Tumbleweed Fever by LJ Maas

tumbleweed fever

Tumbleweed Fever
by LJ Maas



The snow swirled around the rider, biting into any exposed flesh. The golden mare trudged on at its owner’s insistence, the mere shadow of a large stable ahead of them now. The rider came to a stop in front of the barn, dismounting with weary effort. Pulling off rabbit skin mittens, the rider blew warm breath onto nearly frostbitten fingers to coax them into movement. Soon the digits could feel again, and the rider firmly grasped the latch and pulled the swinging door open.

Once inside, the door was latched shut again, the howling, bitter winds beating on the walls of the shelter causing them to shake and creak in answer. Leading the mare to an empty stall, the rider began to feel better as the heat from buckets of hot coals someone had been tending to keep the animals warm through the night, rose up and warmed the air. The rider pulled off saddle and blanket, hanging both over the stall rail to dry. The saddlebags, carrying the few personal possessions the rider owned, including the precious notes, were laid on the ground.

“There ya go girl…bet that feels better, huh, Alto?” The rider said aloud as warm, dry pieces of burlap began to massage the cold, tired muscles of the horse. After long minutes of a brush and currycomb, the horse was nickering softly. At last, two large scoops of oats were placed in a feed bin in front of the horse, and fresh hay tossed into the stall. Picking up the saddlebags, the rider pulled up the collar of the worn leather duster, pulling open the barn door, the rider prepared to enter the bitter cold.

It was like being engulfed in a world of white. It did no good to look for landmarks. Even if it hadn’t been the dead of night, there would be nothing else to see but the driving snow. The rider backed up against the barn doors and carefully slid a tall, muscular body along the length of the building. Nearing the corner of the barn, the rider held out an arm and wrapped a strong hand around the length of rope tied to the side of the stable.

Hand over hand the rider followed the length of rope that led away from the barn. The snow bit into the rider’s face that tilted into the wind, letting a weathered Stetson fight off the full force of the blast. The snowdrifts were now up to the rider’s waist and limbs that were quickly becoming numb plodded on. The rider never gave in to the temptation to wipe the snow from frozen eyelashes; to let go of the rope was certain death. The rider had seen the bodies of men who had frozen to death not five feet from the door of their cabin because they became lost in the all-encompassing whiteness.

Never losing touch with the lifeline that would lead to safety, the rider felt the wood of the bunkhouse, and pushed hard against the door, releasing the latch inside. Stepping inside the large wooden structure, the snow immediately began to melt off the rider leaving a growing puddle on the floor.

The bunkhouse was the largest out-building on the ranch. Able to sleep forty men, it was nearly full as the rider pulled off dripping wet outer clothes. Two pot-bellied stoves burned warmly, one in the middle of the room held a coffeepot and an oversized pot that bubbled with some kind of stew. The second stove was near the door where the rider now stood removing a soaking wet duster, jacket, scarf, and mittens. Chairs were scattered around the smoking stove, draped with coats and blankets, to which the rider added a few more articles of clothing.

A hearty laugh came from the back of the bunkhouse and a giant of a man with long brown hair and soft brown eyes, made his way toward the rider, stopping just in front of a grizzled looking cowboy. The standing man held out his hand and the seated one slapped a few coins grudgingly into the waiting palm. Turning toward the rider the grizzled cowboy sneered.

“You got more lives than a cat!” He spit out.

Another deep, rumbling laugh came from the large man, his long strides quickly covering the rest of the distance between himself and the rider.

“Knew you’d make it Dev…can ya believe that iron-headed mutt bet against ya?” He said.

The rider answered with a silent grin, words would take more effort than the rider felt physically capable of at the moment. The rider walked to the back of the room, toward a bunk set apart from the others. The rider stopped short as another cowboy lay sprawled across the bunk that had always been set apart for Devlin.

“You’re in my bunk,” The rider growled in a low ominous voice.

“Go to hell,” the cowboy returned, not bothering to open his eyes.

“You show me the way,” Devlin hissed and grabbed the boy by his throat, nearly lifting him with one arm and flinging him to the floor.

The boy looked up at the rider and at the double set of six guns on Devlin’s hips, and a mere tick of his eye telegraphed his intentions to the rider.

While the thought to move toward his holster was still only a notion in his brain, the rider’s arm shot out and the boy swallowed hard. The movement was so fast it was a blur and suddenly the boy was staring down the barrel of an ivory handled pistol.

“If you’re gonna think about it, you damn well better do it!” The rider hissed menacingly.

The boy lowered his eyes and muttered, “Sorry…didn’t see nobody’s name on it…”

The rider reached down and pulled a large bladed knife from a sheath wrapped around a lower leg. With a lightning fast movement the blade of the Bowie knife was embedded into the wood at the top of the bunk. Hands reached up and pulled the weathered Stetson from the rider’s head.

As soon as the hat was lifted from the rider’s head, a long mane of raven hair tumbled down the rider’s back. She tossed off her short, inner leather jacket and threw it on top of the thin mattress. With the jacket removed, it was easy to see that the leather vest that fit tightly against an old cotton shirt and the pants that clung to sleek curves, definitely belonged to a woman. Hanging her hat over the handle of the still quivering knife, Devlin fixed an ice blue gaze down at the kneeling figure of the boy, his mouth hanging open at the sight above him.

“Devlin Brown! You see it now, boy?”

He had heard all the stories, who hadn’t? He knew immediately he was lucky to still be alive.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered in a trembling voice, rising and quickly gathering his belongings before moving to the other end of the bunkhouse.

Devlin watched the retreating figure of the young rider, more boy than man. She had no intention of shooting him. The days when she would put a bullet through a man’s heart just for looking at her funny were behind her. Not by much, though.

Hank’s voice made the woman aware that she was still standing there, motionless. Devlin moved to the table in the center of the room and sank into the offered chair feeling her frozen fingers wrap around a steaming mug of coffee. Hank placed a plate of stew and some cornbread in front of her and Devlin proceeded to devour the piping hot food.

“Slow down or you won’t be able to taste it,” Hank chuckled.

“Don’t matter what it tastes like,” Dev answered, still shoveling the food in.

She was right too. It never mattered. She’d eaten things to stay alive that would have made a billy goat puke, but she did as her friend suggested and slowed her pace. It had been three days since she’d had a hot meal and the food began to comfortingly warm her belly. Once she took the time, she realized the meat was rabbit, her favorite. She found it hard to believe herself, but you could get damn sick of eating beef everyday, but on a cattle ranch what else was there?

Hank reached over and placed half of the coins he had won on the table, at the rider’s elbow. It seemed only right to share, it was because of the dark-haired woman that he’d won anyway. She merely grunted and slid them into her pocket. Two dollars in gold would buy a lot of whiskey or maybe just a few shots of the really good stuff…God; she loved the good stuff, maybe even a night at Ellen’s. The rider felt herself smile slightly at the thought of a hot bath and a few hours in a soft bed and the even softer skin of one of the girls at Ellen’s place. The smile quickly turned into a frown, however when she remembered her last visit. The young girl had been pretty enough and eager to please, but the rider just couldn’t get the vision of the woman who had written the notes out of her mind. She finally ended up just paying Ellen for a hot bath and a good night’s sleep in a soft bed before heading back to the ranch.

Hank watched his friend as she ate, seemingly deep in thought. It had only been six months since Hank had decided to make it his mission to help reform the former outlaw. Has it only been six months? Six months ago he’d joined up with a posse to help track down Devlin Brown’s gang when they’d killed the husband and wife of a ranch up in Pawnee then brutally raped and murdered their young daughter. When the gang left they’d ridden off with fifty head of cattle so they weren’t too hard to track down.

Long before they’d caught up with the gang, the posse stopped to water their horses at a spring in some rock caverns. Hank saw the trail of blood and followed it up into the cliffs. Pretty stupid he said to himself considering he figured it was a wounded mountain lion. What he found tucked into a crevice of rock was sure as scary as a wounded cat. Devlin had a couple of bullets in her shoulder and was covered in blood and bruises from head to toe. She acted just like a wounded animal, backing herself up against the rock and practically hissing at the brown-haired man, her hand shaking weakly as she made a feeble attempt to lift her gun up.

Hank knew, no matter what a person’s past held they could change if they really wanted to. He told her all it took was to take that first step. He stayed with the wounded woman and much to her surprise, not only helped get her on her feet again, but also never asked for anything in return. This seemed to surprise the woman more than anything else did, she had grown accustomed to using her body to repay and cajole the men in her gang. So, little by little, a bond of friendship began to form between the two. It was only later that Hank found out Devlin had been beaten, shot, and left for dead by her own gang when she tried to stop the rape of the young woman. She had already taken the hardest step forward.

Devlin slept till the clock inside her told her body it was near dawn. She rolled out of her bunk and rubbed her hands down her arms to get some warmth back in them. She stopped in front of the stove, opening the hinged door and feeding some wood into its belly to bring it to life again, then sat the same pot of coffee over the metal plate on top of the stove.

She made her way easily in the dark, the light from the moon shining in through the gaps in the wood shutters and falling across the floor in little slices. She peered out the window as she pulled the shutter open, feeling the wind escape through the glass and push its way against her face. The snow had finally quit falling, but now they had the bitter wind to contend with. As far as the eye could see the plain was covered in a blanket of bluish white, its surface sparkling like diamonds. The temperature was falling fast and the wind swirled the snow into drifts taller than the rider stood.

Devlin sighed and dreamed once again of a winter that didn’t mean spending days holed up in a cave or under an ice soaked blanket on the open plain. She dreamed of a home where a fire and a good meal waited every night when you came in from the range. And always there was her. There was never a face, only a voice, and a feeling that this was the one. The rider had always felt this way, even though she would never confess it to another living soul, maybe Hank, but he would never laugh, just tell her to go looking for her vision. The dreams hadn’t started in earnest till she’d started finding those notes. Small squares of parchment tucked into a tight roll and tied with cotton twine to a tumbleweed, set loose on the prairie.

At first the rider didn’t know what to make of the note that blew past her and stuck to her blanket on the ground. It was hard not to miss the message and something told Devlin a woman had written it before she even opened it. It just seemed like something a woman might do. When she looked at the delicate, precise handwriting she could only read about half the words. The rider had only gone to a proper school till she was eight, after that she just tried to get along as best she could. She may not have been able to recognize all the words, but she felt the sentiment. A woman who said she was tired of being alone, afraid of what the future would bring wrote them, and the woman wept for her aching heart, that couldn’t find true love.

Devlin turned from the window and went to pour two cups of coffee. Carrying them both she walked to a bunk to the right of hers and set the tin cups down on the floor. She flicked a wooden match with her thumbnail and it sparked to life. She inserted the match inside the kerosene lantern hung on the wall by the bunk and turned the wick down low.

“Hank,” she nudged the huge body that sprawled under the covers, his feet hanging over the end of the mattress. “You up?” she asked.

“I reckon I am now.” He answered sleepily.

Devlin brought the lantern closer as Hank sat up and scratched his chest, leaning back his head to yawn. She handed her drowsy friend a cup of coffee and he mumbled his thanks.

“What’s this word, Hank?” Devlin asked as she unceremoniously shoved a piece of paper under his nose, the dark-haired rider never having been known for her good manners.

“Compromise,” Hank sounded the word out slowly for the rider. “It means, like you settle for something.”

“How ’bout this one?” Dev asked pointing to another word on the paper.

“Solitary…means alone.”

Devlin pulled perhaps a dozen sheets of the paper from her vest pocket pointing to words she couldn’t sound out or had never learned the meaning. She never let Hank read the writing, almost as if she were afraid to let anyone else touch the scraps of paper, as if that would make the dream disappear. He smiled at her when she wasn’t looking, her brow furrowed in concentration as she wrote the meaning next to the word with a little bit of writing lead she’d gotten from the general store.

Devlin squeezed her friends shoulder in thanks and blew out the lantern. There was maybe an hour of dark left, everything was snowed in anyway, no sense in going out yet. The rider sat down on her bunk, removing a bundle of the notes from her saddlebag and adding the new ones. She carefully looked around before she untied the ribbon that held the notes parceled together. She knew it was a strange thing for a rider like her to carry around, and she didn’t intend to take any grief over it.

She remembered seeing a woman tie up a bundle of letters from an old lover in a ribbon and it seemed fitting for these notes. She remembered also her embarrassment at having to go into the general store and plunk down a penny on the counter and ask for a length of ribbon. The worst part wasn’t the way the shop girls looked at her and hoped she’d go away. Funny thing, though…at Ellen’s the girls fight to wait on me, in a store they fight to get away from me…guess that’s what respectable means.

The worst part was having a young girl look up at the tall woman and ask her what color she wanted. That really threw the rider. She hadn’t thought about that part. Before she could think very long she found herself saying ‘green’. She didn’t know why, but it seemed right somehow. When the young girl held up the piece of cloth for the rider’s inspection, Devlin smiled; that put the shop girl at ease. The rider didn’t do it often, but when she did, the grin made her blue eyes sparkle. The deep green ribbon was wrapped in a piece of paper and the rider carefully tucked it inside her shirt. Now, every time she fingered the silky ribbon she thought of the woman in her dreams.

Devlin shook her head to remove the picture from her mind. It seemed she always saw the woman now, it didn’t matter whether she was sleeping or awake. She could never see the face though. She had kissed the lips a thousand times in her dreams, but had never been able to put a face to the vision. It got a little bit tougher every day, to trudge through the mud, the rain, the snow, and the heat, all without a home to call her own.

She lay in her bunk, turning to face the wall. Hot tears stung her eyes and she pushed them back quickly. No sense whimpering over what’ll never be. God, it’s gonna be a long winter.

Sarah leaned over and let more of the hot wax drip along the seam of the pine box. Peter had prepared her for this well, and she followed his instructions intently. He had built his own casket with what little strength he had, but he was a carpenter, not a rancher, and it had been his last labor of love. He warned Sarah that he would probably die in the harshest part of the winter, explaining how to seal the pine box that held his body until the spring thaw would make the ground warm enough to dig.

Her tears slid down her face as she finished the tedious task. Peter, please forgive me. Sarah muttered to herself for the hundredth time in the last two months. The young woman cared for her husband until it seemed the inevitable was close at hand. Sarah could no longer hold back the anguish that she had hidden for so many years. Peter would not rest until his wife told him the truth.

Sarah sobbed as she asked Peter to forgive her. She had never meant to hurt him, but the truth was, this was her dream to come West, her dream to be a rancher, not his. He was a carpenter with a gentle soul and a giving nature. He just didn’t have the toughness and grit it took to live life in the Oklahoma Territory. And, as illness ravaged his body, Sarah confessed that although she would always hold a place in her heart for the father of their two children, she had never loved Peter the way he should have been loved by his wife. She cared for him and stood by him, but the passion and the love had never developed for a man who would always be more friend than lover.

“Sarah…Sarah,” Peter whispered. “Little one, don’t you think I know this?” He responded to her confession. “There was nothing more important to you than leaving Kentucky and being independent, I know that. I married you knowing that I would probably always be second best in your heart.”

Peter put on a weak smile, and stroked the face surrounded by hair the color of amber honey, looking into eyes that were a deep emerald green.

“Sarah, this has always been enough for me and I’ve never regretted my life with you once. You gave me a strong son and a beautiful daughter. You’ve been my strength through all our years together. Please don’t cry, little one,” he whispered as he brushed her tears aside.

Peter pulled Sarah toward him and kissed her forehead gently. You could never have loved me that way, even I know that your heart has always been meant for someone else. Sarah…” her husband said sharply until the young woman looked into his soft gray eyes. “You’re still a young woman. Please don’t make the same mistake again.”

Peter squeezed Sarah’s hand tightly, knowing the words he spoke now would be his last.

“Sarah…next time…don’t settle for less than your heart’s desire.”

The snow was deep and the wind bitter when the sun rose the next morning, but with the help of a litter, her son, and Atlas, a large black gelding, Sarah placed Peter’s casket in the root cellar, sealed with wax and wrapped in burlap sacks. Before she had taken his body from the barn, she and the children stood by the pine box and said their good-byes. She watched her children as they gently touched the box where their father lay ‘sleeping’. Matthew at eleven was trying very hard not to cry, taking his new role as man of the house seriously. Hannah was only six and with strawberry blonde hair and green eyes the color of her mother’s, she looked like an angel. Sarah read a poem that had always been one of Peter’s favorites, then she settled Hannah back inside the cabin before moving Peter’s remains.

Once back inside the warmth of the cabin Sarah looked around and began thinking of all the things that were now her responsibility. Peter may have not fancied himself much of a cattleman, but they had one of the most prosperous ranches around for its size, aside from Sarah’s uncle. Sarah learned two things from her father before he was killed at Gettysburg, horses and cattle. She realized her knowledge of both would soon be put to the test.

Sarah began to pull out pieces of Matthew’s clothing from a chest next to the ladder to the loft. Holding up the pants, she realized her son was as tall as she was.

“Mom, what are you doing?” the young boy asked.

“Matt, we need to get some feed out to the cattle up on the north ridge. Actually, I think we should bring them down to the pasture and fence them in. We have plenty of hay and grain to last till the snow thaws, but we need to take care of this place, you can’t do it alone, and I certainly can’t do it in a dress.” Sarah finished.

The wind was bitter, but Sarah brought a large log onto the porch and sat it on its end. Then bundling little Hannah up she showed the girl how to climb onto the log and clang the metal alarm should there be an emergency while Sarah and Matt were outside.

The sun was sinking behind the white crested mountains in the distance before Mother and son returned from their work. Sarah stripped off her freezing wet clothes and wrapped a blanket around her before starting a fire in the stone fireplace. The price she had to pay for a room that was private from the rest of the large cabin was the fact that it was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. She warmed herself and pulled on dry clothes, going into the main part of the cabin and checking on the stew she’d put over a low part of the fire earlier in the day.

After their supper, Hannah fell asleep quickly, while Matthew watched the flames in the fire. Sarah pulled out pen and paper and began to make longs lists of chores to do that were now new to her, along with future to-do items.

“What are ya doin’ mom?” Matthew asked.

“Mostly trying to organize my thoughts. It’s going to be quite a job keeping everything going until spring, Matt. Once the thaw comes we can get some advice from my uncle. With the size of the herd we may have to hire riders come the warm weather.”

Sarah didn’t want to frighten the young boy, but winter was a time when the only thing that took your herd was death, once spring arrived that would change. Rustlers and thieves would soon hear that her ranch was without a man’s protection and her herd would begin to disappear, maybe just a little at a time, but it would happen. She would be lucky indeed if they stopped at her cattle, and a shiver ran through her body. She wasn’t much with a pistol, although her father had taught her to shoot a rifle, her skill with a Winchester eventually besting his. Yes, riders and guns meant power and, unfortunately, in the Oklahoma Territory, you needed both to survive.

“Go on to bed, Matt, it’s late.” She said still lost in thought.

Once Sarah was alone, she pulled her small journal open and began to write her thoughts onto a small square of parchment. It had been almost a year since she started putting her innermost thoughts and desires down on paper. This made it easier somehow, easier to face each day with the realization that she would never have what she dreamed of. Sarah hadn’t been naïve enough to think a lover would solve all her problems, but she felt as if she were searching for someone to complete her; the other half of her soul.

Tucking the tightly rolled parchment into her apron pocket, she carefully banked the fire and went to bed. Lying in the large bed alone only served to increase her feelings of loneliness. She closed her eyes and let the vision of her soulmate wash over her. She didn’t know what the other half of her soul would look like, but she didn’t really care either. It was a sensation, an emotion that stirred her more than a physical body. Strong arms that would hold her through the night and make her feel loved and protected. Someone who, deep down would understand who she was and what she wanted out of life just by knowing her.

Turning to lie on her side, she let the tears slide across her cheeks. She cried silently for what she realized would never be. So why do I keep hoping? God, it’s going to be a long winter.

Arthur Winston looked at the small group in front of him. Good trail bosses, but a motley group to be taking to a barbecue. Out of the whole group he figured the only one who would be able to handle themselves in a social situation would be Hank. Then again, the only woman there would be his niece, and any man here would be a fool to try anything with their employer’s niece. Well, the only woman if you didn’t count Dev, and Art didn’t. Besides, this barbecue wasn’t exactly a social call.

Four other cattlemen would be there, each having their trail bosses in tow. The riders became a sort of status symbol in the Territory. The more riders you could afford to hire, the wealthier you were as a rancher; simple concept. Art didn’t have as many as some, but he still ran the biggest ranch this side of the Mississippi. He didn’t need as many riders; he hired the best there was…he didn’t need more. They were good cowpunchers; full of grit and determination, most of them just this side of the law, but when a man paid them good wages, they rode for the brand.

“I know it isn’t Saturday, but take a bath anyway…we got a barbecue to go to tomorrow,” was all he said, knowing they would follow his orders without question.

When the riders turned to go, grumbling a little, Art turned toward Devlin.

“Dev, got a minute?” He asked indicating she should follow him into the house.

Devlin nodded and followed. She liked this old man who was tough as nails, but as fair as the day was long. He was a true cattleman. He never put up barbwire fences, just let his steers share pasture with the few buffalo that were left, leaving it up to his riders to keep a rein on the herds. Dev had a problem with men putting up fences to show they owned it. The Choctaw taught her that it was impossible to own something as great as the earth under your feet. White men just didn’t get that.

“Sit down, Dev,” Art said, motioning to a chair across from a large wooden desk in the study.

Devlin sat back into the leather-covered chair, the softness of the cushions felt good on her stiff back. Her shoulders started giving her problems more and more lately, probably from the old bullet wounds. Art had offered her a smoke, which she refused and a glass of whiskey, which she hurriedly accepted. Feeling the smooth liquor slide down her throat, she smiled. Ahh… the good stuff.

Art smiled at the woman, her head tilted back slightly, eyes closed as she savored the first sip of the amber liquid. He’d never known a woman who enjoyed a good whiskey like this rider.

“Got a proposition for you, Dev.” Art said interrupting the silence.

Devlin’s eyebrow arched suddenly, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I want to offer you a deal to go over and work at my niece’s ranch, the Double Deuce.” He said quickly.

Dev smiled at the joke then realized the old man was serious. She downed the rest of her drink in one gulp and stood to leave.

“You want me to work for a woman? Forget it, end of discussion.” The rider said loudly.

“Come on, Dev, at least let’s talk about it. The money will be good, I can promise you that…”

“There isn’t that much money in the whole world!” She countered, but she did sit back down.

Art poured them another shot and left the bottle in front of the rider.

“She’s got a nice small ranch about twenty five miles south of here. Her husband died over the winter and she’ll lose the place if she can’t get a rider there to protect her interests. I can’t find anybody I trust enough who would be willing to take the job. This barbecue we’re going to tomorrow may just be the end unless I can hire somebody for her. All the big men will be there and John Montgomery is none too pleased that she decided to stay on and run the place after her husband died.”

Dev just lifted her hat and ran her hands through her raven hair, looking extremely uncomfortable. John Montgomery…what a spineless bastard. Walks around in a dude’s suit actin’ like he owns the territory. Doesn’t wear a gun either. To Dev that only meant one thing. He hired his killing out.

“Why don’t ya just bring her here, you got a big place, she’ll be safe and sound…no worries.”

Art gave Devlin a slight smile.

“You haven’t met my niece yet…she’s not exactly the kind of woman who likes being taken care of. That damn ranch is her whole life.” He wiped his face with a large, callused hand.

“Dev, I know about your past…hell, every kid that can read a dime novel knows about Devlin Brown, but I want you to know you’re one of the few I’d trust my niece’s care to. I wasn’t just blowin’ smoke when I said I’d make the offer worth it either. You don’t want spend the rest of your life as a rider, do you?” Art asked.

Devlin thought about that. In the past she only thought about her day to day existence, now she could actually think about tomorrow and the day after that. Didn’t she feel it herself, the feeling that just scratching out an existence wasn’t enough anymore?

“You take the job over at the Double Deuce and I’ll see it you get top wages. You stay for two years and I’ll set you up with a starter herd myself. I’ll let you cut out 25 head of my best stock…even throw in some acreage if you feel like settlin’ down here.” Art finished, waiting to see what the rider’s answer would be.

Dev just couldn’t make herself do it, work for a woman. Frankly, the more she thought about it, the worse it sounded, but that wasn’t the real reason and Dev knew it. The rider said the words aloud to try and convince herself too, but she couldn’t hide from her own thoughts. There was only one reason for turning down an offer like this. People like Devlin Brown didn’t deserve chances like this. She had too much to make up for, too many past misdeeds to repay. Being a rider with no hope of a future, no chance at love and a family…that was Devlin Brown’s penance, and she couldn’t give in to the hope that there might be more waiting for her.

“Sorry, Mr. Winston, but I just can’t do it…it just wouldn’t work out,” Devlin couldn’t believe she had even considered such an insane venture. “Just move her here and tell her that’s the way it’s gonna be…best thing all around.”

Art smiled sadly and shook the rider’s hand, “Like I said…you’ve never met Sarah.”

“How are you really doing, Sarah?” Arthur Winston walked alongside the corral with his niece, who in turn watched her son turn a spit that held the side of beef that would be the main course.

“Some days are better than others,” she smiled warmly back at her uncle.

“Look, Sarah, I know you want to stay here and if an old man’s opinion means anything at all, you’re doing a great job, I’m proud of you. I have to tell you, though, playing the hostess and charming the pants off these men here today won’t stop what they want.” He needed to be honest with the young woman.

“I think deep down I know that too, Uncle Art, but I have to try everything.” Sarah leaned on a rail and looked at the mounts moving around easily in the corral. “I won’t give up…no matter what they decide,” she finished, leaning her forehead on her arm wearily.

The sound of galloping horses drew their attention. Two riders came in and easily dismounted. A large man with smiling brown eyes and a female figure that caused Sarah’s eyes to widen slightly.

Devlin was covered with dust and grime from the trail. She had meant to stay away from the gathering; that many people in one place made her nervous, but Mr. Winston was the boss. He sent Hank after the prodigal rider and Devlin’s friend caught up with her trying to pull a spring calf out of a shallow cavern.

“Sarah, here’s an example of two of the best,” Her uncle said slipping a protective arm around his niece’s waist. “Hank Sutton, this is my niece, Mrs. Sarah Tolliver.”

Hank stepped forward and gently took the offered hand. “Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Tolliver…nice spread you got here, awful glad you invited us, thanks.”

Sarah immediately liked the man who towered over her small frame. He had a kind face and she enjoyed the way his eyes smiled before he did. As she shook his hand, however she was watching the rider that stood next to him out of the corner of her eye. Sarah felt the intensity of the other woman’s gaze and her body began to feel naked under the rider’s careful scrutiny.

“This is Devlin Brown,” her uncle introduced the dirty rider.

“Oh,” Sarah commented.

The rider lifted her head; her eyes no longer hidden under the shadow of the brim. She fully expected to see fear in the young woman’s eyes, especially after her startled comment. When the pools of deep blue looked into the emerald green of the younger woman, Dev didn’t see fear. The rider thought it looked a lot like…amusement?

Devlin realized the woman held her hand out, the rider gazed at the dirty leather glove she wore. Pulling it off quickly with her teeth she wiped her sweaty hand on her pants, only making matters worse. Dev wasn’t used to these kinds of situations, with a real lady, anyway. The only kind of women she had experience with, were the women you touched for a price. They never cared how dirty you were. Not knowing what else to do, Devlin shrugged as if to apologize and say she wouldn’t be offended if the young woman didn’t touch her.

Sarah took a step closer and firmly took the riders hand, gently squeezing the callused fingers. Devlin thought she had never felt anything as warm and reassuring as that young woman’s handshake.

“There’s a rain barrel around back by the wood pile, get yourself cleaned up, you two are sitting at the main table with me.” Art said to the rider. Each of the cattlemen sat two of their best riders at the table with them.

Devlin turned and headed for the back of the house, as gentle green eyes followed her movements.

Sarah brought out a basin and a pitcher along with a bar of soap for the rider. Devlin stammered her thanks and sniffed at the soap, smiling to herself at the flowery scent. She removed a pale lilac bandanna from her neck along with her filthy shirt, exposing a woolen undershirt, once white but now gray and tattered. The rider soaked her hair and washed her face and neck in the cool water, all the while watching the tiny figure out of the corner of her eye. Dev flipped her hair back and stared down at the little girl, who stared back intently at her. Finally a shy smile appeared on the girl’s face and Devlin couldn’t resist.

Kneeling down on one knee she wiped the dripping water from her eyes and whispered at the girl, “Boo!”

Hannah squealed and the giggling girl ran right into her mother’s legs, as Sarah came around the corner.

“Hannah,” Sarah couldn’t help smiling, “don’t bother the rider.”

Devlin thought her ears were playing tricks on her. Only in her dreams had she ever heard a woman’s voice so captivating. It was smooth and slid slowly across the rider’s senses like flowing honey.

“She’s not a bother, ma’am,” Devlin answered quietly for the girl, straightening up to tower over Sarah.

Sarah couldn’t speak and momentarily forgot why she’d come back outside. The rider seemed to be able to say so much with only a look and the young woman didn’t quite understand the heat that rose to her cheeks.

“I, um…I forgot to bring you a towel,” Sarah said, holding out the soft cloth.

The silence lingered until Devlin fingered her woolen undergarment.

“Sorry, I don’t have a clean shirt, I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

Sarah looked up from her daughter’s tugging on her skirt, into the apologetic gaze of the rider.

“I think we can fix that…follow me,” the young woman said after pausing to judge the width of the rider’s shoulders.

Devlin watched the retreating figure and felt herself bristle at the command. She wasn’t used to being ordered around by women, but she didn’t want to offend her boss’s niece. Looking around to see if anyone was watching Dev shrugged to a smiling Hannah who still stood by the woodpile, and trotted off to follow the young woman who had just entered the barn.

Sarah had opened a small storeroom and knelt in front of an open chest. She selected a dark gray shirt and as an afterthought pulled out a button up, cotton undershirt. She stood up, closing the chest and handed the neatly folded clothes to the rider.

Devlin fingered the cloth tentatively, not sure what she should do, the last thing she needed was charity. God, these must have belonged to the dead husband.

“Thanks, but I can’t,” she tried to hand them back.

Sarah could see the pride warring with the sensibility within the rider. Kindness seemed as if it was something foreign to her.

“Take them or not, Miss Brown, it’s certainly your choice,” she said as she turned to leave the barn. “My son is eleven, but the moths will have them long before he will be big enough to fit into them.”

Her son! She barely looks old enough to have the girl out there, let alone a boy that old.

Sarah left the barn and Dev stood holding the clothes, unsure of what had just transpired. She knew one thing, however. She wanted to hear more of that woman’s voice. Quickly stripping, she pulled on the crisp, clean clothes.

Devlin walked through the open door and made her way to the table where Hank and Mr. Winston were already seated. Hank’s jaw almost hit the table. He’d never before seen Devlin look so…he hardly had words for it. Her face was scrubbed clean and her hair had been pulled back and wrapped in a single braid down her back. She wore a dark gray shirt under her usual black leather vest that was left open instead of buckled up the front. Sarah had just set down two large platters of biscuits and looked up as the rider slowly came inside. Devlin stood and met the young woman’s eyes with a frank gaze.

Dev felt the brim of her hat and realized she was still wearing it. Quickly pulling it from her head, she noticed all the eyes in the room were on her.

“Ma’am,” she had said in a low voice as she pulled the Stetson from her head.

Sarah smiled at the rider wearing the clean clothes. “Miss Brown,” she acknowledged and sat down at the head of the table near her uncle.

Hank saw the brief, unspoken exchange between his friend and their beautiful young hostess. He grinned into his plate, wondering if either of them were aware of it yet, stunned at how hard and fast his friend had fallen.

The food was the best any man was likely to taste for a long time. Sarah had spared no expense, and attempted for the rest of the afternoon and evening to keep the men entertained and happy. After food was served to the tables of men outside, a keg of beer was tapped and the sound of laughing and loud talk filtered up to the cabin. Young Matthew’s fiddle could be heard and Sarah secretly worried how her son was fairing with the riders.

Inside the cabin, Sarah and the cattlemen were getting to the reason for the party. The men and their riders had been taking a break to stretch their legs, they began to filter into the large room when Sarah’s uncle pulled her aside. Waiting until he thought everyone had entered the cabin he spoke to his niece.

“Sarah, you can’t come inside…not until they ask for you.” He said, not able to look into the young woman’s eyes.

“A meeting about me…how they’re going to dispose of my life, and I can’t come in. Because I’m a woman?” Sarah asked astonished and beginning to show the temper she’d inherited from her father.

“They’re set in their ways…not much I can do about it, darlin’. Sarah…I couldn’t find anyone willing to ride for your brand.” The old man finished, knowing what it meant to the young woman.

“You don’t have to go back east. You and the children will always have a home with me.” Art continued on knowing his niece was only hearing half of what he said. “You’ll be a wealthy young woman, they’ll give you a fair price for the land and your stock. Maybe you could start thinking about looking for a man. I mean, if you had a husband, they wouldn’t be able to drive you out this way.”

Sarah felt tears threatening to fall. “I did that once, Uncle Art, I won’t do it again. If I have to lose everything I have and die alone…the next time I marry it will only be for love.”

Art wanted to hold his niece, but she turned her back to him and he recognized the proud body language as his own family trait. He went inside to quietly wait for the others to return and start the meeting.

Devlin stood in the shadows of the cabin as the young woman and her uncle spoke. The rider hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but by the time she realized they were carrying on a private conversation, it was too late to speak up without embarrassing someone.

She watched as the woman who thought she was alone, slumped her shoulders in defeat. She wouldn’t let anyone see it, but once she was alone she became just a young woman trying to carry more of a burden that her shoulders had a right to. Dev had listened to the stories the other riders told about the winter the woman had to endure, how just about everything they looked around and saw, had been her doing. Now she was going to have it taken away just because she didn’t wear pants and a set of six guns.

Devlin cleared her throat and pretended she was just walking up to the cabin. Sarah turned and caught a glimpse of the rider. The young woman stood there expectantly as if waiting for the rider to speak.

“Nice place you got here,” Dev said weakly, unable to come up with any sort of small talk.

“Hurry into the meeting, you’ll be able to buy it cheap.” She said bitterly.

Seeing the shock on the rider’s face Sarah hurried to apologize.

“God, I’m sorry! I have no right to take this out on you…I apologize for my rudeness.”

The corners of Dev’s mouth turned upward. “You’re pissed off…don’t apologize for tellin’ the truth.”

Sarah’s head lowered at the rider’s way of accepting her apology. She turned her face into the warm evening breeze and closed her eyes. Tears threatened to fill her eyes, but she swore she wouldn’t cry. She told herself she wouldn’t give these men the satisfaction of seeing her weep.

“I think I’ll miss the cedar trees the most. The way they stand so strong, yet bend almost to the ground during a wind storm.” The young woman said dreamily.

“To bend, but never break,” Devlin found herself saying.

Sarah turned and looked at the rider, not quite understanding her body’s overwhelming desire to be held in the strong arms of this mysterious woman. Devlin looked deep into the jade colored eyes, watching with slight amusement as a light flush colored the young woman’s cheeks. She looked as if she were fighting off tears, the rider applauding the way she held herself in check. There was such sadness about her and Devlin thought about the reason why. What if everything she had worked her whole life for was about to be stolen by John Montgomery and his idiot friends?

“Well, here I go…bending, but not about to let them see me break,” Sarah said as she walked into the cabin followed by the thoughtful rider.

Sarah bustled around the table like a good little hostess. She caught Devlin’s eye and the rider grinned conspiratorially at her ‘southern belle’ routine. She opened a large wooden box and offered each man a cigar, even stopping to light her uncle’s with a brand from the fire.

Art looked at his niece and wondered if the strain had finally driven her loco. She was acting like the southern belle she wasn’t anymore, jumping up to bring cigars and coffee to the seated guests. He eyed her suspiciously, nearly afraid to drink the coffee she’d brought him after she leaned over and gave him a flame for his cigar.

Sarah pulled a bottle of liquor from a cabinet and poured each of them, including herself to Devlin’s amusement, a shot from the bottle. She held her cup aloft and tipped it slightly to the group.

“Gentlemen…Miss Brown…to the future.”

A couple of them nearly spit their drink back out, in surprise, most of them just looked damned uncomfortable. Sarah, not missing a beat, swallowed the amber liquid in one gulp, a satisfied smirk on her face.

None of the woman’s actions were lost to Dev, even as she was enjoying the drink herself. Good God, she’s got the face of an angel and the temper of a whore…it musta killed her old man just trying to keep up with her!

The rider had experienced the top of the line in a number of establishments, but this had to be the finest whiskey that had ever slid across her tongue. Her satisfaction must have showed in her face.

