Innocent Hearts: Part 1

by Radcliffe


WARNING: The stories on this page are about the love between two women and may contain explicit love scenes. If you are not 21, or are offended by this type of love - do not go any further. By continuing you are consenting that you are of legal age to read further.

COPYRIGHT INFO: All stories are original works and are copyrighted by their respected authors. Please do not copy them, link to them or redistribute them without the author's permission.


Chapter one

Martin Beecher halted the wagon on a knoll overlooking a sprawling town that lay nestled in a valley hewn from the eastern reaches of the Rockies. He sat forward eagerly, anxious for his first glimpse of their new home.

"There it is, Martha. Come look, Kate. We've finally arrived!" he exclaimed, reaching for his wife's hand. She sat beside him on the rough wagon bench, stiff from the lingering chill of the late spring nights, bundled to the nose in a heavy blanket.

Martha Beecher surveyed the scene before her and tried to quell the quick surge of dread. There were perhaps a dozen buildings in all on either side of a rutted dirt road that was clearly 'Main Street'. She shielded her eyes, squinting in the early morning sun to make out other houses scattered along the outskirts of the town and further into the foothills wherever homesteaders had settled.

A young woman pushed between them from the rear of the covered wagon, one gloved hand on each of their shoulders. Despite the chill she was bareheaded and her glossy hair shone darkly in the bright sunlight. "Is that it?" she asked, her voice alight with an echo of her father's enthusiasm. "Are we here?"

"At last, darling Kate," Martin answered cheerfully. "New Hope, Montana."

"I am so glad! I can't wait to meet the Schroeders! Do you know which is their house?'"

He laughed, delighted by her eagerness. Perhaps he needn't have worried about her after all. He pointed toward the spire-peaked square clapboard building nearest them. "That's the church. Thaddeus says it was the first building they raised, and next to that the schoolhouse, I imagine. The Schroeders live somewhere near the center of town. I'm sure that we will have no trouble finding them."

Kate did not see the stark simplicity of the town and the wild countryside as something to fear, as her mother did. Like her father, she saw a chance that her life might be more than she had been raised to believe it would be. Kate thought about the last year of her life, the year that most girls her age remembered as the most exciting. It had not been for her. She had attended the required coming out parties, and the afternoon socials, and the debutante balls. She had been properly introduced and had made the proper connections. It had been pleasant, but somehow it struck her as frivolous, too. She found the conversations considered appropriate between young ladies and gentlemen tiring and the attentions of would-be suitors tiresome. Perhaps here she would find that there was more to life than that.

She gripped her father's shoulder harder, asking, "And the newspaper office, where you'll be working? That's here, too?"

"One of the very first in the territory," Martin pronounced proudly, throwing his arms around his wife. "Just think of it!"

His excitement was so boundless, and so simple, that Martha's heart lifted at the sight of his pleasure. She returned his hug and said softly with more conviction than she felt, "It will be wonderful, darling. I'm sure of it."

As he snapped the reins, the horses surged forward and the wagon jerked into motion. Martha clutched her husband's arm, remembering how impossible it had all seemed at first. A letter from Martin's boyhood friend Thaddeus had arrived in Boston nearly a year before, extolling the virtues of the unsettled west and the Montana Territory in particular. Pure air, clear skies, no crowds or stench of factories, he had written. The war that divided the nation was a distant thunder out in the northern territories where any man could claim land just for the tending of it and make his fortune with the sweat of his brow. Thaddeus Schroeder wanted a partner for his fledgling newspaper, and he wanted Martin Beecher to be that man.

The idea of moving west had been only a wild dream then. True, Martin had been growing steadily more discontented with his teaching position, and the offer of a partnership on a newspaper had electrified him. With each letter from Thaddeus, Martin's interest grew. They had searched the library for a map of the new territory to locate the town that had then been only a name. Martha quickly smothered her look of horror when she saw the glow in her husband's face.

"But Martin, isn't it very far away?" she began cautiously. All she could appreciate was a vast open area marked by very little evidence of civilization. What had Martin said? Most of the settled areas had started out as mining camps during the rush west to find gold.

Martin had traced the route of the Oregon Trail with his finger, oblivious to his wife's reservations. "Thaddeus says about four months altogether, and the roads are good all the way into Nebraska. Of course, we would have to leave most of the furniture behind-- but Martha! Think of it! It's a brand new country out there, just beginning to grow. With the Homestead Act promising land to any man who lives on it, a whole new world is going to spring up overnight! We could be a part of something grand, and the newspaper would be at the heart of it!"

He was taken with the idea already. His wife recognized the tremor in his voice. She knew he was dissatisfied with the changes in their life that the war and industrialization had brought, but what did they know of frontier living? They who had never been further west than Albany?

"What about Kate?" she had asked quietly, struggling to hide her apprehension. "She is eighteen now and at the age when a girl should be marrying. Can we ask her to simply leave this behind and begin again in a place we know nothing of?"

