Fetchin’ Cousin Minnie Part 2 by Bsoiree

Chapter 6

In Jubilee City Meghan’s mother sat in the bedroom she shared with her husband, her face in her hands, sobbing. Her two teenaged sons were out doing the noonday chores. She’d done the milking, baking and window-washing. She didn’t mind chores even though the desert wind made cleaning an endless job. Later she’d have the boys move the furniture then take out the carpets. She’d beat the everpresent sand from the carpet fibers and have them replaced after she scrubbed the floors.

It wasn’t that her husband demanded their house be spotless at all times even when he wasn’t there. Or else. If he came home unexpectedly and there was sand inside, there’d be hell to pay. No, that wasn’t it at all. It was how powerless she was to his choices and his anger.

Tears poured from her eyes. Her sweet, darling, innocent Meghan. Gone to that horrible beast, Lendal. How could she change anything? She didn’t know how to make anything in her miserable life different. How could she protect her precious girl, the one girl child that dared show some gumption? She couldn’t help her run off. That was definitely not an option. Ruby had found that out. If she’d thought it was at all possible, she’d have taken Meghan years ago and fled far away. But it was a deadly choice…an illegal choice even. And she couldn’t turn to her older children. Her husband had made sure of that.

“Oh, Meghan,” she cried helplessly, “I’ve failed you.” She had pled with her husband not to send Meghan to Lendal. She knew Lendal all too well and the kind of vicious man he was. Her husband had scoffed at her pleas and seemed to take great pleasure in tormenting her with the fact that he was going to be sure their youngest daughter, her precious Meghan, married his dearest friend.

“Meghan needs a firm hand,” he’d kept replying with that superior tone of his. She had tried everything she knew to convince him otherwise, but in the end she had failed. Her daughter was gone and would be Lendal’s bride by now. She cringed at the thought. It was a fate worse than death. Why couldn’t her daughter pick her own match? Why were women destined to this road in life?

-***-

The tired chambermaid turned the handle of the hotel room door with a heavy sigh. Practically a full house. Well, this was the very last room to be done today. They’d told her at the desk to leave it till last. She pushed the door open, bringing her basket of cleaning supplies with her as she took a step inside. The blind was shut leaving the room in shadowed darkness with only the mottled daylight from the hallway illuminating the edges of clothing and luggage scattered about.

The chambermaid shook her head. How could people live this way? Her eyes adjusted to the heavily shadowed room. Suddenly her scream could be heard throughout the three levels of the hotel, bringing the staff on the run.

Meghan’s father’s stern grey-green eyes were vacant as he lay on the floor on his back facing the ceiling. His voice was silent. The bustling city noises rose from outside the open window; the wind blew the shade till it flapped in the breeze. His room was a mess of scattered and torn clothes, toiletries, and shoe cleaning materials. The clothes he was wearing were also torn, and disheveled. And there was blood. A lot of blood. Everywhere.

Brogan Fitzgeraldson lay quite dead, several areas of darkened blood spots were on his torso. The one across his throat had flowed heavily and pooled on the floor, the others left large dark marks on his chest, clearly indicating the numerous spots where he had been viciously stabbed. The weapon was nowhere to be seen.

-***-

“Whatcha think, Marshal?” Herbert Windslaw asked as he stood looking down on the body. Herbert’s father owned the furniture store and this son had been trained in the furniture business. But now Herbert was the city’s official undertaker, a job he liked better. It fit his curious mind. Course, it would be his job to make the pine box for the burial if the family didn’t get back to him in time with their wishes, and more appropriately, their finances for anything better.

The Marshal rubbed his chin. His eyes intently moved about the room, “Welp..the window was unlocked and open but the shade was closed and the door was also closed but not blocked in any way,” he said in his deep tones, “The murderer could have come in and gone out either way. All the man’s valuable possessions including a full money belt, coins from his pocket, and gold watch are missing. I know he had those things cause he had ‘em when I arrested him last night. His other items are strewn everywhere around this room.”

“Yep. Just like I figured. Looks like robbery was the motive all right.”
“I wonder. I mean, somebody wants us to think this was robbery. And maybe it was.” He rubbed his chin and ran his eyes once more over the victim. “But this was a vicious killing and I saw how that man talked to him earlier today. He was angry! Oh, he could have taken this man’s possessions sure enough, but his motive would have been much more than simple robbery.”

“Well, I’ll be dadsapped. Which man was that, Marshal?”

“Fellow by the name of Lendal Hindlefarb…this man’s daughter’s intended, although not a man of her choice. And she went missing during the night. See how that dress has been ripped up?”

“I saw that. Musta been hers, huh? You think that fella did that? You think he’s the murderer? Couldn’t the old man have ripped it?”

“Maybe. But the old man didn’t look strong enough to rip a dress like that and this other fella was strong and angry enough. And he was with the victim this morning.”

Herbert stood staring at the body. “How long ya figure he’s been dead.”

“I dunno. What do you think? You’ve seen your share of dead bodies.”

Herbert smiled. He liked working with this Marshal. He always asked for Herbert’s opinion. “Well, Marshal, I’d say a couple hours maybe. A little rigor in his face there looks like.”

“Um hum. That’s what I was thinkin’, too. Right about the time that Lendal fellow was here.” The lawman checked every pocket of the victim and found them empty except for the torn pieces of the note his daughter had left. He put those in his own pocket. Now he noted something in the victim’s hand.

“Well looky here.” The Marshal pried the dead man’s hand open. Inside was a star-shaped metal badge that read “Deputy”.

“Well, pancakes,” The Marshal turned the badge over. “This badge…that Lendal fellow had a relative. I remember them talking about it. And he was a Deputy.” They both stared at the badge, “Looks like maybe he came back to help Lendal with this crime. That’s my guess, anyway.” He stood.

“A Deputy? Helpin’ with a murder?” Herbert’s brow raised. “Ya sure ya want that word to get out, Marshal?”

“It happens,” the Marshal pushed his hat back. It happened all too often. It was not unknown for law enforcement to fall to those with their own legal vices.

Herbert nodded. “Sure bled enough. Hotel’s gonna have trouble getting this stain out of their floor. And look at the sheet! Looks like the killer wiped the knife off there.”

“Um hum, I noticed,” the Marshal carefully observed the body then glanced at the bloody mark of the wiped blade on the sheets. “Bowie blade, looks like.”

“That’s just what I was thinkin’, too. Course lots of men carry ’em these days.”

“Well, that Lendal fella had one. I saw it myself.” The Marshal walked around the room, looking back at the victim as he checked around. “Ya know, it took a strong man to do this killing. This fellow was hefty.” He took off his hat and rubbed his hand over his head. “Two men would sure have made it easier, if that’s what happened.” He stepped close and looked down at the man’s wounds, “but I suppose it could have been one–a strong one. Neck wound killed him. And hotel folks didn’t see anybody near his room except that Lendal fella.”

The Marshal stepped away from the body. “Well, let’s look at the covers, shake ’em off and see if there’s anything else here we should see.” He liked working with Winslaw. The man was curious and expressed his opinions.

“Okay. Yer pretty sure, though, ya think ya know the murderers, right?”

“Maybe. Gonna have to send a wire to the victim’s hometown so his family’s been informed. Meanwhile, I’ll see if I can’t chase down these fellas.”

The Marshal shook out the top coverlet and Winslaw shook the blanket. Then they shook the top sheet. Nothing fell out. They folded it with the knife’s blood smear on top. They checked the bottom sheet and the pillow cases. Nothing. There were dirt smudges on the sheets where one’s boots might have left marks if someone had gone to bed with their boots on.

“Kinda strange,” the Marshal muttered. He’d seen the mussed bed that morning and still wondered why it was mussed the way it was. But he didn’t want to admit to Winslaw that he’d been snooping around in the man’s room. Besides, Fitzgeraldson was alive at that point, so it didn’t figure in his killing.

“What do you make of that?” Winslaw asked. “Bed looks like a hurrah’s nest the way it was all mussed up like that.”

“Uh, dunno. Guess he took a nap. Not involved with the murder, I’d guess.”

Winslaw looked at the dead man’s boots. “No, sir, those boots woulda left polish stains and these stains are dirt.” He ran his finger over a stain then looked up, proud of his skills of deduction. He looked closer. “Strange, huh? Coulda been part of the murder. What if somebody got in bed with their boots on pretending to share the room only really just laying in wait for his victim?”

“Mm. Not too likely to be lying in wait in daytime. Fitzgeraldson was in jail all night and the hotel didn’t assign anyone else to this room. No, it’s not connected.”

“But, why climb in bed with your boots on then?”

“Dunno.” And in fact it still puzzled the Marshal.

“What did Bob at the desk say?” Winslaw asked. “He’s on days. Saw you talking to him before you came up.”

“He said they didn’t put anyone else in here. And they saw this Lendal fellow come down the main stairs with his whip, calm as ya please, walk outside and open a gold watch to check the time. Only thing is, I don’t remember seeing him with a watch when he was at the jail this morning. Now the victim had himself a gold pocket watch that he opened every two seconds, but not Lendal.”
“Well, Marshal, seems ta me like ya know the murderer in this case. That’s pretty sure evidence.”

“Hmm. Maybe.” He looked around one last time. But why walk out calm as you please? Would he think people didn’t remember he was here if he moved slowly and didn’t create a fuss? Did he think that wouldn’t make him look guilty? Or was he one of those crazed killers that killed with a smile on his face then went about his business like nothing had happened?

“Any blood on ‘im?” Winslaw asked, startling the Marshal from his thoughts.

“This Lendal fellow? They didn’t mention seeing any.”

“Sure enough blood everywhere else.”

“Yep,” the Marshal rubbed his chin then sighed, “All right, Winslaw, bundle him up and take him on down to the shop. We’ll give the family a small while to get back to ya. I’ll go to the telegraph office and notify their Sheriff after I’ve checked with the fellas in the saloon. Maybe somebody knows exactly who this Deputy fellow is that was outside the hotel here yesterday. I know a little about Lendal, but there’s a whole lot more to find out.

-***-

Anger and challenge in her situation had been left behind. Instead Meghan had been vacillating between sorrow and terror… sorrow for what had been done to the soldiers and terror of people that could be that ruthless, relentlessly merciless and searching for her. And she had pulled Gaine into her problem and Gaine had pulled in the Army boys. How could she live with this?

They had been sitting in the hot, dusty carriage bouncing inside watching the landscape quietly through the dust for a number of stops already, side by side but no longer embraced. Each sat staring, mulling over their own thoughts.

A warm hand reached over and grasped Meghan’s and something inside her relaxed ever so slightly. She looked up to see Gaine’s smile, that fabulous smile that made her weak. “Ya all right?” the tall woman asked softly.

Meghan stared back. How does she know? She can’t see my face. How does she know? “I guess so.”

“T’is gonna be fine. It got itself a bad appearance now, but t’is gonna be fine.”

Meghan stared at the tall beauty’s face and for the first time noticed the tight muscles in her jaw and the circles under her eyes, and the almost hollow look she was trying to hide. Meghan slumped back. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

Gaine leaned close to her ear and whispered just above the noises of the coach, “Doncha dare! Ya hear me? Doncha dare say nothin’ like that! Ya ain’t responsible fer none a this, so’s doncha dare ‘pologize.”

Meghan dropped her eyes to her lap and chewed her lip. “I feel responsible.”

A finger against the veil gently lifted her chin. “Well, ya ain’t!”

Gaine heaved a large sigh and glanced around her. They were in a coach full of people, each lost in their own thoughts. But everyone had been affected. They were all feeling their own degrees of shock. It drew them together in a sense. They were each finding what comfort they could in this ordeal, shared yet apart.

The parents were hugging their children, all squeezed together on one seat now, wrapped around each other as they bounced along. The two men were both sitting on the center bench, straddling it, each staring out the window of the opposite door regardless of the dust swirling inside.

Gaine leaned down to the smaller woman. “Ah done blamed mahself fer a spell. If’n Ah hadn’t had ‘em git ceegars ta the hotel…”

“Oh, Gaine, you didn’t cause this,” Meghan said banefully.

“Ah know Ah din’t. An you din’t neither. Ya know what Ah figured? Ah figured them hateful, contumacious men..all three a’ ‘em.. bees loco an’ what that Deputy feller done war beyond anythin’ ‘n humanity. There ain’t no accountin’ fer that. Ah, fer one, am more’n glad he’s dead. An’ may he rot ‘n the fires a’ hell fer all eternity! See, Ah gotta horrible feelin’ he’s done this a’fore. An’ he’d a done it ‘gin if’n he ain’t been stopped. But now he’s done been stopped.”

“But the boy…he was hurt so badly.”

“Yep. He t’war. An he shore din’t deserve’t. An’ he’s got all ar hopes an’ prayers fer his recovery. He gots hisself in God’s hands now. But that thar fella woulda picked some’un else ta smite. Who’s ta say what innocent folk t’woulda suffered ta his hand? Ya din’t do it ta the boy an’ Ah din’t neither. One vera loco man swamped with evil done it. An he’s dead an’ ain’t gonna do it ne’er agin. ”

The tall beauty intertwined their fingers, working her larger fingers through the glove covered smaller hand. “Evil’s a downright frightful happenstance,” Gaine said softly squeezing Meghan’s hand. “More sa when’t attacks good folks. All’s we kin do is ta fight it best we kin.”

Green eyes looked out from the veil at Gaine’s face and gently squeezed back. “Yes,” she said softly. Then her head tilted down with her gaze focused in her lap.

Gaine leaned towards her and said quietly, “Doan drop yer head, please? Ya doan never hafta do that agin.”

“Drop my head?” Meghan hadn’t realized she’d done something she’d been trained to do since she was a child. She felt her jaw firm. “You’re right,” she agreed and lifted her head. “I don’t have to do it again. Never again.”

-***-

The Marshal spent his afternoon talking with the men in the saloon and all the hotel employees. Some of the men from the faro game also played in Oakland saloons and knew Lendal. The Marshal wrote down the information, including the man’s hometown of Miner’s Flat. One of them remembered the local Deputy from the same town. Lendal’s cousin…a hard man by all accounts.

All the information went down in the Marshal’s notes. He fervently wished he’d read the note left at the desk for Lendal, even if it hadn’t been “correct” to do so. Well, he’d head out to Miner’s Flat the next day if he could get away. He was too tired right now. He’d sure be glad when his two Deputies got back. Working night and day by himself was getting very old, very fast.

A fight had broken out in another saloon and the Marshal was sent for. There were fighters or drunks that needed to be jailed. Maybe he’d crawl into one of the other cells and nap once he got them there. He’d need to get some rest before things picked up later in the evening. He didn’t have time to head home. His family must wonder if he’d left town on vacation with his Deputy.

-***-

It was very late when they pulled into their first night’s stay. As soon as they stopped, Gaine filled out the telegram for the connecting stage that would carry it to the telegraph office the next morning. She counted out the amount as Meghan waited beside her, but the stage company refused to have her pay.

Gaine and Meghan undressed quietly once they got their assigned room. They were both saturated with a deep weariness of body and soul. They hadn’t really slept much the night before and their bodies, instead of seeking exhaustive sleep, were overwrought with tamped down tension.

As they climbed into bed and blew out the candle, Gaine pulled the small blonde to herself. She had intended a gentle caress and then to hold the small woman as they slept. But Meghan was eager, warm and soft and the memory of the prior night spent gently kissing and caressing each other settled in her mind. Now after the day they’d been through…

The small blonde needed the connection. Passion filled her eyes, sending a roar of arousal through Gaine. Gaine’s lips reverently brushed Meghan’s forehead, then eyes, then freckled cheeks. The brunette’s trembling fingers gently held Meghan’s face as her lips tenderly laid claim to those she yearned to possess again.

Once their mouths met, the gentle kiss left them desperately craving more. They kissed again, and this kiss quickly exploded into an urgent, passionate search. Pulses pounding, their heated bodies pressed together in a surge of desperate want, their lips offered entry to the other’s searching tongue. Gaine’s fevered hands moved down the small woman’s torso. Neither could seem to stop. They both ached to lose themselves in the other.

Meghan moved her own hands to Gaine’s, directing them to her bosom with a throaty moan, “Gaine!” Their needs raging, their bodies became wildly alive with an intense hunger. Gaine slipped onto Meghan, her thigh pressing between Meghan’s nightgown just as the blonde arched into Gaine’s hands on her breasts.

Blood was pounding in the blonde’s ears but a niggling edge of reality worked its way into her thoughts. Oh, dear heavens, wait… She pulled her face back, “Gaine, love, wait.” She trembled as she moved Gaine’s hands away from her bust and down to her waist. She backed away slightly, pressing her legs together, forcing Gaine’s out and buried her face in the quaking shoulder near her. “Please, my love, wait.”

Hazy blue eyes gazed back in the shadowed darkness. “Meggy,” Gaine groaned, the fire inside her fanned into a blaze she feared she no longer controlled. “What’s wrong, darlin’?” she whispered. “Did Ah hurt ya?” Her pulse pounded in her head, her skin was alive with unfamiliar sensations, butterflies fluttered in her stomach and a wet warmth was settled between her thighs.

“No,” Meghan breathed. “Oh, Gaine, honey. Not…not like this.” The small blonde wiggled completely out from underneath a very confused brunette and grabbed both of Gaine’s hands in her own. “Not here. Not in reaction to something horrible that happened.” They both looked around to the darkened muslin walls of the room they were now in, the one the mysterious woman and her companion had shared in this “hotel” on the trip down.

“Reaction?” Was it a reaction? Gaine’s heart pounded. She wasn’t at all sure about that. She knew she’d wanted Meghan from the moment she first saw her. Her ragged breathing came in shuddered gasps. She froze in place, letting Meghan break contact and move into less dangerous territory. Gaine brought her hands back to herself and felt the overwhelming loss of the smaller woman’s body next to hers. She closed her eyes as she contemplated Meghan’s words.

“War it cause t’is sa soon?” she whispered. She opened her eyes to plead her case, “Cause theys them mailorder brides an’ they marry soon’s they meet the feller bringin’ em out. We done met days ago.”

“Barely four days ago, honey,” Meghan whispered back, aching to reach out and stroke Gaine but keeping her hands to herself with great effort. “But that isn’t it.”

“It ain’t?”

“No.” There was silence. Gaine knew Meghan was chewing her lip. She did that when she got nervous. Finally Meghan whispered, “Do you know…for sure…what you want, Gaine?” The blonde’s smaller hand gently pushed long black hair from Gaine’s face. Green eyes searched the shadows of Gaine’s face for understanding. A soft kiss was placed on Gaine’s cheek, “Really know what you want..for forever?”

“Ahm not shore what ya mean,” the brunette replied, her breath still coming in short whispered gasps. Blue eyes shut, “Ah want ya. More’n an’athin’.” They reopened and she began to back away at the small woman’s reluctance. “But not if’n ya doan…”

“No,” Meghan took Gaine’s hands and pulled them back around herself, settling herself in Gaine’s arms. Then she wrapped her own arms around Gaine, pressing her face to Gaine’s chest, holding on tightly, not allowing her to pull away but being careful not to make other intimate contact that would further tantalize and frustrate the tall woman.

Gaine inhaled a large breath and let it out. Her tingling body didn’t move. “Ahm sorry, Meg….”

“No,” Meghan lifted her face and put a finger over Gaine’s mouth. “No.”

Gaine was totally confused. “Ah din’t mean ta offend ya none.”

“You didn’t,” Meghan put her head back on Gaine’s shoulder. “Not at all. I want you, too. So very much.” She brought a finger to her bruised lips, “And that kiss, it was unbelievable. But we need to think about what’s going to happen in the future. It’s just…” she pressed her cheek to Gaine’s shoulder and whispered without looking up at the tall woman, “There’s so much to consider. So much to discuss.” Meghan shut her eyes to try and let her swimming thoughts focus. “Can you forgive me, my love? We haven’t decided anything and, uh, a lady has to, uh, I don’t know, protect her honor, I guess.”

Gaine felt numb. Protect her honor? What did she mean by that? Gaine would never do anything to dishonor her. If they loved each other, that couldn’t be construed as dishonoring her, could it? Hadn’t she wanted this as badly? It surely felt like it.

“We’re both exhausted, sweetheart,” Meghan whispered letting her own heartbeat settle back into a more normal beat. “Why don’t we try and get some sleep. We can talk more about this later.” Her own body was uncomfortable with the remains of her aching need. But she had known even as a child that while she would willingly give herself to the one she loved and wanted to spend her life with, it wouldn’t ever be on a whim, and never without the promise and blessing of forever.

Sleep? Gaine didn’t feel anywhere near relaxed enough to sleep. She was exhausted but her body was registering her frustration and her eyes had no desire to close. She wanted to go hop on a horse and ride the range for a few hours till her head cleared. Maybe she could figure out what had just happened. But, of course, she had no horse available here. And Meghan had a tight hold on her.

That kiss! It had been so…gods, she thought their hearts, souls and bodies would be permanently combined if it continued. She knew she didn’t dare think about that. She was already entirely too overwrought. And now Meghan was next to her, keeping her body humming with desire. But if stopping was what Meghan wanted…

A soft moan of frustration escaped Gaine’s lips and Meghan sighed in sympathy, “I know. Sleep, now, honey,” she murmured. “it’s all right.” Smaller hands rubbed soothingly up and down Gaine’s back.

It’s all right? Gaine thought in chagrin. This a’wantin ya sa bad shore as shootin’ doan feel like t’is all right! She flopped her head back on the pillow in frustration and shut her eyes tight waiting for her heartbeat to settle. But she would never intentionally do anything to upset Meghan or to hurt her. Not ever. So she would make it be all right, if that’s what Meghan wanted.

Meghan closed her eyes and prayed she hadn’t ruined everything. She wanted Gaine so badly, but her wants involved more than a quick physical release following a far too traumatic day. She wanted forever with the tall brunette and just knew it should be based on a commitment they hadn’t even discussed. But she also knew that if she kissed her once more, none of that would matter.

Gaine, on the other hand, faced puzzlement. What exactly did Meghan want? She would do whatever it was. She felt such a strong physical desire for this woman who was seldom out of her thoughts, yet her respect and concern for her far outweighed satisfying that desire. And just holding the small blonde was like balm to her soul. But what did the small beauty want exactly? Gaine forced a calmness over herself. Yes, just having her in her arms was a haven unlike any she’d ever known. She didn’t want to even think of life now without Meghan. She craved holding her as much as she needed breathing.

Meghan. Her Meghan. She nestled her cheek to Meghan’s hair. She had to deal with it. There was no doubt she was totally smitten with this woman.

“Night, love,” Meghan whispered.

“Ah…Ah loves ya, Meg.”

“Oh, Gaine. I love you, too.” Meghan reached a hand up to again stroke Gaine’s cheek. “My beloved. But, uh, maybe I should, uh, face the other way. Your body feels entirely too…uh, good next to mine. I’ll never sleep this way.”

That brought a small smile to the brunette’s face. Gaine curled up behind Meghan and wrapped her arms around the small woman. They shut their eyes and listened to each other’s hearts beating until their breathing deepened and their bodies made decisions for them, pulling them past their cravings into sleep.

-***-

Morning broke across the hills of San Francisco. A fog lay settled in the bay, blurring and obscuring the shapes of the four-masted schooners anchored there and the ferry boats as they plied their familiar routes. Lendal left his cheap hotel in this large city and paused outside the entrance. An early start, as usual.

He smiled, hooked his thumb over his belt and felt the watch in his tight watch pocket. No need to look. He wasn’t a slave to time. He awoke at the same time very day. Besides, he’d seen the clock in the hotel. He felt the chain nestled below the watch. He didn’t wear a vest and refused to show off the fob in any case. He thought it gave the wearer the look of a popinjay. And that would never do! He wasn’t some pie-faced dandy and nobody better mistake him for one!

He swaggered down the street. He’d hire a horse at the livery and ride the three miles out to the Presidio barracks to nose around. The night before he had gone to a saloon frequented by current Army and retired Army men living in a local boardinghouse. He knew some of them. He’d discovered from them that meetings were, in fact, being held at the Presidio by the Army brass. There were many changes afoot. Quartermasters were sure to be heavily involved.

Now that the Civil War was a good ten years past and some of the Indian tribes were on reservations or under treaties, a number of the far western forts were no longer needed and could be cut back or abandoned. Four batteries alone from the Artillery had returned to the Presidio after the Modoc War in the northern reaches of the state just two years earlier. Not that all troubles were past, they weren’t by any means. But most of those in California seemed to be.

Lendal rode past the business houses, hotels and new construction then moved his rented horse out where a sawmill and lumber yard had long since been built by a small brook. A wharf extended into the bay there now. Not much further the city suddenly ended and there were few buildings anywhere. Others were out riding and a carriage passed him that pulled into a small group of buildings standing alone by a small pond separated from the bay by a low range of sand dunes. Washerwoman’s Lagoon, where large kettles for boiling clothes and fluted washboards had once held court. The surrounding land was a rich, black cultivated loam.

The road led through a small pass between the hills. He continued past them till he saw the flag, the cassons in the parade ground and the barracks ahead. An ancient long adobe sat at the south end of the parade. The Assembly and Officer’s Mess, he thought to himself. He had paid close attention to what his friends in the saloon had said. He looked around. He should see band barracks, artillery barracks, infantry barracks, and cavalry barracks. And there they were.

There were heavy wooden archways at the the principal carriage entrance. But Lendal was using the entrance the freight wagons used. He’d be visiting the sutler, he’d tell them. The sutler was a civilian allowed to sell supplies not of government issue. His barrack was west of the Civil War barracks.

The place was very busy. Lendal tied his horse on the rail and decided to check at the busy adjutant’s office to see if his “old friend”, Lieutenant Pottsington was here. Brogan had claimed that was the man responsible for Meghan’s disappearance. Lendal would see if that was actually true.

He gave the man behind the desk a phony name for himself then tried to chat casually, but the large brute of a man was all business and found no interest in such conversation. It was busy and many soldiers and a few civilians were constantly in and out.

Finally the burly man looked up from his work and asked, “Where’d you serve during the war?”

It caught Lendal off guard. “Uh, I was out here,” Lendal replied. He hadn’t served at all during the war. Hadn’t wanted to. Why risk his life in a fight that he cared nothing about? The man repeated the phony last name Lendal had given him a few times then looked at him blankly. “Don’t remember your name. And I don’t usually forget the names of those who served. I was out here, too.”

“Well, I was assigned to watch the Southern sympathizers,” Lendal lied. He knew that had been done. He’d talked to his ex-Army friends often enough. He puffed himself up and sniffed. He couldn’t help liking the fellow behind the desk. No smiles, no bows, no prissy “how do you do’s”. Not with this fellow. This man was a real man, a man’s man. Lendal could see that and he felt an instant kinship with the non-communicative fellow. “I wanted to try and catch Lieutenant Pottsington before he headed back to his fort,” he added.

The man in uniform looked back at him with a look short of contempt. Lendal ignored the look assuming it was due to the man’s opinion of such officers. “First I need to know if he’s actually here,” Lendal added pleasantly.

“He’s here,” the man replied shortly. “Got in last night. But he’ll be in meetings and not available. Leave your name. I’ll let him know you were here.”

“Maybe I can catch him at supper time,” Lendal suggested. “When the meetings are over.” He jammed his thumbs into his belt and assumed his toughest pose. “I’d like to surprise him.”

“Doubt it,” the man replied, running his eyes over the visitor. “Meetings are expected to run late. Lots to do in a short time.”

“Oh? He started this morning then?” Lendal inquired.

“No. Started the minute he got here, night before last. Those men haven’t had a free minute that I’m aware of. And don’t plan to.”

Ah ha, Lendal thought, So he couldn’t have married her yet probably. “Is he planning to get married soon, do you know?” Lendal slyly asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.

Now the man looked at him very skeptically. “Why do you ask?”

“Somebody said he was,” Lendal replied. “Thought I’d buy him a drink. You know, to celebrate.” He took his thumbs from his belt.

“Civilians,” the man snorted in disgust, “I can’t help ya there.” He turned his back along with his chair and began sorting through some files behind him. The conversation was over.

Lendal waited a minute, then turned and left. So they won’t talk about whether he’s getting married or not. Maybe they’re all in on it. The Lieutenant could have friends here. Well, it doesn’t matter. He’d better not have done any deflowering of my bride. The man’ll suffer painfully, if he has. Course, he’ll suffer in any case, but I could make it extremely painful for him if he’s already sullied my betrothed.

Once Lendal had gone, the man at the desk called one of the privates to his desk. “Run over and tell Lieutenant Pottsington a man was checking at the adjutant’s office about him. Said he was a friend but lied about being in the service during the war and wanted to know if the Lieutenant was getting married.”

“Yessir,” the private saluted.

“Tell him he’d better tell his first wife if he’s planning to take another. I don’t think she’d like that too well and neither would her Daddy, the General.”

“Yessir,” the private replied and saluted again before scurrying off.

The Lieutenant was in a meeting. He was pulled aside and the Private whispered the message to him. The officer’s face did not change. He nodded his head in understanding then whispered, “Ask him what the man looked like.” The Private headed back to the front desk.

At a short morning break the Lieutenant hurried up to the Adjutant’s office to talk with the man behind the desk and hopefully get more information. By description he determined it had not been Meghan’s father. He mentioned to the fellow as casually as he could how this man, Meghan’s father, had taken a dislike to him when they rode together on the stage. Then he remarked with disdain how the older man had tried to shoot a woman in the back. Now he wondered aloud if this same man was trying to cause trouble by sending someone else to stir up mischief.

“I’ll post a guard if you want,” the man at the desk replied noncommittally. “Guess you’d best stay on base and not venture into town to do any “celebratin'”.” He smiled a perfectly unfriendly smile.

“I had no plans to go into town. There’s far too much to be done here.” The Lieutenant briskly turned and left. He’d post his own guard just in case. The last thing he needed was his father-in-law getting upset by some stupidly irate father. He’d merely kissed the girl’s hand, after all. Hardly a hanging offense, although his wife might think so come to think about it. He sighed heavily and rushed back to his meeting.

It was shortly after that when the first wire arrived for the Lieutenant regarding the attack on his men in China Cup Valley the day before. The second telegram from Gaine would arrive about an hour later giving a little more detail. The Lieutenant was stunned. His men were attacked? He ran a hand through his wavy hair and pulled his mustache worriedly.

There was a very good man lying on the brink of death while all the others had been savagely beaten for no good reason that anyone could discern. It wasn’t an Indian attack and it wasn’t outlaws. But the perpetrator was killed and was said to be a Deputy. Now that was very strange. It was totally inconceivable. Why had it happened?

Well, this most definitely was Army business. It was certainly unbelievable that such carnage could be caused by one man. Because of jealousy? The wire said he was trying to find out what had happened to Meghan Fitzgeraldson and what Army man from the stage wore cologne. Or was that all a ruse, and it was really about something else? Arrows and blaming it on Indians did not speak of women and cologne. And if such an atrocity had happened before and WAS blamed on Indians, something else far more sinister was happening here. But with the guilty party dead, they might never know the real reasons.

The question whether other similar crimes had been committed in the locality, the Lieutenant decided, needed to be thoroughly investigated and was certainly enough to take any pressure off of himself. Not that he cared that much. Not with one of his men on death’s door. He would have to do some explaining to the General before the Provost troops were sent out to investigate. Still he was relieved that he had been informed first. It would give him a chance to explain things before they looked bad for him.

What kind of loco people are these, anyway? he wondered. If it did involve him, he really hadn’t done anything. A little smiling, a little flirting, a kiss on a gloved hand. It hardly warranted anything of this nature. No, this criminal’s real goal must have been something far more malicious. He was attacking the Army and that spoke of traitorous intentions.

-***-

Lendal purveyed the open countryside as he rode away from the barracks. At one point the dirt road branched and led to the Filmore Street Wharf. He wouldn’t go that way going back. It was longer. He stayed on the main road in open country, with few houses or buildings until he saw the lagoon at Washerwoman’s Bay. Then there was more countryside again for a small stretch until he was suddenly in the city.

He’d found what he needed to know. The man was there. He’d be staying in the officer’s quarters, no doubt. He glanced at his horse. He didn’t dare leave a horse or carriage on his return trip. Both would be too easily seen or traced. He’d ride the horsedrawn streetcars and get as close as possible to the Filmore Street Wharf then go by foot. It wasn’t that far. A mile and a half maybe.

In his room he handled his whip then put it down atop the Daily Morning Call newspaper and fingered his knife. The best idea was to lure Pottsington where he could spend some time getting information from him. The best thing would be to get him completely off the grounds. There were plenty of rolling hills about where one could hide at night. He could find a spot. He’d learn where this man had stashed Meghan. And wouldn’t she be surprised when he located her? Little whore! She’d learn to cry and plead and beg and much, much more before it was all over. He knew how to deal with bitches like her.

-***-

The Marshal reined back as he approached Lendal’s mule ranch. He had taken the train to Oakland. From there he’d rented this red sorrel gelding at the livery to ride out to the ranch. The place was run down with rusted trash and garbage strewn about outside. Even the mules didn’t look that well taken care of. He could see young men moving in the decrepit barn. The structure looked like it could collapse at any minute. He threw the reins over the rail in front of the house and moved through the broken down fence past blotchy, overgrown grass onto the rickety porch.

He knocked on the door and heard movement inside but couldn’t see anything through the lace curtains. He waited but no one answered. He knocked again. Finally the door opened only a crack. “What do you want?” a girl’s voice asked tremulously. There was fear in her voice. He took off his hat and replied in his calmest deep tones, “I’m here from Sacramento to see your father.”

“He ain’t here!” she replied. The quivering girl was probably in her teens. Smaller barefooted children huddled behind her. One young girl about seven smiled from behind her sister’s skirts. From what the Marshal could see, the inside of the house was spotlessly clean, scant of furniture and very worn.

He tapped his badge and the older girl’s eyes grew larger. “May I come in?” he asked, “and ask ya a few questions?”

“Ya hafta ask Thackery. He’s out at the barn.”

“Alright,” he put on his hat and tipped it, “Thanks.” The door was shut instantly.

He heard the braying screams of the mule and the snapping of the whip before he entered the barn. Stepping into the darkened interior he saw a boy wielding a whip standing over a mule, trying to get him to move into a stall. The mule was kicking and unwilling to move inside.

“Here! Hold up on that!” the Marshal boomed in his deepest voice. “Ya don’t handle animals that way!”

The boy stopped mid strike and glared at him. “We do,” he replied simply and brought the whip down again, striking the animal with force. The mule kicked and the boy tightened his jaw and swung the whip back again. The Marshal grabbed for the boy’s wrist and locked his iron fist around it.

“Stop!”

“How dare you,” the boy called, trying to wrench his wrist free. “Let me go. Yer not my Pa. You can’t tell me what ta do. Get off our land!” The Marshal figured this young fellow was probably in his late teens. He was a strong young man and struck a defensive pose when he could not release the Marshal’s hold.

“Well, I’m the law,” the Marshal replied, “And I can stop you from abusing this animal since that’s what you’re doin.”

“You ain’t the law here,” the boy snarled. “My Daddy’s cousin is the law here and that ain’t you.”

“You Thackery?” the Marshal asked. Another boy popped his head around the corner from a stall. He looked younger. They both had eyes neighbors might describe as being like their father’s, although the younger boy’s were softer.

“Yeah, what of it?”

The Marshal released the boy’s wrist and stepped back. “I understand you’re in charge when your Pa is gone.”

“So?”

“I’m looking for him. Know where he is?”

“No! So just get on your damn horse and get off our land or I’ll get the shotgun!”

“Look, son, I’m a federal Marshal. I can haul you into jail if you’d prefer. I came all the way from Sacramento to find your father. I don’t plan to be turned away by any badly behaved, snot-nosed child.”

“I ain’t no child! I’m seventeen and I’m tellin’ you again to get off our land!”

“Why do you want our Pa?” the other boy asked.

“Joshua, you keep still, or I’ll tell Pa.”

“I just need to talk with him, son,” the Marshal replied. “Any idea when he’ll be home?”

“No!” Thackery stated. “Now git yer damn hide out a’ here!”

“That does it,” the Marshal growled, pulling out his sixshooter. “You are under arrest,” he grabbed the arm of the young man, but the boy began to raise the whip to strike the lawman. “And I’m addin’ resistin’ arrest to the charges.”

“Wait, Wait! Don’t arrest him, please,” Joshua rushed to his brother’s aid. Thackery lowered the whip when his brother stepped in front. “He didn’t mean ta talk like he done. We don’t know where Pa is. That’s the honest truth. He left ta deliver some mules and said he’d be back with a new wife in a day or so. He said we was all ta stay out of the house when he got back. But he ain’t here yet.”

The Marshal pushed the boy in front of him as he released his arm. “There, see how easy that coulda been. All right, I won’t arrest you this time,” he slipped his sidearm back in its holster, “but you watch your step, young man. Cause I’ll be back. And quit abusin’ those mules. That is a lawful order you’d best follow.”

He turned on his heel and marched back to the house as the two boys watched. One of the smaller children was in the front yard and another in the back now with scythes trying to cut the tall grass that grew in mats there. One was the girl who had smiled at the Marshal earlier. He stopped by the broken down fence and smiled back at the young girl.

“Howdy,” he said softly.

“Hi,” she said shyly. The other child, a boy of about eight moved quickly behind her saying nothing. The Marshal could see the curtains move in the house and knew one of the other children must have been there.

“I’m the Marshal from Sacramento. I came ta talk with your Pa.”

“I know. Ya said already,” the young girl replied.

The Marshal laughed a deep, friendly laugh. “Yes, I did. Where’s your Momma?” he asked.

“She run off,” the older boy said quickly, but the young girl’s finger moved to across the field.

Thackery stood at the door of the barn. “You younguns git inside this minute!” he yelled. “Goddammit Bessie, keep them children inside! Damn females have ta have everything beat inta them. Can’t think fer themselves.”

The door flew open and the older girl’s voice called, “Come in here.”

“Bye,” the young girl smiled. She turned and ran up the stairs with the boy. The Marshal waved and waited till the door slammed. He climbed onto the horse he’d rented. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and turned back down the road. His eyes moved in the direction the girl had pointed, but it was a large open pasture. There was no way one could successfully hope to search the whole thing for a buried body. Gods! What kind of a nightmare are these children living in?

He stopped at the Sheriff’s office in town but found the personnel was very tight-lipped there. He asked about the man’s first wife and got very little information. She had run off once before and had been brought back by a Sheriff in a nearby town was about all they would say.

He asked if the husband had beaten his wife and the Sheriff shrugged. “He’s allowed,” he replied.

“Not by law,” the Marshall remarked.

“Ain’t no law against it,” the Sheriff looked the Marshall over carefully. “And it’s part a’ Christian doctrine. You agin that, Marshall?”

“Christian doctrine? I’m Christian and I’m against killin’ someone,” he replied. “That’s definitely against Christian doctrine. And so is causing grievous injury. And I don’t know of anything that says a man should beat his wife.”

“She is to obey. And far as killin’ is concerned, yer right there. But his wife run off. She weren’t killed.”

“Ya sure?” the Marshal asked.

The Sheriff just stared at him.

“His cousin’s supposed to be one of your Deputies. He in today?”

“N0. Not due in till tomorrow. He took a couple days off.”

“Any idea when Lendal might be back in town?”

“No. Why ya want him?”

He decided not to tell these people that Lendal was a prime suspect in a murder. He had the distinct feeling they might help him get away. No telling how many were Lendal’s actual family.

“Need ta talk to him. I’ll be back,” the Marshal stated. He headed to the local cafe. That was the best place to hear any gossip as long as he could avoid Lendal’s family ties. And some of these small towns had fine home-cooked meals at their small cafes. Two birds with one stone, he thought. He’d look for whatever information he could get on Lendal. He couldn’t help wondering where the man was, since he wasn’t home. Maybe he’d have to put a poster out on him after all, if the fellow was on the run. A little early for that at the moment, though.

-***-

The stage had not had as many passengers going back as it had heading toward Sacramento. A number of people got on and rode to nearby towns then got off, perhaps to visit and return the next day. They always gave Gaine’s clothes and badge a discerning look. The family from the prior day had gotten off and a pastor and his aldermen had taken their place, along with an older couple. They spoke seriously among themselves, but said nothing to the others.

For an hour or two the coach would be packed inside then at other times there’d be empty seats. The religious group got off three stops later. Two young men dressed like farmers got on soon afterward. They spoke little but were very pleasant. The Chinese men on top had gotten off to head out with the first connecting train stage to where they were working on the railroad. A few assorted men of various occupations rode on top as the coach began winding its way up the curved roads leading into the foothills and the small mining towns.

Gaine and Meghan swayed and bounced together inside according to the road, saying little while others around them spoke softly together. The Army boys’ situation hovered over them like a wet blanket along with their muddled thoughts from the night before and the turn their relationship had taken.

At one swingstation they got out to stretch their legs. They saw a young Mexican lad working in the corral and moved over to watch. The young man roped one of the horses and led him over to the ferrier who was working under a large oak tree. They wandered over to watch the horse being shod.

The young man’s eyes traveled Gaine’s body, taking complete note of her clothing and obviously not approving. But his eyes kept drifting back to her badge. They both heard the disrespectful way the ferrier and other hands spoke to the young fellow. It was not at all uncommon, but Gaine gritted her jaw and Meghan scowled behind her veil. Many of the men that worked on Gaine’s ranch were vaqueros. She hated the prejudice they received.

“Howdy” Gaine said, tipping her hat to the boy, ignoring the other men. He’s maybe fifteen er sixteen, she mused. Musta been doin’ this all his life. He’s right talented with’n that thar lariat.

The boy nodded his head and continued to stare at her badge. When the horse was taken from him and he was told to go shovel some manure, he stopped beside her on his way. “Sheriff…you read, si?” he asked shyly. He merely glanced at Meghan, dismissing her with his eyes.

“She does,” Gaine replied, nodding toward Meghan, displeased that the small blonde was being ignored.

“Quit yer jawin’ and git yer damn work done, ya lazy…” one of the hands called.

Gaine touched her badge. “Ahm stoppin’ ‘im,” she growled to the hand.

The fellow grumbled but the youth handed Meghan an envelope. “You read, si?”

“Of course,” Meghan took the envelope and withdrew the letter. She undid the veil at her neck enough to look down to easily read the small writing. “It says “Estimado Pablo,” She smiled up at the boy but he couldn’t see it. “I received your letter requesting permission to begin visiting Lupe at our house.” Meghan saw the boy hold his breath and wondered who he’d gotten to write the letter he must’ve sent. Probably his father.

She continued reading, “You will be happy to know that my wife and I know and respect your family and see that you are employed. We are happy you have decided to formalize your noviasco which we expect to last at least two years since you are both so young.”

A courtin’ period, huh, Gaine mused as she listened. The boy was paying rapt attention and his face broke into a huge smile. “You may start your visits on the days you return and visit from 7pm to 9pm. We trust your behavior will be honorable and show respect to our house.” Meghan looked at the closing. “It’s signed by Alberto Z. Herrera.

“Gracias!” the boy grinned taking back his letter. Then he ran to shovel manure.

The horses were switched and they hurried to get back in the stage. “What’s a noviasco?” Meghan asked softly as she got seated.

“A formal courtin’ time,” Gaine replied. The whip was cracked and they were off.

Gaine gazed softly at the small blonde. Over and over the phrase Meghan had used, “A lady has to protect her honor” spun in her mind. If Gaine were a man, she could ask the blonde to let her court her, maybe not two years worth like Pablo but some. Of course even if she were a man, she wouldn’t go to Meghan’s father, even though that was standard procedure. The old man obviously had other plans for his daughter. But as a man she could ask the blonde to marry. She sighed. But she wasn’t, so what could she do that Meghan would consider honorable?

Meghan’s veiled face stared out the window. What would it be like to have Gaine and herself in a noviasco? Of course, her family would never agree to such a thing. But it would be everything she could ever want.

Gaine decided that Meghan was right. They did need to speak of the future. She, truthfully hadn’t given anything thought beyond getting Meghan away safely since the present had been so pressing, so she sat back letting her mind mill those cogitations around for a spell.

They traveled in silence, letting their eyes run across the scenery as they wrangled over their thoughts. It was just as dusty as the trip down, but they didn’t notice. They left their window open and ignored the thick dust. As the day wore on, the scenery became wilder with more open country and far fewer towns, though they barely noticed. Fewer people got on and off at the stops. Soon they and the few other passengers inside rode to solitary swing stations sitting out by themselves along the lonely road.

“‘Bout last night,” Gaine said softly to Meghan, “Ahm sorry fer…”

Meghan replied instantly, “Don’t be sorry. I’m not. Not really.”

“No?”

“No.”

“But Ah thunk…”

“I just said we needed to discuss particulars…the future. But I’m not SORRY…. about…things….at all.”

Gaine smiled. “Ya ain’t, huh?!” She felt a euphoria of sorts wash over her. Meghan wanted this as much as she did! She saw the veiled face tip towards her and Gaine sent a full, radiant smile. It was exhilarating. It was mutual. They would speak of the future when they got to their room tonight. Everything would be all right after all.

-***-

As the sun began to dip its large orange orb over the San Francisco Bay, Lendal adjusted the uniform he had managed to buy from a man who had just mustered out. Standing up straight, he put on the forage hat and smiled at himself in the mirror. He would walk as though he belonged there, right past any guards that might be about. He had a pretty good idea where the officer was staying. If the Lieutenant wouldn’t come out to him, he’d go in to the Lieutenant and quietly bring him out at hidden knifepoint.

The uniform didn’t fit as well as he would have liked, but he hoped the lack of light would allow his charade to go unnoticed. He had waited for evening just for that reason. He pulled out the pocket watch, popped the lid and checked the time. He wouldn’t be going by the front desk where they had the wall clock. He didn’t want the clerk seeing him in this uniform. He jammed the watch back and smiled at the knowledge of the Bowie knife he had hidden in his boot.

Lendal felt the wad of money in his pocket and his eyes narrowed. By now he should have had a wife and should be on the way to becoming wealthy as a silent partner. Only he’d been cheated. But not for long. He didn’t put up with that. He’d locate the Lieutenant and wait for his opportunity. The man wouldn’t know him and would have no reason to be concerned. Lendal smiled. His mistake.

The knife would get him the information he needed. He’d have to work quickly unless he could find a quiet enough place to drag the man where he could take his time. Even gagged the fellow would probably squeal like a stuck pig as he began his questioning. He glanced down. His boots weren’t regulation boots. The man’s boots hadn’t fit, but his were close enough. No one’d be watching that carefully in the dark.

A hand ran across his smooth cheeks. He’d shaved his beard. The man at the Adjutant’s desk had seen him with his beard earlier. Better to be safe, even though he hated shaving it. Nothing said virility and manliness like a beard. It set the real men apart from the others…the masters apart from the mastered. A woman looking at a beard knew this was a real man, and he’d take no nonsense from her. Well, it would grow back, he supposed.

The skin appeared lighter there than the rest of his face, but a rather handsome face had stared back at him from the mirror just the same. He fingered his whip. Too bad he couldn’t take that. He enjoyed using it to get information. But not this time. It was all right. He was just as skilled with his knife.

He closed the door to his room and went out the back employees’ entrance. He would return the same way. He’d given considerable thought to his get away at the barracks. He had several directions of escape in the cover of darkness. He could steal a horse and head across the hill to the Mountain Lake or he could head back to the wharf. Or he could try for the lagoon and go from there. It was longer but might give more cover. Once he got to the city, he could get lost easily enough.

He strolled along the streets, enjoying the admiring looks he was getting from the few ladies being escorted around the streets at this hour. Nothing like a uniform to attract the ladies. That’s probably what the Lieutenant had found, too, he decided, but rankled at that thought.

He caught the horse-drawn streetcar and headed for his destination. Within an hour the sun had gone down and he found himself hiking in cloud covered darkness across a mile or more of countryside with a small smattering of lights from buildings followed by another mile of open ground toward the camp. The sky was lit by the twinkling gaslights behind him in the city. He’d seen the lighthouse being built on the island and wondered if it would cast light this way.

A cloud covered the sky and muffled darkness surrounded him. Pausing to take account, he examined the Presidio and took a deep breath. He was no coward in the face of danger and that was for sure. His eyes swept across the twinkling lights in the shadowed row of buildings before him with the dark open parade ground with its darkened flagpole and three canons, behind which followed the twinkling lights from the other two rows of buildings that erupted beyond. He knew which building was most likely and was ready to head in that direction.

Coming near, he heard voices and stopped…some soldiers out smoking and strolling in the moonlight, discussing their orders. He listened. They were being sent to a frontier fort in Montana. He brazenly walked up to them and asked about the orders, saying his were the same. They accepted him and he walked with them back towards his target, past sentries who merely nodded in their direction.

As they walked and laughed, he asked if any of them knew Lieutenant Pottsington then laughed when one mentioned that officers didn’t know a hawk from a handsaw. “Aw, me boy,” another laughed, “ya be a’gittin’ the officer’s fury cause yer always a’raisin’ hob.” He poked his friend. “Aye, and you’ve always the devil to pay fer yer misgivin’s and no pitch hot,” his friend teased back. “Ya, dat is so,” another goaded, “you’re alvays da both a’ ya in de pekel zitten.” Everyone laughed but Lendal pressed his question.

The answer surprised him. The Lieutenant was in a different building than he had expected. Pleased to have narrowed his search, he bid them a good night and calmly walked to the building in question.

Pausing with the fading voices of the soldiers behind him, he straightened his shoulders and marched inside the building. He walked as though he belonged there. He had barely gotten three steps inside the building when there was a shout and a couple guards suddenly surrounded him, subduing him with great difficulty. A handsome man with wavy brown hair and a handlebar mustache stepped before him. It was apparent that he had been readying for bed. He was in his undershirt and military trousers. “Who are you?” the man asked, letting his brown eyes sweep over the muscled man before him. The prisoner sneered but said nothing.

“What’s your name? You’re no soldier here, and certainly no officer. Who are you? And what is your business here?” Again there was no answer. There was silence as the man walked around the struggling prisoner. “Who?” Again no answer. “Did Fitzgeraldson send you?” Lendal’s head whipped up at that but he said nothing. So this man knew about Brogan? “Well, may as well take him away,” the young man said disgustedly. He had no idea who this man was.

“Yessir, Lieutenant Pottsington,” one of the guards said and Lendal snapped his head back to view the handsome officer. He spit at the young man as hard as he could though his shot fell short of his target before the two soldiers dragged him out of the building. The officer watched, perplexed.

Dammit! Lendal swore to himself. So that’s the Lieutenant! He’s handsome all right, but he won’t be with parts of his body cut off! He struggled again in vain then gave in to the men hauling him to a different building. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the hard questioning began. Even so he knew they would find out nothing about him. He would claim he was trying to gain entrance as nothing but a humbug saloon bet. Certainly he had no plans to divulge his real identity.

He wasn’t that worried. He had some influential retired Army friends he’d use if it came to that. He grinned confidently. He’d be out soon. When he was, he’d find that blonde and take payment out of her flesh. No matter what it cost to find her, no matter how long. This was all her fault. She’d pay all right. First he’d take care of the handsome Lieutenant. This was just a temporary setback.

-***-

This night’s stay, the last on the stagecoach line for them, was charged with a different tension. They changed into their nightshirts quickly then Gaine cleaned her weapons while Meghan sat on the chair, brushing out her blonde hair. Their eyes met and they both felt unusually shy as they glanced away.

Gaine replaced her Colt and sat upright. Meghan had stood, turned and bent to put her brush in their case. As she was standing up again, Gaine stood quickly and surprised the blonde by blowing out the candle. The darkness of their cubicle surrounded them although others further down still had their candles lit and that gave a soft flickering glow to the darkness.

There were few women riding on this stage so they once again had the last unit. Gaine knew they had less chance of giving off a shadow in the other units with no light in back of them. She moved behind Meghan and slowly wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist. Meghan’s warm hands lit atop Gaine’s.

Gaine’s face moved near the blonde’s ear and brushed the hair back with a breath. “Yer so beautiful,” she breathed into the small blonde’s ear. Meghan shivered and leaned back in the embrace, pressing against Gaine’s firm body.

“I love the feel of you,” Meghan whispered, her eyes shut. “And everything about you.” Gaine’s lips found their way to the blonde’s neck and gently nibbled at the warm, salty skin. Gaine heard Meghan’s breath catch while her own body responded with a rush of heat.

“Ah wanna cogitate on…” Gaine nibbled the blonde’s neck, “that thar future a ar’n.” Meghan moaned softly and Gaine had to chuckle, “Shh.” They had to be very quiet. Gaine turned the small woman in her arms till they were facing each other. “Ah wancha ta know that mah intentions be completely an’ totally honorable,” she breathed. “Ah won’t never do nothin’ ya doan want me ta do.”

There were noises from the other cubicles but they kept their voices to a whisper. “Mmm,” Meghan hummed in return.

Their lips met and the raw hunger of the night before returned. Gaine’s head began to spin and she knew they could not remain standing much longer. She scooped Meghan up and placed her gently on the bed then climbed swiftly on next to her.

Gaine stroked the silken hair of the blonde as she leaned her face forward to whisper, “Ah loves ya, Meghan, with all Ah am. An this here love a’ mine t’is true, bestowed only ta yer sweet continence an nowheres else.”

“And I love you,” the blonde whispered back, gazing at the face of the tall brunette. “But…”

“Ah wancha ta live with’n me ferever, partners n’ life.” Gaine nuzzled Meghan’s neck again. “Ah know ya kin say we ain’t knowd one t’uther long, but Ah feels like we war meant ta be tagether ferever. Ain’t ya felt it, too?”

“Yes, I have felt it. From the minute I first saw you.”

“Would ya wanna live with’n me ferever, sharin’ ar lifes tagether? Whatever done comes along? Would ya wanna do that?”

“With all my heart,” Meghan replied, green eyes searching blue. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”

“If’n ya wanna have me court ya, Ah t’would be right honored. An though Ah ain’t got a lot, ever’thin’ Ah does got t’is your’n from now ta ferever.”

“I don’t care about things, Gaine. But I do wish we could, uh, get sort of married, uh, or at least exchange vows. I want to vow to love each other for all time.”

Gaine drew back to look firmly into the green eyes looking lovingly her way. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna be legal, a’ course, but we kin make promises ta one t’uther a’ that thar nature. Cause Ah wanna make them same promises ta ya, an, Meghan, yas needs ta know, Ah doan never break mah promises.”

“Me either.” Meghan joined her hand with Gaines’ and brought it to her lips, depositing a gentle kiss. “Are you positive you want this, Gaine? We’re talking about the rest of our lives. It won’t be easy. No one would ever understand. We’ll have to pretend to just be friends. I…I’ve thought a lot about this.”

“Absolutely, positively shore,” Gaine paused, “Ah ain’t concerned none ’bout “easy”. Ain’t nobody’s business, anaway. They ain’t never gonna know. What ’bout you? Do ya be shore this’n’s what ya want? Ah ain’t a’wantin’ ya ta do nothin’ ya doan feel ya wants ta do.”

“I want this with everything I am.”

Gaine bent and found Meghan’s lips. She drew them into a gentle kiss, not letting it develop into anything more. “Should we outta discuss more? Ah mean, do ya got t’uther questions ya wanna cogitate?”

Meghan considered, giving Gaine a full hug but did not reply right off.

Gaine had thought a lot about this during the day. “Ah loves ya completely, Meghan. An’ Ahd do ana’thin’ ta make ya happy. So’s Ah doan wancha a’thinkin ya gotta do nothin’ ya doan wanna. If’n jest holdin’ ya an kissin’ ya’s whatcha want ferever, Ah reckon we kin do that. Ah wanna be by yer side fer the whole’a our’n lifes, till death done parts us.”

“Oh,” Meghan blinked, “But we could do more, couldn’t we? I mean, we could do what we almost did… what regular married couples do…in privacy, of course, like they do. Once we’ve vowed, of course.”

“If’n ya want, shore.” Gaine had listened carefully to Meghan’s replies. She knew she would be lost without Meghan in her life.

“Would it be bad of me if I wanted, uh, more?” Meghan’s voice sounded unsure. “I want to be completely married to you. I…I want you to be completely married to me.” Besides, her body had let her know in no uncertain terms how badly she wanted to make love with the tall brunette. She had never felt that way before in her life. It was totally new. But her body was a gift she wanted to be Gaine’s and Gaine’s alone. In fact, it wouldn’t be easy waiting, but they would.

“Sweet darlin. Ah believe t’would be wonderful.” They lay for a few minutes in each other’s arms, gently caressing each other. They kissed a soft, gentle kiss reveling in each other’s closeness. But it was hard to stop there. They paused then kissed again, a little more passionately this time. When they broke apart, Meghan ran a shaky finger along Gaine’s bottom lip.

“Then we’re promised to each other? We’re fiancés? We’ll set a date?”

“Yep. That we is gonna.” Gaine decided to prove her resolve so she added, “Ah think, love, we’d done best try n’ git usn’s some sleep.”

It surprised the small blonde. She knew if they kissed again, it would only get much harder to stop. She was pleased that Gaine understood. But she didn’t think she’d go to sleep any too soon. She was thrilled. She hadn’t forgotten those pursuing her or the soldiers who were wounded, but she’d push aside all those thoughts for now.

