pointed to some fresh horse tracks.

“Them tracks don’t belong here,” Gaine hollered to the man, who nodded but said nothing. Before long they were running down into the draw and out of sight. The passengers watched in surprise. They were between towns. Why stop here? And where were those two going with their guns?

“Why we stoppin’? the husband called up to the top on his wife’s urging.

“Sheriff’s orders,” the Conductor called down. “Gonna be here ’bout a half hour or so, but she says to stay in the coach for a hasty exit if it’s necessary.”

“A hasty exit!” Meghan repeated with alarm, looking where Gaine had disappeared. If you do something that makes you leave me now, Gaine Sargos, I’m gonna kill you! she thought with a goodly tinge of fear running down her spine. You just be danged careful out there!

They jogged for about a half mile till the road dropped. They followed it quickly then came to a bend that curved around the hill they were descending. In front of them was a small cup-like valley. A creek wound before them with cottonwoods abutting it. Their line of sight was still above the camp site. Gaine extended a hand for them to stop. She put a finger to her mouth and pulled them both behind some scrub where they ducked down so as not to be seen from below.

They crawled further off the road around the hill and the angle of the descent became more difficult to maneuver. Still they all but duck walked around, sliding into places where they would have a better view. Looking down, they perused the scene. The horses were pin hobbled as the Army was wont to do. The animals pricked their ears, moving them about as they ate the lush grass that grew by the stream side.

Gaine rose enough to sight over the scrubby hillside growth. Both wagons were sitting where they were likely placed on their arrival. A horse, still saddled, stood to the side out of immediate view from the campsite. As the two of them froze in place, they could hear the muted sounds of voices, blows being landed and agonizing groans.

Gaine moved them quietly around a little further across a recent rattlesnake track in the tall grass and brush. They paused to glance down. There by the waning campfire were the four men in blue. All were on the ground, sitting, tied with their hands behind their backs. Their bare feet were also bound. One of the tied men was being kicked by a man Gaine recognized instantly…the Deputy. He held a knife in his hands and delivered a heavy kick to the man’s stomach.

The faces of all the soldiers were black and blue. The Deputy was yelling and dragging the man he had kicked face-down nearer to the hot coals of the fire.

They were a good distance from the scene, many hundreds of yards, but with any luck their shots would still be on target. “Aim from here,” she whispered to the man. “Ahm goin’ thar. Wait for mah signal.” She wanted to tell him to try and wound the man, not kill him. Normally she aimed to kill when she fired at criminals, but she wanted to question this man. She wanted him implicating the others so they’d all go to jail and be off Meghan’s trail, at least for a while. But they’d be lucky to hit him with any accuracy at this distance. “Aim high. Miss them soldier boys!”

The man with Gaine nodded and Gaine moved out quiet as a panther across the steep side of the hill to the heavy clump further away as the man she left carefully took aim. She eased around some small rock outcroppings then lowered to stay below the brush until she got where she wanted. Lining up her rifle on the standing man who had the Army boy’s ear in his hand pulling it up ready to slice off, Gaine yelled, “NOW!”

Both rifles cracked into the air at the same time, the reports echoing off the walls of the valley. The slumped Army men looked up in surprise. The Deputy spun, his eyes lighting on the rising tall woman he recognized from the saloon. Then as though in slow motion while the two shooters stood and cocked their rifles to fire again, he dropped the knife, loosed his grip and fell to the ground across the fire.

Gaine and the other fellow instantly headed down the hill at a run. “I aimed high for his shoulder,” the man called. Gaine nodded. She had, too.

“Gaine!” one of the soldiers called. “We’re damn glad ta see ya! Howdja find us?”

Without answering they pulled the Army man out of the fire, then Gaine pushed the Deputy out of the fire as well. She swatted her hat at the burning edges of the man’s sack coat. His face was scorched but he was dead, two shots in his body, one in his shoulder and the other a head wound that had killed him instantly.

“Ya done good!” Gaine called to her helper. “What was a’happenin’?” she asked the men, but she was afraid that she knew. “Lieutenant tole me that thar stage oughtta pass ya on ar way back home. Ah watched fer ya. When ya warn’t up thar, we come a lookin’.”