“You enjoy a good Kentucky Bourbon, Miss Brown?” Sarah asked the rider.

Devlin answered with a large toothy grin that she rarely used. “Never before, ma’am, but I gotta say, it’s my drink of choice from here on in.”

Sarah leaned back her head and laughed. It was genuine and it felt good to be able to regain a small piece of her sense of humor, if only for a moment.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your discussions then,” the young woman said. She squeezed her uncle’s hand and looked up at deep pools of blue taking her in. She smiled into the azure depths and left the cabin with as much grace and dignity as a queen.

Dev was thunderstruck. She had been from the moment the woman’s lilting laugh filled up her senses. God, this woman is good! She’s about to lose it all and she walks outta here like the Queen of Sheba.

Then she smiled at the rider.

Dev’s legs involuntarily parted a little wider under the table, as she felt an incredible heat radiate up her body from her aching center. The rider knew right then, she would do anything to see that smile…hear that laughter, directed at her, including ride for the brand of the Double Deuce; ride for a woman.

No, no, no…what the hell are you thinking, woman?!? Damn, you’re letting what’s between your legs do your thinking for you! Okay, she’s beautiful, that’s a given, and she may be a spitfire, but she is a lady, not a whore. There is no way on this earth that woman is ever gonna let you touch her, so what the hell are you dreaming about?

“That little girl sets a mighty fine table,” Montgomery said.

Little girl? You yahoo, that little girl has been runnin’ this whole ranch for almost 5 months now, ya see that new corral…ya think that little boy built that thing? Ya see those horses in that new corral…think they got broke all by themselves do ya? My god, she got through the worst winter in fifty years without losing half her stock like you did!

By this time Dev’s blood was boiling. She wanted to hit somebody real bad and it was taking every meditative technique she’d learned from her time with the Indians, not to follow through with that feeling. She ran a hand over her face and took a deep breath.

“Mr. Winston,” the rider whispered, leaning toward the man on her right, “I changed my mind.”

Sarah watched as the door to her cabin opened and a line of men with grim faces walked out, grim until she saw her uncle and the rider called Hank. They had ear to ear grins.

“Thank you for the wonderful day, Mrs.Tolliver. It was…um,” the ten-gallon hat cast an uneasy eye on Devlin, “It was…educational.”

One by one the men shook Sarah’s hand.

“You’ve been reprieved, darlin,” her uncle said to her. “Meet your new rider.”

Sarah looked into Hank’s face, the sly grin still in place. Art pushed Devlin in the back to nudge her forward a step or two, and the rider finally raised her head. The tall rider appeared to be blushing as she touched the brim of her hat.

“Ma’am,” were the only words Devlin said.

The look of surprise on Sarah’s face was evident, but her happiness soon overpowered it. She smiled again at Dev, causing the blush on the rider’s face to deepen.

“Thank you, Miss Brown,” Sarah said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Dev returned.

Sarah spent a few moments talking alone to her uncle and watched him ride off. The other riders, some having let the beer get to them a little, milled around and mounted up while Dev moved her saddle into the barn. She returned to where the other riders stood, arms folded, making sure they all got on their way, already taking her job seriously. She had promised Mr. Winston to not only ride, but to keep an eye out for his niece.

Sarah said goodnight and easily fought off each of the rider’s unwelcome advances. When she turned toward the cabin, the young woman heard the slurred voice of the rider she had just turned down.

“Dev? out here? Kind of like puttin’ the fox in charge of the henhouse!”

From out of the shadows Devlin tapped the big man on his shoulder. When he turned, she already had her arm cocked and ready. Her right arm shot forward, her fist landing smack in the middle of the drunken rider’s face. He looked stunned for a second until his knees finally got the message from his alcohol-clouded brain and crumpled under him.

The other riders laughed out loud at their fallen comrade. Devlin walked past Sarah who had witnessed the exchange with some amusement. Dev scooped up a bucket of water from the trough and unceremoniously dumped it on the unconscious rider.

Shaking their heads and laughing, the other men threw their saddle mate over his horse and rode off.

Sarah looked up at the tall rider, catching the dark haired woman’s gaze and she suddenly felt awkward around the quiet rider.

“Did you need to get your things…I mean, did you want to start tomorrow?” Sarah questioned.

“Have all I need with me, Mrs. Tolliver. I’ll just bed down in the barn and–”

“Oh, no. I mean, we have a room around back. It’s not as big as a bunkhouse, “she smiled, “but then again I never thought I’d be hiring a rider.”

“I think we ought to get something straight right off, Mrs. Tolliver. I work for your uncle. I’d really prefer it if you weren’t to tell folks, you hired me.” Dev looked the young woman straight in the eye, her blue gaze narrowing.

Sarah opened her mouth to speak and promptly closed it again. Allright, calm down girl…you need this woman. “I guess I’m a little surprised at that remark. You have trouble working for a woman…who do you think is paying your wage, Miss Brown? You may get it from my uncle’s hand, but by god it will come from my bank account! I thought you felt differently…you are a woman, are you not?”

That last bit was probably pushing it, but Sarah had quite a temper once she got going. Problem was she had a hard time reining it in once she let go. She realized she crossed a line when the rider’s gaze lifted, her eyebrow arching in a combination of intimidation and seduction. Then the rider took a step forward and closed the distance until there were only inches between them, Devlin’s height advantage over the young woman making her even more imposing.

Devlin’s blue gaze turned pale as ice, her voice lowering, until the words came out as a growl. “I am a woman Mrs. Tolliver. A woman who doesn’t think twice about killin’ a man in a fair fight nor takin’ a grown woman that’s actin’ like a child, over my knee. So if you want me as a rider on this spread let’s just pretend and say I work for your uncle, shall we?”

If Dev hadn’t been so mad she would have laughed out loud at the expression the young woman was rewarding her with. Sarah seemed like she didn’t know if she should be terrified, slap the rider’s face, or spit in her eye. She chose none of the above and abruptly turned on her heel and into the house.

Before Dev could move, the young woman was back and threw a bundle of blankets at the rider’s chest. She held a lantern and moved toward the back of the house.

“Follow me,” she said curtly. Stopping and taking a deep breath, Sarah continued, “…please.”

Dev smirked at the woman’s back, enjoying the return of her customary control in situations with women. She had been feeling like a fish out of water, stammering and stuttering like a lovesick schoolboy. This woman with the emerald eyes was a prize, no doubt, but it was about time that she saw the real Devlin and found out quickly that the rider wasn’t one to be ordered around like a field hand.

The rider looked around at the room she had been shown to. It could have slept four men easily. She hadn’t had a room to call her own since she was an outlaw. Then she’d stayed in fancy hotels and put her men up in the local brothels. She’d seen Cantinas, in old Mexico, smaller than this.

In the meantime, Sarah’s small temper tantrum began to cool off some. She quickly realized she wasn’t going to be able to run roughshod over this rider. Devlin couldn’t be intimidated by the young woman’s sharp tongue or charmed into coercion by a few batting eyelashes. Sarah had spent so much time dealing with men, that she’d nearly forgotten you didn’t have to deal with another woman; honesty brought about better results.

“Miss Brown?” Sarah asked.

Yes, Mrs. Tolliver?” Devlin replied.

“Why did you hit that rider…was it because of what he said?” Sarah continued.

“I don’t care much about what people say about me…I’ve heard it all. It just riled me when I figured…well, you know there’s such a thing as a lady’s honor…” she weakly trailed off. Damn! How is it that this gal can make me trip over my tongue just by looking at me?

Devlin ran an appraising look up and down the woman’s small frame. “Don’t tell me you never had anybody fight over ya before?” The rider asked with a slight grin.

Sarah looked straight into the rider’s electric blue gaze. “Over me, yes…for me…never.”

It seemed to the two women that a long time passed as they stood toe to toe looking at one another, but in reality, only seconds had passed. Dev was the first to break away, moving to open the door to her room.

“I better go do a ride-through to check up on the herd.” The rider said. “You wanna give me the lay of the land?”

“I’ll go with you,” the young woman said, turning to leave the small room.

“That’s why you have me, ma’am…it’s my job now.”

“But, in the dark? Won’t that be dangerous if you don’t know where you’re going?” Sarah questioned.

Devlin raised an eyebrow and fixed a perturbed glance at the woman until Sarah gave her the necessary information.

Once Alto was again saddled, Sarah came out to talk with the rider.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t draw you a map or something…how will you be able to get around?” The young woman asked.

“I have many skills, Mrs. Tolliver” The rider answered, lowering her voice an octave, and pulling her hat down snugly preparing to leave the corral, heading toward the north ridge.

The look the rider gave her, as she reined the horse’s neck to turn the animal, sent a thunderbolt like jolt right through Sarah’s body, the heat of that impact focusing itself right between her legs. I’ll bet you do, Miss Brown…I’ll just bet you do!

Devlin pushed the door open to the room near the back of the house and lit the lamp on a small wooden table by the bed. She looked down on the floor at the end of the bunk to see a small chest. It was the same container Sarah had gone through in the barn. Kneeling down and lifting the lid, Devlin saw shirts and assorted pieces of clothing. On the top of the clothing lay an unopened bottle of Kentucky Bourbon. The rider didn’t know whether she wanted to throw the stuff back in the woman’s face or take her in her arms and never let go.

She picked up the bottle, tossing her hat on the chair, as she pulled two notes from her pocket. She opened the bottle and took a long swallow, letting the smooth liquid slide down her throat, infusing her belly with its warmth. Leaning her long frame back upon the bunk, she held the paper up to the light. She’d been surprised that she found two of the notes this far south. Doing her best, she slowly read the words aloud.

There is only the night sky to talk to…no one else to share my smiles and my tears.

I wish there were someone…some nights I wish there was anyone.

My head is filled with thoughts of a dark warrior riding a pale horse.

One day the warrior rides over the ridge and carries me off, and I am safe in strong arms.

I will wait for forever…waiting for the dark warrior…

Dev reached out and gently brushed her fingers across the worn and dirty parchment, her hand crossing a spot that looked as if the ink had been blurred from a single teardrop. She unrolled the next note and began to read, even though she couldn’t really understand why her hands shook slightly as they held the parchment.

No one has ever held my heart; not the way that I dream of…

Is it wrong to wish for a lover that can captivate my heart as well as my body?

Too long have I waited for the warrior of my soul…I am thinking that I will always be alone,

Staring at the stars and listening to the wind whisper through the trees…

All that my heart desires is right here; I hold it in the palm of my hand,

Still it means so little without someone to share it.

Dev pulled off her spurs and kicked off her boots, rolling over to let a warm puff of breath blow out the lamp. Her body was tired and her eyes ached for sleep, yet it was a long time in coming. When the rider finally slept, the woman haunted her dreams, only this time she had long hair the color of wheat and smiling emerald eyes.

Dawn was another hour away when Sarah pulled herself from her warm bed. Days like these, she wished she had no chores or obligations, no one to fend for but herself. On these days, she swore she would pull the covers over her head and stay in bed until the sun was high in the sky. But this wasn’t one of those days, and she had mouths to feed and a ranch to run.

“That is, if Devlin Brown lets me.” She said aloud.

She washed her face and brushed her hair, pulling it back into a braid. She knew that she’d been acting like a petulant child last night and hoped the bottle of her father’s best had been accepted as a peace offering between herself and the rider.

She sat up into the night, reading, until she heard the rider’s horse enter the corral. She surprised herself at how quickly she fell asleep after that, knowing that someone was indeed watching out for her. At first, she bristled at the thought, that she might need “looking after.” Then for some reason she remembered the blue fire in the rider’s angry eyes as she stepped in close to the young woman and the possessive look in her eye, right before she laid the drunken rider out with one punch. She didn’t want to admit it, not even to herself, but deep down, she rather liked the feeling.

Devlin paused with her saddle thrown over her shoulder and Alto’s blanket in hand as the door to the cabin opened. The sun was just peaking over the ridge, the valley still in the throes of night. Sarah walked toward the rider, wiping her hands on a small towel. It seemed as if neither woman knew what to say to the other.

“You’ll at least eat meals with us, Miss Brown?” Sarah asked awkwardly.

Dev smelled the tempting aroma coming from the kitchen and her stomach rumbled. She raised her head and grinned slightly. “Yes, ma’am.”

As the rider walked through the door to the cabin, both women breathed a silent sigh of relief at the truce that had been formed between them.

The rider hadn’t eaten this good since she stayed at a hotel in Kansas City. Steak, eggs, and biscuits and gravy, if she ate one more bite she wouldn’t fit through the door. Dev sat and sipped her coffee while sneaking small looks at the woman who talked and good-naturedly teased her children.

Dev wasn’t much for small talk and at first, the young woman’s chatter made her nervous, but now, sitting there watching the family’s interaction, Sarah’s voice and easy laughter acted as a balm to the rider’s heart.

“What will you do today, Miss Brown?” Sarah looked across the table at the rider.

“You got cows ready to calf. I put ’em in the pastureland at the bottom of the hill. Need to make sure no wolves or big cats show up. They’ll stay away if they see humans around ’em, though.” Dev took another swallow of her coffee, “Might need some help…you up for it boy?” Dev nodded in Matthew’s direction.

Matt’s eyes lit up and he tuned to his mother. “Can I mom?” He asked excitedly.

“Of course you can as long as you do everything Miss Brown tells you.” Sarah answered looking at Devlin. “You will watch out for him, won’t you?”

Dev swallowed down the rest of her coffee, reaching over to tousle the boy’s hair. “More ‘n likely he’ll watch out for me,” she said, standing to leave. “Ma’am.” She said in Sarah’s direction, tucking her hair up into her hat.

“You comin’, boy?” Devlin said as Matthew jumped up to follow the tall rider.

Sarah looped a sack of food around the saddlehorn of her son’s mount. “You do everything Miss Brown tells you, is that clear Matthew?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The boy answered, spurring his horse in line with the rider’s.

“She givin’ ya last minute instructions, was she, boy?” Dev smirked.

“She told me I should do everything you tell me, Miss Brown,” Matt answered.

“Smart woman…only don’t call me Miss Brown, makes me feel like a school teacher, which I ain’t.” Dev raised an eyebrow at the boy.

“But, mom calls you Miss Brown,” Matt said, somewhat confused.

“Well…” Dev searched her brain for an answer, “guess that’s ’cause she’s a lady,” Dev said in answer to the boy’s confusion.

“You’re a lady too,” now Matt seemed more confused than ever.

Dev threw her head back and laughed loudly. Looking over at the boy’s face turn even redder, she laughed again. Slapping his arm in a friendly gesture, she gave him a Cheshire cat-like grin.

“Trust me, son…I ain’t no lady!”

It was midday by the time the rider and her new companion stopped for a break. Devlin had to admit the boy had the makings of a good cattleman. He worked hard and never complained. The tall rider appreciated the boy’s silence, so different from his mother, in that respect.

“Your mom always cook like this?” The rider asked the boy as they leaned against the rough bark of an oak tree.

“Yup,” Matthew answered with his mouth full, “good, huh?”

“Damn good,” the rider answered. Looking up suddenly from her meal she grinned at the boy.

“Don’t you start using language like that, boy, or your mom will take after me with one of those Winchester’s she’s got over the mantle.”

Matthew laughed at the dark-haired woman. He drank from his canteen and silently watched the rider. His body was already sore, but he wasn’t about to admit it to the woman. He liked being with her almost as much as he had enjoyed going out with his father. There was something about this tall woman that put him at ease. He knew she’d work him until he dropped, but he also felt safe and protected around her.

Dev had her eyes closed slightly, but she could still feel the weight of the boy’s stare. This boy was a hard worker that was for sure. Still, he had an uphill battle, his father already gone at his age.

A crack echoed through the air and the rider bolted upright waiting for the last reverberation to fade. The young boy looked at her questioningly as Devlin jumped to her feet.

“Get on your horse, now.” She said.

She didn’t have to say it twice as the two jumped into their saddles and quickly rode back toward the cabin. Alto galloped along at full speed and quickly outpaced the boy’s black gelding. It was if the horse felt the waves of concern that flowed from the rider. Devlin knew the sound of a Winchester rifle when she heard one.

Dev pulled Alto up hard in front of the large barn, throwing dirt and rock into the air. The rider, along with her young companion hadn’t been too far away from the cabin, but it was long enough for Sarah to have already replaced the prized Winchester back over the mantle.

Devlin threw her right leg over the saddlehorn and effortlessly slid from the mare’s saddle, while Sarah and Hannah looked somewhat surprised at the two riders. The dark-haired woman followed Sarah’s eyes and finally saw the culprit lying on his side near the chicken coop. Dev walked over and nudged a large fox with the toe of her boot. Bending down, she sat back on her heels and whistled through her teeth.

“Good God, woman…you got him right between the eyes,” Devlin said in a mixture of surprise and appreciation.

The rider lifted the fox up by the scruff of the neck as Hannah shyly scooted closer to get a better look.

Sarah smiled a small knowing smile. The rider had surprised her by galloping into the ranch, but Sarah didn’t say a word. She felt surprisingly safe around this rider that made most grown men nervous. Sarah also felt something she couldn’t quite understand at the rider’s praise. She felt flattered.

Sarah felt an unexplainable heat creep into her cheeks and she turned away, but not before Devlin saw the blush on her face.

“Contrary to popular belief, Miss Brown, I’m not completely helpless,” Sarah remarked as she stepped inside the cabin.

Dev just stood there taking in the young woman’s words, still holding the unfortunate chicken thief by the neck.

“Boy, you remember why I told you not to swear in front of your mother?” She asked.

“Yep,” Matthew grinned, “so she wouldn’t take after ya with her Winchester.”

The rider took a long look at the cabin, then the fox, a bullet hole placed perfectly between the creature’s eyes.

“Boy, don’t ever tell that woman I taught you to swear!” Dev looked up at Matthew with a lopsided grin and winked, just before she walked off to skin the animal, letting another low whistle of appreciation slip through her lips.

It was already late in the day, Devlin and Matt took turns riding over to the herd that was calving. The rider had skinned the fox and was showing the young boy how to cure the pelt when Sarah’s voice came up behind them, a tinge of concern in her tone.

“Miss Brown…I think we have visitors.” Sarah said looking out across the plain.

Dev never looked up from the animal skin she was working on.

“Yea…they’ve been out there for a while now. Probably trying to figure out if it’s safe to ride in.” The rider looked up at Sarah with a hint of mischief in her eye, “no doubt they’ve heard about you fine marksmanship skills, too.” She finished, returning to her chore.

Sarah gave her a little smirk. “Then you’re not worried?”

“No ma’am…they’re Choctaw. They probably want to trade…maybe need some beef.”

“We have plenty,” Sarah started, “if they’re hungry we could cut out a side of beef for them.”

“No.” Devlin said, more harshly than she intended. She stood and in a softer voice explained.

“They wouldn’t accept it anyway…it would be like charity to them. Choctaw always trade. If you give them something, they have to give you something of equal value in return. If you give a Choctaw something he can’t possibly return in value it would be a great insult. They’d go hungry rather than accept charity.”

“That doesn’t make much sense,” Sarah replied without thinking.

Devlin looked at the smaller woman before replying.

“It does to them. What doesn’t make sense to them is why the white man would come into their world and kill off all the buffalo, a creature that was wild, free, and plentiful, only to replace it with a smaller, dumber version that we have to take care of. It doesn’t make sense to them that we put fences around land that’s meant for everyone. What doesn’t make sense to them is why we want to try to make nature better.”

Dev finished as the two women stared hard at one another. Sarah saw the blue fire rage in the rider’s eyes as she realized how stupid her statement actually was.

The smaller woman brushed a lock of hair from her eye and looked absolutely contrite as she glanced up at the dark-haired woman.

“I’m sorry…it was a pretty arrogant thing to say, I spoke without thinking.” Sarah finished.

Before the young woman had the words out of her mouth, Devlin’s gaze softened. The tall rider looked into the face of an angel and felt her own heart miss a beat. Her icy stare melted into azure pools and she curled the corner of her mouth upward into a half-smile. She couldn’t resist teasing the sweet creature that stood before her, so solemnly.

“Guess it’s hard to keep track of your words when you say so many of them.” She teased, lifting her Stetson and running her hand through her hair, replacing it with a jaunty air.

Sarah opened her mouth for a sharp retort, but immediately closed it again. She looked over at Devlin and saw a smile on the rider’s face. It was the first time she had seen the rider display such a sparkling smile and she felt her heart flutter. She’s absolutely beautiful when she smiles like that. Where in the world did that come from?

Sarah pushed the silent thought from her mind and slapped the rider on the arm.

“Very funny…you won’t be smiling when you have to make your own breakfast in the morning!” she laughed and walked toward the corral fence.

Good, God…did she just hit me? It took Dev a heartbeat to register the interaction, but she heard her own voice laughing as she followed the young woman.

“What are they waiting for?” Sarah asked, as leaned against the fence rail, feeling the rider’s presence next to her.

“An invitation. They won’t come in if they aren’t welcome.” Dev looked down at the young woman and continued. “The Choctaw are an amiable people. If I’m not around that’s one way you’ll know it’s them…they’ll never ride up to the cabin unless they already know you.”

“How will I know the friendly Indians from the hostile ones?” Sarah asked.

Again Dev looked down at the young woman, this time the rider’s brow furrowed in concern.

“You’ll know,” the rider said soberly.

“So, do you want to meet your neighbors?” Devlin asked.

“Yes, please,” Sarah said excitedly.

Devlin afforded herself the luxury of smiling at Sarah’s youthful exuberance while the smaller woman’s head was turned. The rider felt a swell of appreciation developing for such a kind-spirited woman. Grabbing her hat by the brim Devlin waved the party closer.

“Kantakiya,” Devlin said to an older man that led the party.

“Kantakiya, Redhawk,” the old man returned.

Sarah just stared open mouthed at the rider as she carried on a conversation with the eldest of the group. She felt this woman beside her knew just about everything and everyone in the Oklahoma Territory, but now she was certain of it.

“Ko ah tay, Sarah Tolliver,” Dev introduced the young woman.

“Close your mouth and say hello,” Devlin chastised teasingly.

“H-Hello…” Sarah stammered.

“It’s…Kantakiya,” Dev said the word slowly.

Sarah repeated the word up to the old man, smiling sweetly.

“Redhawk, kia tay no see ah squa.” The old man said to Devlin with a smile, prompting laughter from among the other braves.

Devlin’s eyes darted back and forth from Sarah to the band of Indians, a hot flush rising up to the rider’s face.

“What did he say?” Sarah asked, noticing the flush of color on the rider’s bronze skin.

“He’s just trying to be funny,” Dev answered shortly.

Sarah heard a sound behind her and turned to find Matthew and Hannah standing in the door of the cabin, their mouths as far open as their mother’s had been. Sarah called them to her and Devlin introduced Matthew, but seemingly ignored Hannah, who clung to her mother’s skirt.

A young Indian not much older than Matthew spurred his horse closer and looked down at Matt. The Indian boy’s eyes were on the knife that Matthew had strapped through his belt. He wore the knife on his hip, just as Devlin had showed him to do earlier that day.

Dev watched the exchange between the two young men.

“Come here, boy,” she called, positioning Matthew in front of her. The rider rested her hands on the boy’s shoulders, lifting her head to speak to the brave on horseback.

“Ko es risa too a may,” Devlin said, motioning toward the boy’s knife.

The brave was young, and tried to hide his excitement.

“Ato,” he nodded to the dark rider.

“He wants to trade you for your knife, boy” Devlin said to Matt.

“For what?” Matt asked.

“That’s your call. You’ve got to see if he’s got something you want as bad as he wants your knife.”

Devlin kept her voice, as well as her face, impassive while giving the boy instruction. This way it would look as if she were only translating between languages. It was very important to these people that a boy Matthew’s age already be able to bargain effectively. It seemed important to the rider that these people take the boy seriously.

“He’s got a swell belt on,” Matt finally said.

“You think you like it well enough to give away a knife for?” Dev questioned.

“Well, I don’t think I could ever make one like it.” Matt answered.

Dev liked the way the boy had thought the trade out. A good trade was not always for something you needed, but something you couldn’t get any other way. It would take many years for Matt to learn to weave a beaded belt like the one this young brave’s mother or sister probably gave him. Likewise, the metal bladed knife was a coveted item among Indians because there wasn’t any way they could walk into a white man’s store and buy one, even if they did have the money.

“Pull out the knife and say the word, ato…that means yes,” Dev said, watching as the boy did as he was instructed.

The young brave smiled and slid from his horse, holding both his empty hands out, palms facing upward.

“He wants to know what he has that you want.” Dev said to Matthew.

Matt pointed to the intricately beaded leather belt the other boy wore around his waist.

The young brave smiled broadly, ” Te on oh atay,” he said pointing to his own belt. “Ki ah mena…risa too a may,” he finished pointing to the knife.

“He wants to know why he should trade such a wonderful gift from his cousin for your knife.” Dev repeated the brave’s words.

Matthew didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t want to look at the rider for help. He had a feeling that might look like he didn’t know what he was doing to the Indians.

“You need to show him that it’s a good knife…show him how sharp it is,” the rider explained. Hold your hand palm down and run the blade lightly across the top of your hand…he wants to see how it cuts.”

As soon as the words were out of the rider’s mouth Sarah attempted to take a step forward to stop the boy’s actions. Dev’s hand shot out and grasped the woman’s arm above the wrist and held her firmly in place. Sarah stared at the rider, but Dev didn’t return the look. She gave the young woman’s arm a gentle squeeze, not removing her hand, but letting her fingers rest lightly around Sarah’s forearm. Dev was trying to stay focused on what was going on around her, when all she wanted to do was close her eyes and give in to the temptation to caress the soft skin beneath her fingertips. Instead she held the woman’s arm against the outside of her thigh and tried to concentrate on the outside world around her.

Sarah had been terrified at what the dark-haired rider was asking her son to do. She was about to put a stop to the whole thing when Devlin’s hand reached out and stopped her. Sarah’s first reaction was to pull away from the woman’s grasp, but when the rider tenderly squeezed her arm, Sarah’s breath caught in her throat, trying to ignore the tingling sensation where the taller woman was touching her. Devlin hadn’t yet let go of Sarah’s arm and when the young woman’s son sliced a light cut across the top of his hand, Sarah reached up and wrapped her fingers into the strong ones of the rider.

Even as the older men were nodding their approval of Matthew’s trade technique; the tall rider was merely trying to focus on gathering air into her lungs. All involuntary movement in her body halted the moment Sarah entwined her soft fingers into the rough callused hand of the rider. And, when the two boys exchanged their goods, the rider felt the small hand within her own relax, but make no move to pull away.

Devlin shook her head to get back to the reality of the situation.

“Now, hold out your hand and shake hands by grabbing onto his forearm.” Devlin instructed.

Once this action had been performed, the deal had been made and both boys were congratulated on a good trade. Again, the older Indian watched the interaction between Sarah and Devlin and took notice of the small woman’s hand held firmly in the grip of the tall rider.

“Redhawk, kia tay no see ah squa…no tay ahna?” The older Indian said to Devlin, again to smiles from the other braves.

Dev stood her ground this time, and neither turned red nor released the gentle grasp she had on Sarah’s hand. She straightened up to her full height and looked straight into the old man’s eyes.

“No ata wa,” she said tapping her own chest with a slender finger, her lips pulled back into a feral smile “squa kiso oma a tay.” Devlin finished by pointing to all the young braves in the party,” Too ah komatay, squa…te ah Redhawk.”

Sarah watched the exchange and knew the conversation had something to do with her, but she couldn’t grasp any of the language. She knew the rider had taken control of a situation that involved Sarah. Suddenly, the young woman’s eyes lit up with understanding. She saw the hungry stares some of the young men were directing towards her, she watched the taller woman’s body language, and heard the tone of possessiveness in Devlin’s voice. There was no language barrier when it came to emotions and Sarah didn’t need a translator to tell her that the rider had effectively warned the men that Sarah was a woman that already belonged to someone.

The young braves laughed out loud and a tall, muscular young man, who had been staring at Sarah the whole time, was slapped on the back by an older man next to him.

“Redhawk, oma a tay!” He laughed again at the embarrassed younger rider, who winced when the older man bumped up against his left arm.

When her eyes were drawn to the muscular youth that was being taunted by his companions, Sarah gasped with a loud intake of breath.

Dev’s hand tensed around the woman’s as she followed Sarah’s eyes. The sleeve of the young brave’s buckskin was colored in blood, which now began to drip from the soaked leather.

“You’re hurt,” Sarah said with some measure of concern to the young man on the horse.

Then, before Dev could hold the woman back, she slipped from the rider’s hand clasp, and moved to the injured brave, reaching her hand out to tenderly examine the young man’s wounded arm.

Sarah had the brave’s hand in her own before Dev could reach the young woman, and the young man had a look that was nothing short of terror placed on his face, not daring to insult the forward woman by pulling away. The brave’s eyes pleaded with Dev, however, as the rider gently pulled Sarah’s hand away from the young man’s,

“But…” Sarah looked up at the Indian and then back to Devlin, “he needs help.”

Sarah stared at the rider who made no move to explain.

“Oh, I know…let me guess. I can’t touch him because I’m a woman!” Sarah exclaimed, a flash of temper showing as her eyes sparked green fire.

Devlin wanted to laugh out loud at the priceless expression of righteous indignation on the woman’s face. Good, God, Sarah Tolliver…what you can do to me with just a look.

“Yes, but it’s not for the reasons you’re thinking,” the rider slowly explained. You’re an unmarried woman. In his eyes, it’s beneath you to tend to his wounds.”

Devlin realized, by the confusion written on Sarah’s face that her message wasn’t getting through to the young woman. She looked down at her boots and swallowed hard when she realized, once again, she still held the woman’s smaller hand within her own.

“Mrs. Tolliver…Sarah, these people hold women in very high esteem, especially unmarried women.” She didn’t know any better way to explain it than that.

Sarah felt trapped in a whirlpool of blue, staring into the rider’s clear blue gaze, processing the information she had been given, and feeling a little embarrassed at having lost her temper so quickly. The rider’s eyes narrowed and suddenly Sarah felt the taller woman’s pulse quicken under the fingers that lay across the rider’s wrist. When she looked down, Sarah realized she had begun to stroke the outside of the dark-haired woman’s hand absently with her thumb.

Immediately and without warning all the air in the rider’s lungs simply disappeared. She became completely unaware of the people standing around her as she lost herself to the pleasurable sensation of Sarah’s skin stroking her own. Devlin attempted to open her mouth to speak, but was quickly halted when she realized that Sarah was looking at their hands, completely cognizant of the fact that she had been caressing the rider’s. Oh, God, the rider groaned to herself. She knows…but, she’s not stopping.

Devlin knew if she didn’t stop this now, she’d quickly do something that would humiliate her, Sarah, or the both of them. With agonizing slowness, she unwillingly extricated her hands from the smaller ones that continued their feather light touches.

The reality was that a mere few seconds had ticked by during this exchange, but to Devlin and Sarah, each caught in their own emotions, time seemed to have gone on forever. One of the horses shook his head, the bridle jingling against his neck. The sound pulled the two women back into the present world, remembering the injured young man.

“I am a widow…doesn’t it count if I was married once?” Sarah asked the rider.

It took Dev a second to get back to the place in the conversation they had been.

“You have no mate now…that’s all they see.” Dev answered.

Sarah smirked up at the tall woman, arching an eyebrow as she did. It was frustration over the situation that led her to what she said next.

“I would have thought you handled that when you told them I belonged to you.” She finished smugly.

The rider froze. “I…uh…but, I…” She was completely at a loss. How could she have known? Did she understand when I told them she belonged to me, could she tell what I was doing when I warned each of the braves that I never share what belongs to me? Does she even understand why I did it?

“It’s all right…and I understand why. Otherwise I’d have a brave knocking on my door everyday, right?”

Dev gave a small smile filled with relief.

“Yea,” she nearly whispered, barely able to admit to herself how satisfying it felt to lay claim to the beautiful young woman who stood beside her.

“It does look like he’s hurt pretty badly. Isn’t there any way we can help him?” Sarah asked the rider.

Devlin knew she wasn’t going to win this one, and she was rather getting used to being worn down by the pretty blonde’s words. She turned back to where the Indian sat astride his horse.

“Konoa wat asay…to may satah neah oh?” Devlin asked the young man, indicating he should pull up his sleeve.

The brave began to speak to the rider as Sarah stood on her tiptoes to look over the dark-haired woman’s shoulder.

Dev felt Sarah’s warm breath on her neck and a shiver ran the length of her body.

“He said a bear attacked their hunting party in the woods yesterday. Said the animal’s claws did this. He’s just pretty proud of the fact he was the hunter who killed it.” Dev said surprising Sarah by knowing she had quietly crept up behind the rider.

“Bear claws could cause quite an infection…besides two of those cuts need sewn up.” Sarah said knowledgeably.

“I’m good with herbs, but I’m not much with a needle and thread.” Dev said.

“I am.” Sarah answered. “I’ve done it a lot over the years…” She smiled.

“Okay…let’s see if we can get him to go for it.” Dev said, knowing they had their work cut out for them.

Devlin talked to the brave until she was blue in the face. She cajoled and even pleaded, but the steadfast young man refused to have Sarah treat him. Dev even rolled up her own shirtsleeve, exposing a long thin scar that ran from her elbow to her wrist.

“What did you say to him?” Sarah asked.

I told him you sewed this one up for me and I lived.” Devlin said with exasperation.

“But, I didn’t.” Sarah responded.

Arching an eyebrow Dev rolled her eyes.

“Work with me here, okay?”

“Oh,” Sarah said with sudden realization.

Still the brave refused and Devlin, never having been known for her patience, threw her hands up in the air.

“Wanta knoya et too may!” She spat at the foolish young man.

“And, do I want to know what that means?” Sarah asked the rider tentatively.

“I told him his pride would kill him someday.” Devlin said shortly.

A thought occurred to the smaller woman. She had learned how to play the game with men because if there was one thing a man valued over all else, it was his pride.

“Tell him I don’t think he’s much of a man,” Sarah said to the rider.

Devlin just looked at Sarah like she’d lost her mind.

“See that bow slung across his back, Mrs. Tolliver? It ain’t there for decoration. You want to be pullin’ an arrow out of my chest?”

“That won’t happen if I say it and you simply translate for me. Or are you more worried about how it will look to the men who think I belong to you?” Sarah folded her arms across her chest and stared at the rider.

“Okay, maybe I am…it’ll look like I can’t control you!” Dev hissed through clenched teeth. Good God, how can she have me wanting to ravish her one minute and so mad I want to throw her in the river the next?

Again Dev knew she was fighting a losing battle.

“Oh, allright! What was it again?” She turned to the brave and translated the words as Sarah spoke.

“I don’t think you’re much of a man…I had heard that Choctaw men were brave and proud. I see I must have misunderstood…seeing as how you’re afraid to let a woman touch you.”

Devlin nearly choked on the words as she repeated them. She knew Sarah was getting to the young man. He looked at his comrades who began to wonder if it wasn’t respect he felt for an unmarried woman or if he was just plain scared of her.

Sarah continued on with her carefully planned humiliation until the other men in the party were teasing and laughing at the young man. Suddenly the brave jumped down from his horse and pulled his buckskin shirt over his head. Standing in front of Sarah he pointed to his arm.

“meeho tay!” He demanded.

Devlin gave a look to the young man that told him to back off and treat Sarah with respect. The brave took a step backward and lowered his head toward Sarah.

“Enteah,” he finished.

Devlin smiled at Sarah, “He says to fix it…please.”

By the time Sarah was wrapping a bandage around the young man’s arm Devlin was walking her way with an armload of goods she had traded for.

“Do you have any sugar and flour to spare?” Dev asked.

“Of course…how much?” Sarah asked.

“Just a small sack of each. How about some smoked or salted beef?”

By the time Sarah gathered all the requested items, the sun was setting on the Indian party as they rode away.

It had been a good day of trading for Kontonalah and his party. The old man had enjoyed himself, he rarely went on trading parties anymore, but he had been as curious about the small woman they had been watching, as any of the other members of the Thunderbird clan had been. She had impressed the clan elders, when reports of her standing in the darkness, speaking aloud to the Spirits of the night sky came to them. Women rarely talked to the Spirits…white women never did. Keeho, the clan healer, said she made strong medicine. Late one night after they had offered prayers and the sacred tobacco smoke went up to the Great Spirit, Keeho told of seeing the white woman marking messages down onto parchment and tying them to dried clumps of sagebrush, then using the wind to send them on to the Spirits. Keeho said that was why she had not suffered the ravages of winter as the white men around her did.