Martha would go anywhere her husband chose, because his happiness was hers, but could she ask the same of their daughter? Didn't they owe her more? Who knew what type of men they might find in such an unsettled place. Kate was much too refined to become the wife of a shopkeeper, or worse, a farmer!

"Martha, I don't know how I know, but I feel it would be right for us. We could do as we liked with our lives again. It would be hard for you to give up your friends and the comforts we have here, but we would have friends there, too. There would be so much you and I could share!"

His voice was thick with emotion and his eyes grew cloudy. "But Kate? You may be right. A young woman like her, giving up all of this - the dances, the parties, the finer things. Perhaps it would be too much of a hardship."

Doubt had crept into his voice, and Martha could not bear that. She took his large hand into her small one and said with sudden determination, "Kate can stay here with my sister Ellen. She is almost of the age when she would be leaving us soon for a husband. Perhaps it will be sooner, that's all." Her calm, strong words comforted him, and he smiled again. Then Martin and Martha went together to talk with Catherine.

"Kate, darling," Martha began, "your father and I have talked at great length about this move west, and we feel that we should go." She glanced at Martin who was strangely silent and took his hand. "We are not sure what lies ahead, but it will be very different from our life here. We are prepared to leave, but you're a young woman now, and this is the only life you have known. There are many opportunities here, and comforts that you might never have in Montana. The theater, opera, your friends..." Her voice trailed off and she looked intently at her daughter, who seemed to be struggling not to interrupt.

Kate was seated in front of the fire, the flickering light highlighting her elegant features and shimmering waves of shoulder length hair. Her hands were folded gently in her lap, but her face was alive with laughter as she glanced from one to the other.

"You two! Do you think I would let you go without me and miss this great adventure? There is nothing I care for enough to keep me here, and no one I care for more than you. I want to come. I feel somehow that this is not where I belong. Perhaps I will not find that so in Montana."

Her father looked at her with his mouth agape. Surely, there was none more popular nor more accomplished than his daughter! She had many friends and not a few would-be suitors. In addition to her dark-eyed, black-haired beauty, her wit and intelligence quickly won her acceptance in any circle. Not belong here? Preposterous!

Martha ignored the excitement, so like Martin's, in Kate's voice. Kate had altogether too much of her father's adventurous spirit. Martha blamed herself for allowing Kate to spend so much time with her father as a child and not emphasizing enough that Kate needed to prepare for a life as a wife and mother. She had warned Martin that the college library was no place for a girl to be spending so much time, and although she accepted a young lady's need to read and write, Kate spent far too many hours alone with her books. Martha had finally put her foot down after Martin had insisted on giving in to Kate's demands that he teach her about his photographic pastime. A dark room filled with foul smelling chemicals was no place for a girl, even if Kate was a 'natural' at image making, as Martin so proudly proclaimed. If Kate needed something to occupy her time, she could learn needlepoint!

"There are not likely to be the prospects for your future that you would find here," Martha insisted. She looked to her husband for support, but found none.

Kate spoke carefully, because she knew that her mother could insist that she remain behind. "Whether I am here or there, Mother, I will only make a match that feels right in my heart. I do not believe that love is dictated by geography. You know there is no one here for whom I have any attachment."

That was precisely what concerned Martha most. There had been more than one suitable young man to appear at their door, and Kate had received each one politely and had just as politely sent each one on his way. Before Martha could protest further, Martin interceded, for in truth, he could not bear the thought of leaving for a new life without his daughter.

"Are you sure, Kate?" he asked.

"Quite sure, Father," she answered, feeling the first thrill of new possibility. "Make no mistake - I want to go!"

Once the decision was made, things happened quickly. Martin resigned from the college and sold their house and most of the furnishings at a good profit. People were moving to the city in great numbers for work in the factories that seemed to have sprung up overnight, and there were plenty of buyers. Martha donated much of her wardrobe to charities that cared for those who were displaced or left behind by the rapid pace of progress. Silk dresses and finery would be useless in a small frontier town. She purchased simple, sensible traveling clothes for her family. She would not have believed that all of their worldly goods could fit into less than a dozen stout trunks, along with several boxes of books and a wardrobe of her mother's with which she refused to part.

They had left their home before the last graying snows of winter had melted from the streets, planning to follow the warm winds west. Like so many hopeful travelers of the time, they had no idea what truly lay ahead. The first leg of their journey had been by rail to Independence, Missouri where the 'regular' railroad service ended, and where most expeditions into the western territories began. The previous year, in 1864, a Congress still divided by the uneasy sentiments of war had passed the second Pacific Railroad Act, allocating funds for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Shortly after the surrender of the Confederacy, the Union Pacific railroad began moving westward, rail by rail, but it hadn't yet been completed when the Beecher's set out.

In Missouri they joined a wagon train, both for safety and to afford company for Martha and Kate, neither of whom had ever been beyond the civilized confines of eastern society. Spring had first overtaken, then threatened to pass them by somewhere along the northern trail through the Great Plains to the newly created Montana Territory. As they traversed the flat lands toward the eastern slopes of the Rockies, the last snows retreated, swelling riverbeds and streams to overflowing, making the last few weeks of their trek arduous for animal and human alike. The journey had been longer than expected, and harsher than they had imagined, but Martin's unfailing optimism and Kate's buoyant sense of anticipation kept all their spirits from flagging. Now, with Boston receding into a distant memory, they were about to begin their great adventure.