“Thank God ya did! That demon was crazy! Caught us all by surprise. He knew all about how the Army set up watch. Got the drop then tied us up. First he said he’d let us go soon as we told him what he wanted to know. But we didn’t know the information he wanted. Then he took our boots and stomped on our feet saying all we had to do was tell him!”

Another of the men shook his head. “Wanted to know who we knew in the Army that wore cologne. None of us do. He…he asked if the Lieutenant did.” The man raised sorrowful eyes to Gaine, “we ended up telling him that he did. Citronella, we told him, but he kept saying it was some flower.”

“He was crazy,” the first fellow offered.

Gaine helped untie the other prisoners and checked them for injuries. They found their boots and brought them to the men but their feet were swollen undoubtedly with broken bones and they couldn’t put them on.

“Damn him ta hell!” Gaine breathed.

“Yes,” the first man agreed, “Then he began hitting us with his rifle and kicking us. Kept askin’ us where that miserable man’s daughter went. Hell, we plain didn’t know! He insisted we did. Asked where the Lieutenant had her. The Lieutenant’s at his meeting in San Francisco. We told him that. Then he took his knife and said he’d cut off our ears and noses and, uh, other things and gouge out our eyes..slowly. He was gonna kill us all then, he said, and blame it on the Indians. But he said we could die easy without any cuttin’ if we talked.” The boy breathed deeply and an unbidden sob slipped out at the same time.

One of the others piped up, “He had some Indian arrows with him. They’re over there in his saddlebag along with a bow where his horse is hid. Said he would end our lives with ’em, but we’d be pleading with him to do so long before he was done.” One of this man’s eyes was swollen shut and his nose looked like it had been broken.

Gaine felt horrible. This would not have happened if she hadn’t left them cigars at the desk. It had seemed like an innocent enough diversion to rattle Meghan’s father while giving a treat to fellas that rarely got recognition for their hard work. She had no idea then that this Deputy was involved or that he was so skillfully ruthless. What kind of monster kills folks for information? And who’d think he could get the drop on four Army men with good rifles?

She carefully looked over the last man the Deputy had dragged to the fire. He was by far the worst off. Gaine was very concerned about his chances. He was not really conscious, drifting in and out and moaning.

“Git the back off’n one a them wagons and we’ll run him back ta the stagecoach. We kin put him on that center bench and git him inta the next town faster’n you fellas kin. Kin you boys git yer wagons hitched and move on out er should we send some’un?”

“We can get them going, Gaine. Go ahead and take Sanford there with ya. We’ll drive into the next town as soon as we can.”

“We’ll get him to the doctor thar,” Gaine said.

One of the man’s friends looked at the severely injured man with tears in his eyes. “Ya ain’t gonna have time ta carry him back ta the stage. Ya gotta take ‘im on one a’ the horses. His time’s running short.”

“All right. Kin ya put that miserable polecat’s body in one a’ yer wagons?” She pointed to the dead man. “And kin ya spare two hosses? Ah kin ride with’n the injured man but this here fella is off’n the stage, too.”

“I can stay with them and help,” the man said. “I’ll catch the next stage. I’m not in any all-fired hurry.”

“Kin ya? That’d be a tremendous big help, if’n ya could. Them fellers are gonna have trouble walkin’ much less hitchin’ up their teams,” Gaine’s eyes went over the man again. “Ah didn’t catch yer name, friend,” she said.

“Robert Thatcher,” the man replied.

“Gaine Sargos,” Gaine nodded. They shook hands quickly then Gaine ran and got the saddled horse that had belonged to the Deputy.

“Can ya wire the Army what’s happened? Send it to the Lieutenant in San Francisco,” the severely injured man’s friend asked.

“Ahl git it ta the first spot on our stage route that done gots a telegraph office.” Gaine rode over where the injured man was lying.

“Thanks. Tell ’em we’ll wait in town for further orders.” They handed her up the injured man and she cradled him in her arms as best she could. She spun the horse, and headed back to the stage at a gallop.