Kontonalah chuckled to himself. He believed in the Spirits, of course, but he wasn’t sure it was all Spirit doing that saved this young woman’s stock. He had left the warmth of his own fire on occasion to watch her, dressed in the clothes of a brave, doing a brave’s work. He had watched her trudge through snow that nearly swallowed her up, breathe on frozen fingers to keep them working, and wrestle with the small buffalo like beasts to keep them alive. He had a feeling that her hard work had been most of the reason she had fared well. He wouldn’t insult Keeho or the Spirits by saying this aloud, however.

It was always a treat to see Redhawk. Now, what was the name the white man had given her? Ah, yes…Devlin. Redhawk suited her much better. She was more at peace than Kontonalah had ever seen her, and he smiled to himself, thinking much of it had to do with the young woman called Sarah. What had Keeho’s vision named her? Ahhh…Salmon…it was hard remembering things these days. It seemed as if he could remember events from long ago as if they had just happened, but had a harder time with what had happened only moments ago. Now where was he in his ramblings?

Ahh, little Salmon. It was unprecedented to name someone who wasn’t a member of the Thunderbird Clan, but Keeho had the gift of vision and no one could argue with that. The healer said he saw the young woman’s totem as a fish that was always trying to swim upstream. Again he chuckled, as the vision fit with the reality of the young woman he had just met. He had seen fire in her eyes and had witnessed more than Redhawk thought he had, watching the two women interact. Yes, this one would be good for Redhawk.

Kontonalah allowed his smile to reach his face this time. It was about time that his adopted granddaughter found a heart that could ease her pain. The old man smiled because he knew that the Redhawk and the Salmon always made a good match.

Devlin watched the trading party, until dusk and the misty horizon swallowed them up. She scooped up the additional items she had traded the dry goods and beef for, and walked toward the cabin. The rider was hesitant to simply walk through the open door; so she stopped at the threshold, then seeing Sarah’s smile; Devlin entered with her arms loaded with goods.

Sarah leaned over the fireplace as she stirred some type of stew in a large cast iron pot.

“Looks like you had a good day of shopping,” Sarah remarked as Dev laid her bundle on the table.

“Two horse blankets, 2 horse-hair halters, and a lead rope. Boy, take this stuff and put it in the barn…got something I want to show you when you get back.” Devlin ordered.

Sarah was a little surprised when her son picked up the goods and proceeded to carry out the rider’s request, without question. Not much like his mother, that’s for sure!

Sarah replaced the lid on the cast iron pot after dropping in some dumplings to steam on top of the stew, her hand lightly brushing Hannah’s cheek as she stood up. The small girl sat on a stool with her head down, staring into the fire. Her legs swung back and forth, her feet kicking against the stone fireplace.

“Someone feels a little neglected today,” Sarah said under her breath to the rider.

“Wondered if that would happen,” Dev looked up with a half-smile, “actually, I’m kind of surprised you didn’t bring it up at the time.”

“I guess so many other things were happening at the same time that I sort of lost track,” Sarah replied. “So, is there a reason?”

“I told you that the Choctaw hold unmarried women in high esteem…that goes tenfold for girls under the age of puberty. They’re not allowed to talk to boys or men unless they’re related to them. Consequently, men aren’t allowed to speak to girls until they reach an age of maturity. It keeps…” a small look of pain passed across the rider’s face. “…It keeps unfortunate things from happening to young girls.” Devlin finished.

“We could learn a few things from these people,” Sarah said, not taking her eyes off her young daughter. “I like these friends of yours, Miss Brown.”

Devlin smiled. It was a slow, easy smile; the kind she was becoming used to displaying, being around this woman and her family. Wonder what she’d say if she knew I haven’t said this many words, all strung together, in I don’t know how long? I wonder if she knows how different I am around her?

“And, they like you, Mrs. Tolliver… now they’re your friends too. Excuse me for just a minute.”

The rider stood and lowered herself to sit cross-legged on the floor next to Hannah.

“Hey, girl,” the rider bent her head to try and make eye contact with the tiny figure. “Our friends gave me a present to give to you…ya wanna see it?”

“For me?” Hannah said, lifting her head.

“Uh huh,” the tall woman replied. She reached into her vest pocket and pulled a small thin necklace comprised of tiny blue beads. Devlin held the necklace up in front of the girl’s face and watched her large green eyes go wide.

“Oooh…pretty.” Hannah exclaimed.

Devlin slipped the beads over the girl’s head and leaned back to take in the girl’s delight. Without warning, the tiny figure leapt from the stool into the rider’s lap. Wrapping her delicate arms around Dev’s neck she kissed the stunned rider’s cheek, settling herself comfortably in the woman’s lap.

Sarah was just about to rescue the shocked rider when Hannah turned in Devlin’s lap and rested her back against the tall woman’s chest. Dev lifted the necklace so the girl could make a closer inspection of her gift, the rider’s voice launching into a story about how a tiny girl about Hannah’s age made the water in the lake turn blue with her pretty blue beads.

“I thought you said the Choctaw never gave gifts?” Sarah said, smiling to the rider after she had finished the story.

“There are two exceptions to that rule,” she said, gently rocking the young girl in her lap. “First exception…little girls,” she said kissing the top of Hannah’s head, causing the young girl to snuggle further into the rider’s embrace. “Since the men can’t pay much attention to them, they make them gifts. That way young girls grow up to feel special and well loved.

Second exception…when the gift is left by a Spirit. Actually, someone leaves you the gift, but you have to be good enough not to let them see you. It would be an insult not to accept a gift from the Spirits. Uhm, speaking of gifts,” Devlin continued, sliding Hannah gently off her lap.

“I thought you deserved something for the way you handled yourself today. Not a lot of women would have helped that young man the way you did.” Dev’s sentence trailed off as she pulled a small square of cloth from her shirt pocket. Opening the cloth, she lifted up a necklace, holding it out to Sarah.

“I don’t deserve a gift simply for being kind,” Sarah said, a slow blush creeping up her neck. “Besides,” she said tilting her head up to the taller woman, arching her eyebrow slightly, “couldn’t I be insulted by you trying to give me a gift?” She finished by smiling at the rider.

You, are not Choctaw…doesn’t apply here,” Dev returned with her own smile, as she grasped the young woman’s hand, placing the decorative necklace in her palm.

Sarah held the necklace up to the light to examine it. Tiny shells were strung with a pale bead in-between, a small greenish-blue stone hanging from its center.

“It’s beautiful,” Sarah said breathlessly. “She turned her back slightly to the rider. “Would you tie it for me?” She asked Devlin.

Dev reached over the smaller woman and took the necklace in her own hands, each of her arms around Sarah’s shoulder. Sarah reached up and swept her hair across one shoulder and Devlin’s trembling fingers tied the ends of the necklace closed.

Sarah turned to the mirror, the tall rider’s reflection behind her own.

“I don’t think I’ve ever owned anything quite as beautiful before.” She commented, feeling the smooth texture of the stone beneath her fingers.

“What kind of stone is this?” she asked the rider, glancing up at Dev’s image in the mirror.

“The Indians call it Teklia,” Devlin answered. “The Choctaw believe that if you receive a Teklia stone as a gift, your dreams will be filled with visions of your heart’s desire.”

Suddenly Peter’s words came back to the young woman…“Sarah…next time…don’t settle for less than your heart’s desire.”

Devlin’s blue gaze locked onto Sarah’s emerald eyes and they stood in silence staring at the other’s reflection. It was the sound of the coffeepot bubbling over that wrenched Sarah from her private thoughts.

The young woman pulled the coffee off the stove’s cooking plate just as Matthew walked back into the cabin. By now Devlin had moved back to kneel by Hannah, teasing and tickling the girl’s stomach causing peals of laughter from the youngster. Without pausing or lifting her head Devlin spoke to the boy.

“Did you make sure your mother has enough firewood split?” She asked over Hannah’s squeals.

“Yes ma’am,” Matt answered.

“Good man,” the rider responded, standing up and throwing Hannah over one shoulder before settling the still giggling girl to the floor.

Sarah watched as her son’s chest puffed out just slightly. She noted that it was the first time Devlin had called him anything but, boy.

Devlin lifted up her vest and pulled out a leather pouch that was tucked into her belt. She tossed it toward Matthew.

“This ought to keep ya from missing the other one too bad.” She said.

Matt opened the pouch and a shrill whistle passed through his front teeth.

“What’s it made from?” He asked.

“Deer antler…see how they sharpen this half into a blade, then they leave the other part untouched so it acts like a curved handle? It’s every bit as sharp as your other knife, so don’t go cuttin’ your fingers off. It won’t last as long as a metal blade, but let me know if you get a chip in it, and I’ll show you how to carve it out.”

“Dinner is ready…go wash up,” Sarah said. Watching the three traipse outside in a row, Devlin stooping down to scoop Hannah into her arms, Sarah felt a twinge of unexplainable happiness. She couldn’t spell out just why she had this comforting feeling around the dark-haired woman, nor could she explain away the heat that enveloped her body when the rider’s fingers brushed softly against her neck when tying the piece of jewelry. Again, she fingered the smooth stone around her neck. For the time being, she decided not to question any of it, not wanting to spoil what they had at this moment.

Devlin was already seated outside in the darkness, her chair tilted back on two legs against the cabin, when Sarah walked out.

“I think we deserve this, don’t you?” She asked rhetorically as she held out two cups to the rider, pouring from a bottle of good bourbon.

“Yes, ma’am,” Dev sat up immediately.

Sarah sat down on a chair beside the rider’s seat and took a sip of the smooth whiskey. Leaning her back against the cabin, she closed her eyes and let the warm night breeze wash over her.

Devlin enjoyed the sight immensely. She liked these moments when she could gaze at the woman openly; not having to sneak looks out of the corner of her eye.

Devlin was the first to break the silence.

“It meant a lot to those people today…the kindness you showed them. They’ll never forget it.” Devlin said, wondering how much of what Kontonalah told her, if anything, about what they believed regarding the young woman, she should tell Sarah. The old buzzard was holding back on me, though…I could feel him watching me today, God only knows what he thinks is really going on here.

“I hope they never forget me…I’ll certainly never forget them. Do you know where they live…do you think I could ever meet any of the women?” Sarah asked with a touch of excitement.

“Yes, I do…and, perhaps.” Devlin answered with a mysterious half-smile.

“Miss Brown…” Sarah started.

Devlin closed her eyes. She knew it was coming, she had only hoped it wouldn’t be this soon. She would have to tell the truth, she owed no less to the woman that sat next to her. Great Spirit, the rider thought, I know I don’t talk to you much, but please…have a heart…I’ve been trying, haven’t I?

“How did you learn to speak the Choctaw language?” Sarah finished.

“I lived with them a very long time ago.” She looked across at Sarah and knew she wasn’t going to get away with any one-line answers with this woman.

Sarah simply turned in her seat, tucking her legs up under her, draping an arm across the back of her chair in preparation for the rest of the rider’s story. She stared back into Devlin’s face with an unwavering gaze, silently asking the rider to continue.

Dev cleared her throat, her eyes looking into the darkness, and began.

“It’s been…maybe twenty years ago now. I was hurt pretty bad…doing the kind of things that usually get a reckless, wild kid killed. Oh, for God sakes, just tell her you were an outlaw! I was only thirteen, but I’d already joined up with a bad bunch. I was shot up and had more broken bones than I could count; thought I was dead for sure. I don’t much remember how I even got there, but pretty soon I knew I was being cared for. They never asked for a thing…just saw a kid in need and helped her.

I stayed with them for a long time after I was healed…kind of grew up there. Part of me wanted to be like them…like the kind of people they were. Only problem was back then, there was a part of me that couldn’t let go of all that hate. So, after ten years, I left.”

“Ten years…no wonder you speak the language so well. Do you think you could teach me…so I could talk for myself?” Sarah asked.

“If you’d like,” the rider answered. Come on, Sarah…is that all? Don’t you want to ask the question…the one everyone asks…don’t you want to know how many people I’ve killed…the things I’ve done? Don’t you want to ask me if it’s all true?

“I heard them use the name, Redhawk. Is that what they call you?”

“Yes.” She answered, pausing before continuing. “Mrs. Tolliver…haven’t you ever heard any of the stories about me?” She asked, holding her breath.

“Good, God,” Sarah laughed, “I think I’ve heard all the stories about you!”

Dev looked at her with astonishment. “Aren’t you afraid…afraid to have me near your children, sleeping right outside your house?”

Sarah rested her head on the palm of her hand. “I don’t know the woman you seem to think I should be so afraid of.” Sarah paused to take a sip of her drink. “Do you know what kind of a woman I’ve been, Miss Brown?”

Devlin silently shook her head back and forth.

“I was a spoiled brat that somebody should have taken in hand before I was allowed to hurt so many people. My mother died when I was a year old and I became a southern belle who ended up getting everything I asked for because my father couldn’t say no to me. I cajoled my father into teaching me how to shoot, ride, and tend cattle, effectively ending any chance I ever had at finding a husband. I was so selfish I denied my father a chance at love and happiness because I didn’t want to have to compete with any woman for his affections. He died in the war, never knowing how much I truly admired and loved him. I was intelligent, and I knew it. I had a sharp tongue and a sharper temper, and I used both every chance I got. I married a man who knew I never loved him. I used him just to fulfill my own dream of coming out west.” Sarah stopped just as tears filled her eyes.

“You see, I don’t think you would have liked the woman I was back then, and I expect I wouldn’t have liked the woman you were very much. So, when we hear they’re giving out new pasts…I’ll let you know and we can both get in line.” She finished with a sad smile.

Devlin couldn’t bear to look at the unhappy woman; her tears broke the rider’s heart. When Dev looked across at Sarah, she spied a tear rolling down the young woman’s cheek and without thinking reached out to wipe it away. Sarah took the rider’s hand and held it in her lap, as both women struggled to find the necessary air to continue.

“I don’t know that other woman you used to be, but I like the woman you are now,” Devlin whispered.

“And, I like the woman you are. I’d like to think of you as more than just someone who works here…I’d like to think of you as my friend.” Sarah said as she squeezed the rider’s hand.

Devlin offered her a lopsided grin. “I’d like that too,” she replied. Oh, Sarah…I want you as my friend, but I want for so much more. I’ll never betray your trust, though, Sarah. If friendship is all you’re offering I’ll treasure it for the rest of my life.

“Look, a shooting star,” Sarah exclaimed. “Quick, make a wish,” she said with childish enthusiasm and a sparkle in her eye.

Dev closed her eyes. It’s already come true, my friend…it’s already come true.

Dev had ridden further today on the Double Deuce than she had since she started working the ranch. There had been a cut in the herd they had pastured on this side of the ridge. Not everyone would have noticed, but to Devlin’s trained eye, they were short by no less than 20 head of cattle.

Hellfire! Devlin cursed to herself, looking down into the valley below. A small herd of cows had been corralled, unattended. She removed her outer jacket and tucked it under the saddle, behind her. Pulling both pistols from her holster, she proceeded to check each, assuring herself of a full load.

Riding into the herd, she pushed one of the large cows in the rump, causing the animal to turn its branded hip toward the rider. The brand felt raised; an indication it was new. It was also the brand of a double letter Z. The brand Sarah used, two number 2’s; closely overlapping, was obviously covered up by this newer brand.

Dev started to move the cows out when a voice came from behind her.

“Where the hell ya think yer goin’ with that herd?”

Devlin turned her horse slowly to find herself about fifteen feet away from the grizzled rider that had lost five dollars in gold to Hank because he bet against Devlin’s return from the snowstorm. Just to the old man’s right was the young man she’d kicked out of her bunk that night, sitting astride his mare looking around nervously.

“These cows belong to the Double Deuce…that’s where they’re going, ” she looked up at the two men, watching their eyes and their body language.

“It’d be best if you just minded yer own business…we don’t want trouble with you, Brown.” The younger man said, his voice cracking slightly.

“I ride for the Double Deuce, that makes rustlin’ their cows my business. Boy, you actually thought about what you’re doing here?”

I can take care of myself.” The boy said fiercely.

“Look…I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to be dead. Why don’t we just chalk this one up to a mistake and we’ll go our separate ways.” Devlin reasoned.

Devlin’s brim was pulled low. She could see the reactions in the eyes of the men across from her, but her blue eyes were covered by the hat’s shadow. For a few seconds they stared at one another that way, but Dev knew they wouldn’t be able to let it go. Men! They always thought if there was more than one of them, they’d be able to take you. It only meant one thing to Devlin…more dead bodies.

It was a small twitch, but Devlin saw it. The older man’s eye twitched to look at something just over Dev’s left shoulder. The rider heard it then, soft like a whisper; it was a horse hoof in the dirt. This time the rider didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the men in front of her to make the first move. Carefully, and without drawing attention, the rider slipped her left foot out of the stirrup and pushed the stirrup forward that held the right one, until only the ball of her foot rested there.

Even over the sound of the cattle, she heard the faint click of metal from behind her.

With one swift movement, Devlin launched her body over the side of her horse. In mid-air she pulled both guns from their holster and loosed a blaze of gunfire on the two men in front of her. Tucking into a tight ball as soon as she hit the ground, she rolled twice, pulling herself up to crouch behind a cow. She looked up and saw the two men who had confronted her, dead on the ground. The third man’s saddle was empty, but no body to account for his whereabouts.

Hellfire, she cursed again, reloading her gun. It was beginning to get plenty dark and she could barely see a thing, let alone a man coming at her. An explosion rang out and she could feel the air blow by her, a bullet narrowly missing her head. Devlin saw the puff of explosion in the darkness and tried to ease around toward it the long way. Cows and horses moved against her in the darkness, she saw the shadow too late. A loud exchange rang in her ears as the man fired his gun, and Dev felt a white hot bolt of pain sear through her abdomen. She was unable to keep her knees locked against the pain as they crumpled underneath her.

Devlin’s brain kept telling her to get up, but her body wasn’t able to cooperate. She lay face down in the dirt, trying to still her rapidly pounding heartbeat. She heard the man come up behind her, bending down to pull her fallen body over. She brought her knee up hard into the man’s face as he rolled her over, screaming at the pain in her gut this action caused. Dragging her body up, she twisted around and pulled the trigger into the man’s stomach.

The rider struggled to her feet, whistling for Alto. The horse came up next to the woman and stopped. Dev put her hand to her side, pulling it away to see it covered in her own blood.

“Shit!” She said aloud, trying to take a step forward and dropping to one knee.

Pulling herself up Alto by pulling on a stirrup, she found herself able to stand again. The man behind her came to just as she was making a supreme effort to mount the huge mare.

“I thought I killed you,” he groaned.

“That was your second mistake,” she winced in pain as she fell into the saddle.

“Mind tellin’ me what the first mistake was?” He gasped.

“Fucking with me in the first place,” she moaned, her head bent over the pale mare’s neck.

Her sarcasm was lost on the fallen man. He was already dead.

Part 2

Sarah was beginning to get more than worried. By now she was downright afraid, but she tried not to show it in front of Hannah and Matthew. Devlin had not come back to the ranch last night. That happened when riders were out on the range, but when it had started to turn dark this evening, her concern for the dark-haired woman turned into fear. She stood in the middle of the cabin dressed in a shirt and pants, pulling on a heavy jacket. Matthew was saddling Telemachus, the black racing stallion Sarah had raised.

“Mom!” Matthew yelled from the corral.

Sarah ran to where her son stood and followed his eyes out into the dark. It looked like a horse, but she couldn’t tell from this distance. The young boy held Telemachus’ reins as his mother swiftly pulled herself into the saddle.

Sarah pulled the black horse up abruptly in front of the large mare. Devlin was barely hanging on to Alto’s saddlehorn, and when the horse jerked to a stop; the rider began to slip from the mare’s back. Jumping from her own mount Sarah half caught, half felt the rider fall on her.

Devlin’s face was pale, dark circles hung under her eyes, and she moaned in pain as she felt her side press up against Sarah’s body. The young woman looked down at the rider’s side, covered in blood.

“Matt!” Sarah screamed, “Bring the wagon…now!”

“Oh, god, Devlin…what happened to you?” Sarah cradled the rider in her arms, impatiently waiting for the sound of the buckboard’s wheels.

Devlin had regained consciousness as Sarah and Matthew nearly dragged the tall woman’s limp body into the cabin. Sarah threw a blanket over the long kitchen table and they eased the wounded rider back until the long length of her body lay on top of the table.

Unceremoniously, Sarah began ripping Devlin’s shirt open, pulling up the cotton undergarment. She soaked a cloth in a bucket of water Matt brought in, wiping away the worst of the bleeding so she could get a decent look at the wound. Devlin’s breathing was labored and she clenched her teeth together and grunted when Sarah pressed down on her side.

“Matthew,” Sarah turned and pulled open the top drawer from a large bureau. She lifted off the lid to a weathered oak box and pulled out half a dozen sharp bladed instruments. “Take the small cooking pot outside and scrub it with lye soap, put clean water in it and start it to boiling. Put these instruments in the water and let them boil for five minutes.” Sarah moved to the mantel and pulled down her father’s pocket watch.

“Use grandfather’s watch and you’ll be able to time five minutes. After that much time, take them out and bring them in to me. Be careful, don’t touch them with your hands once they’re clean, and don’t burn yourself. Then, put fresh water on to boil, take this cloth and tear it into strips about this wide,” she motioned with her hands, “and boil them for a few minutes. Then come in and put the strips to dry on the rack by the fireplace. Can you do all that Matthew?”

“Yes ma’am…is she going to be allright, mother?” Matt asked.

“If I have anything to say about it, she will.” Sarah told her son confidently, placing a gentle hand on his cheek.

Hannah peeked around the stairs that led up to the loft where she and Matthew slept. Sarah went back into her bedroom to get one last necessary item.

Devlin spied the girl when she turned her head toward the child’s gasp of surprise.

“Are you hurt?” The child asked.

“Yea, ” Dev whispered, “but I’ll be allright, Princess.”

When Sarah returned Hannah was holding the rider’s hand, as Devlin whispered small assurances that she would indeed be around in the morning. Her mother quickly scooped the child up to carry her upstairs.

“But, I want to kiss Devlin goodnight,” the youngster wailed.

Devlin looked up at the young girl with a lopsided grin and crooked her finger to Sarah, motioning her closer. Hannah leaned down from her mother’s arms and placed a very gentle kiss on the rider’s dirty cheek. Sarah deposited the youngster at the foot of the stairs.

“Hannah, I want you to be a big girl and go upstairs and get into bed. I don’t want you coming down here again tonight, no matter what you hear. Is that understood?”

The young girl nodded her head.

“And, Hannah…you’ve never disobeyed me and you won’t now either, will you?”

“No, mother,” the young girl said seriously, walking up the stairs.

Devlin was still breathing hard against the pain, her eyes closed. Sarah brushed the dark-haired woman’s damp bangs off her forehead. The wounded woman opened her eyes and looked into the face of an angel, green eyes staring intently into her own.

“Guess I got shot…” she smirked.

“I guess you did,” Sarah said with concern. “What happened?”

“Rustlers…you ought to see the other guys, though.” She answered, with as near as a smile as she could get, considering the circumstances.

“What happened to them?” Sarah asked, rather afraid of the answer.

“Dead,” Devlin closed her eyes once more. “Sarah…you need to be careful. The rustlers were riders from your uncle’s ranch. Keep your eyes open and those Winchester’s loaded. Send the boy to Mr. Winston’s place in the morning…tell ’em what happened. Sarah, if anything happens to me–”

“Nothing like that is going to happen!” Sarah steeled herself to gather focus for what she had to do now.

“Dev, that bullet’s still in your side…what’s worse, you’ve already started to develop an infection. Your skin feels like it’s on fire right here,” she placed her cool hand on the heated skin just above Devlin’s hip. “That means you’ve got an abscess already starting under the skin. My father taught me a lot…he was very good at what he did for a living. We need to get that bullet out of you, Dev.”

The rider’s eyes opened at that.

“Sarah…just what did your father do for a living?” Devlin asked.

Matthew brought in the boiled instruments wrapped in a towel and Sarah scrubbed her hands with soap before taking them, and placing them on the table next to the prone woman.

“He was a doctor.” Sarah replied.

Dev took one look at the instruments, their blades gleaming brightly, then looked back up at Sarah, then down to the instruments again.

“Nooooo, no, no, no!” Devlin tried to lift herself off the table, but in her weakened condition, Sarah was able to easily hold her down.

“Look,” the panicked rider began, “I’ve ridden worse things than this out before…I can do it again.”

“Devlin…you will die of infection, period.” Sarah took hold of the riders chin, willing the blue eyes to her own, “Wanta knoya et too may!” She said angrily, losing her temper.

The rider’s eyes narrowed as Sarah spoke the words Devlin had used on the injured brave. Your pride will kill you one day.

Sarah leaned over the injured woman and gently stroked her cheek and forehead, tears filling her eyes.

“I don’t want to lose you, Dev…I need you to trust me.” Sarah whispered.

Devlin slowly closed her eyes and nodded her head to the young woman who had come to mean so much in her life.

Sarah pulled the cork on the bottle she’d gotten from her bedroom, and after helping the rider to lean up on one elbow, she handed it to her.

“Drink,” she ordered.

“What is it…it smells like kerosene?”

“It tastes like it too. Just drink it.” Sarah commanded as she finally pulled off her jacket and rolled up the sleeves to her shirt.

“Good God, woman! What is this stuff?” Devlin bellowed, feeling her first swallow burn all the way down her throat.

“Where I come from it’s called ‘shine. Folks outside of Kentucky call it, moonshine. It’ll get you drunk in a hurry or clean rust off your tools. Three swallows and it’ll knock you on your butt, so keep drinking.” Sarah said as she began to remove the rider’s garments. It’s a good thing I’m so damn scared right now, because I don’t even want to know why the sight of Devlin, naked from the waist up, is affecting my body this way.

Devlin had no inhibitions about her own body and continued to drink the powerful liquor, as Sarah removed her clothes. Matthew lowered his head at the sight as he came in and placed the cleaned bandages by the fireplace to dry. Sarah walked over to her son and began to clean her hands with soap and water.

“Matt, I’m going to need your help, but I’ll also need you to act like an adult and be a gentleman…do you understand?” The sight of the strong, beautiful woman was producing a powerful reaction from Sarah so she just knew what it must have been doing to her son. “I’ll need you to try and hold her down when I take the bullet out…think you can handle this?”

“Yes ma’am.” Matt swallowed as mother and son turned back to the injured rider, a half a bottle of the potent liquor inside her.

Matt positioned himself on Devlin’s right side. True to his word, he stared straight ahead.

Devlin was feeling no pain by this time, the hard liquor having gone straight to her head. She turned her head to look at the small woman, staring over the table at Sarah’s figure, the curves of her lower body hugged tightly by pants.

“You look different,” Dev slurred, still holding onto the bottle of moonshine.

“Give me that,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes at the now drunken rider.

The first incision went well, the rider barely flinching at the pain. Sarah probed the area gently with her fingers and the rider nearly leapt from the table. She was panting hard and Matthew was rubbing an eye that, minutes ago came into contact with the rider’s fist. Sarah picked up a long set of tweezers and a thin needle-like probe. Her son saw what was coming and turned his head, nearly laying his whole body across the rider’s right side.

“This is going to hurt like hell, Dev,” Sarah tried to prepare her.

“Do it,” Devlin groaned, steeling herself against the pain.

Sarah could feel the bullet about 2 inches deep and she tried to work quickly, but to the injured woman and the boy trying to hold down the six foot woman, the seconds became infinity. Sarah’s hands were sure, even with the jerking and thrashing, she pulled the metal free from Devlin’s body, just before the rider was convinced her jaw would snap from the tension of grinding her teeth so hard.

Devlin’s chest heaved and she took in great gulps of air, desperately trying to fight down feelings of nausea. She felt a stinging sensation as Sarah cleaned the wound of the remaining infection, and by the time the young woman was sewing the wound close; Devlin barely felt anything at all.

Clean bandages were packed and wrapped around the wound. Sarah, along with her son, managed to get the rider onto Sarah’s bed.

“Matt…heat up a couple buckets of water for me…then go to bed, allright?” Sarah said wearily. “Matt? You were a big help tonight, I couldn’t have done that without you, son.”

Matthew grinned tiredly at his mother and quickly went about supplying the hot water. After her son had left the requested water, Sarah sat alone with the unconscious rider. She gently removed the woman’s clothes, using soap and water to cleanse the mud and blood from the rider’s body. She washed the woman’s hair as best she could, then changed the linen on the bed. Pulling the soft comforter up to Devlin’s shoulders, Sarah tenderly ran her fingers through the still damp hair before turning away.

Sarah was bone tired, more so from fear and tension, rather than the actual need for rest. She removed her shirt, clad only in her cotton camisole, when she heard a moan from the bed.

Devlin moved and her eyes fluttered open but seemed not able to focus. Sarah came and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Devlin? Dev?” she asked.

The rider found her voice, taking in the exciting vision before her.

You, look a lot different!” she leered.

You, are drunk,” Sarah laughed quietly.

“Oh, no,” Devlin slurred her words badly. “If I was drunk, could I do this?”

Before Sarah had a chance to react, Dev’s hand shot up to the small of her back, pressing Sarah down against the rider’s chest, the injured woman’s mouth quickly took possession of Sarah’s before the young woman had a chance to protest.

At first Sarah was shocked and surprised. She felt the rider’s lips on her own, strong hands moving up to caress her face, then Dev’s tongue brushed lightly against the lips that began to involuntarily move in response to the rider’s passion.

Dev’s arms once again encircled the young woman. Sarah knew she had to stop what was happening, but when the warmth of the rider’s tongue entered her mouth, she lost herself completely to the physical sensations. She not only allowed the kiss to happen, but had somehow become a willing participant.

Devlin’s mouth found it’s way to her earlobe, sucking on the tender flesh.

“Oh, god, woman…I want you,” the rider groaned.

It had been so long since she’d experienced physical intimacy with anyone, that Sarah’s body betrayed her with a torrent of physical needs and desires, all of them, being met by the woman who now held Sarah in her arms.

The rider’s hand pressed firmly against Sarah’s breast, her thumb gently stroking the nipple into a hardened point. Devlin took the young woman in another dizzying kiss, removing her hand from Sarah’s chest. The rider pulled the blanket down, just to the top of the dark curls between her legs. Grasping Sarah’s small hand in her own, the rider placed the young woman’s hand over her own breast, running it along her torso until Sarah’s fingers brushed the light down of hair below the rider’s abdomen, then she pulled the hand back to her breast. She kneaded the hand under her own, pressing Sarah’s fingers against a nipple already hardened and erect with desire.

Suddenly the rider’s movements stopped as quickly as they had begun. Her arm hit the bed just as the inebriated woman passed out completely, leaving Sarah’s panting form somewhat relieved and highly frustrated all at once.

The young woman slipped from the bed to the floor, holding her head in her hands.

“Good, God!” she moaned aloud.

Devlin couldn’t remember when her head had felt this bad. It was pounding like she’d been on a three day drunk. She couldn’t suppress the groan that escaped from her throat when she opened her eyes, the sunlight bathing the entire room in a white light.

Sarah was on her feet at once as soon as she heard the rider’s voice. She hastily pulled the shirt back on that she had worn the previous evening. Every muscle in her back was sore after spending the night in the wooden rocking chair; she had pulled into the bedroom.

Kneeling beside the rider, Sarah’s cool hand brushed away the dark locks from the rider’s face, the young woman’s hand still felt the fever within the rider. Devlin’s eyes opened and her soft blue gaze fixed on the smiling face of the woman above her.

“Hi,” Sarah smiled.

“Why is it so damn bright in here?” was the surly rider’s only answer.

Sarah laughed and stood, moving to the window and pulling the heavy curtains across the opening. Devlin’s body seemed to relax a little; the darkness hadn’t done a thing for the pain in her head, however.

“Wasn’t I shot in the gut?” The rider whispered hoarsely.

“Pretty much,” Sarah answered.

“Then why does my head feel like it just got stomped by a bull?”

“Oh,” Sarah looked a little guilty. “I guess that was the moonshine.”

“The moon–what?” The rider asked.

“Let me get you something for that head first,” Sarah walked out of the bedroom and returned with a cup, a pitcher of water, and a small bottle of colorless liquid. She poured a cup of water, then placed a few drops of the clear liquid into the cup.

“This tastes bitter, but it’s just a pain killer…it will make you sleepy, though.” Sarah instructed.

“No…I need to get up,” Devlin said, using all her strength just to get in a sitting position. The pain in the rider’s side was like someone had just jabbed a hot poker into her middle. The groan of agony she let out then made her reach for her head, to stop the throbbing there. Finally, she knew she’d been beat, when Sarah put both hands on her shoulders and very effectively held her down.



Just like that they had escalated their friendship to a first name basis. There were no momentous decisions about propriety, no heartfelt discussion. Just two women staring daggers at one another, wondering who would break first.

The rider tried to intimidate the young woman with one of her famous stares, but it never seems to work if the person isn’t afraid of you in the first place.

“Oh, give it to me,” the rider held her hand out for the cup, downing it all in two long swallows.

“Why is it, medicine is supposed to be so good for you, but it always tastes so bad.” Devlin groaned, making a face at the bitter tasting liquid.

Sarah pushed the rider further into the covers, pulling them around her shoulders.

“Well, the next time I’ll put some honey in it just like I do for Hannah,” Sarah returned. “Would that make you feel better?” she asked with mock sweetness.

“Yes,” Devlin answered with as close to a pout as six feet of former outlaw can get.

“You’re enjoying this…being in control, aren’t you?” Dev asked.

“Relishing every moment of it!” Sarah replied with a wide grin.

Devlin seemed to realize at that moment that she was completely naked under the covers.

“Where are my clothes?” The dark-haired woman asked.

“Oh…I had to take them off to…well, I was going to wash…” Sarah began to stammer.

Sarah looked down into the rider’s electric blue eyes, which seemed to be filled with amusement at the stammering woman. Sarah became a little perturbed at herself for her reaction, she didn’t like losing her composure when she had been in full control only seconds before. Stopping to give the rider a look of superiority, she turned her back.

“I thought if you were naked I stood a better chance of keeping you in bed!” Sarah winced; not sure she liked the way that came out, but proceeded to ignore Devlin’s amused reaction.

“Sarah…” the rider drawled out the young woman’s name.

Sarah had turned her back to pull clean clothes for herself from a large chest of drawers. A definite shiver ran through her upon hearing her name roll of the rider’s tongue that way. She slowly turned, afraid she might see the rider standing, naked, behind her. Of course, from somewhere unknown, very deep inside her, from a place that wouldn’t even admit she felt that way, she was also desperately afraid she wouldn’t.

The medicine had begun to work it’s magic as Devlin leaned painlessly up on one elbow, the blanket slipping off her shoulder slightly, one eyebrow arching under ebony bangs in that familiar combination of intimidation and seduction.

“Sarah, do you really think if I wanted to get up out of this bed, being naked would stop me?” Devlin said, lowering her voice an octave.

Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but no sounds came out. Her face began to turn red as she turned back away from the rider. Devlin lay back down, a smug smile of satisfaction on her lips, as she realized the effect the visual image that was assaulting Sarah’s brain, was having on the smaller woman.

A knock on the door saved both women from having to continue the conversation any further.

“Come in,” Sarah called out.

“Got your water mom,” Matthew came through the door with a bucket in each hand.

“Son, you are a complete godsend! Every muscle in my body needs this!” his mother replied.

Sarah walked to the far end of the large bedroom and pulled back the heavy curtains that led to a small alcove. From where she lay, Devlin took in the site of a large porcelain and brass tub. Matthew began pouring the buckets of water into the tub, as Sarah poured a small amount of liquid into the steaming water. Instantly the room was filled with the fresh scent of sandalwood.

Dev let out a low whistle at the sight of the tub.

“I haven’t seen a tub like that since–” she faltered, halting in mid sentence.

Sarah had her back to the rider and smiled. She knew the only other place within a hundred miles of them, that had a tub like this, was in town at Ellen’s place. She didn’t smile from the knowledge that the beautiful rider had visited Ellen’s establishment, but more so because Devlin had stopped herself, embarrassed at Sarah’s reaction. Oh, Dev…if you only knew. Then Sarah’s smile seemed to disappear at the thought of the dark-haired woman experiencing the favors of the girls at Ellen’s. Did Devlin kiss them…touch them as she had Sarah last night? The young woman didn’t quite understand what she was experiencing, but it felt a lot like…jealousy.

Matt poured the last bucket in and turned, shaking Sarah from her thoughts. He grinned at the rider as he left to get more water.

Devlin took in the large bruise Matthew was sporting over his right eye.

“How’d he get that shiner?” Dev asked Sarah.

Sarah didn’t want to make the rider feel any worse, but she didn’t want to lie to her either.