Meghan nestled down savoring Gaine’s arms encircling her. Other than the thought of being able to leave her father’s house, she hadn’t really looked forward to the day she would marry, especially when she found it was to be Lendal. She would have been totally faithful, though, because her promise, once given, was absolute. But now she was engaged to Gaine, the only person she would ever choose on her own, the one person in the world she wanted to live with forever, the one she loved completely and would sacrifice anything for.

She shut her eyes and let her thoughts swirl. Engagees always primped for each other. It was traditional. But she had no new clothes to impress Gaine and no way to clean and press what she did have . She’d wipe off her dress with a damp rag in the morning and use some of Gaine’s scented soap to wash up. She’d do extra brushing to make her hair shine. Was she being silly, she wondered? Perhaps. But now she had the fiancé of her dreams to impress.

-***-

The Sheriff of Jubilee City pushed the drunken man into the cell and slammed the door, locking it behind him. “Sleep it off, Perry!” he yelled to the man, who staggered to the cot and looked back at him with amazement as he dropped down. This was the second drunk tonight. The other looked up blearily.

“Gimme a drink!” Perry called back belligerently. “Yeah, gimme a drink, too,” the other man echoed.

“I am nation tired of this,” the Sheriff growled back, brushing himself off. “Dammit, Perry, you’re gonna have to pay for the window you broke in that saloon. I’m not lettin’ you out till your family brings in the payment. It’s a wonder they have anything to live on the way you carry on. You love your drinkin’ more’n you love your family.”

The drunk leaned forward off the cot, scowling at the lawman. Then he broke into a huge smile and looked at the other fellow. “Yessir, yessir, yessiree,” the man started singing loudly to the tune of a popular song of the day. “Whiskey jug, don’t I love thee.” The other man joined in as they often did at the saloon.

It was their favorite saloon’s version of the popular song. The Sheriff scowled, “You heard me. You’re not gettin’ out till ya pay for the window.” At least the first fellow hadn’t broken anything. The officer looked at the man he’d just arrested and shook his head disgustedly. How did this man’s wife and children survive when he gave in to drink so freely? Last fall the Sheriff’s own wife had spent time rounding up used clothes from the neighbors, clothes they couldn’t afford to give cause his scraggly brood were running around half naked.

“Yessir, yessir, yessireeeeeee,” the two wailed loudly, “a bottle of whiskey…just gimme a bottle a’ whiskey and I’ll be quiet!” “Me, too,” the other chimed in.

The part-time Deputy stepped through the outside door, a look of concern on his face. “Ya got a telegram here Sheriff,” he said, handing the envelope to the man. “Barney just brought it over.” He took off his neckerchief and wiped his head. It was dark and it was still scorchingly hot but at least it was a dry heat.

“A telegram? This time a’ night?”

“He said he came by earlier and we weren’t here. Roundin’ up those drunks there, I guess and stoppin’ that dispute with those Army boys and the fellas at the Star.”

“Yep. Sometimes I wish the soldiers would stay at their fort and not frequent our saloons. They’ve got a canteen there.” But both men knew the town’s economy drew a lot from the Army’s presence. “Well, let’s take a look. They don’t usually bring good news, telegrams don’t.” The Sheriff moved away from the bars.

Loud singing arose. “My friends and I drank all alone, at the Sandstorm Inn we called our owwwwn,” The drunks roared with vigor, “They loved gin and I loved rum…” he added in conversational tones, “or whiskey. I’m right partial to whiskey!” “Me, too,” the other chimed in.

“Keep it down in there!” the Deputy shouted back at the drunks as he watched the Sheriff tear open the envelope.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Looky here. Brogan Fitzgeraldson, that gentleman that owns the wagon company, got himself killed.”

“The devil ya say, how? Where? Runaway horse?”

“No. Says it was a robbery in Sacramento.”

“Wonder what he was doing in Sacramento?”

“Business most likely. That man licked up business like a cow lickin’ salt.” They both nodded in agreement. He was an astute businessman and his wagon shop had done plenty for their little town. “Damn, I’ve gotta break the news to his family. Oh whangdoodle,” he moaned, “I don’t look forward to that. A cryin’ widow. I shore don’t look forward to that.”

“Some of his children still work at the shop, don’t they?” his Deputy asked.

“Yep. Nice folks. Real good manners. Raised proper, they were.”

“He always seemed overly harsh with ‘em seemed to me,” the Deputy replied thoughtfully.

“Spare the rod…You see the lesson there? Look how good his children turned out.”

I ‘spose. Listen, you’d better get home and get some sleep then, Sheriff. You goin’ by there first thing in the morning? Seems mighty late to go by tonight. I can handle it here.”

“Hmm. I should go by tonight. They have the right to know as soon as possible.”

“Yes, but it seems cruel not to let them have a night of good sleep first. What would it change?”

“Welllll, I’m not sure it’s right not to let them know right away.”

“Earlier tonight when the wire came in might have made sense, but do you think you should wake the widow and his family tonight? This might be the last good night of sleep they’ll have for a long time. Think on his poor wife’s welfare.”

“Hmm. Yes, I suppose there’s something to that. We do have to look out for the ladies. It’s the chivalrous thing to wait, I guess.” He rubbed his neck. “Dead is dead. Knowing tonight won’t change nothin’, I suppose. Hey, what happened to all our racket?” They both looked into the cell. “Sound asleep!” the Sheriff exclaimed. Both men were passed out inside the cell. “Perry there don’t get out tomorrow till he’s paid for the window.”

“Right, Sheriff. But the smithy might fire him if he misses work.”

“He shoulda thought about that before he broke the window.”

“Seems kinda hard on his family is all. But, you’re right. See ya tomorrow.”

“I don’t look forward to tomorrow, I can tell ya that.” The Sheriff squinched his nose. “Have Little Bear scour out that cell good when they’re both out of there.”

-***-

“I want to be a Sargos, Gaine.” Meghan whispered. Gaine was nearly asleep. “Do you think I could do that? I don’t want to be a Fitzgeraldson. I want to carry your name, my old one’s not safe and, anyway, I want no further connections with my father in my lifetime.”

“Uh,” Gaine paused to consider that then yawned.

“I know we’re pretending that I’m Minnie Sargos till we get back to your ranch, but once we’re there, I’d still like to be a Sargos.” Then she added more softly, “Your wife, honey, but nobody else needs to know that. Do you think it’s possible?”

Gaine’s hand went to her forehead and began to run nervously back and forth across it as she thought. “Uh, Ah doan know ’bout makin’ it a legal thing er nothin’.”

“I know. It wouldn’t have to be legal. My mother’s had her legal married name all these years and the only time she’s ever had to do anything legal with it that I know of was when we moved into town and all us children were officially listed for our births. And HE did it, not her. He took down the Bible that he’d written them in. I don’t think she’s ever had to sign her name even.”

“Kin she?”

“Sign her name? Yes, she had a good education. She’s just never had to use it.”

“Uh huh. Well, uh, lemme sleep on’t, all right?” She knew that when she had Meghan’s name put on her property, they would have to use the blonde’s legal name. And folks in town might find out about that. How did they get around it?

“Of course, darling,” Meghan smiled.

-***-

The sun had not been up that long. The Sheriff of Jubilee City sat nervously in the spotlessly clean parlor, his hat in his hands. But he wasn’t able to appreciate the absence of desert sand inside that seemed to harass nearly every other home in town. He had just explained to Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and her two young sons that her husband had been robbed and murdered while staying at the hotel in Sacramento. He held out the telegram.

Mrs. Fitzgeraldson’s hand went to her mouth in a gasp. “What about my daughter, Meghan? Is she all right?”

“Uh, there’s nothing in the telegram regarding her.” He brought the form back and reread it. “She was accompanying your husband? Uh, how old is she again? I’m sorry, I don’t remember…” He knew everyone in town but only saw the Fitzgeraldson offspring at infrequent religious gatherings for traveling pastors, except for the adult children that worked at the shop.

“Twenty-one. He was taking her to meet her…fiance.”

“There’s nothing about a daughter, so I would guess she wasn’t involved. Probably occurred after she was married.”

Meghan’s mother gasped. “Oh. Does it say when he was…oh, my, I just don’t know about this! Excuse me please,” she whisked her handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed. The thought that Meghan might be married to Lendal brought a tearful response. When was he murdered? Had there been time for a wedding?

“It’s all right, Missus. I understand this is overwhelming for you,” the Sheriff nodded sympathetically. “Take your time.” He was thankful now that he had given this woman the comfort of a blissful night of sleep as his Deputy suggested.

“It’s such a shock.” She looked over, “It doesn’t say when this occurred?”

The Sheriff read again. “No.”

“Do they know who did it?”

“Uh,” he reread the short telegram. “No, guess not. Not yet.”

“All right. I’ll need to contact my other children. Some of them work at the business, you know. Oh my, what happens to the business now?”

“It will depend on whether your husband left a will and how he owned it, ma’am. Generally the widow’s portion of his estate is a third but that might not include the business. It might require that you sell your home to pay off the other two thirds. Or buy them out if you wanted to stay here. A lawyer would have to talk to you about that.”

“Stay here? I wouldn’t have to stay here?”

“You have relatives somewhere else?”

“Uh, yes. I have a sister back east….”

“I’m afraid, Missus, you’ll have many decisions to make in a short period of time. Your oldest son will most likely help you, however, and see to your needs. He or your husband’s partner, if he has one, is most likely named as executor. The first decision will be what you want done with, uh, the remains.”

“The remains? Of what?”

“Your husband. His body. Where do you want him buried. You’ll need to wire them back in Sacramento immediately and let them know.”

“Oh. Of course. If you’ll leave the information, I’ll consult with my children…”

“I understand.” The Sheriff turned his hat in his hand nervously.

She quickly had a thought, “Uh, Sheriff, uh, I wonder if you’d do me a favor?”

“Certainly, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson. How can I help you?”

“I hate having guns in the house now that my husband, uh… What I’m wondering is if you’ll be so kind as to take the shotgun and pistol for now and, uh, teach my two young sons here to clean and use them?” Both boys looked at their mother quizzically, both ready to remark that they knew fully well how to handle the guns, but she quieted them with her eyes.

“Surely your oldest son will want to handle that,” the Sheriff replied.

“He’s so busy at the shop and will only be busier now. I’d really appreciate it.”

The Sheriff looked at the two boys who sat quietly with puzzled looks. “Uh, of course, ma’am. I’d be happy to.”

“Thank you. It will be a big relief to me. Murphy, go get your father’s guns.” When he returned, the Sheriff stood, placed the telegram on the table, took the guns and walked to the door. “I’ll send for the boys when I have a minute’s time. I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson.”

“Thank you for your help and your kind regards,” the new widow replied as she bid him goodbye. She said a quick prayer that her youngest daughter had managed to escape before being married and that she had nothing to do with her father’s murder. She had to think. What could she do about finding Meghan?

She nodded to the Sheriff as he moved across the porch. Meghan and her husband hadn’t been gone that long. There was a chance Meghan got away before Lendal got there. She knew the girl had hidden money in her petticoats and, in fact, she had added what little she could, unknown to her daughter.

How she’d been praying for the girl’s safety. She’d felt that Meghan, of all the girls, would try to run from a situation she didn’t want to be in. And she knew her daughter had understood that marrying Lendal was a very bad situation. She said another prayer for Meghan’s safety.

“Father’s dead?” Reggie, the youngest, asked as she shut the door. “I can’t believe it.” Surprise swept across the thirteen-year old’s expression. She wasn’t sure if he was going to cheer or cry. But he did neither. Murphy stood expressionless, “Why did you have the Sheriff take father’s guns? We already know how to use them.”

“I don’t like having them in the house. Besides, it’ll be good for you two to get some further instructions from a professional like the Sheriff. Plus, uh, there’s a good chance your father may have left them to you and it won’t hurt to have them safely in the Sheriff’s keeping till then. But keep that reason to yourselves,” she added quickly. The boys exchanged puzzled glances. They’d handled guns since they were ten. Why give them to the Sheriff?

She walked back to the parlor, her mind spinning. She picked up the telegram and turned to the boys, “It seems your father is really dead. Quick, hook up the buggy and run to the shop and get the others. Be sure all your sisters and brothers here in town know so they can take proper action. I’ll write to your other sisters.” Of her ten children, all four boys and one girl lived in town. The other girls were married, living in different areas. All except Meghan. She prayed she wasn’t married.

“Then stop at the mercantile and buy a bolt of black crepe,” she continued. Have them put it on the account. Better get cotton, if he has it, instead of wool or silk. Silk is so expensive and wool..in this heat…Goodness, I’ll have to have a pure black dress and we have to do up the house. Hurry, turn those pictures to the wall till we can cover them, all of them. Stop the clock. The telegram doesn’t say what time he died so just stop it till we find out. And I’ll turn the mirrors till you bring the crepe to cover them. Otherwise, what will the neighbors think?”

“They’ll think that they’ll see the face of the next person to die,” her youngest son answered with a shudder. “Don’t look, mother. Just turn the mirrors.”

-***-

The Army Provost Marshal and guard were dispatched immediately to investigate the China Cup Valley attack. A portion of the Provost guard would accompany the men and their wagons back to Fort Derwood where they could fully recuperate unless the doctor recommended otherwise. The Lieutenant would eventually return once his duties in San Francisco were over.

In San Francisco the man being held had given no information whatsoever, not even his name, even though he had been questioned throughout the night. He maintained that he had done everything as a bet. The knife found on him made them suspicious and the man at the desk informed them this was the same man, minus his beard, who had come looking for Lieutenant Pottsington.

The Lieutenant reported that this man must have been sent by an unscrupulous Mr. Fitzgeraldson who had ridden the stage with him and was staying at the stage-stop hotel in Sacramento as far as the Lieutenant knew. The telegram had mentioned that the perpetrator of the Army wagon crime had repeatedly asked about the whereabouts of the Fitzgeraldson daughter.

The Provost Marshal considered it, talked it over with the General then decided because this was a full scale attack on the Army men and their supply wagons, there was little reason to believe this was anything other than an outlaw robbery scheme or some type of political insurrection. The Fitzgeraldson daughter had to be a red herring. No one did this kind of damage over a woman. But he said he’d check out this Mr. Fitzgeraldson in Sacramento once he was finished in China Cup Valley to see what his relationship was to the criminal that had harmed their soldiers.

Meanwhile the prisoner was demanding to see one of the well known retired Army officers in the area. The Lieutenant was concerned that the higher brass would grant that request and the retired man would use his influence to get this man freed. At this point his infraction could be considered minor.

The Lieutenant strongly recommended to his father-in-law, the General, that they wait for the Provost report from Sacramento before they granted any of the prisoner’s wishes. His father-in-law, as usual, walked away with scorn for the younger man’s ideas.

-***-

The Sacramento Marshal rubbed his balding head. His sick Deputy was still ill, but the other would be back from his trip back east at the end of the week. He still wasn’t sure where this Lendal fellow had gone. If Lendal ended up back at his home, the Marshal had a woman from the cafe in Miner’s Flat that promised to send word by telegram the minute she heard either he or the Deputy had returned. Amazing what a good, verbal appreciation for good cookin’ could do, especially when the lady doing the cooking didn’t like the Hindelfarbs to start with.

He had talked with the train personnel and they remembered a man of Lendal’s description heading to San Francisco. Once his Deputy was back, he’d catch the train and ask the folks around at the steamboat docks. From there he’d go into San Francisco and check with all the hotels. He hated the headstart he was giving this man, but the killer would not get away if the Marshal could help it!”

-***-

“Mornin’, darlin,” Gaine leaned to press her lips against Meghan’s.

“Mmm, morning, love,” Meghan replied, chastely returning the kiss. Gaine couldn’t help thinking how like an angel the small beauty looked in the morning with her sleepy, innocent green eyes, soft freckles and mussed golden hair.

“Time ta git up.” Gaine watched with surprise as the blonde sleepily arose without argument and made the bed. Then she used her wet rag from the night before to wipe down her dress before carefully brushing and pinning her hair and washing thoroughly with Betsy’s soap. Though Meghan’d gotten up right away, getting ready was taking longer than normal and they’d be rushed at breakfast. But Gaine didn’t object. It thrilled her heart to see how remarkably fresh and unbelievably beautiful Meghan was as she put on her veiled hat.

Meghan sat at breakfast with a smile on her face behind her veil. She couldn’t remember ever being so happy. For the first time in forever her future looked promising. She loved Gaine completely and was honored to be with her, even if no one else would ever know. No one else needed to know. Theirs was a private relationship. Theirs alone.

Gaine also sat with a pleasant smile on her face. She’d never even dreamed that her life could be so miraculous. She loved this small blonde with her beautiful green eyes. And they were going to make vows to each other to live together with love as partners forever. Mah cake bees dough, Gaine grinned to herself. She’s done got me thoroughly hobbled and tied to a post! And that thar’s a fact.

The tall woman’s smile disappeared when she thought about what Meghan had asked. Meghan wanted to be a Sargos. If only Gaine could legally marry her, she would be. Maybe she wouldn’t be Minnie Sargos, but she’d be Meghan Sargos.

Gaine sighed. But that couldn’t happen so the thought wasn’t worth bothering about. She played a little with her food then brought a bite to her mouth. And just calling her “Sargos” was a poor choice in Gaine’s mind. It went against everything she’d grown up believing and there were too many pitfalls.

Getting Meghan away from Sacramento as “Cousin Minnie” was deception enough. And though she understood the need, even that bothered her. Meghan’s safety, however, was not to be questioned, and in that regard she would lie, cheat or steal if such were the only choices. And certainly she’d kill to protect her.

Tis a great need…but…. It was obvious that this Lendal and his cousin were far more ruthless than one might ever expect. Be her Pa sa ruthless? He got hisself a billy goat’s personality, but war he that ruthless? To be willing to kill four men just to find where some woman who didn’t want to marry Lendal might have gone, was beyond her comprehension. And Meghan’s father must have known about it. Well, obviously, all three needed to be set off the trail. And “Cousin Minnie” was the red herring for that purpose. Gaine sighed.

The tall brunette took another biteful and chewed. She glanced at Meghan who had just about eaten everything on her plate this morning. My, that little lady had a healthy appetite unlike on their way to Sacramento when she’d barely touched anything. Gaine wondered where she was putting it all. She was such a little thing. She inhaled. Meghan surely smelled good.

Gaine drank some coffee, much too weak for her tastes. Well, leastwise that thar Deputy war dead, she thought to herself, and for once she was pretty sure it wasn’t at her hand, not that she’d have cared. She had aimed at the shoulder to wound. She was quite certain the deadly shot was the other man’s. But it didn’t matter. The Deputy was dead and in the long run that was good!

Would Meghan’s father come after her like Lendal’s minions were doing? Somehow she doubted the big blowhard had the sand to do so unless there was a huge profit of some kind to be made. Anyone in her family could be a threat to Meghan, though, but the biggest threat was Lendal. And from what Meghan had said, he was the most vicious and would be out there searching for her. If he could sneak up and find her, he’d force-marry her instantly to give himself legal rights. That’d be extremely hard to fight if he could carry it off.

Her eyes drifted to the small veiled woman beside her while her thoughts darted to what they’d spoken of the night before. She’d given a little thought to picking a date for their vows but the other problems were more demanding. Suddenly an idea popped unbidden into her mind. She blurted out a laugh.

“What?” Meghan asked, looking over with her cup in her hand. Drinking from a cup was a little more difficult under the veil than eating.

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong. Ahv had me ‘n idee. Does ya trust me?”

“Of course, I do.” The brunette could feel the smile the blonde was sending her.

“Yer gonna be a Sargos,” Gaine grinned back.

“Good,” Meghan whispered then tipped her head, “I just wish it was legal.”

“T’will be,” Gaine laughed. “Sortta like.”

A veiled look came her way but Gaine could not see it and just smiled. The driver had gotten up and they both rose as well. The stage was leaving.

“Does ya mind takin’ the bag and gettin’ ta the stage? Ahl be right back.”

“No, that’s fine.” Meghan lifted the bag and headed to the coach. Gaine grabbed the hostler and moved away. She quickly filled out a telegraph form and paid. It would go on this morning’s stage to the railroad where telegrams could be sent in a heartbeat as far south as San Diego and north to Portland or Seattle, even east.

There was a bounce in her step when Gaine came back to assist Meghan onto their stage for the last part of their journey. Meghan, however, was stiff and tense standing to the side almost as though she were hiding. “Gaine,” she whispered to the tall woman. “Those two men getting on the stage. They came in from the railroad stage. They’re both from Jubilee City! I recognize them!”

“It’s all right, darlin’,” Gaine replied in a whisper. “Don’t do no talkin’ and they ain’t gonna know t’is you. Jest ignore ’em.”

Gaine helped the small blonde on and had her sit by the window this time while she took the seat next to one of the men. He withdrew a cigar and she remarked that there was no smoking inside the stage since all the passengers were not comfortable with it.

“And with what authority are you speaking?” the man replied haughtily, running his eyes up and down her clothing. “Good Lord, you’re a woman. And you’re wearing men’s clothes. Disgraceful! What authority could you have?”

“Yes,” chimed in the man with him. “By who’s authority?” he snorted, a cigar primed in his hand as well.

What t’is it ’bout them fellas from Jubilee City and their ceegar smoking? Gaine wondered. Maybe thar well water’s done gone bad an affected ’em all er somethin’. She felt Meghan reacting to how they were talking to her and gently leaned against her. She took out her badge and pinned it on. “By authority a’ the Sheriff,” she smiled tapping the badge. “But ya kin check with’n the Conductor if’n ya please.”

One of the men looked at the badge then at her. “A woman Sheriff? Not likely. And I suppose you’d arrest me if I smoked?” he laughed cockily.

“No,” she replied seriously, “Ah believe Ahd have this here coach stop ‘n leave ya off ta hoof it back ta the road ranch on them sole-leathers. You an yer ceegar.”

The open door was suddenly slammed shut from the outside and the Conductor’s head came to the window in the door. “We’re headin’ out. Anything more you want us to do, Sheriff, before we go?”

“No,” she smiled. “We’re gittin’ off ta the dinner stop. But when ya gits ta Jubilee City ta’night, ya might send word ta the fort regardin’ what all done transpired.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he grabbed hold of the heavy wooden wheel to climb up into the box with the driver but paused. “Anyone particular there ya want us ta notify?”

“No. Whoever’s in charge. Oh, an ya might inform these here gentlemans that thar ain’t no smokin’ allowed in this here coach.”

The Conductor paused, looked at the men with their cigars and laughed. “Listen here, young fellas. The last man that smoked in there when she told him not to, got his cigar shot right out the winda. Word is the bullet missed him by,” he held his thumb and forefinger a few inches apart. “And I can tell ya for a fact that she’s already faced and killed one very dangerous outlaw on this trip. You might wanna listen right special to what she tells ya and folla it… to… the… letter.” He chuckled as he climbed above into the box.

“Guess what them two fellas inside wanted to do?” he said to the driver. “They wanted to smoke their cigars in there after the Sheriff told ’em not to.”

They both went into gales of laughter till the driver snapped the whip and the horses sprang from their spot onto the road. The men replaced their cigars in their pockets with a searching look at Gaine and her sixshooter.

“So we’re to believe that you’re a crack shot?” one asked incredulously.

“Ah reckon,” she replied.

The other man’s contemplative eyes ran over her clothing then back to her face. “Where is a woman supposed to have learned to be a crack shot?”

“On a ranch,” she smiled. “Lead ain’t never cheap so’s yer marksmanship had ta count er ya had ta pay some’un else ta hunt fer ya. Sees, when ya ain’t wealthy, ya gots all kinds a’ in-centive ta make do with what ya got. Improves yer concentration a heap an sortta speeds up the larnin. That’s what Ah done.”

“Unlikely,” the man replied and ran his hand over the cigars in his pocket, but he didn’t remove any. He looked away.

Gaine chuckled. Let ever’ tub stand ta its own bottom, Ah say, she thought.

Chapter 7

In Jubilee City the Fitzgeraldson’s oldest son, Brogan Jr., had immediately taken over. Within a half hour’s time he had brought by the town’s only attorney, Captain James, his dear friend, to verify to his mother that it was he, Brogan Jr., who was to settle the estate since his father had died intestate, without a will. ‘Your husband always talked about drawing up a will,’ the man smiled. ‘But we never quite got around to it.’

No, she thought, he thought he was going to live forever. But she nodded politely to the man before her.
‘You shall receive a third of the estate, ma’am,’ Captain James had explained. ‘Don’t worry about a thing. Brogan here will handle everything.’

That had worried her. She knew Brogan Jr. was most like his father and would do his best to cheat everyone out of everything. But without legal backing, she didn’t see how she could dispute him. And she knew no one else to go to.

Once Captain James had gone and the others had arrived, she served coffee with bread and butter while the family discussed the shocking event of Senior’s death. They would all have to prepare their mourning apparel and she would have to prepare their house. Brogan Jr. announced that he and her next oldest son, Peter, would be driving a wagon to Sacramento to retrieve their father’s body for burial in the Jubilee City cemetery. They’d be gone more than a week, maybe two. They’d find out details of what had happened in Sacramento, gather what possessions their father left and find out what happened to Meghan.

“Hopefully, she’s safe,” her mother said anxiously.

‘Yes,’ young Reggie, the youngest child, added, ‘Meggy just has to be safe.’

“She’d damn well better be with Lendal,” Brogan Jr. scowled, not unlike his father. “Anything else in unacceptable!”

“NO! What do you mean?” the new widow asked. Her daughter-in-law was sitting by her side, her brows raised in alarm at her mother-in-law’s tone.

Brogan Jr. turned a familiar sneer her way. “It’s business, mother. Keep your nose out of this. You wouldn’t understand.” Peter and his wife and Brenna and her husband looked over but said nothing.

“Business? What was your father getting in return for Meghan’s hand? Tell me.”

Her daughter-in-law, Jenny, immediately turned her eyes to her hands folded in her lap. Worry tinged her face.

The oldest son looked at his mother with disdain. How dare she talk to him this way? It must be the shock of his father’s death. As he was to be the one taking over the new wagon shop his father had planned to purchase, he was fully aware of the secret business deal that should have been transacted in Sacramento with Lendal’s silent partnership money. It would make them all wealthy, his father had said. And considering how hard times were, that would be a real coup.

“It involved some contracts. You need know nothing else. You just worry about doing the burial activities correctly. We don’t want the townsfolk to think we’re a bunch of barbarians, after all. Have you the material for your new dress? Jenny says it must be all black. No white anywhere.” Jenny nodded mutely. Meghan’s mother had been wearing her heavy scarlet-black dress since she’d been notified, but the touch of scarlet eliminated it as proper widow’s wear.

“Yes, it’s almost done. I got the cotton instead of the silk but we still didn’t have enough credit on the books to get crepe for the house. Once they found out your father was dead, the mercantile cut off any additional credit.”

“What? They’ll regret that,’ he muttered ominously. ‘Well, tend to your dress, and leave the business to me. I’ll have Jenny bring the other crepe to you.” His stern eyes went to his pregnant wife and he demanded, “I’ll give you enough money for what you’ll need. Make sure my children are dressed appropriately then get the material to mother. I want it done immediately or you’ll feel my wrath.”

“Of course,” his wife replied quietly.

“Oh, I hate to see us go in debt for this,” Mrs. Fitzgeraldson exclaimed. “Shutting the shop, going clear back to Sacramento and then all this black cloth. You could go by horseback to the train. It’s so much faster.’ She looked around at her family. The shop was supporting so many of them in these troubling times. ‘Surely you don’t need the expense of bringing his body back all this way. Couldn’t you have an inexpensive pine board coffin built? You could blacken it with shoe polish and have him buried there in Sacramento. Everyone’s doing it. Even the Johnsons did when their grandfather passed. It costs so much less. These are hard times, son. We’re in a depression. Think about the expense. No one here in town needs to know the cost of his burial.”

“Good Lord, don’t be ridiculous!” her son yelled and she shrunk back, “This is father we’re talking about.’ He glowered threateningly, ‘I’m the one handling this estate. I make the decisions. Now that’s enough from you. The shop WILL be opened after a proper time. Brenna and Will can handle it.’ He shot his view to his sister and her husband. Both nodded in agreement. ‘Father’s body will be brought back and buried here with all the respect he deserves. I’ve already ordered a new coffin. Once he’s here and properly buried, I’ll sort out the estate. I’m sure there’s plenty for his burial.” Although he did have cost concerns.

Their father had taken all the liquid company funding with him to Sacramento, and that was a concern. He’d have to legally show that their mother had received a third of the estate, but with Captain Jack’s help he thought he knew how to hide many of the business assets to trim her share substantially. Their Army contract brought in a good income and would sustain them for a long time but he wouldn’t include it. And the sale of their father’s house and furnishings would bring a notable amount.

He’d trim the recorded income everywhere possible. Her third would be downplayed and he would take control of it as well. He glanced her way. She might object to it, but that was too bad. He was in charge.

He intended to take his father’s newer and better buggy and horse and leave his own in its place. He’d do that before they left today. He’d instruct his wife to go through his mother’s kitchen supplies and take whatever was better than theirs. They would trade before he had to officially settle the estate.
As custom determined, the widow was not to be seen outside the house. He informed his mother that she’d have to do the milking before the sun came up. Mrs. Fitzgeraldson looked at her son and marveled at how much like his father he sounded. Of course, it was a woman’s job and there were no other women left in the house. He wouldn’t have Jenny do it, he said. He had chores he wanted her to do at home. For the evening milking his mother would need to take heed not to be seen. “Or you shall feel my wrath!” he warned his mother.

She made no reply but decided she would have to speak of other questions while her other children were there. Bravely she remarked, ‘Reggie and Murphy are to get their father’s guns. I believe your father would have wanted that.’

‘There’s no provision for it,’ Brogan Jr. said haughtily, then noticed the expressions on his siblings’ faces. ‘All right, but it comes out of your share, mother. If you want to make sure everyone gets some token, it’s from your share. The rest will go to the business.’ That seemed to satisfy the other siblings from the looks on their faces. No one spoke.

The business? Mrs. Fitzgeraldson watched her childrens’ expressions and knew that those involved with the business would be rewarded for their silence in what he was doing. The others, including herself, would be left out unless she did something to prevent it. And she wasn’t sure what she could do.

‘The Sheriff suggested that I move back to Boston with my sister,’ she said quietly. ‘He seemed to know quite a lot about these things.’

Brogan Jr. stiffened. How much did the Sheriff know about how estates were handled? They didn’t need the Sheriff sniffing around what they were doing.

‘Uh,’ he looked at the others’ expressions, ‘Yes, that might be a good idea. The cost of getting there, however, will come from your share.’

‘Yes, I understand that. But I will need living expenses while I’m there. Captain Jack said I was to receive a third of the estate.’

‘Yes. But that’s after all debts have been paid.’ Skepticism was now outlined on the others’ faces since they knew their father never kept any outstanding debts. He cleared his throat and added, ‘Of course, I’ll make sure you are sent a fair living expense regularly.’

No, you won’t, will you? she thought, looking at him. He’d let the others think he was sending it, but he’d give her excuses and keep what he could. She knew her son all too well. She’d lived with his father many years under the same kind of tutelage.

‘Are you sure you want to go all that way, mother?’ Brenna asked. ‘It’s so far.’

‘Yes. I think it would be best to do that. My sister’s a widow now, and I can share her home.’

‘If you think you must,’ Brenna replied. She’d miss having her mother in town.

‘It’s best,’ her mother replied.

Once the others had gone, Brogan Jr. stood with his father’s extra suit and shirts draped across one arm. He’d been in their wardrobe. He pensively rubbed his mutton chop beard, then said, “Yes. Perhaps the Sheriff knows best. Passage on an emigrant train might work.” In fact, he would actually be pleased to be rid of the responsibility of her welfare. Far away she’d be easier to put off.

Once he left, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson sat right down and wrote to her sister. She knew her sister would be delighted. The younger sibling had remarked in her last letter how so many homes in Boston had gone into bank foreclosures since the panic of ’73. Many had been turned into Lodging Houses that provided nothing but spaces on a dry floor at five or ten pence a night. Flop houses. It was not a good sign for the neighborhoods and she feared the possible loss of her own home. She’d welcome having her sister come to share. They’d always gotten along well. Besides her sister’d have to consider remarrying very soon otherwise and she said she’d prefer not to have to do that.

Meghan’s mother hummed a little to herself as she sewed her dress after Brogan Jr.’s family had gone home for the evening. The two youngest boys were busy with their evening chores. They were both in their teens and she considered them old enough to work in the business now. They should survive well at their sibling’s homes, she had no doubt of that. Though they’d be free to join her if they chose. It was up to them, with Brogan Jr.’s approval, of course.

“Mother, Brogan’s taken father’s good coach and horse,” Reggie said indignantly from her doorway. ‘And left his.’ He’d run in from their small barn.

“And they’re going to exchange everything good from the kitchen and pantry with theirs. I heard him tell Jenny. He’s cheating,” Murphy added, coming up behind his brother.

The boys stood in the doorway both frowning at her. “I’m not sure what we can do about it,” she replied looking up from her sewing.

“Well, I’m going to demand he give them back,” Murphy said boldly. At sixteen he was the shortest of the boys. Even his younger brother was as tall as he was.

“Be careful of Brogan,” she warned. “You’re getting your father’s guns. The Sheriff has those, so he can’t switch them for old, run-down firearms. Be happy with that.”

‘You knew he’d do that,’ Reggie said in surprise. ‘You knew he’d cheat.’

I had hoped he wouldn’t, she thought to herself. But he’s so much like his father.

“I’m not afraid of him,” Murphy replied boldly, but she knew in truth he was.

“He’s cheating you, mother,” Reggie remarked with concern. ‘You know he is.’

“Yes, I know,” she said calmly. “but I don’t know what I can do about it. Our only town attorney is his good friend.”

‘It’s not right!’ Reggie grumbled.

‘Don’t you boys try and do anything about this,’ she looked up with a serious expression. ‘Brogan can do you great harm. Just leave it alone. Promise me.’

For a few minutes they were silent, but they saw the look in her eye. ‘Yes, mother,’ they both mumbled.

‘But it’s not right!’

She was worried about getting any funding from Brogan Jr. at all. She’d need to have enough to pay her share of expenses over a long period of time. But, in fact, she was not as worried as she might have been. Her oldest son might think he was taking over the whole estate, but she knew where her husband kept his emergency gold stash in the house and none of the others did. Even her husband hadn’t known that she’d known. She had run across the loose floor board under the bedroom rug during her many times cleaning. She was sure the others weren’t aware of it. It wouldn’t come close to equaling her third of the estate, but it’d be enough to help her get by.

The rug in the bedroom hadn’t been moved she noticed after her oldest son left the house. Well, she’d move the stash, just to be sure. She’d begin sewing the coins into her petticoats and make hidden pockets to tie at her waist under her clothing. Best the others not know. She wrung her hands. If she only knew her youngest daughter was all right and was not with Lendal.

Tears sprung to her eyes when she thought of the man. He was pure evil. She’d seen what he’d done to Ruby over the years, how vicious he was. She’d seen him break Ruby’s ribs over nothing. And she knew he killed her friend in the end. She hadn’t run off. And now her child, her youngest beloved daughter, was in his grip, left to his torture. She tried not to imagine what he might do to her precious girl. ‘Oh, Meghan, child.’ She dabbed her handkerchief to her eyes. She’d do anything she could to get Meghan away from his evil grasp. Anything!

When she went to stay with her sister she had to go through Sacramento to catch the train. She’d search for Meghan then. She’d find some way to get her away from him. What happened to her dear friend Ruby was not going to happen to Meghan if she could help it. She’d stop him some way.

-***-

The two men on the stage took out a deck of cards and tried to coax the ladies into joining them in a game. The men exchanged a flask between themselves even though it was morning. Gaine’s face showed she was willing enough to join their game. She was actually a very good card player but Meghan had whispered to her to please not participate. She didn’t think it was right to gamble. Gaine reluctantly turned down their request.

Gaine could see the small blonde tensing every time the two men from her hometown spoke to her. Gaine immediately answered for her until they finally got the idea and stopped addressing the mysterious woman in the veiled hat.

At the drop off the stage was stopped and all the passengers were told to get out and walk. It was too steep for the horses to pull them and the carriage. Those on top hopped down and joined them. For the whole of the area they walked behind the coach, staying far from the edge, while the horses struggled pulling the empty coach up the often steep rises. They were quite tired by the time they left the drop off area and got back into the coach.

At last they arrived at the noon dinner stop and climbed out of the coach to wait for their bag. Everyone else hurried past them to go in to eat. The Conductor stopped to shake their hands and bid them farewell. While the stage passengers were eating their noon dinner, the crew would be changing horses and the stage would again be on its way to Jubilee City almost before the passengers were done. Gaine considered eating with the others to save funds, but decided it would be far too hard on Meghan.

Meghan walked beside Gaine on the boardwalk as they went to retrieve the tall woman’s buckboard and team. A part of the tall brunette’s livery fee was returned and she dropped it loosely into her pocket. She remembered that Meghan still had her shot bag stuffed down the front of her bosom. It was a minor inconvenience that drew a smile from the tall woman. She’d have to get used to sharing her life and possessions with the small young woman.

A feeling of contentment swept over her as she glanced at the young blonde. It was almost an age-old feeling. This small blonde moved her in ways she’d never dreamed. She was ready to place her heart, her very soul in Meghan’s care.

The buckboard was driven out and Gaine checked each of the horses quickly before getting on. The small blonde looked admiringly at the team. She could see how fine they were. Her family would have been very impressed. Then, still covered in her veil and gloves, she quickly climbed aboard on her side and they headed off down the town street.

“Ya all right?” Gaine asked.

“Yes. As long as I can be by your side, I’m perfect,” Gaine couldn’t see the smile but knew it was hidden there behind the heavy veil.

“Mmm, ya shore do be,” Gaine pulled up at the town Mercantile. “We need usn’s some fixin’s,” she explained to her puzzled partner as she helped her down.

Once inside the store Meghan wandered in amazement. She had never been in a store before and was astonished at the range of items and the prices. Gaine set about picking out some basic food supplies, a small bag of flour, some molasses, some beans, a small amount of jerky, cans of peaches and greengages, coffee and the like. She also bought four tin plates, four forks and an extra blanket. She loaded the items before the two moved to the counter to look at the jewelry.

Gaine nervously tried to remember how much money she had left. She had started with the bulk of her savings and it wasn’t a lot by any means, but if they were prudent, they could afford a ring for Meghan. Or she could trade one of her wagon horses at the livery. She glanced out at the horses she’d worked so long and hard to acquire. She could trade down and end up with one different horse and enough for a more expensive ring. Her horses were beauties, but it would be worth it.

Gaine brought her attention back to the ring case. She saw a beautiful ring encrusted with jewels and had Meghan try it on. Meghan frowned and took it off. “We don’t need a ring right now,” she whispered to Gaine.

“Yep, we shorely does,” Gaine whispered back. That surprised Meghan. She picked out an extremely modest band. Gaine put it back. Finally they decided on a moderately priced ring with a small diamond and two tiny red rubies set in gold filigree with small gold heart-shaped settings flanking the main stone.

Both were pleased. Gaine was sure she had enough to pay for everything, if she used her own lucky gold coin, the greenbacks she had left in her pocket plus what Meghan had in her shotbag. “Shot bag?” she whispered and Meghan turned her back and quickly opened enough buttons to draw out the bag before hastily buttoning her dress up again. She handed the bag to Gaine.

Gaine decided that trading her lucky coin for Meghan’s ring was the height of good fortune and she cheerfully made the purchase. She handed the change back to the small blonde and slipped the ring on her finger. Meghan put back on her gloves, slipping the coins inside the glove’s palm till she had a chance to put the shot bag away again. She grinned at the idea that Gaine wanted her to care for their funds. It made her seem very married.

Gaine and the small blonde climbed back into the wagon. They headed down the same road the stage had traveled to get there.

“Oh, I was thinking you lived north of this town, not west,” Meghan smiled behind her veil as they began to leave the town in the distance.

“Yep. That be cor-rect.”

Just below town they took the turn to the road that wandered more south than the one the stage took to the drop off road. “Do we have to get around a river or something before we go north?”

“No. We’re a’goin’ ta a little trip. Ya know what a bridal tour be?”

“No.”

“Well, some couples when they git theyselfs hitched go off’n a trip. Showin’ the bride off, Ah reckon. Ana’ways, Ah thought t’would do us fine ta do that.”

“A bridal tour? We haven’t set a date to exchange vows yet. We aren’t ‘hitched’.”

“Be ya opposed ta the Fourth a July?”

“That’s only a couple days!” Meghan sat up in surprise and faced Gaine.

Gaine stopped the horses. Her face became long as she looked at Meghan. “Oh. Doancha wanna?”

“Uh, well, it’s not that. It’s just so soon. I, uh…” She had hoped to have time to wash and iron her dress and get herself fixed up for Gaine.

“Ya wanted a longer courtship?”

“No. It isn’t that. I, uh, well, uh, I want to exchange vows…very much.” She looked at Gaine’s face and saw the anxiety. She didn’t want that. She smiled nervously, “I suppose the Fourth of July would be a good time, if you don’t mind that my dress won’t be clean.”

Gaine let out a deep breath. “Tis you Ahm vowin’ ta, not yer dress. Ya look beautiful no matter what ya got on. Ah ain’t cleaned up mahself.” Then she frowned, “Do ya want me ta wash mah clothes? Ah kin find usn’s a stream.”

“No. It’s all right.”

“Ya shore?” Meghan nodded and Gaine clicked the horses back on their way.

It was a whirlwind happening. They had met less than a week ago but she knew in her heart Gaine was everything she had ever wanted and the side issues were not really important. “Is it far?”

“Ain’t ta long. Couple days maybe.”

“Couple days to get there? Where are we going, Gaine?”

“They’s a purty lake thar n’ t’is right pleasant. That all right with’n ya?”

Meghan looked around and then slid over and wrapped both her arms around Gaine’s arm. Imagine making their vows beside a pretty lake. She leaned her head on Gaine’s shoulder. “That sounds wonderful, love. I’ve not been to a lake.”

“Ya ain’t?” Gaine guessed Meghan had only traveled to town farms where they’d lived and the long roads between them. “First thar’ bees a mighty fine stream an place ta eat some dinner down the way here. Ya interested?”

“Yes! I’m starving!”

Gaine laughed. “Ah figured ya might be.”

The dirt road dipped downward and Gaine handled the brake well to put less pressure on the horses. It wove and turned, but there was not a drop off anywhere like there was on the other road. Once the road leveled, Meghan took off her veiled hat and replaced it with her bonnet. She removed her gloves, put the money in the shot bag and placed it inside her dress. Then she gazed at her new ring. They were to be joined, she and Gaine. Forever.

Gaine pulled the team off the road by a small mountain stream. Dinner was the first chance Meghan got to do any cooking for Gaine, even if it was just coffee and quick biscuits. She was an excellent cook and yearned to prove it. She busied herself around the small fire fixing the coffee the way she knew Gaine liked it and baking quick board biscuits. They ate jerky and biscuits then Gaine took a hatchet and lopped the top off a can of plums.

“Heavens to Betsy, Gaine,” Meghan exclaimed, “I could make a pie with these.”

“Theys more,” Gaine smiled, handing her a spoon. “Tanight when we stop ya kin do that. Ain’t time now.”

The spot was beautiful with the clear water cascading rapidly through the rocky eddies, but they hurried to get back on the road. They saw no one else for the whole of their afternoon until they passed a far-out ranch and saw some specks in the distance that Gaine said were ranchhands. After that they were again alone with the wild and the wildlife. There were trees and brush in this area and the road was little more than a path.

“Gotta be careful ‘n the ravines,” Gaine said, as they headed into one. She brought her carbine to one hand.

“Why? Do you think the stage robbers are here?” Alarmed green eyes rose to meet Gaine’s and she moved closer to the woman beside her on the bench.

“Uh, maybe. But Ah war cogitatin’ on them mountain lions ‘n even some grizzlies that might be a’stalkin’ thar.”

“Stars!”

But they saw neither although they did see a lot of deer and other wildlife. As they passed through one ravine, the horses became jittery and Gaine pointed out the scratches high on some trees they passed and said they were the marks of a mountain lion. She kept her carbine in her hand again.

Meghan sat wide-eyed, her head scanning the branches of trees they passed under but no other signs of the large carnivore were seen. Later, however, they did hear the call, sounding much like a house cat of great size. “That thar,” Gaine remarked softly, “war a mountain lion.” Meghan shivered.

They traveled till an hour before dusk, then found a camp spot by a small, fresh river. Meghan began to fix a meal of beans and biscuits but Gaine killed a large rattlesnake that she said would be good for supper. Meghan was unfamiliar with preparing it, however, so Gaine skinned it and cut filets. She suggested either boiling or frying. Meghan chose frying since she was already using the dutch oven to bake biscuits in the ashes of the fire. She made gravy to go with the filets and they ate heartily, although it wasn’t either’s favorite meat.

Meghan worked hard once she removed the biscuits. She stirred the ashes and added more as she prepared a pie in the dutch oven. When it was cool enough, she poured Gaine more coffee and cut them a large slab of plum pie.

The tall brunette carefully patrolled the camp perimeter making sure they were safe. Gaine was very careful about foodstuffs and hung them in the trees beyond camp where wildlife could be kept away from them. Meghan washed out their nightshirts with Gaine’s scented soap as they would be sleeping in their clothes anyway. She hung them to dry on the bushes.

Boughs were brought and placed under the wagon for softness. Then Gaine’s bedroll was unrolled out onto them and the new blanket was their cover. They crawled in and watched a couple nighthawks making slow turns around a thermal updraft. The bullbats had come out of the darkening trees and now coasted lazily around, feeding off the insects.

They listened to the sonorous swelling then ebbing of the cicadas at sunset. Under the stars, they found they were much more tired than they realized. Gaine even let them sleep in the next morning till the sun was up.

After Meghan fixed them a wonderful breakfast of hot pancakes smothered in the sugar-house molasses they had purchased and steamy, strong coffee, they broke camp and continued on, up over a low mountainous pass, over and around hills, stopping only long enough to eat biscuits, more jerky and slabs of pie.
They ended up in the late afternoon beside a beautiful wooded lake. Gaine built a large fire in a pit on the beach beyond their wagon and caught a large fish that Meghan cleaned and fixed into a tasty supper along with biscuits and beans.

They sat beside the fire as the sun went down and the promise of a much colder night full of bright, twinkling stars dropped down around them. There were no signs of other people anywhere and no moon in the night sky. Gaine kept a fairly large wood fire burning in the pit. By this time the lake was much warmer than the evening air, and Gaine tried to talk Meghan into going swimming “naturale”.

“No, Gaine,” she sighed modestly, “It’s not decent. Don’t ask me that. Please.”

“Thar ain’t nobody out here cept’n us’ns, Meg,” Gaine explained.

The small blonde blushed. “No. Honey, please. You said you’d never make me do something I didn’t want to do. I…I can’t do this. I can’t go..,” she whispered, “naked,” then her voice was normal again, “Please don’t ask me to.”

Gaine nodded. “Yer right. Ah did say that, an Ah woan.” Gaine threw another log on the fire for light as well as heat. A new moon, of course, gives no light. She had an idea. She knew Meghan had wanted to wash at least their underclothes but they had nothing else to put on. “What if’n we wear ar, ya know, ar under thangs? We could wash ’em out once’t we’re done a’swimmin in ’em? They’d dry bah mornin’. What ’bout that?”

Meghan pulled on her lower lip. “Wear our under things swimming?”

“Yep. They’s a lot like them bathin’ outfits stores sell.”

“You’re sure we’re alone out here?”

“Yep. Well, thar do bees wildlife.”

“And I could use your piece of soap in the carpetbag and wash them out afterwards when we get out?”

“Uh, wash yer’n out with’n that but Ah hafta go a’huntin’ in mahn, so’s they hadn’t outta be flowery er the critters’ll smell me a’comin’.”

Meghan nodded and looked carefully around the area. “You’re sure it’s just us?”

Gaine listened carefully to the night sounds. “Yep. Jest usn’s.”

“All right.”

Gaine smiled her biggest warm smile. They undressed between the wagon and the bushes, placing their outer clothes in the wagon bed, taking their nightshirts out and leaving those and the blanket near the fire. Meghan took off all her petticoats and left on her chemise and long drawers.

The small blonde didn’t know how to swim, so they played and splashed each other in the shallower water. It was really quite warm. Meghan’s wet chemise showed the markings of her nipples in the firelight as did Gaine’s undershirt and the open crotch of the small blonde’s underdrawers did not guarantee much privacy, but her chemise was long enough to protect her modesty.

Gaine found the blonde to be ravishingly beautiful and could not keep her hands off her. Once Meghan lost her shyness, they wrapped themselves around each other, laughing, and wading out, shivering, till just their heads stuck out of the water, Gaine holding the small woman up at that point, her legs around Gaine’s waist. It was much warmer staying under water.

They kissed and let their hands wander till Meghan playfully splashed the tall beauty. They laughed more and ducked under the water once, coming up before Meghan could be frightened. Then Gaine took her on her back and swam up and down parallel to the bank. Laughing and shivering, they ran out to the fire. Gaine threw on more wood. Shivering, they peeled off their wet clothes and put on their clean, good smelling nightshirts. They quickly washed out their under garments, Gaine using her lye bar on hers, draping them over bushes to dry.

Wrapped in the blanket before the fire Meghan told stories of her early childhood. Gaine listened in silence. On the whole the small blonde had not had a happy childhood yet she remembered semi-pleasant or humorous times particularly with her younger brothers that she used to pepper her stories. They watched the pit fill with hot ashes as the wood burned away. Gaine stacked a rim of rocks around the pit and added a log before heading to bed.

Once more they made their bed under the wagon and fell into each other’s embrace where they felt above all else that they truly belonged. Gaine was amazed at how well Meghan could kiss! She didn’t know who she was or where she might be when she lost herself in the small woman’s kisses. It pulled her mind into a sexual haze that her hands and body unerringly followed.

For her part, Meghan found the tall brunette with her sexy, throaty voice and laugh, with her devastating smile and smoldering blue eyes, this fearless, sure-shotted, derrier-kicking “bad” girl, this unbelievable beauty, turned into a sizzling pool of passion once she had Meghan alone in her arms, unless she was working hard to control herself, which she was at the moment.

“Tomorrow’s Sunday, the Fourth. We exchange vows then,” Meghan sighed, running a finger over her ring.
“We need to think of what we’ll say.”

“Yep,” Gaine replied. “Tagather ferever, darlin’.” She planted a soft kiss on Meghan’s neck. “Yer sa beautiful,” she breathed in the blonde’s ear. Meghan shivered. “Do ya wanna use reg’lar vows er somethin’ else?”

“I’m not sure I know regular vows,” Meghan replied.

“Ah think we kin come up with’n what we wanna vow,” Gaine nibbled her neck.

Meghan shivered at Gaine’s breath on her neck. “Love,” she sighed, “please not until we’ve pledged ourselves. I won’t be able to resist if you keep that up.”

Gaine chuckled. “All right, kitten. Not till we’ve promised.”

They nestled down into their nest under the wagon, wrapped in each other’s arms. They could hear some wolves howling in the distance, but neither were that concerned. “I love you, my darling,” Meghan breathed as her shutting eyes drew her into Morpheus’ realm. Gaine put her arms around her and held her safely and securely as she listened to the night sounds for anything out of order. There was nothing unusually amiss and she followed her into the mysterious dimension of dreams.

Before dawn they used the clear, warm water of the lake to wash up before they dressed. Their underwear was dry and Meghan’s was fragrant, if not a bit wrinkled. The calls of many birds greeted the dawn, the ‘keeeer’ of a nearby hawk mixed in with the ‘caw cawk’ of pheasants and ‘ka-kaw-kaw’ of quail. Meghan put on her corset and two petticoats and Gaine did not dissuade her from the corset, although she made it clear that she hated it.

“I won’t say my vows to you not wearing a corset, for heaven’s sake!” Meghan announced primly. But she did allow it to be left less tight than she was used to.

While Meghan cooked breakfast, Gaine took her rifle and disappeared into the brush. “I can make another pie in these ashes,” she pulled out the dutch oven and looked over the cans of fruit before settling on peaches. She used the hatchet to open the container and prepared the pie, shoveling ashes around it as three shots rang out.

She was setting out breakfast dishes when Gaine strolled into camp smiling, three large pheasants in hand. Meghan glanced up, “Three pheasants? That’s a lot for us.” Gaine never killed more than they could use.

“Yep. T’will be a great feast ta celebrate ar vows!”

“Gracious,” Meghan replied. It seemed like a large amount of food for the two of them, but she wouldn’t question Gaine. It had been ages since she’d had pheasant. She had to think about what could go with it. Maybe she’d use one of their cans of fruit to go with the pheasant.

After breakfast Gaine and Meghan worked plucking and cleaning the pheasants and getting them ready to roast. Meghan had decided on a whiskey-plum rub that she applied before Gaine buried the large dutch oven in the cooling ashes. More wood was set afire away from the ashes to be raked in later. The pheasants would cook slowly. She’d watch the ashes. It would be several hours before it was ready.
Megan washed the dishes and put them back in the wagon, then they hiked a short way to a rise above the lake. It was not as easy going in Meghan’s dress and petticoats as it was in Gaine’s pants, so they took their time. When they reached the top of the rise, Meghan saw a surprising sight. Below to the south, in the distance, headed in their direction were two riders, both men.

“Who are they, Gaine?” Meghan asked, clearly frightened.

“The solution ta ar problem, Ahm a’hopin’,” Gaine replied, wrapping her arm around the small blonde.

“Which problem. You mean my father?”

“Yep. An’ Lendal, an’ callin’ ya Cousin, but mostly havin’ ya legally be a Sargos.”

Meghan’s head tipped sideways, “I don’t understand.”

“See that thar small feller?” Gaine asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s mah cousin Michael. He bees one a Minnie’s older brothers. They doan talk ’bout ‘im in the family much. He left home when he war vera young. He’s kinda a black sheep. An’ that thar big, burly fella with ‘im is ‘is dear friend a many years, Charles.”

“All right,” Meghan said, trying to figure what Gaine had in mind. “Where are they coming from?” Meghan pulled away, afraid they’d be seen embraced.

“Angels, uh, Los Angeles,” Gaine replied, replacing her arm around Meghan’s shoulder. “Ah ‘magine they come through Cahunga Pass inta the San Fernando valley then over Newhall Pass ta the Newhall Valley then over the San Francisquito Canyon then took a turn an’ headed this a’way.”

“I see. How did they know where we were?”

“Ah sent ’em a telegram.”

“Uh, they might see us, honey.” Meghan pulled away again and Gaine just grinned. They both stared at the two men, so different in size, girth and description. The smaller one was dressed in a dapper suit with shiny shoes, a white vest, a colorful scarf at his neck and a bowler hat. He was talking and using his hands to help tell his tale. The other man wore a well-fitted dark suit and tie with boots, conservative in every way. He was nodding mildly in assent. He carried a rifle across his lap but neither were looking their direction.

“Charles thar t’is a judge,” the tall brunette said. He got hisself a wife somewhars back east, New York if’n Ah recollect correct-like. He ain’t seed her in ten years and she ain’t got no interest in a’seein’ ‘im. But they write one t’uther occasional so’s ever’one still considers ’em married.”

Meghan cast a puzzled look.

“Michael thar, he works with’n the judge. Ah think he’s got hisself trained n’ bees one a’ them lawyer fellas, but Ah ain’t sure a that. Ah jest knows he works with’n Charles.”

“And you’re thinking, what, exactly?”

“Ahm wonderin’, uh, if’n ya’d like ta be legally married ta Michael fer a spell. He’d never touch ya, never even see ya. But he’d legally give ya the Sargos name an’ ya’d really be mah cousin. An’…”

“I’m to be married to you!” Meghan gasped, “Today! Did you forget that so soon?” Meghan’s face had a painfully hurt expression. She turned to fly back down the way they had come as tears rushed to her eyes.

Gaine quickly followed and grabbed the small reluctant woman around the waist, spinning her into her arms and did not let her loose, though the small blonde struggled to pull away. “No, mah precious darling, Ah did not ferget fer one second.” She buried her face into the blonde’s hair. “Please, lemme finish. Please, darlin’.”

Meghan went limp and tears poured from her eyes. Gaine continued, “Ah knows that a’bein’ divorced t’is a terr’ble, terr’ble stigma. But if’n ya kin bear the chance that some’un someday jest maht fine’ out, yu’ll also be divorced from ‘im. Ya see, t’is full within that thar Judge’s power ta grant ya a divorce.”

Divorces were not easily gotten ever, some judges never granting them. But Meghan had always considered marriage vows sacrosanct so the need for divorce was moot. To do so would be extremely hard for her.

“Oh, Gaine,” she wept. Gaine held her tenderly, her heart sinking.

“Oh, mah sweet love. Ah ne’er wanted ta make ya cry. Jest ferget it. All right? Please, Ah can’t stand that yer a’hurtin’. Ah doan wan that t’all. It warn’t never meant ta hurt ya none. Ah love ya so, kitten. Please.”