They heard her before they saw her. A cloud of dust rose from behind the horse as she spurred the tired animal ahead. They weren’t that far from the next town but she wasn’t sure the horse would make it at the pace the stage was going to be going. She’d leave him hobbled at the main road. The Army wagons could pick him up when they came by.

“Clear that thar center bench,” she hollered as she rode up. Men from on top the stage began to scramble down to help.

“Good Lord! What happened?” the Conductor asked.

“Some loco fella got the drop on ’em and was plannin’ ta kill ’em all. We doan git this fella ta the doctor in the next town pronto, that damned polecat’s gonna git part a his wish.”

A number of hands now helped move the injured man to inside the stage. The parents gathered their children onto their laps from the center bench and the man on the end crawled up top.

“Leave that thar hoss hobbled ta the side. They’ll bring ‘im in when they come by with’n thar wagons. Ah doan think that thar hoss kin keep up if’n we tie ‘im ta the back a’ tha stage.”

Gaine watched one of the men run for the horse. “Bring ‘is saddlebag with’n us, if’n ya kin. It’s done got evidence on it!”

“There’s arrows in this saddlebag, and a bow!” the man at the horse called. “Was it Injuns?”

“No. He done wanted folks ta think it t’war, but t’warn’t.”

“They holdin’ the guilty party?” the Conductor called.

“They got his body,” Gaine replied as she climbed into the stage to ride with the injured soldier.

The others threw the saddle and bags to the top and clambered aboard. The driver cracked the whip and the horses flew down the road. The injured man inside moaned with each bump, but they were making good time. They’d be into the next small town within a half hour.

Meghan looked at the boy with terror. What had they done to him and why? It was the young man that’d been assigned to ride inside when Gaine moved to the roof. His face was battered and there were small ash-covered burns on his cheeks. His arm was broken and occasionally he spit up a little bright red blood.

Gaine sat in the middle to provide support for him and Meghan immediately moved to the end where she could run her damp handkerchief over his forehead to help calm him or wipe away the spittle.

“Doan talk ta ‘im,” Gaine whispered to her with a sigh. Gods, how she hated this ruse! “He’ll know yer voice.”

Meghan nodded but kept her attention on the man, trying to gently dab away some of the dried blood on his face. “Shhh,” she calmed. “Shh.”

As they neared the town, the man opened his eyes and focused on Gaine. “Gaine,” he whispered. Gaine smiled worriedly back at him. “Hang on thar, mah friend. War a’gettin’ ya ta the doctor’s fast as we kin.”

He moved his eyes to the veiled woman beside Gaine. “Cousin Minnie,” he whispered. Megan soothingly drew her handkerchief over his brow. “Shhh,” she replied. He smiled softly before again blacking out.

The stage drove right up to the doctor’s home. Men piled off and hurriedly they and Gaine got the injured man inside to the doctor’s examining room. Gaine stood back as the doctor systematically began to examine him. He turned to her, “You’ll have to step out,” he said gruffly. “I’m takin’ his clothes off now.” Then he spotted her badge. “Oh, yer a Sheriff.” His eyes swept over her clothes with disapproval.

Gaine had been so intent on getting the boy help, she’d forgotten the situation. “Uh, certainly,” she said. “Ahl wait out thar.” She moved out to the parlor where some of the other passengers and stage personnel were milling. She saw Meghan across the room. Meghan saw Gaine and headed towards her. Men came out of the room remarking how the man was covered with bruises and breaks from head to toe. Even the bones in his feet had been broken.

“We have a schedule to keep, Sheriff,” the Conductor said worriedly. “We have to be on our way.” At that moment, Meghan moved beside Gaine.

Before the tall brunette could reply the young town Sheriff forced his way through the group and stood with furrowed brows before her. “Who are ya, and what’s goin on here?” he demanded, looking from Gaine, back to the Conductor and then to Gaine again.

Suddenly Meghan stepped in front of Gaine, blocking her from the annoyed man.

“She’s a Sheriff, sir,” Meghan snapped. It was odd not to be able to see Meghan’s face through the veil as she spoke, but Gaine was sure there was fire in her eyes, “She saved that man’s life, if indeed it is saved.”