“He held you down last night while I took the bullet out of you.” Was Sarah’s only reply.

A look of pain settled on Devlin’s face and she quietly watched as the boy made half a dozen more trips before he had filled the large tub. He started to leave the room, but Dev called him back.

“Matt…” she had never used his name before and it sounded rather strange to the young boy’s ears.

“Pull up a seat,” she said, as he turned over the bucket in his hand and sat next to the bed. She stared at the boy for a long minute, unsure of how to begin.

“I got a kick like a mule, don’t I?” she gave him a lopsided grin and the boy smiled back, gingerly rubbing the area of the bruise.

“Sure do…never knew a woman could be that strong. You gonna be okay?” he asked.

“Yep…takes more’n one bullet to stop me.” Devlin sat with the boy for a few more minutes giving him instructions on which herd to pull in where. She also asked him to ride to his uncle’s ranch, giving him explicit orders on what to tell Mr. Winston and to get Hank’s help in bringing in the lost herd.

Once Matthew had gone Devlin’s eyes felt like lead and she could barely keep them open. Sarah came into the room with fresh bandages and the rider knew this wasn’t going to be good news.

“Dev, I want to take a look at your wound and change the bandages,” Sarah said as she sat down on the edge of the bed, next to the rider.

“It’s okay, I can do it,” Devlin said trying to stifle a yawn.

Sarah didn’t want to embarrass either of them further so she lifted the blanket at the middle of the rider’s body, leaving her body covered, except for the spot of her injury.

Devlin tried to grasp Sarah’s hand to stop the young woman’s progress, but the rider’s muscles had gone weak as she fought against the medicine.

“You waited till now because you knew I’d be too tired to fight you, didn’t you?” Devlin asked.

“Yep,” Sarah answered.

“Sarah…you are a sneaky, devilish woman…you remind me of me.” Devlin’s eyes closed wearily, but a broad smile stretched across her face.

Sarah removed the old bandages, examining the wound. The area was still red and swollen, but she couldn’t tell if it was because of the trauma of the surgery or an infection. Just when Sarah thought Devlin had fallen asleep; she heard a sharp intake of breath by the rider.

“I’m sorry if this hurts, Dev” Sarah said.

Devlin was suddenly having trouble with the proximity of the young woman’s hands. Sarah changed the cloth bandages, resting her hand lightly on the flat hollow of skin where the rider’s leg met her abdomen.

“You still have a slight fever,” Sarah remarked. “Your skin still feels pretty warm.”

You’re telling me! Devlin thought inside her sleep-fogged brain, hoping she hadn’t said that aloud. The rider closed her eyes tighter, fighting against the feel of Sarah’s hands attending to her just inches away from where the rider desperately wanted the young woman’s hands to be attending to her. Dev simply bit her lip until Sarah pulled the blanket back over her.

Sarah gave the woman a sip of water and gently brushed the hair off her face.

“Sarah…you saved my life last night, thank you,” Dev said. She took Sarah’s free hand in her own and held it as the young woman continued to stroke the rider’s forehead.

“I guess that makes us even, then.” Sarah replied in a whisper.

“Hhmmm?” Dev asked, her eyes closed, enjoying the young woman’s gentle touch.

“You saved my life the day you rode onto this ranch,” Sarah said softly. “Get some sleep, now,” she finished as she attempted to move away.

Devlin’s fingers tightened around the ones in her hand, pulling Sarah back.

The young woman smiled at the rider.

“Want me to stay till you fall asleep?” Sarah asked, renewing her gentle caresses on the rider’s face and brow.

Devlin felt herself slipping away as she nodded her head, once again feeling the gentling touch of the young woman’s hands. She knew she didn’t deserve this sort of kindness, but the medicine had lowered her reserve enough for her to ask for the soothing contact. She couldn’t remember if it was reality or a dream, when she felt cool lips press softly against her forehead and murmur sweet words of comfort.

Devlin ran a fever on and off for the next three days, causing her body’s delay in the healing process. Sarah cared for the dark-haired woman during that time, feeding, bathing, and offering strong arms to hold the woman. Sarah knew that if the rider had been completely aware of what was going on around her, she would have never let the young woman hold her as she did. As it turned out, during the times when Devlin thrashed about in a fever, the only thing to calm the beautiful woman had been for Sarah to open her arms, the rider snuggling into the caring embrace.

Hannah stomped into the bedroom; the rider opened one eye to look down at the tiny creature. The little girl was clad only in her cotton slip and had a major pout going, her small arms folded against her chest.

Dev couldn’t help the smile that found it’s way to her face.

“What’s this all about, Princess?” The rider asked.

“I hate naps!”

“Me too,” the rider agreed just as Sarah entered the room.

“Hannah Marie, what are you doing in here?” Sarah exclaimed.

Children can be some of the best liars and the fastest thinkers around. Without batting an eye, Hannah jumped onto the covers with Devlin, curling herself in a ball into the crook of the rider’s arm.

“Devlin wanted me to take a nap with her,” she said convincingly.

“Oh, she did, did she?” Sarah looked at her daughter and then at the rider, who gestured to let the young girl stay.

Sarah laid a gentle hand on the rider’s forehead, happy about the fact that she was cool to the touch, and that her eyes no longer held their fever induced haze.

“Am I all better, mom?” Devlin’s sarcasm was not lost on the young woman.

“Very funny,” she replied.

“Do me a favor and load my guns,” Devlin indicated the pistols that Sarah kept on the bedside table, close to the rider.

“What for?” Sarah asked, perplexed.

“Because if you don’t let me up soon, to at least go to the outhouse by myself, instead of using that thing” she indicated the chamber pot that sat on the floor, then she covered Hannah’s ears with both of her hands, “I’m going to shoot myself!”

Sarah simply laughed at the rider.

“Allright then ladies…get some sleep,” Sarah said quietly, pulling the curtains to darken the room.

“Good to see you again, Mrs. Tolliver.” Hank said, extending his hand.

“You too, Mr. Sutton,” Sarah returned the handshake. “Thank you for helping Matt bring that herd in.”

“Well, Mrs. Tolliver, I figured out pretty quick that Matt here could have done it by himself, but I was glad to oblige. I figure he must have had a good teacher.”

They both knew the huge man was referring to Devlin.

“How’s Dev doing?” He said seriously.

“She had a pretty rough time for a while fighting off an infection, but I think all she has to do now is let her body heal. That is, of course, provided I can force her to rest any longer.” Sarah laughed.

Hank joined in the woman’s laughter, realizing she had an uphill battle caring for his friend.

“Keepin’ her down’s kinda like climbin’ a greased pole, huh?” He grinned.

“Why don’t we take a peek and see if she’s awake…I know she wants to talk to you about what happened.” Sarah said, moving toward the bedroom, Hank following behind.

Sarah quietly opened the bedroom door and the sight that met her, touched her heart like no other. Devlin was lying on her back, her long body stretched across the large bed, sound asleep. Curled into a little ball, her head on the rider’s shoulder, was Hannah, Devlin’s arm wrapped protectively around the tiny figure.

Sarah and Hank both backed out of the room without a sound. Neither of them spoke until they were outside of the house again.

“Well, guess if I didn’t see that with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.” Smiled the rider. “Probably best if you don’t tell Dev I saw her that way, if ya know what I mean.”

Sarah smiled back at the rider. “I agree…it seems that allowing others see her when she’s vulnerable, isn’t one of those many skills she raves about.”

Hank pulled the reins over his horse’s neck and prepared to mount before reaching out to shake Sarah’s hand.

“You’re a special woman, Mrs. Tolliver. Don’t bother arguing with me,” he added when Sarah opened her mouth to speak, ” ’cause we both know that Devlin wouldn’t let herself be taken care of by just anybody. This is only the third time in her life I’ve ever known her to accept help from somebody else. That kind of trust don’t come easy to her.”

“She’s told me about her time with the Choctaw, and of course there’s now…when was the third?” Sarah asked.

“That’s when she and I met,” Hank replied, then proceeded to tell Sarah the story of how he met and cared for the wounded outlaw. He left out the part about why Devlin had been attacked by her own men. He didn’t feel completely comfortable talking about his friend without her knowledge. He did tell her how much he had come to care for the woman after that.

“You two became…lovers, then?” Sarah asked, not really understanding why she felt such trepidation in hearing the answer.

Hank watched the young woman’s face, and in that instant he knew. Perhaps it was the way her head lowered as she waited for the answer, or the way her green eyes turned just a little greener. Envy, little one? You don’t even know it yourself yet, do you? Boy, when you two figure it out, there’s gonna be a whole mess of fireworks!

“No, ma’am,” Hank answered. Then he decided to put his trust in this special woman. “Dev’s not exactly my type.”

“Not your type? A beautiful, strong woman…not your type?” Sarah said with astonishment.

“Well, you see…the key word there is woman,” Hank said, hoping she would understand without him having to elaborate any further.

“Oh,” Sarah said, not understanding. She and the rider just stared at each other for a long moment.

“Ohhhhh!” Sarah said as full realization hit her.

Then the young woman smiled at the rider. She wanted to put him at ease, but she was also feeling something else, something that actually made her happy to hear that Devlin and Hank weren’t involved that way.

“Course, I’d be real obliged if you weren’t to pass that on, Mrs. Tolliver…especially to your uncle.”

Sarah grasped the large man’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“I understand, please don’t worry about that.”

They warmly shook hands and Hank promised he would ride back at the end of the week to check up on their patient. Sarah watched as the man rode away, then she walked past the house toward the vegetable garden. Bending down to pull some errant weeds out of the soft earth, Sarah thought about what Hank had told her about himself. It didn’t matter to her one way or another how others lived their lives, as long as they afforded her the same consideration. She mulled over the way she felt when she thought Devlin and Hank had been involved. Wasn’t it the same feeling that tugged at her this morning, as her mind visualized Devlin at Ellen’s place? Am I jealous?

She stopped and looked up from her task as she pondered the words. No, no, no…this isn’t happening. Then Sarah remembered Devlin’s hand pressing her own against the wounded woman’s breast, the way the small area of hardened flesh felt under her fingertips. The memory was enough to cause a heat within her body that made itself known right between her legs.

Then there was the necklace. Ever since the evening she put the stone on she had indeed had the most vivid dreams. Hadn’t Devlin said that the Choctaw believed if you were given a Teklia stone as a gift, you would dream of your heart’s desire? Every night since then, Sarah had dreamed of the beautiful, dark-haired rider. Some of the dreams were quite innocent, but most of them ended just before Devlin would touch Sarah the way the young woman wanted the rider to touch her. Actually I don’t even know if that’s possible!

Then there were the words Devlin had whispered in her ear… Oh, god, woman…I want you…evidently the rider thought enjoying that kind of pleasure with another woman was very possible!

Then there was the kiss.

By this time Sarah was washing her face and hands outside the back of the house. She wiped them dry on the coarse towel she had set there earlier. Sarah, come to your senses. This is another woman we’re talking about here…your friend! A wild, beautiful woman trying just as hard as you to ride away from her past. Oh God, am I thinking with my body here? Yes, she obviously enjoys women in her bed, but you don’t…do you?

This is ridiculous! She doesn’t want you that way, Sarah! Even if she DID like women, and she DID kiss you, it was only because she was dead drunk. She didn’t even remember doing it the next morning. Let’s face it…a widow with two children is hardly the type for a six-foot, dark haired, blue eyed rider.

Tears filled Sarah’s eyes, spilling onto her cheeks. She rushed away from the house and stood alone on the prairie as the sobs shook her small frame, leaving her spent and shaking.

Might as well face it…if you’re waiting for an ex-outlaw to give you her heart, you’re going to be alone for a very long time.

When she returned to the house, she silently made her way into the bedroom. Hannah and the rider still lay sleeping on the bed, Devlin having successfully kicked most of the blankets off her legs. Sarah splashed cool water on her face, then turned to replace the covers onto the 2 sleeping forms.

Devlin slept in a pale blue shirt Sarah had provided from the chest of clothes given to the rider. Sarah couldn’t help but take in the long legs and muscular thighs before she re-covered them with a blanket. The young woman tried to fight against more tears that were just beneath the surface. Suddenly a hand gripped her own.

Sarah looked up in surprise to the sleepy eyes of the rider.

“Are you playing mom again?” Devlin teased, whispering so as not to wake Hannah.

“Yes,” Sarah smiled back.

That was when Devlin noticed Sarah’s red, puffy eyes. It was obvious the woman had been crying, but Devlin had no idea why. It absolutely broke her heart to see the young woman unhappy.

“Sarah, are you allright?” She asked, pulling the young woman closer, until she sat on the bed.

“Yes,” she replied softly. “I guess I just get like this sometimes…I’m allright.”

Sarah gently caressed her sleeping daughter’s face, the youngster turning and snuggling into her mother’s warm embrace. Sarah gently rocked the child until she was certain she had drifted off again.

Devlin watched the woman and thought she’d never seen anything as loving as the way Sarah held her child. You hold Hannah…you held me when I had a fever, didn’t you? But, who holds you, Sarah?

As with most things in life, the things you don’t think about, the impulses you just act on without thinking of the consequences usually turn out to be the best. It was the same with Devlin’s next action. Acting on her heart’s desire alone, the rider wrapped two strong arms around Sarah and tenderly pulled the young woman against her chest. She never felt any hesitation as the young woman let herself be enveloped by the heartfelt embrace.

The rider’s shoulder under her head felt so good to Sarah, she could literally feel the nerves that had been wrung taut by the day’s emotions, start to let go and relax. Hannah wriggled herself until she was lying in the laps of both women, a child’s soft snore coming from her parted lips. Sarah and Devlin looked at one another and had to stifle their laughter.

“This girl could sleep through a twister! And, if you even think about saying she takes after her mother, I’ll shoot you myself, Devlin Brown!” Sarah whispered.

Sarah let herself relax in Devlin’s arms. The rider’s hand stroking her hair had a calming effect, until she too slept as soundly as her daughter did.

Dev hated the fact that it took Sarah’s sadness to be able to hold the young woman in her arms this way. God, she feels so good. The rider thought to herself, burrowing her face into the sweet smell of Sarah’s soft hair. I’ve never been in love like this Sarah. I never wanted to give anything to anyone…I only knew how to take, but with you it’s so different. I feel guilty taking, when all I want to do is give to you, my love. Happiness, pleasure, love…only for you, Sarah.

Sarah slept deeply and the tiny snore that sounded just like Hannah’s, caused the rider to smile against the young woman’s hair. Looking down into the beautiful face Devlin felt herself losing the battle to kiss the lips of the very desirable woman in her arms. She carefully leaned in and brushed her lips against the soft, full ones of the young woman. A tear escaped from the rider’s eye as she realized Sarah only considered her a friend, and the stolen kiss would be the only one to be shared between the two of them.

Might as well face it…if you’re waiting for a lady like this to give you her heart, you’re going to be alone for a very long time.

Dev fidgeted in the chair as she tried to find a comfortable position. The combination of the bullet in her side and fighting off the infection for a week had left her sore and physically drained. Today, Sarah had Matthew fill the brass tub and Devlin was able to have her first real bath in she didn’t remember how long. It felt good to the rider to be clean and put on fresh clothes, but she hated to admit she needed Sarah’s help to get her boots on. She relented, even leaning heavily on the young woman as she took her first steps out into the next room.

Hannah was sitting on the floor, a slate and a piece of chalk in her hand. She smiled brightly up at the rider. Dev never seemed able to keep a smile off of her face when this small bundle of energy was around. Matthew sat at the kitchen table, a similar slate filled with sums in front of him.

“Are you going to school too, Dev?” Hannah asked. “I’m learning to read.”

Sarah noticed a strange look pass across the rider’s face, a look bordering on panic. She dismissed it as a look of pain, noting the way the tall woman fidgeted in her chair.

“Hannah, pay attention to what you’re doing and let Dev rest.” Sarah urged her daughter.

“I thought maybe Dev wants to learn to read too,” the little girl looked up at her mother.

“Don’t be silly,” Matthew said to his sister, “grown ups already know how to read.”

“Matthew, please don’t call your sister, silly…now, both of you get back to work.”

Sarah was going to roll her eyes in a ‘why me’ gesture at Devlin, but the rider had her head bowed staring directly at her boots. Her knuckles where white as they gripped the arms of the chair. At first Sarah thought the woman was experiencing a wave of pain, but Devlin ran her hands through her dark mane and looked up into Sarah’s eyes. The rider gave a small smile, but it wasn’t the smile the rider usually reserved for the young woman. Sarah thought it looked like a smile filled with apology, and she saw a definite touch of pain in those blue eyes. When the truth dawned on Sarah, she only wished she could do something to make the rider feel more at ease. The only thing to do would be to create the kind of environment where Dev would feel comfortable asking for help.

Nearly a candlemark later and Matthew was still having problems with the sums he was attempting.

“No, honey…look, this number is multiplied by this number,” Sarah indicated the problem on a large slate of her own.

“I can’t do it,” Matt said in frustration. “There’s too many numbers! Who knows what five hundred multiplied by three hundred twenty five is anyway.”

“One hundred sixty-two thousand, five hundred,” Dev answered quickly.

Everyone looked up at the rider and she sunk a little lower in her chair

“Hey, do that again, Dev.” Matt asked.

Sarah gave the rider some more problems and she solved them all in her head in heartbeats. Sarah could barely write the whole figure on the slate before Devlin had the answer. The rider would be tapping her thumb against her fingers and suddenly come up with the answer.

“Dev, that is absolutely amazing…is it a trick?” Sarah questioned.

“Kind of,” Dev replied, appearing to be flattered and embarrassed at the same time. “A ways back I traveled with a guy who ran a traveling medicine show. He taught me how to do it.”

“Can you teach me, Dev?” Matthew asked. “Can she mom?”

“It’s not really learnin’ when you do it that way, Matt.” Devlin replied.

“Nonsense. Of course it is.” Sarah interjected. “I’d rather you learn to do it Devlin’s way and get it right than spend day after day doing it my way, and never grasping it. That is, provided Dev wants to teach us.” Sarah smiled as she included herself in the group.

Dev smiled her usual smile again, amazed that she would know something about schooling that she could teach them.

Devlin couldn’t remember being this tired and worn out in a long time. Guess every year older I get, makes it a little harder to come back from this kind of stuff, she thought as Sarah came over to help her out of her chair. The rider had dozed off at sometime during the day; the next thing she knew Sarah was waking her up for dinner. It was a testament to how safe and relaxed the rider felt here, that she was able to sleep without one ear open. She could only pray to the Spirits above that no trouble would pass their way until she was physically able to protect Sarah and the children.

Dev smiled wryly to herself at how Sarah would glare at her if she knew the rider thought about her as something to protect. How independent you are, Sarah…maybe that’s why I love you so much.

The rider had to lean on the small woman so as not to put too much weight on her injured side. Earlier, when she’d tried to stand by herself, she nearly dropped to one knee from the pain.

“Sarah, I can go out to the bunkhouse, I don’t want you to have to sleep with Hannah anymore.”

“Dev, you can barely walk by yourself. What if something happened and you needed help in the middle of the night? I’d never even know…besides, I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep all night, even in this big bed, because I’d be worrying about you.” Sarah replied with a slight smile.

Devlin let herself be led to the young woman’s bedroom, allowing Sarah to assist in lowering her body with a slight groan onto the edge of the bed. To Sarah’s eyes, Dev still looked like she was going to get up and bolt, the minute the young woman’s back was turned.

“Devlin you’re such a no nonsense, sensible woman…please, be sensible now, not noble. Please, for me?” Sarah pleaded.

It was the last two words of the woman’s plea that snared the rider. For me? Sarah, I would do anything for you. So, the rider nodded her head and Sarah left her with a few moments of privacy to undress.

When Sarah returned, Dev had changed into the shirt she slept in, and slipped under the covers of the large four poster bed. The young woman had pulled on a nightgown and wore a simple cotton robe over it, tied at the waist. She sat down at the small vanity and began to pull the braids from her hair. The young woman usually kept the front of her long hair braided and pulled back to keep it off her face, letting the mane at the back of her head fall free.

Dev thought that there must be no more beautiful sight on this earth, as the one she was watching right now. Sarah slowly ran a brush through long locks the color of harvest wheat. When she got up she walked over and sat on the edge of the bed, tucking her slim legs underneath her.

“Did you want me to read tonight?” She asked, reaching for a book she kept on the bed table. While the rider had been confined to her bed, Sarah had made a habit of reading to the injured woman from The Count of Monte Cristo. The rider seemed to enjoy the story immensely, but tonight she nodded her head sadly.

“You don’t have to read to me, Sarah” Dev said.

“I’m sorry, you should have said something sooner…I thought you were enjoying the story.” Sarah replied.

“No, it’s not that, it’s…just…” Dev took the book from the smaller woman’s grasp and returned it to the bedside table. “You don’t have to read to me.” The rider finished, closing her eyes.

“You’ll finish it yourself, then?” Sarah asked sadly.

Dev opened her eyes, eyes that were suddenly filled with tears. When the tears began to spill onto her cheek, she raised her eyes to the ceiling, willing them to stop altogether.

“I think we both know that’s not going to happen,” Dev answered, realizing that Sarah already knew her secret.

“Dev, I could he–” Sarah was abruptly cut off.

“No. Sarah, please…don’t.” Dev said, cursing herself because now the tears were falling in earnest and it seemed she could do nothing to stop them. She couldn’t even run.

“I don’t want pity…or charity, especially from you,” Dev whispered.

“Is that why you think I want to help you…out of pity?” Sarah asked as she reached up to brush the tears from the rider’s beautiful face.

Dev brusquely turned her head away from the young woman’s touch, unable to control her own feelings of frustration.

“I didn’t offer to help you because I felt sorry for you, Dev. I did it because that’s what you do for someone when you care about them, when they’re as close to you as your own sister…when you love them just as much as your own family. I know it must be embarrassing, not to mention frustrating for you. I just wanted to be able to help…not make you feel worse.” Sarah finished, tears in her own eyes.

“I’m sorry…I just get…I haven’t cried since I was seven,” The dark-haired woman admitted. The admission brought back a memory that Devlin had not visited in many years. The last time she ever cried was the day they brought her father’s body home.

His six foot six inch frame lay across a door as they carried him into the parlor. One bullet to his chest had been enough to take the lawman down. Dev remembered one of her father’s deputies lifting the small girl up in his arms and telling her what a hero the sheriff had been. That day she cried for her father, the man she adored. It was also the last day that she ever remembered crying.

Devlin could barely hold back the sobs that she desperately tried to catch in her throat. Sarah leaned back against the headboard of the bed and didn’t have to ask twice before the rider fell into the smaller woman’s embrace. Sarah’s heart broke for the woman who found herself unable to cry all these years.

“Please, Dev…you don’t have to be afraid of being yourself in front of me. When you care about someone, you love all of them…the good, the bad, and everything in between.” Sarah whispered against the rider’s temple.

The feel of Sarah’s lips against her skin and the strong, loving embrace of this woman with such an open heart, finally tore through what small defenses the rider had left. Her heart-breaking sobs were let loose as Sarah cradled and held the woman, all the while whispering tender words of friendship and comfort to the distressed woman.

Nearly an hour went by before Devlin had no tears left in her to cry. Still she lay in the smaller woman’s embrace, simply enjoying the closeness and Sarah’s tender caress. The young woman reached into the bedside table and produced a handkerchief that she handed to the rider.

“Thanks,” Dev said, sitting up against the headboard. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“I bet you feel better.” Sarah answered as she stood and wet a cloth from the pitcher on the vanity.

“Actually…I do,” Dev admitted with a sheepish grin, to the young woman.

Sarah handed the cool fabric to the rider and Dev wiped her face and eyes with it. Once Sarah sat down on the bed again, the rider reached past her to pick up the book that still lay on the bed. She handed it to the young woman seated next to her.

“Teach me. I mean, I know a enough to get me by, but…Sarah, can you teach me to read the kind of words that are in this book?” Devlin was afraid to look the young woman in the eye, but mustering her courage, she raised her head and looked into warm green eyes.

Sarah smiled and nodded at her friend.

“Can we start now?” Dev asked hesitantly.

Sarah was so tired and she knew the rider must only be going on adrenaline right now, but she didn’t want to take the chance that Dev might re-think the whole thing by morning. Again, she nodded her head.

“Your feet must be freezing. Here.” Dev said as she pulled the comforter back and wrapped it around Sarah.

Sparks of desire snapped around each woman’s libido, but throughout all of the powerful emotions, Devlin and Sarah knew they had each found a lifelong friend. So, the stronger feelings were pushed down and they snuggled under the covers like schoolgirls as they began an interesting journey.

Sarah woke with a start as Hannah jumped onto her stomach.

“Mama, I’m hungry,” the youngster whispered.

Sarah still had her eyes closed. “Hannah why are you whispering?” she found herself whispering back.

When she opened her eyes, Hannah had her pudgy fingers held up to pursed lips as she motioned for her mother to be quiet, then pointed next to them. Devlin’s still sleeping figure was curled up against Sarah’s side. Sarah was afraid to move. Her daughter smiled down at the rider like it was the most natural thing in the world for her mother to be sharing her bed with the dark-haired woman.

“Hannah–” Sarah whispered, starting to move her body off the bed.

The six-year-old couldn’t resist poking out her index finger and touching the sleeping rider’s lips. Just as she neared Devlin’s mouth, the rider’s white teeth gleamed in a huge crocodile-like grin, and with her eyes still closed, she snapped her teeth loudly at the offending finger.

Dev knew exactly how far away Hannah’s finger was and she had no intention of really biting the girl, but the youngster certainly didn’t know that. Hannah jumped back with a scream and lots of giggles…right into her mother, who was trying to ease herself out of bed without waking the rider.

Thirty pounds of squealing, laughing child came at Sarah. The force of the impact caused her to lose her balance and she was thrown off the bed. Devlin reached out and caught Hannah, keeping the girl from landing on top of her mother.

Sarah leaned up on both elbows at the same time as two heads peeked over the edge of the bed. Devlin and Hannah looked at each other.

“See what you made me do,” they said in unison.

Sarah picked herself up off the floor and glared at both her bedmates as they tried to hide their smiles at her predicament.

“You two wear me out…you definitely wear me out.” She said as she picked up her pillow and sailed it at the two heads that ducked the object easily. Sarah turned to leave the room and make breakfast, still shaking her head in exasperation. She stopped to watch Devlin tickle Hannah’s ears, and the girl resumed her peals of laughter. The moment would live forever in her memory, she couldn’t ever remember being this happy.

Devlin watched as Sarah left the room, resuming her attack on the precious bundle in her arms. Finally Hannah tired herself out and fell silent in the rider’s embrace. Devlin rocked the small girl and began to hum a tune that she remembered from her own childhood.

Her memory took her to last night as both women fell asleep while reading. The book had been pushed aside as the two women snuggled together in sleep. Dev remembered waking in the middle of the night, feeling Sarah’s warm body and deep, even breathing comfort her. She slipped her arm around the smaller woman’s waist and felt Sarah unconsciously press her back against the taller woman’s chest.

Then Dev’s eye caught the book that Sarah had replaced on the bedside table. She remembered the young woman’s words. She told me she loved me…that I was family. And, on some levels, it was more than the dark-haired rider could have hoped for.

“I guess that means you’re my family now, too, Princess.” Dev said as she kissed the top of the sleeping girl’s head

By the time the cool winds of fall swept across the Oklahoma prairie, Devlin had finished The Count of Monte Cristo. Except this time, Devlin read to Sarah every evening.

“Your Aunt Mattie is going to be here for a month, Matthew, I’m sure there will be plenty of time for you to visit with your cousins in that time.” Sarah said, looking in the back of the wagon at her son. Matthew and Hannah rode in the back as Devlin held the reins to the old wagon, Sarah sitting next to the rider. They were on their way to town, setting out just after the sun rose to prepare for the long ride. The sun was shining, but the cool October breeze blew up, adding a touch of color to Sarah’s cheeks. The cold never seemed to affect the rider, but she threw her leather jacket over the front bench of the wagon just in case.

Devlin held the reins comfortably in gloved hands. She had recuperated fully from her bullet wound, once again riding herd for the Double Deuce. Her injury and the time she spent with Sarah and the children had changed her somewhat. She was no longer the mysterious stranger they were in awe over. Now the dark-haired woman was a part of their family. She came in from the range at night and enjoyed dinner with the family, always taking the time to give Matt a math lesson and tell Hannah a bedtime story. The tall rider always finished the story by lifting the youngster high into her arms and placing a kiss on the top of her head.

After the children went to sleep Devlin and Sarah spent their evenings either talking in low voices long into the night, sitting by the fireplace, or Devlin read aloud from their latest literary choice. They were in the middle of Treasure Island, Devlin admitting that she loved the pirates in the story. Occasionally, Sarah fell asleep by the fire as Devlin read. The young woman enjoyed listening to the rich, low tone of her friend’s voice, sometimes becoming so relaxed; she drifted off into a heavy sleep. These were the times when the tall rider would lift the woman, gently in her arms and carry her into the bedroom and tuck her under the covers. Then the rider would go around the back of the house to her own large room, usually to spend the rest of the night thinking about the woman on the other side of the wall.

Dev listened while Sarah answered her children’s questions about their Aunt and the cousins they hadn’t seen in years. Sarah entertained the children with stories about herself and her sister Madeline and all the trouble they managed to get into on their Kentucky farm.

Sarah looked over at the dark-haired woman next to her.

“What are you smiling about today?” Sarah asked. She had noticed the grin on her friend’s face at breakfast, and saw it come and go all morning; usually it reappeared when the rider thought no one was watching.

“Can’t I be in a good mood every once in a while?” Dev asked, not taking her eyes off the road.

“Sure,” Sarah replied, “And, that would make this…what, the second time in how many years?”

Dev looked at the younger woman, arching an eyebrow, and growled under her breath.

Sarah was neither intimidated nor frightened of the ex outlaw’s famous look. She simply laughed and pulled the brim of the rider’s hat down over her eyes. Both women enjoyed their playful exchanges, but each, secretly longed for so much more. Neither was willing to take any measures to elevate their relationship any further, both of them feared losing the precious friendship that had developed between them over the last six months.

Once Sarah had begun talking again to the children, Dev’s secretive smile returned. The rider’s heart was lighter today than it had been since she admitted to herself; she really was in love with Sarah. Last night a lot of the rider’s last fears regarding her unrequited passion for Sarah, were put to rest. She felt like a woman who had suffered from a fever for the last six months, only to have the sickness break, her body still weak, but well on the way to recovery.

Devlin’s newfound reading skills came in handy when she started finding the tumbleweed notes again. The rider was now experiencing conflicting emotions surrounding the woman who wrote the notes, however. For so long, Devlin had pined away for the mysterious, heartbroken woman. Now, she had fallen hard for Sarah, but she couldn’t explain why she still felt herself drawn to the emotional outpourings of a stranger. It had begun to concern the rider, wondering if she was truly in love with her young employer. It had been so long since she’d felt anything remotely similar to love for a woman; she now began to doubt her own heart. Last night had sealed not only her love for the woman who now sat next to her, but also her destiny. Yesterday started out innocently enough.


Hank had an evening off and rode out to the Double Deuce to see if Dev wanted to make the trek into town for the evening, Hank had an itch to play cards. Of course, Hank had a feeling his friend would turn him down. Devlin made up an excuse about being too tired to chase skirts and having to get up at dawn to make a trip to town, but Hank understood. It seemed as if other women suddenly lost their appeal to the dark-haired rider, and when Sarah came outside to invite him to stay for dinner, he could certainly understand why his friend felt the way she did.

“You look happy and kinda sick at the same time, Dev…what’s up?” Hank asked, as if he didn’t know the answer to the question.

“I got something burnin’ me up inside.” Dev answered, her eyes looking back to the large cabin.

“You got tumbleweed fever is all,” her friend laughed, slapping her on the back.

“What…” Dev turned to face the man who stood next to her. She couldn’t believe he knew.

“Close your mouth and don’t look so surprised. Dev, half the cowhands in the Territory are passin’ around those little pieces of parchment. Some gal got it into her mind to torment the rider’s and she’s doin’ a good job too. If you went to Ellen’s anymore you’d know they got a huge pool goin’ about what the gal looks like…thin and tall, short and fat. Hell, chances are she’s married and has a screamin’ brat on each hip.”

Devlin just continued to stare at her tall friend. He looked the woman right in the eye and decided to push matters a little.

“Look, Dev…you got a good thing here, someone special in that girl,” he motioned with his head toward the cabin. “Don’t mess it up by dreamin’ you could ever find better ‘n her.”

Dev looked away and ran her fingers through her hair, replacing her hat and pulling it firmly onto her head. She felt an ache in her gut as she prepared to say the words aloud for the first time.

“She doesn’t belong to me…she’ll never belong to me that way.”

Hank shook his head and grinned. “Then you two are the only ones who don’t know it.” He smiled.

Dev found her friend’s humor infectious, even if it was at her expense. She punched the large rider in the arm and pulled him toward the house.

“If you think she’s special now, just wait till you taste her cooking!” She smirked.

Hank watched the way Dev interacted with the young woman and her children. He could hardly believe this was the same woman he had known for the past year. She smiled and let Sarah tease her, retaliating with some of her own good-natured jibes. It was as if they were their own little family. Then again, he also enjoyed watching the two women watch each other, when they thought no one was looking. It made his heart glad to see his usually quiet friend happy and content. The only female he couldn’t get to take to him was Hannah.

The youngster stayed as far away from the huge man as possible. She clung to her mother’s skirts through most of the evening or sat in Sarah’s lap, eyeing the stranger warily. When Sarah got up to serve dessert, Hank and Dev stood as the young woman left the table. When Hank looked down at the tiny child she sped right past her mother and, much to everyone’s surprise, leapt into Devlin’s lap. No amount of coaxing could talk the child into leaving the safety of the rider’s lap, as she buried her head into the rider’s shoulder, and Hank was absolutely amazed at how comfortable the tall woman appeared, for the rest of the night, with her arms wrapped around the youngster.

Later, Devlin and Sarah sat outside even though the night air had a chill to it. The rider surprised the young woman by bringing out two steaming cups of coffee. Then, the tall woman wrapped her own leather coat around the smaller woman’s shoulder.

“I’m surprised you didn’t want something with more of a bite to it than this,” Sarah said with a smile.

“Oh, this will keep you plenty warm,” the rider grinned back.

Sarah swallowed a sip of the hot liquid and exhaled a warm puff of air from her mouth. The rider took her by surprise with this one, as she felt the whiskey already begin to warm her through.

“Yea, you’re right.” She laughed at the woman next to her who simply rolled her eyes and whistled, feigning innocence.

The two talked as they always did, openly and honestly about anything that came to mind. Occasionally, snippets of their pasts would enter their conversations, but they usually kept their thoughts to the here and now. Devlin’s mind wandered off as she watched Sarah talk, but she was jerked back quickly at something she heard the young woman say.

“What did you say?” Dev asked, not sure she’s heard the woman correctly.

“I said I love being able to just sit here, staring at the stars and listening to the wind whisper through the trees…I love this place, Dev…this land. All that my heart desires is right here; I hold it in the palm of my hand, I’m glad I finally have someone to share it with.”

Sarah watched as the rider’s eyes went wide, her pupils dilating until there was only a thin ring of clear blue left. Oh God…why did I say that!

“I mean…I’m glad I have someone to share a beautiful night like this with.” Sarah quickly tried to recover.

Dev composed herself, but she wasn’t the same the rest of the night. She listened and talked with Sarah, but her mind was a million miles away from the conversation at hand. When the tall rider finally excused herself, Sarah cursed herself for revealing too much of her heart, sure that’s what had driven the rider to her silent behavior.

Dev, in the meantime, couldn’t get back to her room fast enough. She rifled through her meager belongings for the packet of tumbleweed notes. She quickly pulled the ribbon away and began rifling through the collection of paper for something in particular. Something that froze her in place as Sarah spoke to her. She had gone back on occasion to re-read the notes, her elevated reading skills bringing many of the notes into a new light for her. But, tonight she had heard something from Sarah that she couldn’t believe. Here’s the one, she thought to herself, pulling the note from the bundle.

No one has ever held my heart; not the way that I dream of…

Is it wrong to wish for a lover that can captivate my heart as well as my body?

Too long have I waited for the warrior of my soul…I am thinking that I will always be alone,

Staring at the stars and listening to the wind whisper through the trees…

All that my heart desires is right here; I hold it in the palm of my hand,

Still it means so little without someone to share it.

Shaking hands held the note out in front of her. The last three lines held the exact same words Sarah spoke to her tonight. She sat down on the floor, her back resting against the bed, pulling notes from the packet at random. Every dozen or so she would recognize the phrase as something Sarah had said… her Sarah.