“They’re wedding vows, Gaine,” the small blonde tried to explain through her tears. “Don’t say you want me to marry someone else. Please, don’t.”

‘Ah doan! Ah truly doan! Oh, darlin’, Ah never wanted ya ta, not fer really truly, an that bees the God’s honest truth. Ah loves ya, Meghan, an’ Ah only wanna have ya marry me. Ever. Ah guess Ah war thinkin’ the t’uther war all made up, like Charles’ marriage an din’t mean nothin’. T’war a right bad idea. Jest fergit it.”

“How could it not mean anything? I don’t understand.”

“Oh, ya know. Sometimes theys them mock weddin’s girls have when they’s bored. They say vows, an’ they kiss an’ it doan mean nothin. Pretend, ya know. Onlys with’n more, uh, legal ramifications.”
Megan dabbed her eyes with her sleeve, then looked up. “A mock wedding?”

“Yep. Cousin Minnie al’ays useta drag me inta playin’ Ah war the groom in some pretend weddin’ an’ she war the bride. We’d hafta get all dressed up. The boys wouldn’t participate but all our sisters done it, even if’n they war older. They war part a’ the weddin’ party. An they’d make us say them vows ‘n ever’thin’. They knew ’em exact like.”

Meghan sniffed, “A pretend wedding? You pretended to marry Minnie?”

“Yep. An’ with this ‘un, Ah war thinkin’ ya’d legally be a Sargos even though the weddin with Michael war really pratend like. Once’t yer married ya’d keep the name Sargos even if’n yer divorced. Then Ah figured ya wouldn’t hafta tell nobody yer divorced lest ya wanted ta. They’d think yer still married an’ Lendal couldn’t think a’forcin’ ya ta marry ‘im ‘n that case. An’ they can’t make ya a widda if’n they can’t find yer husband, even Lendal couldn’t, not that Ahd let him nears ya nohow. But mostly ya’d be a Sargos an t’would stop fellas from trying ta court ya an’ ya could wear mah weddin’ ring fer all ta see.”

“Did you kiss her?”

“Who?”

“Minnie.”

“Uh, yep, but t’war jest a peck. It t’war pretend-like. Not like we been doin’. Nuthin’ like that.”
Meghan looked at Gaine seriously. Her tall beauty had kissed her Cousin Minnie and married her in a pretend wedding? She knew Gaine had very strong feelings for Minnie and she didn’t like the idea of their pretend marriage, even if they had been very young.

“So you wanted me to do a pretend wedding with Michael? And I would say I was only doing it as a pretend wedding?”

“Uh, shore. But Charles’d pratend he din’t hear ya none.”

“Charles would marry us?” she sniffed.

“Yep.”

She chewed her lip and more tears filled her eyes. “But it’d be legal, wouldn’t it? Just like my father was going to force me to do with Lendal.”

“No. Not like that t’all. This’d be legal ‘n name only. What yer Pa wanted woulda been legal AN Lendal’d a taken ya ta wife fer true. This here is more like pratend cause Michael ain’t gonna try and take ya ta wife.”

“Why not? Why would Michael do it otherwise?”

“Michael needs hisself a wife in name so’s folks doan think nothin’ unusual ’bout ‘im.”

“Why would they think anything unusual? What if he insisted? He’d have rights, legal rights!”

“Honey,” Gaine said softly, “Michael doan like girls. He ain’t got no interest in touchin’ ya fer one thing, an’ I’d kill ‘im if’n he even come close ta ya fer ‘nuther.”

Meghan looked puzzled. She didn’t understand at all. This was not something she’d ever heard anything about. “I don’t understand, Gaine. If he didn’t like girls, why would he want to marry me?”

“Well, it ain’t a live-in wife Michael needs. Fact, he wouldn’ wanna have one. He’d jest wanna be able ta tell folks he war married. Charles’ wife doan live with him neither. Never has. Ain’t never gonna neither, t’war mah figurin’. It’s jest easier, ya know, if’n folks think everone’s all alike. Most folks doan take kindly ta things they doan understand even when them things ain’t none a their business and doan hurt ’em none.”

Meghan still stood looking very puzzled. Her blonde lashes fluttered.

“Michael bees ‘n love with Charles, honey. Has been fer a long time.”

“With Charles?” Meghan gazed at Gaine then looked out at the men moving closer. “Michael and Charles?” She stood gazing. It wasn’t totally inconceivable that the two men could be hanged if anyone suspected how they felt for each other. “Why didn’t you marry him?”

“Ah woulda. But wer first cousins. That ain’t a good mix an’ t’would be better if’n thar war a choice ain’t gonna distress nobody. ‘Specially his Momma, mah Aunt, who Ah happen ta know an’ love.”

“If you’re not going to have children, what difference does it make?”

“None ta me. But t’uther folks ain’t gonna have privilege ta that thar information. She’d be right flummoxed bah us’ns being first cousins. Ah wouldn’ like that. She’d be a’frettin’ all the time a’thinkin’ we war gonna have childerns with serious problems, even though we warn’t gonna have no childerns a’tall.”

Meghan stood silently watching the men approach. Gaine squeezed the small blonde in her embrace. She began to whisper in Meghan’s ear, “Darlin, Ahm so sorry Ah made ya cry on yer weddin’ day. Fergit ’bout marryin’ Michael. Yer gonna marry me, and that’s what Ah want with all mah heart.”

Sad green eyes looked up, “I…I always thought my vows would be once and forever,” she whispered.

“Ah shore hopes they t’is. Mine er gonna be. Ferever, mah love, fer you.”

Meghan leaned her head against Gaine’s shoulder and watched the approach of the men. “Did they come all this way because they think I’ll marry him?”

“Ah said thar war the possibility. But ya kin say ya doan wanna an t’will be jest fine. Ah promise.”
Green eyes stared sorrowfully southward. Finally Meghan spoke softly, “I do want to be a Sargos legally but I want my vows to be for you and only you.”

“Ah wisht Ah could marry ya legal an give ya mah name,” Gaine sighed. “‘N not hafta think up none a this here nonsense. Ah wisht it with all mah heart. But Ah cain’t. Not legal like.”

“I know, honey,” Meghan said softly. Green eyes strained at the men as they drew near, “What’re those things they have sticking out of their saddlebags?”

A huge grin transformed Gaine’s face. “Fireworks!”

Gaine waved and the men waved back. Meghan looked at the small man. He was well-set with black hair, a sallow complexion, fancy clothing and a wide mouth, at the moment set in uproarious laughter. The two women turned and headed down the deer path back to the lake.

After the men rode into camp, introductions were made all around. Gaine pulled each man aside and quietly explained that Meghan had strong feelings about vows and only wanted them for Gaine. Both men nodded their understanding and gave no sign of disappointment although she knew Michael must be.

Michael was not very imposing and emotionally Meghan saw him as a sort of gadfly. She could see why he might need to tell others he was married. But she liked him and his disarming sense of humor got her laughing. Still, she stayed very close to Gaine at first.

Both men helped Gaine add more coals to the feast to let it simmer for an afternoon feast. The cooking meat was beginning to give off a wonderful fragrance.

“Mm mm. That smells good! Well, let’s get this ceremony between the two of you underway, shall we?”

Michael remarked once new ashes were shoveled. He ran his eyes over Meghan. “My dear,” he exclaimed primly, “You’ll need a little help.” He pursed his lips and turned to the others, “I’ll help the bride get ready and Charles, you go help Gaine get herself respectable. Shoo! Shoo! Give us some privacy here.”

Meghan’s eyes grew large as Michael swished the others away with his hands and wrists. Charles and Gaine dutifully moved down around a bend where they still had access to the water in the lake for cleaning up. Once they’d gone, Michael fetched a pan of water and brought it to the wagon. “All right, wash as best you can. Everywhere..neck, ears, feet, everywhere!”

“Feet?” Meghan blinked. Michael put one hand on his cheek and cupped the elbow with his other hand as he looked her over.

“I think we can tidy your dress up without much problem. But…no, that bonnet will not do!” he stood taller with a smile, “Maybe a ring of flowers in your hair, what do you think?”

“Oh, I thought I’d wear my bonnet,” Meghan said nervously, putting her hand to the homespun bonnet she was wearing.

“No, no, no, my dear,” he groaned. “Take it off and let’s see your hair.” Reluctantly she did so while he circled her, touching and puffing her hair here and there. “All the pins out! It must fall loosely on your shoulders. You want her to die of wanting you, not think she’s going to some prim town meeting with you. Here.” He handed her the hairbrush. “At least one hundred strokes. Meanwhile, I’ll collect some flowers.”

Meghan began to brush out her hair, letting it fall to her shoulders. She knew that Gaine did like it that way, but she wasn’t at all sure about the appropriateness of saying vows without a bonnet.

“One hundred strokes,” Michael reminded before he disappeared heading toward the meadow. “And wash behind your ears.”

“Yes, mother,” Meghan muttered grumpily as she brushed her hair.

Charles, in the meantime, had tried to help Gaine tidy up her shirt by wiping it off with a wet cloth, but the material was so old it seemed to absorb stains without much effort. “Michael will kill me if I let you go out there with these stains,” he muttered. Gaine chuckled. She’d forgotten how bossy Michael could be. “We’ll just have to find another solution.”

Meghan had brushed her hair assiduously and washed thoroughly with the end of the fragrant soap when Michael came back with a circle of flowers he was braiding. He set it aside and moved beside her, using his hands to work the hair into the order he felt was necessary. ‘Oh,yes my dear, much nicer.’

“You’re Minnie’s brother,” Meghan said shyly as Michael fussed with her hair. “She just got married, Gaine said.”

“So I’ve heard,” he replied and Meghan could hear the buried hurt in his voice. She guessed that Gaine had told him when they’d first arrived and that was the first that he’d heard of it. He fussed with her hair then froze his hands and looked at her face, “That was mother’s doing, you know. She’s tried extremely hard to get Minnie married off since she was sixteen. Minnie’s resisted till now. Frankly, I always thought what Minnie really wanted was to live with Gaine.”

“With Gaine?” Meghan asked, alarmed.

“Well, I never got the feeling that Gaine, uh, how can I put this, uh, shared the same enthusiasm. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Gaine always liked Minnie a lot. They used to be inseparable as children. But I don’t think she ever thought of Minnie as anything but a cousin. Besides anyone with eyes can see that she’s gone completely loco over you. So don’t take any of this the wrong way.”

“Gaine said they had a mock wedding,” Meghan chewed her lip. She tried to stand still as he pulled and fluffed various strands of her hair.

“Oh, Lord, yes! Minnie dragged poor Gaine into that, making her stand as her groom. She had to promise all kinds of things to get Gaine to do it, though. I remember one of them was she had to promise to help Gaine whitewash the outhouse. She did it, just to get Gaine to be her groom.” He laughed at the memory but Meghan did not share the enjoyment.

He continued, “It sounds like she was finally going to come and visit Gaine and I’m sure that spurred Mother to her greatest heights.” He put the finishing touch on her hair and stepped back to look. “Probably scared mother to death. If one looks closely, I’m sure this new husband can be completely traced back to her doings.”

Meghan blinked, not sure exactly what Michael was saying. It was clear he was bitter about his mother. “She didn’t want her to visit Gaine?” Meghan felt butterflies take over her stomach. ‘Why?’

“I’m positive she didn’t,” Michael picked up the flowers and began braiding them together again. “I’m sure she was terrified that once Minnie got there, she’d never come back and mother wouldn’t get grandchildren from her.” He put the partial wreath of flowers in the wagon and grabbed the wash rag.
“She has fifteen grandchildren already. You’d think that would be enough. Here, let me wipe your dress down a bit in the back. It’s lovely. Just a little dusty.”

Meghan turned and he began to wipe the back of her bodice and long skirt in quick strokes, paying heed to the hem. “Are you ready for your vows? Do you know how the ceremony goes?”

“Uh, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do at all.” Meghan began to tremble a little now and Michael stood upright.

His brow furrowed. ‘We’ll start with you there.’ He pointed. ‘I’ll play some music then you move to there,’ he pointed to a different spot. ‘Then you turn and face that way.’

Meghan paled. She wasn’t sure she’d remember all this and they hadn’t even talked about vows yet. She hadn’t thought they’d have an audience. She thought it would just be her and Gaine. She chewed her lip in earnest.

Michael watched her for a minute. “Do you want to run through a practice first? Would that make you more comfortable?”

Large green eyes looked over, “We could practice?”

“Sure. There are people that do that. CHARLES! COME AND HELP US!”

Michael began to look over the campground. Charles stepped into the clearing and Michael immediately pointed. “We need to practice. Charles, you stand there. You move to here, Meghan.’ He pointed and Meghan stood in the appropriate spot. ‘I’ll be playing the music, so I’ll stand here.” He paused. ‘La la la la la,’ he sang, then paused again, “all right, now you move here. I’ll pretend to be Gaine and move here beside you.”

Meghan nodded, wide-eyed, now in her new place.

‘Then I play again. La la la la la.’ He turned to the small blonde. “It’s going to be a modified ceremony, Meghan.” She nodded and he turned to Charles, “What’s Gaine doing?”

“Putting on a clean shirt,” Charles replied. Michael nodded in approval. ‘All right, walk us through the ceremony, Charles.’

Going through it step by step, the large man went through the modified ceremony.

‘That what you want to vow?’ Michael asked Meghan.

‘Yes,’ she replied. When Charles read the names, it was Gaine Sargos and Meghan Fitzgeraldson. When Charles said, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” Michael reached over and pecked Meghan on the cheek. Meghan looked alarmed and Michael jested, “Gaine will do it much better, I’m sure.” He saw the look still on the small blonde’s face and quipped, “She wants a divorce already.”

“Granted,” Charles remarked.

With a twinkle in his eye, Michael remarked tentatively, “She wants a divorce between Gaine and Minnie for their mock wedding, too.” He looked at Meghan and knew he was right on target.

“Granted,” Charles deadpanned.

“Okay, Meghan, ready for the real thing?” Michael asked seriously.

“Yes.” Meghan waited while Michael finished the flowers and put them in her hair. She was radiant.
Charles had gone to fetch Gaine, and Meghan moved into her place as Michael got out his fiddle. He stood to the side and began to play appropriate music as Charles and Gaine stepped into the clearing and moved toward their chosen spots in the campground.

Gaine and Meghan’s eyes locked immediately. The tall brunette was wearing Charles’ clean, crisp starched shirt from his bag along with her pants and jacket, both of which had been thoroughly wiped down. She was glowing from the scrubbing she had undergone and her hair was neatly braided. She did not wear her hat. In her hand was a large bouquet of wild flowers.

Without breaking eye contact, she moved to Meghan and handed her the flowers. “Fer tha most beautiful woman ‘n the world,” she said softly.

Meghan blushed slightly and took the flowers. “Ah love ya,” Gaine continued as Michael cleared his throat then frantically moved his eyes trying to direct the tall brunette into the place he’d chosen for her to stand. That renegade! She is every bit as difficult to direct as she was as a child, he grumbled to himself. He cleared his throat loudly several times as he played. Deep vibrant blue eyes stayed focused on the small blonde. She was more beautiful than anything Gaine had ever seen. Soft green looked back with total admiration.

Finally Gaine paid him attention and moved to her spot and he changed the music as Charles and Meghan moved up beside her, the bouquet in Meghan’s hands. He stopped when Charles was ready.

The modified ceremony Charles read and had them follow went more quickly than they thought it would. Emerald green eyes remained steadily on fervent blue when the tall brunette repeated, “Ah, Gaine Sargos, take thee Meghan Fitzgeraldson ta be my wedded partner, ta have an’ ta hold from this here day forward, fer better er fer worst, fer richer er fer poorer, in sickness an in health ta love and ta cherish till death us da part an’ thereto Ah pledge thee mah troth.”

When it was her turn, Meghan repeated with a steady voice, again her eyes not leaving the tall beauty, “I, Meghan Fitzgeraldson take thee Gaine Sargos to my wedded partner, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health to love and obey till death us do part and thereto I plight thee my troth.”

Gaine placed the ring on Meghan’s finger and gazed into Meghan’s eyes, “With this here ring Ah thee wed an with all mah worldly goods Ah thee endow.” Then she whispered, “ferever.” Charles declared them partners for life. The kiss that followed was chaste but fervent.

Afterward Michael brought out a bag of sugar-coated almonds that he passed out as “wedding candies”. It was a treat none had had in many years, so they were greatly appreciative. An expensive bottle of excellent Peach Brandy was brought forth and toasts for lifetimes of happiness were had all around in tin cups.

“Anabody else a’gettin’ hungry?” Gaine asked. “T’is smellin’ right tasty!” She removed her jacket and placed it in the wagon, rolling up the sleeves of the stark white shirt that was a bit too wide for her.
Meghan smiled and moved toward the fire. “I’m starving! There’s certainly plenty there.” She looked hopefully at the others. They all looked hungry. She took the shovel and unearthed the dutch oven. “Mmm, almost ready.” Michael hopped up, “Charles, you and Gaine build up this fire. It will help keep the bugs away when we eat. The beautiful bride and I will fix a sumptuous meal. Show me what supplies you have, Meghan. I brought a few things.”

Together Meghan and Michael assembled a delicious meal. She was surprised to find that the dapper little man was an excellent chef. In no time a wonderful gourmet feast was placed on their tin plates. They spread a blanket on the beach a little away from the fire since the day was warm. They all sat, Meghan with her feet tucked carefully under her skirts so that the holes in the bottom of her shoes would not show.

They ate with gusto till they thought they might burst. Meghan stared at Gaine throughout the meal. They were married. There was nothing more wonderful. She looked at her ring. Now, if only she could really be a Sargos.

Gaine and Charles laid back on the blanket, shutting their eyes and rubbing their bellies while Michael and Meghan cleaned up before joining them. They played by the water and chatted. The men rolled their pant legs and took off their boots to wade beside each other, hand in hand along the edge of the lake. Gaine and Meghan sat back on the blanket and watched them, Meghan’s feet again carefully tucked. It felt good to share this part of their lives with others.

The men returned and flopped back on the blanket. Within minutes Michael began to tease Gaine about the old carpetbag they had both been using for their clothes. Then he went on to Gaine’s lack of fashion sense. Though it was meant in fun, Meghan didn’t like it. “That carpetbag has worked wonderfully for us and Gaine dresses just right,” she exclaimed. Michael ignored her but Gaine winked at her with a large grin, helping her relax some at the onslaught.

“My dear, my dear, my dear! Such blasphemy!” Michael shut his eyes and dramatically shook his head. “She thinks you’re just right, Gaine, but look at your trousers. So mannishly tedious and they’re simply threadbare. I swear, you don’t think to get new ones till your, uh, shall we say ‘better nature’ begins to show through.” Meghan gasped at that but Michael merely made a ‘tsking’ sound as Gaine chuckled.
He looked at Meghan, “She was invariably the same as a child. Utterly hopeless.” He brought his attention back to Gaine, “It’s a good thing you have someone to dress you now. And speaking of that, consider your new bride.” He directed his attention back to Meghan. “Women are wonderfully expensive creatures and should have their every whim granted in new styles, isn’t that right Charles.”

“I wouldn’t know, I let my tailor dress me,” Charles replied. “He has excellent taste. But, of course, there is you and that sash you keep wanting me to wear.” Charles quirked a small uncharacteristic grin at the small, dapper man.

Gaine raised a brow. Michael was always trying to get her to wear a colorful sash as well. The smaller man stood, folded his arms and put one finger on his cheek as he sighed deeply and lowered his eyes half-mast to Meghan. “I am noted near and abroad for my excellent taste, Meghan dear, though I hesitate to blow my own horn, heaven knows. Still Dame Fashion has deemed to press her fevered brow of vogue and distinction upon me. It’s a curse, a curse, to be placed here amongst such unimaginative heathens as these two.’

‘Sumthin lahk that,’ Gaine muttered with a chuckle. ‘An Ah still ain’t gonna wear no sash neither.’

‘It would look good on you, but, both of you, ignore fashion at your own risk and prolong the tedium of unfashionability.’ He stepped back and looked Meghan up and down. “Now for Meghan, I see your new bride in pink dimity…no, make that emerald green dimity to match her eyes…with real Val lace. Oh, the repercussions…’ He shut his eyes and clutched his hands to his chest, then opened his eyes and spoke, ‘like being struck with a streak of chain-lightning.” His hands moved forming the lines of this imaginary dress. “A lovely frock with at the very least twenty or twenty-five yards of the finest, uh, all right… reasonably priced…material.”

Meghan’s brow rose at that. She’d never heard of using so much material in a dress. Had they no budget to consider?

“A long flowing bustle in the back perhaps with a bow,” Michael continued, “and that beautiful hair….do away with that pioneer bonnet once and for all and get the very latest French chapeau. Lawsy! She would scream “elegance”.’ He nudged Gaine, ‘Why, you could show her all over San Francisco or even New York. Imagine how she’d look on your arm.”

His hands flowed with his words as he spoke to Meghan, “You simply should not be seen in simple homespun dresses, my dear. You’re far too attractive.”

“Ah like that thar dress, Meg,” Gaine wrapped an arm around the blonde and pulled her closer to herself,
“An ya look downright beautaful in it, honey,” Gaine spoke softly then scowled at her cousin. “Ignore ‘im.” Meghan leaned into the tall brunette. ‘He done had hisself ta meny nips ta the brandy jug.’

Michael did not break his stride, “Well, of course she looks good in that frock. It’s charming for country wear. But she’s too lovely for country life.” He faced Meghan. “My dear, you’d look good in burlap. But for heaven’s sakes, make Gaine take you to the big cities and buy you a worthy trousseau. Something to be packed in big leather portmanteaux and not that beat up little shot bag of hers that she calls a carpetbag. Drag her to the opera and the finest restaurants. You’re going to have to do it, my dear, because Gaine there is completely devoid of fashion and culture. And you’ll have to dress her. I swear, she’d go bare naked if she could get away with it.”

Meghan was beginning to feel the liquor. She gasped at his comment, then put her hand before her mouth and giggled. Gaine laughed aloud, “Ah might at that. Doan fergit, Ahm tryin’ ta git the ranch a’goin’ agin, Michael. Ah ain’t been thinkin’ none a fashion.”

“Oh, sell a steer or something, Gaine. It’s time to take note of fashion for your lady. She’s exquisite! Why, she could make the Queen look like a commoner.”

“Well now, that she could,” Gaine agreed.

“Not everybody wants to spend a small fortune on fashion, Michael,” Charles said, his features characteristically serious, “like someone else I know.” Everyone laughed as Michael stuck his tongue out at Charles and adjusted the jeweled scarf pin on the silk handkerchief at his neck and brushed some dust off his white vest.

“How about a little music?” Michael asked angelically. He got out his fiddle and put it under his chin. He began to play some lively tunes. Gaine asked, but Meghan became very shy and didn’t want to dance. Secretly she didn’t know the steps and wasn’t at all sure that dancing was something that should be done. No one in her family ever danced.

Gaine and Charles hopped up and danced one schottische after another until they could hardly breathe while the small blonde laughed and clapped to the music. Meghan was finally convinced to join the dancing. Gaine taught her some steps and the two danced several more fast dances while Charles sat out and clapped his hands in time to the music. Then Michael played “Sweet Marie” and they all sat on the blanket, singing along, including Michael, who had a lovely voice. From there they went on to sing other ballads they knew.

Their voices wafted across the lake and through the surrounding woods. They sat together, laughing and singing, and even were able to sing a little harmony as they filled the area with joyous serenades. Then they decided they were hungry and dug up the other roasting pheasant with cooked plums and rice added by Michael, once more filling their plates, enjoying the sun setting over the lake.

By the heat of the fire Charles read the Declaration of Independence and they all stood with their hands on their hearts throughout the reading. Then they sat by the campfire, ate more pie and sipped brandy. They chatted and sang as the sun completely disappeared and the stars took its place. It was most enjoyable.

While Meghan and Michael cleaned up all traces of the food, Gaine and Charles set the fireworks up. Gaine then checked on the horses, moving them to where they’d be least affected, then moved back to the explosives.

Everyone gasped as each rocket went zooming into the sky. The two setting them off were as excited as children with their favorite toys. The rockets blazed with loud noises and brilliant sparkles. Everyone “Ewwed and Awed” and Michael started them lifting their cups and shouting, “Viva!’ Gaine checked on the horses while Michael brought out another bottle of brandy and kept the glasses filled. The last rocket was particularly spectacular as it blazed into the colors of the American flag before dimming into the night sky over the lake. That brought applause and loud yells of appreciation.

Michael and Charles rose to take a moonlight stroll along the sands of the lake. Gaine hopped up to check on the horses again then joined Meghan on the blanket.

“Ya’d look mighty fine in them clothes Michael war detailin’,” Gaine said softly, her beautiful features dancing in the light from the fire. She ran her finger down Meghan’s sleeve.

The blonde leaned against her, “That’s not how I want to live,” she replied. “I WANT to stay and work on a ranch. You can’t do that in one of those dresses.”

A proud smile covered Gaine’s face and she hugged the woman to her.

“Gaine?”

“Hmm?”

“I do want to be a Sargos. You’re right. It would be much safer for both of us with Lendal and my father and maybe even my family out there searching for me. I would legally be married so even if they found me, they wouldn’t be able to drag me in front of the court. But I want you to know that my vows are always and forever for you only. So, uh, I guess I could, uh, “pretend marry” Michael.”

“T’is ya shore, darlin’? Ah doan wancha ta do nothin’ ya doan wanna do.”

“No, I’ve thought about it. We have to make do, like you said. I want to.”

“All right.” When the two men returned, Gaine explained Meghan’s change of heart. The men sat on the blanket by the fire and discussed it quietly.

“There are papers that’ll need to be signed, for that and for the divorce. I’ll keep the originals and file them as things move along. I’ll wait on the divorce filing until you’ve both had ample time to notify your families that you’re married. Once the divorce papers are filed, you can decide to say anything about it or not,” Charles explained, “It’ll be legal but you can decide for yourselves. You can even let me know when you want the divorce filed if you want.”

“T’is that all right with’n ya, darlin?” Gaine inquired.

“Uh, I guess so,” Meghan worried. “The divorce part, uh, well, it’s terrible of course, but it’s not so bothersome.” She licked her lips nervously, “Uh, I guess.”

“T’is the weddin’ part, ain’t it?” Gaine asked.

“Yes. I don’t really want to make any vows to anyone but Gaine.” Meghan wrung her hands, “But I understand I’ll have to…” She brought a painful glance to Gaine’s face.

“No,” Michael stated. “No, I think maybe we can work around that. Listen, remember the practice that we had today? We went through the whole thing, it was a complete enough ceremony. All the parts were there.”

“But I said my vows to Gaine when we did that,” Meghan inserted. “‘I take thee, Gaine Sargos’ was what I said. And it was only a practice with you there.”

“Yeeesss,” Michael grinned, moving his gaze to Gaine. “But it could work, couldn’t it, Gaine?” Michael poked Gaine in the ribs.

Gaine’s face sobered, “Ah reckon, if’n ever’one agrees. T’is up ta Meghan.”

Michael turned to Meghan. “My full name, Meghan, is Gaine Michael Sargos. I’ve never been thrilled with having Gramma’s family name of “Gaine” handed down as a first name and besides near all my cousins were strapped with it somewhere in their name, so I’ve always just gone by “Michael’ and let her have all the glory of ‘Gaine’. While you were actually talking about Gaine there in the practice, you could have been talking about me, too, legally.”

Gaine looked at Meghan’s startled face, “Ah wisht we din’t never hafta go through this here nonsense, darlin.”

“We wouldn’t have to do another ceremony?” Meghan asked.

“Nope. But ya gotta sign papers Charles needs ta have. Ya all right with’n that? Cause ya ain’t gotta do none a’ this, if’n ya doan wanna.”

“Uh, yes, I can do it. I want to be a Sargos legally. I’ll still be married to you, though, right?”

“Like Ah said a’fore, our vows ain’t strictly legal, but t’is as sincere as ana’thin’ Ahv ever vowed ta ana’one ever ‘n mah whole life. Ah ain’t never breakin’ mah pact with’n ya.”

“Me, either,” Meghan said softly.

“Good! Let’s finish this bottle,” Michael grinned. He poured the last of the brandy and they all raised their glasses “to happiness” before checking the fire and heading to bed for the night. They’d do the signing in the morning.

Meghan was quite light headed. The liquor had left her giggly. She and Gaine were finally married. It was a whirlwind romance but it still had felt like they’d had to wait forever till they were free to love each other completely.

Michael and Charles had decided to set up their own camp further around the lake, far enough to provide privacy for both couples. They took their horses and moved off toward their own spot. Gaine heard Charles say, “Well, you’re an old married man, now,” to Michael. She felt little about that. She knew the truth. She was hitched to Meghan, and that was everything to her.

Meghan got into her nightshirt beside the wagon, then Gaine, fully dressed with her rifle in her hands, checked the camp perimeter for safety before returning to peel off her clothes. She knew wolves were out there, and had moved a little closer. But that was not unusual. They’d stay their distance. She double checked the horses’ safety.

“Gaine?” Meghan called softly as the tall woman returned and began to pull off clothing. The tall woman felt the seductive call go straight to her center and she cleared her tightening throat. Her pulse quickened and her cheeks flushed.

“Yes, darlin’?” she replied tremulously as she quickly pulled on her nightshirt. She hurriedly tucked her rifle within easy grasp under the wagon. She thought of the small blonde’s consuming kisses and ran her fingertips lightly over her own lips before dropping to the ground to crawl underneath the wagon where Meghan waited.

“Come to me, my love,” Meghan whispered, her arms open.

-***-

The southbound stage from Sacramento was jammed with passengers all disembarking at this small hillside town of Sunnyhill. The very limited town hotel was filled to the brim. Families were renting out rooms and tents had appeared on the edge of town. Reporters and thrill seekers of all kinds had ridden in as soon as word reached the big towns further north regarding the shooting and the mayhem that had occurred at nearby China Cup Valley.

The Army wagons and the boys recuperating were camped along the river in town and their site was roped off to keep away those coming in to learn more about the event. The town Sheriff kept a steady patrol there to keep gogglers out. Groups of people had walked outside the ropes, trying to gawk inside the tents to get as good a view as they dared of the injured soldiers. And the doctor in town spent the part of his day that he wasn’t tending to his patient, sitting on his verandah talking with the visitors.

The saloons were filled with men drinking, discussing and commemorating the horrible affair that had taken place just outside town. The fact that the perpetrator had been killed was continual cause for raised glasses in celebration and the saloon owner had cheerfully sent his son for more supplies.

It had taken the Provost Marshal a full day to get on the site of the attack but his men were now camped beside the scene of the crime. In the morning they’d finish their work there and start their interviews to get further information from any they’d missed in town.

Word had certainly spread rapidly. Arriving that night in his own wagon, complete with his own small traveling room for developing, was a young photographer. His wagon was parked beside the town river, his horse hobbled nearby. Tomorrow he’d start making likenesses of the men involved, including the murdered man. First he’d head to the saloon to find out the latest word.

-***-

“Here, my love,” Meghan said softly to Gaine, handing her a cup of hot, strong coffee just the way Gaine liked it. The sun was rising over the mountainous hills. Her hand tenderly stroked the tall brunette’s as the cup was handed off. Gaine stood by the fire wearing her maroon shirt today, looking back adoringly. Their eyes met in full love and devotion. Their wedding night, though restrained somewhat by the knowledge that the men were not all that far away, had been wonderful. They had given freely of themselves, pledged their love and shared their needs and their bodies, eagerly finding the way to shared releases.

Fully dressed they both stood by the campfire while the penetrating smell of coffee filled the air. They had slept little. Gaine had already seen to the horses and they had washed thoroughly in the warm water of the lake. Biscuits were placed in the dutch oven to cook and the sound of the approaching horses drew their attention toward the men’s camp as the two men rode in and dismounted.

Meghan turned her back on the fellows as she cooked and blushed a deep crimson. No one had said anything to her, but she knew from the men’s searching, smirking gazes that they had to be thinking about the women’s wedding night. She wondered if all brides went through that, and decided they must. Gaine, however, boldly returned their stares, immune to any of their regards.

The tall brunette was having trouble keeping her hands off the small woman, touching her each time she passed, and happily took some good natured teasing from the men. Her eyes seldom left the blonde, whose coloring finally faded enough to look as though she had merely been affected by the heat of the fire. Food was served and they all ate heartily. Meghan packed some food for the men to take with them.

Charles went over all the papers that needed to be signed as the sun rose higher in its glory from the east. Michael and Meghan both signed and copies were given to Gaine. Gaine folded them and placed them inside their carpet bag then gave Charles back his shirt, saying she didn’t have time to launder it.

“It’s all right, I send them out to be done anyway,” he smiled.

It was time for the men to leave, for they had a long ride home. Meghan, who felt more comfortable in their presence, hugged them both goodbye. The two women stood watching until the men rode out of sight.

“Gaine?” Meghan sighed, “you know where the vows said “to love and to cherish till death us do part”?”

“Yes,” Gaine said, moving behind the small blonde.

“How can men like my father and Lendal have their vows be legal? They don’t EVER love or cherish their wives. Not ever! What they vow is totally false from the beginning and they know it, but everybody still considers those false vows legal and binding on the women forever even when they know the men lied. They focus on the ‘obey’ part and aren’t concerned at all about lying about the ‘love’ or ‘cherish’ part.”

“Ah dunno. Legal ain’t al’ays the same as just, Ah reckon,” Gaine replied. “Ah does know mah vows ta ya bees absolute. Ah meant ever single word.”

“And mine to you,” she smiled watching the men ride over the hill out of sight.

“Well, Mrs. Sargos,” Gaine wrapped herself around the small woman from behind, lapping her arms around the blonde’s small waistline and leaning her chin on Meghan’s shoulder. “Would ja like ta head back er stay ‘nuther night?”

“Mrs. Sargos,” Meghan beamed, looking at her ring as she leaned back into the tall woman’s embrace. Her face was a huge smile. “I like the sounds of that. And to think…it’s legal, at least when he files it, it will be. I’m legally married to Gaine Sargos–my Gaine Sargos.”

She tilted her head a little at that pleasurable thought even though she knew it wasn’t so in legal terms, still it would always be true in her heart. Further she was pleased with the thought that her father could do nothing legal about dragging her back should he locate her. She sobered quickly, though, realizing that legal means would not necessarily stop him or Lendal from trying to get what they wanted.

“Uh, I’d like to stay one more night,” she nuzzled her cheek against Gaine’s. “Can we? I want my last memory here to be of us loving each other under the stars, not signing divorce papers. Then we should head home and get some work done. After all, my love and I have a ranch to build up.”

“We shorely does, darlin.” Then Gaine whispered, “Ahl work sa hard ta make ya happy.”

“You don’t have to work hard at all,” Meghan replied. “You make me happy just like you are.”

“Mmmm. Ya wanna go swimmin’? Ahl larn ya,” Gaine asked hopefully.

“Later, when it gets really hot. Right now, I’d like to find some flat rocks.”

“Flat rocks?” Gaine released her hold then turned Meghan around and brought her lips down to join the blonde’s. She could not wait another minute for a kiss. Again there was a longing when they pulled away.
They had a lifetime to ease that longing. “Why flat rocks?”

“For my flowers,” Meghan whispered as she ran a finger along Gaine’s cheek, then pulled away, “C’mon, help me find some.”

The two spent considerable time searching for large flat rocks. When Meghan found two she carefully chose a couple of the best looking flowers from her bouquet and placed them insides the fold of the extra paper she had asked Charles to leave them. She pressed the paper with the flowers between the stones and had Gaine tie them tightly with her hair tie. “My wedding bouquet,” she said to the tall brunette. “I want to always remember it.”

They laid down together on the blanket, fully dressed, and soon fell asleep after gently caressing and kissing. When they awoke, they spent the day enjoying the water, eating as they wished, then made love in their bed under the wagon before falling asleep in each other’s arms to the sounds of wolves howling.

-***-

A large crowd of the hillside town inhabitants and their visitors watched in wonder as the young photographer’s head, shoulders then full torso disappeared under the dark cloth covering his bulky camera inside which his silver plated copper sheet would ultimately become a daguerreotype likeness of the deceased criminal.

Length of exposure would not be a problem for the dead man whose body resided in the pine box. Consideration had been given to the difficulty of the angle for the photograph and the pine coffin was carefully propped up inside the harness shop, after which his body was arranged to give his best likeness, notwithstanding the bullet hole in his forehead.

The dead man’s eyes had been closed and it was whispered by some in the crowd that underneath the lids the retina of the deceased’s eyes had been like a camera itself showing the last impression of the two who had killed him. It was said it could be seen easily in his dead eyes. Some shivered at the thought and some ladies remarked that they were glad his eyes had been closed although others wished the opposite, wanting to see the reflection of the valiant two who had shot the despicable creature. His body had been on display in the harness store window for several days so everyone in town had gotten a chance to see him.

Carefully the young photographer emerged from under the cloth and disappeared into his wagon’s tall box room. After the final wash, the photographer emerged once more, entered the store, waited while they moved the coffin back to the window, stood beside the coffin and held the results up to the window and the crowd outside. The likeness, while reversed, was remarkable. Everyone cheered.

Mr. Thatcher had been accorded the best of rooms available in the hotel “gratis” and had spent all the days since the incident there. He was the next to sit before the bulky camera in front of a hung blanket outside the harness shop. He, however, had to be reminded to sit very still. It seemed like a very long time to him before the young photographer disappeared into the wagon’s room. When he reappeared, the young man was all smiles. Mr. Thatcher’s reversed likeness looked sternly back from the daguerreotype. More cheers and congratulations for Mr. Thatcher’s valor were given all around.

The undertaker had dug out the shoulder bullet. Withdrawing the other would have done too much damage for the photo. It was determined by examining the reclaimed bullet that the shoulder wound was Gaine’s shot and the man who killed this outlaw was indeed Mr. Thatcher.

“I was aiming at his shoulder,” he muttered to himself, but didn’t say it loud enough for others to hear. Instead he grinned and waved to the cheering crowd, calling out that he and the Sheriff from Barden’s Corner had both shot the man. A scowling face in the crowd listened carefully. His fox eyes took in the scene and he listened to every word anyone around him spoke. This was a new comer who had just tied his horse to the rail down the street and moved to where the group was assembled. He’d heard his cousin had been shot, and had ridden all night, as fast as he could once he’d been released by the General as a result of his retired Army friend’s pleading. A quickly purchased horse and he was on his way.

You’ll be damned sorry you shot him, fella, Lendal grimaced. These Army boys were the men his cousin was interrogating. They knew where Megan might be. And what did he say? Something about the Barden’s Corner Sheriff shooting him, too. I think I know where Barden’s Corner is.

Deciding to stay and learn everything he could about what had happened, he searched the area to find a spot to camp. There was little room, but he figured it would be better that way. Easy to get lost in the crowd.

The Army boys had bet that it was Gaine that had fired the fatal shot, having seen her fancy shooting on the way to Sacramento. But the man’s shot was proved and he was hailed as a hero and happily accepted the acclaim.

The Provost Marshal garnered great respect as the crowd watched him step over the ropes and move into the Army tents to reinterview the injured soldiers. The watchers muttered in soft tones how the one man most violently tortured was still at the doctor’s home under constant surveillance. It was not expected that he would survive.

-***-

The Sacramento Marshal rubbed his head. He wanted to shout out a cheer. He had finally been able to continue tracking the movements of Lendal Hindelfarb, his number one murder suspect. The sick Deputy on his staff recovered and returned, freeing the Marshal to continue his pursuit. He’d heard of the Army boys situation. Everyone had. And he knew Gaine had stopped the stage and shot the man responsible called ‘the Deputy.’ He’d sent word to Sunnyhill that he might have some information on who the ‘Deputy’ was.

He put his hat back on and pushed it back on his head as he boarded the paddlewheeler to San Francisco. By the afternoon he’d been to a number of hotels but finally found that Lendal had registered in a small hotel near the dock. It wasn’t under his own name, but his somewhat unusual style of whiskers had given him away. The hotel clerk told him how the man had shaved his whiskers and had not returned for several days to get his possessions. When he did come back, he was wearing an ill fitting Army uniform. He’d changed back into his regular clothes and had left the Army clothes in his room.

The Marshal viewed the clothing, scratched his head and headed to the livery. He’d ride to the Presidio and see what they knew about Lendal Hindelfarb.

-***-

Meghan watched the landscape carefully on their way home. It was quite different from the high desert she was used to in Jubilee City. They climbed a little into the foothills on the western side of the mountains. Though it was hot, they climbed till pines were sprinkled here and there, shading them with a fragrance that was overpowering. She didn’t think she’d ever smelled anything as sweet in her life.

They were headed for a life the two of them would share together, a life she’d never even dared dream she might live. Oh, she’d hoped the husband selected for her would not be too horrible, but she never believed she would really be able to live with someone she loved. She’d never felt even the inklings of love for any man, and Lendal was more of a person to fear than ever want to marry.

Even her sisters had explained that the best that could be hoped for was to develop a fondness over time for the one they married, and they all had had romantic feelings toward young men that she had never felt. You would love the children you bore for your husband, they explained, and hopefully he would allow you to help raise them if you were a good and obedient wife. They were his children, of course. It was simply the way things were.

She knew that only one of her sisters was particularly happy in her marriage. The others were resigned to their lives. They were doing what society expected of them, however, and what they had grown to believe was necessary, and that gave them some solace and comfort. They were married women bearing children, accepted by society and willing to have that be enough.

She wondered about the family in the stagecoach from Sacramento, the family where the mother held such say in what they did. That was amazing to her. What would it have been like to have been raised like that woman? And what about Gaine’s cousin Minnie and her choice of husband, even if it was arranged behind the scenes by her mother. At least Minnie’d made the choice. And she’d remained unmarried for quite a while till she’d made that choice.

She glanced at the tall brunette driving the team so skillfully. How she loved her. How happy she made Meghan and how lucky the blonde had been to meet her. She shivered at the thought of what might have happened if Gaine had not been on that stage. She’d already lived her life in fear that only had the promise of becoming far worse once she married Lendal. Gaine was her knight, but that wasn’t the reason she loved her. It was so much more than that.

She thought of her unpleasant childhood and how harsh her father had been to her, even more than with the other girls. They had made extreme efforts to please him whereas she had felt more inclined to try and stay out of his and her brothers’ way. It rarely worked, however, and she was often punished.

“Not ta far from home,” Gaine smiled at Meghan. “We’ll be thar tamorra.”

“Oh, uh, good,” Meghan replied, brought from her train of thought. Home, she pondered, what will that mean for me?

That night they camped beside a small stream and made a fire to cook their dinner. Gaine didn’t expect to run into anyone where they were, even though they were by a well-enough used road. Mail and supplies for their town’s mercantile were picked up once a week but Isaac didn’t usually make the run on this day. The only other people that might be traveling the road would be someone planning to meet the stage or ranchers looking for strays.

Meghan was quiet but couldn’t seem to lose the smile that graced her charming face. She all but danced around the fire as she cooked their evening supper. Gaine noticed how full of vitality Meghan was, looking young and free, delighted and trusting with the complete vulnerability of youth. For all her father had done, for all his brutality in handling her, she was still a loving, trusting woman. She smiled at Gaine, and the tall beauty melted into return smiles.

That night they crawled under the wagon, Gaine’s rifle and six-shooter beside her. Gaine’s arms wrapped around the blonde as they had every night since they’d met. The stars twinkled and the night air became uncharacteristically cooler. They didn’t speak, they just stayed in the warmth of their embrace.

Gaine looked down and saw silent tears streaming down the blonde’s face. “Whatsa matter, kitten?” she softly asked in alarm. “Did Ah do somethin’?” Blonde hair bounced as she shook her head in the negative. The tears turned into a torrent of uncontrolled weeping. Meghan buried her face and her small body shuddered in the tall woman’s arms. Gaine tightened her hold as the sobs built. “T’is all right. Yer safe now,” the tall woman muttered, rubbing Meghan’s back.

Safe? Was she safe? Would she ever be safe? Meghan cried until she couldn’t cry any more. She wasn’t entirely sure why.

“He ain’t never comin’ near ya agin, darlin’,” Gaine said tenderly stroking the weeping blonde’s hair.

“Let it out, Meggy, t’is all right.” Finally the fatigued young woman’s sobbing stopped. She lay exhausted in the tall woman’s arms. Her eyes were shut tight and her thoughts were muddled. She wasn’t sure where all the emotions had come from. Before she knew it, she was sound asleep in the comfort of Gaine’s strong arms.

Gaine gazed at the twinkling stars. The whole trip had been a wild affair of bounding emotions that the tall woman also had not allowed herself to feel. Now she was lying with a small blonde sleeping in her arms and her own eyes on the stars. She was bone tired, but there was an elation and sense of ease that totally filled her. Meghan. Sweet Meghan. Together forever. They might be expecting Cousin Minnie at home, and even though she wasn’t going to make it, her darling Meghan would be coming back for them to meet and adore as she did.

Struggling to control her own sudden sweep of feelings, Gaine gently stroked the sleeping woman’s back. The tall woman’s own life had been thrown into turmoil at a tender age. And now in her mid-twenties she felt as though she knew more about life than anyone her age would ever want to know.

She had always been ruggedly independent, even as a child. Her older siblings had felt no guilt at moving away to find their own way. They were leaving Gaine to watch over their parents. Gaine could do it. Gaine could handle things. She always had, no matter how young.

She was the one left to nurse her beloved Ma during the fever epidemic, to watch helplessly as the mother she’d relied on all her life suddenly became weaker and weaker then slipped away. At sixteen she was the one left to console her father when the disease claimed her mother’s life. None of her siblings came home for that and it wasn’t because they didn’t care. They all loved their mother dearly. It was because they were too far away and didn’t even know of their mother’s passing till weeks and in some cases even months after it had happened. All of which was better, Gaine thought, because they weren’t sure the epidemic had passed.

When her father couldn’t be consoled, she took it as a personal failure but did not say a word. She just kept trying. She had taken over his duties one by one when he failed to perform them. What a hollow her mother’s loss had left in their lives. He would spend hours by her grave while jobs sat undone unless she did them, both his and hers. She fell into bed each night exhausted by her day’s work, aching for her loss and her father’s as well. She had lost her mother and, in a profound sense, she’d lost her beloved father as well.

A few of her siblings came home after her father died the following year. He had left a will and Gaine’s oldest brother, Ari, was the executor. She watched her siblings load their possessions into their wagons or herd the stock that was their share, say their goodbyes at their parents’ gravesite, hug her, kiss her, then leave the family ranch most likely never to see her again.

Ari left Gaine to ship the remaining items, most having sentimental value, to the others who could not make it, things like the sewing machine, Grandma’s china, quilts that were handed down. They were carefully packed and driven to the stage for their trip to the train that would take them to her other siblings. That took a great deal of time, effort and expense–fees there really weren’t the resources to pay for. So she sold most of the remaining stock, wagons and supplies to get it handled.

She had been left the land and the buildings. It was the lion’s share in her estimation. Her brothers and sisters didn’t begrudge her that, for which she was ever thankful. No one loved that land like she did. But without proper stock and supplies it was a monumental job to eek out a living. So at the ripe old age of seventeen she and the wranglers that stayed began the arduous task of rebuilding her family’s ranch, the Sargos Spread.

Now years later, after accepting the job of Sheriff in town to help with the expenses and working it around her jobs at home, the ranch was slowly returning to its past glory, not that it had ever been more than a meager financial success. But things weren’t as dismal, she had some stock and had been able to keep on some of her father’s loyal vaqueros. That’s when Cousin Minnie had written that she was coming out to spend some time.

And now there was Meghan. Her dear, sweet Meghan.

-***-

The lid on the pine coffin was finally nailed down and the man known as “the Deputy” was buried in a pauper’s grave at the cemetery in the small hillside town. A board cross with the painted words saying “Deputy-a deplorable criminal shot down” and the date was hammered into the ground. They had leads regarding who he might be. People were still pouring in from out of town to see the site of the horrid event and now the dead man’s grave.

Articles began to appear in newspapers around the state. If they had the finances, the articles included likenesses of the daguerreotypes the young photographer had taken. An article was written for the valley paper and the photo of the dead man and the other of the man who had shot him were placed side-by-side in the paper. It was the talk of the valley.

-***-

The Sacramento Marshal discovered at the Presidio that Lendal had been released. He found the man who had sold Lendal the horse and had pointed the direction his suspect had headed. He knew instantly where Lendal must be going. He must be headed to where his cousin had been shot.

The Marshal procured a horse of his own and headed in the same direction. He wasn’t all that far behind him after all, he decided. He just hoped he could catch him there. Once Lendal left, there was no knowing where he’d go.

-***-

The Provost Marshal prepared to move on to check out this “Mr. Fitzgeraldson” in Sacramento and the Marshal who had information on the Deputy’s identification. Though the purpose of the attack, at least in all outward appearances, seemed to revolve around Fitzgeraldson’s daughter, the Provost Marshal had grave doubts that such was the true cause of this violence. No, this was much more than a romantic embroilment.

In Sunnyhill they loaded up their supplies. The Provost Marshal and part of his unit headed to Sacramento while the others set out for Fort Derwood with the recovering soldiers.

That very evening Mr. Thatcher disappeared from Sunnyhill, leaving his few belongings behind. The people at the hotel were puzzled by the disappearance. If he had left on his own, why not take his belongings? The local Sheriff asked around and even organized a group to search the surroundings, but his whereabouts were not located.

Chapter 8

The next morning in camp Meghan quietly fixed breakfast, bringing Gaine a cup of hot coffee before she was even finished dressing. It surprised Gaine that Meghan was up so early. The coffee, again, was fixed just the way she liked it.

“Did I get it right?” the blonde asked with a soft flush.

“Perfect, Mrs. Sargos,” Gaine replied, her soft blue eyes running over the small woman. She was so beautiful in every way. Her green eyes were slightly swollen this morning, proof of her emotional collapse the night before and a soft, shy blush was on her cheeks.

“Ah love ya,” Gaine said almost in a whisper.
“And I you,” she replied. They finished their meal, broke camp and headed to the ranch. They’d get there later in the day.

“Does ya wanna talk ’bout last night?” Gaine asked as the horses clopped along.

“No,” Meghan replied. Her words this day were very soft.

“All right.”

They pulled up to the ranch in the late afternoon past suppertime. Meghan’s eyes moved from place to place. The ranch house was a long adobe building set in a small grove of oaks with a long porch across the front. It had a fresh white coating on it and the corrals and fences were in prime condition. The barn was of an old style but in excellent condition. Horses roamed in the pasture and chickens moved freely about the yard. A henhouse sat far off to the side near the large stable/barn near where pens of pigs were kept.

Standing on the porch in front of three handmade chairs with cowhide seats was a barefooted woman and a number of small barefoot children bouncing around her. The woman was sporting a black eye and a swollen lip and when she smiled a gap showed where two teeth had once been. Three large, wiggling mutts were among them and two older men in worn ranch wear.

“Ahl be damned,” Gaine muttered and large green eyes came up to her face. “Looks like Shorty done it ag’in. Damn him, nohow.”

The children ran off the porch at once and swarmed the wagon when it was stopped. “Stay away from them hosses,” Gaine called to them. “Them hosses kick!”

“Yer Cousin Minnie, ain’t cha?” the children called to Meghan as they danced around the wagon. The dogs joined them in their jubilation, all ignoring the horses. “Mama said the Sheriff was a’fetchin’ ya. Howdy, Sheriff.”

“Howdy. This here’s Cousin Meghan,” Gaine said. “Mrs. Meghan Sargos.”

The two ranchhands came off the porch, the dark haired fellow limping. “Want me and Garcia ta unhitch the horses, boss?” the man with gray hair asked. Meghan remembered that Gaine had said he came out to California with her family. He was about twenty years older than Gaine. Before the tall brunette could answer, both men were tipping their hats, “How do, Cousin Minnie? How do? Good ta see ya ag’in. Ya done growed up real good.”

“Yes, thanks fellas,” Gaine replied. “See if ya kin git them hosses away a’fore them childern git kicked.” She went around to help lift Meghan out of the wagon. “Joy, Beauty, Charm… get away, now,” she called to the dogs.

She placed Meghan on the ground. Instantly the blonde protectively raised her arms and hands up out of range of the dogs and in protection of her face. The three large dogs were wiggling about and began jamming their noses at the two of them in all the most inappropriate places. Gaine finally scooped an overwhelmed Meghan up into her arms and marched up onto the porch and into the house. “Ahm sorry, Meg. Ah swear, them dogs er gonna plow us all down and beat us ta death with’n thar tails one a these days.”
She put the small blonde down on the rough stone floor, then removed her hat and placed it on one of the nails by the side of the door before moving them further into the room. The main room had a large adobe fireplace.

“Sheriff! Cousin Minnie!” Shorty’s wife called, following them in. “Glad ta have ya back.” As she came into the house, her brood and the dogs followed them in.

“Howdy, Nell. Wait a minute. Wait! You dogs git on outta here now, hear? Kids, you take them dogs out while we git us settled, all right?”

“Are the children safe around those dogs?” Meghan asked nervously, her green eyes turned into saucers. She stayed a little behind Gaine.

“Shore thing, Sheriff,” the children called as they grabbed handfuls of the dog’s coats and pulled on them to get them out of the house. “We gotta git the dogs out. The Sheriff said so.” Two of the dogs ran out with the children but one remained.

“They’s gentle as kittens ’round younguns,” Gaine replied. Then she spotted the last dog. “Go on Beauty, ya go on out with t’uthers. Yer a dog, too, ya know. Git!”

The dog’s tail dropped between its legs and it slunk toward the door. All three women couldn’t help laughing.

“The Three Graces? You named them after the Three Graces?” Meghan asked.

“Yep. Theys Joy, Charm n’ Beauty.”

“All right,” Meghan mused. They both watched the mother of the children step toward them.

“Meg, Ahd like ya ta meet yer housekeeper, Mrs. Nell Mullins. Nell, this here’s Mrs. Meghan Sargos.”

“Meghan?” Nell said, surprised. “I always thought Melinda was the long form of Minnie. But howsomeever, it’s mighty fine ta meet ya, Cousin Minnie.”

“This here’s Cousin Meghan, oh, what the heck. Looks like Shorty done it to ya agin, huh?”

“Ya said I could come out here and bring the young ‘uns, Sheriff. If it’s a problem…”

“It ain’t no problem, Nell. Ahm pleased ta have ya. Please call me Gaine. An Ah knows Meghan’s gonna like having a housekeeper ta help. Thar’s plenty ta be done here.” Gaine looked around. “Somethin’ smells right good.”

“I baked a berry cobbler cause Cousin Minnie was a’comin,” Nell said proudly.

“How’d ya know we’d be here taday?” Gaine wondered aloud.

“I didn’t. I baked some cobbler every day. We et the others already.”

Meghan chuckled at that.

Gaine looked around. “Which rooms ya usin, if’n Ah might ask?”

“Uh, we’re using the first two. One fer the boys, the other fer the girls, me and the babies. I figured you an yer cousin would want the end one. It had all your fixins in it.”

“Sorry thar t’weren’t no beds in t’uthers, Nell,” Gaine worried.

“I fixed us some pallets on the floor. We’re just fine.”

“Good. Uh, if yull ‘scuse us fer a minute, Ahl jest betcha Meg here would like ta freshen up a bit. T’war a dusty trip. We’ll be right out fer summa that thar cobbler.”

Gaine took Meghan by the hand and pulled her down the hall to the room on the end. As they moved, the sounds of a baby beginning to cry filled the air from the kitchen. Once they were inside the end room, Gaine shut the door and leaned back against it with a sigh.

“Ahm right sorry t’war sa swarmin’ with people an’ dogs, Meg. Usually ain’t like this.”

Meg smiled and looked around the room. The plastered adobe walls were clean and bright white curtains blew from the breeze of the opened window. Dark wood rafters lined the ceiling. A large hand-made double bed made of stripped pine poles stood with its head against the end wall. From a dark rafter above the bed a large curtain of mosquito netting hung tucked into each side of the head and the window breeze blew across it making the ends flutter.

“Uh, mosquiters git me purty bad,” Gaine blushed. “Doan bother most folks but theys seems ta come a’lookin’ fer me. So’s Ah close in the bed bah night.”

Meghan nodded.

It was the one thing Gaine did for pure comfort at home, though she spent many nights each year on the ground by a campfire open to their attacks. She was embarrassed lest Meghan consider her “weak” from such an allowance.

On one side near the head of the bed was a small handmade wooden table and an oil lamp. On the table sat a book embossed on the cover with gold writing and a picture in a circle of a man by the fire talking to children while his wife sat knitting. “Farm Legends” was the title. Other books sat stacked behind it on the small table. There was an old strapped chest at the foot of the bed but other than that, the fairly large room was bereft of furnishings.

“You read,” Meghan said, almost with surprise.

“Yes, ma’am. Mah Momma learned us all how ta read. Ah take tremendous contentment in’t.”

“You own books?” she looked at the stack. There was a thick receipt book that spoke of common sense in running a household, with recipes for near everything. She would want to delve into that book. There was even a book of Shakespeare. She knew how to read but only her father owned a book, and that was a Bible.