The man frowned, blinked his eyes and began to move his hand. Meghan flinched and took a small step backward into Gaine, but firmly held her ground. Startled by her action, the man stepped back and instantly pulled off his hat. “Uh, sorry, ma’am.”

“Yessir, this is a Sheriff,” the Conductor agreed, looking towards Gaine. “And we stopped on her direction.”

“Uh,” Gaine stumbled over her words, still surprised at Meghan’s ferociousness. “Ah am a Sheriff, uh, ta Barden’s Corner. An this here’s the stage Conductor and, uh, mah, uh, Cousin Minnie.” For a moment she felt a touch of deja vu, since Minnie might very well have put herself in front of danger this way.

“What’s going on?” the man demanded, his hat still in his hands. He glanced at Meghan and stayed back. “Who’s the wounded man and who did it?”

“We kin git goin’ right quick here,” Gaine assured the Conductor. She put her hands on Meghan’s shoulders, “if’n ya’ll escort mah Cousin back ta the coach, please. We’ll be raht ‘n ar way.” She looked at Meghan with an appeal, “Doan fret, Ahl be raht thar,” she said softly, releasing her hold.

Meghan reluctantly stepped aside with the Conductor to move out to the coach and Gaine moved a step to leave them room to pass.

“Hold on there,” the town Sheriff grabbed Gaine’s arm. “Ya can’t leave, if you have direct evidence on this crime.”

“Unhand her!” Meghan demanded, quickly moving back and forcing herself in front of Gaine. She was so short and slight compared to those around her but all eyes looked down at her with surprise. The Sheriff pulled his hand back as though Gaine were on fire.

“That’s better,” she said. This was a side of Meghan Gaine had only seen glimpses of in her eyes.

“Minnie?” Gaine took her arm and leaned down to her face. “Ahl be raht out. Please, go git ‘n the carriage ‘n Ahl be raht along.”

Meghan looked up into Gaine’s eyes, “You’re sure?” Gaine nodded. Meghan turned toward the door unwillingly then looked back, “you’ll be all right?”

“Yep. Ahl be raht thar.”

Meghan turned and slowly let the Conductor escort her out, the whole time glancing back at Gaine.

“Now,” Gaine turned to the town Sheriff, “Ahl be happy ta let ya know what Ah kin. But thar ain’t gonna be no trial. Army’s gonna take over, Ahm a’thinkin’. An they kin find me easy ’nuff if’n theys gots the need. Name’s Gaine Sargos. An Ahl be ta Barden’s Corner.”

“Obviously this involves the Army,” the Sheriff stated, writing down her name.

“Yep, that Army boy ‘n thar bees ‘n bad shape. Nows after ya done jawed with’n ever’un, if’n ya still needs more news on this here event, ya can send fer me later. But, like Ah said, Army’s gonna take this here doin’s over. Ahl be wirin’ ’em. Whar’s the nearest telegraph?”

“The first stop that heads to the train. The stage there will take your message to the line. Telegraph lines run along the tracks and it’ll be sent once it gets there. But I’ll send a rider back north to the nearest telegraph that a’way.”

“Thanky. Ahl wire ’em from mah stop an’ you wire ’em from yern. Send it ta Lieutenant Pottsington ta San Francisca. Them boys ‘er under his command.”

The man looked unsure. “Boys? There’s only one fellow in there.” Gaine wondered how long he’d been Sheriff and how hard a job it was in this small town. Probably about the same as in her town.

Gaine removed her hat and ran her hand through her hair. “They’s two wagons a’ Army men done been injured a’heading in from China Cup Valley. Ya might send some fellers out ta help ’em. One a’ the fellers from the stage, last name a’ Thatcher, is with ’em and he’ll tell ya ever’thin’ what happened. He an’ Ah killed the perpetrator a’ this here crime. Wa each done put a bullet ‘n ‘im. That buzzard war a’kickin’ this here fella ‘n draggin’ ‘im inta the fire when we got thar.”

“One fella was doin’ this?”

“Yep. They’ll be a bringin ‘is body in.”