Scenes and snatches of conversation rushed by the eyes of Devlin’s conscious mind. The rider pulled her hat from her head and ran her fingers through her ebony mane, her cerulean gaze staring straight ahead. Dev sat there as the notes, scattered in front of her, took life and she visualized Sarah speaking every word…her melodic voice whispering the secret desires of her heart. The scenes swirled around her mind like a whirlpool, spinning faster and faster, until they all converged at one point.

Sarah wrote the tumbleweed notes.

Dev remembered Kontonalah’s visit with the Indian trading party. Her grandfather told her they named Sarah into the Thunderbird Clan because Keeho had a vision…he spoke of a small Salmon always trying to swim upstream, moving against the current. The healer said Sarah sent messages to the Spirit’s on the wings of the wind. She laughed out loud as the old man’s words came back to her. They saw her tying a note to a piece of dried up sagebrush!

Dev laughed until she cried. Oh, Sarah…no wonder I fell in love with you at first sight, I’ve been dreaming of you for so long now. Such a beautiful woman…who is your dark warrior, Sarah? Open up your eyes and turn around, my love…I’m right here.

Dev pulled on the familiar blue shirt she became accustomed to wearing to bed, her boots and clothes piled neatly next to the bed, her guns under her pillow. She blew out the lamp and crossed her hands behind her head, a sly smile playing on her lips.

Tumbleweed fever…I’ll be damned, she thought to herself before rolling over to dream of her heart’s desire.


The unconventional family pulled their wagon up in front of the General Store. Sarah had quite a bit of supplies to lay in before the cold winds of winter hit, this way the young men in the store could load their supplies directly into the large buckboard. Dev jumped down and moved to help Sarah from the front of the wagon. The rider’s hands around Sarah’s slim hips caused the return of the reticent smile, it also brought a slight blush to the young woman’s cheeks.

After easily lifting Hannah from the back of the wagon, the rider silently followed the group into the store. She hadn’t been here in over a year, when she bought the length of green ribbon, and she felt slightly uncomfortable at the memory. The memories of this store weren’t about to get any better.

“Dev, lift me up.” Hannah requested of the tall rider.

“Lift you up, what?” Dev asked.

“Pleeeaase,” Hannah smiled up at the woman.

“That’s better,” she answered, lifting the girl up to look at the jars of candy on the counter.

“Which one, Princess?” Devlin asked.

Hannah pointed to a jar of cherry hard candies. Dev smiled… her favorite too.

After the rider purchased a small sack of the candies, she split them up between the two children and popped one into her own mouth.

“I don’t care if you got the money…we don’t serve your kind. Go on, git!” A young man behind the dry goods counter was raising his voice to a young Indian brave.

It must have been the brave’s family that waited in a far corner of the store. A pretty young woman and a small girl about Hannah’s age stood nervously in the shadows. Sarah smiled and walked over to the young woman, mother and child smiled back.

“Kantakiya,” Sarah said softly when she recognized the mark of the Thunderbird Clan on the young woman’s leather and bead belt.

“Kantakiya…oya whyay no,” the young woman returned the greeting.

Hannah had Devlin by the hand, pulling the tall rider over to where her mother stood. Hannah half-hid behind the dark-haired woman’s legs and smiled shyly at the tiny Indian girl. The youngster reached into the sack of candy Devlin had bought and pulled one out. Holding her hand out to the child, Hannah waited for the other girl to take the offered candy from her palm. The Indian girl looked afraid, but Devlin kneeled down until she was more along the height of the two youngsters and spoke to the frightened girl.

“Tay oh noa…koah say ohna,” she said as the young girl’s face brightened and she plucked the candy from Hannah’s palm. Both girls smiled and giggled at one another.

Sarah had gotten quite good at the language Devlin taught her. She conversed briefly with the young girl’s mother until the brave stood before her, eyeing her with suspicion. He quickly motioned with his hand for his wife to leave. Dev stood up to her full height and glared at the brave for his bad manners. Looking a little chagrined, the brave held out his arm to the rider, who accepted it.

“Kaya, Redhawk,” he said.

After a few moments, the Choctaw family left, leaving Sarah to wonder what had happened to make the brave so angry. When she questioned Devlin, the rider whispered so she wouldn’t be overheard by anyone in the store.

“They wanted to buy 10 blankets…they had the money, but the clerk wouldn’t sell him any.” Dev explained.

“Because they were Indians,” Sarah asked, shocked at the clerk’s behavior.

The rider nodded her head. Sarah’s old friend owned this store and she was surprised that anyone that worked for Mr. Grayson would act that way. With all Devlin had told her about the Choctaw people, Sarah knew she couldn’t talk the Indians into accepting the blankets from her, but she did begin to formulate a plan in her head.

Sarah walked up to the dry goods counter to the smiles of a number of the clerks. She did not live in town, but they all knew her. They also knew of the dark rider that stood slightly behind her, watching everything Sarah did through protective eyes. Most of them realized the young woman owned a prosperous ranch and when it came to the laying in of winter supplies she could make or break the store with a year’s worth of purchases. Most of them except the unfortunate young man who was also about to see the young woman’s temper firsthand.

“The wagon is right out front, please load this list of supplies, won’t you…Mr. Alexander?” Sarah asked sweetly, leaning in slightly to read the name sewn onto the young man’s jacket.

“Oh, and would you add 10 wool blankets to that list, Mr. Alexander?” Sarah added.

The young man frowned and looked at her warily. “Who are ya buying them for?” He snapped.

Sarah’s eyebrow raised and her smile froze in place. She took a step closer and placed her hands on the top of the counter.

Dev was beginning to enjoy herself now. Oh, man…somebody should have warned the kid, the rider thought to herself, upon seeing the green fire in Sarah’s eyes.

“I beg your pardon, young man?” Sarah said, the smile frozen in place, but a touch of ice was added to the sweet voice.

One of the girls behind the counter had slipped away and returned in an instant with a man in his fifties, who was as large around the middle as he was tall. Smart girl, Dev complimented the clerk as she recognized the owner of the store rushing out to intercept the loss of one of his best customers.

“Sarah!” He rushed to her and swept the small woman in his arms.

Sarah couldn’t help laughing at the older man, his smile was contagious and the young woman could feel her foul temper dissipating slightly.

“Franklin…it’s been too long, how is Marie?” Sarah asked.

“Mean as ever!” He laughed.

“I heard that, old man!” A woman as tiny as Sarah rushed from the backroom and threw her arms around Sarah. “You’re as pretty as ever,” the older woman complimented. “And, is this little Hannah…why she was just a little bit of nothin’ last time you were here, and Matthew…my what a strong young man you are.”

Introductions went around, and then Sarah did something that Dev wasn’t expecting.

“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Sarah looked behind her at Devlin, the rider suddenly realized she was actually introducing her.

“Dev…this is Frank and Marie Grayson…this is Devlin Brown.” Sarah made the introductions and watched as Frank grabbed Dev’s hand immediately. The rider looked a little shocked, but remembered to remove her hat when she greeted the portly man’s wife.

“Were you finding everything you need, Devlin?” Frank Grayson said in an attempt to begin casual conversation.

“Actually,” Dev paused to look at Sarah, “Sarah seems to be having a little trouble.”

Sarah looked into the blue gaze. Oh, we do make a good team, Dev. Then she placed a sweet smile on her face and laughed.

“Actually, Frank…I didn’t realize I had to justify all my purchases now. Is that a new policy?” She asked.

The shop owner looked at the clerk behind the counter.

“Donald, are you having a problem in filling Mrs. Tolliver’s order?” Frank asked in a severe tone.

Dev thought the young clerk should have known to leave well enough alone. You would have thought after seeing what close friends the Grayson’s were with the small blonde and her family, he would have simply apologized and went about his business. Some men never learn and at the rate young Donald was progressing, he wouldn’t make it far into his manhood before he would piss off someone with a set of guns around their waist.

“She was trying to buy blankets for those Indians I threw out of here earlier.” Donald sneered.

Franks eyes narrowed at the young man.

“Do you mean to tell me you turned away paying customers?” Frank asked.

“But, they were Indians–” he whined.

“Donald…” The older man said, his face losing its natural cordial look, “Get out of my store…you’re fired.”

The young clerk looked shocked, but made no attempt to leave, until Devlin raised her eyes and shot the boy a withering glance that just about buckled his knees. He scooped up his belongings and quickly left.

“Evie, do you think you can get Mrs. Tolliver’s order together for her?” Frank asked the young girl that had quickly thought to call the store owner in the first place.

“Yes, Mr. Grayson,” she smiled at Sarah.

“There you go, little one,” Frank said to Sarah with a smile, using the term of endearment that had become familiar to the young woman. “My new head clerk, Evie Sinclair will take care of everything for you.”

Evie gasped and thanked the older man before he returned to his back room, but not before he and his wife extracted a promise of dinner with Sarah and her family. Sarah smiled at the young girl.

“Congratulations on your promotion, Miss Sinclair.” The two women flashed conspiratorial smiles and Sarah took Hannah from Devlin’s arms, leading the youngster back toward the bolts of fabric.

It’s funny how actually getting to know a person does a world of good. The last time Dev was in the store, the clerks scattered like the rider was going to call them out for a gunfight at high noon. Now, she was here with Sarah, holding Hannah in her arms, and they got to see what the woman was really like. Up until that point, Dev was just a legendary outlaw, the kind of person you only read about in penny novels, not someone who could actually be nice to you. Suddenly one or two of the girls in the store realized how charming the rider’s smile really was, and how sparkling her eyes were. They could have saved themselves some trouble if they had only bothered to see that the charming smile and sparkling eyes were only meant for one woman.

Evie watched the rider as she checked items from Sarah’s list, assigning them to the young men to load the wagon.

“I saw you in here once before, you know,” she told Dev. The rider suddenly noticed it was getting warmer in the store as the young girl began to flirt, Sarah standing not five feet away, an amused look on her face.

“You bought a piece of ribbon…was it for your girlfriend?” Evie asked, looking curiously at Sarah.

Dev shook her head. Sarah, in the meantime, seemed to be enjoying the rider’s predicament. She glanced over to look at Dev and noticed the poor rider’s ears had nearly turned scarlet, the tall woman nervously looking over to where Sarah stood. She liked how absolutely cute Dev looked, trying to fend off the advances of the young girl.

“If you’re interested…I get off work soon,” Evie whispered, but not quiet enough for Sarah to miss.

A small stab of pain cut through Sarah as she eavesdropped, waiting to hear the rider’s answer.

“Sorry, darlin’,” the rider grinned, suddenly completely aware that Sarah was straining to listen to the conversation. “But, I’m spoken for.”

Sarah was glad she had her back to the dark-haired rider because she couldn’t stop the enormous smile that spread across her face.

They walked down the wood plank sidewalk in front of the shops, Hannah skipping ahead playfully.

“How about we go into the hotel for lunch?” Sarah asked. When she received an agreement from the other three members of the group, Matthew and Hannah ran ahead.

Sarah had begun to feel extremely guilty, not only for eavesdropping on Dev’s conversation with the shop girl, but also the fact that the rider probably turned her down because of Sarah and the children. It didn’t take much for her to realize she was absolutely and positively in love with this strong woman. The comprehension didn’t bother her near as much as wondering why she harbored no adverse reactions to the idea of being in love with another woman. She realized, too that she was probably the last thing on this earth Devlin had in mind for a lover.

“Dev…” Sarah began, “I don’t want you to think you have to baby-sit us all day. I heard that girl…I mean, if you want to go out with her…” Sarah just couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought.

Devlin watched Sarah out of the corner of her eye as the young woman struggled to find the right words. Are you just embarrassed, Sarah, or is it something more? Dev stopped walking and turned to look down at the young woman.

“Sarah, look at me,” the rider commanded, but not harshly.

Sarah stared into the blue depths, waiting to hear something she knew was going to break her heart. Meanwhile the dark-haired rider thought she saw the misty glint of a tear in the jade colored eyes. Devlin leaned in and gave her a lopsided grin.

“Sarah…I think my saddle is older than that girl. She’s not exactly what I’m looking for.” The rider finished.

I don’t suppose I could make myself be what you’re looking for, Sarah thought. Instead of voicing the sentiment she smiled as Dev took her arm and they moved to catch up with the children.

Entering the small hotel’s restaurant, they heard the sound of laughing male voices and Sarah noticed that her old friends from the barbecue were all gathered around a large round table. A number of the men looked up and caught sight of Sarah and the tall rider and turned back to their table, raucous laughter filling the restaurant.

“Matthew, Hannah…come here,” Sarah ordered softly. “I’ve changed my mind…wouldn’t some of Margie’s chocolate cake be better than vegetables?” She smiled.

Both children nodded their heads enthusiastically.

“You go on to the café and tell Margie I said for you to have a big piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk…Dev and I will be there shortly, allright?” She said, pressing two coins into Matt’s hand.

She watched the children leave and made her way over to the table of cattlemen, followed closely by the quiet rider. The silence was deafening once she reached their table.

“Gentlemen, don’t stop laughing on my account…that is,” she smiled like a tiger toying with its dinner, “unless you’re laughing on my account.”

At least a number of the men had the good graces to look embarrassed, but John Montgomery just puffed on his cigar, staring daggers at the rider, and openly leering at Sarah.

“Well, Mrs. Tolliver, you might as well know it now…what people think you’re doing on that ranch with a woman, and I use that term loosely, like her.” He finished by motioning toward Dev.

The rider had already moved closer to Sarah. She would have loved to take this clown out, but didn’t dare start a fight where Sarah might possibly get hurt.

“Come on, Sarah,” Dev urged the young woman to leave.

“No!” Sarah turned and turned to face Devlin.

The rider realized that Sarah’s temper was a force to be reckoned with, and the calmer she acted on the outside, the more she was losing it on the inside. Right now, she was so calm it was scaring the hell out of Devlin, and the dark-haired woman wanted to be nowhere near the receiving end of this one.

“Sit,” Sarah ordered Devlin.

Seeing the look in the young woman’s eye, feeling the heat radiating from her body and the slow, feral smile that spread across her lips, Devlin did what any other self-respecting man or woman would have done in her place.

She immediately sat.

“Now, Mr. Montgomery…about what I do on my ranch.” She stood behind the man and bent close to his ear. “Would you like to know what goes on?” Without waiting for an answer, she began whispering in the man’s ear.

The evil little grin that Sarah had on her face and the sudden change in the pallor of Montgomery’s complexion made Devlin groan to herself. Oh, god…by the smile on her face and the way he looks, you just know what that spitfire is telling him!

Sarah stood straight up, walking to a spot at the head of the table, her hands resting on the backs of two separate chairs.

“You may not like me very much, gentlemen…trust me, I’m not too terribly taken with any of you either, but we are all cattle ranchers. I’m not going anywhere, I’m here to stay…so get over it.”

“You could always sell…I’d be happy to offer you a fair price.” Montgomery said with an insincere smile.

“For the final time…you’ll never get my land, John Montgomery!” Sarah said vehemently.

“Well, maybe your uncle will feel differently,” he sneered.

Sarah laughed in the man’s face. “My uncle would die before he gave it up to someone like you,” she replied.

That can certainly be arranged, little miss high and mighty, Montgomery thought to himself.

Sarah walked toward Devlin, her hands beginning to shake slightly in anger.

Now, we’re ready to leave,” she said moving to the door, not bothering to see if the rider followed her. She knew she had to get out of there before the tears that burned the back of her eyes fell.

Dev jumped up and was in front of the angry young woman, pulling open the door ahead of her. The beautiful rider tipped her hat as Sarah passed by, and through the open door.

“Yes, ma’am,” Dev said in wonderment at the woman whose size most certainly did not reflect the strength she held within.

“Oooh, those…men!” Sarah said between clenched teeth, as she and Devlin walked toward the café. The young woman took notice of the rider’s silence and it unnerved her.

“Are you going to say anything at all?” She asked.

“Not on your life,” Dev replied, her white teeth gleaming in a broad smile.

That’s when Sarah had to laugh. She and Dev nearly fell into one another’s arms, they were laughing so hard, and it felt so good after the last few moments of tension. There were too many people and wagons bustling around on the busy dirt road to take notice of the two women, as Dev reached in to give a comforting hug to the smaller woman.

“Well, hello there, Stretch.” A female voice came from behind Sarah.

Dev’s heart sunk. Oh, great…I’m on a train and it’s going straight to hell!

Sarah released herself from the rider’s light embrace to find the source of the familiar voice.

“Ellen!” Sarah said with delight.

“Sarah?” The Madame looked thoroughly surprised.

Dev stared, open-mouthed, at the two women, the one she loved and the Madame of the local brothel…obvious friends. Train’s stopped…all out, it’s official…I’m in hell!

The two women threw their arms around one another and Dev tried to blend into the scenery. While she’d never actually enjoyed the pleasure of the Madame’s bed, she had flirted with her enough to be sufficiently embarrassed right about now.

Ellen was a good fifteen years older than her petite blonde friend was, but she still had the body of a working girl half her age. She now owned a prosperous business with ten girls in her house. Ellen no longer made her living on her back, but she did entertain certain men and women when the mood struck her.

“You look absolutely wonderful,” the older woman told Sarah. “I was so sorry to hear about Peter.”

“Thank you,” Sarah squeezed her friend’s hand. “You’re looking pretty relaxed yourself these days. The life of high finance must agree with you!” She smiled.

Hannah and Matt came running up to the women, the young girl had chocolate still smeared across her mouth and cheeks.

“Dev, lift me up.” Hannah hopped up and down, begging the tall rider.

“Lift you up, what?” Dev asked.

“Pleeeaase,” Hannah gave her a chocolate smile.

“That’s better,” she answered, lifting the girl up as the youngster giggled at their recurring joke.

Sarah pulled out a hankie and wiped the mess from her daughter’s face.

“Is this Hannah…and Matthew?” She looked at the boy as Dev flipped a slender finger at the brim of the boy’s hat. Matt quickly pulled the hat from his head and shook hands with the woman.

“You’re almost a grown man!” Ellen remarked.

“Oh, please, El…I’ve got enough trouble as it is.” Sarah rolled her eyes.

“And, precious, Hannah. I think you were taking a nap in a crib the last time I saw you,” she smiled at the youngster who beamed back.

“I don’t have ta sleep in a crib anymore. I sleep in my own bed, all by myself…except when I sleep with mama and Dev.”

Three pairs of adult eyes widened at the girl’s words. Ellen could barely believe what she’d heard, and was thinking she didn’t know her friend half as well as she thought. Sarah had lost her voice completely, but her eyes were on Devlin, watching the stunned expression on the rider’s face. The youngster was apparently just picking up steam in her conversation, when Devlin quickly slipped a hand over the girl’s mouth.

“Didn’t you say you wanted chocolate cake?” She released her hand.

“But, Dev…I already had some.”

“Let’s go get some more…come on, Matt.” Dev walked quickly back toward the café, the little chatterbox still in her arms.

“You could certainly do worse,” Ellen remarked as she and Sarah watched the rapidly retreating figure of the rider.

Sarah looked into her friend’s amused face and she felt the last few moments come crashing in on her. Tears formed in her eyes.

“Come on, girl…you definitely look like you need a drink.” Ellen pulled an arm around the smaller woman’s shoulder and guided her in the direction of her establishment.

Sitting in a curtained off room away from the front parlor, Ellen poured each of them a generous portion of Kentucky Bourbon and left the bottle on the table. She sat and looked at her young friend, waiting for her to speak.

“What you heard Hannah say…that’s not exactly what happened.” She quickly explained how Dev had gotten shot and her recuperation. “We’re not together like that,” she finished, wiping an errant tear from her cheek.

“But, you want to be, don’t you?” Ellen asked gently, recognizing the pain in the young girl’s face.

“I don’t know how something like this could happen to me!” Sarah blurted out. “I’m a widow…I’ve been married…to a man. I have two children…this isn’t exactly what I had planned. El, I don’t understand any of the feelings I’m having for this woman. How could my heart…my body, just go and switch all the rules around like this?”

Ellen had heard the sentiment before, and she understood completely.

“Sarah…it’s like this…most every day of your life you have boiled potatoes with your dinner…day in day out, those potatoes are always boiled. Then one day, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, you have your potatoes fried. Some people will eventually go back to their boiled potatoes…some folks like to have them both ways, and some people end up realizing that this is the way they really wanted them all along. Remember one thing, kiddo,” the older woman lifted Sarah’s chin in a gentle grip, “the very best thing in this world is when you find someone who loves them, just the way that you do.

Sarah smiled at her friend and raised her glass to the woman. They touched glasses and Sarah began to confide in Ellen all that had transpired in the last six months.

Dev walked along the sidewalk with Hannah and Matthew. The rider watched Ellen and Sarah from the café window, her eyes registering complete surprise as she watched the two women walk into Ellen’s Place.

“Matt, you stay here and watch your sister…I’m going to get your mother. We won’t be too long.” Dev said.

“But, I want to go in too,” the boy pleaded. Pulling himself up to his full height, he tried to make his voice deeper, to the amusement of the rider.

“I’m old enough to go in there and not get in trouble.” Matt finished.

Dev let out a laugh and slapped the boy on the back in a friendly manner.

“Boy, I ain’t even old enough to go in there and not get in trouble!” Dev continued to laugh. “Stay here.”

When Dev walked into the front parlor, she knew this wasn’t going to be easy. She casually fought off the advances of two young girls and went in search of the brothel’s owner. Finally, she found Ellen handling a scuffle that broke out between two of the working girls.

“Where’s Sarah?” she asked the older woman.

“Come on, Stretch…in the back.”

Ellen pulled the curtain aside for Dev to step through and the dark-haired woman was met with the site of Sarah moving backward toward the rider, an amorous young man advancing on the young woman.

“Look, I really don’t work here,” Sarah was explaining as she continued to back toward the door.

The young man registered the newcomers before Sarah did, but she realized it herself when she ran out of room and backed into a wall of warm body. She knew in an instant that it was her rider; the comforting scent of leather and wood-smoke assailing her nostrils. That’s when she felt the vibration against her back.

Devlin felt Sarah’s body press against her chest, and all rational thought left her. The rider looked at the man, her blue gaze turning pale, and as cold as ice. He didn’t seem to be getting the message, taking one step closer to the small woman standing between the two riders. Dev’s involuntary response was the low growl that started deep in her chest.

Sarah had heard that sound before. When she was a little girl she stuck her hand too close to one of the family dogs, while he was enjoying a bone. The threatening growl coming from the tall rider behind her, sounded just like that dog’s snarl. Sarah knew in her heart that it meant the same thing now as it did back the…back off because I don’t understand the concept of sharing!

The young man was evidently a lot less stubborn than Sarah was. Whereas she teased the dog until she got bit, the man threw up his hands and took two steps back from Sarah.

“She ain’t worth fightin’ over, friend.” He drawled.

That’s where you’re wrong, Dev thought to herself.

“Are you allright?” The rider asked, once Ellen had taken the young man and introduced him to a more willing companion.

“I’m fine, thank you…again. You’re timing is impeccable.” She smiled brightly and Dev felt her knees go weak at the sight.

The two sat at the table, waiting for Ellen to reappear. Sarah poured the rider a drink and her blue eyes sparkled as the liquid slid down her throat. Grabbing the bottle she looked at the label, then back at Sarah, one eyebrow nearly vanishing under ebony bangs.

“Well, I have to get it from somewhere,” Sarah explained with a wry smile.

Dev couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Sarah…how in the world do you know Ellen?”

“She’s just an old friend,” Sarah answered.

“Don’t let that pretty face fool ya, Stretch,” Ellen walked into the room again. “This one’s as shrewd a business woman as they come. When I didn’t have a dime left to keep this place going five years ago, do ya think those nice, respectable cattlemen would help me out. They used the place plenty, but didn’t want their wives to know it.” Ellen sat and poured herself another drink. She watched Devlin, who in turn, gazed at Sarah, the young woman’s eyes staring into her glass.

“Frankly it scared the hell out of me, this little slip of a girl waltzes into my place in broad daylight and plunks five hundred dollars in my lap. At first I thought she wanted to bed me, and I just knew I was going to have to pull all the tricks out of the bag to earn that kind of money!” Ellen laughed out loud.

Dev discovered Sarah’s face was turning a nice shade of pink.

Sarah was remembering the incident too. She mostly remembered how badly her knees were shaking when she walked in and asked to speak to the owner. Then, when she began to comprehend what the older woman thought she was going to have to do for the money, Sarah nearly fainted dead away. She hadn’t ever told Peter, but she expected he heard it from some of the men, if he did he never brought it up to her. It was her money and Peter always knew the young woman moved to the beat of an unconventional drummer. She would be damned if she would let those cattlemen run this woman out of town. So, she withdrew the money and handed it over to the stranger.

“She just gives me the money and says she don’t care what kind of business I’m in, but she’ll die before she gives in to Montgomery and his cronies. She told me I could pay it back when I could, if I wanted. Only trouble was…I never wanted to. Kind of liked havin’ this headstrong gal as my business partner.” Ellen smiled and reached over to place a hand on top of Sarah’s, receiving a sweet smile from her young friend.

“And, deep down…I don’t think Sarah wants me to, either. I think she kinda likes spittin’ in those fellas eyes this way. A respectable lady like her, ownin’ a whorehouse.”

Dev hadn’t said a word through the whole story. On the surface she seemed to be handling the news rather well, but underneath her world had just been rocked. It’s not bad news…definitely not a bad thing. God, the last thing I ever needed was a pristine virgin. This one may be a lady, but she’s got quite a set of jewels on her. The rider found that she liked that…she liked that a lot.

Sarah and Devlin said their good-byes to Ellen and made their way outside. As Hannah leapt into her mother’s arms, Ellen discreetly pulled the rider aside.

“You take good care of her, Stretch. You’ll never find anyone who could love you more.” Ellen said quickly to a surprised rider.

After securing the supplies and making everyone comfortable, Dev lead the wagon homeward. She liked the sound of that…home.

After an hour of silence, Sarah whispered to the rider. “Me, silent partner in a brothel… Is that the one you never saw coming?”

Without missing a beat, the rider replied. “Completely blind-sided me.”

Another few moments of silence ticked by before Sarah spoke again.

“Dev, does it bother you?” She asked.

Devlin smiled at the worried frown on Sarah’s face. Reaching over she placed a warm hand on the smaller one of her friend.

“No, Sarah…not one little bit.” Her smile grew larger. “It’s the kind of thing…” she lowered her voice to barely a whisper, “…I guess it’s the kind of thing only you would do for somebody. It makes me glad I’m–”

She wanted to say the words. It makes me glad that I’m in love with a woman like you. She couldn’t muster the courage for the action.

“…It makes me glad I’m your friend.” Dev finally said.

Sarah felt sure by the look in the azure eyes that Dev had wanted to say more, but the rider turned her eyes back toward the road, her smile returning when she felt Sarah’s arm slip through her own.

“Oh, I almost forgot, Dev. Do you think you can make it look like ten blankets were a gift from the Spirits to the young couple we met today?” Sarah asked.

“I’m sure I can,” the rider answered with a smile.

“I don’t like this idea, Sarah…not one bit,” the rider flashed electric blue eyes at the young woman.

Sarah was dressed in her customary riding outfit, which meant her son’s clothes. Devlin had saddled Telemachus, but had been arguing for the last half-hour with the stubborn blonde about taking the stallion out.

It’s not like I haven’t done this before, Dev. It’s only twenty-five miles to Uncle Art’s place. I’ll spend the day with the kids and Mattie and be home before the sun even sets.

Matthew and Hannah were spending the next three weeks at her Uncle’s ranch, playing and visiting with their cousins. Mattie had offered to come out to the Double Deuce, but Sarah missed her children desperately after a few days. The ride into her Uncle’s place was a pleasant one and she didn’t mind having the time alone, even though it would have been nice to have the beautiful rider along for company.

“I’ll come along with you,” Dev said nearing the end of her patience.

Sarah stopped and folded her arms across her chest. God, I love you woman, but don’t treat me like a child!

“And, just who would be running herd over this fine ranch of ours while you’re babysitting me?” Sarah asked.

Dev searched her brain, only to be unable to formulate a response to the young woman’s question. She opened her mouth a couple of times, but couldn’t get her tongue out of the way.

“Aaaarrrrgggh!” She groaned. Turning and stomping back into the house, the rider came out with one of the Winchester rifles from over the mantel.

“Allright, don’t shoot, I won’t go,” Sarah teased with her hands in the air.

Devlin just glared at the young woman and her sense of humor. The rider double checked the load of the rifle and slid it into its leather holster on the left side of the saddle, stuffing an extra box of cartridges into the saddlebag. She pulled one of her own six-guns from it’s holster and pulled the chamber open to assure herself there were indeed six bullets in the cartridge. Then she held the pistol out for Sarah to take.

“Dev–” Sarah started.

“Look, you should be honored at how much I trust you…I’ve never let anyone use one of my guns before.”


“It’s just a little added protection…keep it in your belt while you’re riding, like this…”

Dev,” Sarah said in a raised voice, her small hand stopping to wrap around the rider’s large, slender one.

“I don’t know how to shoot one of these.” Sarah said calmly.


“I said–”

“I heard you the first time, I just can’t believe it! You mean to tell me you can shoot the wings off a gnat at fifty yards with a rifle, but you’ve never fired a pistol before?” Dev asked, astonished.

Sarah gave a little lopsided grin and shrugged her shoulders.

“Okay,” Dev said half dragging the young woman out onto the open prairie, away from the house. “All you have to do is raise it, pull back the hammer, and shoot.” She demonstrated by slowly raising the gun, cocking the hammer with her thumb, and shooting a small branch off a nearby tree. Then she handed the pistol to Sarah.

Sarah did exactly as the rider instructed, Devlin was happy to see the young woman’s hand strong enough to pull back the hammer easily enough. Sarah fired the gun and an old tin can flew off a nearby post. She beamed up at the rider.

“Not bad, huh?”

“Sarah,” Devlin drawled, “did you mean to hit that can?”

“Um…no, actually I was shooting for the same tree you hit.” She grinned sheepishly, indicating the tree ten feet left of the post.

Dev shook her head and ran her hand across her face. Grasping the gun from the young woman’s hand, she reloaded it and stuck it in Sarah’s belt. Then the two walked back to where Telemachus was saddled.

“Let’s just hope that anyone that means to give you trouble will take one look at it and think you know how to use it.” Devlin said.

Sarah buttoned her jacket closed, turning toward the taller woman.

“If you expect me to kill anyone with this, he’s going to have to start trouble about ten feet to my left.” She joked.

A look of pain passed in front of the rider’s blue eyes. “Sarah,” she said, slowly reaching over and pulling open the young woman’s jacket, gently slipping the gun from her waist. “I don’t want you to have to kill anyone…ever.”

“Why?” Sarah asked, confused at the rider’s sudden change of heart.

“Because taking another person’s life changes things…it changes everything.” She replied, her eyes unable to meet Sarah’s.

Sarah tenderly squeezed the dark-haired woman’s forearm. “It’s allright, Dev…I’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

Devlin wanted to put her arms around this young woman and kiss her for all she was worth, but she just stood there, as Sarah turned to mount the large black horse. After Dev gave her a foot up, Sarah reached her hand down to grasp the rider’s.

“I’m not used to anyone riding herd over me either…guess I’m not used to someone worrying about me.”

“Get used to it,” Dev couldn’t help saying at the woman smiling down at her.

“Don’t forget to eat something…” Sarah called back before she was out of sight.

Dev paced back and forth outside the door to the large cabin. Massive black thunderheads were gathering over the north ridge, the sun had long since hidden behind the approaching storm, and lightning flashes were beginning to light up the sky in the distance.

Before the sun sets, she said…before the sun sets…she promised me. Did she leave her Uncle’s or is she still there? Dammit, Sarah! The rider continued to argue with herself. She didn’t want Sarah to think she was treating her like a helpless child, but she was beginning to get worried. The temperature had dropped considerably, the rider thought it was probably already snowing in the mountains. A chill that even had her warm blooded body shivering made up her mind. Screw your feelings about independence this time, Sarah!

The rider hastily threw a few supplies in her saddlebag and looped a lantern’s handle around the saddlehorn. She pulled her own heavy leather coat on and took off, hopefully to meet up with the prodigal ranch owner.

“Easy, boy,” Sarah said in gentle tones to the skittish stallion.

Another flash of lightning, closer than the last, had Sarah tossed around in the saddle, using all the upper body strength she could to keep the reins pulled tight and down from the horses head. The well-trained stallion did his best to follow his mistress’ commands, but the flashes of light were soon accompanied by ear splitting cracks of thunder. Telemachus reared once and Sarah fought him back down, jerking the bit roughly in a downward motion, struggling to keep her seat. The reins bit into the young woman’s frozen fingers as she cursed herself for not even bringing along her riding gloves.

Sarah fought the large horse for control and was still winning the battle, when a burst of lightning struck a tree to the right of the precariously rocky path they were on. Once again, Telemachus reared his front legs, Sarah snapping the reins around his neck down sharply. When the large horse’s front hooves came down, they landed on the edge of the path. Without the solid ground under his hooves, the stallion panicked and both of his front feet began sliding down the wall of crushed rock over the edge of the path. Sarah tried to desperately maneuver the horse’s head straight down the hill, but the panic-stricken animal kept trying to turn his body uphill, until the loosened gravel swept all four of his feet out from under him.

Sarah’s right foot became trapped in the stirrup, between the horse and the loose shards of rock. She couldn’t tell if the screams she heard belonged to her or the large horse, as the crushed gravel carried them down the hill, biting and tearing the flesh of both horse and rider. They finally skidded to a stop, chunks of dirt and rock still falling after them, beating into the unconscious woman’s body.

Part 3

Sarah couldn’t remember what pulled her awake first, the freezing cold, the rain pouring down in buckets on top of her, or the agonizing screams of the large, black stallion that still lay on top of her right leg. The light was gone as darkness enveloped them, the only source of illumination, the brilliant streaks of lightning across the sky. With every flash of light, the horse jerked himself upward, screaming in pain, not only pulling painfully on Sarah’s leg, but also causing them to slide further downhill.

Another flash of light and Sarah nearly screamed herself at the cause of the horse’s agony. His front legs were broken badly, the limbs bent at odd angles. The hoof on one foot had been torn away completely. The unfortunate animal jerked and twitched in pain as Sarah sobbed useless words of comfort to her longtime companion.

Blowing on her frozen fingers to bend them, she slid her Winchester from its long leather holster. With a pain in her heart that she’d never had to bear before, she leveled the barrel of the gun at the horse’s head.

The wind and the rain beat against the rider, straining her eyes in the darkness. She had unrolled her long duster she kept behind her saddle as soon as the rain began to come down, but even the leather jacket she wore underneath couldn’t quite keep out the sting of cold that seeped through.

A shattering sound like thunder caught the rider’s attention. It sounded more like the crack of a rifle, than the clap of thunder. She spurred Alto toward the distant sound.

Reaching a fallen tree that had evidently been struck by lightning, the rider knew Sarah could not have passed by the huge timber, which thoroughly blocked the path. She stopped and retraced her trail half a dozen times, but kept returning to the fallen tree. Dismounting, she walked along the edge of the path, searching for any signs of the young woman. She stopped at a spot on the edge of the rocky path that looked like gravel had been thrown about.

Grabbing the lantern from her saddle, she pushed her body back into a niche in the rock to light the kerosene lantern. Peering over the edge of the hill of crushed rock, Dev couldn’t be sure, but she thought she could make out a dark shadow.

“Sarah!” The rider screamed out.

“Dev?” She heard the weak reply.

Tossing her rope over an outcropping of rock, she looped it around her own waist and made her way down the unstable hill of gravel. The rider started out about six feet to one side of where she thought Sarah was, so she wouldn’t be pelting the woman with loose gravel on her way down.

“Sarah,” Dev’s voice cracked with emotion, but she didn’t even care.

She scrambled beside the fallen woman, but not before her weight shifted into the horse, causing the young woman to slide down the hill a few more feet.

“D–Dev,” Sarah started in a hoarse voice, “D–Don’t hang on to me! I–I had to shoot T–Telem–achus. M–My foot is c–caught in the stirrup. He’ll d–drag you d–down.”

Sarah was freezing and couldn’t stop shivering enough to keep her teeth from chattering together.

Devlin pulled the Winchester free of its holster and placed it gently on the rock next to Sarah. Next, she pulled the large bladed knife free from her boot. She slowly began to ease her hand between the dead horse and Sarah’s leg, stopping whenever she felt a shift in the horse’s weight. After long moments, she could feel Sarah’s booted foot, the stirrup snugly pressed up against her heel. The rain stung as it blew into her eyes, while she carefully sliced through the leather that held the young woman’s leg prisoner.