“Yep. Ah do. Part a’ mah recompense fer being Sheriff. From time ta time Ah gits cattle, pigs, a hoss er two, an’ credit ta the mercantile an’ sometimes them books the ole Professor pays n’ taxes.”

Meghan nodded. Her eyes went to the bed. The blanket was a store-bought dark wool blanket, well-used with several moth holes near the top corner, and the sheets were worn, clean but not ironed. The mattress was obviously straw covered with a tick covering and it sat on rope stretched tight in a woven pattern. The peg used to tighten it was jammed into the last hole.

Gaine wrung her hands nervously. “Uh, Ah ain’t spent a good deal a time fixin’ up the insides,” she said with embarrassment. “It useta have handmade quilts an’ rugs an’ such, but mah sisters got most a’ the beddin’ an’ rugs ‘n the will.”

Meghan nodded her head and looked around the room, larger than their hotel room had been in Sacramento. “I was wondering,” she said at last, “where I was supposed to wash up.”

“Oh, stars! A’ course ya was. Here, let me fetch ya a pitcher and basin. They’s one next door.” Gaine stepped outside as the dark-haired ranchhand limped in with their carpetbag and set it by the chest at the end of the bed.

“You want this in here, si?” he asked haltingly with wide, dark eyes. Meg stepped aside and smiled. His ears flushed and he turned to scurry out the door.

Gaine nearly crashed into him on her way in. She had an empty pitcher floating in a basin of dirty water. She shook the drops off the pitcher’s bottom and sat it on the chest and pulled the curtain back. She tossed the dirty water out the open window then pulled out the end of her shirt and wiped the basin out. She placed the pitcher back in the basin and set them on the chest. Then she disappeared again and returned with a bucket of water. She dipped the pitcher, filling it, left it in the basin then carried the bucket out. She returned with a worn shirt for a towel.

“Thar ya be,” she said proudly, tucking her own shirt back into her pants.

Meghan glanced at the basin, her eyes still looking around the room. Gaine licked her lips nervously. She softly shut the door and walked to the small blonde. She slipped her arms around the woman’s small waist from behind. “Ah ain’t rich, Meghan,” she said softly in her ear. “Ah ain’t poor, neither. But all Ah got t’is your’n. Ah hope ya ain’t ta disappointed.”

“What?” Meghan turned in her arms. She gently gathered a fistful of Gaine’s jacket lapels in each hand and looked up into anxious blue eyes. “Actually, honey, I was just thinking how the bedroom that I shared with my sisters would have fit four times over in here.”

Gaine glanced around. She’d never thought of this room as large or small. “That’s good, cause honey? Nell an’ the kids used up all the soap Ah had ta the pantry. We’ll hafta go a’shoppin’. We gotta go ta town tamorra, nohow.”

“What?” Meghan’s green eyes widened. “Oh, Gaine, gracious, you don’t waste money buying soap, do you? It’s such a waste, honey. Don’t you have any wood ashes that you’ve saved in a hopper somewhere? And surely you save your cooking grease?”

Gaine dropped her head. “Ah ain’t much fer cookin’,” she muttered. “Ah ain’t saved no grease. Mostly the boys an’ me jest heated some beans o’er the fahr out ‘n the yard off’n the kitchen thar. Beans n’ coffee, mostly. An’ some cans a cling peaches ‘n greengages from time ta time.”

Meghan sighed. “I can help you with all that.”

A tiny smile tweaked the end of Gaine’s mouth. “Yes, ma’am. Yer the boss.”

Suddenly the door flew open and three shouting children and two dogs came pouring into the room followed by two more children and a trailing toddler. The two women pulled apart instantly. “Sheriff!” the children shouted even though she was right in front of them, “Momma says the cobbler’s ready and we can’t have none till ya get there.”

“Hold it,” Gaine said firmly above the din. “HOLD IT!” she increased the volume when they appeared to not have heard her.
“You younguns ca’n’t jest pop inta a room like that. Tain’t mannerly. Ya gotta knock first.”

They all stopped and looked at her to determine if she was angry or not.

“Ya understand?”

“Yes, Sheriff,” they called happily, dancing out. She wasn’t angry. The dogs wagged their tails and trailed after them along with the toddler. “An’ put them dogs outside. They ain’t ‘sposed ta be in here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they called.

Gaine stepped to the door and shut it again. She took a step back toward the blonde. A short knock was heard and the door flew open once more, nearly whacking Gaine in the back. “Ain’t ya comin’?”

“You’se ‘sposed ta knock.”

“I did,” the girl smiled. “Ain’t ya comin’?”

“What’s yer name?” Gaine asked.

“Willy,” the girl replied. Her hands quickly clasped behind her back and one foot began twisting on the floor. The eight year old looked for all the world like she had done something wrong and been caught. Which apparently she had.

“Willy, when Ah said ta knock, yer ‘sposed ta knock an’ wait fer whoever’s inside ta say fer ya ta come in er not. Ya ain’t ‘sposed ta jest open the door.”

“Oh. Ya said ta knock and I did.”

Gaine reached out a hand. The child cringed away slightly. Gaine softly ruffled her hair and the child relaxed. “Next tahm wait fer someone ta say ta come in, all right?”

“Sure.” The girl flashed a huge smile. “Ya comin’? The cobbler’s ready.”

Gaine laughed a rumbling laugh. “Tell yer Momma we’ll be right thar.” The girl danced away and Gaine called after her, “An’ git them dogs outta the house.” She had seen how frightened Meghan seemed to be of the dogs.

“Yes, ma’am,” came echoing back.

“They’re outdoor dogs?” Meghan asked, moving to the basin to splash some water on her hands and face. Her father had dogs for a while, but they were vicious, trained to kill. They were kept penned outside and no one went near the pen if they didn’t have to.

“Uh, well, ta tell ya the truth, uh, really they ain’t outside dogs. Ah try ‘n keep em out in good weather. But if’n’t gets bad, theys stay in.” She licked her lips. “Ah think yull come ta like ’em, Meg. They’s real pertective. But fer now, Ah din’t wan’ em pesterin ya none.”

“C’mon. Wash up and let’s get some cobbler before the children have apoplexy from waiting,” Meghan grinned. She had a little piece of soap left, wrapped in an old piece of her brother’s shirt that her mother had packed for her. She dug it out of their bag.
Gaine gazed at the blonde’s radiant face. She was so lovely. She could just stand and admire her for hours, only she thought the door might fly open again at any minute.

“Hurry, Sheriff,” a child’s muffled voice called from just outside the door. But the door wasn’t opened.

Meghan laughed and Gaine began splashing water on her hands and face. “Ahm a hurryin. Land sakes.”

The large table was filled with eager children and two ranchhands. Nell was dipping out the blackberry cobbler in the built-on, sloping roofed attached kitchen, a fussing infant cuddled inside a small wooden box on the dining table near the mother’s place.

“Here, let me help,” Meghan hurried to pick up the baby.

Nell muttered, “Only a minute or two or he’ll be spoiled.” The blonde lifted the crying infant and began to jostle the tiny child softly. Nell looked over from the large wood stove, “He’s hungry. I’ll feed him after I serve this cobbler.”

“Go ahead and eat yours first,” Meghan replied. She smiled and cuddled the small boy. He was fussy and Meghan worried that he looked unusually pale.

Gaine thought Meghan looked perfect with a child in her arms, but then the tall woman became momentarily sad when she considered that Meghan would never be a mother. Gaine could not provide that for her. But then, she decided, neither would Meghan be lost to childbirth as too often happened and that thought dissolved her sorrow.

To surrounding bowed heads Gaine said, “God bless usn’s ‘n ar victuals. Amen.”

Everyone mumbled, “Amen” and raised their heads. Nell cut large amounts of the wild blackberry cobbler and dished them out to each of the adults, holding one aside for herself. She put out a pitcher of heavy cream for those who wanted some. The children’s pieces were smaller, but not by a lot. Hot, thick coffee in tin cups was served to the adults, with milk for the children, also served in tin cups they had brought from their home. The ranchhands praised each offering with superlatives Gaine had never heard them use before.

“So what’s been a’happenin’ a’whilst we war gone?” Gaine asked, stuffing a fork full of cobbler into her mouth. “Lawsy. This here’s de-licious.” Nell smiled in return from where she was hurriedly eating her helping of cobbler.

“Dun mare got the botts,” the older ranchhand called ‘Alabam’ said to Gaine between bites. He had hair that was turning white and a speckled beard to match. His cheeks were rosy red and, were he heavier, he might have been mistaken for Saint Nicholas.
“We war of an opinion we war gonna lose her. But we done fixed that Injun medicine ya told us ’bout a’fore and danged if she ain’t better today. Ya might wanna check her over tamorra. She’s out ta the barn.”

Gaine frowned, “I’ll head out thar in a bit an’ look her over. Ya made note a whar she war a feedin’?”

“Yep. An we got that wild mustang tempered down some, but he still ain’t been rid.”

“Ahl give that thar stallion a try ‘n the mornin’,” Gaine declared. They were going to town, but she’d have time to stay on the mustang for a short ride beforehand. Might as well start getting him used to it.

“Oh, an Tom Ziprew,” the wiry ranchhand turned to where Meghan was walking the fussing babe to explain, “he ain’t got a heap a’ amicable qualities, ole Tom ain’t.” He turned back to the table. “Anyways, he got hisself a new buggy. Bragged it up somethin’ awful.”

He took a bite and chewed. “Well, sir, he hitched up that spirited black stallion a his… that un with’n the white blaze….” Both ranchhands looked at their plates and began chuckling. “An’ danged if’n that cussed hoss din’t up and run off with ‘im. Swift as the swallows they flew, him a yanking on them reins and a’hollerin “Whoa! Whoa!” and screamin’ “Help!”. T’were a sight!”

The ranchhands twinkling eyes looked up at his audience and a large grin was spread across his face. “They run right past the dry goods store with all them customers a gawkin’ at ‘im. Then the stallion takes a mind ta get onta that wide curved road Fremont fixed past his front door. His “carriage road” he’s taken ta callin’ it. So’s onta his property they dashed an’ right past his doorway. Near took a tip over, riding on one side, t’uther wheels spinnin’ helpless off’n the ground. Then they shoots outta there and around he come past the store fer a second look-see.” He stopped to guffaw and everyone joined him.

“Shore did liven up the townfolk. They was lined up a’watchin’. Took off acrosst the bridge on tha fly ‘n inta the countryside. Tom waren’t hurt none and the buggy waren’t neither once’t that fancy stallion run hisself out, but ole Tom shore hollered enuff to bin heered clean across this nation!”

Meghan handed off the baby to Nell who went into the other room with him. The blonde sat down next to Gaine. “The children,” she whispered to Gaine as they all laughed heartily while they ate.

“Huh?” Gaine asked, looking at the children who were laughing with everyone else.

“Accidents aren’t funny,” she whispered. “He could have been killed!”

“Oh, a’ course.” Gaine straightened her face. “Now childerns,” she looked seriously at the young ones still laughing. “Accidents ain’t nothin’ humorous. And tain’t good ta laugh ta someun’s misfortune. But since’t Tom t’weren’t hurt none, we was only laughin’ cause we was so reliefed.”

They continued laughing but the older ones mumbled, “Yes, Sheriff.”

“We rode up ta check on our fellas in the upper range and ever’thin’ was going all right,” Alabam inserted. “They’d been fussin’ with some sheep ranchers. Seems theys ever’where these days. Danged sheep had et near ever’thin’ in one area. Even the bushes’d been stripped. Boys moved our herd higher. Better rangeland.”

“Mmm,” Gaine frowned then glanced up at Meghan’s puzzled look. “Most a’ the cattle er raised ‘n the coast ranges these days. They’s not that many a’ us cattle ranchers out this a’way, but theys more n’ more a’ them sheep herders.”

Meghan nodded.

“Oh, an’ they lost a calf er two ta a right stealthy mountain lion, but they kilt that feckless female ‘fore she could git eny more of ’em. They ain’t seen no rustlers, but they’s keeping close watch an’ doublin’ up on rounds.”

“Oh, good. That sounds good,” Gaine chewed another forkful of cobbler and closed her eyes momentarily in pleasure. “Mmm, mm.”

Garcia flicked serious looks her way. He was in his late forties and was the first man hired by her father when they got out here. He’d been kicked by a steer at the age of thirty-nine, and his leg had never healed correctly, leaving him with a permanent limp. That was when he was offered work year-round at the ranch instead of going into the hills with the herd in the summer.

“Speakin’ a’ rustlers,” his dark Spanish eyes glanced up shyly below a head of purple-black curly hair streaked with white at the temples. Long dark eyelashes fluttered once around his disquieting glance. He was shy to a fault and his face flushed a little when the others quieted to hear what he had to say. They could tell it was grave news. “Uh, las gangas, uh, they striked at the Double X. Uh, you tell it.” He motioned to the other ranchhand.

“Well, sir,” Alabam started, his grey-bearded face now wrinkled with concern and his bushy brows drawn into a vee, “Kilt old man Dodson and wounded his wife bad, they did. Bullet wound. Stole a small herd a’ their hosses they had in their lower pasture and, you ain’t gonna believe this, but they even stole their right personal jewelry right off’n their bodies. Ain’t that right, Garcia?”
Everyone gasped. The shy man solemnly nodded his head in assent.

Alabam continued, “Snatched her weddin’ ring right off’n her finger, an’ his pocket watch ‘n her cameo an’ sech. Some a’ our boys from town joined the posse.” Meghan touched her ring in horror. She couldn’t imagine anyone stealing it.

“Lordy! The Double X?” Gaine sat up straight. That was getting a little too close to home. And the ruthlessness was unbelievable. The Double X was a large horse and cattle ranch that sat north. It was a good thirty miles as the crow flew to get there by horse. It was one of the pioneer ranches and had been providing beef and horses to the miners since the fifties. “They catch ’em, ah hope?”

Alabam replied. “No. Trailed ’em up inta the mountains an lost ’em, hosses n’ all. Them damned wily buzzards…” This man did not embarrass easily but his face reddened and he looked shame-faced at Meghan, “Scuse mah language, ma’am.”

Meghan smiled in return. Apparently they did not consider Gaine a “ma’am” since he did not turn his inquisitively apologetic gaze at her.

“Anyways, they done got aways.”

“Damn!” Gaine muttered.

“Gaine,” Meghan admonished softly. “The children.”

Gaine ran her hand through her loose hair. She glanced at the children. They did take some getting used to. “Uh, yeah. So’s their sons get down?”

“Yep. They had their Pa’s herd a’ steers ta the upper pasture, a course, and the boys an’ their hands was up there ridin’ herd. They come down ta bury their Pa and take care a’ their Ma.”

“Dam.., uh, horse feathers,” Gaine replied, her forehead ruffled. “Ahm headin’ inta town tamorra. When’d this happen? How many days ago?”

“Lessee. You been gone near onta two weeks now. This here happened ’bout midways. Ain’t that right, Garcia?”
Garcia nodded his agreement.

“They ain’t a’comin’ inta ar town,” Gaine said emphatically, letting her fist drop to the table with a thud. “Ah kin tell ya that fer damn shore!”

Meghan looked over but Gaine wasn’t even aware she had sworn.

“Well, them fellas ya deputized been patrolling since’t. But they ain’t seen ’em. They’ll be right relieved ta see yer back, though.”

“Si. An’ so’ll the Mayor,” Garcia added with a blush. “He’s done lotsa belly achin.”

“Yeah,” Gaine muttered, “he would.” She checked over her shoulder but Nell had gone in the bedroom to feed the baby. “An’ ole Shorty took hisself ta the bottle, too, whilst Ah war gone. An’ nobody done stopped ‘im! He ain’t gonna be happy ta see me, Ah kin tell ya that.” The children looked at Gaine wide-eyed. This was their father she was talking about.

“Don’t hurt ‘im, Sheriff,” the oldest boy pleaded. “Please.”

Gaine looked at them and realized how seriously they were affected by her words. This was a man who inflicted pain on them and their mother every time he drank, yet they did not wish the same on him. “Oh, Ah ain’t plannin’ ta hurt ‘im none. Doncha fret. But he ain’t gonna hurt ya er yer Momma none, neither. Ahl do mah best ta see ta that.”

“Kin we stay here, Sheriff?” Willy asked. At eight she was the oldest child. “We like it here.”

“Long as yer Momma wants ya ta,” Gaine replied. “Yer al’ays welcome here. Ya kin think a’ it as yer permanent home, if’n yer Momma says.” Then Gaine’s eyes widened and she turned to Meghan. “That all right with you?”

“Of course,” Megan smiled.

“Only, you childerns needs ta call me “Gaine” if’n yer plannin’ ta stay. Ah ain’t the Sheriff when Ahm here.”

“All right, Sheriff,” they chorused.

Gaine shook her head. “Well, Ahm gonna go check on that thar mare.” Gaine rose. “Yer cobbler war downright wonderful, Nell,” she hollered into the other room. “Ah licked mahn up like a cow a’lickin’ salt.” A chorus of similar compliments followed from the two hands and Meghan.

“Glad ya liked it,” Nell called back. “I’ll make another tomorrow. The children can collect the berries. They grow wild out there by your stream.”

“Ah got me an orchard off to the side thar, too. Bose pears, n’ apples, differ’nt kinds. Some peaches an such. Some outta be ready.”

“I know,” Nell called. “But I didn’t want us to use up all your food.”

“Nonsense,” Gaine called, “That thar’s wha mah folks done planted ’em! We’s’ll store a heap but ain’t gonna hurt nothin’ ta have ya eat yer fill. They’s plenty.” She turned to Meghan, ‘Ya gonna be all right?’

Meghan nodded in the affirmative. Gaine and the two hands walked toward the door, leaving their plates on the table and taking their hats off the nails by the door on their way out.

Green eyes moved to the table full of dirty dishes. They were mostly tin and pewter ware. “I’ll do these,” Meghan viewed the kitchen.

“All right,” Gaine grinned from the doorway. She’d had no thought of doing the dishes herself, besides, she wanted Meghan to feel like it was her home. She and the hands trailed out toward the stable and some of the children danced after them. The other young ones went to chase the dogs around the yard.

Meghan looked around. There were shelves of metal dishes and a leather strap nailed to a board on the wall holding silverware. Off to the side was a pantry, the lower shelves lined with a few pans, crocks, jugs and jars, many empty. There were some barrels inside, and she thought most likely one was filled with salt pork and the other maybe flour. A heavy rock sat on the top of one, about half the way down, holding the floating lid down. That was the salt pork, Meghan decided, sitting in brine.

The shelves themselves had few items on them-a small block of salt, some clabbered milk, a small crock of honey, saleratus, molasses, some beans, some jars of dried goods of some kind, coffee beans, a grinder and a basket for collecting eggs. On the floor near the barrels was a crock half-filled with butter.

There was one shelf dedicated to drugs. There were dried chamomile flowers, Fernet bitters for the stomach, castor oil, flour made from flax seed for poultices, a purchased nostrum in a corked bottle and various home remedy items for people and horses. And on one shelf was a needle and thread. Meghan stepped back. This must be the pantry where Gaine and Minnie slipped in the board with the rising dough her Uncle had stepped in.

Her eyes were drawn to the top shelves. The canning materials were no longer there. Probably went to one of Gaine’s sisters in the will. There was a sadiron but otherwise it was painfully low on supplies and Meghan wondered how Nell and the children had gotten by with Gaine gone. Of course, on a ranch, you had easy access to eggs, milk and meat. She guessed she’d find milk and a crock of butter cooling in a bucket near the bottom of the well. But the apple bin in the barn was undoubtedly empty at this time of year and the smokehouse might be, too.

If one had plenty of flour and beans, coffee and some kind of sweetener, most folks got by easily enough. She began to open the jars and dipped her tongue-dampened finger tip in tasting then to take mental note of what was there and what might be needed.
She had made a small fire in the stove and was boiling the water to put in the dish pan when Nell came back in. The baby was asleep, apparently, since she no longer had him. “Here, let me do that,” Nell mumbled as she hustled over. “Please. Otherwise I don’t think I’d feel right about staying out here with the Sheriff.” She kept her missing teeth hidden as much as possible with her lip. It was not at all unusual to see people with missing teeth. It happened a lot. But her lip was still swollen and the loss did not appear to be from natural causes.

Meghan stepped aside. “Uh, all right. But I do want to help. Did you do the milking already? Want me to scald a pan for that?”

“I already done it a’fore you folks come. Just sit and rest a spell. You’ve had a long trip.”

“I’ll get a scrubber and mop up the floor while you’re doing that,” Meghan glanced at the floor. Her father would have insisted that it be spotless. She was used to the work and, in truth, she liked living in a spotlessly clean house. But she could see she was making Nell uncomfortable so she forced herself to relax.

“I can do that when I’m done here,” Nell suggested, glancing out at the floor. It didn’t look that dirty to her. “You need to rest for now.”

Meghan pulled up a chair and sat down. “All right. Uh, I was just taking store of what was needed in the pantry. Gaine said we’d go into town tomorrow and I thought I’d get some things as long as we were there.” She rattled off a few things she knew were needed. “Can you think of anything else?”

Nell looked down at the pan. “I hate us usin’ up the Sheriff’s supplies,” she said softly.

“Nonsense,” Meghan replied. “You work hard here. It’s your pay. And it’s such a pleasure that you’re here. Your desserts alone are a treasure. And from the looks of it, those ranchhands haven’t had the best of meals till you arrived, either. Confidentially, I don’t think Gaine ever did much in the way of cooking for ’em.”

“Well, they have primed me plumb full’a compliments since’t I come out here with the children and commenced cookin’ their meals.” Then her gaze fell again, “But the children…just feedin’ ’em..” She glanced up quickly. “Our chickens quit layin’, ya know? And our cow ain’t givin’ that much. Uh, they do that when they ain’t fed enough. Shorty, he, uh, drank up all the grocery money this time. That’s what we fought about.”

“The chickens here look like they’re laying well and there’s plenty of them. And I’ll bet the cows give plenty. It isn’t much feeding children on a ranch. Gracious! I know Gaine loves children and me, too. I do love having children around. But you have to let me help. While you’re responsible for the cooking and general housekeeping, I’d like to clean from top to bottom. I swear, Gaine’s been as bad as the fellas at keeping things up. And maybe I can help teach the young ones to read and write, do ya think? I could use the teaching practice.”

Nell perked up a little. “I heared you was gonna be the new school marm. It would be wonderful if these young’uns could get some learnin’. I just didn’t see how we could afford our part a’ the school they was proposin’.”
“They may not want me in that position after I talk to them. I am a married woman…” she added what she and Gaine had decided she should say, “though my husband is far away seeking his fortune. But, it will be my pleasure to practice on your children, if you don’t take offense.”

Nell smiled back. “Heavens! Take offense? That ain’t likely. T’would be a great honor.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “Thank ya, Cousin Minnie. I’ll do my best around here.” She glanced out and noticed the skies darkening. “Gracious, where are those young ones? They should be headin’ to bed.” She moved to the door and hollered and the baby began crying again.

Within minutes the troupe of children and dogs came pouring in. Meghan directed them to the basin she was getting out onto the table to get washed up for bed while Nell headed to see to the infant. She helped the children, checking their hair as she did so. She would need to get after the lice she saw as soon as she had cleaning supplies. Her mother had used coal oil and vinegar water rinses when they’d come home from school with the problem once. She hadn’t seen either in the pantry.

Meghan quietly moved down to the room she would share with Gaine. Dusk was turning the room shadowy. She lit the lamp and began to unpack their bag. There were no dressers to put things in although she did find some pegs on one wall where she hung their nightshirts and Gaine’s dirty outfit. She had seen the broom by the stove and a rag mop by the back door. She got them while Nell was busy getting the children to bed. She went back for the floor bucket and added a small amount of water.

Quickly she swept the floor of their room and tossed the dust and dirt out the window. The walls were thick so she cleaned the shelf-like area around the window. She wet the mop and scrubbed till the flat stone floor looked a shade lighter and the water was black. She decided it was too dirty for the slop bucket. Greasy dish water was good for that. There were no flowers or herbs. Not yet.

She hadn’t used much water anyway. It was more than precious where she’d lived before and she knew how to conserve. She poured the small amount of dirty water near the trees. She saw Gaine and the two hands talking outside the stable. This was a beautiful spot. And a beautiful home. She loved it already. Her home. She moved inside, replaced the items and went back to their room.

She would need to do the wash as soon as possible. She, herself, didn’t have anything else to change into, however, other than her nightshirt and they had no soap. She remembered her savings and pulled off her petticoats staying on the bed to let the floor dry. Her money could provide Gaine with a dowry of sorts. It certainly wasn’t much, but it was something. And she had worked very hard and risked severe beatings to get it.

She looked at the chest at the end of the bed with it’s buckled straps and was sorely tempted to open the lid and look inside. But it was not hers and she didn’t want to invade Gaine’s privacy. She stayed on the bed, picking at the stitches in her petticoat to allow her savings to be released. Her eyes went to the chest often, wondering if there were scissors within that might make her job easier. But she resisted.

Finally she had released all the coins she had hidden away. She would need to resew the seams she had taken out. She had found the needle and thread that her mother had hidden inside the hem of her new skirt, but she had no scissors. Her mother probably tried to pack her a pair, but her father would have objected. And that would have been that. She dug out the threaded needle and carefully began repairing her petticoats.

Beforehand she piled the money proudly on top of the book for Gaine when she came in. Books! Very few people had more than a bible here on the frontier. She proudly looked at the coins sitting on the books. She would be paying for her share of supplies. She removed Gaine’s shot bag that she had kept all this time and placed it nearby.

Gaine returned and moved quietly into the room, shutting the door and making sure it was closed. She glanced at the now dried floors and thought they looked different somehow. Lighter. She stepped toward where the blonde was seaming her slips by lamplight. Her eye lit on the coins. “What’s this?” she asked.

“My share,” Meghan smiled up at her. “The money I told you I’d saved. Oh, and your shotbag and the change.”

Gaine mentally counted the coins. It was about three dollars. Three dollars! It took her five years to save three dollars?
‘I’ve kept it hidden in my petticoats all that time,” Meghan smiled. When I did the washing and did the petticoats, I was particularly frightened that I’d be found out. But mother never let on and Pa and the boys had nothing to do with the laundry.
‘Uh, Ah told ya Ah wouldn’t let ya pay me,’ Gaine wondered what would have happened to the small blonde if she hadn’t run into Gaine that trip. Three dollars certainly wouldn’t have paid for much. And there weren’t many places for young ladies to get help or find a job. ‘How’d ya git it?’

‘I knew I had to have money in order to get away. So I pilfered from the egg money when I sold eggs. A lot of travelers bought them going through town. I charged eighteen cents a dozen to the strangers instead of the normal fifteen to the townsfolk but I only gave Mother fifteen cents. Father didn’t let me sell the eggs too often, but everytime he did, I saved some out. I always changed the pence for larger coins when I could, so I wouldn’t have so much to hide.’

‘Well, t’is your’n. Ya shore ’nuff earned it.’

Meghan looked at it and thought of the hard five years it had taken her and the risk she had gone through to get it and hide it. He’d have claimed she was stealing from him. Was she? Perhaps. Her beating would have been long and severe. He would have been so furious. ‘Would you add it to your supply money, please? I’d like to contribute to that.’

“Yep,” Gaine corrected. “But we need ta ponder on’t.” She smiled. “We done gived arselfs ta each other an’ all ar worldly goods. Ain’t mahn an’ ain’t your’n, Ah reckon. T’is both a’ ars. Ya kin keep it ‘n that shotbag with the t’uther money fer ar savin’s. Ah al’ays kept mah savin’s separate in mah shot bag ‘n the chest thar. Now, the ceegar box n’ the chest gots the funds ta pay salaries n’ such, but ya kin decide whar we oughta keep ar savin’s. Ain’t gonna use it lest we gotta.”

“Uh, what will we use for supplies then?”

“Oh, Ah got credit ta the mercantile. T’is how Ah git paid mostly. Now yu’ll need some clothin’, Meg. Not fancy maybe like Michael done said, but clothes ya kin wear here ta the ranch.”

“This is a new dress, Gaine.” A wrinkle ran across the blonde’s forehead. “I don’t really need another one. This will last a long time.”

“Mmm, no, ya does need a new ‘un. Yer Pa might think on what that thar dress looks like. T’would be safer if’n ya had a new one he ain’t gonna recognize, not that that ‘un ain’t downright purty. T’is. But we should be keerful n’ town.”

“You need clothes, too,” she smiled. “Uh, unless you have some in that chest.”

“Ah doan think sa,” Gaine frowned. She lifted the basin and pitcher to the floor and undid the straps to open the lid. Meghan got up to come take a peek. Inside was another old blanket, a torn sheet, some old letters tied with a ribbon, a cigar box that Meghan saw had some papers that looked like official forms of some kind, an account book, an old leather belt, a worn, wooden barlow knife and other small flotsam and jetsam of a person’s life. Near the bottom was a pair of red wool longjohns.

“Love letters?” Meghan asked, pointing to the letters tied in red ribbon.

“Uh, yep. They war ‘tween mah Ma an’ mah Pa. The t’uthers din’t want ’em and Ah couldn’t toss ’em out. Ma saved ’em tied up with one a’ her ribbons and Pa useta ponder o’er ’em after she passed. Ah decided ta keep ’em a spell.” She added in a whisper,
“Ah doan think she’d mind.”

“I’m sure she’d be pleased, honey,” Meghan rubbed Gaine’s back.

“Ah war a’thinkin’ Ah’d bury ’em a short ways down ta thar gravesite one a these times. Put ’em in a small wood ceegar box, maybe. When Ah think Ah kin bear ta give ’em up.” She handled them reverently and looked at them with a loving gaze.

“I’m sure they’re looking down on you with profound love right now, Gaine.”

“Da ya think sa?” Her blue eyes held such an innocence and yearning to believe. Then she jogged her head like adding a period to the end of a sentence, “Ah hope sa.” She placed them back and rustled around for a second then looked up again. “No. No t’uther clothin’ Ah kin wear ‘cept mah longjohns. An’ thems fer winter.” She grabbed the belt and looked at it. “Mah Pa’s belt, t’war ta big fer me.” She handled the two-blade barlow jackknife. “Grandpa’s.” She placed it back then dropped down the lid.

“Do you have any sewing supplies, honey?” Meghan asked.

“Not no more. Mah sisters got all that. Ah never did sew much. Ah gots a needle here an some thread ta the pantry. An’ thar bees some shears ta trim beards n’ hair n’ the like ta the bunk house. That’s all. Did ya wanna have me run git them shears?

“No, uh, I don’t think so. I don’t want to take the fella’s beard trimmers.”

“All right. We’ll buy some jest fer sewing tamarra. Whatever ya need.”

“I’ll need coal oil, honey. Do you have some? The children have head lice, probably Nell, too, but we can get rid of it. And there’s probably fleas from the dogs.”

Gaine looked startled. “Oh, uh, well, Ah reckon Ah kin have the fellas warsh them dogs ta the barn.” She knew the two men would be surprised. It wasn’t something they ever did unless a skunk got them or something like that.

“Yes. Good. We’ll need to scrub everything down and boil the clothes and bedding. And they probably have small toothed combs at the mercantile. They’re good for combing out nits. If we can get one of those…” Meghan thought for a minute. “My mother used soap and coal oil and vinegar water and lots and lots of boiling water.” Boiling wasn’t new. She boiled all the laundry when she washed anyway.

“Boilin’ water?!” Gaine’s brows rose to her hair line.

“Not for people, silly.”

“Ah, Good. Ah gots a big ole iron washin’ kettle ta the back. An a board n’ some smaller tubs fer rinsin’. Mah sisters left ’em fer me. Git whatever scrubbin’ needs ya thinks tamorra.”

“All right. Let’s go to bed now. I’m pretty tired. How about you?”

“Yep. Ahm plumb tuckered.” She pulled the ends of the mosquito net from behind the headboard and around the corner bed poles, leaving room for them to climb in.

They slipped into their nightshirts and crawled into bed. Meghan took the side away from the lamp. Obviously Gaine was used to the other side. The packed straw made a fairly hard mattress but that was cooler in warm weather than the soft feather mattresses of some beds. Her bed at home had been straw as well.

Meghan ran her hand along the sheet. “I can wipe the mattress down with salt water. I saw some salt in the pantry.”

“Uh, all right. Ah ain’t never been bit by nothin’ in this here bed, though. ‘Cept skeeters.” Gaine blew out the lamp and overlapped the netting.

“I know. It’s just a precaution.”

“Ahh.” They settled into each other’s arms. Gaine held Meghan close, stroked her hair and asked, “T’is ya still troubled, darlin’?”

Meghan was quiet for a minute then replied, “Yes. They’ll come after me, Gaine. You saw how determined they are. And how fierce. And I’m not sure my being married will stop them any. That Deputy cousin of Lendal’s might be dead, but his death could make Lendal and father even more determined. As long as they’re out there looking…” She shuddered. “Lendal’s a particularly clever and vicious man, honey. And we can’t know who either of them might have hired.”

“Ah tole the fellas they’s ta watch over ya like a hawk. You ain’t never gonna be out here without one a’ them fellas nearby ta pratect ya. An Ahm gonna learn ya how ta use that thar Henry rifle Ah keep o’er the front door. An, course, Ah ain’t plannin’ ta be ta far off, most times. Twixt them an’ the dogs, they ain’t gonna let no strangers set foot on this here property. And they’ll send fer me the second any such indication occurs.”

“I know.” They lay together quietly for a minute. “Do you think I can be called Kathleen or Kate instead of Meghan? It’s my middle name. Or if folks want to call me Cousin Minnie, I don’t really mind. It’s less likely anybody’ll be drawn here looking for me if they think your Cousin Kate is here and not your cousin with the name of Meghan.”

“Shore. If’n ‘t makes ya feel safer. Ah doan know why ya couldn’t. T’is the honest truth…mostly.”

“I would feel safer.” Meghan reached up to press her lips to Gaine’s. “Are you too tired, my love?” she breathed, bringing her lips past Gaine’s ear.

“No, Ah shore ain’t.”

“We’ll have to be very quiet.”

“Mmm,” Gaine replied, moving her lips to Meghan’s neck. Of course it was necessary to be quiet. Everyone was. That was understood.

Later they slept that night, spooned beside each other. Gaine was home and knew the sounds. Except that children did add some additional chords to the mix. She listened but heard no disturbing night noises other than the occasional weak crying of the baby.
Meghan awoke in a strange room with the bed empty beside her. Light shone through the window and a warm breeze was blowing through the netting. It took her a minute to remember where she was…her new home. She looked around in wonder. It was so much more than she had ever expected. It was even bigger than her father’s house, she thought smugly.

The delightful odor of sugar-cured bacon and coffee drifted into the room and her stomach growled. She rose quickly, made the bed, washed herself in the basin and dressed before running out back to the freshly whitewashed outhouse. There were two holes, one large and one small, both with lids. She was pleased to see that Gaine kept a large bucket of ashes there to sprinkle when finished to keep down the odor and flies. She had watched carefully for snakes on her way there, seeing tracks where they had been resting on the path in the sun.

She washed her face and hands again in their room and did a quick check to make sure the room was tidy. Gaine had let her sleep in and she did feel rested. She moved to the main room to find the others assembling for breakfast, their early morning chores already done.

Nell was serving a fine breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits, and thick gravy while the pale infant lay fussing in his box. The coffee again was strong, just like Gaine and the hands liked it. Meghan took the tiny baby from the box and sat at the table cooing to the infant and gently rubbing his tummy, trying to comfort him. He did not have enough hair to have lice, but the child was far too pale in Meghan’s opinion. Gaine came in from outside, spotted Meghan and a huge smile spread across her face.

“Did ya sleep good?” Gaine asked as she pulled up a chair beside the blonde.

“Wonderfully!” Meghan replied. They didn’t exactly eat in silence. Gaine and the hands discussed the dun mare and Meghan ate and jiggled her small charge at the same time while Nell gave instructions to the children about picking blackberries and watching for snakes.

After breakfast Gaine moved to the corral where the boys were bringing out the mustang, saddled and ready to be tested. The horse eyed Gaine and snorted. He pawed at the dirt, but Gaine spoke softly and worked her way to where he was being held. She mumbled softly, talking comforting words. The other two on horseback moved off some. It had been a while, but he remembered her.

She moved her hands over the stallion as she had practiced a number of times before she’d headed for Sacramento. The horse shuddered some at her touch and moved his ears to follow her progress. But he knew her voice and touch and stayed fairly still. She always made sure she could touch the horses anywhere before she tried to ride them. She touched the saddle and moved it a smidgeon. This wild fellow had also gotten a little used to the saddle. But he was extremely leery and huffed and snorted and danced. She talked calming words.

The children quit playing and moved along the rails, the dogs beside them. Meghan had been out looking around, marveling at the pigs, chickens, milch cows and horses that made up their livestock and was amazed by the amount of meat hanging in the large smokehouse. A lot of work had gone into this ranch. Gaine had done well…very well. Meghan moved onto the porch when she spotted Gaine in the corral with the mustang.

“Stay back, now,” Garcia called to the children.

“Yessir,” they called, moving their hands off the rail but not moving back so much as a step.

Once she was ready, Gaine was up on his back in an instant. The boys rode off to the sides and the horse began to buck furiously. All the children were around the corral transfixed and Meghan and Nell were on the porch watching. Meghan’s hands went to her mouth when Gaine smiled her way. Gaine got herself off balance with the look and suddenly went flying off the horse into the air then plummeted to the ground on her behind with a thud while the horse continued bucking. She was up in a flash, using her hat to beat the dust from her outfit.

“Damned if Ah ain’t out a practice in that short a time,” she grumbled with annoyance and a goodly amount of embarrassment. The two hands rode out in the corral to capture the horse.

“I ain’t seed ya do that a’fore,” Alabam called with a chuckle. “Ya been practicin’ some fancy flyin’ tricks?” he teased.

“Are ya hurt, Gaine?” Garcia called.

“No. Ah ain’t hurt,” Gaine groused. But all the children were laughing and pointing at her. In fact her bottom was quite sore where she had landed with such force for only a nanosecond before she hopped up again. She had to concentrate not to move her hands there to see if anything was broken. She couldn’t remember the last time she was bucked off. She’d have a large bruise. And to have it happen in front of Meghan and the children was too much.

“She done got bucked off,” one of the boys laughed.

Gaine shot them all a disgusted glance. “Whacha laughin at?” she grumped, beating billows of dust off her trousers with her hand and her hat.

“We’re reliefed,” Willy called with a big smile. “Ain’t we?” she asked the others and they all nodded in the affirmative.

Oh, brother, she’s gonna be a leader, that un’. Ya shore kin tell early on, Gaine thought as she watched the others follow Willy’s lead. “Reliefed? That Ah t’weren’t hurt none, ya mean?”

“I dunno. Guess so,” Willy said cheerfully. “Ya said t’was all right ta laugh if’n we’re reliefed.”

Meghan began to laugh aloud now that she saw Gaine wasn’t hurt and Nell just looked with concern from the children to the tall brunette, wondering if she was going to smack any of them.

Gaine looked at Meghan then had to laugh herself. A deep rumbling laugh emerged that floated up to Meghan and made her feel more than relief. In fact, it left her with a bit of a flush and a touch of tension in places not meant for polite public discourse. That woman has the sexiest laugh, Meghan thought with a blush. Oh, my!

Her eyelashes fluttered involuntarily and she decided she’d better go in and check the nursery section of Gaine’s receipt book before her thoughts got the better of her. Surely it had some ideas of what to do for the ailing baby.

Nell relaxed and grinned as well. The Sheriff wasn’t going to strike her children.

On the way to town Meghan asked, “Did you say you had cattle? I didn’t see any except the two milk cows.”

“Mah boys gots them steers ta the upper range. They’s a’comin’ down a’fore long.”

“I see.” Meghan’s eyes flew over the countryside. There was so much to learn.

Gaine was quiet for a while then asked, “Does childerns al’ays does that ta ya?”

“What, honey?”

“Throw what ya tells ’em right back ta yer face?”

“Willy’s ‘being relieved’ you mean? No, not all children, I’m sure.” Meghan smiled. “But I don’t know, did you and Cousin Minnie do that when you were children?”

Gaine’s eyes widened then she became quiet for a minute. “Oh, Lordy,” she exclaimed mournfully, “Retribution.”

-***-

Meghan’s sister Kaitlynn and family arrived in Jubilee City as soon as they were able. They’d left the farm they loved in charge of her husband’s parents. It was near the California coast several days away. They brought their family and rushed to help her mother as soon as they got word of her father’s death.

Kaitlynn was concerned about Meghan but had no idea where she might be. She was surprised at her father’s death, though she bore no sadness regarding the event. Her young brothers voiced their complaints about Brogan Jr. and maybe Peter, too, cheating them and her as well. Kaitlynn wasn’t surprised.

Meghan’s mother checked the bedding they had brought then stripped the bedding off the beds in the house and gave it to Kaitlynn. ‘Quick, put this with your things and don’t say a word. It’s what your father would have wanted, I’m sure. Just leave me your older bedding, uh, before the others get here.’

Kaitlynn looked back skeptically. It was not at all what her father would have wanted. He would have wanted the girls to get nothing at all.

Brenna, her husband and their family along with Peter’s wife and family were to join them for a large family dinner that afternoon even though Brogan Jr. and Peter were not back yet. She knew Brogan’s wife, Jennie, would not be allowed to leave her home without Brogan Jr.’s permission. He’d be furious if she did, but she sent Reggie to invite her anyway, expecting the declination she received.

It was so good seeing her daughter Kaitlynn again. They had written as much as Brogan Fitzgeraldson Sr. allowed. And Kaitlynn seemed genuinely happy. The new widow explained she was quite sure Triona and her husband would be coming from Nevada in the next few days although she doubted that Noreen and family would make it from Arizona. And she knew from Polly’s infrequent letters that though she lived in California, she and her husband were too bad off financially to be able to make any kind of trip with their huge family.

She would have to work hard to make sure neither of those daughters was left out. She wasn’t sure what she could give them. The oldest sons would surely remember any valuables her husband might have owned. She’d have to think about it.
The widow busied herself making sure there was room for everyone to fix a pallet on the floor. Her boys would go to stay at Brenna’s while the company was there.

-***-

Meghan studied Barden’s Corner as they approached. The bustling business section was lined with typical large, wooden, squared-fronted buildings on both sides of the street with only a few shops without the false fronts, one being the blacksmith shop and another the church. There was only one main street. The side streets were lined with residences, small city farms, much like Jubilee City had been, only with fewer saloons–only two. Boardwalks lined both sides of the businesses on the main street.

A river ran a ways behind the town and they crossed a wooden bridge on the west end. They could hear the bleating of sheep, the hammering of construction and the pinging of the blacksmith’s hammer. “They’s the mill further down thar,” Gaine smiled and pointed down the river. “They does a right thrivin’ business. An’ the salt mine bees on that road thar.” She pointed to a road leading into a stand of trees. An’ theys a copper mine still a’bein’ worked out that a’way.” Again she pointed before drawing the horses up before the mercantile.

They tied the horses to the rail in front of the store and began wandering through. The Barden’s Corner store was in a large building but was not as well supplied as the store they had visited at the stage stop and the prices were higher. Still it smelled of coffee and cheese and contained a vast array of goods including local quilts, knives, shoes, harnesses, candy, sugar, honey, pistols, rifles, plows, ammunition, all sorts of dry goods and cloth besides the grocery items. In one corner was the post office and on the other far wall Minton Ledderbridge, chemist, had his own counter and wall of drugs, patent medicines, paints and oils. Those who couldn’t afford the doctor, came to Minton.

Gaine whispered to Meghan as they walked through the green grocer aisle, “Ah gits mah green groceries from Maria. She done gots herself a right big garden and sells seasonals tah me fer lest.”

“Do you have a garden?” Meghan asked in a whisper. She didn’t remember seeing one.

“Uh, mah Momma useta, but Ah ain’t been much ta keepin’ it up.”

Meghan nodded then wandered wide-eyed through the aisles, amazed at what things cost. She saw the high price on the sugar crystal cones trimmed by a guillotine-shaped cutter for them on the counter then weighed on the store scale. Molasses and honey were both much cheaper. She noticed the new washing-powder but decided she could use the cheaper lye soap bars every bit as well. After all, once she saved some lard and wood ashes, she’d be making her own soap and not buying it. The tobacco counter had tobacco at one pence an ounce. There was tobacco for chewing, smoking or snuff.

Meghan settled in and began to select the items on her list, choosing the lowest priced articles whenever choice was possible. She selected a small amount of the specialty food items for the baby suggested in the ‘common sense’ book.

Gaine and the city officials were the few that had credit at the mercantile any more. She had always been careful not to charge beyond what pay she had coming, but it was something they did allow her to do, if necessary. Barter was common even in non-depression times but when times were bad like these, the store didn’t offer credit except to those few. Taxes were often paid in goods, livestock and homemade items, most of which ended up being sold at the store.

Gaine made sure that Meghan picked out plenty of material to make a new dress. Meghan was pleased to get some ‘Simpson’ indigo blue calico she thought would be superior to any other both in washing and wearing. She also picked what they had on sale that was perfect for new underwear for Gaine. They had enough credits to get some additional yards of white cotton that Gaine saw her fingering. It could be used for so many things: curtains, pillowcases, towels, an apron she desperately needed and a new bonnet.

The clerk took the bolts down, measured out the yards on the brass tacks on the counter and cut it for them.

Meghan held a bolt of heavy cotton trouser material, suitable for children’s wear. “Do you think…?” she started to ask Gaine, “for the children?”

Gaine smiled and had them cut what they’d need. Meghan picked out thread to match the materials plus varied yarns for knitting. There was a large selection of wool yarn at reasonable prices. Meghan couldn’t help smiling brightly. Her family had lived well enough, but rarely bought so much material at one time. How impressed they’d be. She hoped Gaine wasn’t showing off and putting them in unnecessary debt. She could get by with just the dress she had.

Gaine was having “Mrs. K. Sargos” placed on her account so that Meghan could sign for supplies when an old man in farm overalls and a weathered hat hobbled on his cane toward them.

“Why, you must be Cousin Minnie,” he smiled at Meghan. “I’d recognize you anywhere. Remember me, old Roger Pickwick? I was here when your family lived here all those years ago and you were just a little whippersnapper then.” He chuckled then got serious, “Lost my wife Lettie a couple years back-wonderful woman. Your parents probably aren’t aware. They’d remember her, for sure.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Meghan replied sympathetically.

“Thank you, thank you. I do miss her. She’d remember you, for sure.”

“Oh, uh, Roger, this bees Michael’s wife, Mrs. Sargos. Ah think yer a’thinkin’ a his sister,” Gaine said to the older man.
The man cast a puzzled look at Gaine then smiled back at Meghan, “Sure ’nuff,” he said. “Ya growed up jest like I thought ya would. It’s good ta have ya back in Barden’s Corner, Minnie.”

“Uh, Minnie’s Michael’s sister. Please, call me Kate,” Meghan suggested with a soft blush.

“Er Mrs. Sargos, if’n ya’d druther, Roger,” Gaine supplied, but she knew Roger and others would persist in calling Meghan
“Cousin Minnie”. Once they got an idea in their mind, it was hard to change it. But she figured Meghan would answer to any of the names anyway.

“Let your family know about my Lettie,” he suggested. Then he forcefully tapped his cane on the ground a couple times and leaned toward Meghan, “We ain’t none of us sure Gaine knows how ta write or she’da done it before now.” He swatted Gaine hard with his cane across the back of her legs and hollered out, “Ahha.”

‘Ow,’ Gaine laughed. “Ya ole rascal. Ya jest wanted an excuse ta strike the town Sheriff, din’t ya?”

“Ahha,” the old man barked a laugh. “Town Sheriff, indeed. I remember when you were just a scrawny, little tipsy turvy girl harassin’ them bigger brothers of yours. Lordy, how you always got the best of ’em. The both a’ ya. Them were the days. T’was nice meetin’ ya ag’in, young lady.” He tipped his hat, turned and shuffled back toward the tobacco counter as he muttered,
“Yessir, them two saucy little girls had them boys more riled n’ a hornet’s nest and a’runnin’ in circles most a’ the time. Ahha, but let some interloper call any one of ’em a name, and they’d all turn on that child faster’n a horse headin’ back ta the barn. Ahha, them surely were the days. Course, my Lettie was alive then.”

“You should be sure Minnie’s parents know about his wife,” Meghan said softly. “It’s very important to him.”

“Ah let ’em know jest after’t happened. An’ they done sent him a long sympathy letter. Guess Ahd best let mah Aunt know ag’in since’t he doan ‘member none.”

“Yes, you should.”

Gaine loaded the supplies then walked Meghan across to show her the Sheriff’s office. It was a tiny side room of the noisy cooper’s shop. It had a door facing the boardwalk and was barely large enough to hold a desk and chair. Wanted posters were tacked on every available wall. There was no jail cell.

On the way back to the wagon Gaine pointed out the livery, the carpenter’s shop, the place where a hotel was just starting under construction, the town trustee’s and Mayor’s offices, a saloon and the tin and stove shop. “Uncle Tommy bees the town tinker. He comes out ta tha house once’t a year ta remould broken pewter n’ tin ware. Ar cups er tin but we gots dishes, some spoons, n’ a pewter basin.” Meghan nodded her understanding.

On the other end of the boardwalk was the harness-maker, Etta’s small cafe, blacksmith shop, another saloon, doctor’s office and church. Corrals on the end near the bridge were filled with sheep. Gaine scowled but did not mention them.

They climbed in their wagon and headed back. They stopped at the farm of Maria and her husband Leland on their way home. Maria’s mother had been a full-blooded Pima Indian that had married a white settler before moving west, so some of the townsfolk insisted on calling their daughter ‘Indian Maria’. Maria had grown and was now married to Leland, a tall settler from Missouri.

The pleasant woman raised a large, flourishing garden to help their family survive. Her husband was considering putting together a huckster wagon and covering the town farms and ranches trading green groceries in exchange for things like eggs, meat and cheese. The store was none too pleased with that idea.

They carefully selected their vegetables then Gaine ordered a pair of leather moccasins for Meghan. Meghan was embarrassed to remove her shoes so Mary could measure around her foot, but Gaine said she needed to have moccasins to wear around the house while her shoes were being resoled.

Meghan’s eyes raised in pleasure to Gaine’s. Her shoes were going to be resoled? Gaine explained that there was no official cobbler in town but Saul Chenoth did considerable shoe business on his farm. He was talking about starting a boot shop by sharing a bench in the harness-maker’s shop in town. Gaine would take Meghan’s shoes to him as soon as Mary brought out Meghan’s moccasins.

“I can go barefoot,” Meghan objected quietly aside to Gaine. “We don’t need to go to this expense.” She had gone barefoot a good deal of the time at home and her feet were tough as leather.

“Ah knows ya kin,” Gaine whispered. “But you’ll like ’em. They’s right comfy. An ya kin wear ‘im ta home when the weather done turns cold.”

Not wanting to oppose Gaine publicly, Meghan was quiet. Besides, it was too late. The moccasins had already been ordered. They loaded their purchases and headed home. Meghan again noted how fine Gaine’s team was and how those they passed admired them as she rode beside the tall woman.

At home the two ranchhands helped unload the supplies and Meghan used the book to fix a recipe for boiled farina milk for the baby, scalding all utensils as the pages directed. She read what the book said to Nell, who was not entirely sure of all the suggestions. Meghan read the other things the book advised for babies. It talked of what you should have your servants do, how you had them boil everything, and the like. They both laughed at the thought of servants but they both also knew wealthy babies had a much higher survival rate. And Nell’s small infant had been suffering with diarrhea, which everyone knew was a killer of tiny infants. Nell had already lost two small babies. She was concerned enough to try anything.

Tears sprung to Nell’s eyes when she discovered that they had picked up enough material to make the children some clothes. She had been worrying heavily about that. The clothes they were wearing were very worn. And Meghan talked to her about the head lice, explaining how her mother had dealt with it when Meghan was little. It was a commom enough problem that Nell took no offense. They agreed to attack the issue first thing in the morning.

Meghan went to her room and immediately began cutting the trousers for the boys. She looked at the white material and decided she could get some shirts for the children out of that and a dress for the toddler. Nell had said Willy would wear trousers, too, since she was too active to keep in dresses anyway. Besides, that way they could hand down the trousers to the next child as they grew, regardless of how the townsfolk talked about the impropriety of it. She mentioned nothing regarding Gaine’s trousers.

Meghan purposely cut everything larger and skillfully placed seams that could be extended as they grew. She worked quickly and proficiently. And since she had no meals to prepare, all her time was put to the task. By the end of the day she had Willy’s and her next smaller brother’s trousers completed and the others well started.

After breakfast the next morning, Gaine had water brought to partially fill the large kettle. A fire was started beneath it and Meghan cut some shavings from one of the lye bars and dropped them into the pot. All Nell’s and the children’s bedding was brought out, and one at a time Meghan scrubbed every square inch on the scrub board in the pot as long as the items were cool enough to handle. Still it turned her hands red.

Then each item must be scalded, so she left Willy with the stick to poke them down every few minutes in the boiling soapsuds while she swept up the straw in their bedrooms that Nell’d put down on the stone floor as pallets. She had the hands haul it off while she scrubbed the floor in both rooms thoroughly with lye soap and water.

Meanwhile, Nell was in the kitchen treating each child’s hair. The outside table would be set up for noon dinner.

When Meghan got back, the tub was boiling well. She used the stick to lift one blanket into another smaller tub. Just enough cold water was added to make the blanket handleable. Again she rubbed the blanket on the copper scrub board. Then she lifted it and swished it around in the same tub before wringing it out by hand and hanging it on the line to dry. Then she went back to the next blanket.

She had Gaine haul fresh straw to put down in the two bedrooms while she continued with the laundry. By the time Nell had noon dinner prepared, all their bedding had been washed and was on the line. Then she got the sheets and blanket from hers and Gaine’s bed, their’s and Nell’s nightwear and boiled them.

By afternoon it was time to wash the children’s clothing. The warm rinse water was moved inside into Gaine’s large bathing tub placed in the kitchen to bathe each child. As one child stripped down, their clothing was brought to Meghan to boil in the large tub. Meghan brought the blanket from the chest and Nell had each bathed child sit on the bench under the blanket. They were given crackers and tin cups of milk to eat as they waited.

Between chores Alabam and Garcia were instructed to take the dogs to the barn and scrub them thoroughly. They’d never had to do that before. Quietly they did so, though the dogs did not enjoy it at all and quickly went to roll in the dirt once they were freed.
The clothing dried quickly in the summer breeze and sunlight, particularly the lightweight underwear and the children were soon running around in the house in their now clean underwear. The outerwear and the blankets took longer.

Meghan was determined that before they headed to bed each of Nell’s family would be washed, their hair treated and their clothes boiled. With all the clothing but Nell’s on the line, Meghan wiped off their mattress with salt water, having Gaine turn it over so she could do the bottom. After supper Nell took her bath. Meghan helped her treat her long hair while Nell’s dress, petticoat and other undergarments were outside boiling. She changed into her night gown.

By the time Meghan fell into bed that night, she was exhausted. But Nell’s family was washed and clean and sleeping on fresh bedding. Of course, they only had blankets and fresh straw. All but one of the buffalo skins Gaine’s family had always used as pallets had gone to her sisters in the will. The bedding Meghan and Gaine used was also clean, although Meghan was embarrassed that she hadn’t had time to iron the sheets. She’d do it in the morning. She had to get up early to get Nell’s dress and apron off the line and iron them before Nell could dress to fix breakfast the next morning anyway.

Gaine’s hands moved soothingly along Meghan’s back, carefully rubbing sore muscles. “Ahhh,” Meghan moaned, “But I’m too tired, honey,” she whispered.

“Ah’m jest rubbin’ yer back, darlin’,” Gaine whispered, hearing a familiar soft snore in reply. She smiled and put her arm protectively around the small blonde before closing her own eyes. Home. Together. Forever. There was nothing more perfect in the world.

Meghan awoke as Gaine was getting up the next morning. She had so much to do. She’d get to bathe later today and get her own clothes washed, ready to iron. She’d wash Gaine’s clothes, too, and the hands. Then all kinds of mending needed to be done, not to mention ironing before she got back to her sewing.

And the angelic little infant was already showing signs of being better. The formula did seem to ease his discomfort, and the diarrhea also had eased some. But first she must get in there, start a fire and get Nell’s clothes ironed.

The remainder of the week was spent getting the rest of the laundry done and some sewing. Meghan washed the hands’ clothing as well as Gaines’ so that it dried overnight. And she spent one whole morning trimming each person’s hair while each nervously sat outside on a chair. Meghan was very experienced at it.

Running the narrow-toothed comb through each person’s hair, particularly the childrens’, became a daily event. Ironing was also a hot, sweltering early morning job inside the house, though the doors stood open all day. Meghan ironed while Nell cooked and watched the children. The little ones played happily, ate well, the baby steadily improved and Meghan was pleased she didn’t have to do the cooking. She almost felt overwhelmed as it was.