“So the man responsible was killed?”

“Yep. We caught ‘im ‘n the act, the t’uther fella an me. Ah already Depeetized that Robert Thatcher fella, by the way. He war actin’ in an o-fficial capacity when he fired his rifle, jest like Ah done. Tell the Army. This criminal war gonna blame his crime on the Indyuns. That thar’s his saddlebags. Ya kin see what he war up ta!”

“He was gonna shoot them with arrows?”

“Yep. But them t’uther Army boys kin tell ya ’bout that when they git in. Now, ya might check n’ see if’n thar’s eny t’uther atrocities a’ this here nature hereabouts that folks thunk war perpetrated by Indyuns. Cause it might well a’been this here feller’s handiwork ‘stead. He war plumb loco with’n rage.”

The man wrote information down as Gaine talked. “Ah recognized the feller that done this. Doan know ‘is name. We jest come from Sacramenta and he war there ‘n the hotel saloon last evenin’ a jawin’ with a feller by the name a’ Fitzgeraldson. Heavy fella..barrel chest, big belly, jowly whiskers, businessman. An here’s the part causes uproar ’bout this here dead man–he war wearin’ a Deputy’s badge last evening. He din’t have it on taday, though. But if’n ya look close when they drag ‘im in here, yu’ll likely see the pin holes ‘n his jacket whar it useta war.”

“A Sacramento Deputy?” The man’s brows flew up.

“No, doan think sa. Ah thunk he war from a place called Miner’s Flat. But this here Fitzgeraldson fella could tell ya fer shore. Ah only knowed Fitzgeraldson cause he war on the same stage Ah rode in on yesterday. He war from Jubilee City. We din’t get on much tagather, him an’ me. Warn’t a kindly sort.”

Meghan sat worrying in the coach with the family across from her. She listened to the mother quietly bringing comfort to her children. Finally she watched the people from the stage come swarming out of the doctor’s house and climb back onto the coach. She moved to give Gaine the window seat. They rode quietly back to the main street and to the changing station where fresh horses were brought out.

“Is the boy…?”

Gaine looked over with a solemn face. “He’s alive but hanging bah a string. The t’uthers should be a’gettin’ there a’fore long.”

“Oh,” Meghan said sadly. She took Gaine’s hand. “Did that Sheriff treat you right?”

A small grin crossed Gaine’s face. “Yep. He war fahn.”

“Someone said,” a veiled face looked up, “they said..the man who hurt the boy was a….Deputy?”

Gaine licked her lips. “He din’t have no badge with’n ‘im, but yep, it war that Lendal’s cousin, the Deputy, all right. Ah recognized ‘im from when he war ta the saloon last night a’talkin’ ta, uh, ya knows who.”

“Oh, Gaine!” Meghan said and Gaine knew there were tears in her eyes. Gaine put her arm around the small woman and held her to herself. “Shh, t’is all right. He bees dead now.” Everyone in the coach was quiet, dazed by the happenings.

Sob-choked words barely audible drifted from behind the veil, “Will it EVER really be over?”

“Yep,” Gaine said softly. “T’will.”

The new passenger that got on at the station, climbed to the top grumbling about the stage being late. Soon he was set straight as to what all had occurred and his muttering stopped. The Army wagons were just entering the small town as the stage flew out on the gallop.

“Thank goodness you watched for them,” Meghan sniffed.

“Ah reckon,” Gaine replied, but she was quite deeply subdued by the event. Guilt swelled within her. She could have let them go their regular way and not lured them by the hotel to get a quarter cigar. She knew that kind of thinking, the “what might have been”, was fruitless, but it was also human and she indulged herself in it for a short while.

“You did everything you could, Gaine,” Meghan said softly. Gaine nodded.

There was a heavy pall over everything with what had happened to the Army boys. It could a’ been Meghan, Gaine thought with horror. That thought was too horrible…far too horrible. She would make absolutely sure that Meghan was protected every minute once they got home. There was no way she would let Meghan’s Pa or that Lendal fellow anywhere near her. She’d kill ’em first.

Continued in Chapter 6

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