“It’s going to hurt when I pull, Sarah.” She warned the woman.

“I–It’s okay…I–I’m too c–cold t–to feel it.” Sarah replied shakily.

Dev held on to Sarah with one arm around her waist and another around her shoulder. The rider placed one boot on the stallion’s rump and gently pushed. It didn’t take much as the sliding rock carried the horse down the hill and off of Sarah’s leg.

Dev didn’t wait another minute. She wrapped her arms around the small woman and held her body tightly to her own.

“Dammit, Sarah, you scared the hell out of me…couldn’t you have listened to me…just once!” The frightened rider cursed.

“Hey, I–I’m h–having a b–bad day h–here t–too…poor T–Telem–machus.” Sarah looked down the hill into the darkness, then finally gave into the tears.

“I know…I know, I’m sorry.” The rider said sadly into her ear, holding her tighter. “Sarah, you’re freezing to death. Come on, hold onto me, we’ve got to get you somewhere so I can light a fire.”

Devlin held onto the small woman with strong arms, pulling the two of them up the wall of rock. The rain still fell, but the wind had eased up a bit and the rider was able to examine the young woman’s leg under the light of the lantern. It was a good thing she had on leather riding boots; they bore the brunt of the damage. Above the boot, however, at mid calf, Sarah’s pants had been torn away by the gravel. The tattered flesh was raw and bleeding up the rest of her leg, bits of dirt and gravel embedded deep in the cuts. The only reason she wasn’t in complete agony was because she was freezing cold and couldn’t feel anything yet.

Sarah could hardly move a muscle. She was sore, scared and frozen. Dev easily lifted the young woman into her arms and mounted Alto. She couldn’t get past the fallen tree without going the long way around and Sarah was hardly up to that. The young woman was tucked in the saddle in front of Devlin, the rider’s long duster wrapped around the two of them, but it was hours back to the cabin. She headed up away from the path and pulled Alto to a stop in front of a dense patch of cedar trees. The tops of the trees intertwined perfectly so that the ground underneath was soft and dry.

Once the rider dismounted, she sat Sarah on the ground, her back against the tree. The rider stripped Alto of saddlebags and saddle and tied the large mare under a stand of trees where she too could stay somewhat dry. Dev couldn’t get the tinder to catch the wet wood, so she poured some of the kerosene on the logs and they had a roaring blaze in no time. The kerosene made the fire smoke a bit more, but Dev didn’t think there would be anyone to trouble them on a night like this. Now she had to decide whether to work on Sarah’s leg first or get the woman out of her soaking clothes. She quickly opted for the young woman’s injured leg, knowing the extreme pain involved in cleaning a wound like this, and she wanted to get it over with before feeling began to seep into the injured woman’s limbs.

“Sarah…I need to clean your leg up. It’s going to hurt like nothing you’ve ever felt before, but it has to be done.”

Sarah’s eyes look like a frightened rabbit’s, but she nodded to the rider.

Dev laid her bedroll on the ground close to the fire. It was slightly damp, but she saved the dry inner blanket to wrap around Sarah once she removed her wet clothes. She turned Sarah’s ankle and poked and prodded until she was satisfied that the ankle wasn’t broken, then she removed the woman’s boots. Next came what was left of the young woman’s torn and shredded pants. Dev helped Sarah remove her soaked jacket and quickly wrapped the rider’s dry one around the small woman. Dev removed her own shirt and just as quickly removed the white cotton shirt she wore underneath. Sarah remembered thinking that if she hadn’t been in so much pain she would have been thoroughly enjoying the site of the naked rider.

Looking up at Sarah, Dev caught the woman staring at her body, and she nervously put her shirt back on.

“See, isn’t it a good thing you make me wear a clean shirt everyday?” The rider asked the woman as she began tearing the white cotton undergarment into thin strips. Poised over Sarah’s right leg, the young woman leaning on her left side, Dev lifted up a canteen of water.

“Ready?” She asked.

Sarah nodded and prepared for the worst. It didn’t seem too bad at first until the combination of the fire and the water brought back a little sensation to her previously unfeeling skin. The bad part started when the rider began to gently scrub the dirt and embedded gravel from the wounds. Sarah cried out, then started crying in earnest. About halfway through, the rider paused to let the young woman catch her breath.

Tears filled Dev’s own eyes at Sarah’s pain. She offered her a drink of water and stroked her wet hair, brushing it from her face. They stayed this way until the rider judged that the young woman’s breathing wasn’t too ragged anymore.

“Just a little bit more, honey,” Dev whispered against Sarah’s skin and the young woman nodded, the term of endearment that the rider let slip lost on her.

Once again Devlin began the laborious task of tending the wound. The dark-haired woman closed her ears to Sarah’s cries of pain, knowing that if she stopped now, she wouldn’t have the heart to begin again. By the time Dev had finished and was wrapping the makeshift strips of bandage around Sarah’s leg, the young woman’s tears had turned to the hiccup stage. The rider was proud of her, not knowing if she would have held up any better.

The rider didn’t even ask first, she quickly began removing the rest of the smaller woman’s clothing and draping them over some low hanging branches by the fire. If the circumstances hadn’t been so extreme and Dev hadn’t been terrified over what would happen to Sarah, she might have had time to enjoy the exquisite body, she carefully wrapped in a dry blanket. As it was, she could only think of the task at hand. Throwing a couple additional limbs on the already blazing fire, she lay down beside the shivering woman, rubbing her skin through the blanket to try and generate a little heat into the freezing woman’s frame.

Sarah’s teeth were chattering so loudly, Dev didn’t think the young woman would ever be able to relax. She got up and kicked a few stones from the fire where she had initially set them. Moving them with the toe of her boot, she placed the warm rocks under the edge of the bedroll that Sarah was laying on, then proceeded to lie down again on the other side of the shaking woman.

Dev reached under the blanket and rubbed her warm hands along the young woman’s arms and back.

“How c–can you b–be so warm?” Sarah asked, amazed at the rider’s fortitude.

“I’m just that way,” she smiled. “Does this bother you Sarah…being so, uhm, close?”

“I-I don’t w-want you t-to take this the wrong w–way, D-Dev, but right now I-I’d lay d-down with John M-Montgomery to g-get warm!”

Dev laughed and pulled the young woman so she was laying more on the rider’s body, than the blanket. At least she’s still got her sense of humor…and that fight in her…I have a feeling she’s gonna need them both.

If Dev would have had a choice, what she was about to do wouldn’t have happened, but something about desperate times rang through her head. She unbuttoned her own shirt, pulling it from her shoulders, and pressed Sarah’s chilled skin against her own warm flesh, which was growing more heated by the minute. The feel of Sarah’s breasts pressing into her own were doing dangerous things to Dev’s brain, but she could feel Sarah’s skin respond and begin to warm. Her hands continued to caress the young woman’s skin until Dev finally heard the chattering of Sarah’s teeth subside. It must have been her imagination, but she thought she felt the young woman’s breath quicken at her delicate touch. Finally she felt Sarah snuggle against her neck, the woman’s deep, even breathing tickling her throat.

Dev woke up in the middle of the night to a parched throat and sweat rolling off her body. She was burning up, but suddenly realized that it wasn’t her body that burned. She rolled Sarah off of her and onto the young woman’s own back.

“Sarah,” Dev watched as the young woman struggled to open her eyes, but it seemed as if she was unable to focus. Her eyes closed again and she mumbled a few words, Devlin was incapable of grasping what she said.

“Sarah, wake up…come on,” She stroked the unresponsive woman’s cheek, that burned with it’s own fire.

Even though Sarah’s body burned with fever, she shivered uncontrollably. Dev jumped up and began to pull her own clothes on, then replaced Sarah’s now dry clothes. This isn’t good, Sarah…this isn’t good at all.

Packing their blankets, she saddled Alto and started up further into the mountains, Sarah tucked safely in front of her. The rider feared for the unconscious woman, knowing her own healing skills wouldn’t be enough this time. It was too far for the young woman to travel back to town and a doctor, and there was only one place and one group of people Devlin trusted enough to care for this woman lying in her arms. She urged Alto on, into the hills of the Thunderbird Clan.

Dev knew they watched her as she navigated Alto through the hazardous rock formations that overlooked the Prairie. The mare wasn’t used to the extra burden, but she bore the additional weight, picking her way among the large boulders. The eyes that watched them were curious, but silent, following the two women all the way into the camp. Others would have been forced to stop before they were allowed to reach the encampment of the Thunderbird Clan, but the night watch knew Redhawk. The woman, who was as fierce a warrior as any brave among them, was the granddaughter of their chief, and earned the respect they showed her.

The sun was a short way from rising over the eastern hills as Devlin entered the silent camp. The rain and the wind had long since ceased, but the cold rush of air told her winter would soon be here. She dismounted, taking care not to jostle the woman in her arms. The tall rider bent to one knee, rubbing a handful of the red earth on the top of each of Sarah’s hands, then doing the same to her own hands. This was a sign of respect when entering the camp, to thank the Spirits for providing the earth beneath their feet.

Dev knew where she would go. Keeho was an excellent healer, but his visions had a tendency to frighten the rider. She had seen too many of them become truth to feel comfortable around the old man. If she needed a dream interpreted, she would seek out Keeho. What she needed now was someone who knew the ways of herbs and the human body, someone who could dream something pleasant. She headed straight for Tima’s teepee. It didn’t matter that she had painted new totems on it, Dev knew that Tima was a widow now and without a brave to provide for her, she would have to go back to her father’s fire. Being the widow of two brothers earned Tima the right to her own lodging, but it would always be set to the right of her father, Chief Kontonalah.

Dev knelt on the ground at the entrance to the tent.

“Tima, tiana ko…Tima…” The owners of a lodging had no obligation to answer anyone outside their tent in the middle of the night, but Dev hoped the term of endearment she used to call her Clan mother, tiana (smiling one), would prompt the woman to answer.

The woman that came to the entrance and pulled the deer hide flap aside was perhaps fifteen years older than the rider. Lines began to etch her brown skin around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes, but they were a testament to the fact that she smiled every chance she could. Her long black hair was swept through with gray, a blanket held closely around her shoulders. She smiled when she saw the tall woman’s face, but it quickly turned into a frown when she realized what her daughter held in her arms. Motioning the rider into her home, Dev quickly carried Sarah in and laid her out on the soft buffalo robe her mother gestured to.

The story spilled out of her mouth, half in English, half in the language of the Clan. Her eyes filled with tears as she told of the young woman’s injury. She sat back as her mother cupped a loving hand under her cheek and whispered soft words of comfort. It was so easy for Dev to be open around Tima, in that respect the older woman was exactly like Sarah. The two most important women in Dev’s life had the same honest and loving natures.

Tima knew, before her daughter even stepped foot into the camp, that she would be here soon. The older woman had a dream, and her dreams always came to pass. She pulled the blanket away and all the young woman’s clothing, pushing them in a pile. Her hands could feel the death that hung over the white woman. This will have to be where we start. She felt it on her daughter too, didn’t she? It was when she first touched her.

“Come here and kneel,” Tima commanded.

Dev quickly complied, trying to stare anywhere but at Sarah’s naked body, lying before her.

Tima ran her hands through the rider’s hair and across her arms.

“Have you killed recently?” There was no time for subtleties.

“It’s been a long while.” Dev answered. This seemed to surprise the older woman.

“You both have the feel of it on you,” Tima replied.

Dev’s mind raced back through her time with Sarah, and then it struck her.

“Telemachus…Sarah had to put her horse down, his legs were broke,” she explained.

Tima resumed her gentle caresses of the girl’s body. “Yes,” she muttered. “Burn this…all of it,” she pushed the pile of Sarah’s clothes and blanket toward her daughter. “Your clothes too…boots, all of it. We must remove this shima before he pulls your little Salmon away, too.

Devlin would have told most people they were insane and she wasn’t about to burn a twenty-dollar pair of boots, but this was Tima. All living creatures had a shima, and her mother felt the black stallion’sshima trying to take Sarah’s life to wherever Telemachus had passed over. Tima had the gift and when she displayed concern in her voice, then there was definitely something to worry about. Dev quickly stripped off every stitch of clothing she wore, including her hat and boots. Damn good thing I put my guns in my saddlebags.

Tima went into a dark recess in the teepee and brought out a large basket. Pulling the lid off, she reached in and unfolded a deerskin blanket, symbols of power and strength painted along the outside edges. She put this aside; she would need to cleanse the young woman first. She dug deeper and handed the buckskin outfit to her daughter.

Dev looked at the clothes she was being given and immediately recognized them, right down to the knee-high moccasin boots. Her adopted father, Tekola was a tall man; his clothes would fit the rider easily.

Tima gave careful instructions on how Devlin was to cleanse her body, first burning the clothes by the lake. Dev turned to go, not caring she was leaving the confines of the lodging completely naked. Most of these people had seen her naked at one time or another. Now, she looked back at Sarah, pain in her blue eyes, until Tima had to nearly push her from the tent.

“You must live, little Salmon…I would very much like to hear your tale of Redhawk,” Tima asked the unresponsive woman as she mixed herbs into a large bowl, “how does a little fish, catch such a fierce bird of prey, hmmm?”

Dev burned everything that Sarah came in contact with. Including the rider’s custom saddle. She wouldn’t take any chances with the young woman’s well being. Using the herbs Tima gave her, she washed her hair and body in the freezing lake water, and then proceeded to dress in the leathers her mother had given her. Aw, shit! I can’t believe I forgot about this.

The soft leather outfit was typical male dress. The pants Dev slipped her legs into were more like leggings that tied at the hips…nothing to cover the crotch, or backside. A beaded loincloth covered those parts and a decorative leather shirt pulled over her head. The shirt only covered her hips, the cold, early morning air hitting parts of her body that were used to being covered. The look didn’t bother her at all. She would simply look like every other Clan warrior over the age of maturity.

Dev paused at the entrance of the lodging.

“Tiana?” She asked permission of her mother to enter.

“Come,” the older woman commanded.

Tima sat next to Sarah, trying to coax the woman to drink one of her teas, but having little success. She looked up at her daughter and smiled broadly at the familiar sight of her beloved mate’s leathers.

“She will take it from you,” Tima said, holding out the wooden bowl.

“How do you know?” Dev asked, slipping an arm around Sarah’s shoulder to raise her head.

“A mother always knows her daughter’s heart…I know.” Tima replied cryptically.

Sarah opened her eyes and was sure she was dreaming. Devlin knelt by her side, dressed like an Indian brave. She wanted to reach out and touch the rider’s face, but Sarah couldn’t make the muscles in her hands and arms work. It almost felt like she was floating.

“You are so beautiful,” Sarah whispered instead.

Dev’s eyes sparkled and she could feel a hot flush rise to her face.

“Thank you,” she grinned.

“Dev, I’m so hot,” she complained trying to push the leather covering off of her fevered body.

The rider held the young woman’s hands to stop her.

“Sarah, I need you to drink some of this. It will help you get well.” Dev said, raising the bowl to the sick woman’s lips.

Sarah took a small sip and swallowed the sweet liquid.

“Where are we,” Sarah asked weakly.

“We’re in the village of the Thunderbird Clan, you kept asking me to bring you here, remember?” Dev replied as she encouraged the young woman to drink again.

Sarah turned her head toward the older woman. Tima offered her a smile that was filled with the light of the sun. Sarah’s questioning face turned again to the rider, the younger woman’s eyes appearing heavy as she struggled to keep them open.

“That’s Tima,” Dev introduced her mother.

“I like her smile,” Sarah whispered after taking another sip of the tea.

Dev pulled the young woman closer to her and gently kissed her forehead.

“If you call her tiana, she’ll smile even more for you.”

Dev realized Sarah had fallen asleep again. She tried to wake her, but Tima stilled her hand.

“She needs to rest before the next step.” Tima said.

Dev had no idea what the next step was to be, but she swore to herself, she would do anything to have her Sarah back.

As morning approached, Sarah’s fever burned hotter and she developed a cough that wracked her whole body. None of Tima’s medicines were able to stop the fever and chills that plagued the young woman, and when the terrible coughing began, Sarah’s weak body began to run out of strength quickly. The muscles in her torso ached from the constant hacking, until she could scarcely expand her chest to take a breath. Dev held the small woman in her arms, helping her to sit up when she would wake and the coughing fits would overtake her, but soon Sarah fell deeper into the fever and became completely unresponsive. Before long, her respirations came only in small gasps, as her lungs struggled to take in air.

All the rider could do was hold Sarah in her arms helplessly. A woman of action, Devlin felt more impotent with each passing moment. She could only watch as Sarah’s life slipped slowly away.

“Do you see her shima?” Dev asked her mother. The older woman sat close by, mixing together a new combination of herbs to try.

Tima looked up from her work and stared at the small woman wrapped in her daughter’s arms.

“Yes. It is thin, but her will is strong…but, sometimes one’s will alone cannot hold on to shima.” Tima replied, watching her daughter caress the young woman’s face and gently run her fingers through hair the color of sunlight.

“Does she know?” Tima asked.

Dev raised a confused face to her mother.

“That you love her,” the older woman continued.

“No.” The rider whispered, returning to gaze down at the flushed face of the woman who held her heart.

“Will you tell her?” Tima questioned further.

Dev ran her fingertips against the warm, smooth edge of Sarah’s cheek before answering.

“No…I–I can’t lose this…what we already have…I–I can’t take that chance,” she replied, forcing the sobs that threatened to break loose, back into her throat.

“That doesn’t sound like you Rhana…unwilling to take risk?” Tima said softly.

Dev smiled sadly at her mother, enjoying the way Tima’s pet name for her rolled off the older woman’s tongue.

“It’s different outside the Clan…Sarah is different…the white man doesn’t…they don’t accept it, women together.” Dev said brokenly, all the love in her heart making itself visible within her facial features. “I’ll just have to be happy with the way things are,” the rider murmured quietly.

“It’s been two days,” Dev nearly hissed as Tima placed a poultice on Sarah’s chest, then covered it with a rabbit skin.

The older woman worked slowly and methodically, not giving in to the same panic Devlin seemed to have developed, but she finally lost her patience with her daughter.

“Go…go outside,” Tima said sharply, pushing the rider from the tent. “Your worry will kill the girl!”

Tima turned her back on her daughter, but not before she caught the wounded look in Devlin’s eyes. She had not meant for her words to be so harsh, but her dreams last night made her irritable. More than irritable, she was frightened for her little Salmon. Last night as she slept, she watched as the young woman’s shima finally gave up and left her body. All the while, Devlin stood with her back to Sarah, ignoring her pleas. Tima knew the dream would become truth unless her daughter would listen to her own heart.

The rider slipped back into the lodging and watched as her mother sang and rocked Sarah in her arms. Now she felt as if her heart were breaking.

“Ko wantay ah noa, Tiana,” Devlin’s contrite head bowed to her mother, asking for forgiveness.

Tima lay the small woman’s body back onto the blankets, then turned and opened her arms for her daughter. She accepted Devlin’s apology and held the larger woman as Dev’s heartbreak turned into tears for her beloved Sarah. For a long time Dev lay cradled in the arms of her mother, until Tima finally broke the silence.

“She needs more help than I can give,” Tima started to say. “I have spoken with your grandfather…it is time to send up smoke.

Dev pulled away to look into her mother’s face.

“It is all we have left.” Tima finished.

Dev’s jaw tightened, the corded tendons in her neck twitching slightly. To send up smoke meant only one thing. The elders and healers would gather around the ailing individual’s family as they sent up the sacred smoke, along with their prayers. The smoke would alert the Great Spirit that they needed the Spirit’s help. The only problem was that Sarah had no family here…the closest thing she had to family was Devlin.

Tima watched her daughter war with herself as she realized what her mother was telling her. She understood what she was asking of Devlin, but it would be a test of her daughter’s commitment to Sarah, to see it the rider would acquiesce. Tima’s own heart remembered the pain the last time she made such a request of her daughter. Her mate, Tekola lay on his deathbed. Tima had begged Devlin to walk around the medicine wheel and send up the smoke with her, but the proud young woman refused, seemingly unable to kneel to man or Spirits, even in exchange for her father’s life.

Devlin stood and ran both hands through her raven hair. Her eyes darted nervously back and forth and she searched her brain for another way.

Tima had not meant to tell her daughter of her vision, but she saw Devlin teetering on the brink of indecision. The older woman would have to make her daughter look into her heart if Salmon’s shima were to be kept with them in the land of the living.

“I had a dream last night…about your little Salmon,” Tima finally admitted.

Devlin sat down again, next to her mother. “Why didn’t you tell me.”

“I’m telling you now,” Tima replied matter of factly. The older woman paused for a moment, Devlin’s blue eyes burning with questions. Tima told her daughter all she had dreamed, then sat back and watched as dark clouds of pain passed across Devlin’s face.

All Dev could do was look at Sarah, lying helpless on the ground. The rider understood the meaning of her mother’s dream easily enough. Dev was the only one who could offer up smoke on the young woman’s behalf, and it was the one thing the dark-haired woman couldn’t do.

Silent minutes passed until the rider stood and left the tent. “I can’t,” she whispered to her mother.

The rider sat among the jagged rocks, listening to the sound of the water falling into the deep pool below. This was where she would come and hide as a child. Although she had already killed a man by the time she had been adopted by Tima and Tekola, she was little more than a girl in her heart. Children’s cruel remarks can cut deep and many times Redhawk would go up to the rocks to get away and find what little peace in her soul was to be had.

What her mother asked of her, no what was expected of her, tore at her heart. Didn’t she admit that she would do anything for Sarah…didn’t she love her that much? How many times would she have to suffer through the death of someone she loved? How long had she waited for a woman to come into her life that was everything her Sarah was?

She remembered what it felt like living within the Clan…the first time she was able to look at a woman openly, the freedom she felt at not having to hide her feelings of appreciation for another woman’s beauty. Whereas the white man had called her an abomination, these people thought she was blessed. She quickly realized she wasn’t the only member of the Clan that had feelings like that for the same sex. The tribe looked at this as a gift, like being a healer, or a medicine woman. It wasn’t something everyone was called to do; therefore they considered it something special bestowed upon human beings from the Great Spirit.

When she grew older and left the Clan, she used sex as a tool, a weapon of power over the men she commanded. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t enjoyed herself, physically, but her release couldn’t be brought about unless she was in total control. Sex, for all intents and purposes, was a mere physical act…nothing more. The only emotion she allowed herself, was the thrilling feeling of her partner’s complete surrender, a sort of sexual victory…a conquest. To her brain, sentiments like love only made you weak. Because of this there were always things she never let men do to her, and in turn, acts she never performed on them. She would never bow or give up control to anyone. Back then, sex had all the pleasure of a written negotiation.

But, now there was Sarah. How she longed to love Sarah that way, to give herself up to the young blonde’s loving touch. Such a beautiful woman…such a proud spirit…what a passionate lover she would be, Devlin thought.

The dark-haired woman could scarcely hold the heartache in as she balled her slender hands into fists, throwing back her head she howled out her frustration to the sky. She let the tears come, holding her head in her hands. Sometimes looking into one’s heart can come at such a price. After all these years, the rider finally understood the union between emotion and sex. It had taken this tiny farm girl from Kentucky to give Dev back what the dark-haired rider had waited so long to find again…her soul.

“What good will smoke be, with no prayer to follow?” Keeho shook his head sadly to Tima.

Chief Kontonalah and the elders sat in a semi circle, the ring closed at one end by Sarah’s prone figure, the sound of her wheezing filling the tent. Kontonalah would have liked to speak to his granddaughter, but she was nowhere to be found. If Redhawk did not want to be found…she would not be.

A cold draft of air swept through the lodging as the deer hide flap was swept aside. The figure that entered caused a number of silent nods, and even a few low whispers, but it was Tima whose gray eyes misted over at the sight.

Devlin knelt before her grandfather in respect, the old man placing a gentle hand on her head. In turn, the rider knelt before each elder. When Dev knelt before her mother, Tima could barely form words; her pride in her daughter was so great. Dev looked anxiously at her mother and seemed to relax when the older woman nodded her approval. Finally the rider knelt before Keeho, the healer. The old man held out two small jars of paint, one red and one black. Dipping his index finger into one color and his middle finger in the other, he let his coated fingertips glide against the skin of the rider’s cheek, then he repeated the process on the other side.

Devlin stood before the small fire in the middle of the circle as a bundle of dried sage was carefully placed within the flames. Once the smoke started to rise in thin tendrils around the rider’s body, she drew it to her in cupped hands, washing it over her body, in a ritual act of cleansing.

Dev made her way to stand over Sarah. She would visualize the Thunderbird Clan’s interpretation of the Medicine Wheel in her mind. It was then that the rider performed the most difficult act of her life. Keeping her eyes on the face of the beautiful woman who had saved her life and her soul, she dropped to her knees. Raising her hands over her head, the palms facing each other, the rider bent and bowed to the earth three times. The third time her body bent over, she continued to lie against the ground, while the chants of the elders began.

Tima watched her young daughter through tear filled eyes. The woman, who would humble herself to neither man nor God, prostrated herself in the ultimate act of submission for the life of her soulmate.

Even as the elders behind her continued to sing and chant, Devlin had finished her prayers and made her way to Sarah. Sitting behind the young woman, the rider tenderly pulled the unconscious form into her lap, wrapping her strong arms around the still figure. Dev turned her face into the young woman’s hair and breathed in the scent of sage. The dried herb that was being burned permeated the air, and its pleasant odor clung to Sarah’s skin. The rider’s lips gently brushed along the heated skin of Sarah’s temple as she rocked the woman in her embrace.

Devlin had finally come to that illusive place in her life; the one her grandfather had talked about, where all points converged. Some people never came to that segment in their lives; some passed it by, never recognizing it for what it was. As the rider held the ill woman in her arms, she realized this was her time. Everything she ever knew, had ever felt became as nothing compared to what she was experiencing at this instant. Everyone and everything else in the tent disappeared into a shadow. There was only Sarah, Devlin’s love for the young woman, and the supplications of a dark warrior, whose prayers rose up on the wings of the sacred smoke.

Tima pulled the deerskin flap to one side and entered the large teepee. The heavy smell of healing herbs still hung in the air, immediately assaulting her nostrils. The older woman slept with relatives last night, leaving her daughter alone with her companion. Devlin still lay much as Tima had left her last night, her arms wrapped protectively around the small blonde woman, whose back was pulled tightly to the rider’s chest. It appeared as if both women still slept soundly.

Tima felt a sudden presence and when she turned, she noticed eyelashes fluttering open, displaying green eyes. The young woman unconsciously entwined her fingers with those of the rider’s that lay splayed across her abdomen. She leaned back against the rider’s chest ever so slightly, the tiniest bit of her mouth curling upward in a smile. Tima smiled at the young woman’s actions. Rhana should not have feared telling her.

Sarah suddenly became conscious of the older woman’s gaze, and her cheerful smile. Quickly disentangling her fingers from the rider’s hand, she smiled back at the woman.

“Our prayers were answered quickly,” Tima said, moving over and placing a hand against Sarah’s forehead. The young woman’s face felt cool to the touch and she breathed easy, no signs of the terrible cough left. Sarah struggled with her aching muscles to sit up.

Sarah’s Choctaw wasn’t perfect and even though she spoke in halting, unsure tones, Tima understood perfectly. Sarah surprised herself, by understanding most if not everything the other woman told her about the past few days.

Tima brought a waterskin and hot broth, both of which Sarah promptly made disappear. Devlin slept heavily through all of this.

“Tima…is there a place I can go to wash, to clean up? Between you and me, I feel like day old trash,” Sarah said shyly. Tima nodded quickly, her heart soared at the recovery the little blonde made seemingly overnight. Understanding the small woman’s need for modesty, she wrapped a soft robe of rabbit and fox skins around her and helped her to her feet. Sarah felt wobbly and unsure of her steps, but the older woman’s strength surprised her, and Sarah ended up leaning heavily upon Tima.

Tima went very slowly, wrapping a strong arm around Sarah’s waist. Sarah’s leg was a little sore, but the cuts had begun to heal nicely. A young woman of perhaps fourteen or fifteen ran up to the pair. She grinned at Sarah, beginning to ramble on about what an honor it was to meet her.

“Little Dove,” Tima scolded, “Let the poor girl get her feet under her first.

Little Dove looked heartbroken and Sarah couldn’t help but smile at the young girl. Why she thinks I’m something special, I’ll never know.

“It’s allright, Tima. It’s very nice to meet you Little Dove,” said in a halting tongue.

Little Dove wanted to meet this woman for herself. She had a teenage crush on Redhawk for two seasons; always hoping the tall warrior would notice her whenever the rider visited the camp. She had heard from older girls that the small stranger was Redhawk’s mate, and that the beautiful dark-haired woman had prayed and cried in anguish at the thought of losing her beloved. When the young girl saw the white woman’s smile and easy demeanor, she knew in an instant why the tall warrior had given her heart away to this stranger. And, as teenage hearts are fickle things, Little Dove switched allegiances and began to lose her heart to the small woman with the captivating green eyes.

Tima watched and knew Little Dove’s crush to be misplaced, but she said nothing, then she shook her head. Oh, to be so young again.

“Little Dove…you may do Salmon a service,” she began.

The actual word was favor, but Sarah couldn’t seem to translate the word and had to settle for service in her understanding of the Clan’s language.

“Salmon needs something to wear…perhaps you have something that would fit her?” Tima asked.

Little Doves eyes literally lit up and she rushed away to her family’s lodging.

Tima and Sarah shared quiet laughter at the young girl’s youth and enthusiasm.

“It’s not like Dev…uhm, Redhawk to sleep so sound…do you think she is allright?” Sarah asked Tima, once they arrived at a secluded pool portion of the river. The weather had warmed considerably as if summer were only beginning, not ending.

“She has been awake for many days and nights watching over you, little Salmon…it’s good my daughter sleeps now.”

“Dev is your daughter? I mean, Redhawk…I’m sorry, but I’m not used to calling her that.” Sarah sounded surprised.

“Yes,” Tima smiled proudly. She went on to explain that Redhawk was just entering womanhood, still a young girl when she came to the Clan. Tima and her mate, Tekola gladly raised the beautiful girl as their own. She was headstrong and stubborn, but also proved to be brave and intensely loyal. When her new daughter finally confided to her mother that she preferred to take another woman as a mate instead of a brave, Tekola taught her the ways of the warrior so she would be able to provide for a companion in her life. Tima went on to tell Sarah some amusing stories about little Redhawk’s formative years. Sarah knew the rider would be livid if she realized they were talking about her this way, but Sarah was fascinated with the dark-haired beauty she was so in love with. She felt she needed this connection, and so she hung on Tima’s every word.

“She came right out and told you then…that she wanted to take a woman as a mate?” Sarah asked timidly, as Tima helped the woman wash her hair in the cool water of the river.

Tima remembered what Redhawk said about the white man’s culture, that he did not accept and even condemned those who were given the gift. So sad to treat special ones so. She decided to be honest with the little one, but she also wanted to learn if the young woman’s heart truly held love for her daughter.

“Yes, it was not until she felt that I would not betray her trust, though. She told me of the way the white man feels about those with the gift. It must not be easy for those who must live with all the white man’s rules.” She finished with a look of compassion. Tima went on to explain the way the Clan felt about this gift.

Sarah was astounded that these people took the idea of women together so easily. It gave her cause to hope, however. At least now she had her confirmation that Devlin did indeed prefer women. Now, all Sarah had to do was to figure out a way for her to become that woman. I can’t even believe I’m thinking like that, but it’s what I feel, isn’t it?

“Did Dev…I mean, Redhawk…did she ever take a mate?” Sarah asked.

The young woman tried to make her question sound nonchalant, but Tima could not be fooled so easily. She heard the real question in the young woman’s voice…saw the twinge of envy in her intelligent eyes. She would have to answer this one carefully.

“No, she never found the heart she would give up her wild ways for. She has always been like the Puma. Wild and fierce, but I heard a story once, of a woman who was said to have tamed a Puma. She was the only one the creature would appear tame around, where she went; the animal followed. It is said that the woman’s spirit so thoroughly captured the heart of the wild animal, that when her shima left this earth to fly with the Spirits, the beast lay down, his heart simply stopped beating.

“That’s such a beautiful story,” Sarah said, as Tima helped the young woman comb and braid her honey colored locks. “Do you think, Redhawk could ever lose her heart like that?” Sarah finally asked.

Tima smiled and turned the young woman so they were facing one another. Gently grasping Sarah’s chin, Tima looked with love at this woman who was quickly becoming a daughter of her heart.

“I think only you would know the answer to that question,” she smiled knowingly.

Sarah looked away shyly from the woman’s loving gaze. A thousand questions flew through her mind. Did she own Dev’s heart that way…had the rider talked with her mother about this? Oh, Dev…how can I find out without losing what we already have?

The questions in her mind were halted when Little Dove rushed up to the pair of women as they sat on the ground. The young girl handed Sarah a soft, fawn colored buckskin dress and calf length moccasins. The dyed trim and the beadwork were more beautiful than anything Sarah had ever seen before.

Oh, Little Dove…I couldn’t possibly accept this…it’s too beautiful.” Sarah said trying to hand the gift back. “I have nothing to give you in return…nothing as special as this.”

Little Doves eyes shone and she dropped to her knees. “It would be a good exchange if you would give me your friendship in return.”

Sarah smiled brightly at the young girl. “Little Dove, you don’t have to give me anything for me to be your friend,” Sarah smiled, placing her hand over the young girls.

Little Dove smiled crookedly, but looked as if she was having a hard time breathing. Sarah felt the pulse in the young girl’s wrist, quicken at her touch. Uh Oh. Sarah had witnessed enough teenage boys react this way to recognize a crush when she saw one.

“Do you need help dressing?” Little Dove asked.

“No!” Sarah said a little more forcefully than she had intended. “Uhm, Tima will help me…thank you.”

“Go now, girl,” Tima ordered and Little Dove obediently ran off.

Sarah sighed deeply and looked over at Tima.

Tima laughed out loud at Sarah’s new dilemma, and even though she wasn’t Dev’s birth mother, Sarah was struck with how much the older woman reminded her of the tall rider.

“I could be in trouble here, couldn’t I?” Sarah asked, with a weak smile.

“It’s to be expected when one is so beautiful,” Tima laughed, as she helped the young woman into the Clan apparel.

Once Sarah was dressed she felt much more human, even though her stomach growled and she was still unsteady on her feet. When Tima helped her to stand, a wave of dizziness passed through her, and she grabbed the older woman’s arms to keep from falling.

“Come, put your arm around me…perhaps I let you do too much, too soon.” Tima said with reproach.

It finally filtered through to Devlin’s resting unconscious, that the comforting feeling of the warm body next to her was gone. The sun was already seeping into the large tent through the top opening when the rider jerked herself awake. A fleeting moment of panic swept through the rider, quickly becoming fear. Jumping from the sleeping robes, she rushed from the tent, stopping dead in her tracks.

Devlin’s breath became trapped in her throat, a small gasp the only sound she was able to make at the moment. Sarah walked along with Tima, the young woman’s arm wrapped firmly around the older woman’s waist. Tima had the girl pressed close to her, taking slow careful steps. Tima then said something to Sarah and the young woman laughed. Seeing Sarah in Clan garments was a shock to the rider’s libido. Even with dark circles under her eyes and a little weight gone, the dark-haired woman thought Sarah the most beautiful creature she had ever laid eyes on. It was at that very instant, that Devlin fell in love with Sarah all over again.

Dev did something she rarely did…she acted without thinking. So moved by the vision of her Sarah healthy and alive, Dev practically ran to the woman and wrapped her arms around her.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Sarah whispered in the riders ear, thoroughly enjoying the embrace.

Reluctantly the rider pulled away to look at the young woman, a gentle hand reaching up to stroke Sarah’s face. Sarah smiled up at the expression of concern looking down at her, and moved her own hand up to cradle Dev’s, lying against her cheek. Once again, Dev pulled the young woman into her arms, quickly leaning down to kiss the top of her head, then pulled back to look at her.

“How do you feel?” Dev finally found her voice enough to ask.

“Well, I’ll probably drop like a sack of potatoes if you let me go, but all in all I really feel pretty good,” Sarah replied, squeezing the taller woman’s forearms.

“Then I won’t let you go,” Dev said softly, and the look in the tall woman’s eyes almost convinced Sarah that she owned the wild, untamed heart of this Puma.

Dev managed to tear her eyes away from the vision in front of her long enough to help the young woman back into the teepee. Noticing Sarah still had a slight limp from where the horse fell on her, she gently helped her to sit down on the buffalo robes, Devlin relaxed next to her. A few minutes later, Tima entered with some tea, and a pot of stew that smelled wonderful to Sarah. There were no spoons, but Dev showed Sarah how to scoop up the thick stew with rolled pieces of flatbread.