The children’s clothes were beyond mending, so that they were scrapped once the new ones were completed. Meghan cut them into rag strips she would sew together for a braid rug. The hands’ clothing and Gaines’ did merit repairs. Nell’s clothes were threadbare, too, but Meghan was sure she could save them with careful patches since they didn’t have enough new material to make Nell a new dress and the woman refused to let her use her new material for anything but a dress for herself. Long into the evening Meghan sat sewing patches or mending where possible. They would make do, all of them.

Meanwhile Gaine took two days off her job as Sheriff and rode to the high pasture to check on her herd, spent the night and returned the next day.

By the time the bulk of the mending was done including Gaine’s socks, life had fallen into a pattern of washing and ironing and checking hair. Meghan found some time and used her newly purchased scissors to begin cutting the parts to new clothing. Nothing was discarded. Every small scrap of good enough material was cut into a square quilt pattern and placed in the trunk till she had enough. Smaller pieces were cut in other quilt shapes.

In the days that followed, Meghan learned to load and shoot the breech loading Henry rifle that sat on pegs above the front door. She became a fair shot. She practiced every day, though only with a few shots to save ammunition. She spent the remainder cleaning, sewing, rooting out the last of the lice and began teaching the children their alphabet and basic arithmetics while Gaine went into town daily in her job as Sheriff, often returning very late at night.

Meghan became the undisputed lady of the house, although she made no such claims herself. Everyone acknowledged that running the house was her job. She even had manure from the stable dumped onto the old garden area and began to dig it under herself as her mother had done on their small town “farm”. “Let it settle into the ground,” her mother had said. “Before planting, do it again.”

Alabam informed her they had a plow. They raised all their own wheat, barley, alfalfa and oats, or at least Gaine hired crews to do so. A few days later Alabam brought out a horse, hitched it to the plow and plowed it under for her. In the meanwhile she worked quickly at her sewing. Using her material frugally, she soon had a new dress for herself with enough left over for a new finished shirt for Gaine and numbers of small pieces for a quilt.

The crew that Gaine always hired to cut the hay had been by. Alabam and Garcia worked with them, shortening the time needed for the hired help. Nell cooked for the whole crew as well as everyone else till the work was done. Alabam and Garcia were now busy loading bales into the barn for the winter. Being in the foothills, even this close to the valley floor, their winters could be quite cold. It was not unusual to see an occasional snowflake, though it was rare.

Mary brought out the moccasins and took home a number of bushels of hand-picked fruit from the orchard when she left. Meghan wore her moccasins while her shoes were being resoled, unbelievably pleased that her shoes would be repaired. Her father always had them stuff paper inside and wear them till they fell apart, risking punishment if they let anyone see the holes in the bottom.

Her moccasins were comfortable, almost like going barefoot. Meghan realized she could wear them at home and save her newly resoled shoes for special occasions and for when she went to town. It would make them last much longer.

As each fruit tree ripened, Nell and Meghan cut up some and set it out to dry while the two hands stored the rest. They had Gaine bring home glass cans from the mercantile and together they prepared batches of fruit to seal and keep in the pantry. When she had time Meghan began sewing an apron patched together from the remaining scraps of white material. Then she began new underdrawers and an undershirt for Gaine. As an expert seamstress, she rapidly finished projects.

She was extremely pleased to have a wardrobe that included two dresses when the town fathers trooped out one afternoon. She saw the three men driving up the road from town and quickly slipped on her newest dress. After all, these were the town “quality” as Nell called them. Alabam and Garcia recognized them instantly, put back their rifles and did not prevent the men from entering.

As Meghan changed, she thought proudly how she would always be able to appear in public in tidy clothing with such a variety at her fingertips. She grabbed her bonnet and tucked wayward locks back behind the pasteboard.

The men’s faces showed their disfavor with finding Nell and the children in residence. “Gutter purchase,” Meghan thought she heard one of the men mutter as a child ran past, but Nell, who was closer, went about her duties as though nothing had been said and Meghan wasn’t sure exactly what had been uttered or by whom. Otherwise she’d have stopped them instantly and challenged them.

Nell shooed all the children outside while Meghan served the men coffee and molasses cookies, feeling the cavernous depth of their severe thoughts as they rigorously scrutinized her. How she wished Gaine was with her and not in town working. She felt the eyes of Westminster Clardin, the Mayor’s thirtyish, unmarried nephew perusing her body and wanted to shiver at the intentions he might harbor. Though unmarried, she was sure he was not inexperienced.

Once seated the Mayor spoke sternly of a teacher’s job, an opening that paid eight dollars store credit per month for a three month season. Meghan was very interested. The men each took another cookie before sternly quizzing her on her knowledge of reading, grammar, spelling, geography and U.S. History. And though they made an effort not to show it, they were pleasantly swayed by her ever correct replies. She had indeed learned her lessons as a student.

They helped themselves to more cookies as they went over a daunting list of unacceptable personal behaviors and an equally daunting list of expectations. Nell quietly refilled the plate while they explained that the daily expectations included not just teaching but general upkeep: sweeping, building and maintaining the fire in the stove, filling and cleaning the lamps, drawing the water, emptying the ashes, moping any mud or water tracked into the vestibule and stacking the cleaned slates. She was also expected to cultivate perfect behavioral control and reveal demonstrable progress with each student, some as old as eighteen and as young as five. McGuffy’s readers or any other books might or might not be provided. They did have one or two old New England Primers available, they explained between bites of the freshly furnished cookies.

Nell refilled their coffee cups as they clarified that they also expected numerous public spelling bees and a Christmas pageant to be performed by the students under Meghan’s guidance regardless of nonexistent supplies necessary to offer such a presentation.
Their eyes darted to Nell and back as the Mayor reminded Meghan unyieldingly that a teacher was to serve as an example and an inspiration to townsfolk and must be extremely careful of those with whom she associated. There must not be a hint of impropriety in anyone she chose to be around.

“I’m sorry. I guess I don’t understand. What are you implying?” Meghan asked politely. Surely they didn’t consider that her knowing Nell was improper.

“Associating with the lower classes or interfering in the holy union of matri…”

Meghan’s face showed her surprise. Were they calling Nell and her children “lower classes”? And surely saving Nell from a violent drunken husband did not constitute interference in matrimony!

Before the Mayor’s nephew could finish his sentence, Mr. Altenman, the third man in the group, interrupted, “We were implying nothing other than what was said, of course. We assume you’ll be attending Sunday church services without fail and shall demonstrate a purity of purpose as befits a young woman in such a prestigious position, Miss Sargos.” His features were stern, solemn, austere and he looked as though his face had never once broken into a smile.

Meghan was stunned and greatly annoyed but she was also cognizant of the fact that these were people Gaine had to work with every day and so would she, if she were hired. She dared not speak with too sharp a tongue. She seized on the word “Miss”. “My name is Mrs. Sargos, gentleman. I am a married woman,” she replied coldly, letting her ring show. “And my friendship with Ne…”

“What?” Mr. Altenman demanded. All their faces turned grim. “No, that will not do! There’d be grave parental misgivings about hiring any woman that’s married. It is not done. A married woman’s place is in her husband’s home.’

“Gaine said her cousin was unmarried,” the Mayor thrust at her, intoning that someone was lying here. He swallowed the last of his latest cookie.

“That’s my sister in law you’re thinking of,” Meghan replied. “And she very recently married, I’m sure since Gaine last talked to you.”

“No, I’m quite sure she said you were unmarried.”

“Well, I’m not. But if it makes a difference, I have no plans to have children and my husband is very unlikely to be around for a good, long time.” She saw a raised brow or two including Nell’s and added, “He’s off seeking his fortune.” Everyone nodded knowingly. California was filled with men, many financially and emotionally broken at this point, who set out seeking their fortunes, their families left waiting years for their return.

“And I consider Nell and her family to be good frien…” Suddenly the door burst open and a flushed Gaine strode inside. She had ridden hard from town to get here. “I heared ya done comed out here ta see mah cousin,” she faced the Mayor.

“Sheriff,” the Mayor said addressing her stiffly in return. “We didn’t feel it was necessary to inform you of our plans since we were here to contact your cousin, not you.” He grabbed another cookie and took a large bite.

“Uh huh,” Gaine scrutinized their faces. They didn’t want her there during the negotiations more likely. Had they offered Meghan the teaching job then? And if so, at what salary? She was sure she could negotiate a higher amount.

“They didn’t realize I was married,” Meghan remarked, glad to see Gaine. The small blonde sat primly with her hands in her lap and Gaine could feel annoyance rolling off her. Gaine wondered what they’d said to rile her.

“Well,” the Mayor huffed, “It won’t do!” He jabbed the air with the rest of his cookie. “It is a woman’s job to promote the comfort and well-being of her husband and rear his children to be good citizens. She cannot do that and teach as well. It just is not done.” He took another bite.

“Seems ta me that if’n her husband ain’t gonna be ’round, it ain’t gonna matter if’n she takes yer job. She ain’t gonna be seein’ ta no husband’s well-bein’ so’s ya might jest sa well change yer rules an hire her.”

“No!” the Mayor replied, “It is man’s job to make the laws regarding all things, to keep everyone in their proper place as God and nature planned and women need stay in the sphere provided for them–the home.” He glanced at Gaine and amended, “Uh, I meant married women, of course.” He popped the last bite in his mouth and wiped his hand on his trouser leg.

“Course,” Gaine snorted, “But that thar sounds a heap more like’n man’s plan than nature’s plan.” The men scrunched their brows and each nervously grabbed for another molasses cookie. “The most dangerous cougar bees the female, Mayor. Doan never fergit that. Nature done made her a right fierce huntress. She doan stay ta home knittin’ by no fire. An Ah heared tell all them bees out collectin’ an a’makin’ that thar honey done bees females, too. They jest use a few males fer…uh, you knows, uh, with’n the queen. Anyways, best not be a’speakin’ ta quick regardin’ nature’s plans an’ whar females done fit in ‘t.”

“Good Heavens, Gaine,” the Mayor huffed. “Don’t be lecturing me about the bees.”

“Then doan be conveniently a’fergittin’ ’bout what all done constitutes nature.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” Meghan inserted quickly, disgusted at their treatment of Nell and not wanting Gaine to argue with them. She rose from her chair. “It would seem you’ve come far out of your way for nothing.”

“Yes, we have,” the Mayor grumbled, jamming another cookie into his mouth as he rose. He rammed his hat on his head and sipped the last of his coffee with his mouthful of cookie.

“Ah coulda telled ya she war married, if’n ya’d asked,” Gaine crossed her arms.

“My dear,” Westminster said stepping up to Meghan, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. “A kiss for luck,” he said with audacity. The look in his eyes was not that of a proper gentleman, “I’m sure you must get very lonely way out here with no proper male company. If you’d like, I’d be happy to bring out my carriage and escort you around the countryside sometime. Perhaps this Saturday?”

Gaine’s brow flew to her hairline but Meghan answered quickly, snatching her hand back, “No. I’m sure you understand how that would be completely improper for both of us. I would never consider such a thing, sir.”

“It IS improper, Westminster,” Mr. Altenman stated firmly. “You have forgotten yourself, my good man.”

“Come along, Westminster,” the Mayor growled. Gaine walked the three men to the door as they quickly finished their cookies.
She watched them get into their carriage to head back.

“Nell, I’m sorry for what that horrible man said,” Meghan whispered as Gaine stepped outside the door to watch the carriage pull away. “I don’t know why they think they can get so puffed up with their importance.”

“It’s all right,” Nell said. “They’re right. They’re the “qualities”. They do run the town and they know where we all fit in it. Besides, I’ve heard worse.”

“No, they’re NOT right. And I don’t care if they run the town or not. You and your family are worth a thousand of any one of those men.”

“Ah coulda saved ’em the trip,” Gaine mused aloud as she returned from the door. “Ah swear, that Mayor a’ ar’n bees a fool more times n’ not.” Nell looked over with surprise. When her husband was drunk he spoke disrespectfully of anybody in town, but she had never heard the Sheriff say anything about anyone else.

Gaine saw her questioning glance and added, “Well, jest lookit ‘im a’usin’ ‘is ole wore-out dray horse. He gots hisself a sturdy young carriage horse but he al’ays says he doan wanna wear the carriage horse out. So’s he uses ‘is ole dray ‘nstead while ‘is carriage horse gets fat n’ unusable from no exercise. Ain’t no gittin’ ’round ‘t..he bees a fool. Sides, he din’t hire Meghan, an’ ain’t he a fool fer that.”

“Gaine,” Meghan scolded. Then her voice changed. “I’m glad you came back.”

“Ah’m sorry ya doan git ta be no town teacher. Ya’d be right talented, Ah knows.”

“Well, I get to work with Nell’s young ones,” she smiled toward the woman who was preparing supper. “And they’re doing wonderfully.”

“I’m honored to have you teachin’ ’em, Kate! Both me and Shorty,” Nell’s eyes were still quite wide at their evaluations of the Mayor and the town trustees. These men ran the town. “Thank you for taking the time with the young uns.”

Nell didn’t know how to read or write herself and often worried about her children. They couldn’t afford this new school the town was starting. But by listening to the childrens’ lessons, she was beginning to understand how reading and writing worked. She was even learning to write her own name, even though Shorty would probably be furious if he found out. He barely knew how to write his name and wouldn’t want her knowing more than he did. She’d have to pretend she didn’t know anything.

“You’re welcome, I’m sure,” Meghan brushed off her skirt. “I’ll get my apron and help you with supper. Goodness, Nell, they loved your cookies. Can you believe how many they ate?” They all looked at the empty plate. “Who do you think they’ll get to teach in my place, Gaine?”

“Uh, prob’bly Meier’s son. Ah heared he war a’comin’ home fer a spell.”

“Do fellas that teach have to follow the same rules as the ladies?”

Gaine shrugged. “Sortta. They doan let fellas teach if’n theys had a shave ‘n a barber shop,” she replied, “er been ta public halls, er smoked er drank none.”

“I understand some of that, but why the barbershop part? We didn’t have a barbershop in Jub..uh, where I was raised.”

“Barbershops ain’t seemly, Ah reckon. Hows they’s talks an’ such casts doubt on tha fella’s intentions er integrity. An’ they does keep many a’ them shops open on Sundays, ya know.”

“They do?” Meghan paused,”My father smokes AND drinks, maybe they’re right.”

He gots far worst besettin’ sins ‘n that, Gaine thought, but she wisely mumbled, “Mmm.”

-***-

In Jubilee City, the two oldest sons returned to find each family’s house filled with visiting sisters and their families. They did not have their father’s remains with them. The heat on the trip forced them to bury him in a small town cemetery on the way home. He was placed in the ground in the Sacramento pine box which they blackened with shoe polish as their mother had suggested. The grave, which they paid a digger twenty-five cents to dig, was marked with a wooden cross with his name and date of birth and death.

The family understood the impossibility of the men’s task. The family “mourners” gathered at their mother’s home. The unwelcome news that Mr. Fitzgeraldson had not only been arrested for molestation, but had been seen by a stage full of people trying to shoot a woman in the back was discussed in hushed tones in the kitchen with Brenna’s husband while the others filled the parlor and front porch completely unaware of such “sins” of the older man.

Mrs. Fitzgeraldson worked quietly nearby, but the men quit speaking if anyone else entered. At this point, they said, their father’s five hundred dollar bond was in the court’s hands and might not be released. The three men vowed to keep all this news quiet and prayed no one from their town would hear of this disgrace.

The murdered man had few possessions in Sacramento–some clothing and some cleaning supplies. But all his valuables were gone. The Deputy there said the Marshal hadn’t made an arrest, but was out of town on that job as they spoke.

They were informed that from what the Marshal had told him, the murdered man’s daughter had gone missing the night she arrived, but it was thought she had run off, possibly with the young officer who had ridden on the stage with them. They’d know more when the Marshal returned.

Her mother’s eyes lit up at that and her heart filled with joy. Perhaps her daughter had gotten away. She said nothing but felt instantly giddy with the information although her oldest son scowled like his father at the telling.

Brogan Jr. was livid. Meghan had been needed to complete their deal. While they were there they decided they’d try to locate Lendal to see if he had signed the partnership agreement and taken Meghan as agreed. They looked everywhere but hadn’t been able to locate him or Meghan.

That brought a further look of hope to their mother’s eyes. They reported that even more discouraging was the news that their father’s financial funding for the new business had apparently been stolen before he had completed the deal with the northern wagon company. Brenna’s husband swore and all men agreed.

The bright side, they remarked, was that knowing Lendal’s doggedness, he’d find Meghan before long. They said they went out to his home to get a signature on their contracts as had been previously agreed. Their father, of course, wouldn’t be able to sign them at this point, but they were representatives of the company and could do so in his place. They had hoped to scrape together enough money to complete the original deal. They fully expected to find Meghan there, but she wasn’t. Nor was Lendal anywhere to be found. His family didn’t know where either might be.

Peter said they then went by the Sheriff’s office in Miner’s Flat where Lendal lived and discovered that the Deputy, Lendal’s cousin, had gone missing, too. He hadn’t returned for work as expected nor had he left any word as to where he was going. The only thing they could think was that the two men were out searching for Meghan. This brought a look of terror to their mother’s eyes.

Brogan Jr. reassured them that Lendal would track her down. And they, of course, would give him any help he needed. When he found her, however, he needed to sign their contracts. He suggested that they write a letter to him with that firm proposal. It was only fitting. He’d already agreed once and it meant money in their pockets as beneficiaries of their father’s estate. It would be a wealthy future for them all. Their mother’s elation disappeared. She prayed fervently that they were wrong about Lendal, but she had great fear. She knew Lendal and it was an understatement to say he was relentless, cruel and ruthless.

Peter said they felt badly for their sister, of course. Lendal would deal harshly with Meghan. But she’d brought it on herself by running off. She needed to understand her duty. “Father always said she needed a firm hand!” he added.

I did not raise you well, their mother thought. Forgive me. You both sound so much like your father.

The Jubilee City editor had written a favorable death notice in their small town paper. It called Mr. Fitzgeraldson “a man of upright character, noted for his morality, rectitude and keen discernment in business matters.”

Everyone in town wondered what would happen with his business. The new widow knew that Brenna and her husband, plus Peter and Brogan Jr. would continue running the shop. Not much would change. She knew that Brenna would never cheat her siblings, but she wasn’t at all sure about her daughter’s husband. And she knew her oldest two sons would undoubtedly do so.
Clad in her new widow’s weeds, the widow dried her hands on her apron and moved out into the parlor to gain some quiet strength from her other children. She could not bear to think of Lendal in pursuit of her daughter, or worse yet, actually in possession of Meghan. She noted the black eye worn by Brogan Jr.’s wife, Jennie and sighed heavily. Please get away, Meghan. Get far, far away.

Chapter 9

Shorty was a quiet, nonassertive man when he wasn’t drinking. He had managed to find a job on a farm and had worked steadily since Nell left with the children and had her neighbor take them out to Gaine’s ranch. That was after he blacked her eye and punched out some of her teeth. Sunday afternoon he combed his hair, trimmed his beard and rode out to the ranch to tell Nell it was time for her and the children to come back home.

Gaine saw him coming and asked Nell what she would like to do about it. She was willing to go to whatever lengths Nell wanted, as much as she was able. She told the woman that if she didn’t want to see him, she would tell him to leave. But Nell chose to see him. Without another word Gaine opened the door to let him inside. He stood quietly on the porch, his hat in his hand. He did not look at Gaine, but quietly moved past her to speak with Nell.

Meghan Kate joined Gaine on the porch. They both knew they would miss Nell and the children terribly if she chose to go back. They couldn’t imagine the ranch without the cheerful sounds of the children and the sight of Nell cooking in the kitchen.
‘But if Shorty has changed his life,’ Meghan Kate said hopefully. She was trying to get people to call her Kate, but Gaine had trouble leaving off the Meghan part, so she had taken to calling her Meghan Kate. The blonde raised hopeful eyes to Gaine. ‘He has a steady job.’

‘Yep. Ah jest hope he’s truly done with’n ‘is drinkin’, ‘ Gaine was almost afraid to hope. She’d seen him sober before.

An hour later Shorty left and Nell informed them that she had made the decision to go back sometime during the week. Since Shorty was gone all week, it would be a good way to ease into the situation. She opened her hand to show some greenbacks Shorty had given her. ‘For expenses. But I should give this to you,’ she said, ‘to help with supplies we’ve used.’

‘No. Yus git supplies once’t yer back. Ahm glad he’s workin’. T’is a good start.’

The next day Meghan and Nell rode into town with Gaine when she went to work. The two women thoroughly cleaned Nell and Shorty’s ramshackle home so that lice would not be a continuing problem. The next day Nell packed up the children and Gaine drove them back into town. They brought five setting hens from the ranch to trade for five of Nell’s. Meghan was sure she could get Nell’s five laying again once they had better feed. Everyone at the ranch was sad when Nell’s family left, but the dogs were devastated.

They had made an agreement of sorts about the children’s education. When she had time, Meghan would come into town and teach the older ones, five years and older, hopefully using the church building. That would involve four of Shorty and Nell’s six children. None of the little ones worked the harvest or fall roundup as such.

The pastor and church elders, however, refused to let Meghan Kate use the church building so Gaine offered her tiny office instead, which had the Mayor up in arms. Knowing that people in town did not think well of Shorty or his family, but believing that the pastor’s wife was more kindhearted than not, Gaine went to her and shamed what her husband and the elders were doing. At last the Pastor made his way to Gaine’s office with the agreement that as long as Meghan Kate brought her own broom and lamp oil, filled and cleaned the lamp chimney, swept and wiped down the pews every day after they were finished and didn’t use the stove, she could use it.

To help trim expenses, Meghan Kate planned to pick the sunniest spot in the church to give her lessons with the hope of using no lamp oil at all. The weather was warm so she needed no heat. She collected pieces of soapstone to use as chalk and had Gaine provide her with a piece of an old wagon box for a chalkboard. She priced the broom at the store and flinched at having to pay twenty-five cents. Their budget couldn’t afford that. Gaine said to use the one from her office and she’d deal with the Mayor, who grumbled everytime he passed her thereafter.

At last their plans were completed and the lessons in town began. And so it was that one morning while Meghan Kate was intently working with the children as they sat in the front pew of the church, the door opened and a town stranger cautiously entered, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the subdued light. He took a gold watch from his pocket and flicked the nob that popped the lid open before closing the lid again with a snap. His austere eyes caught Kate’s and a confident edge twitched his mouth. He started up the aisle toward her.

“Oh, gods! No!” Meghan Kate muttered with alarm. Her heart was pounding in her throat. The man had seen her look up.
“Willy,” she whispered, “go find the Sheriff and tell her to get here right away! Hurry!”

“Yes, ma’am,” the young girl replied and slipped from the pew, alarmed at the fright she heard in her teacher’s voice. She had to go past the large stranger who was treading slowly down the aisle towards them, so she ran pell mell hoping to get past in a hurry.
The man reached out a hand and caught Willy by the arm in a firm grip, “Where ya going, Missy?”

“Let me go!” she demanded, swinging her leg to kick him. The man quickly stepped out of the way of her foot but she had taken him by surprise nonetheless. “Teacher, tell him to let me go,” Willy demanded.

He laughed. “I ain’t gonna hold ya up. Looks like ya gotta go.”

“Cousin Minnie, who is that man?” little Dennis asked. All the children leaned in closer to Meghan Kate. The small blonde could not talk. Her voice was in her throat and she could feel the pulse in her neck throbbing.

“Sheriff! Sheriff! Where are ya?” Willy called into the empty Sheriff’s office. “Cousin Minnie needs ya! Hurry!”
Gaine had been walking back to her office after stopping at the saloon to make sure there were no problems then she’d picked up
the mail at the mercantile. She had a handful of new ‘Wanted’ posters that had come in on the latest delivery. She heard Willy shouting and ran towards her. “What t’is it? What’s happenin’?”

“A man! He’s scaring Cousin…uh, our teacher!”

“Whar?”

“At the church.”

Gaine took off on the run, dropping the posters in the street. She tore across in front of a wagon and barely missed being trampled. She hit the opposite boardwalk in two steps then hit the church stairs, taking them all three at a time. She flung the door open, her gun drawn. There in the front, before Meghan Kate, was the stranger in town.

He turned as she came in. “Sheriff,” he said. “I see word travels fast in these parts.” There was a smirk on his face and a watch in one hand.

“Marshal,” Gaine replied, replacing her gun into the holster. “What ‘er ya doing botherin’ them thar school childerns durin’ larnin’ time?”

“An old man at the store said your cousin was teaching over here. I thought it was time to see her face. ‘Sides, you weren’t at your desk when I went by.” His deep voice resonated acoustically in the room.

“Gaine, he says a Mr. Brogan Fitzgeraldson is dead,” Meghan’s voice was unsteady and her large green eyes were directed almost pleadingly at Gaine. Her face was very pale. Her eyes moved to the pocket watch in the man’s hand.

“Mr. Fitzgeraldson? From the stage?” Gaine took off her hat before proceeding forward.

“The very one,” the Marshal stated, facing towards her. His hat was in one hand, the watch in the other.

“How’d he die?”

“Stabbed.” The five-year old Dennis put his hand on his mouth in terror and the children bunched even closer together.

“When? Whar? Who done it?” Gaine moved down to the group. Willy came along carefully behind her. Willy slipped back onto the pew with her siblings, protectively putting her arms around the nearest. The children sat quietly, watching the interaction, terrified at the thought of a man being murdered.

“He was brutally stabbed later that day after you two left town.” The children gasped but he continued, “It was in his room. His valuables are missing so we’re considering robbery as the motive. Now what else did you ask? Oh, yes, who did it? Well, that’s really why I’m here.”

Gaine tensed. “Ya thinks someones from here done it?” she asked incredulously. Meghan sat, shocked, her attention now on the door and not on either adult. Her father was dead? Had been for weeks? She felt…surprise. That was all. She knew she should feel something more, but she didn’t.

“No. No one from here. I was just telling your Cousin Minnie here, that I’m on my way to Jubilee City to meet with the family of Mr. Fitzgeraldson.”

“Couldn’t ya jest wire his fam’ly?” Gaine asked looking curiously at the gold pocket watch in the Marshal’s hand. “Seems like a fer piece ta go ta give notice.”

“Oh, I did. But I’ve arrested the murderer,” he said proudly, “And I need Mr. Fitzgeraldson’s wife to verify that this was indeed her husband’s pocket watch. I found it in the possession of the man I believe killed him, the last man we can prove to have seen him alive…that we know of, of course.”

Gaine’s eyes did not move from the gold watch in the man’s hand. She remembered the watch Meghan’s father had opened time after time on the stage. Blue eyes scrutinized the elaborate scene engraved in the gold lid, “Done looks like the same watch he had hisself on that thar stage. Same pitcher, nohow. Who war the fella ya arrested?”

“Lendal Hindlefarb,” the deep voice of the Marshal echoed. Meghan’s head whipped up, then she glanced quickly down to the floor. Lendal’d been arrested? The Marshal continued, “He had a motive for murder, the opportunity to do the deed, the likely weapon in his boot and a fierce temper. It was a vicious killing.”

“Cousin Minnie,” the smallest boy’s lip had been quivering as he whimpered. He moved from Willy’s grip and threw his arms around Meghan. “A man was murd….”

“NO!” Willy shouted to the small boy, “She ain’t Cousin Minnie!”

The Marshal’s shocked eyes instantly went to Meghan as did Gaine’s.

“We’s s’posed ta call her Mrs. Sargos. Momma said so. Said it’s only fittin’ fer a teacher.”

Meghan embraced the child and ran her hand softly across his head. “There, there, Dennis, don’t cry.” She looked up at Gaine,
“Not the topic to discuss around children,” she admonished gently, her own mind whirling.

“No, ma’am,” the Marshal replied. “I apologize heartily. The Sheriff here and I will continue this outside. You’re the one I wanted to see, anyway, Sheriff. Uh, sorry children. Nice to have met you again, ma’am.” The two walked down the aisle, hats in hand, Gaine looking back once to see that Meghan Kate was all right. She was sitting motionless watching them go out.

“Ya come quite a ways outta yer way ta tell me sumthin’ ya coulda’ writ about,” Gaine said to the man as they stepped out the doors. She replaced her hat and stopped by the top step of the church entry and crossed her arms. Her beautiful black hair flowed over her shoulders, highlighting her deep blue eyes. But her stance was all business.

“I wanted your observation since I was gonna be in these parts anyway.” The Marshal cleared his throat, put on his hat and pushed it back on his head. He leaned back against the railing.

“Mah observation?” Gaine tilted her head.

“Of the watch. You were on that stage. You saw him use it. I want your observation. Is this his watch?” He handed Gaine the watch. She took it, looked it over carefully, popped the lid and looked at the inside. She closed the lid, turned it over, looked at the bottom then held it to see the gold fob dangle.

“Looks like it. Gots the same design. Ah does ‘member that. But Ah doan know how many like it war maneefactured that year.”

“Two hundred and seventy five,” the Marshal replied.

“Mmm. That thar’s quite a batch.”

“Yes. However not that many were sold out west here. And it’s the preponderance of evidence that’s important. My suspect was there, he had the right kind of weapon, he had the dead man’s contracts, he had a wad of money like the dead man had earlier when he was jailed, he was heard speaking angrily with the man, and he had the murdered man’s watch but he didn’t have the money belt.”

“A wad a’ money? Ah din’t know Fitzgeraldson had that. He din’t flash it around none er nothin’.” Gaine smiled at the couple on the boardwalk walking past them. They glanced back with smiles, the gentleman tipped his hat in return before they continued along the boardwalk.

“Yes. He had a money belt as full as a fat man at a five day feast when I arrested him. Had to put it into Pott’s store safe for safe keeping. It was mighty full.”

“Ahl be.’ Gaine thought about it then looked back at the watch, ‘So’s, what if’n that ain’t Fitzgeraldson’s watch?”

“If it could be proved it wasn’t Mr. Fitzgeraldson’s, then this Lendal’s claims would have more weight and there’d be a good chance he’d go free.”

“His claims?” Gaine’s eyes stayed on the watch as did the Marshal’s.

“Yes, he claims that the money was his. He was to become a secret partner with Mr. Fitzgeraldson, he said. And he did withdraw some money from his bank and he did have possession of some unsigned partnership agreements.” The Marshal glanced up, “But one has to wonder why he didn’t get them signed and pay the money to Fitzgeraldson when he was with him that morning? Why walk out and leave the man, without exchanging the money or the contracts?”

“Hmm. So, whadid he say whar the reason?” Inquisitive blue eyes focused on brown.

“He got angry and shouted ‘Brogan cheated me!”

‘Cheated him?’ Gaine ran a hand on her neck, trying to loosen the muscles.

‘Yep. That’s what he said. He was angry and anger figures greatly in my theory of what happened. And the money, well this man had a good deal more money on him than what he withdrew from his bank. He claims he made a big profit on some mules he’d delivered to the crossroad and that was the extra, but the teamster he says bought them left town. He didn’t know where he went or when he’d return.’

“Ah believe Ah heared that thar Lendal fella war a’workin’ with mules, though.”

“Yes, he raised them. So, of course he would say that’s what he sold to get the extra money. He just can’t prove it. Didn’t find anyone to verify his claim except his oldest son. And believe me, I don’t hang my hat on much his oldest boy says. And that boy influences all the rest so you can’t believe any of them. They’d do whatever he told them to do.”
‘Ya doan say.’

‘Yep. Then he told some big story about how he and Fitzgeraldson’s company were going to invest in another wagon shop that was offering them a very good buy-out price. And there was a shop by the name he gave. But when I talked to those wagon fellows, two partners, they both denied any knowledge of such a deal. Both said it was ridiculous, they’d never sell for anywhere near that low a price. That’s what they told me. So I figured maybe that’s what Lendal meant about being cheated. Maybe the old man told him there’d be a takeover, brought money as proof of his share and it was all a sham to get Lendal’s money.”

“Maybe. I wouldn’t put it past the old man. Did Lendal have the coin with’n the hole in’t?”

“No. We figure he sold that somewhere in San Francisco and maybe threw away the belt the money was kept in. We didn’t find it either. But he did have the money and the watch, which he claims were both his. So, a sure identification on the watch, if it can be made, would go a long way toward establishing his innocence or guilt. Now, his children say the watch was his, but they would, wouldn’t they?”

“Ah ‘spose. Did ya check on that feller’s first wife?”

“And that’s another thing. I’m still investigating it. Now that I’ve arrested him, and that wasn’t easy, believe me… Anyway, I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to get his youngest child aside and that I won’t have to let him go before I can. I think she’ll give us information no one else is willing to give about the first wife. But time’s running out on this case. He’s pressing hard for bail. So far I’ve been able to fend that off. And I surely don’t want to have to set him free for lack of evidence.”

‘No. Ya had trouble arrestin’ ‘im, ya say?’

‘First I had to chase him down. He got himself arrested trying to break into the Presidio.’

‘The Presidio?’

‘Yep. I think he was going after the Lieutenant as much as I can figure. This was after he left the Sacramento hotel where Mr. Fitzgeraldson was found in a pool of his own blood. Anyway, this suspect of mine convinced the Army that he was just trying to break in on a lark..a saloon bet of some kind. They let him go.’

‘He bees a dodgy one, doan he?” Gaine frowned. Lendal was like a huntin’ dog goin’ for a rabbit. He had to have been going after the Lieutenant. The audacity of the man, trying to do that in a fully manned location. But then she considered what his cousin had done to the four Army boys, four against one. No, they couldn’t afford to underestimate Lendal one bit, especially if the Marshal had to let him go. She’d have to be extra vigilant in watching over Meghan Kate.

“Yes. He’s dodgy, all right.” The Marshal’s brown eyes looked away then returned to her blue. “Tell ya the truth, I’ve seen many a man, Sheriff, but this fellow is as evil as any I’ve ever seen.”

‘What Ah heared ’bout him shore fits that description.’

‘Yes, well after being released by the Army he headed for Sunnyhill where you killed his cousin there in China Cup Valley. Funny thing is, Mr. Thatcher who also shot the Deputy disappeared after Lendal got there. Haven’t found a sign of the man. Just up and disappeared. It’s very suspicious, but I can’t prove a thing against Lendal for that. If I were a bettin’ man, however, I’d say he was involved.’

“That Thatcher feller war a nice man. Ah hopes he turns up alive ‘n well somewhar.’

‘He left all his things at the hotel.’

‘Goddam,’ Gaine muttered softly. That was not good news. She sighed heavily, ‘that whar ya arrested ‘im?’

‘Yep. Me ‘n the Sheriff of Sunnyhill. I recognized Lendal right off, even if he had shaved his beard. He tried runnin’, and hidin’. But we saw him in the woods. When we finally got him trapped, which was none too easy, he gave up without a fight, claimin’ his innocence of any crime of any kind. Hired the best attorney money can buy.’

‘Well, Ah wisht Ah could tell ya definitively one way er t’uther ’bout the watch. Shore looks like his, gots the same designs an’ all, an the same gold fob. They come with that?” She moved the watch and let the fob swing.

“Yep.”

“Mmm. Well, that’s as particular as Ah kin be fer ya. Sorry.” She handed the watch back to the Marshal.

“That’s all right. Every bit of information helps. Mr. Fitzgeraldson’s wife is the one I’m hoping will positively identify it. See, it has a little scrape here below the release.” He turned it over and pointed out the scrape to Gaine. “If she says its her husband’s, your identification will support her word. So I’m glad to have your opinion. You were an eye witness to the watch. A Sheriff’s word is always good testimony.”

“Ah doan ‘member ’bout no scrape. Sorry. Can’t see it none when t’is held. ‘N he al’ays held it so’s nobody could see’t.”

“I remember.” The Marshal jammed the watch in his coat pocket.

“So, do ya be four days glad fer my ‘pinion? Cause that’s what it done cost ya to come by here. Two in, two out.”

“Yes. Four days glad. Oh, and his daughter that disappeared–she left a note. She was twenty one like you said.”
Gaine forced herself not to blink. “Ah. Ya found a note.”

“He had it torn up in his pocket. He was going to claim she was younger, I’m quite sure so we’d search for her as a kidnap victim.
But we know it couldn’t have been her that killed him.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, women aren’t killers,” he looked at her and added, “usually. And it would take far too much strength for a young woman to kill a man of that size with a knife. With a gun, yes. But not with a knife. Now this murderer knew what he was doing with that knife. It woulda been fast and mostly noiseless. Cut his throat then stabbed him a couple times more afterward, likely in pure hate or rage. The knife blows show it was someone tall…tall as you. But you’ve got a perfect alibi. I seen ya leave and ya were on site at that Army wagon attack. I heard all about that business. You couldn’t be in both places at once, not that I’da suspected ya, of course.”

“Uh huh. We both know ever’body’s a suspect ‘n a murder. What all happened with that thar young Army fella that war hurt sa bad, ya heard?”

“Still alive when I went through a few days ago. Doctor’s still got him at his house. Now the Deputy that perpetrated that crime was a real mystery. His name was Garblon, Baylis A. Garblon. They know where he lived. But the why of his crime just seems preposterous.” The Marshal shook his head, “That cousin of this Lendal fellow beat that young soldier somethin’ awful. Broke his feet up and bashed his innards. Just to find where the Fitzgeraldson girl went, far as they can determine. I do believe they’re cut from the same cloth, those cousins. Army’s got their boys investigatin’ that affair. Imagine gettin’ the drop on four soldiers! Ya gotta be damn cunnin’ ta do that.”

“An’ skilled,” Gaine muttered with a shiver. She thought how it likely wasn’t the first time he’d done such crimes. She added, “So, what be the mystery ’bout that Deputy feller then, that he caught ’em off guard er the why a what he done?”

“No, the mystery I was referring to is that Mr. Fitzgeraldson died with the Deputy’s badge in his hand. But the Deputy himself was in China Cup Valley at that time. So why did Mr. Fitgeraldson have his badge?

“Ah see,’ Gaine furrowed her brow but couldn’t think of any reason why Meghan Kate’s father would have the Deputy’s badge in his hand. ‘ that t’is a might strange.”

“Yep. Sometimes there are mysteries ya never solve, I guess. I know Lendal and this Deputy were related and at least two crimes were committed, the murder of Mr. Fitzgeraldson and the attempted murder of the Army boys. I’m quite sure each man was responsible for at least one of those crimes. Guess I’m gonna have to be happy with solving that much.”

“Hmm. Yep, Ah see whatcha means.” Gaine started down the stairs and the Marshal followed. “Well, Marshal, appreciate yer sharin’. I hafta go check on mah riders and see if’n they done spotted ana’thing. We’ve gots usn’s some rustlers a’ravagin’ these here parts an Ahm determined they ain’t comin’ inta ar town er gittin’ eny a’ ar’ ranches.”

“I heard about that. The Double X Ranch they hit, wasn’t it?” The Marshal’s deep voice ruffled his mustache as he talked. He pushed his hat back on his head as they walked.

“Yep. Close. Too close.” Gaine walked beside the man toward a horse with a saddle she knew must be his.

“I hope ya catch ’em,” the Marshal remarked.

“Me, too. Here ya are, Marshal,” Gaine stopped before the horse.

“How’d ya know this was my horse? Am I the only stranger in town?”

“Mostly. Sides, punchers doan need ta rent hosses from tha livery as a rule and that’s what we got ’round here, punchers. Yer saddlehorn ain’t got no rope marks on’t, sa it doan belong ta no cowpuncher er even sheepman. Thar’s al’ays gots rope marks.”

“I’ve got a rope there.”

“Yep. An’ t’is hung on thar Texas style only ya ain’t from Texas. Now Slim over ta the livery whar the stage stops, he’s from Texas. This here’s his doin’s.”

The Marshal laughed his deep laugh. “Ya ever want a job in Sacramento, come see me. I’ll have one for ya.”
Gaine took off her hat. “Thanks. Say, could ya send me any news ’bout this here case an’ how it turns out? I’m plumb curious now.”

“Sure thing. I’ll let ya know what happens.”

“‘Preciate it.” Gaine put her hat back on and turned toward her office as the Marshal mounted. She glanced in the street then back as the Marshal rode from town. Someone had picked up the mail she’d dropped. She’d likely find it neatly stacked on her desk.

Meghan Kate was quiet as Gaine helped her into the buckboard to head home that evening. She was still pale. They didn’t have a chance to eat noon dinner together since Gaine had to ride out to the Wilson place about a missing horse old man Wilson thought sure the rustlers had stolen. Turned out it had wandered loose and was down by the water elms along the creek bank on his neighbor’s property.

Gaine watched the small blonde from the side of her eye. It had to have been a shock to discover her father was dead, so the tall brunette tried not to push against her unusual silence. They started off without speaking, Meghan Kate’s eyes drifting off to the horizon.

Partway home she turned to Gaine. “He had father’s watch. He’s really dead. Father’s dead.” Her eyes held disbelief. “And Lendal killed him. I can’t believe it.” She still had no particular feelings regarding her father’s death save surprise. That and a touch of relief she resisted recognizing. “They were friends so long.”

“Yep. Them things happen.” Gaine knew exactly what her own feelings were– liberation. She felt the way the blonde’s father had treated Meghan Kate was malevolent and she bore no sorrow hearing of his demise. And further, if Lendal were to pay the ultimate price for his crime, so much the better in her thoughts. She saw Meghan Kate gaze open-mouthed at the scenery again.

“Did you see the scratches on the inside of the watch case? The Marshal didn’t open it when he held it in front of me.” Meghan Kate looked down at the slightly too large white kid gloves her mother had given her and wondered how her mother would feel when she learned of her hated husband’s death.

“Scratches? No. Thar warn’t no scratches inside.”

Meghan spun and grabbed Gaine’s arm. “There weren”t? You didn’t see any scratches? Oh, Gaine!”

Gaine slowed the horses to stare at Meghan Kate’s shocked face. “Warn’t none. Jest a little scrape ‘neath the re-lease.”

“Oh, dear heavens! That wasn’t father’s watch!”

“It warn’t? Look’t jest like it war. Ah ‘member the same scene a’bein’ ta the lid.”

“No! My father had me polish his watch all the time. Once a number of years back a little grit got into the rag and made some deep scratch marks on the inside of the lid before I realized it. He beat me soundly for that. They lightened with age, but they were deep and still there. That’s why I always hated when he opened the lid. It reminded him and kept him angry at me.’

‘Din’t see none,’ Gaine said softly.

‘Oh, heavens! The watch was just like father’s but it had no scratches.” She gazed out into the distance and chewed her lip. “What do I do, Gaine? We’ve got to tell the Marshal. Stop! I’ve got to find him. He has to know.”

Gaine reined in the horses. It would be hard catching the Marshal at this point. He had most of a day’s headstart. Going after him might even mean riding all the way into Jubilee City. And Meghan Kate’s family would know then where she was. No telling what that might mean for her safety, particularly since Lendal would most likely be released because of the information.

Gaine wildly grasped at possibilities. She could write a letter to the Marshal’s office in Sacramento. Saying what? That she remembered scratches inside Fitzgeraldson’s watch? A flat out lie unless she involved Meghan Kate. But it would be better than putting the blonde at risk. Then another thought came into Gaine’s mind, “Uh, did yer Ma know ’bout them scratch marks ya made?”

“Yes.” the blonde continued chewing her lip, “Everyone did. I think Mother suffered as badly from that beating as I did, just out of sympathy.”

Gaine let out a sigh of relief. “Then doan worry none ’bout it, honey. Marshal’s headed a’right out ta see her. Yer Momma’ll point it out ta ‘im.” Gaine saw that information run behind Meghan Kate’s eyes. The small blonde visibly relaxed some. Gaine clicked the horses on again.

Meghan Kate considered. Of course. Her mother would set the Marshal straight. “They’ll let Lendal go.” She shivered and there was a quaver of grief in her voice.

“Could be. What ain’t ‘n contention bees that he done had the right kinda weapon, the wrong kinda temper an’ a congruous opportunity ta use both.”

“No, honey,” Meghan Kate replied, “I think when they know for sure that it wasn’t his watch, they’ll let him go. I wish they wouldn’t, but I think they will.”

“Ah know. They need ta find out more ’bout his first wife and get him fer that.”

“Ruby? Yes. Do YOU think Lendal killed my father?”

“Could be. Would he steal from yer Pa?”

“I have no idea. He wasn’t a nice man. That’s all I know. I guess he might.”

‘Would yer Pa try ‘n steal from him?’
‘Father stealing from Lendal? I think he might have been too leery of Lendal’s temper. That would be the only reason, though. Why?’

“Marshal said yer Pa war carryin’ a thick belt a money that war stole from ‘im and a wad war found on Lendal when they caught ‘im. More’n he could ‘splain away. So’s thar be a question whether Lendal stole from yer Pa.”

“He had father’s money? I never knew when father was carrying money. I know he didn’t ever put much stock in banks. Money was of greatest importance to him. He did have a business meeting set up for after I was to be married, so I guess he would have carried some. I don’t know what it was or if Lendal was supposed to be involved in it or not.”

“Well, doan worry none ’bout it, honey. Yer Momma’ll let the Marshal know ’bout the scratches. Ain’t nothin’ more ta be done.”

“Yes. Momma will set it all straight.”

-***-

Three days later Mrs. Fitzgeraldson sat across from the Marshal in the parlor. Her young teenaged sons were sent out at her request. Her out-of-town children had all headed back home and they were now getting the house and remaining furnishings ready to sell.

“The boys’ve had quite a lot to deal with, with my husband’s death and all,” she explained. But in truth she knew her older boys would not want any of their father’s sins brought up around the younger boys, should the Marshal do so.
The Marshal held out the watch to her and her eyes looked into his.

“Is this your husband’s pocket watch?” he asked. “I’m trying to make a positive identification.”

She questioned where he had gotten it, and he told her. He told her who the suspect was. He explained the man had been arrested for her husband’s murder, but they needed to know if she could positively identify the watch. But she need feel no pressure either way, he told her. A simple identification one way or the other would be fine. Or if she didn’t know for sure, that would suffice as well.

She knew, of course, that it wouldn’t suffice. Not at all. Lendal’s watch or her husband’s? Lendal had possessed this one when they’d arrested him. Did they even know whether he had ever owned one of his own like this? She didn’t think they knew. His children would have said he did, but considering they would be too frightened to do anything but lie for him, no one would believe them.

This man, this horrible vicious man that repeatedly beat Ruby savagely, maimed her and ultimately, she was sure, killed her…her dear friend Ruby. The same man to whom her husband had promised their precious Meghan…did he have Meghan? She felt a catch in her throat just thinking about it. She had to clamp down on her lower lip to keep it from quivering. Was Meghan under his evil influence somewhere? And what if she’d gotten away? He’d go after her. He’d search till he found her. And he’d hurt her so badly when he found her. She knew that much about him.

Slowly she pressed the button that popped the lid open. She looked inside and rubbed her fingers over the smooth gold metal on the inside of the lid. He might have Meghan right now. Like he had Ruby, her dear friend… They were neighbors when they were both starting out, young, innocent brides. Then she remembered the beatings Lendal administered to her. Even when she was pregnant, which she always was, he would beat her and kick her mercilessly. Ruby would roll her small body around the unborn child to do her best for its survival. Even so, she had a number of miscarriages.

She looked at the lid to the watch. She turned it over in her hands. She saw the small nick below the release. Was this watch her husband’s? Could she positively identify it as his?

-***-

It took a while, but even the dogs got used to just the four adults being at the ranch. Meghan cooked, cleaned, worked on her rag rug and still managed to make it into town to work with the children three times a week until the fruit began to ripen. Then all of her time was taken up with drying and canning and storing for winter use. Even so, Meghan worried whether the children were eating well enough. They were naturally thin children but on the ranch their appetites had increased and they’d become more active and healthy. As Meghan saw them in town, however, the less active and the more pale they seemed.

Sure that they weren’t eating regularly, she sent large biscuit sandwiches with Gaine each day to give to Willy, all her brothers, and three-year old sister, Bongo. And she sent bushels of fruit for the family at least once a week. She knew Nell would never accept a daily lunch for herself.

The attention did not go unnoticed by the townsfolk and drew mixed reviews. There were those who were pleased that this family was getting much needed help. But there were always those who were very unhappy that a family of such poor means not only had their children learning to read and write without paying a cent, but were also using the Sheriff’s valuable time each and every day. And there were a certain few who thought the Sheriff should spend her time exclusively patrolling the saloons and other troubled areas and not spend a minute with this group of “filthy beggars”.

Gaine ignored the talk. If she wasn’t out of the office on business, she would ask Willy, “Ya ready fer dinner?” and the young girl who constantly hung around her office would answer, “Sure.” Gaine would unwrap their lunch, take out her own part and push the rest across the desk to Willy. The eight-year old would stand and eat her share while Gaine sat across the desk eating hers, neither finding any need to chatter while they did so.

Life was not easy for Willy, Gaine knew. The town children harassed her and her brothers, but mostly her, and the young girl often found herself scrapping with them to protect herself and her siblings. They mocked her about her clothes, her drunken father and taunted that her family sorted through garbage to find scraps like stray dogs. Gaine stopped them when she was able, but she knew it was still going on.

Each day when they finished eating, Willy would tie the rest of the lunch in the cloth napkin, holler “bye” and run off to find her brothers and little sister to give them their share. She always returned the large napkin afterward. When Gaine was called away from town, she would either give the lunch to Willy early if she saw her or leave it on her desk for the girl.

When she returned after five one afternoon and found her office locked with the package still there on her desk, she asked the men in the cooper’s shop who had locked her office. They told her the Mayor had been by and locked it. Gaine was instantly furious. There were those who took a certain pleasure in grinding the downtrodden underfoot and the Mayor was one of them.
Ya rotten, mean-spirited buzzard! she slammed her hand on the locked door. Pickin’ on childerns! Keepin’ food out a their mouths! Ya ain’t never gonna be a’doin’ that ag’in! She pulled out her gun and shot out the lock, even though she had a key. Now it wouldn’t lock!

Gaine looked around town but couldn’t find Willy. Even Nell didn’t know where she was. Whadid he say ta her? Gaine wondered. Finally she spotted the girl sitting forlornly on the bank of the river. She looked at an approaching Gaine with a sad expression then dropped her eyes back to the river.

“Here ya be. Ah left this fer ya,” Gaine held out the lunch package to the girl.

“You brought dinner today?” Willy asked, her eyes registering doubt.

“Yep. Ah left it fer ya but mah office done got locked. Sorry. It ain’t gonna happen ag’in.”

“Oh,” Willy said with large, innocent eyes. “The Mayor said you didn’t want me by there no more. He said I ain’t ‘sposed to bother ya never ag’in.”

Gaine sat down on the bank beside the small girl. “Ya ain’t no bother. Ya knows that.” She saw Willy’s lip quiver. The girl wiped a quick tear from her eye then looked away. “Look,” Gaine continued, “A Sheriff’s office kin be a right dangerous place. Maybe he war frightened fer yer safety.” She looked at the small girl and they both knew the Mayor had not been concerned about Willy’s safety. “Tell ya the truth, Ah doan know what he war a’thinkin’ but he got ‘t t’all mixed up. Ain’t nothin’ changed.” They both sat silently staring at the river. Then Gaine continued, “Ya’d best eat that thar a’fore ‘t goes ta waste. Kate woun’t like that.”

“Yes,” Willy’s face turned into a smile. They sat silently while Willy unwrapped the package and ate while Gaine tossed small pebbles into the river. Gaine’d eaten her share of dinner at noon. They didn’t say a word to each other. Then Willy wrapped the package again, stood, quietly said “bye” and turned to leave.

“See ya tamorra ta dinner time?” Gaine asked.

“Ya mean it?” a huge grin lit up the small girl’s face.

“If’n Ah ain’t called out. If’n Ah am, Ahl leave it fer ya on my desk like al’ays an’ the door’ll be unlocked. Ah promise. Ya got mah permission ta go in an git it eny time. An Ahl be a’tellin’ the Mayor so’s he ain’t gonna git it wrong no more.”

“See ya tamorra,” Willy called through a happy grin. Her smile showed her tooth was coming in and the empty gap was filling in.

“Tamorra,” Gaine called, rising to brush off her trousers as the girl raced toward home to find her siblings. At least they would have one meal today. Gaine’s fists clenched and a tempest raged inside her. She needed to find the Mayor. She knew the miserable jackass would be in his office.

Gaine’s passion was so aroused that she slammed his door loudly enough that all the windows in the office rattled and everyone in town knew she was in there. The Mayor looked up with a fair degree of fear and moved back in his chair. “Sheriff,” he said.
“You’re back.”

“Listen, ya damn miserable polecat. Ya ain’t never gonna lock mah door ag’in er tell eny a Nell’s childerns that they ain’t ‘sposed ta be in mah office. That thar’s MAH office an’ Ah run it as Ah please. If’n ya wants ta fire me, than fire me right now THIS VERA MINUTE an’ Ahl go back ta the ranch an’ we’ll be done once’t n’ fer all. An Ah woan ne’er be a’comin back ta work fer ya. Ne’er ag’in.”

“I don’t want to fire…”

“If’n ya doan fire me, then keep yer damn blusterin’ nose outta mah office. If’n Ah ever come back an’ find ya replaced the lock on mah door an’ locked t’ag’in, we’re all gonna be able ta find whar ya been. Cause Ahm gonna jam that thar key so far down yer throat ya’ll be a’trackin’ key shapes ‘n ever t’uther footprint. Ya understand that?”

“Replace your lock?”

“It got blowed away…an’ the likes a’ you outta, too!”

“Now, Gaine, I was just tryin…”

“Ta run mah business. Doan ya never do it ag’in. Ahve a good mind ta call ya out ta the street.” She stood staring at him, then she pulled out her gun and calmly replaced the missing bullets with those from her belt to fill all six chambers.

“Gaine, now calm down. I was just trying to save you some aggravation. I know you don’t want those filthy little urchi..”

Gaine reached across the desk with her left hand and pulled the man up from his chair by his fancy black tie. “Ya’d best stop right thar,” she said in a calm voice that sent shivers down his spine. She moved her gun up towards him. “Ah ain’t gonna have none a’ yer name callin’. Ya ain’t got no idea what Ah want er doan want.” His eyes bugged out and she slowly lowered her gun. “Ah really outta knock ya flat ‘n yer beam ends.” She roughly pushed him back into his chair. “See that thar fly ‘n yer ceilin’?”
The man slowly glanced up. “Yyyyes,” he stuttered.

Gaine rapidly emptied her gun forming a circle where the fly had been. “The next time yer ponderin’ whether ta put yer nose ‘n mah business, ya jest stick yer miserable nose ta that thar circle ‘stead and ponder whether ya really wanna fuss with’n me er not. Lordy, Ahm mad ’nuff right now ta kilt ya whar ya sit. KEEP OUT A MAH BUSINESS AN’ LEAVE NELL’S CHILDERNS ALONE!!!” She turned, ‘Ahm chargin’ them bullets ta the town,’ and stalked out the door, slamming it so hard behind her that one of the windows did crack.

People on the street gave her a wide margin as she turned from the Mayor’s office. “Good job, Gaine,” Etta said softly as Gaine bustled down the boardwalk past the middle aged woman and her husband, Wilbur. Gaine stopped and looked back. She took a calming breath. “Thanks, Etta.”

“He’s a trial, that man,” The middle-aged woman said softly so others need not overhear. “And his pals in there, too.” Gaine stepped back to talk with the couple. Etta shook her head, “You’re the only one can scare him enough to make him stop and think. Wish you’d talk to him about the city finances. We were just in there. Their plans will sink this town into debt so deeply we’ll never get out. They want a jail and a schoolhouse and a new bridge and they’re trying to do it all without a vote.”

“Ain’t the church good ’nuff ta use ta the school fer now? An’ seems ta me the bridge jest needs some simple repairs. Sides, thar be a teacher’s salary ta pay.”

“Yes. They’re paying the Meier boy twelve dollars a month as school master.”

“Twelve? Theys only offered mah cousin eight.”

“Well, she’s a woman, of course. In any case, these are hard times. People can’t afford all this. Now, there’s supposed to be some money there already, even subtracting the new salary. But he says there’s not. I tried to talk further with him about it, but he dismissed us. Said I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head. I’ve been talking to different fellas that come into the cafe trying to get Wilbur here hired as Clerk, Assessor and town Treasurer. Course the Mayor says the city can’t afford to hire someone for that.”

“Ya think thar a’stealin’?”

“No. Honestly, I think they’re just stubborn, incompetent bumblers with grandiose ideas and no one to ride herd over them.”

“She’s the one should be looking into everything,” Wilbur chuckled. “She’s a whiz with finances, doancha know.”

“Ah doan know that much ’bout city finances, Etta,” Gaine replied, her temper waning. “T’is enuff ta work the ranch’s finances.
But Ahl help ya, if’n Ah kin.”

“Thanks. You’re doin’ the right thing, helpin’ Shorty’s family by the way, Gaine,” Etta looked down toward Nell’s ramshackle cottage. “They need your help. I had my oldest at home feed their chickens and gather the eggs when Nell and the children were gone. And he did the milking, though Lord knows their poor cow doesn’t give all that much. Shorty already sold their calf and likely drank away the money from it. I made butter and pot cheese and we traded it all to the store in their name so they had a little credit for at least some flour and molasses when she came back. We’ve helped with hay where we’ve been able, not that Shorty takes kindly to any kind of help. But they’ve got to be helped. So, thank you.”