After eating their fill both women thanked Tima, the older woman accepted their thanks gratefully.

“So what were you two up to while I was dead to the world?” Dev asked Sarah suspiciously.

“Your mother helped me take a bath, and I met a young girl named Little Dove who gave me the clothes I’m wearing.” Sarah answered.

Dev raised an eyebrow in surprise. She knew Little Dove had one of those schoolgirl crushes on her, but she thought it best not to mention that to Sarah.

“I also learned that the people here consider modesty kind of low on the priority list, I tried to go with it,” she said to a smiling Devlin. “Plus, everyone here keeps calling me a fish, but I didn’t even know how to ask them about that,” Sarah finished in a whisper.

Dev laughed out loud and promised to tell Sarah the whole story later.

“I also heard some rather amusing tales about a certain young warrior named Redhawk…” Sarah smirked at the rider.

Dev’s face took on a gray sort of color as she attempted to glare at her mother. “Oh, you didn’t,” she said.

“I think I like the one about you, the skunk, and the bow and arrow best,” Sarah began to enjoy the way Devlin was squirming.

“Tiana! You didn’t!” Dev said, thoroughly humiliated at this point.

“You should have told me if you never wanted me to say anything,” Tima said in her offhand way.

Dev shook her head and rewarded Sarah with a lopsided grin. “Just wait till I get a chance to talk to your sister.”

Sarah laughed then suddenly grew serious. “Oh, Dev…how long have we been here, the children must be–”

Devlin silenced the young woman with her hand.

“It’s okay. I sent a friend of mine with a message down to Hank. He’s been staying at the Double Deuce riding the herd. He sent a message back yesterday saying everything was fine and he finished off the apple pie you baked before all this happened.” Dev smiled at her large friend’s humor. “I didn’t want your uncle or the kids to worry, I didn’t tell them about the injury, or you being so sick. I hope I did the right thing.” Dev finished.

“Yes, that was perfect. I’m so glad we have someone like Hank around.” Sarah replied.

Okay, now you need rest,” Tima commanded, pushing Sarah’s still weak body to a reclining position.

“Yep, she’s your mom allright,” Sarah teased the rider. “I feel like I’ve already been asleep forever.”

“Would you like me to stay here with you? I mean, until you fall asleep?” Dev asked, not wanting to leave the young woman’s side for a minute.

Sarah nodded, and as Tima left the lodging with a smile on her face, Dev lay down on her side next to Sarah, and explained all that the woman missed in the last few days. She told her the reason the Clan called her Salmon, and when Sarah begged for more, the rider told her stories of when she grew up with the Clan. Sarah could hardly contain the giggles when the rider told her about the ‘skunk incident’ from her point of view. Realizing she had talked in the past two hours more than any other time in her entire life, Dev looked over at Sarah, to discover the young woman had finally fallen asleep.

Dev had slept so long this morning she still wasn’t tired, and so she rolled over onto her stomach and watched the woman of her heart sleep. She observed the gentle rise and fall of Sarah’s chest and remembered when this, a woman such as Sarah for her life mate, and a comfortable lodging was all she ever wanted out of life.

For the next two days Sarah was only allowed to rest and recuperate. By the third day she put her foot down and Tima knew her patient was much better. Sarah had to give Dev a good “dressing down” in front of the other warriors of the Clan, just to get the rider to leave the young woman’s side for a while. It seemed to do the trick; at least once a number of braves started laughing at the confused rider.

Sarah enjoyed the people of the Clan. She watched and learned, all the while under the ever present scrutiny of Little Dove. The young girl seemed to be wherever Sarah was, waiting for some small bit of attention the blonde might pay her.

Later in the day, Sarah returned to Tima’s tent to find Devlin lying on the sleeping robes, her hands clasped behind her head. The rider’s brow was furrowed as if she were deep in thought. She quickly sat up when she realized Sarah had entered the tent.

“Hi,” Sarah said brightly as she took a seat next to the dark-haired woman.

“Well, you’re talking to me, at least…that’s a good sign.” Dev said with an apologetic half-smile.

“I’m sorry about earlier, Dev. I just started to feel like you didn’t trust me to do anything on my own. I hope I didn’t embarrass you too much.” Sarah said.

The smile turned into a smirk. “It’s okay…I deserved it. I guess I’ve just been taking care of you and protecting for so many days here…well, I guess I forgot you’re not a child.”

Dev didn’t dare tell the young woman what an actual embarrassment it was to be put in her place in front of the young braves who stood around watching. The rider tried to simply slink away after the lecture she’d received, but some of the young men were just too amused to let it go. Dev walked past her uncle, Kaylan, who couldn’t resist.

“Redhawk,” the older man called out. “That bit in your mouth must feel awfully uncomfortable with the reins held so tight like that!” Every man within hearing distance broke out into laughter, the rider growling under her breath, and abruptly walking in a different direction.

“I haven’t even thanked you for everything you did for me Dev…I owe you.” Was all Sarah could think to say in thanks.

Devlin reached out, and with the backs of her fingers, lay a feather-light caress across the line of the young woman’s cheek. “For all that you’ve given me, Sarah…you’ll never owe me.”

Feeling like she needed to change the subject, Dev brought up the upcoming evening’s festivities.

“Are you sure you feel up for tonight?” The rider asked.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m terrified I’ll do something to embarrass myself, though. Will you be…uhm, there…with anyone?” Sarah asked coyly.

“I was thinking of taking a date,” the rider leaned back and replied seriously.

“Oh,” was all Sarah said. The young woman managed to remove the hurt from her voice, but not the crestfallen look on her face.

Dev continued to grin at the young woman, raising her eyebrows as if waiting for an answer. She indicated that she was waiting with her eyes, when Sarah looked up into her face.

“Ohhhh,” Realization dawned bright. “Me?”

“Who else,” Dev laughed, enjoying the pink blush that settled into the young woman’s cheeks. “Oh, don’t ever change, Sarah…you’re too perfect just the way you are.” She finished by touching the tip of her index finger to Sarah’s nose.

Sarah shivered slightly, the cold night air a little chillier than she thought it would be. She was so tired, but she didn’t want to miss the dancers. Tima told her when the young people danced tonight they would be telling a story, and Sarah had no intention of missing it.

Sarah and Devlin sat on one side of the Chief and his wife, Artamicha. Tima sat with one of her unmarried sisters to the Chief’s left. Sarah chatted easily with Chief Kontonalah, finding his dry sense of humor refreshing, but there were times when she didn’t know if he was serious or teasing her. She would look at Devlin and the rider would shake her head and smile, and admit that her grandfather loved flirting with pretty women.

Devlin caught sight of the small movement, as another shiver ran through Sarah’s body.

“Hey, you’re not trying to get a fever, are you?” Dev asked.

Sarah ran her hands up and down her arms.

“No, just a little chillier than I thought out here. I think I got spoiled from the last few days of warm weather.” Sarah replied.

Dev hopped up from the ground. “I’ll be right back,” she said quickly.

True to her word the rider returned in a matter of minutes. “Here, this should help.” She said, wrapping the rabbit and fox robe around the young woman’s shoulders.

“Thank you, Dev,” Sarah couldn’t stop the yawn that followed. “I swear, it’s not the company,” she returned with a wry smile.

“You should probably be asleep by now…I don’t even think you realize how sick you were, Sarah.” Dev said with concern.

“Mmm mm,” Sarah replied, shaking her head back and forth. “I don’t want to miss the dancers.”

Dev just smiled at the stubborn young woman. The rider’s heart took over, not caring how it looked anymore.

“Then come here,” she gently urged Sarah to sit in front of her, then pulled the woman back until Sarah’s back was leaning against Dev’s chest. “This way if you fall asleep, no one will know.” She whispered into the young woman’s ear.

Sarah felt the rider’s warm breath against her, unable to stop the shiver of desire than ran through her from the moist kiss of air.

“Are you still cold?” Dev ran her hand along the side of Sarah’s arm.

Sarah hardly dared to speak, she was certain her voice would betray the need there.

“No,” she whispered.

Sarah turned; she had to see Dev’s face. The two women gazed at one another until Sarah’s hand reached up to push a stray lock of hair from across the rider’s eye. God, how I love those eyes. Please, Dev…kiss me…right here, right now. She was held in place by the powerful pull of those blue eyes. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Sarah thought the rider was looking deep into the young woman’s heart, seeing all that she felt there. Dev leaned toward her face.

Devlin, in the meantime, felt herself just as trapped within the viridescent gaze looking up at her. When the young woman’s hand brushed across Dev’s cheek, she thought she would melt from the intensity of the sensation. After a lifetime of staring into Sarah’s crystal clear gaze, Dev thought she saw her own reflection, followed by a hint of passion in the green depths. Her heart knew what she was going to do before her brain did. All Dev knew was that she had to kiss this woman. She leaned her head towards Sarah’s; so close she could feel the young woman’s breath on her face.

“Salmon, can I get you some warm berry tea?”

Little Dove knelt expectantly in front of the pair of women. Sarah could feel the growl of frustration begin within the rider’s chest.

“Little Dove…you and I need to talk,” Dev said firmly.

The rider had watched for days as the young woman followed Sarah around, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. She had dismissed it as harmless, but while the woman is in my arms! She screamed to herself. Excusing herself from the warmth of Sarah’s body, she literally dragged the kneeling girl off to one side.

Sarah never moved, she wondered if what almost happened was really about to happen or if it was all in her head. Was Dev jealous of the attention Little Dove was showing her? Maybe She’s just trying to be nice and help me out, Oh God, Dev…couldn’t you have just kissed me, just to at least let me know where I stand?

Sarah watched as Dev came back over and sat by her side, Little Dove going to sit with some girls her own age. The rider didn’t seem like she was going to share what the two talked about, and Sarah was too nervous to ask.

Dev sat by Sarah in silence for what seemed like a few very long moments. She thought for certain that Sarah was acting very receptive to the idea of the rider almost kissing her. Dev could scarcely believe it herself. This is it…snap out of it. At least do something innocent enough that you can laugh it off if it turns out she slaps your face.

Dev sighed deeply and placed an arm around Sarah’s shoulder. When the rider said the words, “Come back over here,” Sarah knew there was no place on earth she would rather be.

Instead of just providing a shoulder for the young woman, Dev sat cross legged and pulled Sarah into her lap, wrapping the fur tightly around her, enjoying the feel of the young woman’s back against her chest.

Dev’s left hand rested on her own knee, until Sarah took a deep breath and boldly placed her hand on top of the rider’s, entwining her small fingers within the grasp of Dev’s larger, slender fingers. The smaller woman lifted the rider’s hand, and positioned it around her own waist, still not releasing her grip.

Dev was nearly in shock at Sarah’s seemingly fearless move. Suddenly the heat emanating off of both women became quite fierce. Sarah had an inkling that she just threw the rider for a loop, and she kind of liked the feeling. I want to know Dev…and dammit I’m going to find out.

Sarah leaned back against the rider’s chest, her hair brushing against Dev’s cheek. Devlin prayed that the young woman’s actions weren’t simply a display of friendship, because she knew this was the moment. There would be no turning back once she expressed how she felt. It would change things…a lot of things.

Turning her face into the sweet smell of Sarah’s hair, she ran her right hand up the young woman’s arm, gently squeezing her shoulder. She leaned in and meant to merely brush her cheek across the soft skin of Sarah’s face, but the rider’s body demanded more. Devlin’s lips reached in and placed a feather light kiss on the young woman’s ear. She waited a brief moment, her heart in her throat, waiting for any hint of revulsion from the young woman, now held tightly in her arms. When none came, she moved her caress to Sarah’s neck.

Devlin’s kiss was so tender and easy it felt like the beat of a butterfly’s wings against Sarah’s skin. Before the young woman even thought about what she was doing, her eyes closed and her grip on the rider’s hand tightened. Then, she tilted her head ever so slightly, until she felt the earnest press of Dev’s lips upon her skin.

Stopping was the last thing on Devlin’s mind, especially after Sarah’s encouraging body language, but she knew if she didn’t slow down, she’d be throwing the beauty over her shoulder and carrying her off to a more secluded spot. That’s not the way she wanted it to be with Sarah, not what she wanted for their first time together. Besides, a kiss and an embrace in the dark is one thing…commitment to someone like you…well, that’s another, isn’t it?

Dev let her mouth travel up to Sarah’s soft hair, placing a gentle kiss there. Much to the rider’s delight, Dev thought she heard a small whimper of protest from Sarah as her lips stilled their kisses. She wrapped both arms around the small woman’s waist, trying to bring her breathing under control.

Sarah was enjoying the rider’s kisses much more than she thought she ought to be. Her mind was a million miles away, until it brought her attention to a throbbing ache that was beginning to develop in a part of her body much further south. Suddenly the rider stopped and wrapped strong arms around the young woman, and Sarah thought this must be heaven. She leaned back against Dev and could feel the rider’s heartbeat against her back; the rhythm as erratic as Sarah’s own.

“You okay?” Dev whispered in her ear.

“Oh yea,” Sarah said, her voice cracking. She could feel Dev’s smile against her ear at her response.

“You?” Sarah asked the rider.

“Oh yea,” Dev repeated, only her voice literally purred the response.

The dancers came on a heartbeat later, but by that point the two women were in their own private fantasies. Sarah remembered very little of the story the dancers told.

Just as Dev thought, Sarah was sound asleep by the end of the young dancer’s story. She slept even as the talking and socializing of the evening was going on, safe in the rider’s warm and loving embrace.

“Sarah,” Dev whispered.

Sarah heard Dev’s voice from somewhere in the warm cocoon of the rider’s arms, but ignored the sound, snuggling further into the dark-haired woman’s chest. Dev could only smile at the young woman.

“Sarah,” Dev whispered again, this time drawing the woman’s name out in a hot breath close to Sarah’s ear.

The young blonde was definitely awake now as Dev helped the embarrassed woman to her feet, and they began to walk toward Tima’s lodging.

Walking along in silence, Devlin reached out and brushed her fingers against Sarah’s. The young woman felt her hand wrapped within the rider’s gentle grasp, and once again Sarah was in awe at the tenderness. The rider’s body was all hard muscle, but covered with soft female skin that had the feel of silk, and when Dev had kissed Sarah’s neck earlier, Sarah had been amazed at the gentle ministrations. A woman, who could be as hard and unforgiving as the land around them, a woman who could kill a man with her bare hands had a caress as delicate and light as the first breeze of spring.

The two women stopped in front of the entrance to Tima’s lodging, uncertain as to where they should go from here. Dev knew there would be no nights spent together from here on. Not until they could talk and Sarah was sure she knew what she was getting herself into. The rider wanted this woman, but not for a night, not simply to satisfy a need for physical pleasure. Dev could scarcely believe her own brain was generating these thoughts, they were ideas and feelings she’d never had for anyone before. She wanted Sarah in her life as well as her heart, and not for a day or even a year, but for the rest of their lives. But, she was still so afraid she couldn’t be what the young woman before her wanted or needed.

Even as the tall rider processed all of these thoughts and feelings, they were being mirrored in the heart and mind of the quiet woman in front of her, whose green gaze looked up lovingly into Devlin’s clear blue eyes.

“I think…maybe…I should find another place to sleep.” Dev said haltingly. How do I tell her that lying next to her would be too much of a temptation now? God, I hope she understands.

“I think…” Sarah said looking down at the ground, then up at the rider once again, “…that might be a good idea.” How do I tell her that sleeping next to her now would be agony? God, I hope she understands.

They stood that way, neither woman wanting to turn away, afraid the delicate spell of this evening would be broken.

“Here,” Sarah said. Standing on her tiptoes, she took the rabbit skin robe from her own shoulders and placed it around Dev’s. “If I know you, you’ll curl up into a ball somewhere without even building a fire and be sick as a dog by morning.”

The taller woman smiled, she enjoyed the idea of someone worrying about her this way. Reaching her arms around the slim waist, she pulled the smaller woman to her. Devlin wasn’t prepared for the pure jolt of desire that swept through her when Sarah’s body pressed against her own. Realizing if she didn’t act now, they would be in serious trouble.

“You better get in there by the fire, I don’t want you getting sick again.” Saying that, she brushed her lips against Sarah’s forehead, turned the young woman around, and pushed her gently through the entrance flap. Both women breathed silent groans of frustration.

Sarah smiled to herself, standing alone in the middle of the large tent. Well, at least we’re headed in the right direction…I mean; we pretty much settled the ‘are you interested in me’ question.

“Kind of…” Sarah said aloud, knitting her brows together, realizing the pair had actually said very little to one another. To Sarah’s mind it was as if she and Dev had talked all evening, but the reality was they hadn’t really settled a thing. Oh, God…this is going to be a long night!

Dev walked until she left the camp, heading further up into the woods. Building a small fire, she lay down on the cold ground and wrapped the rabbit skin robe around her. She breathed in Sarah’s scent that still clung to the fur, and the fragrance made her dizzy. Absorbing the warmth of the fire, she let her mind’s eye fill with the vision of Sarah, letting her hand drift slowly between her legs. Her eyes closed, and she imagined the way she would love Sarah, her breaths getting shorter, and her legs parting wider. Finally, imagining it was Sarah’s hand stroking her slick folds, she climaxed with a ragged moan. Oh, God…this is going to be a long night!

It was two days later when Sarah and Devlin were saying their good-byes to friends and family of the Clan. Sarah promised Tima they would bring her children for a visit soon, and the young woman made it clear to all her new friends that they were always welcome on her ranch.

It was a three-hour ride down to the valley, where the Double Deuce was situated. Sarah and Dev must have made an odd site. They both wore their clan garb, the only clothes they had, riding bareback on Alto. The golden mare wasn’t used to the feel of her mistress on her back this way, but the proud horse simply took it all in stride. The animal had been experiencing a lot of firsts from her mistress since she had taken the smaller woman as a companion. Alto didn’t mind too much. The smaller human always gave her a scratch in that special, hard to get spot, just under her chin. The mare shook her head and snorted. Humans didn’t know how lucky they were to have those nice scratching things attached to their hooves.

Sarah wasn’t very experienced at riding bareback, so Dev gave her a leg up and vaulted herself easily onto the horse’s back, behind the young woman. Of course, Dev said it was to protect Sarah from falling, but with the rider’s strong arms comfortably situated around the smaller woman, neither of them was about to complain.

With three hours one would have thought that the two women would have had a lot to discuss, but actually, they barely said a word. If only one of them had put voice to her musings the other would have responded in kind, but as it was each woman was lost in her own self doubts. Since Dev hadn’t brought up their relationship, Sarah thought the rider had realized her mistake of the past week. In the meantime, Dev figured since Sarah hadn’t said word one about what had transpired over the past week, the young woman had thought twice and obviously wanted a way out. If two hearts breaking could have made a sound, the noise would have been echoing off the hills.

The large cabin looked just the same. For some unexplainable reason, Sarah had thought it might look different. It seemed a lifetime ago since the day she took off for her uncle’s ranch. Hot tears hid just beneath the surface as she felt Dev slip from behind her and dismount. Reaching up, Dev helped Sarah from Alto’s back.

Devlin couldn’t control her actions as she allowed Sarah’s body to slide against her own, while helping the young woman from the saddle. Sarah surprised Dev even more by not releasing her hold from the rider’s neck and shoulders. That’s when their gaze met. The same stirrings of passion swept through both women, just as before.

It seemed like Sarah was always being the bold one in their relationship, and this time was no exception. The look in the rider’s eye seemed to indicate Sarah’s previous thoughts might have been amiss.

“I–I thought…you didn’t want this…want me,” she finished softly, unable to meet Dev’s eyes.

“What?” Dev asked in amazement. “But, I thought you didn’t…” she replied.

Devlin pulled the young woman to her in a fierce hug, shaking her head at the woman in her arms.

“Oh, Sarah, not wanting you couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve got to work on this communication thing, huh?” Dev asked sheepishly.

Sarah was still trying to process the fact that Devlin indeed wanted her.

Dev pulled back to tenderly stroke the young woman’s face, trying desperately to convey what was in her heart, through her eyes. When Sarah finally smiled, the rider knew she had been somewhat successful. She leaned in, closer to Sarah, about to experience the young woman’s lips first hand.

“Good, God!” Hank came around the corner. “I almost shot y’all.”

The barrel of a Greener shotgun was leveled at the two women. Before Hank got any closer, Dev whispered in Sarah’s ear.

“Some how, some way, sooner or later…I am going to kiss you Sarah Tolliver.”

The two women exchanged a frustrated grin as they turned to greet their friend.

“You sure you don’t mind stayin’ here, Hank?” Dev asked, tightening the cinch on Alto’s new saddle. The horse fidgeted a little at the familiar weight on her back.

“Nah, besides I think after the last time there’s no way you wouldn’t go with her.” Hank grinned.

The two friends chatted amiably while waiting for Sarah. They all had a meal together, Sarah filling Hank in about her accident and the time in the Clan village. Of course, there were certain gaps in the story where Sarah intentionally left out bits of information regarding she and Devlin, but the large man suspected as much, and smiled politely. He had come upon the two women in an embrace and knew things must have changed between them. As to how far those changes went, he could only guess, since Devlin was being very closed mouth about the subject.

Sarah wanted to see her children and the rest of the family as soon as possible. There was no way in the world Dev was about to let her go off on her own again, at least not when coming so close to losing the woman was still fresh in the rider’s mind. Hank agreed to stay on for another couple of days so they wouldn’t have to rush back.

Dev slipped the Winchester rifle she saved from Telemachus’ saddle, into the leather holster on the side of Alto’s saddle. She carefully checked her pistols, noticing that their weight felt odd on her hips. The time she spent with Sarah in the Clan village, her guns had been tucked away in her saddlebags. It had been the longest she’d been without them strapped to her body in nearly twelve years. The rider had reason for her extra caution now.

Hank pulled her out of Sarah’s earshot to tell her about the strangers that he caught watching the ranch. They weren’t rustling cows, just hanging out up on the ridge watching the place. He explained that’s why he had the Greener ready when he happened on Dev and Sarah returning. Dev didn’t like the sound of it, smelled like somebody was setting something up, but she didn’t know why, or who was being set up. Herself maybe…somebody with an old score to settle? Her belly clenched at the idea of dragging Sarah into a life like that, always worrying whether somebody with a grudge would want to take her on.

Sarah walked out of the cabin, dressed once again in riding garments.

“I owe Matt some pants after my last little jaunt,” she smiled.

Hank excused himself, saying he’d go and saddle up another pony for Sarah.

Sarah watched as Dev ran her fingers through the long mane that was usually tucked up under her hat. The flames had claimed the rider’s beloved Stetson when she had to burn all their clothes. Sarah had her own hanging down her back; the cord suspended loosely around her neck. In her hands she held a soft brown Stetson that showed it’s age, but had been well taken care of.

“I know how hard these are to break in…I just thought…if you’d like to have this one,” Sarah asked tentatively.

Dev looked at the hat Sarah held in her outstretched hands. She felt strange enough wearing some of the dead husband’s clothes, but his hat. She just stared at the hat, looking extremely uncomfortable.

“It’s not Peter’s, Dev.” Sarah said softly. “It belonged to my father.”

Dev’s eyes looked up into the green gaze that immediately made her knees weak.

“Sarah…I…” Dev was at a loss.

“It’s okay if you don’t want it,” Sarah smiled, not wanting to push the rider.

“It’s not that, but it belonged to your father…shouldn’t it go to Matt…or–”

“I think my father would have wanted someone like you to have it, Dev…I think he would have liked you.” She finished.

Dev reached out for the hat, pulling Sarah’s hand toward her with the hat. With their bodies’ inches away from one another, Dev smiled and leaned down to whisper in Sarah’s ear.

“I think you’re giving your father way too much credit, ’cause if he knew what I was thinking about his daughter half the time, he’d have wanted to shoot me…not shake my hand.”

It was the first time that Dev had said anything at all that indicated what she wanted was a whole lot more than friendship from the young woman. Sarah felt the implication of the statement deep in her abdomen, then when Dev followed it up with one of her sultry smiles; the young woman was nearly on her knees.

Hank came around the corner with a saddled Appaloosa, once again interrupting the two women in the middle of an embrace. Dev quickly pulled away from Sarah, but not before catching the blush on the young woman’s face.

“Your timing’s perfect,” Dev growled at her large friend in mock anger.

“Hey, I gave ya ten minutes by my pocket watch. If you can’t kiss a girl in ten minutes, you’re doing something wrong!” Hank replied good-naturedly.

Sarah couldn’t keep from laughing. This time is was Dev’s turn to start turning red.

“Well, look what the cat dragged over my way,” Art Winston said to the two women.

“Uncle Art, what are you doing riding herd?” Sarah asked as she and Devlin pulled their mounts up next to the older man.

“Well, I can’t let the young pups have all the fun,” He laughed. “Actually, one of the younger fellas came down with a belly ache and a fever, with Hank over at your place, that left me.”

“Sorry about that, why don’t you let me take over out here, Mr. Winston,” Dev said.

“What and let you have all the fun? Actually,” he winked at the rider, “I think I forgot what fresh air and exercise was.”

Dev smiled at the older man. Yep, I knew I liked this old bird for a reason. He’s no stranger to hard work.

They rode a small way while Art chatted with his niece, who had become more of a daughter to him over the years. She told him of the accident she had on Telemachus and how Dev had rescued her. The young woman left out the part about how sick she’d become later.

“Guess I had you pegged right from the start, Dev…knew you were the only one that could keep up with her.” He indicated Sarah with a jerk of his thumb.

The old man didn’t miss the look that passed between the two women. He noticed right away, the hat that Dev wore. Art knew where it came from. It didn’t seem to phase the old man much, but he’d been out in this wild land a long time, nothing much surprised him anymore. It was funny, how when you lived in an untamed country all the old rules just didn’t apply anymore. Back in Kentucky, the boys would have hung Dev from the closest tree, hear in the Territory, he was thinking what a good match the rider made for his daughter.

What happened next became a blur in Sarah’s mind. One minute she was listening to her uncle talk, the next moment his head jerked back, his body thrown from his saddle. It was almost as if the crack of the rifle came after, but Sarah knew it was the echo.

Dev didn’t even look around; her whole body reacted to the sound. She flew across her horse hitting Sarah’s shoulder, knocking them both to the ground. Dev rolled and took the weight of Sarah’s smaller body hitting her own, the rider grunted when her back hit the dirt with a thud.

A looming cliff face shadowed over the pair as Dev checked the young woman under her.

“Sarah, are you okay?” Dev asked.

The young woman couldn’t speak, her eyes looking past the rider to where her uncle lay. Dev looked up into the sun, determining that the shooter was somewhere in the rocks they were hiding under. Only one shot, though. The shooter was either moving into a new position to finish them off, or had already gotten what he came for and fled. Either way Dev needed to know.

The rider began to move away from Sarah, crawling on her belly, under Alto’s patient body. The horse had reared at the shot, but stayed where her mistress could reach her. Dev reached the old man, placing her fingers against the pulse point at his neck. She looked back at Sarah who was intently watching her, hoping for some sign of life from her uncle.

The rider could only shake her head at Sarah.

Reaching the young woman again, Dev wrapped Sarah in her arms, the smaller woman shaking with rage and tears.

“Sarah, I need to go up there and take a look.” Dev knew of no other way of saying it.

“No! Please, Dev, don’t go.” Sarah cried.

“We’re sitting ducks here, I have to, Sarah. Please, honey…stay here.” Dev replied.

The rider let out a low whistle and Alto came closer to the rocks. Standing up quickly, Dev slipped the Winchester from its leather holster, and handed it to Sarah.

“Point this like you mean to use it at anybody who gets here before me…even if you know them. Understand?” Dev asked.

Sarah nodded her head and the rider touched her cheek before climbing among the boulders and disappearing from view.

It didn’t take long for Dev to reappear.

“It’s okay,” she pulled Sarah up and held her in a strong embrace. “They’re gone now. Couple of cigarettes up there…like they were waiting.”

“Dev, who could have wanted to kill Uncle Art?” Sarah asked between sobs.

“I don’t know, honey…but I’m damned well gonna find out.” Dev said as she held the young woman to her fiercely.

“Please don’t look back there, Sarah.” Dev asked the young woman. The rider had Sarah ride in front of her, on Alto. She wrapped a blanket around Art’s body and carefully placed him over the Appaloosa’s back, tethering Art’s mare to the pony.

Sarah couldn’t seem to stop crying, and Dev wrapped one arm around her tightly, the other held Alto’s reins. They must have made for an odd looking pair, riding onto Winston land. Dev relinquished Sarah to her older sister’s care, immediately organizing a posse to search for the shooters. Dev told them all she knew, which wasn’t much, but she could tell there were two of them and they were headed for town.

The sun had already set by the time Dev and the posse returned to the ranch. The rider took a few tentative steps into the huge main house, putting propriety aside, to check on Sarah.

“Dev,” Hannah squealed and jumped into the rider’s arms.

“Hey there, Princess…where’s your mama?” Dev asked, giving the girl a hearty hug.

“She’s in bed…want me to show ya where?” Hannah replied.

“No, we better let her sleep, besides you should be in bed too.” Dev said.

“Go on, she told me to send you up when you got back. I’m Madeline Harrington, by the way.” The woman came into the room from the kitchen, extending her hand to the rider.

Dev shook hands with the stranger. She must have been a good five years older than Sarah was, the woman was taller too, but spoke in the same lilting drawl. She had long auburn hair and the same green eyes, that were red rimmed. It was obvious she had been crying.

“Sarah’s already told me quite a bit about you Devlin. Did you find anything more out?” The woman asked.

Dev shook her head, wondering how much was quite a bit.

“Why don’t you let Hannah show you upstairs, I know Sarah wants to know that you’re allright. Then young lady,” she pointed at Hannah, still in the rider’s arms, “I want you to go to sleep.”

Dev let Hannah down and followed the little girl upstairs. Opening the door, she noticed Sarah was in bed and asleep, a haggard look on the young woman’s still face.

“Shhhh,” Dev whispered, sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, holding Hannah in her arms.

“Is Uncle Art dead, Dev?” Hannah asked.

The little girl’s question surprised the rider.

“Yes, Princess.”

“What’s dead, Dev? I asked Aunt Mattie and Matt, and nobody will tell me. Is it the same thing as die? Is that what happened to my daddy?” The little girl asked earnestly.

Dev wasn’t sure what she should tell the young girl, but she was certain Sarah wouldn’t want her to lie to Hannah.

“Yes, sweetheart…they’re the same thing.” Dev answered.

“Does it mean you just go ‘way?”

Dev smiled and kissed the top of the tiny girl’s head.

“Well, it’s kind of like you’ve got a little clock right in here,” she placed the girl’s hand on her own tiny chest, covering it with her own. “Feel how it ticks along?” Hannah nodded. “Sometimes the little clock just stops ticking…it slows down or it gets broke. When the ticking stops, then you’re dead, but it’s not anything to be afraid of.”

“Will it happen to you…and mama?” Hannah asked seriously.

“Someday…but I hope not for a long while yet,” she answered.

“Then mama will be an angel!” Hannah said triumphantly.

Dev let out a little chuckle. “I think your mother is already an angel, don’t you?”

The tiny girl nodded her head and snuggled into the rider’s embrace. When Dev looked up she ran right into a pair of green eyes so filled with love it almost knocked her from her seat.

“Hi,” Dev said softly.

“Hi,” Sarah repeated with a small smile.

Devlin deposited Hannah on the bed and walked over to a pitcher and bowl on the dressing table. She washed the trail grime from her face and hands, then knelt beside Sarah’s bed, taking the young woman’s hand in her own firm grasp.

“Are you crying ’cause Uncle Art is dead, mama?” Hannah asked as she climbed into her mother’s embrace.

“Yes, honey,” Sarah replied.

“But, Dev says you shouldn’t be afraid of being dead.”

Sarah smiled at her daughter and then up at the rider, who watched the two women of her heart.

“It’s just that I’m going to miss him a lot, sweetheart.” Sarah answered.

Hannah seemed satisfied with that answer and snuggled under the blankets.

“You look tired,” Sarah whispered to the kneeling woman. “Come here and lie down with us for a while.” Sarah finished, moving into the middle of the bed, and pulling Hannah with her.

“Sarah, I’m filthy from the trail,” Dev answered.

“I don’t care. I just want to feel you near me. Please, Dev.” Sarah pleaded, tears filling her soft green eyes.

The rider had no intention of refusing Sarah anything, so she unlaced her borrowed moccasin boots and pulled them off, removing her guns and laying them on the table, then lay down on the soft bed on her side to face Sarah. Hannah squirmed slightly between the two women, while Dev ran slender fingers through Sarah’s blonde locks, caressing the young woman’s face with a gentle touch.

“Mama, when we go back home, can Dev stay with us…for always?” Hannah yawned sleepily.

Sarah and Devlin kept their eyes focused only on one another as Sarah answered the little girl.

“Is that what you’d like, honey…for Dev to stay with us…always?” Sarah asked, her eyes trained on the azure pair of eyes before her.

“Un huh,” Hannah nodded with a smile, closing her eyes.

“Me too,” Sarah admitted with a whisper, to her daughter as well as the woman who lay next to her.

Dev couldn’t help the way the corners of her mouth curled up at Sarah’s response. It was the first verbal admission from the woman that she did indeed want a future with the rider. Dev felt too many emotions to even speak. Sarah reached up and gently ran her fingertips across the rider’s lips. Dev used her own hand to press the woman’s fingers against her lips in a kiss, pulling Sarah’s hand away slightly to place a gentle kiss in the palm of the young woman’s hand.

As a declaration of love, it was an unexciting affair. Both women simply closed their eyes as sleep took them to another realm, the events of the day finally stealing over them.

“Sarah, what are you doing up so early?” Madeline questioned her sister. “Devlin told me you were rather sick after your accident.”

Sarah gave her sister a wry smile. “Mattie, you know me. I can’t stand letting people take care of me.”

“Oh, right,” her sister replied sarcastically, walking toward the window that Sarah stood in front of, taking in the sight that her younger sibling was fixed on.

Devlin stood casually with her hands resting on her hips, just above where her guns lay. She was speaking to a few men, obviously giving instructions on how to perform some task by the occasional gesturing of her arms. The tall rider glared a little at the men she was talking to, but when she finished and the men walked away, she looked up into the window that granted her access to Sarah’s image. The rider’s scowl was so quickly replaced by smiling blue eyes, Madeline swore she was looking at a different woman.

“Oh, right,” Madeline repeated, letting the curtain fall back across the window. “Yea, you’re definitely not one to let anyone take care of you.” She smiled.

Sarah couldn’t stop the blush or the look of satisfaction that appeared on her face.

“Does it bother you?” Sarah looked suddenly worried at her sister’s reaction to her obvious affection for the dark-haired rider.

Madeline laughed. It was genuine and after a day of so much sadness it did both women’s hearts good to hear it.

“Sarah…after living with you and father? Narrow minded is just not in me…especially when it comes to you, little one.” Madeline placed her arm across her younger sister’s shoulder and pulled her closer. “It’s about time you had a little happiness in your life. Besides, I talked with her a little this morning and Devlin seems to care about you and the children a great deal. And I can see how taken with her Hannah and Matthew are.” The taller woman squeezed her sister’s shoulder.

“It’s time you forgive yourself, Sarah. Not everything that happened when we were younger was your fault. Give yourself a break, okay?”

Sarah smiled at her older sister. “Why weren’t we this way with each other when we were younger?”

“We were both too busy being spoiled brats! When it comes right down to it, I was too jealous of the way you got on with father, and you were too jealous of me and the time I had with mother.” Mattie answered.

It’s too bad we were such foolish girls,” Sarah replied, “We would have been unstoppable together.”

Again Mattie laughed. “Can you imagine? God, help Lexington if we had!”

Both women laughed and shared a sisterly hug before turning to the sound of a light rapping as the front door was opened. Dev walked through and Sarah thought how much taller and stronger the woman looked when inside the confines of four walls as opposed to standing on the open prairie.

The rider pulled off her hat and said good morning.

“Hey, you should be taking it easy,” she touched Sarah’s cheek in concern.

Sarah touched the rider’s hand and brought her own up to Dev’s face. The rider’s eye took a nervous glance at Sarah’s sister, who stood watching the pair.

Sarah pulled the rider’s chin till her blue eyes met Sarah’s own. “It’s okay,” Sarah said.

Devlin realized Madeline held nothing but love on her face for her younger sister. If Sarah’s going to be open with her family about us, I’m sure as hell not going to act like she embarrasses me.

Dev smiled at the smaller woman and surprised Sarah by brushing her lips softly against the blonde’s forehead.

“You had kind of a rough day yesterday…I don’t want you out breaking ponies today.” Dev smiled.