Wilbur put his hand on Gaine’s elbow. “We know you shot a deer for them last year so they had some meat in their smoke house. We’re trying to organize some of the people in the church to help them out on a more regular basis but it’s a hard go. These’re bad times for everyone, jobs scarce as they are. Even when he works, he…you know.”

“Yep. They’s good folks,” Gaine said seriously. “Nell ‘n the childerns, Ah mean. Mostly theys needs help ta be safe. Food n’ clothin’ comes second.”

“Yes,” Etta added, “Many of us in town firmly approve of your arrest policy…all the ladies in the church circle, the pastor and some of the husbands, too. It’s Shorty that has to be watched. He’s a quiet enough fellow when he’s sober. And as long as you’re here, he stops drinking. When you’re gone…”

“We try to stop him,” Wilbur chimed in. “My boys and I do. But some of the other men act like it’s Shorty’s right and honor as a man to get drunk and take out after Nell.”

“Ah wish’t ya’d run fer Mayor, Wilbur,” Gaine smiled but the man just shook his head. “Barin’ that, we needs usn’s a city ordinance regardin’ strikin’ yer wife. Sumpin would apply each’t time whether Ah bees here er not.”

Etta smiled, “It’s not likely that would ever happen with the city officials we have now.” She glanced toward their cafe.
“Goodness, we have to go. We left a note on the cafe door saying we’d be right back. I see old Roger Pickwick waiting for his dinner down there. He doesn’t cook for himself much now that Lettie’s gone.”

“He kin afford ta eat ta yer cafe ever day?” Gaine glanced down to see the old man tapping his cane impatiently on the boardwalk while staring inside the cafe window.

“Not really,” Etta smiled, then she whispered, “Don’t tell anyone. We don’t often charge him. He helps clean up before we close. And he’s happy to eat whatever we have left at the end of the day. Mostly he’s a lonely man and we like having him around. We’ve asked him to move in with us now that we have so few children left at home. He’s thinking about it.”

“Yer good folk, Etta…Wilbur.” Gaine waved goodbye to the couple and headed for home. She wasn’t going to check the saloons this evening. Each of the few times she’d been mad enough to scare the Mayor, he managed to keep down the crime wave that evening singlehandedly.

She arrived at the ranch to a huge smile from Meghan Kate. The small blonde pulled Gaine into the large room and proudly showed off the rag rug she had completed. She’d gotten enough rags by trading fruit with neighboring families. Nell’s children’s clothes had started the rug, and the green-eyed beauty had been busy trading, braiding and stitching. Now with straw tucked carefully underneath to level the rock floor, the fairly large brown and white rug looked warm and inviting near the stucco fireplace next to the long table where they ate inside.

They both sat on the rug and marveled at how much more comfortable it was than the flat rock floor. Then they laughed when the two hands came in and asked why they were sitting on the floor. Before they were done, everyone had sat on the rug enjoying the comfort then stood to admire the beauty it brought.

It was only a few days later when Gaine got back to her office just before noon after being called out to a sheepherding ranch on a poaching claim. Now back, she sat in her office unpacking her lunch and wondering where Willy was. The girl had been by every day as usual, but this day she was nowhere to be seen. Gaine went out onto the boardwalk to check around and glanced down toward their house. She didn’t see any children in the yard. That was strange.

Asking around she was informed that Nell’s small infant, the little boy who had fought so valiantly for his life, had lost the battle. Shorty had come into town from the farm where he was working and the family was at the cemetery on the hill. Gaine went into her office and stared at the wall. Why? Why had this sweet child’s spirit fled the earth? Nearly all of the town families had at least one child there at the cemetery, but they’d had such high hopes for Nell’s youngest. She had to tell Meghan Kate. Her heart would be broken by the news.

The small blonde was surprised to see Gaine ride into the yard so early in the afternoon and was alarmed by the somber bearing of her partner. When Gaine got inside, she explained what had happened and pulled Meghan Kate into her arms where the small woman’s tears could flow freely. This was an anguish that would be hard to diminish, for it felt like an aching void had been wrenched from their hearts. But soon the blonde composed herself and spoke of concern for Nell and the family, whose sorrow had to be unbearable.

Meghan Kate busied herself preparing a huge meal to take to the family. She spent the afternoon baking bread, pies, stew and vegetables. She had Gaine pick a full ham from the smokehouse, one of the last. When the afternoon’s preparation had been finished, they loaded the items into the wagon and sadly drove back into town to leave the food for the family.

“What in the hell are you doin’ here?” Shorty rudely demanded of Gaine as he stood weaving in the doorway of their hovel. She could smell alcohol on his breath and looked at him with narrowed eyes. This did not appear to be his usual drunkenness, but he was obviously on his way.

“We’ve brought food,” Meghan Kate replied pushing past him, “I’m sure Nell can’t think about cooking right now.”

Surprised, he watched the small woman move past him with her arms full of dinner items and head to the kitchen. Nell stood stone-faced in the kitchen and the children sat quietly, perhaps more in fear of their father than understanding of what had happened with their youngest brother. Meghan Kate set the items down and hugged each child, trying to help them understand that they were safe. Then she sent some of the children out to the wagon for the rest of the meal. She busied herself preparing the dishes to serve. Nell did not look at her or move. On their return the children quietly sat back in their original places.

“Willy, help me get the dishes out,” Meghan Kate said to the young girl who was sitting protectively by the youngest children.

“Yes, ma’am,” she replied. They got out dishes and Meghan began to dish up food for each person.

Gaine stayed at the door with Shorty and crossed her arms. “Ahl arrest ya ‘n a heartbeat, Shorty, if’n Ah gotta. Please doan make me gotta. Not taday. Ah knows this be a terrible happenin’ an’ yer a’hurtin’, but thar ain’t no need ta make ‘t worse’t. T’is bad ’nuff ta lose that blessed child. But ya been drinkin’ an’ Ah ain’t gonna let ya harm yer wife er yer t’uther childerns.”

“Food! It’s about time somebody brought us something to eat,” Shorty spun inside and moved to the kitchen. “Can’t count on her to cook nothin’,” he growled at his wife. “She’s a slacker!” he sneered. “She’s worthless! Look at her just standin’ there. What’s wrong with ya, bitch? Fix me somethin’ ta eat.”

The children shrunk back but Meghan looked at him full on. “Go sit down and I’ll fix you a plate of food,” she said sternly. That caught him by surprise. He wasn’t used to having anyone talk back to him, and Meghan Kate had even surprised herself.

“Well, you’re a feisty little whore, ain’t ya?” he asked, roughly grabbing toward her. Before anyone even saw her move into the room, Gaine had the man by the back of the shirt and the band of his trousers and was moving him out of the house. He was swinging his fists wildly but drunkenly hitting only the air.

“Fix ‘im a plate an’ send it ta the office. He’s done had hisself a right stressful day so’s Ahm jest gonna keep ‘im over thar till he eats. T’is better fer the childerns.”

Several gawkers on the boardwalk began laughing and Gaine scowled their direction. “This ain’t funny,” she growled. ‘His baby boy done been buried ta the hill. Ain’t nothin’ funny in none a’ it.’ They hurried off along their way.
The small blonde busily fixed a plate that Willy ran over to the office. Her father was sitting in the chair with a sneer on his face, his hands tied behind while he threw flavorful invectives at Gaine.

“Thanky,” Gaine smiled at Willy. “Kin ya bring me a plate, too? Ahl be a eatin’ here with’n yer Pa.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she replied as her father swore more loudly at Gaine.

“Sheriff!” a voice from the doorway called indignantly. “Why are you holding this man? Surely you’re not going to interfere at such a time.”

“G’wan home an’ mind yer own business, Westminster. This ain’t none a yers.” Gaine dipped a bite of food and held it out to feed Shorty. “Here, Shorty, eat somethin’. Yu’ll feel better.”

“This is unbelievable!” Westminster sputtered angrily, remaining in place. “I demand that you release him! Have you no shame?”
Shorty took the food from the fork with his teeth and spirited it in Gaine’s direction. She jumped back out of the way, aware that Westminster was directly behind her in the doorway. She did not turn around. “Did ya wanna haf me arrest ya fer botherin’ ‘n officer a’ the law, Westminster? Cause Ahm bout ready ta.” She turned and faced the man, “This here’s a hard time fer Shorty, an that’s a fact. But ya ain’t helpin’ him none. So’s, git on home.”

Westminster began to sputter in return and Gaine’s eyes hardened. She brought her hand to her gun. Westminster stopped, turned on his heel and marched off down the boardwalk. Gaine knew it would not be the end of the problem with him. “G’wan over ‘n have Kate fix a’tuther plate, now,” she said gently to Willy. “An tell yer Ma yer Pa’ll be a’spendin’ the night ta the ranch tanight.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Willy turned and ran home.

‘Ah, damn, Shorty,’ she sighed, ‘Why da ya take ta drink so. Yer a right decent fella when ya ain’t drinkin’. Ah shorely doan wanna be a’doin’ this here.’

Meghan got the children fed and into bed. She helped Nell get seated by a plate of food, but the woman did not eat. She stared into the distance for quite a while. Meghan took Nell’s cold hands into her own and rubbed them gently. “Your children need you, Nell,” she said softly. “I know this is very hard. Get some sleep tonight, if you can. Your children will need you in the morning.”
“Yes,” Nell replied. Meghan dug out Nell’s nightgown and helped her get ready for bed. She left the woman tucked in, her eyes open, while she went back to the kitchen to clean up. At least the children had eaten quite well. And there were many days worth of dinners left. She put the ham to soak so that it could be prepared the next day or the day after. It would feed them for many days.

It was late by the time they headed back to the ranch. Gaine had Shorty tied in the back of the wagon. He’d refused to eat and now sat spewing waggish remarks and outright blasphemy with no regard for the presence of any proper lady. Once home, Gaine locked him in the tack room and left him a dry meal.

By morning Shorty was sober and quiet, straightening up the mess he’d made in the room. Gaine had him eat and offered him a ride back to town, but he preferred a ride to the farm where he’d been working. He refused to look at either woman. Gaine had Alabam take him to the farm while she rode her horse into town. Garcia stayed to protect the ranch and Meghan Kate.
Gaine checked on Nell and the children and told them Shorty had gone back to the farm. Nell nodded and continued fixing breakfast for the children. Later in the day Gaine saw Etta and Wilbur stop by with more dishes of food for Nell’s family. And the pastor from church stopped by as well, but the rest of the town stayed away.

“Not one touch of black crepe,” one young teenage girl said to another as they stood on the boardwalk outside Gaine’s open door. Their eyes were fixed on Nell and Shorty’s ramshackle home. Gaine glanced up to see Nora Altenman, the town trustee’s teenaged daughter speaking to Hettie Blen, the cooper’s daughter.

“I expect they can’t afford crepe,” Hettie replied. She rustled her fancy skirt as they stood examining the house. ‘Mother says they can barely afford to exist.’

“He’s a tramp, you know, always looking for a job. And he drinks. That’s what my father said.’ Nora’s tone was secretive. Both nodded in agreement. “I hear she’s barely able to function this time,” she added.

‘You mean…?’ Hettie asked.

‘Grief,’ Nora replied with a knowing aire.

‘I know. My mother says she cared too much for that infant, that’s all there was to it,” Hettie agreed. They both stood silently for a minute watching the house. A few of Nell’s boys ran into the yard to play, their faces and hands dirty.

“Gracious, living like they do, all those children running around like filthy ragamuffins. Perhaps this was a blessing,” Nora added.

“Losin’ yer child ain’t no blessin’,” Gaine said, stepping to her office door. The two young women looked up in surprise. ‘T’is heartbreakin’. Din’t mean ta listen in none, ladies, but ya might better spend yer time a’jawin’ bout what ya kin do ta help. Ya e’er think a that?’

‘Lawsy, Sheriff,’ they both exclaimed, gathering their skirts and hurrying into the cooper’s shop away from her view. ‘Did you see her there?’ one giggled to the other as they scurried inside. ‘She near scared me to death.’

‘Me, too,’ the other agreed. ‘She sure is tall.’

Gaine stood at the door and watched Mabel, one of Nell’s neighbors, heading across the yard toward Nell’s house with an old chipped bottle filled with what Gaine knew was probably oil for a lantern. Mabel’s family had fallen on hard enough times but the woman was sharing what she could to press away the gloom of night. Gaine shook her head. Like all towns, there were folks of solid-gold constitutions and all too often they weren’t members of the “qualities.” She shut the door and started on her rounds of the saloons.

‘Ya gonna larn the young uns taday?’ Gaine asked the small blonde as they rode into town the next morning in the buckboard.

‘No, I think I’ll just help Nell around the house,’ green eyes smiled back. ‘I think she could use a little encouragement.’

‘Yep, Meggy, yer prob’ly raht thar,’ Gaine’s face was sober thinking of how difficult it must be for Nell right now.

‘Honey, please remember to start calling me Kate. I want to leave the name ‘Meghan’ behind and get people used to calling me Kate, Kate Sargos. But you’re the most difficult one to get to do it, she thought but didn’t say anything aloud.

‘Oh, raht. Ah keeps fergittin’.’ They rode in silence then soft blue eyes glanced over. ‘Kin Ah calls ya Katie?’ she asked.

‘I’d like that,’ Meghan Kate smiled.

A bushel of fresh fruit and some baked bread were in the bed of the wagon for Nell’s family. Gaine helped her carry them in then went across to her office. Nell was functioning better and the two women chatted as Kate helped Nell with the washing. The small blonde was not surprised when Nell confessed she was pregnant again.

Gaine was not surprised either when the blonde beauty told her the information on the way home. She said she almost expected it.

After supper that night Gaine began to talk about the hands bringing the herd down from the upper pasture and driving the four year olds to Stockton. There would be a general round-up first, then the drive. ‘T’is lotsa fun,’ Gaine smiled. It all sounded very exciting to Kate. She knew, of course, about round-ups but had not participated or even seen one since she’d always lived in a town. She couldn’t wait.

As if by some psychic sense, the next afternoon the very handsome Don Carlos, with his dark hair and mustache, rode down from the upper range in the afternoon to talk to Gaine. He was Gaine’s foreman. Kate found his Spanish accent very charming when he explained in broken English that they would be bringing the herd down from the upper pasture very soon and he was down to speak to Gaine to work out all the details. They would spend some time rounding up and fall branding before the drive to Stockton. With fewer stockmen in the area, sorting out the herds should be much easier.

That night when Gaine got home, he and Gaine spent a long time at the table discussing this year’s herd and how they each thought the build-up was going. It would be Don Carlos’s job to keep the tally at the round-up. They discussed the arrangements Gaine’d made with Hiram, the possible numbers of four-year olds they had and the possible purchase of other herds to swell their numbers for the next year. She’d use Don Pedro for locating herds. He was semi-retired at this point and good at the job.

‘Ahm plumb tuckered out, Meggy..uh Katie,’ Gaine said as she crawled into bed. ‘But Don Carlos bees a raht credulous foreman. Still, t’would be easier if’n Ah din’t hafta work ta Sheriff all tha tahm. One a these here days, Ahm a’gonna up ‘n quit and jest work ta the ranch.’

The small blonde Kate wondered how they would be able to afford that, but she said nothing. Gaine seemed to know her business and if that was what she wanted to do, Kate would support her. The green-eyed blonde had taken on the cooking, cleaning and sewing and the house had become more of a home. They had fallen into a pattern of living that served them both well. And though they knew Lendal would likely be free and out searching, and neither allowed much carelessness in Kate’s protection, still they had relaxed to the point that it was not foremost in their minds.

Not many days later a wagon rolled into Barden’s Corner with two armed men and an unusual cargo. They pulled up at Gaine’s office and one of the men went flying off the wagon, his spurs clanking across the boardwalk and into the building. “Sheriff!” he yelled. “They hit ag’in!” He found himself before an empty desk.

Gaine had been down the street dealing with the Harlap boys who’d been bothering old Dell Renyard and his wife, Sadie, out on the edge of town. The old man was sure it was them that broke through their fence and tipped over their outhouse. Gaine had stopped to gather the boys and talk to their mother. They were mischief makers but not really bad sorts, in Gaine’s estimation and, of course, their mother cooperated, giving her consent to whatever Gaine wanted.

She had escorted them back to the Renyard’s farm, their mother insisting on accompanying them. Gaine pointed out that their footprints matched those found around the tipped building. Their mother’s lips pursed, her eyes narrowed and she looked with accusation at the boys. She crossed her arms.

They stood, their heads down but with tiny smirks on their faces. The smell was overpowering. Gaine sentenced them to two weeks labor on the Renyard’s farm. The first job involved setting the old outhouse back up, repairing and attaching it firmly to the ground. She got a list of other things that needed doing and had them start. She expected the outhouse to be up and useable again that day and the fence to repaired soon after.

“Oh, it will be, Sheriff,” their mother agreed. “Have no fear of that. Everything on their list will be done, and done well.” She raised her brow. The boys said nothing. With Gaine backing their mother, they knew they were in serious trouble. Their father might find it funny, but their mother did not.

The tall brunette was just heading back when she saw the wagon pull in down the street. She headed back to her office on the run.

“Sheriff!” the man called outside her small office door. The tall brunette dodged townsfolk as she barreled down the boardwalk towards him. “They hit again! Got the Rocking Star Ranch and killed the husband and his pregnant wife. Drove off their cattle and horses.”

“Damnation!” Gaine’s brows furrowed. So few cattle ranches and they were going after them all it seemed, although they had been known to steal sheep as well. A small crowd was gathering in the street and she called to Daniel at the store to round up the posse. It was time. And load supplies in the wagon,they were heading after the rustlers.

Everyone in town was aware this moment would arrive. They were ready. People began pouring out of the buildings onto the street. The weak wail of a child’s crying came from the wagon. “What’s this?” the brunette asked.

“Thems the survivors, Sheriff. We didn’t know what ta do with ’em. Scrawny little things. Nobody round there’d take ’em, times being such as they is. They suggested findin’ a foundlin’ home somewhere but we figured we’d bring ’em in with us and drop ’em off to you. We buried the parents a’fore we come. Wife was right close ta having that child.” The forming crowd gasped. Even with the most hardened outlaws, women and children weren’t killed and certainly not a pregnant woman. The man in the wagon reached behind and picked up a wooden box. The crying stopped.

The Rocking Star was not really in her township’s boundaries, but it was close enough not to split hairs over. Everyone was out to stop these killers anyway. She’d have to send word to the Sheriff of Big Creek. It was really closer to him. Didn’t matter. They’d all go after these evildoers. Half the Sheriffs around already had groups out scouring the countryside for them.
“Heard tell there’s a foundling home up near San Jose somewheres,” somebody in the crowd called.

Gaine looked blankly at the crowd then back at the tiny, helpless baby, small and frail for her age. It was commonly understood that the survival rate of infants in foundling homes were nearly always very bad bets. “Maybe somebody here in town…” she muttered.

“No one here in town will take them, Sheriff,” the Mayor announced firmly, moving beside her. “Not in these times. If they were older and could work….”

Gaine’s eyes went to the small babe wrapped in a grubby blanket in the box then her gaze went to another small child of a little over a year sitting on a stack of sheepskins in the wagon, her eyes wide, not understanding any of what was going on. There was no freshness in the child’s thin features, only dull color.

“Willy,” Gaine called to the small girl. “Go ask yer neighbor Mabel ta come ‘ere, quick like.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Willy took off on the run. Gaine went in to her desk and pulled out extra bullets for her carbine as the Mayor moved into the doorway.

“You can’t go, Sheriff. They didn’t hit our town or any of our ranches. We can’t afford to have you out chasing them. Let Big Creek’s Sheriff go. What if they strike here while you and all our armed men are out looking for them?”

Gaine ignored him. She filled her cartridge belt and slung it across her shoulder then slung another belt across her other shoulder. She checked her new Peacemaker revolver and brought extra ammunition for that. She put on her leather leggings tacked on to the quarters and laced up the whangs. They were made of tanned buckskin and could ward off snakes, needle-tipped brush and snow, should they go that high.

She wrote a quick note to Meghan, grabbed her canteen and bedroll. She pushed past the bellicose man. When she emerged on the boardwalk again, men were beginning to ride up, long since ready to head out.
Willy came rushing back to the Sheriff’s office.

“Willy, you an’ t’uther young uns behave yerselfs now, while Ahm gone. Ya hear? An stay outta that thar street. T’is gittin’ ta busy fer childerns.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the panting girl replied. She had run as fast as she could. And, of course, she had run across the main street going and coming back.

“Sheriff, ya needed me?” Mabel’s high pitched voice called. The thin woman pushed her way through the growing crowd past the Mayor.

“Yep. Shore do, Mabel. Kin ya take that thar infant and the t’uther little ‘un out ta the ranch in yer buckboard. Git a box fer the bigger child ta the store. Turn ’em over ta mah cousin and give her this here note. Tell her Ah probably ain’t gonna be back fer a week. Maybe two.”

“I demand that you stay right here in town,” the Mayor called. “It’s your duty to protect us, not them. We pay your salary.”

Mabel looked into the wagon. “Lawsy, Gaine, they don’t look any too sturdy. They’re more likely gonna end up on the hill than at yer ranch. But I’ll get my oldest girl ta help.” She took the box with the infant and the man handed her a soft, tied bundle of clothes.

“We brought that with ’em. What clothes we could find fer ’em. Ain’t much. Family just startin’ out…put most everything into their herd.”

Mabel nodded. These were difficult times for a young family. She called to her oldest girl, a child of about eleven, to come and get the toddler. The girl gathered the small child in her arms and the two moved away from the dangerous hooves of the milling riders’ mounts in the ever-growing crowd of riders.

Daniel and another man were busy loading some bags of flour, beans and coffee from the store into the wagon. The posse’d stop at local ranches when there were any. Otherwise they’d meet the boys in the wagon at prearranged places since a wagon would just slow them down otherwise. A moving group could not live off of meat alone for too long a time, and Gaine planned to be out long enough to catch these villains.

“This goes on the town’s account, Gaine?” Daniel called. ‘Not yours?’

“Yep, that’s raht,” Gaine called back.

“Stop right there, Sheriff!” the Mayor warned, “or there won’t be a job for you to come back to.”

“We’re headed ta the Rocking Star Ranch, fellas,” Gaine called, swinging her leg over her own horse and again ignoring the
Mayor. Willie stood back against the building, watching the proceeding with awe.

Gaine’s voice raised in volume, “Ya heared what them polecats done this time. They got theyselfs a good day er more on us, but we’ll track ’em. Now we’s gonna hafta be on the look out fer all them hidey holes a thars. Likely they got fresh hosses stashed. But we ain’t gonna be stopped by none a’ that. An’ when we spot ’em, it’ll be thar destruction. We’ll be shootin’ ta kill cause shore as sunshine, fellers, they’s gonna be. This here’s gone on long enuff. Tahm we stopped ’em.”

The men’s shouts rent the air as they shook their rifles above their heads. With that the band of about ten riders and the men in the wagon turned and headed out at a gallop in the direction of the Rocking Star Ranch. The riders wrestled to put their rifles back in their scabbards on the fly once they got out of town view.

The Mayor spun and stomped down the boardwalk back to his own office as the group disappeared. “Put those supplies on the Sheriff’s account,” he called across the street to Daniel. “Do NOT put them on the town’s account. We aren’t paying!”

-***-

Kate came out on the porch to watch the wagon heading toward the house. The repeating octagon barreled ranch rifle Gaine kept over the door was in her hands. Garcia was at the barn, a Remington rifle pointed at the newcomers from that vantage point. The dogs surrounded the small blonde, their barks announcing the wagon’s approach. A cloud of dust rose from the road behind it.
When it was close enough to make out who the people were, Kate recognized them at the same time Garcia did. The rifles were pointed to the ground then hastily placed back onto their pegs above the door in the house and barn.

“Stars, Garcia! It’s Mabel!” Kate called. A fringe of terror ran up the blonde’s spine. Had something happened to Gaine? No! Please, no! Please let Gaine be all right! she begged the powers that be. The wagon was moving at too fast a pace to be a social call. Oh, dear God! She felt her hands begin to tremble.

Kate stood chewing her lip and wringing her hands when they pulled into the yard. In an instant Garcia was there at the head of
the horse, holding it while Mabel and her daughter climbed down. “Cousin Minnie!” Mabel called. “Sheriff says to deliver these young-uns to you!”

“What?” Kate exhaled deeply as she instantly relaxed. Gaine was all right. Her eyes ran over the crying babe and the small toddler whose large blue eyes were filled with uncried tears.

“There’s a note. She’s gonna be gone a week, maybe two. They’ve gone after them killers. These poor babies were orphaned by them polecats.”

“Why, these little things look like they’re starving. Bring them in, Mabel. Hi, Clarissa. Bring that little one in the house, honey.” They all headed into the house and toward the bedroom.

“From the smells of it, this little one could use a change,” Mabel said, scrunching her nose. Then her face became serious. “I hope it isn’t the awfuls!”

“There’s an old torn sheet in the chest. I’ll cut it into diapers. Here, bring them into the bedroom. Leave the tiny one’s box on the bed and Mabel, would you mind bringing the milk up from the well? It’s in a container in the bucket.”

“Sure thing, Cousin Minnie.”

“Please, call me Kate. Didn’t they have any other clothes for these little babies?” Kate caught a whiff of the small baby. She’d need to cut a new diaper right away. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t the awfuls.

“There’s a bundle out in the wagon. I’ll get it, Momma,” Clarissa called, putting the toddler on the bed beside her tiny sister. Meghan smiled at the two little ones and moved the toddler back from the edge. She watched them constantly while she edged around to the chest to bring out the sheet.

Mabel’s daughter ran out to bring in the store box and the few ragged things the men had brought with the small children while her mother moved to the well.

Meghan didn’t get to read the note until a good hour later. They had changed and awkwardly fed both children, and she was walking with the tiny girl in her arms, her canning all but forgotten. The baby did have diarrhea and the idea frightened both women. Kate wrote out a list and sent Garcia on horseback to town to get the few food items and pocket wet nurse sucking bottles like they’d used to supplement with Nell’s small boy. Alabam remained to keep watch.

Her peaches were pared, pitted, cut and in cold water, covered to keep off flies. Her kettle was standing ready as was the sugar to scatter between each layer. A fire was burning in the stove to start the kettle of fruit boiling. Her quart glass cans Gaine had gotten her with new elastics and metal screw lids stood ready to be rolled in a separate pan of hot water. Each had been checked to make sure the screw was in order, there were no cracks or nicks and the new elastic was firm and would fit closely.

Mabel and her daughter remained to help, Clarissa staying inside the bedroom sipping buttermilk where it was cooler, watching the children while Mabel helped Kate with the canning. When they finished, the women used their aprons to wipe the sweat from their faces as they moved to the bedroom. Kate noticed the young toddler was sitting mutely on the bed, a tin cup placed beside her for a toy. The baby was finally asleep in her box on the floor. She would need to feed the tiny girl often till Garcia got back with the feeder that allowed larger amounts to be consumed at one time.

Kate ran a hand nervously through her hair. It was a very hot day and the two ranchhands would be expecting supper outside once Garcia returned. She sent Mabel to the orchard with a bushel basket. Mother and daughter would fill it as best they could in payment. Kate moved the children to the shade outside and tried to assemble a cold meal for the men on the outside table.
“You be careful, Gaine,” she muttered to the air as she brought out bread and jelly. Sweat beaded on her forehead. “Don’t you leave me here alone with these two helpless little babies. And I mean it! I’ll skin ya alive, if you do! You just be very, very careful. Please, darlin’.” She shooed the dogs away. They weren’t harming the little ones but their large bodies and fervent curiosity were overwhelming. They moved out without question at her command.

Garcia returned and Kate exactly followed the instructions from the book. Both children were underweight and looked unhealthy. The blonde read, took a breath and became determined to do every thing possible to save their lives. She waved to Mabel and her daughter as they headed home with their bushel of peaches.

By evening Kate was exhausted. The baby was finally resting in her box and the box was placed on Gaine’s side of the bed. Meghan drew the mosquito net. Tomorrow she’d have Garcia work on putting two rockers on the baby’s box to form a small cradle. The toddler she laid on a folded blanket in the larger box at the foot of her large, lonely bed where she could reach to gently pat and comfort her during the night. The little girl began to cry. Tiredly Kate lifted the small girl out, held the child and rubbed her back, humming to calm the poor child’s spirit. She spread Gaine’s nightshirt over her own pillow for her own comfort. It would be a long first night.

-***-

Gaine and the men rode into the darkening skies. They would not start tracking till they got to the ranch so having the sun go down was not a deterrent that day. They knew the way well enough in the moonlight. They would not camp till they were there. Hopefully they’d be making up some time on the outlaws that way.

On arrival they found the ranch to be little more than a dirt hovel dug out of the tall bank by a stream. It was obvious this young couple had put all their assets into their small herd and little into their own living arrangements. They probably had plans to build a more permanent home once they got their livelihood under control. What kind of people would so viciously attack a young family with such few resources?

She used a lantern and preliminarily searched the outlaw’s trail while the others made camp. Yes, she’d trail them to the ends of the earth if need be. Finally she forced herself to go back, lie down and shut her eyes. She would be tracking all day. Night, mah sweet love, she thought gazing at the stars. Please doan be angry ’bout them little ones. Ah loves ya so. An’ Ah truly belief them young ‘uns gots a chance with’n ya they ain’t got near anywhar else’t.

-***-

Kate lay in bed, exhausted. She had placed the toddler back in her box. You be safe, Gaine, she thought. She was very nervous being alone in the house with the small children, so she let the dogs stay in the outer rooms. She knew that rollovers could be a cause of death for tiny infants so she left both in their boxes. She soon fell asleep again with a hand in each box. But the darkness without Gaine was unsettling and sleep would be fleeting in any case. She ended up leaving the lantern on since she found herself having to get up numerous times to tend to the baby anyway.

In the days that followed, Kate fought to outwit the demon illness that seemed determined to claim the two small children’s lives, particularly the tiniest. Often she stayed up much of the night and found herself grabbing catnaps during the day. She worked hard remembering the things her mother had taught her and followed all the instructions from the nursery section in Gaine’s
“Common Sense” book. But the hold the disease had on the youngsters was terrifyingly persistent and she spent much of her time washing diapers.

The rumble filled the air. Deep bawling noises of many pitches created a cacophony of sound that filled the air as the black specks flowed toward the ranch. Kate shot up from bed and ran to the porch and looked out across their property. A dark, roving mass moving like molasses was rolling over the hill. Around them spaced in their proper places rode the vaqueros, skillfully moving the herd onward.

“Herds in!” Alabam hollered excitedly as the two hands pulled on their boots and quickly ran to saddle two horses to join the crew bringing in the herd. Meghan watched in wonder. How she wished Gaine were home. She heard a familiar cry and rushed back inside to see to the two small children.

Before noon the chuckwagon sat in their back yard and a man called “Cookie” was taking inventory of what supplies he had. There wasn’t much. He was introduced to Kate then proceeded to walk past her into the pantry and took what was left of their barrel of flour, all their coffee and the buttermilk. “We gotta have supplies,” he grumbled as he moved outside with the flour barrel while Garcia built a large fire in the outdoor pit. “Why aren’t the supplies here already? It isn’t like Gaine not ta have ’em here.”

“Gaine and her posse, they trail the outlaws,” Garcia called back to him.

Cookie frowned. “Guess I’ll have to head to town then. Gaine’s still got credit?”

Garcia looked to Kate who muttered, “As far as I know.”

“Let’s get some chow goin’ here, Garcia,” he called. “Mosta these fellers are danged tired a’ beef n’ beans. There’s ’nuff flour for a week maybe. Then we’ll resupply. Be good ta have fresh eggs n’ butter for a change. Milk still kept in the well?”

“Yes,” Meghan agreed. “But leave me some for the children.”

-***-

Gaine and her men tracked the outlaws and the stolen herd through the savannah, to oak spotted green clad hills, past grey-faced cliffs and rugged, rocky outcroppings through densely wooded hills over a goodly portion of the near mountains. She was an excellent tracker, but often it was slow work and they knew the outlaws had at least a day’s headstart to begin with. Still, no matter how the bandits tried to cover their trail, she forced herself to move methodically till she picked it up again. All too often it was slow, tedious work and they had to be mindful not to leave themselves open to easy attack.

They located one of the thieves’ hiding spots and covered a good deal of land with little success. By the end of the week they met up with the posse from Big Creek. The groups worked together, discussing where they’d each been. There were so many hidden valleys and lakes in the mountains. Gaine’s strategy was to discern the outlaw’s general direction then form a net, closing in on the criminals from several directions. She didn’t want them able to rest a minute. Soon enough they’d panic and make a mistake. And then they’d catch them.

The two groups went in two directions, vowing to meet at a higher spot in a day or two. The wagon would have to go in the general direction as well as it could. In the back of her mind Gaine considered what kind of targets these criminals liked and where those targets might be. Right now the outlaws were trying to get their plunder to safety, but they’d head for new targets the minute they could. Which way would they go then? Her group had to think ahead. Many men had already trailed these desperadoes and failed to catch them.

But it should have been easier tracking riders and a herd. It was annoying and frustrating to have them continually slip away. The
outlaws knew their craft extremely well.

-***-

Kate watched Cookie’s chuckwagon rolling up along the path toward the house back from town. She saw the scowl as he drew closer and worried what it might mean. She was surprised when he told her the store had cut off Gaine’s credit. He had to have supplies. They’d be headed toward Stockton soon and couldn’t go without supplies. He’d tried bargaining cattle for supplies, but he said the Mayor had told them he would not be able to do that this year. The man at the mercantile named Daniel had been willing but since the Mayor did so much business with the store, he was forced to stand behind the Mayor’s word.

“The Mayor says Gaine isn’t the Sheriff any more,” Cookie explained, confused.

“What? She’s out with the town posse for heaven’s sake, risking her life chasing outlaws! This can’t be right. Who is Sheriff, then?” Meghan asked, surprised.

“Somebody named Westminster something-or-other.”

“Mr. Clardin. I know him,” Kate clenched her teeth and wondered nervously what they should do. Everyone looked to her.
Don Carlos explained that they would be paid for the cattle once they got them to Stockton. It was what Gaine used for a yearly income. But they couldn’t get the cattle there without feeding their riders throughout the round-up and the drive. She thought of the money in the trunk. Maybe there’d be enough to get supplies. She’d deal with one emergency at a time. “I’ll go back with Cookie to town tomorrow,” she said, “We’ll get supplies. We need them, too.” Besides, maybe the chemist could give her some ideas to help with the children. She prayed the trip there and back would not be too much for the weakened children.

-***-

“Look, fellas,” Gaine announced to the group. “Ah knows they changed hosses ta their last hidin’ spot. Theys got fresh mounts, we doan. An maybe thar’s more stashes. An’ maybe they gots folks helpin’ ’em. Doan matter. This here’s whar t’uther posses done failed. But we ain’t gonna if’n ya jest hold firm. We’s more stalwart ‘n them an we’s er gonna win. Them herds they stole ain’t disappearin’ off’n the face a’ the earth. An they gotta change brands somewheres.” She looked at the tired, but still determined faces before her. “The more we knows, the greater ar ‘vantage, so’s this bees tedious but keep yer eyes open no matter how tired ya be.”

She pulled her horse into a circle till she was facing them again. “We done left two fellas ta theys last hidin’ spot. If them two spot ’em, they’s gonna come git us. If’n they ain’t seen nobody in five days, they’s gonna come find us. So doan be shootin’ lest ya know sure-like who ya got in yer sights.” The men nodded.

Gaine started them again. Her posse passed through ravines, windy passes, up draws deep into the Sierra range, guided by the practiced tracking of the tall brunette. They found another of the gang’s hiding spots and stashes, but again the gang had evaded them. She left another two men as lookouts. Her group was diminishing.

-***-

Kate looked at the embarrassed face of Daniel as she marched into the store the next day. He looked away. She gave the toddler’s hand to Garcia, who looked wide-eyed at the small girl. Men did not care for children. Particularly if they weren’t the child’s father. The tiniest infant stayed bundled in Kate’s arms but the toddler held fast to Garcia’s large, weathered hand.

“What’s going on, Daniel?” Meghan demanded. Her voice was sharp and caught everyone’s attention. “Why doesn’t Gaine still have credit?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Daniel skittishly looked away. His wife glanced his way with a scowl. “Uh, Mayor says she’s, uh, no longer employed..” Daniel replied. “It’s the Mayor that’s causing all this. I’d give you full credit, if it was up to me.”

“Shame on you! She’s out with men from this town risking their lives to catch those vicious criminals and you do this to her! It’s shameless! Besides that, Gaine should have credit for the time she’s worked since we were here last, even if they’ve decided she’s no longer Sheriff. What about that?”

“Uh, no, she had some, that’s true. But it stopped the day they left. Uh, the Mayor said I had to charge all the supplies they took to her account. That took care of any credit she had built up.’

‘What?’ Kate’s face flushed with instant anger. The man shrunk back from her verbal assault.

‘It’s not my idea. I didn’t want to do this. I had to. He’d put me out of business otherwise.”

“A man shouldn’t knuckle under to what he knows is wrong,” she said without sympathy. “We have cattle nearly ready to head to market and we need supplies. I understand you wouldn’t take cattle in trade as you’ve always done before.”

Daniel looked down in shame. ‘That was the Mayor’s doing, ma’am.’

‘No, it’s your store, not the Mayor’s. That was you,’ she said sharply. Cookie and Garcia stood quietly behind her. Garcia lifted the small girl into his arms. The baby began to fuss and her attention went to the small girl. She glanced toward the chemist. “We’ll get what we can and Cookie can go to other, more-willing stores along the trail to trade cattle for supplies if need be. But don’t think for one minute that this is the last of this.”

“No, ma’am,” Daniel replied.

“And Gaine will be furious, you can count on that!”

“Uh,’ that was not a pleasant thought at all. He and Gaine had been friends and neighbors a long time. ‘Yes, ma’am.”

“Cookie, pick what you need and select some supplies for the pantry, too.” Meghan withdrew the shot bag she had tucked in the baby’s blanket. It held all the money from Gaine’s chest. ‘I have cash money. That’s still acceptable, isn’t it?’

‘Uh, yes, ma’am.’

She prayed there was enough. She moved quickly to the chemist’s counter. Minton Ledderbridge was the town chemist and had been for a number of years. He firmly disagreed with the Mayor and muttered as much to Kate. She discussed the problem with him and he looked over the two young children carefully while Cookie went about picking items they had to have.

‘Well, I have something I’d like you to try,’ he said worriedly. These children did appear to him to be in seriously bad shape, particularly the infant. ‘I read about it in some reports put out after the war…things they’d learned. I think it might help.’

Old Roger Pickwick moved over to the counter by Daniel. ‘Ahha! Jest like in the olden days,’ he chortled what he thought was softly. He was a little hard of hearing so his voice was louder than he ever knew. ‘That little lady there will chew you up and spit you out. Yessir, she was a pip as a little scalawag. Still is. She’ll tell you a thing or two. Yessir, Cousin Minnie, jest like in the olden days.’ He gave his cane a couple good taps of glee on the wooden floor.

Kate glanced at Garcia, who was uncomfortably holding the small toddler in his arms. The small girl was happily pulling and chewing on a fistful of Garcia’s hair. Meghan didn’t remember ever seeing him look so awkward.

While Minton mixed the preparation for her, she decided to look around. There were many things they needed, but they would have to get by without them. If by chance they didn’t have to spend it all, she’d have to save every cent she could. Times were worsening by the day, it seemed. She noted that calico had gone down to eight and a half cents a yard. She’d paid nine when they were here last. And flannel was also falling. Not enough people could afford to buy. Yet things were still too expensive for them. She wanted to make the children new clothes in flannel. Oh, Gaine, I wish you were here, she thought anxiously, then caught herself up and showed only resolve.

Gaine had to have new trousers. She had to have them the minute she came home. And Kate hoped that would be any day now. The tall beauty’s others would be falling off her. They practically were when she left. Kate found a pair she was sure would fit. Then she moved to the material and looked at the flannel. It would have to wait. In truth she really should have some dark moreen, too, suitable as it was for ladies’ thick outside undergarments for winter. But they’d get by without that for sure.
When Daniel figured the total it would take every cent and there was still not enough for Gaine’s trousers. Kate chewed her lip,
“You do still trade for butter, I presume,” she asked sharply.

“Uh, yes, ma’am,” Daniel replied. “And eggs and milk.” She nodded. She had nearly ten pounds of butter saved so far. And their two cows gave goodly amounts of milk. She glanced down the street at Nell’s children. She worried that they weren’t eating well enough now that Gaine was gone. She was glad she’d packed a basket for them today.

“Garcia, take the basket down to Nell’s children please while we finish up here. Cookie is here with me. It’s all right.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Garcia handed the toddler to a surprised Cookie and moved out the door before he could be stopped. Cookie held the child out at arms length as his eyes widened. Then he looked helplessly at Meghan Kate.

“Gaine is going to be so angry about this,” Kate reiterated, her hard green eyes settled on the store clerk. ‘I know I am.’

“Uh, yes, ma’am,” Daniel replied, knowing that indeed the tall woman would be furious. “Remember it’s the Mayor that did this. If it was up to me..”

“Yes, yes,” Kate replied in disgust, ‘I’ve heard that story.’ Daniel again hung his head. ‘I’ll send Garcia back with butter to trade for those trousers.’ She paid the bill. She saw Daniel’s wife speaking with the pharmacist, but the woman moved away quickly when Kate headed there to pick up the mixture he had ready for her.

‘Oh dear, Mr. Ledderbridge,’ she said to him. Again she chewed her lip. ‘I’ll need to trade you something. What do we have?’ she asked herself.

‘For you, ma’am, I’ll carry credit.’ He shot a hard look at Daniel. ‘We don’t all agree with what is going on. In fact, some of us disagree heartily.

‘Oh, Mr. Ledderbridge, thank you, sir. I don’t know how…’

‘Call me Minton. Everyone does,’ he smiled. ‘I don’t make a habit of this,’ he leaned forward and said softly. ‘I wouldn’t like others to know I give credit. But it’s the least I can do to help right a wrong. Just sign for it right here. I’d appreciate it if you’d not mention it to anyone. I can’t afford to be swamped with requests.’

‘Thank you so much. We truly appreciat this. I’ll make sure you’re paid, sir.’

The man smiled as she signed and added very softly for her ears only, ‘Daniel’s wife wrapped the trousers and put them in your wagon. She says they’ll carry them as credit, too. Only don’t tell Daniel.’

Tears popped into Kate’s eyes. ‘Thank you so much. Tell her thank you.’

‘I will,’ he replied quietly.

Once back at the ranch, the roundup went quickly although Kate was not able to participate or even watch. All of her time was spent tending to the two youngsters, ever fearful that the baby particularly would fall victim to the disease and not survive. The good part for Kate was that Cookie took over all the cooking duties leaving her with the time to nurse the little ones.

Without many other ranch steers to separate, the ranchhands simply had to tally the herd, separate out the four-year-olds, brand young calves and castrate them. Every hand was drawn into the round-up, including Garcia and Alabam…even the dogs. It was a busy time of hard riding, high feelings, hard work, laughter and camaraderie. The most social time they shared twice a year.
And that was how the man managed to slip past their notice and arrive at the house door unannounced one sunny morning.

Chapter 10

Kate heard the noise on the ranch porch and wondered who’d forgotten something and come back. She glanced around, not seeing anything left behind on the table and headed for the door, the fussing baby in her arms. She opened the door to see a tall stranger clad all in buckskin standing before her. His face was red and moist, his eyes glazed with flashes of blue steel and his shock of light colored hair tumbled over his forehead. His shoulders were wide and robust and he looked at her with a quizzical intensity. “Mrs. Sargos?” he asked cautiously.

Kate stepped back, suddenly wondering if Lendal had hired this man to find her. She’d have to put the baby down to reach the rifle.

“Uh,” her glance went to the Henry repeater above the door.

“Mrs. Kate Sargos?” he asked a little louder. Had they found out her new name? Did he know she used to go by Meghan but now went by Kate? She looked to see where she could place the baby. She couldn’t shoot the rifle with a baby in her arms.

Suddenly the sound of galloping horses could be heard behind him. The man turned to see three vaqueros riding hell bent for leather across the pasture, heading straight for him. Trailing behind them were Alabam and Garcia. They all had their pistols drawn and aimed at the stranger.

He thrust his arms into the air. “I’m Saul Chenoth,” he said to Kate, his voice holding a shock of fear. “Gaine asked me to resole your shoes. I’ve got Ôem in my bag there. They’re finished.”

-***-

The men of the posse were constantly amazed by the Sheriff. She had a familiarity with the woods that a mountain lion might have and always seemed to keep them going in the right direction even when the tracks disappeared for long stretches. It was as though she could smell the trail. And they had no doubt that were she alone she could slip through the woods completely unseen by any one of them unless she wanted to be spotted.

So when they heard the crack and gunfire suddenly stopped them, pinning them in the small narrows where the river ran faster and the hills became more precipitous, they expected her to find a way to get them past the mossy rock hillside protruding from thick green foliage above. In the lead, she had instantly dived, thrusting herself off her horse, yelling for them to take cover, tackling her neighbor off his bay horse along with her. They had hit the ground with a thud then she began scrambling on her hands and knees for the safety of the brush they had just left. She’d grabbed his collar and pulled him along with her. It was not graceful, but the bullets pouring down around them missed their targets and they both made it safely to cover.

The horses whinnied in terror, reared and finally ran back to the cover, but the bay was seriously wounded by gunfire in the clearing and crashed to the ground in pain. “Gotta put him out a his misery,” Gaine demanded of the horse’s owner. Moisture glistened in angry blue eyes. They were both behind the brush at that point but the man was in shock and did not move. He had barely missed being hit. Would have been for sure if she hadn’t literally dragged him to cover and now fear froze him in place. How close had he come to dying? “He’s in pain. Ah’s sorry, Thurman, but we gotta put Ôim out a his misery,” she repeated.

The horse was thrashing and throwing his head wildly. The most sure shot would have been close up. He was moving so radically any other shot might just have wounded him, causing him even more agony. So when the man gave a small nod of his head, she scrambled back out from behind the brush, crawling, using the horse for cover as much as possible and put a bullet in his head to end his agony. The sound of laughter echoed in the small area above them and her jaw tightened in rage. She pressed tightly against the still horse as bullets sprayed down about her. She clutched the horse, held her arm up aiming her pistol blindly above and pulled off four quick shots in reply.

“Give it up!” a voice yelled mockingly. “First we’ll get your horses, then you,” the man laughed. The rest of the posse fired back, but he had good cover and they weren’t coming that close to hitting him. It did give her a chance to scramble back to the brush cover and further into the trees with the others and reload her gun.

She ran her eyes over the whole area, considering their next move. Reluctantly she realized the shooter had a perfect spot on top of the bluff and could stop all forward progress with little effort. They could always go back, but that wasn’t an option in her mind. And he had a good repeater with lots of ammunition. They could try an assault, but it would be a serious risk to herself and her men. She wouldn’t risk them.

The outlaw above had stayed behind, she was sure, to guard their back flank and to give his men ample time to move their stolen herd into some hidden area. She cursed under her breath and let her eyes examine each section of their prison but she saw no possible sign of an attack route. They would have to be patient.

“We gotta wait till nightfall,” Gaine declared. But then she was sure he would be long gone and his pals ahead would have a big headstart again.

-***-

It was still beastly hot for early fall in Jubilee City when Mrs. Sarah Fitgeraldson and her young son, Reggie, readied to board the stage to Sacramento. From there they’d catch the train to Boston. Her youngest son had surprised her by wanting to stay with her and his aunt. Murphy, also a teenager, had already headed on horseback to his sister’s home in Arizona, hoping to make a living in that frontier area. Neither wanted to work with their older brothers and sister in the wagon shop. Their mother worried for Murphy and made him promise to write.

Her oldest son, Brogan Jr., had informed her that he would have to sell the house and all remaining possessions before she could receive a share of the estate other than the tickets he purchased for them and a small amount of traveling money he’d given her. She would eventually receive some financial dispensation that he’d send in small portions monthly when he was able, he said.

She knew her deceased husband’s business employed fifteen men regularly and nearly double that in the busy season. It was unthinkable that a third portion would be worth so little. But she had few options. She didn’t care about being wealthy like her sons did. She just worried about paying her fair share once she got to her sister’s. She had hidden the gold coins but they wouldn’t last all that long. Brogan Jr. had explained that when their father had been robbed, most of the business funding had been eliminated. There was not much left he stressed.

She and her young son handed up their carpetbags to go into the boot of the carriage. Her son kept the pistol he had inherited in the band of his trousers. She looked back over Jubilee City, the sand and severe heat she’d always loathed. She didn’t mind leaving this Godforsaken spot forever.

She ran her eyes over her children and grandchildren. They might not be everything one would want their family to be. Her husband’s influence tainted everything with a dark and malevolent touch. But they were still hers and she loved them. She hugged and kissed each before climbing aboard. If only Meghan were here, she sighed to herself. Where are you, my child? Does he have you hidden somewhere? Has he hurt you already? Please forgive me, Meghan, if I’ve failed you.

“I’m glad to be going,” Reggie said, looking out at the same scene. “I hated it here.”

“Yes,” she answered quietly.

They traveled the same route Meghan Katharine, now going by the name Kate, had taken when she’d left home with her father. When they got to the drop off, the passengers got out and walked while the wheels were chained and the coach was carefully eased down. Otherwise, much was the same.

Two nights later in Sacramento they registered at the hotel where Mrs. Fitzgeraldson’s husband had died. She walked past the room where he had spent his last breath and shivered. Some other hotel guest, not knowing of the prior mayhem, was staying there. She gazed at the door. It left her with a strange feeling. Not sad. Just strange. “But where is Meghan?” she worried.

Then they went to see the Marshal. He was very sorry but he had no new information on the whereabouts of her missing daughter. Did he kill her? Oh, please let her be alive. She had already sent a letter to the young Lieutenant that the Marshal had told her about when he brought the watch for her identification. The Lieutenant wrote her from Fort Derwood that he had no idea what had happened to Meghan.

The only other person the Marshal could think of to try asking would be Sheriff Gaine Sargos. She had ridden on the same stage but he doubted that she had any information. He told her a little about Gaine and gave her the brunette’s address just in case.

The Marshal gave Meghan’s mother the additional information they needed and mother and son went back to their separate rooms in the hotel to wait. Reggie was sharing an inside room with a drummer and she shared a balcony room with a young woman headed to Wyoming to become a school teacher.

Before sunrise the next morning they were escorted by the Marshal to the scene of the event. A brass band was there playing for the large crowd. As the wife and son of the murdered man, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and Reggie were allowed to be up front. Her eyes met Lindal’s as they led him out. His knees were weak and they were forced to half drag him to the scaffolding. “I’m innocent,” he yelled to the crowd. “Do you hear? I’m innocent! I didn’t kill him! He was my friend!”

Then he caught her eye and it filled him with resolve. He stared with hatred toward her, still trying to make her shrink back in fear. She did not flinch. “Where’s my daughter?” she mouthed. He snorted and shot her an evil, imperial grimace, thrusting his head proudly into the air. She kissed her fingertips and touched her heart. “For Meghan and for Ruby,” she mouthed again. “May you rot in hell, Lendal Hindlefarb.” She breathed a heavy sigh, deciding that wherever Meghan was, she no longer needed to live under the threat of Lendal.

“Did you say something, Mother?” Reggie asked. It was not the first hanging he had witnessed. It happened often enough. But it was the most festive.

“That’s an evil, evil man,” his mother replied. Forgive me my sins, she thought.

-***-

Gaine’s sharp eyes trailed around the lake. They had moved as soon as the sun went down, but the rider was gone. The day before she had sent the wagon to meet them at the lake where she’d promised to also meet Big Creek’s posse. The wagon wasn’t there yet, but it would be. As she expected, the outlaw’s trail did lead this general direction, so maybe they hadn’t lost so much time after all. Despite losing one horse, no one was hit in the gun fire.

They skirted the lake and commenced tracking, finally picking up the tracks of three of the riders leading down on a more southerly trail. “Damn!” Gaine grumbled tiredly, “Where’n tarnation’d them t’uther two men go? Them and that thar herd? Them tracks goin’ down bees hosses only. War’s the t’uther two?”

While they waited for the other posse and the wagon, Gaine had the bulk of her group set up camp at the lake while she and two of her men slowly circled the way further up. The thieves had to have come this way for a reason.

They climbed till a heavy, unpenetrable stand of trees and brush sat on one side near the top of a rise and a gray wall of rock rose forbiddingly across the rest. They stopped in puzzlement. Where’d they go? Gaine and her riders rode the line of wall in all directions till at last she found a slab of rock that masked an opening where tracks beyond showed many livestock had passed. An unpleasant smell of death rode on the soft breeze.

“They forced them herds through here,” she called to her two men, pointing to the rock. She moved her horse behind the slab and scoured the ground with her eyes then lifted her blue orbs as she visually followed the trail, wrinkling her nose at the odor.

“Lordy! Uphill, ‘ceedin’ly narra, treacherous n’ windin’.” She started up the narrow trail then carefully dismounted. Buzzards were circling in the updrafts beyond them. “Loose rocks n’ steep drops.” She glanced down over the side but saw no dead cattle or horses far below. They’d be hid by them tree tops down thar if’n they’s tumbled off’n the trail. Shore nuff kin smell ’em. With difficulty she backed her horse back down the narrow path. Her eyes scoured the surface of the rock wall rising above the trail. “Three a’ ’em headed back down an’ them other two drove that thar herd up an’ o’er this here narra’ path.”

The men looked up with trepidation remembering how they’d been pinned down once already. They’d be fighting the steep trail and who knew whether the outlaws were hidden at the top ready to ambush or pick them off one by one. Maybe the outlaws had reinforcements up there, too. Even one outlaw left as a guard on a narrow trail could hold them off, like they’d already experienced.

They watched the Sheriff running her eyes over the rocky sides of the cliff. They placed their faith in Gaine. She’d get them up as safely as humanly possible. She didn’t let much harm come to her posse if she could possibly help it.

Gaine carefully scrutinized the wall, then they rode back to the lake to find the Big Creek posse had arrived. She explained her findings to the large group. She could feel the excitement. She knew they were thinking “divide and conquer”. Sheriff Rogers from Big Creek’s posse was extremely anxious to lead his group up the trail.

“Ya kin,” Gaine agreed. “Ah think one kin even the chances a mite, though, if’n ya leave yer hosses ta the entrance n’ go Ôn foot ‘n the dark a’ night. Take off all yer spurs ‘n ana’thin’ a’makin’ noise. Send yer quietest scout first ta o’erpower the guard. Use knifes er even arrows. Somethin’ quiet. They might not ‘spect nobody’d walk that path ‘n the dark an’ they ain’t gonna be able ta see ya when ya does. But they’s likely gonna be waitin’ thar. Now, if’n war me….”

“What?” Sheriff Rogers asked. “What would you do?”

“Well, Ah noticed a section. Ah’d send mah best climber on that thar wall. Looks unclimbable but t’war a couple places Ah seed whar ya could use yer lariat and climb on up. Ain’t easy. Gotta watch fer rattlers on them ledges. They’s blind now…a’sheddin’ n’ all. Theys’ll strike ta anyathin raht quick. Oh, an’ crumblin rocks. Watch fer them. But could be done. An’ best a all, kin be done Ôn daylight..least till tha climber gits ta tha top n’ kin be seed bah the t’uther side.”

“You want everyone climbing?”

“No. Jest yer best climber. T’uthers walk tha trail. Go ta dark. Cover yer faces n’ hands with mud. Feller on top waits up thar till than, slips o’er an’ gits ahind ’em. They ain’t NEVER gonna ‘spect that. Not NEVER! So’s they ain’t gonna be watchin’ that di-rection. Ya’s got surprise ta yer ad-vantage.”

Sheriff Rogers took off his hat and hit it against his leg. He stood thinking.

“Ah could show ya, if’n ya want.”

“Yes. If you would.”

“We’ll have a bite first. Than Ahl go with’n yer climber and git Ôim started. Only thing,” Gaine continued. “Them outlaw’s all be raht good shots with lotsa practice under theys belts. Doan hesitate once’t ya git thar. They’s gonna try n’ kill ya shore. Be ready fer ’em.”

The other group was excited. This was what they’d been waiting for. First they’d eat then send a climber off.

Gaine agreed to take her posse after the other three and meet them again at the foothills near the Rocking Star Ranch. Whoever got there first would wait for the other. The wagon would stay at the lake then come down with Big Creek’s posse.

After eating, she went up with the other Sheriff and some of his men. First she spent a good deal of time twirling a fairly short rope, letting the whole thing, loop and end, fly as high as she could. It landed high above, hooked over a spike of rock, far out of reach of retrieval. Then she took the groups longest rope, stood on the narrow trail with her feet on the edge, twirling it off the edge in a huge loop before hurtling it upwards at the scrubby brush she had seen growing along the cliff wall. Snagging it, she pulled the rope tight then tested it by beginning to climb. “Yep. Should hold ya. When ya gits up thar, pull ta the t’uther rope. Should git ya ta the top.”

-***-

The Marshal invited Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and her young son back to his home after the hanging. His wife provided tea and cakes and they sat in the parlor quietly talking. It was mentioned that Mr. Fitzgeraldson had posted a five hundred dollar bond that just might be returned if the judge were so inclined. But it would really depend on the judge’s wife, the woman Mr. Fitzgeraldson had been accused of molesting. Reggie’s head popped up at that information and his mother knew she would have to explain everything to him once they left.

The Sheriff and his wife graciously took the two in their buggy calling on the Judge’s wife. The woman understood instantly what kind of a marriage Mrs. Fitzgeraldson had been trapped in and took mercy on her position. She would see to it that all charges were dropped, she assured them, and the group rode together to the courthouse.

The Marshal ran back to his office as they waited for the judge’s wife to visit her husband. When she returned, the case was dropped and the bond money was directed to be turned over to the widow. The Marshal came back with the gold watch and handed it to her. “You should have this, too. It was your husband’s.”

“Uh, do you know where I might sell it?” she asked.

“Indeed. I’ll be happy to help you do so.” After dropping off the judge’s wife at her home, the Marshal and his wife took Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and her son to a shop where she sold the watch. “Can you show me how to send money to someone?” She would divide the proceeds from the watch and send it to her daughters that had received nothing. She’d hold out Meghan’s share till she was located.

Cheques were sent from the value of the watch. Though a small amount she had no doubt her daughters would be pleased. The five hundred dollar bond money was secured in one of Mrs. Fitzgeraldson’s inside pockets she had sewn. It still didn’t come close to making up a third of her husband’s considerable estate. But it would do to help ameliorate her worry. If she was frugal, they could make do.

The emigrant train was anything but luxury travel. Everyone used the stoves in the front of each car to cook and the hard wooden benches could only be turned into sleeping accommodations if you purchased the mats hucksters sold for less than the train company did when they swarmed aboard at many stops. Still, they were not uncomfortable and the two enjoyed every minute of their travel.

Hard boiled eggs and baskets of homemade items could be purchased from eager teenagers who boarded with their goods or at stands by station platforms. Business acumen was not limited to businessmen. The two had to watch their budget, however. Brogan Jr. had not allowed them all that much for food.

Still they found it completely delightful. The further they got from the Fitzgeraldson home, the more exciting it became. Reggie climbed off at each stop possible and looked around. The world was a wide and amazing place.

“Mother,” Reggie cried breathlessly as he sat beside her again on the bench. “Just think how much of America we’ve seen. It’s hard to believe we’ll be in Boston tomorrow. Wagon trains used to take months and months and here we’ve traveled the continent in just over a week.”

-***-

Had she been less busy, Kate would have made herself sick with worry about where Gaine might be. Her blue-eyed beauty had said two weeks and it had been long past that at this point. As it was, every available minute was spent caring for the small children. And they were improving, particularly the toddler. She was putting on weight and diarrhea was no longer a problem. The chemists medicine seemed to be working for both. But the two girls’ survival kept her too occupied to participate in the other ranch happenings.

Kate was not sorry to miss the slaughtering. She had always hated that time of year and this was no different. But you didn’t live on a farm without needing to fill your smokehouse. She was glad the ranch hands handled the situation and that Cookie was doing all of the smoking and cooking and packing.

Then suddenly one morning the cooking wagon was pulled out of the yard and a river of cattle was led out away from the ranch. Don Carlos led the drive and most of the vaqueros went along. They were taking those cattle to market. It would take about a month. A few men were left to look after the remaining herd and Kate was again expected to do the cooking. It took her a few days to get back into the routine. She was glad the children had gotten so much better. Supplies were tight, but trading fruit with neighbors helped stock the pantry with essentials.

Late one afternoon while straining the late milking, Kate was surprised to see a small rider thundering at a gallop bareback towards the house. She took the rifle and followed the rider’s progress until she was able to distinguish that it was Willy. She replaced the gun and ran into the yard to await the small girl’s arrival.

The horse was throwing lather and Willy was frantic, half-crying about her mother and how afraid she was that her father was going to kill her. He’d already beat her and she had blood all over.

“Why didn’t you tell the Sheriff, child?” Kate worried aloud as she grabbed things to take with her. Her green eyes darkened with anxiety.

“I did, ma’am. He won’t help her.”

“Garcia, hook up the wagon. Quickly! She had Willy help her bundle the two little ones into their boxes and placed Willy and the oldest in the back while she held the small infant. Garcia drove and the team flew towards town.

“Tell me exactly what’s happened,” Kate said, turning to the back. “Where is Shorty now and where is your mother?”

“He hit her and kicked her, over and over. He was awful drunk. I told the others to run and hide down by the river. Pa said he was going to get a gun and shoot her and us, too. She was lying on the floor by the bed and she was moaning. She told me to run and get the Sheriff. I tried, but he told me it was up to my father whether he disciplined her or not. I told him she was hurt bad, and he said she probably deserved it. I told him Pa was getting a gun and he said my Pa never used a gun. He said he saw him go into the saloon. So I got Mabel’s horse and rode out here fast as I could.”

“Did Mabel know you took her horse?”

“No. I didn’t have time to find her.”

“All right, we’ll take care of that. Hurry, Garcia!” The wagon was already bouncing wildly enough as the horses tore along the rutted road to town. Kate turned to keep a hand on the toddler’s arm, but the small girl seemed to like the speed and bumps. She laughed cheerfully with each bounce.

It seemed like hours before they crossed the bridge and headed toward the ramshackle cottage. Garcia slowed the team to a trot. Twilight was beginning to settle over the town and all seemed normal. Kate set the infant and her box carefully into the back of the wagon.

“Stay and watch these little ones. Do NOT come inside when we get there. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Willy replied with a sob. It was clear she was terrified.

“I need to go with you, Missus,” Garcia said as he pulled the team to the rail in front of the house. But he didn’t dare leave the team with the three children in the wagon. Another danger was that he was a Mexican man in town hoping to fend off a white man. That was never a healthy situation. “Maybe she could take the children to Mabel’s house.”

“You help her. I’m going to check on Nell.” Kate began to slide off the bench.

“No, Missus,” Garcia grabbed her arm,”Gaine’d have my scalp if I let you do that.”

“Willy, go get Mabel. Bring her here. Quick!”

“Yes, ma’am.” Willy slipped out of the wagon and ran across the yard, ducking behind shrubbery till she got to Mabel’s. Kate slipped off the wagon seat and to the ground. As soon as the small blonde saw the neighbor carefully working her way across, she asked, “Is Shorty in there? Do you know?”

“Yes,” Mabel replied fearfully, running to the wagon. “He went in just before you got here. He was carrying a rifle, shouting about how he was gonna kill ’em all and he was staggering terribly. He’s been drinking all day. And our so-called Sheriff has been drinking part of the time with him.”

“Please, take these young ones to your house and make sure they’re safe. Garcia and I’ll go take care of Shorty.” Kate gently handed the baby to Mabel.

“Goodness! Be careful! He’s never taken to using a gun before. I wish my husband was home but he doesn’t come home from the mine till the weekend. Willy, stay down behind the bushes. Don’t run where your Pa can see you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Willy carried the toddler, leaving the box in the wagon, while Mabel carried the infant. They ducked behind the wild shrubbery heading toward Mabel’s house.

No sooner had Willy and Mabel moved across to Mabel’s house than Kate held her skirts and marched toward the house. Garcia quickly tied the team, grabbed the rifle and ran to catch her, but she was already inside.

Garcia stepped into the house and came face to face with Shorty’s rifle. The drunk man was holding it pointed at Garcia’s stomach. Shorty laughed evilly. “I’ve wanted to kill me some Mexican trash and here ya’are, all ready ta meet yer maker. Putcher goddammed gun down, ” he slurred. Garcia’s mind was spinning. Where was Kate? Had he hurt her? His eyes swept the small room but she wasn’t there. Slowly he placed his rifle on the ground and held up his hands.

Kate had rushed into the kitchen and had completely missed being seen or seeing Shorty on the way there. He had been in the bedroom until he heard Garcia running and moved to the main room. He stood with his back to her and his gun was dangerously pointed at Garcia.

Fear claimed Kate and momentarily she froze. Then she remembered Gaine had said to acknowledge fear and keep going. She told herself, all right, she was frightened. Now, what should she do? The sadiron was on the stove, but she didn’t think she could sneak up close enough to hit him without being heard nor did she trust her throw with so awkward an item. The broom was leaning against the wall and she grabbed it. Moving behind Shorty, she heard him click back the hammer. She poked him in the back with the broom handle.

“Drop it!” she demanded, “Or by the heavens, I’ll blow you to pieces!”

Shorty froze then drunkenly began to turn around to see what was behind him. As he did, Garcia reached for his gun and Shorty spun back, stopping Garcia mid reach. Kate poked him harder. “Drop it, I said, or you’re dead and none of us ever has to worry about you again!”

Shorty swayed as he thought about it. “Come on, bitch, ya know ya wanna have some a my attentions.”

“Dead on three,” Kate said. “One.” Shorty lowered the gun a little. Kate poked him again. “Two.” Shorty dropped the gun and it fired, the report echoing through the house as the shot hit the door frame missing Garcia by only fractions of an inch. Garcia threw himself at the man and held him down. Kate squeezed by and got the rifle, holding it on Shorty while Garcia subdued him. He tied the man’s hands with his own neckerchief then found some rawhide strips. Kate rushed into the dark bedroom.

Nell was lying on the floor in her nightshirt. Though dark, there was enough light to see it was covered with considerable amounts of gooey blood. It was too dark to see if she was still bleeding. She moaned and Kate dropped down to ask if she had been shot. She had not. “My children,” she breathed to Kate.

“Willy had them go hide. I think they’re safe. Take it easy. We’ll get you to the doctor’s. Where are you hurt, Nell?”

“No, no doctor,” she mumbled, “can’t afford it.”

“Oh, Nell, you need a doctor.”

“No. S’all right.”

Kate thought about it. She had used all of Gaine’s money on supplies. They couldn’t afford it either, really, unless he’d take something in trade or give credit. And what did they have to trade…some butter and eggs. Maybe some milk. But they had more hands to feed now and if they took Nell and the children out there, too, they couldn’t afford to trade any food items. But he had given her credit before. Maybe he’d do it again.

“What about Minton Ledderbridge?” she asked. “Would that be all right?” Chemists were very popular. A large number of people used them rather than pay the expense of seeing a doctor. Her father had always made use of them for the family. Of course, in her family only her father had ever been treated by a doctor.

“All right….. Shorty?”

“We have him tied up.” Nell nodded and Kate called for Garcia to come and carry Nell to the wagon. Garcia had been lighting a lamp so they could see. Kate pulled the blanket off the bed and helped Nell roll onto it, then bundled her up as best she could. While Garcia struggled to lift the light woman in such a small space, Kate ruffled through the room gathering Nell’s clothing. She would give her her own night shirt tonight. She’d sleep in her camisole.

Garcia limped out carrying the moaning woman to the wagon and placed her carefully in the wagon bed. Kate ran back in the house and grabbed the other two blankets they owned, one from each of the children’s beds. A crowd had gathered in the darkened street and Kate could see Westminster struggling violently with someone. As she got closer, she noticed that it was Willy in his grasp. Westminster, half drunk, had her by the arm and slapped the child hard across the face.

Kate grabbed the rifle and took dead aim at the man. “Let her go, Westminster,” she called. “Right now!”

The crowd was undecided as to how to act. Some men laughed but some men and the women murmured sympathetically.

“She’s a horse thief!” Westminster called back cheerily, the alcohol heavy in his voice. “Maybe I’ll hang her.” Kate’s temper flared instantly.

“And maybe you’ll die trying,” Kate replied roughly. “Along with any of the rest of you varmints that think this is funny.” She moved the gun along the shadowed figures on the boardwalk who instantly ceased laughing. Then she returned aim at Westminster. “Now, let her go! She is not a horse thief. She borrowed Mabel’s horse. I’m very sure Mabel is not going to press charges.”

“Mabel said her horse was stolen. That’s enough for me.”

“She made a mistake. It wasn’t stolen. Ask her. Mabel? Are you out here, Mabel?”

There was no reply. She must be in watching Kate’s charges. Kate walked closer.

“Kate? Is that you?” Etta’s voice called. The lights from the few street businesses that were open gave little illumination this far. “What’s happened?”

It was hard for the small blonde to get used to being called “Kate” but she was the one who had decided to use her middle name. “Etta? It’s Shorty. He hurt Nell very badly and threatened to shoot her. We’re taking her and the children to the ranch. Just as soon as Westminster lets Willy go.”

“What if I don’t let her go?” Westminster taunted. Kate walked closer.

“Well, I guess I’d have to shoot you, then,” she replied calmly.

“Oh, stars! Ain’t she a pip?” Roger Pickwick called with a snort from down the boardwalk. He pounded the boards eagerly with his cane. Some on the dark boardwalk chuckled quietly.

Westminster laughed and let go of Willy, who ran to Kate and stood behind her. “You are indeed a spirited lady, Mrs. Sargos,” he laughed. “And I do love spirited women. But I doubt that you could hit anything with that if you tried. Better put it down before you hurt yourself.”

“How about one of the “O’s” in the Cooper sign?” she challenged. She didn’t know why she felt compelled to challenge him. Her temper could get the best of her, she knew. But in fact, with the clouded moonlight, it was too dark to see anything well. She could barely make out the sign. She was quite sure they wouldn’t see a bullet hole. All she had to do was act like she’d hit it. Tomorrow they’d all be sober and it wouldn’t matter. Hoping she could remember her shooting lessons, she took aim and fired and all eyes went in that direction.

“No fair, it’s too dark to see,” Westminster laughed.

“Betcha there’s a bullet hole inside that Oh,” Roger Pickwick declared, tapping his cane excitedly on the boardwalk. “Ahha! Jest like in the olden days. You rile her and she’s a streak a chain-lightnin’, that little lady. Yessir, them Sargos gals er real pips, ain’t they?”

“It’s there,” Kate declared confidently, having no idea if it was or wasn’t. “Now, Shorty’s tied up in the house. Charges WILL be filed against him. It’s your job to arrest him.”

“What charge?”

“Attempted murder. He had a gun, said he was going to kill his family and he even shot it. Fortunately, he didn’t hit anyone before we stopped him.”

“He was just funnin’ ya,” Westminster said derisively.

“It’s your job, Sheriff,” Etta replied.

“Indeed,” Wilbur added and a number of voices joined in assent. “Do your job. We demand you keep our town safe.”

“Go ahead. Arrest him,” a familiar voice said. Apparently the Mayor had been in the crowd the whole while. Kate had no time for him. Nell was hurt.

“Willy, get a barn lantern from Mabel and go find your brothers and little sister. Bring them back to the wagon. We’re going out to the ranch.”

Willy ran toward Mabel’s house while Kate followed to collect her children. She gave the rifle to Mabel. Willy flew off toward the river with the lantern. Soon the young girl was back with her siblings trailing after her. The youngest toddler was whimpering. Willy wrapped her arms around her and told her it would be all right as the child clung to her.

They managed to get all the children into the wagon along with their bedding. With all of them bundled up, the wagon headed back down the street to the store.

Kate rushed inside where a group of men were seated near the pickle barrel playing checkers. She begged Minton, the chemist, to give her credit for medications and the man readily agreed. He was angry with the Mayor’s underhanded treatment of Gaine and knew she’d settle this account when she came back. He went out to the wagon to talk to Nell, to find out where she was injured and suggested she splint her arm. He thought it might be broken. He went inside, crushed some pills into a powder and brought down a bottle of the new Lydia Pinkham pills. Kate listened carefully to all his instructions.

Nell was given some powder before they left. They rode home in the dark as slowly as they could to avoid painful bouncing. Nell’s children huddled together silently near their mother, watching her in the moonlight with wide eyes. Kate’s littlest charge, Deena, cried hungrily most of the way home.

Garcia and Alabam brought in some straw and the children quietly went to bed after eating what Garcia found to put out for them. Kate was busy preparing the baby’s special feeding. Then she helped Nell get washed up and splinted her arm. There was considerable blood, but Nell was no longer bleeding. She fussed about using Kate’s bed, but once she’d taken more powder, she fell into a sound sleep.

Kate decided she’d sleep on the rug. She placed her two little ones in their boxes on the rug beside her before settling down for the night. How she wished Gaine was here! Where are you, my love? Oh, please, come home. We need you.

-***-

Gaine’s tired group mounted up to begin trailing downward as the other group quietly covered their faces with mud to mount their attack. Gaine followed the three men’s trail the rest of the day, camping for only five hours that night before taking the men pell mell past roaring, tumbling streams, down through the timber past the land of few ranches toward the exhilarant savanna that ran clean out toward where the stage passed.

They lost the tracks for a while and when they located them again further down the hills, the tracks were for different horses. Gaine counted the tracks. Three riders again. The same number. Same age tracks. They’d exchanged horses somewhere. She had a good idea where. But she had to decide whether to track to the spent horses or assume these tracks were the same riders and go after them.

She sent two of her riders on to the hidden ranch she knew was in the foothills. They were to explore that possibility and report back. She and the remaining men headed on the new trail.

It was discouraging in many ways, but she refused to fall into that. They had tracked for so many days without another visual sighting. She cheered herself with the idea that they might be within a half-day, mere hours of the monsters. At least she hoped this trail was for the same riders.

Suddenly they came to one of the swing stations and a stage that had been robbed short hours before. The gang had killed the driver and pistol whipped the Conductor, although there had been no need. The man had his hands up at the time and was doing everything asked of him, the passengers stated.

They had removed the express box from the stage and the passengers had been robbed as well. One genteel older gentleman had been shot in the knee to the laughs of the villains. Taut bindings were holding back the blood. Again there had been no apparent reason. He was not armed nor resisting in any capacity. Gaine glanced at his injury and knew if he survived, he’d never walk again.

The posse’s horses were exhausted. They exchanged with what fresh mounts the stage company had since the outlaws hadn’t taken the horses this time. That was a good sign. That meant they were feeling rushed pressure and knew her posse had not stopped pursuing them.

She wondered how long it would be till they finally caught up with them…days? more weeks? And would it take her even further from home and Katie? See darlin, Ah ramembered ta think a ya as Katie Ôstead a Meghan. The fellas better be keeping a close watch o’er ya. Ah shorely hope Lendal ain’t been set free cause Ah know he’d come fer ya. So’s theys better be watchin’ ya close.

At the hidden ranch, Gaine’s two men found the horses they’d been tracking up and down the Sierras for days. The man who lived there was weathered and independent. A surly cuss and by all accounts not terribly inclined to be cooperative. But when he thought they might hang him for aiding killers, he claimed, “Them boys never bothered me none nor caused me no trouble. They made a good trade, fair and square. I didn’t have no idee they was killers.”

With fresh mounts, Gaine and her posse headed as fast as they dared on the trail of the vicious killers. They were only hours behind them she was sure. Everyone checked their guns to see that they were loaded and ready. The fact that they had gained on them gave everyone a second wind.

“Theys likely ta be on bays and blacks,” Gaine told them. “Watch in them shadows careful like.” Rustlers rarely rode anything but darker horses that could fade into the night.

Gaine would track them by lantern light long into the night, they were all sure of that. There’d be no rest for these outlaws. Not with her posse on their trail. They were just hours away from their capture. They could feel it.

The outlaws, however, were very familiar with the area, knew how to cover their tracks and knew hiding places no one had ever thought about.

-***-

The next morning the populace of Barden’s Corner was surprised and delighted to see a fresh bullet hole in the first “O” of the cooper’s sign. Roger Pickwick stood for a long time tapping his cane with gusto on the wooden slats of the boardwalk, telling everyone who walked by what pips those Sardos women were. “You’d love it, Lettie darlin’,” he chuckled. “They’re just as perky now as in the olden days.”

Nell appeared better that morning but Kate insisted that she stay in bed. She fixed a large breakfast for the children and hands while the dogs danced in delight at the appearance of their young friends. Kate took Nell a tray and firmly required that she take her powders. When they talked later, Nell sleepily admitted that she had miscarried from the beating. That was the reason for much of the blood.

“I’ve been taking in washing,” Nell said drowsily. “We can’t stay here too long, Kate. I have customers. It’s our only income. I can’t lose them. Shorty hasn’t been working…”

“No. You need to stay till you’re well.” Kate heard the noises and moved to the window. Coming along the road was a fancy carriage with two men inside. “Minton thinks your arm is broken. You won’t be lifting any heavy wash with a broken arm.” She turned to see Nell sound asleep.

Kate stood on the porch, her rifle pointed at the two men, the three dogs around her, barking. Shorty jumped down from the wagon followed by Westminster, his badge prominently on his jacket. He tied the horse to the rail. Garcia stood at the barn, his rifle directed at the two. The dogs barked threateningly, occasionally baring their teeth.

“Don’t bother getting out,” Kate called. “You’re not staying.”

“I’m here in a legal capacity,” Westminster declared. “Call off your dogs. Shorty demands that his family come home. I’m here to see that they do.”

Kate did not call off the dogs, who barked furiously. Westminster drew his sidearm and pointed it at one of the dogs.

“Shoot that dog and you’re dead,” Kate threatened, her rifle aimed at him. “You two get back in that wagon and get off our property.”

Suddenly the sound of another buggy was heard on the road and everyone looked to see a large buggy filled with a double row of ladies with parasols headed along the road to the house. Etta was holding the reins and directed the horse to the rail. She waited while the others held their skirts to climb down.

Kate called the dogs to the porch. Westminster hurried to their aid, gallantly holding out his hand for their use. “Shorty, help the ladies,” he demanded. Shorty moved to the other side and helped the ladies from the back row. There were six ladies in all. Kate stood watching, unsure of what to do. She stopped the dogs barking then turned to Willy who was in the yard and told her to get the others and go into the room where their mother was sleeping and stay there. “Shut the door and don’t come out unless I call you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Willy gathered her brothers and little sister and hurried them into the house.

“Hello, Westminster,” Etta said. “We’ve actually come to talk with you and Shorty.” She smiled politely then turned to Kate. “Would you mind terribly if we came inside?”

“Uh…I guess not,” Kate decided. “But you must all stay in the main room.” Kate did not know these women other than by sight. They had not been particularly friendly to her, other than Etta, and she was suspicious of their presence. What she did know for sure was that they were NOT going to take Nell and her children out of this house…only over her dead body.

“Of course,” Etta declared. She held her skirts and climbed the two stairs to the porch followed by the other ladies. The dogs moved to the side, watching their mistress for commands. Kate held the door open and directed the group to the big room where Sarah was in her box on the rug and Deena was asleep in her cradle. Kate, stood with her rifle still in her hand. Garcia came running across from the barn after the last two men entered.

“The main room only,” Kate declared as Shorty stepped inside. She directed Garcia to wait on the porch and keep his rifle ready. “And call Alabam, in case we need more help.”

“Come, have a seat, Shorty,” Etta called. “We need to talk with you.” The ladies sat primly at the long table and folded their hands in their laps.

Westminster pulled up a chair and joined them. “Ladies, I wonder if you understand that I am here on official business,” he began. “It is my job to uphold the family and its values,” he said politely, “and reunite a family that has been torn apart by those acting beyond their limits.”

Kate began to bristle and Etta caught her eye. “Coffee, perhaps, Mrs. Sargos, if it’s not too much bother?” she asked. The polite smile did not leave Etta’s face and Kate’s upbringing clicked into being. She leaned her rifle on the wall then cautiously brought cups and a spoon for each person. Lifting the ever-heated pot that was left from breakfast, she poured each cup. “I’m sorry,” she said curtly, “the cream is in the well. I wasn’t expecting company.” She did put out some honey as a sweetener. Westminster and Shorty helped themselves to large portions and some of the ladies had smaller amounts.

“So, ladies, what was it you wanted from us gentlemen, your most humble servants.” Westminster bowed forward slightly while sitting. The sickly sweet smile plastered on his face was enough to make Kate want to slap him firmly across the face, or throw up, or both. Instead she retrieved her rifle and stood on the rug by the children, scowling.

“Well, it has been said that finding a job in these days of difficult circumstances is next to impossible,” Mrs. Harney stated. “And it has come to our attention that Shorty has been trying very hard to find such employment to support his family and must be commended for his effort.”

“Indeed!” Mrs. Pickering agreed. “We know how important family is, so we decided that there must be SOMETHING out there that would reward Shorty for his efforts. We have, if you will, put out tentacles, checking in all directions of our influence for a worthy job.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Ledderbridge agreed. “And the ladies of the church circle are very pleased to announce that we have been able, after great difficulty, to find one of the last jobs in the area for an earnest, God-fearing man not afraid of hard work.”

“A job?” Shorty asked, drinking down some of his coffee.

“Yes,” Mrs. Meier smiled. “A very good, steady job.” The ladies all sipped their coffee while Shorty considered the prospect.

“The difficulty, however,” Etta interrupted, “is that you must leave right away in order to get there. That’s why we rode out here as soon as we heard, Westminster. We were sure you’d understand. It is a plumb job on a sheep ranch close to Big Creek and they want his services immediately. He must leave, good sir, as soon as you can get him back to Barden’s Corner and before anyone else hears this ranch is hiring. There is no time to lose with all those other men out there searching for work.”

“Well, Shorty, a job!” Westminster stated proudly as though he had been the one to procure this opportunity. “It will feel good indeed to have a worthy job, eh?”

“Uh, on a sheep ranch?” Shorty asked. “What do I do?”

“Why, whatever one does on a sheep ranch,” Mrs. Meier announced. She sipped her coffee. “It is my second cousin’s ranch, and he has offered this to us FIRST, more as a favor than anything. So, while we hate to pressure you, we do hope you will hurry. He promised to hold it for you, if you would get there as soon as possible. Do you think you can do that?”

“Indeed,” Westminster gulped down the rest of his coffee, “I shall get him back immediately, ladies. Finish your coffee, Shorty. You are bound for employment, my good man.”

“I’ll give you exact instructions on how to get there,” Mrs. Meier suddenly rose and moved toward the door. Shorty finished his coffee and the two men rose. She waited for Westminster to hold the door open for her before moving out to the porch, followed by the two men. Garcia and the dogs watched them head to their wagon.

“Come and sit down, Kate,” Etta grinned. “They’ll be leaving soon, but we’re in no hurry.”

Kate checked on the two little ones before moving to the table. “What’s going on?” she asked, the rifle still in her hands.

“We met last night after seeing what had happened at Shorty’s house. We decided this was what Westminster was likely to do and we knew Nell would not be in any shape to be hauled all over the country and put back into the same situation. So Mrs. Meier sent her son on horseback last night to the sheep ranch. He returned early this morning and said her cousin could find some kind of a job for this man. Shorty usually lasts a month or a month and a half before he’s let go. They said they could afford to hire him for up to two months. This would give Nell a chance to survive and Gaine a chance to get back and put an end to all of this.”

Kate silently hung the rifle above the door. “How is Nell?” Etta asked her.

Kate walked back to the table. “She’s miscarried and Minton thought she had a broken arm. Right now she’s taken his powders and she’s asleep.”

The door opened and Mrs. Meier walked back in to the sounds of Winchester’s buggy heading out the roadway to town. “They’re gone,” she smiled.

“Ladies,” Kate grinned. “Let me send the children out to play then I’ll put some real coffee on and bring out some cookies. And I promise to put out cream for your coffee this time.”

The ladies all murmured their pleasure at her suggestion. After chatting and enjoying their refreshments for another hour or so, they got up to leave. They each took a minute to look in on Nell, who was still sound asleep. Kate was glad they were leaving as it was time to start supper for the children and the hands. The small blonde walked out with them to their carriage.

“Oh,” Mrs. Pickering said, reaching into the back of the carriage, “Daniel’s wife has been saving all of Gaine’s mail for her while she’s gone. She’s refused to put it in the Sheriff’s box since it has Gaine’s name on it. She gave it to me to deliver to you.” A box of mail was lifted from the back of the carriage and handed to Kate, whose brow rose at the amount. “She said to tell you not to be surprised, the Sheriff gets unbelievable amounts of mail.”

Kate thanked them and bid them adieu, then hurried in to get to her noon duties. The workers would be in soon to eat and she should have spent the morning baking. The box of mail was put aside in the pantry, waiting for Gaine’s return.

After several days recovering, Nell decided that she and the children should return home. If she wrapped her arm, she claimed, it didn’t hurt so badly. She felt she had to get back to work doing laundry in order to keep all the prior customers she’d been able to get. She needed them desperately. Shorty would demand that they come back anyway and she’d have no choice when he did. And she was afraid he would drink away most of his job money. But she could use her laundry income to pay for food for the children so long as she had customers.

Kate was not sure it was wise to go home so soon, but she knew it was safe. Shorty wouldn’t be back in town for at least a month. She understood Nell’s predicament so she bundled up the children and helped Nell and her family into the wagon. “You take Mabel’s horse and ride out to get us anytime you need to,” she told Willy. “Mabel says it’s fine if she’s not there.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the young girl said sadly. “I will.”

Kate saw the sad faces of the dogs as Alabam drove the family to town. “I know how you feel,” she said as she paused on the porch. “I miss them, too.” Her eyes followed the wagon but her thoughts drifted. Oh, Gaine, come home to us. Soon, my love. Please! Everyone in town was nervous at the amount of time the posse had been away. Occasionally they got word of where they’d been seen. But mostly they waited, steadfast in their belief in Gaine’s ability to protect her men.

That night after supper when the dishes were done and the mess cleaned off the table, Kate cuddled the oldest child, the one she had taken to calling Sarah after her mother, then put her on the rug by the table. She had a blanket down and a handmade barricade of chairs and the large bathing tub. The baby she called Deena after Gaine’s mother, Costadeena. The infant was asleep in the box that Garcia had turned into a cradle. The rockers were removable. As a cradle, Meghan was able to rock it with her foot should the baby awaken.

She wanted to have everything ready when Gaine returned and she remembered the box of mail. Her tall partner would be busy dealing with the Mayor and with everything surrounding her job. Plus she had to meet the cattle drive in Stockton and complete that deal. She had no idea how using the salary money for supplies could be fixed. It would be one more thing Gaine would have to do. She would have so little time and Kate wanted to do everything she could to make it easier for her.

She brought out the box of mail and began to separate it with a large degree of apprehension. She had become attached to these small children and did not want to see a letter from a relative notifying Gaine that they were coming to claim them. How could she possibly survive such a letter? She didn’t think she could although she knew she shouldn’t let herself get so attached.

She made a stack of wanted posters. Many were bigger than an average piece of paper. A number of them offered rewards. Some were for information to help capture and some were for the apprehension of robbers, murderers, escaped prisoners, thieves and sometimes for lost objects. There was even one offering a one-time opportunity to view the hand of the gunned-down rogue, Stub-fingered Charlie, whose lightning fast stubbed gun fingers had been stepped on and mangled as a youngster by a Shetland pony.

How gruesome, she thought. Who’d pay to see a dead man’s cut off hand? Ew!

There were a couple letters from nearby Sheriffs regarding the gang of outlaws that Gaine was now pursuing and one from the stagecoach company. And a number of posters were included offering rewards for the same men, wanted dead or alive. She put them in a separate stack. Kate decided to reply to the letters telling them Gaine and her posse were in pursuit. She didn’t care what the Mayor might think about that.

She cooed lovingly to the toddler, who babbled her own language in return. Then she came to a letter with a return address from the Marshal in Sacramento. She debated about opening it, but decided she couldn’t be of any help to Gaine if she didn’t check all the mail. She hoped Gaine wouldn’t mind.

Carefully she cut the end and extracted the letter. Her mouth dropped open then her hand went to her mouth as she read. It was informing Gaine that Lendal Hindlefarb had been tried and found guilty of the murder of Brogan Fitzgeraldson. He’d been sentenced to death and was hanged according to law.

Dear Heavens! Lendal was hanged! She wanted to feel relief, but for whatever reason, that was not the emotion that flooded her. Did I kill him? she considered with a feeling of despair. Her shoulders slumped Did I kill Lendal?

The information following that, however, really made her sit back and take stock. “The widow of the murdered man and her young son,” the Marshal had written, “had attended the hanging, as was their due.”

“What does this mean, Gaine?” Kate asked the still air, slumping back in her chair and chewing her lip. “I wish you were here to help me understand this.” Her eyes stared blankly at a spot on the wall. But she knew what it meant. It meant her mother might purposely have let the authorities think it was her father’s watch. Surely her mother hadn’t forgotten the scratches inside the lid that Kate had paid dearly for out of her own flesh.

She sat silently as she stared. The only sounds were the gurgling noises made by the small Sarah as she chewed on the tin cup then banged it on the ground in delight.

And that watch most likely convicted Lendal, Kate thought. A judgment her mother had chosen to observe being carried out. Why? She knew her mother feared him; hated him even, but that seemed…unbelievable.

Her mind went back to her years growing up. She was very young when they had lived near Lendal. Her father had started several businesses when she was a youngster and he moved his shops from time to time until the wagon shop at Jubilee City, where it seemed to catch on and he became established.

She remembered her mother crying sorrowful tears when her father was not around after they moved. However, she did not cry when he was there, even when he struck her, which was all too often. It was like she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her tears. But she knew her father had not been nearly as vicious to his wife as Lendal had been to his.

Maybe her mother really believed Lendal had killed her father and was afraid he would get away with it if she didn’t do what she’d done–what Kate had done as well, though hers was unintentional. Maybe Lendal had been the killer. He had a vicious temper. Maybe they’d convicted him without the watch as evidence. But what if they hadn’t?

I’ve killed someone, rang through her mind. How does Gaine stand it, knowing you’ve taken someone’s life? It’s such a horrible thing!

She lifted Sarah into her arms and moved to the chair. She cuddled the small toddler. The little girl smelled like the innocence of childhood. It was comforting. She held her to her chest and rocked forward in a short rocking motion until the small eyes of the child began to close. Even after she had fallen asleep, Kate continued to rock her.

When she finally looked around it was growing dark. She had not finished the mail. She would need to light a lantern. She placed the sleeping toddler in her box, lit the lantern and went back to the mail. “Only rich people with servants have the luxury of pondering their choices,” she muttered and drew out some paper and the inkwell to write replies.

-***-

“The Sheriff’s here! They’re back!” Willy called for everyone in town to hear.

The news spread like an electric storm. People came out onto the street to watch the tired procession heading into town. The afternoon was pleasant with just a touch of a breeze but the riders took no pleasure in the day.

“And they got dead men on their saddles. THEY’S GOT DEAD MEN!” Willy shouted excitedly. Now the street filled rapidly and everyone within calling range ran out to make sure it wasn’t one of their loved ones that had been shot as the posse tiredly made it’s way to the main street.

“Lordy!” Willy hollered, sounding just like the woman she idolized. “They got prisoners–alive. LIVE PRISONERS!”

“Westminster,” the Mayor hissed to the man standing on the boardwalk watching the coming procession. “Take off that badge. Here, give it to me.” Westminster ruffled his brows, but seeing Gaine heading their way, he quickly removed the badge and handed it to the Mayor.

“I’m not Sheriff any more?”

“No.”

Everyone’s eyes raked over the motley procession, each scouring the group for their own loved ones. The Sheriff was at the front. Behind her were three horses tied together, each carrying a dead body strapped across the saddle. The posse itself followed, many men trailing an extra horse. Near the end of the riders were two surly men, hands tied to their saddlehorns. Men not from their town were mixed in with the posse making it double the size it had been when they left. At the very end of the approximately twenty riders came the wagon with two men riding on the bench and two men lying inside. One of the injured was the other Sheriff.

Behind that was a small herd of horses and cattle and a few riders keeping them corralled.

“Fetch the doctor,” Gaine called and the doctor stepped forward. “We got wounded,” Gaine said. “Better git yer bag, Doc. Hurry!”

“Bring ’em to the house,” the doctor stated and Gaine waved the wagon around and pointed to the Doc. “Falla him,” she called to the strangers.

“Good God Almighty!” the Mayor preened from the boardwalk, “Ya got ’em! I’ll be jigged, Gaine, if ya ain’t got ’em.” He turned to the crowd. “She got ’em. I knew she would. Others tried, but OUR Sheriff got ’em. Jigged if she ain’t.”

“Nope,” Gaine replied tiredly. “We all done worked tagather.”

Wive’s eyes scanned the troupe for their husbands. The men were filthy dirty, having worn the same clothes every day they’d been gone. Those who’d been clean shaven when they left now sported beards and scraggly mustaches. They all looked exhausted. Women stepped forward, embracing various of the ratty looking men as they climbed off their horses. Some remained in their embrace for quite a long time. Gaine’s posse was back, all safe and sound.

“We’ll look after your horse, Sheriff,” one of two young man stated enthusiastically, moving up to take the reins.

“Howdy,boys, ” Gaine said tiredly to the two Harlap brothers as she wearily swung down from the saddle. She glanced down the street and saw the new whitewash gleaming off the wood fence around old Dell Renyard’s front yard. “Ya do all yer tasks?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they replied earnestly. She saw complete admiration in their eyes as they gazed back at her. She put her hand on the shoulder of the closest boy. “Good work, fellas. Thank ya. Jest loop ’em onta the rail. ‘Preciate it.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they both carefully draped the reins over the rail and stood guard proudly by the horse.

“Glad yer back, Sheriff,” Willy shyly smiled a toothy smile from the boardwalk where she was watching. Her permanent tooth had come in completely while Gaine had been gone.

“Howdy, Willy,” Gaine ruffled the girl’s hair and a wider smile spread from ear to ear across the young girl’s face. “Ya got yer tooth in. Where’s yer Momma?”

“In the crowd over by the doc’s house.”

“You doin’ ever’thin’ she tells ya?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she replied. “I am.”

“Good. Did yer Pa take ta drinkin’ an’ hurtin’ yer Ma whilst we war gone?”

“Only once.”

Gaine paused, then rubbed her neck. “Uh huh. Well, Ah’m right glad ta be home.” Right at the moment she’d kill Shorty on the spot if she saw him so much as lift a drunken hand to any one of his family. Gaine turned and moved down the row of riders to direct what would happen with the prisoners and the livestock at the end.

“Drive them steers an’ hosses on over the bridge ta the end a’ town thar,” she pointed. “An let ’em graze a bit. They’ll be goin’ with me.” The riders drove the animals around the rest of the group and down toward the bridge. “Ahm chainin’ them thar fellers ta yer barn, Mayor,” she told the proudly strutting man. “Ahm too tired ta watch over ’em clean out ta mah place.”

“Of course. Of course. Bring them right along. We’ll strap those despicable outlaws to the beams, good and tight just like they deserve.” He shook his fist at the men as some of the riders dragged them off their horses.

“They’s prisoners, Mayor,” Gaine warned. “Ya can’t sa much as touch ’em. An nobody else kin neither. They’s goin’ ‘n front a’ the judge. That’s how t’works. Ain’t gonna be no necktie party in this here town.”

“Yes, yes,” the Mayor said dismissively. The surging crowd moved back to give them room then a few brave souls moved forward to touch the villains as they passed. The criminals turned with growls toward the people touching them but the men at the other end of their ropes gave firm yanks and moved them along.

The pulse of some whose indignation at the atrocity of these men’s crimes ran highest snarled at the prisoners, who looked back with disdain in their eyes. “Ya ain’t ta touch the criminals!” Gaine warned with more force, and the townsfolk drew back. The criminals were captives, but Gaine wasn’t. They didn’t want to tangle with her.

The crowd followed down the street to the Mayor’s house. Into his yard and into his barn they moved. The men were tied to the beams in a sitting position. Then chains were brought out and added for protection.

“That outta do it,” Gaine breathed, standing to move out. “They’s not ta be harassed er harmed none now Mayor,” she warned. “Ain’t no firearms allowed in this here barn ‘cept’n a Deputy’s er mine. Ahm leavin’ mah fellas ‘n charge. Ah doan wanna hafta arrest nobody here fer murder. Them fellas’r already arrested ‘n in mah charge. Harm ’em an’ Ahl arrest ya.”

“Yes, Sheriff,” he replied seriously. She was at the barn door when the Mayor stepped forward as though he was making a political speech. “You men are done harassin’, murderin’ and foresakin’ honest citizens and small children.” The angry voices of other townsfolk muttered their agreement. “Your violent reign of terror is ended right here in Barden’s Corner. Remember that name, you villains. May it die on your tongue. Cause you’ve met OUR Sheriff, and don’t NOBODY fuss with her and win!”

“Not ta be harmed, Mayor,” she repeated the warning. “Ahm sendin’ two Deputies ta watch o’er ’em tanight.”

“Yes, yes. Ladies and Gentlemen, Barden’s Corner’s finest, OUR SHERIFF!” He pointed to Gaine who smiled weakly as wild applause broke out before she left.

The crowd was then mustered out of the barn by the Mayor. They left with great reluctance but he whispered that for a nickel each, a dime per family, there’d be a viewing in an hour and they could stay as long as they wanted till he closed the viewing down. Except they couldn’t bring in any firearms by order of the Sheriff. They all were mesmerized with the prospect of such vicious, blood-thirsty men so close to them and they couldn’t get enough of just staring at them. They’d be back with their nickels and dimes.

Gaine flagged down one of the riders and sent him after the two men from the wagon. She thought they would be the most rested and could stand guard over the prisoners for the night.

She crossed back to the main street where the dead men were draped over the horses. The two boys were still there proudly watching her horse. Their wide eyes were scrutinizing the dead men on the other horses’ backs and they bobbed up and down in place to try and see the dead faces under the draped bodies. Sweet Providence, these criminals were the talk of the state and THEIR Sheriff had caught them! And here those blood-thirsty fellas were, right here in little Barden’s Corner. The excitement ran high.

Gaine chatted for a minute with the carpenter, who also made the coffins. She would turn the bodies over to him. Once the agreement had been reached, she turned the string of horses over to the carpenter and headed toward her own horse. The boys backed away.

“Thanks, fellas,” she said and their faces beamed with the recognition she’d given them. Then they tore out after the carpenter. They wanted to see the dead men when they were lifted off.

“Bet the Sheriff killed all three of ’em,” one brother said quietly to the other, their eyes flicking back to the tall woman. His brother nodded in agreement. “I’m glad we did all the jobs she gave us,” he replied, wide-eyed. “Me, too,” the other agreed.

The crowd reluctantly leaving the Mayor’s barn got wind of where the dead outlaws were being taken and followed along as the carpenter led the string. This was probably the most exciting thing they would ever see in their lives, they decided.

“Better take this, Sheriff,” one of the riders brought over a small wooden chest with a hinged lid from the wagon. “You’re the one in charge of it.”

“Yep, I reckon,” Gaine said without enthusiasm. She knew the chest contained the smaller spoils of the thieves’ robberies. The horses and cattle had been kept in a beautiful, lush valley over the rise at the trail along the sheer rock wall. That was the place where the other Sheriff and one of his deputies had been wounded when they’d hesitated to return fire. The stock from there would be driven to her corral for the night. They’d sort everything out in the morning.

“Ahm headin’ home,” she smiled grimly at the man. “All the t’uther fellas been put up all right?”

“Yep. Bessie Mae’s filled up her boardin’ house. And the Jensens just outside town are taking the rest in their bunkhouse. Too bad the hotel ain’t finished yet.”

“Uh huh. Well, mah Cousin’s gonna be right pleased ta see Ahm back.”

“Yep. Tell Cousin Minnie howdy fer me.”

Gaine smiled. Words would take too much energy. She climbed tiredly on her horse and rode across to the men from the wagon emerging from Doc’s house and repeated their assignment. They grabbed their rifles from the wagon and headed for the Mayor’s barn. She pointed her horse toward home, the small wooden chest under one arm. She crossed the bridge and the herd there grazing was headed out behind her by the waiting men.

Kate had just finished feeding the children when she saw the lone figure in front of the herd riding slowly toward the ranch. She knew instantly who it was. Her heart pounded in her chest. “Quick, put some water on to heat out there in the firepit,” she called to Alabam who was near the fire. “I’ll get the bathing tub. Garcia, dig in that bean hole please and bring up the stew cooking there. I’ll bring out the biscuits and an apricot pie. Hurry!”

All eyes moved to the tired procession riding in. Kate ran back into the house and frantically began bringing out pantry foods to go with the hot stew for the exhausted woman. Then she stepped around Sarah on the blanket, bent over quickly to kiss her forehead, and ran back to the porch as Gaine pulled up in the yard. Gaine’s two vaqueros rode out to help and the herd was separated and driven into the corrals.

“GAINE!” Kate cried excitedly. She ran to fall into the tall woman’s arms as the Sheriff slid off her horse and opened one arm. “Oh, Gaine, you’re back! Thank heavens!” They stood in an awkward embrace, Gaine still holding the small chest with her other arm.

“Come on,” Kate chattered, ignoring everyone else. “We’re fixing bath water for you. And there’s some food if you’re hungry. There’s stew with potatoes and biscuits and apricot pie. Let’s get you into the tub.”

“Ah am filthy…” Gaine started to pull away.

“Pshaw!” Kate said gripping Gaine firmly around the waist. “C’mon now.”

“See ya Sheriff. We’ll be back tomorrow to help you bring the horses and cattle to town.” The town riders turned their horses and gave a short goodbye wave.

Gaine stopped on the porch and gave a frail wave in return. “Thanks,” she muttered. Her eyes went to her own hands. “Howdy, fellas,” she said weakly.

“Get some sleep, Amiga. We’ll talk tomorrow,” Garcia called.

“Yep,” Gaine replied.

Once in the house, Kate had Gaine sit at the table while she directed the two men to pour the water into the nearby tub. She dipped out some stew from the dutch oven and put a biscuit with it before sending the rest out for the hands’ supper. Gaine picked at her food but was too tired to eat much.

Once the men had gone, the blonde came back to help the tall woman undress. Gaine had placed the chest, her cartridge belts and holster on the end of the table. Kate hung the belts on the pegs where they normally were kept.

The blonde’s dancing eyes did not leave the tall woman. She was a sight for very sore eyes. She pulled one boot then the other off the tired Sheriff. The little girl made some noises on the blanket and Gaine looked over in spent amusement. “That ain’t the same little girl?” she asked in amazement.

“Yes. Meet Sarah, Gaine,” Kate said undoing the bandanna and unbuttoning the woman’s shirt and pulling them off. She unbuckled the belt then the filthy trousers. “I’m calling her after my Momma. And the baby is Costadeena, after your Mother. And we’ve been waiting for you to get home ever so long.”

Blue eyes lifted to green. “Ahv missed ya so,” Gaine said softly.

“And I’ve missed you, my love, more than you’ll ever know.” Kate ran a hand softly over Gaine’s sunscorched cheek. She had a few mosquito bites on her face, some old, some new. “C’mon. Let’s get you into the tub.”

She helped the woman remove her underclothes and step in and settle down before she handed her a washcloth and some soap. She was surprised by how much weight her tall beauty had lost. She looked carefully but was relieved to see no wounds anywhere. Just some swollen bites on her hands and face. Gaine began to scrub dirt from her neck and Kate flew from the room to get the tall woman’s nightshirt.

“I’ll help you wash your hair,” she called as she reentered the room. She did a quick visual check and saw the baby was awake but quiet in her cradle and Sarah was chewing on the tin cup as she sat on the blanket. Kate looked at Gaine and saw her head was slumped forward. She moved closer and saw she was sound asleep in the tub.

“Darlin’,” she said softly. “I’m going to help you wash your hair.”

“Huh?” Gaine’s eyes shot open. Kate put a gentle hand on her shoulder and dipped a small pan of water from the tub. “Your hair. Shut your eyes.” She poured the water then added soap and scrubbed the long black tresses for the sleepy woman several times, before massaging her scalp.

“Mmm. Thanks, Katie,” she sighed, forcing herself awake. “Ah kin do the rest.”

“Let me rinse it first.” Kate poured more water to rinse out the sleek long black hair.

“Feels good ta have it clean,” Gaine smiled wearily.

Kate stood nervously by the table as Gaine began to scrub herself down. The blonde looked at the chest. “What’s this?” She moved to the end of the table where the chest sat.

“That thar’s the thieves’. Ah gotta watch over’t.”

“May I look?”

“Course. Only….”

Kate opened the chest. “Dear heavens!” She scrunched her nose, “There’s rings, necklaces, watches and other things in here.” She took a step back and brought her hands to her chest. “How horrible!”

“Uh huh,” Gaine shut her eyes and continued scrubbing herself.

Something caught Kate’s eye and she reached in and carefully pulled it out. “Gaine….?”

Gaine glanced over. “Uh, yep. Wanted ta talk ta ya ’bout that.”

“It’s just like father’s. Lendal was hanged, you know. There’s a letter there from the Marshal.”

“He bees dead?” Blue eyes opened wide.

Kate managed to nod yes. Then she added softly, “For father’s murder. My Momma went to see him be hanged.”

“Good!” Gaine replied firmly, surprising Kate. “Yer Momma knew ‘im better ‘an most. If she figured t’war fittin’, Ah reckon t’war fittin’.”

“I dunno,” Kate hit the button on the gold pocket watch she was holding and the top popped open. Inside the lid were light scratches in the gold. “Dear God!” Kate threw it back into the chest and jumped back, her mouth wide open.

“‘Uh, member that thar feller from tha stage? Yer Pa shared hisself a room with’n ‘im? The feller with’n the scar ‘n his face?”

“Yes,” Kate’s voice quavered as she focused her saucer-shaped eyes on the brunette then brought them back to the gold watch she had spent many years of her young life polishing.

“Well, Ah war startled some n’ Sacramenta when we bees thar. Ah figured Ah seed ‘im ta the faro table. But lookin’ closer, he warn’t thar. Ah figured yer Pa hired ‘im ta shoot me, but Ah din’t see ‘im no more. Ah watched keerful fer ‘im.”

“Oh, Gaine! You didn’t tell me.” Green eyes moved back to the beauty in the tub.

“Ah know. Ah din’t want ya a’worryin’. Ya had lotsa’ t’uther things ta fret on.”

“But…father’s watch.” Her eyes reverted to the watch again. “The man with the scar?”

“Yep. Ah figure yer Pa done made hisself a bargain with’n tha devil with that feller. T’is mah thinkin’ he come ta Sacramenta professin’ ta fulfill his pact ta harm me but he war really aimin’ ta rob yer Pa. He musta seed that thar weighty money belt yer Pa war a’wearin’. An’ he seed the watch, too, Ah fancy. Ever’body did. Yer Pa woulda let ‘im enter ‘is hotel room easy ’nuff. An’ yer Pa coulda riled ‘im up a storm by maybe bawlin him out fer not killin’ me. Ah dunno. Ana’ways, Ah figure he’d a kill’t yer Pa nohow jest ta steal from ‘im.”

“You think he killed father…?”

“Yep. An’ stoled that thar watch. Uh, he war one a’ the thieves Ah shot.”

“He’s dead?”

“Uh huh. He do be truly deceased.” Her voice broke off at the end.

One of the thieves she shot. How many did she shoot? It was rumored that the gang was large, at least five men. Kate wanted to know, she wanted to know everything that had happened. But not if Gaine didn’t want to talk about it. Not yet. Gaine sat staring into space.

Finally she spoke again softly, “Meggy?”

“Yes?” Green eyes looked over at the tall beauty who sat looking almost lost. This job is not good for her, Kate thought as she looked into the beauty’s sad eyes. It takes too much out of her.

Blue eyes blinked. “Hold me?”

In an instant Kate was on her knees by the tub, Gaine in her arms. The tall woman put her head of wet hair on Kate’s shoulder and shut her eyes. She never allowed herself to let down like this. But she was so tired and she was safe with Meg. She was safe in her arms. Kate kept her arms tight around her tall love.

“I love you, Gaine,” Kate murmured, knowing she was getting wet but not caring a whit. “You did what you had to do.”

“Yep,” Gaine replied, staying in the embrace a minute more. Then she pulled away and smiled. “Ahm all right now.” She began washing.

“I”ll scrub your back for you, honey.” Kate began to wash the muscled back and Gaine gave a small moan of pleasure.

“Thar war prisoners,” Gaine said quietly.

“There were?” Kate continued scrubbing.

“Yep. Big Creek’s posse got both a’ thar fellas.” Kate scrubbed without comment. “Course thar gonna hang ’em now. An’ thar posse had two a’ thar own wounded ‘cludin’ thar Sheriff. He war clipped but t’uther fella war hurt bad.” She sighed heavily.

“Oh, no! Were any of your posse… Any of the fellas from town?”

“No.” Blue eyes lifted and went to green. “Ar three outlaws t’war all kilt a’for they could kill er wound eny a’ mah boys.”

“Thank heavens!”

“Ah reckon.”

Kate stared up at the wooden chest on the table. She handed Gaine the soapy rag. “All done in back. Uh is…is the coin you shot in that chest?”

“No,” Gaine began scrubbing her arms. “Dunno what happened ta it. Ain’t none a’ the captured fellers a’sayin’ nothin’.”

“Oh.” Kate rose and walked near the chest staring at the watch.

Gaine watched her. “Ya kin claim it, if’n ya want, darlin’,” she said faintly.

“NO!” Kate backed away. “No!”

“T’is all right,” Gaine soothed. “Ya ain’t gotta. Goes ta the treasury a’ the two towns if’n t’ain’t claimed.”

“Barden’s Corner and Big Creek?”

“Yep.”

“What do they do with it?”

“T’will be sold an’ added ta the re-ward moneys. T’is likely Barden’s Corner’s gonna build a new jail an maybe procure theyselfs some new school books.”

“I won’t claim it, Gaine. I won’t! Let it go for books.”

Gaine nodded her head and smiled tiredly, “T’is fittin’ fer yer Pa ta do somethin’ fer t’uthers fer a change. Shore done his share a’ hurtin’ when he war livin’. Time fer ‘im ta do somethin’ decent fer once’t, Ah figure.”

Kate nodded. Sounds of cattle left behind in the upper pasture drifted through the window. Gaine sighed contentedly. “Sorry Ah warn’t here ta git supplies fer Cookie. Ya git Ôem for Ôim? Don Carlos n’ mah t’uther riders best be gone, too, Ahm a’hopin’.”

“They left with the big herd quite a while ago. But it wasn’t easy getting Cookie’s supplies. I had to spend the salary money you had in the chest.”

“Why?”

“The Mayor. He was horrible, Gaine! He said you’d been fired and he subtracted all your posse’s supplies from your personal account. And that left no credit. Then he wouldn’t let Cookie trade cattle for supplies. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“He done that?” Gaine sat up straight in the tub, “Why that dirty, rotten polecat!” She sat quietly thinking for a minute. “Maybe me an’ the boys’ll jest claim them rewards fer arselfs. Since’t Ah warn’t legally no Sheriff, they warn’t legally no posse neither. We shore ’nuff din’t hafta do nothin’ fer the town’s benefit. Them outlaws t’war wanted men. War’n’t illegal shootin’ ’em. Wonder if’n he’s pondered eny on that thar state a’ affairs.”

Kate lifted the fussing baby from her cradle and checked her diaper. “I worried about spending the money.” She made the change and settled the infant back in her cradle, giving it a light rock.

Gaine’s eyes shut in anger, she clenched her teeth and frowned. She opened her eyes and rubbed herself with the wash cloth with more fervor. “Ahm sorry, darlin. That thar Mayor ain’t never gonna do that ta ya ag’in. Ah promise.” Her eyes narrowed. “He bees Ôn ijit!”

“Yes. I’d have to agree with that.”

Gaine’s blue eyes lifted to her, “How’d ya manage, then? Warn’t that much salary money thar. Did ya git ever’thin’ ya needed? What Ôbout supplies fer here?”

“We got by. I was so worried about using up every cent. But I didn’t know what else to do. Daniel was adamant about not giving us credit. But his wife let me get your trousers on credit. And Minton was wonderful.”

“Daniel refused? Daniel? Well, ya done ever’thin’ ‘zactly right, darlin. Doan worry none. We’ll git ta the mercantile and work t’out. Ah cain’t believe Daniel’d go along with’n that…that buzzard. Ah declare, Ahm gonna hafta kill that Mayor a’ our’n and them nabobs he’s a’workin’ with. Them dirty, rotten…”

“Oh, honey, you’re home and we got by. I’m just happy you’re home.” She put her arms around Gaine’s neck again and kissed her on the cheek.

A determined look came across Gaine’s face. “Tha Mayor’s jest got ar town some changes he an his pals ain’t gonna like a’tall. An Ah do believe we’s gonna have us’ns a woman a’servin’ in one a’ them city po-sitions–treasurer. Etta Mae. Ah got me a great bargainin’ position this time. A woman servin’ and a law sayin’ we’s gonna throw ‘n jail an’ fine ana’ feller that beats his wife. Two hundert dollar fine each n’ ever time.”

“Uh, Shorty beat Nell very badly while you were gone. And..and more. Nell, uh, lost the baby she was carrying when he kicked her in the stomach. She, uh, miscarried. And he threatened to kill her. That was so frightening! He took a gun to her. He threatened them all, but Willy had all the little ones hide down by the river. We brought Nell and the children out here.”

“Shorty doan own no gun. Whar’d he git it? He musta stole it. Stealin’ an’ threatenin’. Why warn’t he arrested? Why ain’t he ‘n custody?”

“He was, but Westminster let him go the very next day. The Mayor made Westminster Sheriff, and he brought Shorty out here the next day to get his family and take them home.”