“Yes, Devlin,” Sarah teased obediently.

“Devlin,” Madeline called the rider’s name as she held back the lace curtains to the window that faced the corral. “Do you know who that man is out there?”

Dev still held Sarah’s hand and the two women walked over to where Sarah’s sister stood. Mattie indicated a man in the midst of half a dozen riders entering the corral. Devlin tried to search the men’s faces, but most of them began dismounting and pulling saddles from their mounts, their actions hiding their features.

“I can’t tell who you mean, why?” Dev asked.

“There’s a youngish man among them…he took sick yesterday, that’s why Uncle Art rode herd. When I sent Chang out with some tea and broth for him, he said the man was gone. The trail boss, R.J., said that happens with young riders, they up and take off sometimes. I think it’s odd he’s back now. There…there he is by the barn.”

Dev quickly looked over to where Mattie pointed. Sarah felt Devlin’s hand tighten around her own.

“Dev, do you know him,” Sarah whispered.

Devlin felt herself go numb at the sight of the younger rider. An image from her memory flashed brightly in her mind. She was being held down and pistol-whipped by the traitorous members of her gang after she had unsuccessfully tried to stop the rape of the young girl from the ranch in Pawnee. The man that hit the hardest and smiled the biggest stood chatting to the trail boss not fifty feet from her.

“Where are the children?” Dev asked quickly.

“Upstairs, they’re all still in bed,” Mattie answered.

Stay in here…both of you,” the rider hissed.

Sarah didn’t even bother arguing. She felt the emotions coming off the rider’s body in waves. She and her sister drew back from the window, but only until they could still see the corral area.

Without her old boots and spurs, Devlin’s feet hit the ground without a sound. The moccasins caused a mere whisper in the dirt. By the time she was standing behind the rider Mattie pointed out, R.J. was already speaking to her.

“Can you believe he rides out yesterday and wants a job again today?” He asked Devlin.

Dev didn’t wait for recognition in the man’s face. Devlin Brown wouldn’t be a forgettable woman in any man’s mind. The young rider could only pray the woman towering over him wouldn’t be able to place him. He was so wrong.

Dev wrapped an iron grip around the rider’s throat, the young man moving a petrified hand toward his holster. Dev squeezed her fingers tighter until the man was gasping for breath.

“Whatchya goin’ for here?” She grabbed his gun hand by the wrist before it even touched the grip of his pistol. Rotating the wrist in her grip sharply, the man let out a sharp scream as the sound of his own bones snapping, filled his ears. Dev brought her knee up and drove it into the man’s crotch, releasing her handhold around his throat as the man dropped, moaning, to the ground.

“Allright…let’s start at the beginning.” Dev drawled, grabbing the front of the young man’s shirt and pulling him to his feet. The narrow gaze that burned blue fire and the feral smile that spread across the dark-haired woman’s lips became a warning sign, as other riders backed up, so as not to become involved in the certain pain that was about to be inflicted.

“I’m gonna ask you this twice, ’cause I believe in givin’ everybody a second chance. If I have to ask you a third time, I’m going to blow your kneecaps apart, one at a time.” Dev pulled her pistol from its holster, cocking back the hammer in front of the trembling man’s nose.

“Who hired you to set up the old man?”

When Sarah heard Devlin’s question she knew what the rider suspected the young man of.

“I can’t hear you…” Dev said to the man. His silence continued.

“One more time.” She paused to let the ultimatum sink in. “Who hired you to set up the old man?”

“If I tell you, they’ll kill me,” he groaned in pain.

“Well, if ya don’t tell me, I’ll kill ya…and guess who’s got ya now?” Dev sneered.

If the young man had any thoughts about the woman’s humanity, and whether there really would be a third time, he squashed any chance he might have had by his next action. Rearing back his head, the man spit in the dark-haired woman’s face.

Dev stopped all motion and wiped the spittle from her cheek with a gloved hand. When she raised her face to the young man, the smile on her lips unnerved him more than anything else she’d done to him so far. Lowering her right hand she pulled the trigger of her gun without even looking.

The man screamed in pain as the bullet ripped through his kneecap. His body crumpled in on itself and he lay in the dirt writhing in agony.

“Montgomery…Montgomery hired us.” He cried out.

“That son of a bitch,” Sarah screamed as she tore through the front door, on her way to the corral.

Dev turned when she heard Sarah’s scream, realizing she had been watching the whole incident. The small woman ran straight for the nearest horse in the corral.

“Sarah!” The rider shouted.

Devlin raced the overwrought woman down just as she was about to leap on one of the already saddled ponies. The rider had to grab her around the waist and lift her, kicking, clear off the ground to stop her.

“Sarah, stop!” She pulled the smaller woman’s body tight against her own, feeling Sarah’s sobs convulse through her body.

“Think about what you’re doing. If this is true, you’ll be doing exactly what Montgomery wants you to do, going off half-cocked like this. Do you think if he was responsible for Art’s death, he’ll mind one little bit about blowing some woman’s pretty little head off?” Devlin’s words began to have an effect on Sarah. It was her final say that had the most impact.

“What would happen to Hannah and Matt…what would they do without you? What would I do without you, Sarah?” Dev’s voice cracked slightly. “Let me take care of this…it’s what I do best.”

The click of a gun’s hammer alerted the rider. Turning, Devlin saw into the beaten face of the man she just shot. She also looked straight into the barrel of his six-gun. The young man was still on his knees, but only twenty feet or so from where Devlin and Sarah stood. The rider immediately positioned her body in front of the smaller woman’s. The man’s gun was pointed directly at her chest, but his hands shook and he swayed from side to side.

“Did ya tell yer little girlfriend there how we fucked ya after we beat ya up?” a smug smile on the kneeling man’s face indicated that he thought he had the upper hand now.

Dev’s eyes narrowed, taking in the sound of Sarah’s small gasp, but the rider’s face remained as stoic as before. She merely watched the young man and the way he moved his body. She watched, waiting for the flaw to appear. It always did, if you were patient enough. That crease in time that allowed her to read the thoughts in a man’s head before his brain could order the action taken.

The wind caught the barn door and it slammed against its frame loudly. The young man was good, he never turned his head, but his eyes jerked instinctively toward the sound, and Dev felt it was all the chance she was going to get. She drew one gun with dazzling speed and fired three rounds, slamming the young man’s body against the barn wall, his own shot hitting the dirt to no avail.

The rider’s eyes scanned the men that stood around, trying to elicit a feeling of whether there were any others that belonged to Montgomery in the crowd. Dev twirled the gun once and flipped it easily back into her holster. It wasn’t a showy move; it had merely become habit over the years. Her thoughts immediately went to Sarah. Turning, she realized the young woman had never seen her kill anyone before. Dev wondered how it would affect her lover.

“Are you okay?” Sarah put her hands on the rider’s waist.

Sarah was worried about her, how like her. “Yes,” Dev answered. Not caring how it looked, she wrapped her arms around the young woman and held her close.

“What he said Dev…is it true?” Sarah whispered.

Dev replayed what the dead man had said before she shot him. Had she remembered? How could she ever forget the men who violated her on that day?

“Later…” Dev answered, knowing she would tell the woman in her arms the whole story, but not until they could be alone.

A scream from inside the house drew their attention in that direction.

“Sarah…Devlin!” Madeline shouted in near hysteria as the front door flew open with a bang.

Both women were already moving in that direction, but when they saw Matt’s bleeding face come to the door, they took off at a run.

“My, God, Matthew,” Sarah wrapped her arms around her sobbing son.

“I tried to stop ’em,” the boy looked up at Dev, “I tried.” Dev ran a concerned hand through the boy’s hair. Matthew had a split lip and a narrow cut along his right cheek that actually looked worse than it was.

“They took Hannah,” Mattie groaned.

It was as if the world had just stopped for Sarah. The hands that had been caressing her son’s head stilled; suddenly there was no air to be had in the space around her. She turned to the rider at her side.

“Dev?” were the only words she could utter.

The rider immediately rushed up the stairs, taking them three at a time, her long strides eating up the distance between the first floor and the children’s bedrooms. The room looked thrown about, the window remained open, a tall ladder still resting against the side of the large ranch house. A small knife held a piece of notepaper against the bedside table. Dev pulled the knife out and read the words, even as she felt her own heart being ripped apart.

“Dev?” Again the rider’s name was the only question from Sarah’s lips.

The rider handed the note to Sarah and held the small woman as her tortured cries echoed through the house.

The flames from the fireplace became the only illumination in the small den that belonged to Art Winston. Devlin leaned back on the long leather couch, one foot on the floor, the other resting along the length of the couch. Between her legs Sarah lay, wrapped in a wool blanket, her head resting against the rider’s chest.

The grandfather clock chimed in the front parlor and Dev squeezed her partner in a gentle hug.

“Sarah, it’s almost time, honey…we need to get up.”

Dev eased her body up from the comfortable couch, finding it difficult to tear herself away from her lover’s warm embrace. The note that was left in Hannah’s room said the rider and Sarah were to meet a messenger at the entrance to the Winston ranch at nine o’clock in the evening. The messenger would give them instructions regarding what they would have to do to have the girl returned to them. As long as the messenger returned unharmed, little Hannah would remain unhurt.

Standing at the gates that indicated Winston property, Dev heard the rider come in long before he arrived. She lit a lantern and held it up, directing Sarah to stand back in the shadows.

“Here’s my calling card…they said you’d recognize it.” The young man said.

Dev looked at the material and recognized it as Hannah’s frock.

“I sure hope that girl don’t catch cold in her slip. That would make me very angry…and, you don’t want to see me angry,” Dev looked directly into the young man’s eyes.

The man shifted uncomfortably in his saddle under the rider’s icy gaze. He was starting to get a little apprehensive by the deathly calm that surrounded the rider. No one expected to come back from this job, so they all threw dice, he lost. He was waiting for the rider to pull her guns and blow him to hell, waiting so intently in fact, that it took him a few moments before he realized the rider was impatiently waiting on him to continue.

“Uh, yea…uhm, this is for the woman.”

Dev reached her hand out. “I’ll see she gets it.”

“Nope,” the man pulled his hand back. “She’s supposed to take it from my hands.”

Sarah stepped into the light and took the offered envelope. She opened it and scanned the documents, handing them to Devlin. The rider held them up to the light, noticing that they were deeds not only to Sarah’s land, but also to Art Winston’s. Montgomery was assuming that Sarah would be Winston’s beneficiary.

“Tell the bastard I hope he burns in hell.” Sarah said vehemently. Dev had never heard that vitriolic tone to Sarah’s voice before; but then again she’d never seen the younger woman in her protective mode. Like a wounded grizzly protecting her cubs, Dev understood the look in Sarah’s eye and the tone of her voice.

The young man tried to ignore the woman. “You’re to sign the papers and bring them to town at midmorning. Just you and the rider,” the young man now addressed Sarah. “You exchange the papers for the girl…no one gets hurt. You and your family go back to wherever you came from. Any funny stuff,” he looked at Dev, “and the girl dies…you do anything different from the way I just told you, and the kid dies. Any questions?”

“No questions.” Dev answered. She let the man turn and leave, as she and Sarah walked back to the house.

Everyone else had gone to bed, Sarah encouraged her sister to do the same. Dev tried to get Sarah to go upstairs, telling her there was little they could do till morning, but the young woman grabbed the rider’s hand and led her back to the den and the warm fire.

“Sit with me?” Sarah asked.

Dev resumed her position on the leather couch, feeling only slightly better when she was once again holding the young woman in her arms. The rider had been fighting her own self loathing, cursing herself all evening for the ineffectualness that caused Hannah to be kidnapped.

After a long while of unbroken silence, Sarah murmured against Devlin’s neck.

“Dev, can you talk about it…the day that man was talking about? Was he telling the truth?” Sarah asked softly.

Devlin rested her chin on the top of Sarah’s head. She tried to avoid revisiting the memories of that day. Sometimes the images came to her in nightmares that often left the rider shaken and unable to return to sleep, sitting alone in the dark waiting for the sun to rise. It felt different now. Sarah had helped her to overcome some of those old demons by knocking down the walls around the rider’s heart. She told Sarah in vivid detail the events of that day. How she was beaten, shot, raped repeatedly, then left for dead by the members of her gang, because she had attempted to stop the same from occurring to a young woman whose parents the out-of-control men had already killed. Dev told her of her second-in-command, Dale Karsten. He had waited for an opportunity to depose Devlin as the leader of the gang, and that had been it. She would always remember his face as the one who took her first.

By the time the rider’s story was finished, Dev realized she had tears streaming down her face. Sarah sat up and beckoned the dark-haired woman into her embrace. And, as Sarah’s arms enclosed around the woman whose heart belonged so completely to her, she felt Dev’s silent sobs shake her body with their intensity. It hadn’t been the pain nor the humiliation that the rider had kept to herself all this time, that tore at her heart the most, but rather the betrayal of her own men, some of whom she trusted with her very life.

“Sarah, I’m sorry I couldn’t protect Hannah. I can’t promise you that something like this will never happen again. There are always going to be people from my past that are going to want to hurt the ones that I love, just to get to me. That man I killed today…he was one of the men from my gang, and I’m afraid Montgomery has hired those men to help him with this land fight and to kidnap Hannah.

And, then the rider said something so out of character for her, she scarcely believed they were her own lips speaking the words. “Sarah, please don’t leave me,” Dev pleaded.

Sarah could now understand the fear Dev had of abandonment and betrayal. Everyone the rider ever loved had left her or had broken faith with her for one reason or another. Kissing her softly on a cheek still damp with tears, Sarah reassured the rider that she would love Dev no matter what the woman’s past held or what darkness her future might bring to them. Sarah knew in her heart that she and Dev were destined to be together, forever. Although their pasts might intervene occasionally, and life might not always be easy for the two women, the headstrong young woman finally felt as if she truly had found the dark warrior of her soul.

“I’ll never let you go, Dev…never.” She whispered.

“Don’t do it, Sarah!” Dev begged her lover.

Sarah sat at the desk that had been her uncle’s, poised to place her signature on deeds, signing over the land to John Montgomery.

“Sarah, if you do this, then he wins.” Dev said.

“Oh, Dev,” Sarah said, her reddened eyes filling with tears, “he’s already won. Who else should I wait for him to take from me? Matt, my sister…you?”

“Sarah…honey,” Dev knelt in front of Sarah, looking into her eyes. “Do you think Montgomery’s going to let us just ride away from this? Forget about me…do you think he can afford to leave you as a witness to what he’s done? Sarah, do you trust me?” She waited until the young woman lifted her face and nodded.

“With your life…with the lives of your children?” Dev asked earnestly.

“Absolutely,” Sarah answered without hesitation.

“Then I’m asking you to trust me now. Let’s do this my way. I promise you, I’ll die before I let anything happen to Hannah or you. Remember what you said to me that night, before I let you pull that bullet out of me? Well, I don’t want to lose you either, but I need you to trust me, now.” Dev finished.

Sarah stared at her own hands in her lap for a few long minutes, until she looked up into the cerulean gaze that swept her up in it’s intensity.

“I trust you, Dev.” Sarah said.

“I don’t know how many there’ll be, I’m guessing around twenty.” Dev said to Hank as she slipped an object wrapped in a blanket under the seat of the wagon. The morning had been overcast, now the thunderheads began moving in.

The giant of a man stood next to his friend finalizing their plan. Half a dozen riders were sent over to the Double Deuce to run herd and take care of the ranch. Hank had returned as soon as word had come about Art Winston’s murder. Dev asked for volunteers and picked a dozen men she knew as loyal to the old man, and that she herself trusted.

“Remember, these boys are cowhands, Dev, not gunmen.” Hank reminded the woman.

“Hopefully it won’t even come to anything like that. If it’s Dale, he and I will end it right there. I’m betting if he goes down, the others will lose steam in a hurry. Then it’s just a matter of showing we got a little firepower and tossing them out of town. Remember that they’ll be too busy to watch the roads, but you’ll have to be careful once you get near town. I’m sure Karsten will realize I’m not gonna let him waltz away, but Montgomery’s stupid enough to be unpredictable. You’ll have to sneak into town after Sarah and I get there. And another thing…make sure everybody understands that I’ll kill the first man that starts anything before we have Hannah.”

Dev ran her fingers through her hair and replaced her hat. The back of her head held a dull ache she knew was only caused by tension. She knew a gunfight now would be different. She admitted to herself that some of her edge was gone, now replaced with a need to live, a need to protect the people she cared about. When she was known as the fastest gun in the Territory, she cared about no one, least of all herself. She was good for a simple reason, she didn’t care whether she lived or died. Now, she had a reason to care.

“Other than me, Sarah is going to be the only one they’ll allow to get close enough to Montgomery or Karsten.” Dev looked down at the object she’d placed under the wagon’s seat. “Frankly, she’s a better shot than you or me.” Dev gave a wry sort of smile.

“But if anything happens to me…I don’t care what else happens, Hank, but promise me you’ll get Sarah and Hannah out of there.”

The large man gripped his friend’s hand tightly. “You can count on me, Dev.”

Then both riders did something completely out of character. They shared a short, but heartfelt embrace.

Devlin told Sarah on the way to town, the way she wanted it to go. The young woman was quiet, but she knew no amount of arguing could keep Dev from doing this. Besides, she had agreed to trust the rider with her child’s life, and she meant it.

“Sarah, I’m going to ask you to do something I never wanted to ask you, and hopefully it won’t even become necessary.” Dev said.

“Anything, Dev.”

Sarah said it so quickly, with such strength of conviction that Devlin had to look at the woman in pure wonder. The unconditional love this young woman offered was amazing to the rider.

“What one thing did I do right in my life, to be able to deserve you?” The rider asked, touching a gloved hand to Sarah’s cheek.

The love and adoration emanating from the rider’s deep blue gaze, would always be enough for Sarah. She prayed to every God of the white man and Great Spirit of the clan that she knew of, asking only for the safety of her children, and this woman that she loved.

Dev’s hand returned to the wagon team’s reins, a worried expression remained on her face.

“Sarah, I know you don’t want to think about it, but we need to plan for the eventuality that something might happen to me.” Dev said.

“I know,” Sarah replied sadly.

“If Karsten takes me down, they’re not going to want to let you and Hannah out of there. God, how do I say this to her. They’ll know you’re…with me, I mean, they’ll think you’ve been with me…”

“And, they’ll want to hurt me because of that,” Sarah finished for the relieved rider.

“I’m afraid of what they’ll do to you,” Dev said, barely above a whisper.

“So what should I do?” Sarah asked, circling her hand around the rider’s arm.

“If Karsten is dead, there’s not much chance Montgomery will have the jewels to order anybody around. And, hopefully by that time Hank and the boys will show up. Sarah, feel what’s under your seat.”

Sarah reached under the wooden seat and felt a blanket wrapped around a long, heavy object. She recognized her Winchester immediately.

“If Karsten kills me, you’ll need to…buy yourself some time, then you and Hannah take off in the wagon. Hank should be there by then, but I can’t depend on that. Besides, you’ll be the only one close enough to…” Dev couldn’t bring herself to say the words of what she was asking Sarah to do.

“I’ll have to kill Karsten myself if we’re to get out of there alive.” Sarah said slowly.

The look of pain that settled on Dev’s face nearly broke Sarah’s heart. The young woman leaned her head against the rider’s shoulder.

“We’ll be okay, Dev,” she whispered as she leaned over and kissed the rider’s cheek. “We’ll be okay.”

They rode, not speaking for quite a while, each woman lost in her own thoughts. Finally Sarah broke the silence.

“How did you know, Dev…when that young man was going to shoot you yesterday. How did you know right when to draw on him? Is that what makes you so good with a gun?”

“Patience is the biggest part of it,” the rider replied as calmly as if she were giving a math lesson. “You have to let yourself go to anything else that might be happening around you, only focusing on the person in front of you. If you’re patient, and you watch close enough you’ll see the flaw.”

“The flaw?” Sarah questioned.

“It’s hard to describe, but everyone does it in some way. They telegraph their intentions…kind of like their body lets you know what they’re going to do, before their brain has even let them in on it. Sometimes it’s a twitch of a facial muscle, or the tic of an eye…sometimes it’s not even as obvious as that. Sometimes it’s just a look in a man’s eye that’s different from the other looks he’s been giving you. And, sometimes…well, sometimes you just get lucky.” Dev finished as the town loomed before them.

Thunder grumbled and roared from a great distance. Heat lightning flashed from up in the hills, as the air turned heavy.

Part 4

Dev looked around the streets of the usually bustling town, now suspiciously empty. She searched for signs of Karsten and his men, even as she appeared not to be. Dev noticed the number of shadows in the saloon and thanked the Spirits. Men milling about the saloon when their leader was about to enter into a showdown was a sure sign that once he was dead, they’d be hopelessly lost.

Dev pulled the wagon in front of Montgomery’s Cattleman’s Association office just as they had been instructed.

“Sarah, before we start this, there’s something I want you to know,” Dev started.

“No!” Sarah covered the rider’s lips with her fingers. The young woman knew what the rider was going to say. She would try to voice the words that hadn’t been spoken between them yet. They hadn’t actually told one another that they were in love, but Sarah simply knew that’s what the beautiful woman was about to say.

“Don’t say it. I don’t want you thinking you’ve said your piece and now you can be noble and go and die on me. I’d rather it be your reason for coming back to me.”

The rider smiled at Sarah’s logic and squeezed the young woman’s hand, then jumped from the wagon and looked around before moving to the other side. She left the wooden wheel brake off, and instead of wrapping the horses reins around the hook on the wagon, she subtly slid them toward Sarah before she jumped from the wagon.

John Montgomery sauntered from his office as if he had the whole situation under control. The man had no idea he would probably die today, that is if Dev lived long enough to finish the job.

“I believe you have something for me,” he looked expectantly at Sarah, taking a step or two toward the woman in the wagon.

“Right here,” Dev waved the papers.

Montgomery’s face fell a little at that. He wanted to have the young woman admit defeat; show her subservience to him by handing him the papers herself. Dev knew that kind of power game too well. She not only had the papers, but she made him walk to her to get them. Once Montgomery stood before the tall rider, he looked up at Sarah.

“Too bad you have such a perverted appetite, Sarah. You and I would have made a good team,” he leered at her.

“John Montgomery, if we were the last two people on earth…well,” she smiled sweetly, “we’d be the last two people on earth.”

Montgomery was starting to lose his good humor and reached for the papers, Devlin quickly pulling them out of reach.

“First the girl,” she said in a low voice.

Montgomery’s smile was too broad at that suggestion. Dev knew for certain then that they weren’t meant to leave the town. Montgomery yelled down the street and the door to the café opened up. Karsten came out leading Hannah. The girl was crying, but looked unhurt. When she saw Dev she tried to run to her, but the gunman stopped the girl. Dev began walking down the middle of the street, slowly, taking in every detail she could. She stopped about twenty feet from the gunman.

“Long time, Dev,” he grinned.

“Not long enough,” the rider hissed.

Dev lowered herself to one knee. “Hannah, come here.” She said warmly, holding her arms out to the young girl.

Hannah took off at a run and leapt into strong arms that swept her up in a crushing embrace. Being in familiar arms started the girl crying once again. Dev kissed the girl and whispered to her, finally she turned her back on the gunman.

There were few in the world she would feel safe pulling this maneuver, but the rider knew that Karsten wanted to beat her. Shooting her in the back wouldn’t suit his purpose, just like shooting her and beating her hadn’t been enough a couple years ago. That’s why he encouraged the men to rape her. That’s why he was the first in line. He didn’t just want to win; he wanted you to see it coming…to humiliate you as much as possible.

So, Dev walked toward Sarah and Montgomery with Hannah in her arms. The rider stopped halfway there. If Sarah was going to have a chance at running, should Devlin lose, Montgomery needed to be farther away from the wagon.

“Sarah, move the wagon to the other side of the street.” Dev shouted and Sarah immediately complied, the wagon groaning as the wheels turned sharply.

“Wait! She doesn’t leave until I get the papers.” Montgomery yelled.

“Then come and get ’em,” Dev held the papers up in the air.

Montgomery seemed torn, but wanted the land more than the woman. He began to walk toward Dev. The rider placed Hannah on the ground and whispered to the small girl. Hannah took off toward her mother as fast as her six-year-old legs could carry her. Sarah jumped from the wagon and hugged the girl into a tight embrace.

Montgomery didn’t seem to like the idea that his collateral was getting away, or the fact that now he had to walk up to the rider to get his deeds. He developed a more confident air when he realized Dale Karsten was watching his back.

What Montgomery didn’t realize is that paid guns usually have their own agendas and play by their own rules. Karsten didn’t give a damn what Montgomery’s feud was with the woman or Brown. He only knew he wanted to take Devlin down for the last time, and when he was done with that, he’d think about her little girlfriend.

As Montgomery drew a hand forward to reach for the papers Dev held out, the rider grabbed his wrist, pulling it up behind his back. Then, Dev opened the deed to show him the blank white paper inside.

“You bitch!” Montgomery cried out.

Dev spun the man and pulled back her arm for one of the most satisfying, nose-breaking punches she’d thrown in a very long while. She then held the man up as she kneed him in the groin, sending his jewels right into his throat. With little effort, she pushed the man away from her into the dirt. Then she turned to face Karsten. On her way around, she glanced briefly at Sarah holding Hannah; it would be the last thought she could spare the other half of her heart until this last bit of business was over.

Sarah watched as Dev turned to face the gunman. The young woman heard a whisper and turned as Ellen quietly called to her from the front door of the brothel. Sarah looked back at the woman she loved, suddenly refusing to take a chance on losing her. She knew Dev and Karsten were in a place where only they existed. If she could get set now, no one would notice her, they certainly wouldn’t be expecting it.

Sarah whispered softly to her daughter and pointed to Ellen. Hannah nodded, smiling at her old friend. When Sarah released her daughter the girl ran for the open door. Ellen waited for Sarah to follow, but swallowed hard, watching as her small friend carefully and silently slid a Winchester rifle from under the seat of the wagon.

From where Sarah stood she could see over Dev’s left shoulder, directly into the face of the gunfighter. She waited and watched, just as silent as the two in the middle of the street, looking indifferently into the man’s face, imagining in her mind’s eye what Devlin’s face looked like now. She suspected it was as impassive as ever, the eyes narrowing so you could scarcely tell her irises were made up of two different shades of blue.

Sarah watched as the gunfighter stared at the rider, his eyes unblinking, and a small bead of sweat trickling down from his temple. That’s when Sarah saw it. It was just as Dev had described it to her. She saw the thought in the gunman’s eye.

By the time Karsten’s brain ordered his hand to draw his weapon, Sarah had opened her mouth to scream out a warning to Devlin. The rider was a half step on both of them, the dark-haired woman already reaching for both her guns.

The last sensation the gunman felt, aside from the pain, was a metallic dryness in his mouth, and in a fraction of a heartbeat, he knew it was fear he tasted, the fear of his own death. He had barely cleared his holster when Devlin’s thumbs were cocking back the hammers of each pistol. He watched in horror as the woman’s eyes turned pale, losing their color completely. He realized too late that he was looking into the face of death.

Sarah’s body jerked at the deafening sounds of the explosions from Dev’s guns. The rider emptied her pistols into the man. Karsten hit his knees, ending up face down in the dirt, without firing a shot.

Dev walked slowly over to the man, who was still attempting to breathe his last.

“You got faster,” he gasped.

“Nope, you got slower,” Dev replied without feeling.

“I’ll see you in hell, Devlin Brown.” The man’s heart finally stopped beating.

“There’s every possibility,” Dev answered without inflection.

Dev turned at the sound behind her, her hand going to her holster. She silently cursed herself. In her rage at Karsten she broke the first rule of staying alive. She emptied both guns into the man.

Looking up she watched as John Montgomery aimed a Derringer at her head. Of course the rider thought it odd, the things you think about right before you die. Hell! Thirty-five years I made it, only to get my brains blown out by a fancy dude with a pea-shooter.

The unexpected crack even made Dev flinch. The expression on Montgomery’s face was one of incomprehension. He looked at Dev, then down at his shirt, a red stain spreading across his chest. When he fell to one knee, Dev saw behind the man. There, in the middle of the dirt road, Sarah still aimed the Winchester at the wounded man.

Montgomery turned his head and then looked back at Devlin again, the Derringer finally falling from his hand.

“I never thought she had it in her,” The dying man mused.

“That was your second mistake.” Dev answered.

“What was my first mistake?” he asked, dropping fully on the ground.

Devlin leaned over the man and whispered, “Fucking with her in the first place!”

Like all the other men Dev had used this line on, the sarcasm was lost on them. They were too dead to care.

The thunder rumbled, the lightening flickering from a long way off yet.

“Sarah?” Dev said gently.

The young woman had lowered the rifle, but she still stared at the body of the man she’d just killed.

“I had to,” was all she said.

“I know, honey…I know,” Dev answered, pulling the gun from Sarah’s grasp, and holding her arm around the young woman.

Dev pulled Sarah away from the carnage before them, walking down the street.

“Where’s Hannah?” Dev said with concern.

“She’s okay, she’s with Ellen.” Sarah answered, “You were right, Dev…it does change everything.”

“I’m sorry, baby,” Dev set the rifle in the wagon, but continued walking with her arm around Sarah. By the time Hank was riding into town, the two women had walked nearly to the edge of town, Sarah was finally becoming herself again.

“Timing, Hank…we got to work on that timing of yours.” Dev smiled up at her friend. “I think you’ll find most of them in the saloon. Why don’t you encourage them to move on.

They were finally alone, and Devlin wrapped both arms tightly around Sarah. Pulling back slightly, the two women looked at one another.

“Sarah,” Dev began, both hands holding the young woman’s face, “do you know…do you have any idea what you mean to me?”

Sarah looked away as tears threatened. “Dev, I was…I was so lonely for so long before I met you. I feel as if I’ve been waiting for you to come into my life for so long.”

“I know,” the rider whispered. In answer to Sarah’s unspoken question, Dev went on.

“The tumbleweed notes.” The rider finished.

Sarah hung her head and didn’t know whether to be elated or humiliated.

“It’s just that I was so lonely. I wanted someone to talk to, to share with…and there was no one.”

Dev smiled at the woman that held her heart and reached into her vest jacket, pulling out a small bundle of paper. They were the notes Sarah had written and tied to the tumbleweeds in the black of the night.

“You’re wrong, Sarah, about there being no one. There was me…there was always me.” Then Dev wrapped her arms around the smaller woman.

The thunder rumbled low and long and Sarah felt the vibration of it deep within her chest. Then, the rain began to fall. The air was humid and still as the tiny droplets of precipitation fell onto their skin, soaking into their clothing. Time had slowed for the two women as they let themselves go to the incredible sensations of their bodies being held together by some unseen force.

Devlin pulled the soft brown hat off her head, the raven mane cascading onto her shoulders, and down her back. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, almost sensually, to the raindrops, even as the arm around Sarah’s shoulder held the smaller woman’s body tightly to her own.

For the first time in her life, Devlin felt at peace, as if she were about to do what had been fated for her all along. It felt so right…this felt so right…Sarah felt so right. The rider felt as if her body had been waiting a thousand years for this one kiss, this one perfect kiss…to complete her, to heal the lonely ache in her soul.

Sarah felt as if her whole world had exploded into a million minuscule pieces and were rearranging themselves, gently falling into place again. The feelings of hopelessness and longing had disappeared, to be replaced by a swirl of emotions that told her this was where she was supposed to be, here in the strong and loving embrace of this woman…the other half of her soul…the dark warrior her heart had waited on for centuries.

Sarah felt her own arms tighten around the rider’s waist.

Devlin looked down into Sarah’s emerald eyes as she felt the woman’s hands press into the small of her back, pulling her taller form even closer to the young woman. Dev let her eyes close, suppressing a moan at the pleasurable sensation of Sarah’s body against her own.

Once again Devlin opened her eyes to look into the face of the angel that held her heart. Neither woman took any notice of the outside world around them. They held one another tightly as their gaze locked. Devlin reached one hand up to tenderly stroke Sarah’s cheek with the back of her fingers.

“So, beautiful,” Devlin whispered.

Sarah turned her face and softly kissed the fingers that lingered on her cheek, tasting the saltiness of the rider’s skin, mesmerized by the gentleness of the strong woman’s touch. Sarah felt tears of joy fill her eyes, not knowing whether they spilled from her eyes or if it was the rain that ran in tiny drops down her cheeks.

The smaller woman slid the hands that were pressed against Devlin’s soaked back, under the back of the rider’s vest. Feeling the heat of the dark-haired woman’s skin through her shirt, Sarah grabbed a handful of the cloth in each hand and her body trembled at the powerful response her action had on the rider.

Devlin felt Sarah’s hands slip under her vest and the muscles in her lower belly clenched at the innocent intimacy. She wrapped both arms around the smaller woman, one hand reaching out to slip around Sarah’s neck, Dev’s fingers entwining in soft honey-colored locks. She slowly pulled the young woman’s face closer.

The Great Spirit was kind in stilling time for the two women. Only moments had passed in the outside world around them, but for the two lovers, this instant could not be intercepted by the hands of time. They gazed at one another, conveying all that they held in their hearts, through their eyes.

Finally, Devlin leaned in to complete her destiny.

Before their lips ever touched, Dev could feel the warm breath of a sigh escape Sarah’s lips. She could feel the sweetness before their tongues ever intertwined. Savoring every precious heartbeat of anticipation, Devlin leaned in just a little closer…

Sarah held her breath as Devlin’s fingers tenderly tilted her chin upward. The penetrating blue gaze burned into Sarah’s soul, searching the depths of her heart and branding her forever. Before their lips had even touched Sarah knew this dark warrior owned her body and soul.

As Dev leaned down, Sarah raised herself slightly, until each woman had breached the distance between her heart’s desire. In an instant, as their lips pressed ever so gently together, each woman knew that this was the culmination of something extraordinary.

To Devlin time had no longer slowed, it had stopped altogether. The rider felt the soft, sensual lips of her lover on her own. And, just when Dev felt that this was as close to perfection as she would ever be, she felt Sarah respond to the kiss, the young woman’s silken lips moving against Devlin’s own. Dev was no stranger to the pleasures of a woman, but she had never tasted anything as sweet and wonderful as the mouth that now captured her own. The rider’s body forfeited itself completely to the physical pleasure of the moment. She felt a delicious pressure on her back as Sarah slid her hands higher up her back, urging her closer.

The tip of Dev’s tongue pressed itself lightly against Sarah’s bottom lip, desiring a more intimate contact with her lover. The young woman’s lips didn’t have to be asked twice, and they quickly parted to allow the rider’s tongue entry.

The taste of her lover filled her mouth and Sarah almost swooned at the pleasure of it. She moaned into Devlin’s mouth as the gentle kiss quickly turned passionate; the two women’s tongues accepting then giving pleasure to one another.

Devlin wrapped both her hands within the amber locks. Moving her feet apart to steady her stance, she pressed against Sarah’s mouth. When the young woman moaned her pleasure into the kiss, Dev felt a liquid rush of
fire between her legs. She pulled away so they could both take a much-needed breath, then she took the young woman’s mouth again, a low growl captured within Sarah’s kiss.

Sarah felt the low rumble of a growl deep inside the rider’s chest. It wasn’t the growl of intimidation the rider had used at Ellen’s when Sarah had been threatened. The sound that Sarah heard now was a growl of pure and unadulterated lust and passion. It fluttered out from the woman’s chest and Sarah felt it against her breasts, the vibration causing a tingling sensation on the young woman’s skin.

Devlin pulled back and held Sarah’s face in her callused hands, moving her kisses over her cheeks and along her jawline, until she reached the young woman’s ear.

“I love you, Sarah,” the tall rider whispered softly.

Pulling back to look into her lover’s eyes, Devlin brushed the tears and the raindrops from Sarah’s cheeks, her own tears mixing with the moisture from the sky and streaming down her tanned face.

“Oh, Dev…I feel like I’ve waited a lifetime to hear those words,” Sarah whispered back. “I do love you, Devlin Brown…with all that I am, I love you.”

Strong arms were wrapped around Sarah’s body as the smaller one nuzzled the rider’s wet neck. Devlin kissed the top of the young woman’s head and held her close. Unwilling to end their embrace, the two women stood in the middle of the dirt road as the thunder continued it’s low rumblings, the rain, dropping steadily from the sky now, fell unheeded around them.

Devlin divulged the secrets of her wild warrior’s heart into that one kiss, a wild heart tamed solely by the love and compassion of a small slip of a girl with a pride and a bearing that no queen could ever compare to. In the end, it hadn’t been a gun that brought the fierce rider down but instead, a pair of viridian eyes and a stubborn heart as strong as Devlin’s own.

The End

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s