“Goddam!” Gaine slapped the water then sighed heavily, resigned to the fact that she’d need to ride back into town immediately to handle the problem. “He still thar with’n Nell an’ the childerns.”

Kate put a hand on her arm. “No. It’s all right. Nell didn’t go back until he was gone from town. Etta brought the Ladies Aid group from church into it and they found him a job on a sheep ranch over by Big Creek. He didn’t have any choice but to take it. He’s been there since.”

“Good!” A large sigh and resolve drained from Gaine. Kate looked over, “C’mon, honey. Let me help you out and into bed. You look like you could sleep a year.”

“Ah am plum tuckered. Ah pushed them boys hard, Katie.”

“I know, honey. Let’s get you into bed.”

Gaine dried quickly and got into her nightshirt. Kate helped her into the bedroom then went back to check on Sarah who was still on the blanket. When she went back to the bedroom again, Gaine was in bed, sound asleep. Kate drew the mosquito cloth around the bed.

The blonde was cleaning up Gaine’s uneaten food when a light tap came on the door. She opened it to see Garcia. “If’n ya want, missus, Ahl do the milkin.” His eyes flitted around the yard, checking to see if any of the men were watching.

Kate looked at him with surprise. Men didn’t do the milking in many places if there was a woman to do it. “Bless you, Garcia. But I already did it before Gaine got here.”

“Uh, we was wonderin’,” he blushed. “Gaine all right? We heard there were injuries. She looked….peak-ed.”

“She’s asleep already. I think she’s just exhausted. A couple people in the other posse were injured. None in hers. And she’s not wounded at all.”

He nodded, “Bueno!” he sighed in relief and moved off the porch. Kate realized how many people counted on Gaine. She finished her chores, running back periodically to gaze at the brunette. She really was home. Gaine was home! And she wasn’t injured. At least her body wasn’t.

The children were placed in their boxes on Kate’s side of the bed beside Gaine. The blonde pulled back the netting and crawled carefully over the sleeping woman into the small area left in the middle of the bed. She pulled the tall beauty’s arms around herself. “Hey, beautiful lady,” Kate breathed.

Gaine made a grunting noise and muffled her face in Kate’s hair and began to nibble Kate’s neck even though her eyes were tightly closed. Yes, they could easily share one side of the bed for tonight.

“Gaine, honey,” Kate whispered, “the children…”

“Um, all right, love,” Gaine replied before breathing deeply in sleep again. Kate glanced at the tall beauty. She was sound asleep. The blonde smiled. Gaine was home, safe, and those she loved surrounded her. The sun was going down and soon pitch blackness would fill the room.

“I love you, Gaine,” Kate said softly.

“Mmm, love ya, too, kitten,” Gaine replied, then softly snored.

Kitten. She loved when Gaine called her “kitten”. She hugged the tall brunette gently. She loved her tall beauty so. And she loved her life. She ran her thumb across her ring. Mrs. Sargos. Mrs. Gaine Sargos, only no one else knew that. The times did not allow it. But none of that mattered at the moment. She knew and Gaine knew. Right this minute, she wouldn’t change a thing.

Then she paused. Well, she would like to know how her mother was doing. That was the one and only thing she’d change. I care about the others but I can easily live without them in my life. But I do miss Mother. I pray she’s all right.
Chapter 11
Across the continent in a Boston neighborhood, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson, widow, was taking out her pen and ink. Wrinkled fingers turned the wick till the lantern sputtered then burned high and cheerfully. It was late and ever so dark outside. She and her sister enjoyed staying up late with no one to say them “Nay” but their budget. They were careful not to stay up late too often, however, so as not to spend too much foolishly on lamp oil or firewood. The bricks that would warm their cold beds were heating in the fireplace.

“Dear Sheriff Gaine Sargos,” the older woman wrote on the paper before her.

Her younger widowed sister sat across the room enjoying a pinch of snuff while knitting contentedly on new tidies for the chairs. Her youngest son, Reggie, sprawled across a chair reading the paper. The house was swept and the wood piled by the fireplace. Reggie had voiced a desire to get more education, but planned to work and save to pay for it himself. He loved Boston, and he had proved to be a very great help so far. He did regular chores, brought in the water daily, chopped the wood in the shed and hadn’t he caught a wild turkey and penned it in the yard? And weren’t they feeding it well with anticipation of a nice, fat Thanksgiving gobbler?

It was a small, cozy home, close enough to the city’s horse-drawn omnibus calculated to hold twelve persons. A big-city marvel yet their cottage had enough land for chickens, a limited garden and a small milking shed. They paid the neighbor lad to drive Bessie and her calf to the off-city pasture and back each day along with his family’s and other dairy cattle in the neighborhood.

Her youngest sister had lived here with her elderly husband, who had recently passed. He’d been much older than she and most of his children had been raised by his first wife in this very house. The three children she’d bore him were married and moved away. Hers had also been an arranged marriage but he’d been kind to her in many ways.

The two sisters combined their resources. Meghan’s mother still had not received any money from her eldest son, but she felt if they were thrifty and frugal with what they had, traded eggs and butter for basic supplies, took in a little laundry for others when necessary, and were careful, they could live here indefinitely without severe financial problems.

However she also felt she had to find her missing daughter and if her own methods failed, that would require funding. There was always the Pinkertons, although she didn’t have any idea how she’d ever afford that. She sighed. At least she knew for sure that Lendal wouldn’t be harming Meghan. She prayed he hadn’t killed her.

The older woman looked out the dark window at the moon on the flowerbed in front. She would write this Sheriff Gaine Sargos that the Marshal in Sacramento had suggested. Strange for a Sheriff to be a woman. More than strange, really. Yet it sounded like the kind of person Meghan might have understood and probably would have liked. The Marshal had said this woman traveled with them on the stage, confronted her husband more than once, stayed at the same hotel and had returned home after collecting her Cousin Minnie when she came in from Virginia City.

Sheriff Sargos couldn’t be a bad person if she’d confronted her late husband, his widow decided. Maybe this Sheriff or her cousin had seen Meghan. Someone had to know where her darling missing daughter was. Maybe Gaine Sargos knew. She wouldn’t rest until she located her youngest girl.

-***-

In Sacramento the Marshal also sat penning a letter. A continent away from the older woman, the evening sun was just painting the red clay near his stream redder. It would add deeper hues to the shadows soon thereafter.

“Dear Sheriff,” he wrote, “I said I’d keep you up to date. You’ll be interested to know that with the help of Lendal Hindlefarb’s youngest daughter, the body of her mother, Ruby Hindlefarb was discovered buried in the pasture beyond the house. She had a large number of broken bones and obviously was murdered. Some of her children admitted it was their father that had hurt their Mother.

The whole situation is being thoroughly investigated. A sad ending to a sad story, I’m sure you’ll agree. But at least the children are no longer under the man’s evil influence. And it’s likely the town will be electing a new, and hopefully, much better Sheriff. Thanks to you and Mr. Thatcher, the Deputy will no longer be a problem. Unfortunately, no word of Mr. Thatcher’s whereabouts has been found at this point.

He continued, “As I wrote you, Mr. Hindlefarb was hanged for the murder of Mr. Brogan Fitzgeraldson. Mrs. Fitzgeraldson, the widow, was anxious to find any information about her missing daughter. To that end, I have given her your address. Perhaps you’ll remember something that will be of help to her.

The Marshal looked up then added another paragraph. “I’ve heard from the stagecoach company that you’re heading a posse in pursuit of the men who recently held up the stage and murdered the driver. I have great hopes that you’ll be able to catch them. As a Federal Marshal from the capital city, I’ll be happy to receive any prisoners, living or dead, that your men might capture in this regard. I’m sure you’re aware of the number of rewards posted for them.”

The Marshal pushed his hat back further on his head as he continued writing, “Guess you’re thankful you got your Cousin Minnie home before all this other murder and mayhem touched her life in any significant way. Please give her my best regards. Yours sincerely, Hector J. Tibbetslee, Marshal.

-***-

In the darkening bedroom Kate laid her head against Gaine’s shoulder and listened for the ranch night sounds. She listened to Gaine’s breathing and heard the soft sound of cattle lowing outside. She was familiar with them now. She knew the nighthawks were out patrolling while the others slept. This was home and Gaine was back. Gaine was finally here in her arms again.

How she did NOT want the tall beauty to leave again to meet the cattle drive. She didn’t want to think about that. For now, Gaine was home. Safe. My dearest love, she sighed. She placed a gentle kiss on Gaine’s cheek.

The tall brunette smiled and drifted up out of her deep slumber. Blue eyes fluttered open. She saw the children’s box beds sharing their bed for tonight. She cuddled the small blonde beside her and shut her eyes again. How she’d ached all these past weeks to be home and feel this remarkable woman in her arms. Every moment that she was busy and surrounded by fellas, she’d still felt alone and lonely without her small beauty nearby. Something she’d rarely felt until she met and fell in love with Meghan Kate.

Her heavy lids pulled her back toward Morpheus’ realm. Her last conscious thought was how wonderfully her life had improved since she’d left the ranch those long months ago to fetch her Cousin Minnie home.

-***-

Gaine was up early the next morning and filled with energy. She slipped into her new, clean clothes, tightening her belt on the new trousers that hung loosely on her. Kate was also up bearing a large smile. The riders from town arrived early and Gaine cut out the herd that had belonged to the two small children’s family at the Rocking Star Ranch. It would stay with the children as their inheritance unless a family member came to claim it along with them.

“Write Michael ’bout the childerns,” she advised Kate. “‘Splain how theys happens ta be here. Ah doan want somebody who ain’t got no real rights an’ who jest wants ta collect the childern’s livestock ta be tempted ta try an’ take custody. Ain’t nobody kin care more ’bout them little uns than yus. This stocks gonna be them young uns future. See what he says. He bees a right fine attorney, ‘cordin’ ta Charles.

“Yes, all right. Do you think we could raise them, Gaine?” Kate chewed her lip. She loved the two little ones and couldn’t imagine having to give them up.

“Ah doan know, Katie. Ah doan know bout relatives. Ah does know ain’t nobody else wanted ’em. Ahm jest a’feared knowin’ theys come with’n livestock now might be temptin’ ta them a’ unscrupulous ‘tentions. See what Michael says.”

“Yes, all right.” It had been a worry. Now she’d follow Gaine’s advice and ask Michael. If only they could stay!

Kate had decided not to go into town. She’d wanted to stay at the ranch because of the children but now she’d write a letter as well. Gaine bid them adieu and headed toward Barden’s Corner with the chest and the outlaw’s herd. She had big plans for the Mayor and his cohorts this day.

Gaine put the chest in Mr. Altenman’s safe then checked on the prisoners. A crowd had begun to assemble outside the Mayor’s barn but Gaine sent them away. The prisoners would not be on view today, she told them. The risk was too great for the captured rogues. She changed the exhausted inside guard, hearing from them how the Mayor had collected admission money from the townsfolk to view the thieves, and how they’d repeatedly had to keep villagers from trying to pummel the men.

Gaine posted an additional two men outside then pulled the wanted posters for this gang from her saddlebag. Kate had separated them from the others. She sent word that the town fathers were to meet with her in the Mayor’s office to discuss the capture.

The town was filled with excited townsfolk, all wanting to pat her on the back and shake her hand. One coffin was finished and one of the killed outlaws was placed on display inside it while it leaned against the building on the boardwalk in front of the furniture and bedding store. It drew a large crowd. The second coffin was nearly finished.

In her office, she pulled Willy aside, and sent her to tell Etta to meet her at the Mayor’s office right away. Gaine was swamped with congratulations from the townsfolk the minute she stepped outside the Sheriff’s office door. And that was where she met Etta who was on her way to the meeting.

“Don’t you look good,” Etta smiled as she bustled up. “A bath and clean clothes make quite a difference. What’d you need?” Gaine smiled smugly and took her by the elbow, saying nothing but, “C’mon. You’ll see.”

“Sheriff! Everybody’s just so proud they could bust!” the Mayor exclaimed happily as she and Etta walked into his office. He flitted around, pushing chairs up for them to sit. “We’ve all heard how our brave Sheriff brought these men down almost singlehandedly, pushing aside men so they wouldn’t get hurt. Firing so rapidly the criminals couldn’t get their own shots off. Word’s all over town. Why, we’ll be known far and wide as the town that finally caught these notorious villains! Uh, well, townS.”

Gaine and Etta sat in the chairs put before them. Etta was still puzzled as to why Gaine had asked her to come. The men cast a bewildered glance at Etta. “Maybe,” Gaine replied. “Dapends.” She sat back and crossed her legs.

“On what?” the Mayor asked innocently, suddenly feeling nervous. “People in town are all excited about how we can build our glorious Sheriff a brand, new jail with a cell just like we’ve always needed.”

“Like Ah avowed, dapends,” Gaine linked her hands and put them under her chin, her elbows on the arms of the chair. Her cool eyes slid over each participant except Etta.

“What do you mean it depends, Sheriff?” Mr. Altenman asked seriously. “On what?”

“Dapends on who done caught them outlaws, the o-fficial Sheriffs and posses from here n’ Big Creek er me, mah fri’nds an’ Big Creek’s o-fficials. Makes a difference as regardin’ who all divides up the re-ward money.” She held up a handful of wanted posters, “An thar do be a heap a re-ward moneys. Ya see whar Ah’m a’going here?” She flashed a beautiful, innocent smile.

Mr. Altenman’s angry eyes fell on the Mayor. “I told you not to do that mercantile nonsense. I told you not to go off half-cocked against Gaine and not to appoint this fool nephew of yours as Sheriff.”

“Mr. Altenman!” Winchester said indignantly.

“It was just a little misunderstanding…” the Mayor sputtered.

“Gentlemens,” Gaine interrupted, “Ain’t no cryin’ o’er spilt milk. What’s done war done. Let’s take a good look-see ta the sitjeation.” Exacting blue eyes swept over them, “Gentlemans, Ahd shore like ya ta meet yer newly see-lected Clerk, Assessor an’ town Treasurer…Etta, here.” Etta’s jaw dropped in total surprise.

“What?” Westminster flew from his chair. “A woman can’t serve in office!”

“No. That’s correct, Gaine. It’s in the charter. Women are not considered “persons”. They cannot serve, I’m afraid. It’s always been that way.” The Mayor cast apologetically concerned eyes her way. “We have to uphold the charter.”

Gaine raised her brow. They’d been over this ground before. “Well that thar done makes ‘t right easy. Ah reckon Ah ain’t been a’servin’ neither, than.” She removed her badge and put it on the Mayor’s desk and started to rise. “We’ll jest be a’goin’ an’ Ahl get mah chest outta yer safe, if’n ya please, Mr. Altenman.”

“Wait! Wait!” the Mayor replied. “Gaine, be fair. You know women can’t serve. Yes, we made an exception for you. But our charter is quite clear, I’m afraid.”

“Ain’t askin’ fer no exceptions, Mayor.” She froze in place, “Nosirr. No, Ah figures ya gotta change’t so’s womenfolk bees persons. Ain’t that hard. Ya writ the danged charter ta start with.” She reached for Etta’s elbow. She also rose. “But if’n ya cain’t, ya cain’t. Ahl jest git mah chest an tell the fellas we bees dividin’ up all the re-ward…”

The Mayor hopped up, “Hold on! Sit down. Let’s everyone take a deep breath and consider this calmly, now.” He pushed Etta’s chair in for her as Gaine dropped back reluctantly into her own chair.

“Ain’t nothin’ ta consider, Mayor. Either Etta t’is or she t’ain’t the new town official. Ah ain’t gonna wrangle with’n ya. Change yer town charter er doan.”

Silence fell in the room. The three men looked at each other, knowing what a large amount of revenue the city would lose if Gaine walked out. They also knew the town would be angry enough to boot them all out of office if she did so. The Mayor slumped back in his chair. “All right, Etta’s the new Clerk.”

“An Assessor an’ town Treasurer,” Gaine replied.

“Yes, all right. It’s a high price to pay. The men in town certainly will not understand this, but it’s done.”

“An she’ll start by totalin’ the money ya been chargin’ ta see the crimin’ls. Goes ta the town. But, that ain’t all,” Gaine smiled sweetly leaving her badge on the Mayor’s desk. Westminster also sat down, his face flushed and his anger discernible.

“What else?” Mr. Altenman asked.

“Ya knows how Ah’s been a’handlin’ things. Well, now thar’s ta be a new town LAW writ down in writin’ regardin’ any feller that beats ‘is wife. He’s ta be arrested an’ pay hisself a two hundert dollar fine whether Ah bees n’ town er not. T’will be the law an’ it cain’t be changed if’n Ah’m not here.”

“That’s immoral!” Westminster stood again. “No! It’s just a way to interfere in a

man’s marriage. No, I tell you. It’s better that every woman in town be beaten than let one needing discipline go without. Absolutely not! She already has the women in town thinking what she’s been doing in that regard with Shorty is right. No, Uncle, we cannot have this. We cannot make it into a law. She’s already got the judge going along with her and some of the men from town. It’s not right, I tell you. The next thing you know, these women will want to vote!”

Gaine sat back studying the men’s faces but said nothing more. Etta’s wide eyes went around the room. Gaine certainly had a lot of sand, bucking these formidable town fathers. They might be blowhards, at least two of them anyway, but they ruled the town.

“Sit down, Westminster,” the Mayor sighed finally.

“She’s doing it anyway,” Mr. Altenman inserted. “How much different will it be if it’s a written law?”

“NO! Absolutely not!” Westminster said, dropping into his chair and crossing his arms tight across his chest. “No, no, no! We must not give in on this.”

The Mayor looked at Mr. Altenman who nodded in agreement and then at Gaine. “You’re overruled, Westminster.” The Mayor’s nephew shot from his chair, kicked it back and stormed from the room. “All right, Gaine, I hope that’s all, because the price is getting too high to consider any more,” the Mayor warned.

“Maybe,” she drawled slowly. Then she smiled, “You’ll make the announcement out ta the boardwalk soon’s we’re done. Afore we does that, howsomever, you an’ me gotta talk ’bout what all ya done with mah mercantile account. Ya charged me with’n items warn’t mine. Ya made ‘t difficult fer mah ranch ta trade an ya owes me salary since’t Ah been gone. An’ Ah wants a raise.” She raised a hand before the Mayor could reply. “A small ‘un.”

The Mayor cleared his throat. “How small?”

“Small,” she replied. But large ’nuff punishment ta make you think twice’t the next time ya wanna try summa yer hogwash, she thought. While he and Gaine discussed her account and her raise, Etta and Mr. Altenman waited outside on the boardwalk, the solemn man’s mouth a tight line. Etta’s eyes glittered and her heart pounded. They’d made her a town officer. Wait till Wilbur hears this! That Gaine, she’s plumb remarkable.

Westminster angrily threw another shot of whiskey back as the other saloon patrons moved outside to hear the Mayor’s announcement. “Ride ta Big Creek ‘n bring Shorty back,” he pulled a bill from his pocket and slipped it into the hand of the shabby wrangler remaining beside him. He could already hear the men from the Big Creek posse gasping at the new Barden’s Corner news..another woman official besides their Sheriff? “And make sure he has something strong to drink all the way back.” There’s more than one way to stop Gaine, he thought. And, hopefully, this’ll be for good. Shorty’s already mad enough at her. Let’s hope he’s not a bad shot, even when he’s drunk.

Big Momma Haze, the saloon keeper’s wife, edged her way from behind the bar and to the door. She slid out and moved down the boardwalk where she saw Gaine, her badge shining on her chest, standing with Etta while the Mayor and Mr. Altenman solemnly finished their announcement. Etta curtsied politely to the crowd. “I’ll be damned,” Big Momma said to herself. “They’re making Etta a town official! Don’t that beat all?”

When the crowd began to break up, the two posses both headed back to the saloons. Big Momma caught Gaine by the elbow. “Westminster just sent a man for Shorty,” she said quietly, “and made sure he’ll be drinkin.” Several of the men looked her way and she added in her familiar boisterous voice, “C’mon to the saloon and celebrate with yer fellas, Gaine.” The men hollered their agreement.

“Later,” Gaine replied. “Ah gots things gotta be done raht now. But Ahl see ya later, fellas. Ah promise.” They roared their approval.

Gaine walked with Etta to the cafe then past that to Shorty and Nell’s flimsy shack. Nell’s head fell and her lip quivered when she heard that Shorty would be coming into town and would probably be drinking. She wasn’t sure how much more her body could handle. She looked up into worried blue eyes.

“Theys a new law writ down prohibitin’ a man from beatin’ his wife. But doan mean he woan try. An’ Ah gots a problem this tahm,” Gaine told her. “Ah gots them t’uther criminals ta deal with’n. An’ theys gots ta take first preference. So’s Ahm askin’ ya now ta go out ta the ranch till Ah kin git this here settled. Ah cain’t be a’frettin’ o’er ya an’ the childerns while Ahm dealing with them outlaws. Will ya? Ya needs ta go on out now.”

“Uh, if you really think so, Sheriff!” Nell agreed. She’d love to go to the ranch. She knew they were safe there.

“Ah do. N’ Ah gotta mention somethin’ more. Once’t Ah kin deal with’n ‘im, Shorty ain’t gonna be ’round fer a spell. He bees a’goin’ ta jail.

Nell looked at Gaine in surprise. “For what? You weren’t here when he beat me.”

“Meg., uh, Ah mean Kate said ya war pregnant an ya miscarried when Shorty done kicked ya ‘n the stomach. Way Ah sees ‘t, what he done war murder. An he doan own no rifle, Ah doan know nobody would give ‘im one, so’s he musta stole it. So’s Ahm chargin’ murder an’ theft.”

“Oh, Gaine, he’ll be so angry.” Nell wrapped her good arm around her other arm. “He’ll be furious.” She began to shiver.

“He’s gonna have a long tahm ta git over’t.”

Nell sighed. “You don’t think the men in this town will actually convict him, do you? You know they won’t.” She ran a hand hurriedly through her hair.

“Well now, mah stock bees ridin’ high raht now with’n the town folk. Ah thinks Ah kin press a number a things maht not us’lly get pressed. An’ Ah in-tends ta do’t. But Ah want yus an’ the childerns out a the way when Ah do. Doan know how long t’will take. Ahm hopin’ ta git Shorty ‘n jail ‘n keep ‘im thar. But ta be shore, ya gotta stay ta the ranch. Ya ain’t gonna be able ta be n’ town ta do the laundry work ya been doin. ‘Stead Ahm gonna ask ya ta hire on ta be ar housekeeper till Shorty’s tahm bees up. Cain’t pay much ‘n the way a’ cash salary, but kin pay ya food n’ lodgin’ fer you n’ the childerns ta start.”

“You’d do that?” she asked. “We don’t want to be a bother.”

“Yus ain’t no bother,” Gaine replied. “Yus’ ‘r a good cook, Nell, n’ we really does need help ta the ranch. Kate gots those two little uns now plus summa the winter hands er down ta be fed daily, with’n more a’comin back from the trail drive. Ah gotta ride ta Stockton an’ she’s gotta handle’t alone lest ya stay. So’s, ya interested?”

“And you’re sure Shorty…”

“Ah kin keep him ta jail fer a spell. Ah thought Big Creek maht keep him ‘n thar jail fer me whilst Ahm gone, since’t we doan got no jail here. An’ Ah kin makes shore they ain’t gonna be a’lettin’ ‘im go neither lahk some folks here might. An he ain’t gonna come up fer no trial till Ah gets back nohow.”

“All right. Let me pack their blankets and cups. Get your cups, children, and grab any clothes you’re not wearing. Willy, get the blanket off the boy’s bed. I’ll get the girls’. I’ll leave ours…just in case.”

“He ain’t gitten loose,” Gaine reassured her. “Get Mabel ta take ya out, n’have Katie gie her a bushel er two a apples fer her trouble. They’s ripe now. Ask Mabel ta watch yer livestock fer ya. Stop ta the mercantile n’ tha way. Tell Daniel’s wife ta give ya ’nuff tickin’ fer two large mattresses. T’is gittin’ ta cold ta sleep ta the floor. Put it ta mah account. Kate kin help ya sew it n’ the fellas ‘ll git ya clean straw ta stuff ’em. An’ theys kin build some frames fer ya, too.”

“Thank you, Gaine. You don’t know how much we appreciate this.”

“Lookin’ forward ta havin’ ya’all back. Ah gotta git n’ check on them criminals ‘n see tha guards changed regular.” She headed back to check on Big Creek’s Sheriff and their other wounded man, then headed on to the prisoners, who were just as surly as ever. She set up a schedule for guards and again warned the crowd to stay away. She didn’t think there were other gang members still out there, but she wanted to make sure they didn’t have a chance to break these two loose if there were.

She was almost glad Big Creek’s Sheriff and his posse’d be taking them to Big Creek the next day, if Sheriff Rogers could ride by then. Almost. Except that it meant she would have to leave town again. She’d meet them in Big Creek the following day with the dead bodies and the two Sheriffs would deliver the crooks and the bodies to Sacramento. From there she’d head to Stockton to meet Don Carlos and the vaqueros as they brought in her herd. Then, God willing, she’d be home for the winter.

Kate was surprised but pleased to see Nell and the children, and the dogs were jubilant. Nell insisted on getting right to work on the next meal. Kate began the work on the two mattresses while the children ran out to play. Alabam announced that he was going to look for some lumber to build the bed frames and a small group of youngsters and dogs suddenly appeared trailing behind him. “Ahl show ya how ta make bed frames,” he told the small delighted crowd.

Gaine knew she wouldn’t get home till long past sundown. The sky had darkened by the time she saw Shorty and the other man riding in. Shorty’d been drinking all right. He was loud and obnoxious. She let the two riders go into the raucous saloon before heading in after them. Everyone yelled their pleasure at her entrance, each offering to buy her a drink except Shorty and Westminster, both of whom stood at the bar angrily watching her entrance.

The piano music and laughter was loud and the alcohol had obviously been flowing freely. Gaine laughed at something that was said to her by someone near the door then brought her eyes to Westminster’s. She moved over to the bar where they were standing.

“Shorty,” Gaine’s face turned to steel. “Ah wanted ta ask ya whar ya got the rifle ya used ta threaten yer wife. Ya ain’t got none a’ yer own. T’is been a’botherin’ me since’t Ah heared ’bout that thar in-cident. Who give’d it ta ya?”

Shorty sneered at her through whiskey-dulled eyes. “What rifle?” He wanted to add “bitch” to his sentence but was not so drunk that he’d lost his sanity.

“What does ya know ’bout it, Westminster? Whar’d Shorty here git that thar rifle he done used? Whar it yurs? An’ whar bees it now? Shoulda been held fer evidence.”

“It wasn’t mine. But no one was hurt. There was no need to collect evidence,” Westminster replied coldly.

“That bees whar yer wrong. Shorty here done committed hisself a murder that day an’ Ahm a’gonna be takin’ ‘im in.”

“What murder?” Westminster spit the words at her, then with a dismissive intent he turned his back on Gaine and faced the bar, his hand clenched tightly around his drink while an angry scowl crossed his face. “There wasn’t any murder committed that day,” he growled, watching her in the mirror behind the bar. Gaine’s eyes moved to the mirror to lock with his own. Shorty also turned toward the bar, his back to Gaine and the loud crowd pressing nearby. He did not look at Gaine. He swallowed the last of his drink and poured another from the nearly empty whiskey bottle he had with him.

“Yep. T’war,” Gaine replied, “he kicked Nell an’ she done lost theys next child. Child whar alive, he knowed it, he kicked ‘er ‘n purpose ‘n child died. That thar’s murder.” She heard someone across the room call her name. She turned around to see five men from her posse holding filled glasses and calling to her. “C’mon, Gaine. Ya give yer word. We wanna toast ya now.”

The room was filled with Big Creek’s posse, her posse and other men from town, all in a celebratory mood. Gaine had worked with both posses, but she’d pushed her own men particularly hard and they hadn’t grumbled once. They’d done everything she’d asked of them and she knew this was the time for them to celebrate. “Ah’l be back,” she muttered then turned with a smile and headed towards her men.

“Ah got me some toasts a’ mah own ta give fer the two best durned posses ‘n the entire west!” she hollered as the crowd cheered wildly. Suddenly the stinging report of a six-shooter rent the air. Gaine felt the instant heat and pain as a bullet nicked her upper arm. She spun with gun drawn but shots continued. Before her eyes Shorty fell to the floor, five bullets in his body and a pistol falling from his hand. Many guns now were trained on Westminster and the room instantly silenced.

“H…he pulled my gun,” Westminster stuttered. “I didn’t know he was going to do that. I didn’t have time to stop him. Honest. I didn’t do anything. Honest, fellas.”

Gaine took off her neckerchief and wrapped it around her arm to stop the bleeding. It was only a flesh wound but Kate was going to be upset about the hole in her new shirt she was sure. She moved toward Westminster slowly, her gun trained on the man. “Did ana’one see what all happened?” she asked.

The man who’d been standing next to Shorty spoke up, “Those two were talking then all of a sudden that fella on the floor pulled this fella’s gun from his holster, spun and pointed it at you and fired. That’s when the rest of us pulled our guns and shot him. Sorry he got a shot off, Gaine,” the man added sheepishly. “He took us by surprise. Guess all our drinkin’ made us a little slow.”

“Yep,” another man close in added, “I figure he thought since we weren’t your posse or even from this town, we wouldn’t watch your back.” He moved his eyes from Gaine to the man on the floor. “He figured wrong.”

“Thanky, boys. What ’bout this fella?” Gaine’s steely blue eyes did not move off of Westminster, who stood facing her, his hands up and his knees visibly shaking. “How much war he a part a’ all this?” Westminster was terrified. He never believed the men would so readily defend this brassy, aggressive woman. It had never occurred to him that anyone would shoot Shorty except perhaps a dying shot from Gaine. His terror-filled eyes moved from speaker to speaker. Gaine watched him closely and just knew he’d put Shorty up to this.

Another nearby man spoke up. “He didn’t turn around from the bar, Sheriff, if that’s what you mean. And he didn’t draw. I saw what Buckley there saw. They were talking and the smaller fellow grabbed this fella’s gun, turned and aimed at you.”

“Anybody hear what they war jawin’ ’bout?”

Everybody shrugged. “T’was mighty noisy, Sheriff,” the bartender shrugged. “Awful hard ta hear.”

Gaine moved closer. “Ah shore hope ya warn’t involved in none a’ this, Mr. Clardin,” she growled at Westminster, “cause Ahl be a’gunnin’ fer ya, if’n Ah hears ya war.” She couldn’t prove he’d been involved in the shooting. Slowly she put her gun back in her holster and the others did the same. She stepped right up to Westminster and whispered in his ear, “Ah know ya sent fer Shorty, an a body’s gotta ponder, “why?” She stepped back and looked at the dead man on the floor. “Ah needs some volunteers ta take ole Shorty here o’er ta the furniture shop. He done needs hisself a coffin.”

“What about Nell?” Big Momma asked. “Do you want me to go tell her? Poor soul, what will she do now with that household of youngsters and no husband?”

“No. Ah’l be a’notifyin’ her. She bees out ta the ranch right now.” Two men grabbed Shorty’s body and Westminster hurried out with them, only taking a full breath once he was outside. Then he scurried for home.

“To the best Sheriff ever!” someone called and all glasses went into the air. “Gaine!” was boomed out and the drinking and laughing and loud piano playing resumed. Gaine finished her drink and moved out into the cooler night air. She kept her eye out for Westminster, but knew he was almost certainly quivering in fright at the Mayor’s house where he was living. She knew him well enough. He was far too cowardly to mount any kind of attack on her himself. She got on her horse and headed home.

Nell and the children had long since gone to bed. Nell was awakened and sat sleepily at the table as Gaine explained all that had happened. Slowly the thin woman’s face showed a puzzled reaction to the news of Shorty’s killing while Kate’s features displayed intense shock.

“Did he hurt you?” Nell asked Gaine, her eyes going to Gaine’s arm. “He shouldn’t be using a gun. He doesn’t even own a gun. He was going to shoot us you know.” The tall brunette was quite sure Nell had not really processed everything yet.

“Ah ain’t hurt, Nell. T’war jest a clip. Do ya think t’would be possible ta bury ‘im tamorra?” Gaine asked.

“Bury him?”

“Yes. He war shot ‘n killed, Nell. He’s gonna need ta be buried. We’d lahk ta come ta the buryin’ if’n ya doan ob-ject. But Ah gotta leaf day after tamorra ta Big Creek. So’s Ah war wonderin’ if’n he could be buried tamorra?”

“Uh, …” Nell stuttered unsurely. “Will we be here tomorrow? Can we stay here tomorrow?”

Gaine and Kate exchanged a mystified glance. “Yes, we’d love to have you stay here,” Kate said tenderly. Kate’s hand went to Nell’s wrist and squeezed softly. “We’d like for you and the children to stay, if you’d like to.”

Nell looked bewilderedly over at the blonde. It was almost like she was in a dream and strange things were happening. They said Shorty was dead. She had been worried about his drinking but his drinking didn’t matter now. She had worried about how she’d be able to feed the children but here they were where they didn’t have to worry about that. Everyone was being so nice.

Slowly her mind began to awaken but she still felt she was looking through a haze. She didn’t have the finances to do any of the bereavement things society expected. There’d be no black crepe and she had no black dress. She didn’t even have enough financing to bury him. Shorty was dead. Shot down when he tried to kill Gaine. He was going to shoot the children. He told her. And he was going to shoot her, too. And now the Sheriff. What was wrong with him? Why was he doing that? Didn’t he know he’d be going into a pauper’s grave? Didn’t he know she couldn’t afford to bury him? She looked at Gaine’s quizzical expression and remembered she needed to answer a question. She remembered what it was.

“Tomorrow,uh, tomorrow’s fine. I’ll, I’ll tell the children in the morning,” she said softly. “But we can’t afford..” Melancholy eyes lifted to Gaine’s.

“Doan worry none ’bout that. We’ll git ‘im buried. Like Katie said, we’d like ya an’ the childerns ta consider stayin’ out here, permanent,” Gaine continued, “Ain’t that right?” She turned to Kate.

“Yes, we would,” Kate answered tenderly. “Absolutely.”

“We needs housekeeping help, Nell, an’ they’s lots a room fer the childerns. We kin make shore yer cow an’ chickens are took care a’fore theys moved out here fer ya er sold. Whatever ya wants.” Gaine saw a confounded look on Nell’s face and realized how overwhelming everything must be for her. “Ya doan gotta decide nuthin’ now ‘cept maybe the buryin’. Take yer time an’ git well first. Ah know t’is a big shock.”

“The chickens? They don’t eat enough so they don’t lay well. It’s never enough. They…somebody gave me chicken feed. I picked out the corn and boiled it to feed to the children. There wasn’t anything else. Shorty wouldn’t let me kill the chickens but I did sometimes anyway. The cow gives so little milk.”

Kate looked at Gaine then got up and moved next to Nell. She put an arm around the thin woman’s shoulders. “It’s all right. We can talk about it tomorrow, Nell. Get some sleep now, all right? We’ll bury Shorty tomorrow. And we’ll help you any way we can. You have a permanent job here if you want it and your children will be fed. Don’t worry.”

“A job? I can work here permanently? You’ve always been so kind, Kate. Both of you.” Kate helped her up. Nell wrapped her good arm around herself and her thin nightshirt. “I, I think I’ll go to bed now.”

“Yes. Get some sleep. We’re so sorry for your loss.” Kind green eyes looked to the thin woman.

“Thank you.” Nell walked quietly to the bedroom she was sharing with her girls. Shorty was dead. Shot. What did it mean? Kate was sorry for her loss. But she and the children could stay here. It was safe here. Everyone was nice here. Her loss. All of her adult life had been spent with him. If only he hadn’t ever had any spirits. He wasn’t a bad person when he didn’t drink. Her arm ached and she thought of his last drunken bout and the gun. He could have killed them all. She really thought he was going to. He’d killed her last child just as surely as if he’d used a gun. We’re safe now, she thought as she crawled into bed. We can stay here. The Sheriff said.

“T’is she gonna be all right?” Gaine asked worriedly.

“Yes. I think so. It’s a shock. After all the other things that have happened. She hasn’t recovered from the last incident, now this. She’ll need some time is all.”

“Maybe we outta haf told Willy,” Gaine’s eyes stayed on the door.

“No, that child is already handling the trials of an adult. No, she needs to have a chance to be a child for once. Here, let me wash your arm for you, honey.” Kate stood and started to untie the scarf from Gaine’s arm. “Take your shirt off and your undershirt too. I’ll go get something to put on your wound.”

Gaine followed Kate’s instructions, wadding her shirt and holding it to her chest to cover her bare bustline. When she came back, Kate held her breath and asked softly, “How long will you be gone this time?”

“Ah reckon t’will be maybe two weeks,” Gaine murmured. “Less, if’n Ah kin. Then Ahl be back ta stay, lest sumthin’ else’t happens.”

“Oh no, so long?” Kate saw the pain in Gaine’s eyes and knew it wasn’t something she wanted to do. Kate sighed, “Well, just come home safely to me.”

“Al’ays, Meg, al’ays.”

“Kate, honey, not Meg.” Kate smiled indulgently at her tall beauty. “I used to be Meghan, and I guess a part of me always will be. But I feel like a whole new person now. Now I’m Kate. Kate Sargos. Katie to you, if you like.” She put an herbal ointment on Gaine’s arm that made her draw a quick breath.

“Ah do. Ah likes the name Katie.” Gaine clenched jaw and blinked her eyes.

Kate wrapped a clean rag around Gaine’s arm. “C’mon, let’s go to bed. We have to bury Shorty tomorrow. And I’ll patch your shirt tomorrow, too.”

“Take some chairs with’n ya,” Gaine smiled. “An Ahl take some. We’ll push ’em tagather an’ put the childern’s boxes on ’em. Gie a tech more room ta bed.”

They each took two chairs and headed for the bedroom. “I’d like some netting around their beds. Can we do that?” Kate asked. “It does keep out bugs and also keeps in a little heat now that it’s getting cooler.”

“Yep. Ah war thinkin’ maybe Ahd have Alabam make one a them trundle beds fer under arn. We’s kin pull it out n’ put thar sleepin’ boxes on’t till they’s old ’nuff ta use a bed. Trundles kin be pushed under fer more room durin’ tha day.”

“That’s a good idea, Gaine,” Kate smiled. “Eventually they’ll have their own room, but for now, that’s a good idea.”

“Yep.”

-***-

Dressed in their best, they went into town very early the next morning. Gaine stopped to hire a gravedigger then checked on the outlaws. Determining that the prisoners were all right, she awoke the carpenter and talked him into putting Shorty’s body into the second of his coffins instead of the killed outlaw. They loaded it into the wagon with the sleepy children and headed from town to the cemetery just as the townsfolk began to arise and move around. Word spread quickly that Nell’s family was burying Shorty already.

The grave wasn’t finished when they arrived at the cemetery, so Gaine grabbed a shovel and helped the man from town dig. Finally they lowered the coffin. The pastor and his wife arrived and so did Etta and Wilbur. Mabel rode up alone, leaving her children at home. Willy and the children stood quietly, Willy holding Bongo’s hand and the small hand of Kate’s Sarah.

“They hammered a notice on your door last night,” Mabel whispered loudly to Nell. Kate was standing with one arm around the frail woman, the other holding the baby.

“What kind of notice?” Kate asked.

“Eviction,” Mabel said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Kate replied. “They’re moving to the ranch.”

Mabel offered to help them move and Kate thanked her. The Pastor moved to the hole in the ground and took out his Bible. Everyone quieted. Gaine picked up Sarah from Willy. The Pastor read a bible passage, Gaine paid him a dime and the troupe went back into town while the gravedigger was left to fill in the grave.

Nell and the children began packing their few belongings into Mabel’s wagon while Gaine checked out the land records on their house. Kate and the two little ones stayed to help Nell. Nell said Shorty had bragged about owning this place. She said he told her he had bought it from the mining company. But Gaine found, in fact, that it was rented from the copper mine company as she had suspected. And Shorty was in arrears. Then she went to her office to speak to the Cooper about getting a used dry barrel for moving.

Everyone in town had heard about the eviction and were wondering aloud what Nell was going to do and how she’d support her large family. Those living near the edge of financial disaster themselves, and there were a few of them, cringed at the news, some pretending it had not happened. “They’ll get by,” they said confidently. But most amazing to Gaine was the lack of help offered. She decided it was because she and Kate had already offered to help and the town knew it.

The man from the mine’s land office returned and Gaine saw him enter Nell’s house. He threatened Nell with imprisonment if she didn’t make payment immediately. He’d have the Sheriff throw her in the poor farm if she didn’t pay, he warned. Gaine rushed over from her office and talked to him. They all sat at Nell’s table. The baby had been placed on Nell’s bed, asleep, and the toddler was in Kate’s arms. The other children were gathering their things.

Gaine knew this man, of course, and knew he was following orders from the mine owner. Nell sat shivering, terrified, muttering, “what will become of the children?” while Kate murmured words of encouragement to her.

“Ahl tell ya what we’ll do,” Gaine told him. “She’ll pay ya a small ‘mount each month from her salary till t’is all paid n’ full.”

“The boss says it’s to be paid now,” he replied firmly.

“Tell ‘im she jest buried her husban’ an Ah woan be a’takin’ Nell ta no poor farm. Not now, not never. So’s he kin take a small ‘mount each month er git nothin’ a’tall. His druthers.”

The man put his hat on the table and gazed at Gaine, trying to stare her down. Gaine understood why people felt as they did toward the men of big business. They considered them robber barons, men who worked their workers to death with little pay and stopped at nothing to make a dollar. Men who rarely met the common man face to face but sent their henchmen to rob them in their own way just as much as outlaws did with masks on their faces.

“Ah ain’t got tahm ta dally,” Gaine said, staring back at the man. “Dacide now, cause Ahm a’leavin’ ‘n a minute an’ the offer disappears. An ya knows Ah means that, Rupert.”

“You guaranteein’ it?” he asked. Rupert Ashford was a cautious man.

“Course,” Gaine replied.

“Done,” the man said. “Make sure all the furniture stays here. These came furnished.” Gaine looked around at the dilapidated condition of the neglected house, its bedraggled furniture and seedy appearance. She had no doubt it had been much like that when they’d moved in.

Gaine could see that Kate’s temper was ready to flare. She hopped up quickly and grabbed the man’s hat before the small woman could say anything. “They ain’t takin’ nothin’ balongs ta yer boss,” she growled, “Ahl show ya out.” She grabbed the man by the arm and moved him quickly out the door. She tore the notice off the door and handed it to him. “This be yurs.” She put his hat on his head and remarked, “Now git a’fore Kate tears ya limb ta limb.”

Once she’d cooled Kate’s ire and calmed Nell down, Gaine took Kate to the mercantile and did the shopping Kate had wanted to do while the tall brunette was gone. Gaine carried the gurgling toddler while the small blonde kept the bundled infant in her arms. Occasionally the toddler would yell out, startling Gaine as well as anyone within earshot. Gently Gaine told her not to do that, but the child laughed and pulled on Gaine’s neckerchief. Gaine laughed with her, which brought a frown from Kate, who said firmly to the little one, “No, no. We don’t shout!” The child’s eyes grew large and her lip quavered, but she did not cry. Gaine, however, looked justly reprimanded.

Daniel was very obsequious, listening for Gaine’s every utterance to him as they shopped. He kept his head bowed most of the time. Gaine grit her teeth but said little to the man. She had trusted him all her life. Now she felt betrayed. Sorrow bubbled up within her to accompany her anger.

It was close to noon when the troupe made their way to the ranch with both wagons, one filled with store supplies, the other with crates of chickens, few belongings, all the children and the thin cow tied to the back. The hands released the animals where they belonged and helped unload what possessions Nell had. They placed everything in their two bedrooms. The new mattresses were already on Alabam’s bedframes so items were placed around them.

The dogs were delighted at the new arrivals and the children were warned they must all stay away from the cattle and the working vaqueros. They also knew they needed to show respect for their deceased father. Regardless of that, their cheerfully subdued sounds as they played outside could be heard inside the house. It was comforting to Nell. It sounded like what a home should sound like to Kate and she found herself humming softly.

Gaine immediately rode her horse back into town. There was much to be done before she headed to Big Creek the next day. First she had to see the other Sheriff and posse off as they headed for home. She watched Sheriff Rogers climb onto his horse. The man was better and deemed himself able to ride. A large crowd was there, hooting and hollering at the outlaws as they were tied to their saddles. The Big Creek men were all anxious to get back home. Their town would get their chance to view the live prisoners for a day before Gaine joined Sheriff Rogers and the two headed to Sacramento with their outlaw captives, dead and alive.

It was decided that Gaine would keep the chest of loot and the livestock in Barden’s Corner and those claiming a part of such would have to see her once she returned from the state capital. After a period of time, anything left would be evenly divided between the two towns as would all reward moneys. Gaine instructed Nell to make a detailed list of everything in the chest and a list of the livestock and their brands. Gaine got her some space in Mr. Altenman’s office where she could start on the chest since the safe was there.

The town became unusually quiet as the Big Creek posse rode from town. The hammering of the carpenter working on the coffins was the first sound to echo through the hushed streets once they’d gone.

Gaine returned and conferred with Etta, going over some ideas of how to deal with the men of the town council, particularly if Gaine wasn’t there to help. Then she decided it would be best to call a meeting right then so Etta had a chance to get other things started. After all, Gaine would be gone for two weeks.

Westminster was very subdued throughout the meeting and did not look Gaine in the eye once. Nor did he speak. Etta was to start some regular council books and was given all kinds of written scribblings that the Mayor had been keeping. It was important that Etta get it as right as it could possibly be. Everyone would be watching. And Gaine could see that the Mayor and the others would be inclined to treat her like a servant and not like a partner. Plus, they’d be looking for any reason to condemn her work. Gaine would be alert to that problem.

Bids were to come in for work on the new jail. That would have to be kept separate, but Etta seemed to know how to handle it. Years of running her cafe had given her quite an education. By the time the meeting was finished, there was more than enough work to keep Etta busy for two weeks.

They moved out onto the boardwalk. Etta was quiet and seemed almost stunned. “Ya bees all right?” Gaine asked.

“Oh, uh, yes, fine,” Etta replied. “It’s just a bigger responsibility than I expected.”

Gaine smiled an encouraging smile. “Yu’ll do ‘n amazin’ job, Etta.” Equanimity came over Etta’s face. “I’ll do my best. Wilbur has faith in me.”

“Y’all listen ta Wilbur. He bees a right smart feller. An’ doan worry none.” Etta smiled but they both knew what was at stake so far as women doing this job was concerned and it was much more than simple bookkeeping. A noise caught their ear, and their gazes moved down the street. There was a crowd forming in front of the furniture store. Adults, children and teenagers stood transfixed by the sight of the second dead outlaw being fitted into his coffin.

Both coffins on display got fervent attention. Even the wealthy owner of the copper mine halted his horse and sat in his carriage watching the doings. A businessman sat beside him. Gaine saw both men direct their appraising attention back to her. She merely nodded in return. Tom Ziprew rode by in his fancy new carriage but Gaine noted that it was being drawn by his old nag and not his spirited black stallion with the blaze. She chuckled, said goodbye to Etta and headed to check on the saloons.

Both taverns were much more vacant than they’d been the day before. Most of her posse was back at their jobs. But everyone in the saloons seemed happy. The large crowd had spent money and it had been a big plus for this small town economy. Some new faces were there, and Gaine paid close attention. They were newsmen from some of the closer towns. They were talking with everyone who would tell them anything. The stagecoach town newsman was smiling proudly and selling copies of his town’s special one-page edition. It came out once a week normally. He had beat all the other papers to have out the first written account of the event and sales were brisk.

Gaine bought a paper then was rushed once the other newsmen saw her badge. They knew of her part and she had to talk fast to give them some quick quotes before she could get away from them. She knew this problem would only get worse as the days went by and more news seekers hit town. She was glad she was leaving the next day.

Deciding all was in hand, she went by her office then slid out of town on her horse. She wanted to spend this evening with Kate and their ever-growing family.

She found Kate and Nell seriously discussing the need for making apple butter. Nell seemed much more calm than she’d been earlier and Gaine wondered how Kate had managed that. Apparently it was the apple season and making apple butter couldn’t be put off too long whether Shorty had just died or not. Usually such an event involved an apple bee where many of the neighbors would come to core and pare apples and share some fun.

Nell sensibly decided that she could fix refreshments, staying in the background. She’d be sure they understood she was a hired housekeeper and she’d be as circumspect as possible considering her husband’s recent death so the neighbors wouldn’t use it as an occasion to fault the ranch. She thought they’d all understand she couldn’t afford to mourn in private, but neither would she be seen celebrating in public. Kate nodded in serious agreement.

The actual apple-butter cooking would start the following day after the bee, long after the guests had gone home. Early in the morning that day a large kettle of many gallons of cider would be boiled down to half. Then the kettle would be filled with the buckets of pared apples and would be cooked slowly, stirring constantly to prevent burning. That would take all day.

In the last hour sweetener would be added to taste. But if the apples were sweet enough, they didn’t always need too much. Some sassafras root could be added for spicing. The apple butter would be poured in small brown, earthen crocks and covered with paper, placed in a dry, cool storeroom. Kate said they’d use the empty bedroom for that. Dozens could be stored and they’d keep several years, although undoubtedly they’d be used long before then.

Finishing their conversation, Kate told Gaine to wash up then called everyone for supper. The large table was nearly filled with Nell’s family and the hands. Kate served large helpings of a delicious apple johnny cake. It was an inexpensive dish easily made. She served it as a pudding with cold cream and molasses. It was a perfect light supper.

Since noon dinner, Nell had been busy arranging their rooms all afternoon, Kate had put the cornmeal pudding on to cook and now everyone ate it with gusto and delight. Gaine sat and talked with the hands about the remaining herd and the horses and what she wanted done as the blonde worked packing food in a saddlebag for Gaine’s trip the next day.

Nell quietly cleaned up. She’d told Kate she’d rather keep busy so she started making large quantities of bread, making potato yeast now that she had enough supplies to do so, then letting her batter rise overnight in the center of a quantity of flour. Shorty’s name was not mentioned.

After supper Gaine sat reading by the small fire, Willy at her feet on the rug holding her young sister, Bongo, and the girl’s brothers wrestling beside them. It was hard to believe they had put Shorty in the ground just that morning. Kate rocked the baby with her foot while the toddler sat in her box chewing on her cup and watching the other children. She was quite entranced with them. Kate’s hands worked quickly as she pieced together squares of different colored material into wide strips. She had enough squares to make a quilt and they’d undoubtedly need many blankets as the weather turned cooler.

Outside the mellow voices of the hands as they laughed, smoked and told tall tales by the corral came drifting into the house. It all brought a level of safety and contentment the small blonde had never experienced in all her life and a soft smile settled on her face. Life could be so sweet. She loved Gaine beyond all else, her tall beauty was home, and she loved their simple life together.

Gaine handed her the one-page paper she had purchased in town. Kate read it with amazement. “Why, the way this is worded it makes it sound like the Mayor did everything to make the capture of the outlaws possible. He did offer his barn once you got them here, apparently, and you said he did make some kind of speech in the barn, but Heavens to Betsy, Gaine, this makes it sound like everything was his idea!”

Gaine laughed.

“It’s not funny. This is going to go down in history and no one’s going to know everything you did. This is a historical event and this story is…is…well, it’s not exactly telling lies, but it isn’t the truth either.”

“Katie,” Gaine laughed, “Doancha knows the first rule a’ readin’ history?”

“What do you mean? I know how to read history.”

“Yep, Ahm shore ya does. But mah Daddy al’ays used ta say ‘Gaine,’ he’d say, ‘ne’er read history without a’askin’… who war ‘n power when it war writ? Cause that be whose viewpoint yer gonna git. An whole lots a’ real happenin’s bah real folks n’ true, ain’t gonna be thar, fer me er fer yus.'”

“Poetry? Your father told you poetry?”

“Yep. He lahkt rhymin’ sometimes. An’ what he said war true. Why’d ja think thar’s sa little writ ’bout womens? T’is cause they ain’t ‘n power. They’s names gits left off a what they does. An’ tain’t jest womens, tis whoever ain’t n’ power. History ain’t nothin’ but viewpoints.”

“But reporters are supposed to tell the truth.”

“Whose truth? Ya knows that robber baron mine owner that gived Nell sa much trouble taday? Ahl betcha any time he’s writ up, t’is gonna be as some fine salt- a’-the-earth gentlemans. Ain’t gonna read how he evicted womens n’ childern without one ounce a’ mercy er how he worked his miners ta death fer near ’nuff wages ta git bah. All the robber barons er gonna be put down as fine upstandin’ gentlemans. America’s finest. Er Europe’s. Er Asia’s. They gots the power. History bees viewpoint.”

“It’s not right! It shouldn’t happen in America.”

Gaine continued chuckling. “Happens ever’whar ‘n earth. But maybe yer correct. It ain’t fair. But Ah dunno bout ‘raht.’ Bees viewpoint. How raht er wrong bees that?”

“Well, I want our viewpoint told. Cause that’s what really happened!”

“Ah reckon.” Wisely Gaine held further comments.

Nell called for the children to wash up for bed. They watched the youngsters hustle in where Nell was using a rag to scrub each face as they came in. Then the children headed to bed with Nell not far behind them. Gaine and Kate stayed in place, but Kate changed the toddler into her sleepwear and placed her under the covers in her box. The child’s eyes had grown heavy and she now drifted off to sleep.

Gaine watched as Kate fetched a package from the pantry and tore off small squares of brown ‘store wrap’ paper and wrapped small pieces of molasses candy in them. Then she took a skein of yarn she had purchased and began to roll it into a ball. Every once in a while she’d stop, take a small piece of wrapped candy and place it against the ball as she wound.

“What ‘er ya doin’?” Gaine asked, looking up from the book she was now reading.

“This is for when Willy learns to knit,” Kate replied without looking up. “This will make the job of learning a little easier.” Her face spread into a smile as she looked up. “She may only eat the treat if it falls out freely and she has knitted the yarn to that spot. She’ll have some knitting done in no time and we’ll all have a new knitted washing rag to make our lives easier.”

“What if’n the fellers wanna learn?”

“If Nell agrees, it’s fine with me. That’s really up to Nell, though.”

“Uh huh,” Gaine rose to stoke the fire then moved back to her book. The heat of the small fire felt good although it wasn’t all that cold yet. The days were gradually cooling and the weather was expected to worsen as autumn deepened. The two sat in companionable silence as the fire crackled, each centered in their own thoughts.

Blue eyes lifted from the pages of her book and settled on the slightly flushed face of the small blonde across from her. “Ah war thinkin,” Gaine said softly. “Doan it seem like years n’ years since’t we shared that thar stagecoach ride? Lordy! Sa much done happened since’t then.”

Sparkling green eyes looked up to meet the blue. The blonde’s thumb lovingly ran across her ring. “Yes. It has.” She blushed slightly. “There’s something so wonderful about living together. Everything else seems like it happened ages ago in a totally different time and a totally different place to totally different people. Happiness changes everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yep,” Gaine agreed. “It shore do.”

Kate frowned, “But I wish you’d already delivered those outlaws and were back. Then I wouldn’t have to miss you and worry so.”

“Ah know. Ah wisht that, too.” They both lingered, looking around the familiar room. It had come to mean so much to them both…home. The place they lived their lives together. The table where so many different voices laughed at funny stories, cried at sorrows, worried about a variety of things and felt peace together. Home. The place their dreams were centered.

“C’mon, let’s go to bed.” The tall brunette banked the fire and checked around the room to make sure all was well. She lit the candle and blew out the lamp.

Meanwhile Kate tucked away her sewing, carefully putting her needle in her hand-made needle-book and the thread in her small hand-stitched thread-case. “Can you carry the crib? I’ll get the little princess and her box.”

“Shore,” Gaine tucked the blanket up around the infant as the light from the fire danced patterns of light across the tiny child’s sleeping features. She was wearing a small cloth cap to keep her head warm and her face looked so angelic in sleep. She was certainly much healthier looking than when she’d been dropped off in town those many weeks ago. “Ah ne’er ferseen nothin’ like this fer me,” Gaine said, gazing at the small child in wonder.

“Are you sorry?” Kate stopped by her chair and gazed at the tall beauty.

“No. Not n’ the least.” Gaine reached a hand out and gently stroked the baby’s forehead. “T’is such a miracle, ain’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Kate agreed. They heard the dogs settle down on the front porch. It wasn’t cold enough for them to start staying in the barn yet. They’d spend the night waiting for Nell’s children to come out and chase them around.

“Ya knows what Ah wonders?” Gaine asked.

“What, honey?” Kate asked.

“Ah wonder if mah Cousin Minnie could poss’bly be anywhar near sa happy as Ah be. Ah doan see how t’is poss’ble.”

“Yes,” Kate smiled, letting her thoughts go to Gaine and her Cousin Minnie, “You know what makes me glad?”

“What?”

“I’m so glad you fetched Meghan Kate home when you climbed on that stage all those months ago. That’s what I’m glad about.”

“Oh, me, too, darlin’. Me, too.”

THE END

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