Chapter two

Martha was astounded at their reception. Thaddeus Schroeder's wife Hannah took them into their home as if they had been long-awaited relatives.

"John! John Emory! You carry those bags upstairs while I get these folks something to eat!" she bellowed merrily, while herding the Beecher family into her living room. She was a head shorter than Martha and almost twice her size, with a round face and twinkling dark eyes. She had none of the pampered look of the Boston matrons Martha had called friends, and her nearly palpable energy threatened to overwhelm the sedate Martha.

"Oh no, really," Martha protested, looking to her husband and daughter for support. "We only stopped to let you know we had arrived. I'm sure Martin can find us suitable lodging at the -er- hotel."

"Don't you believe it," Hannah responded earnestly, while hastily moving books and papers from the worn couch in the sitting area. "That hotel is sure to be full with cowboys in for the week's end or worse, and no place for you folks to be staying. You'll stay right here with us 'til you get settled! We've plenty of room, and a couple more mouths to feed is no hardship."

Kate recognized the look of consternation on her mother's face, and took her arm. "Mother, I think we should accept Mrs. Schroeder's hospitality. It will give Father a chance to talk things over with Mr. Schroeder, too."

"That's right, my dear," Martin added. "I'm sure that Thaddeus has suggestions for a place we might acquire."

Hannah nodded. "That he has. Now, I'll get busy heating water because I should think you'll be wanting proper baths along about now."

"Why don't you rest awhile and I'll help Mrs. Schroeder in the kitchen," Kate urged. "Perhaps we can make some of that tea we've been saving."

"Right you are child. You come with me," Hannah said with authority and bustled out.

Kate followed, as eager for the chance to talk with Hannah Schroeder about the town as she was for the promise of a bath.

Martha turned to her husband in dismay, "Martin?"

He looked back goodnaturedly and turned his hands up. "I guess it's decided."


It turned out that a few days became a week before Kate's father decided upon a house on the southern edge of town. The dwelling was a modest but sound two-story wood structure, and Kate was especially pleased that there was a small room adjacent to hers that she might use for her photography. It was a brisk walk to work for Martin and near enough to the other townspeople for Martha and Kate to socialize. Kate knew that he was worried that she and her mother would be lonely. As it was, his concerns were unfounded.

During their stay at the Schroeders, Martha and Kate were besieged by visitors. Newcomers, especially Easterners, were a rarity, and everyone wanted to meet them. Kate enjoyed herself thoroughly and found herself accepting invitations to tea and something on Saturday afternoons called a quilting circle. Martha found the easy familiarity of the women both captivating and a little unnerving.

"My goodness, they're quite intense, aren't they?" she gasped after one particularly busy morning of entertaining in the Schroeder living room.

"Oh, I think they're wonderful!" Kate exclaimed. "I feel so welcome!" She reached for her shawl and bag, adding, "Mother, I asked John to show me the town this afternoon. We've been here for days and I scarcely know what the place looks like. Would you like to come?"

"Not today, darling. I've had quite enough new experiences for one morning, thank you!" Martha sank wearily to the sofa, sighing with relief.

Laughing, Kate leaned over to kiss her lightly on the cheek and said briskly, "All right. I'll be home soon. I promised I'd help Mrs. Schroeder with dinner."


John Emory Schroeder was seventeen years old, tall, strong and sturdy. He was more than pleased to be strolling down Main Street with Miss Catherine Beecher. He had never seen anyone quite as fetching as she, especially in that dress that was far finer than anything he had seen the girls in town wearing.

"This here is the main street, Miss Kate. We've got a general store, right over there next to the livery, and the bank across from that of course. Down yonder is the schoolhouse, and --"

"Wait, John! Just show me as we go, please, or I'll never remember a thing!" Kate laughed, pushing back her bonnet to let the sun strike her face. Her mother would disapprove of the effects on her skin, but Kate didn't care. She couldn't stand to be hidden away. It was almost the first of June and the air was still crisp and cool, so unlike the muggy early summer days she recalled in the city.

"Oh right, sure," he said, blushing to the roots of his sandy-brown hair.

By the time they had walked the five blocks to the end of the central thoroughfare, Kate knew where women bought their dry goods and sewing materials, where the children went to school, and where the men from the surrounding ranches came to have a drink and spend their wages on a Friday night. Turning back, she was struck with the efficiency and order of the small town. Every need was met, simply and without embellishment. But the street was clean and the board sidewalk sturdy, and all the faces she passed were kind and friendly.

"Let's rest awhile, shall we?" she said suddenly, brushing off a place to sit on the bench in front of the dry goods store. "It's so beautiful today I don't want to go back inside just yet.'

"Why, okay," John said, at a loss for words. He sat down beside her on the bench and stretched his long legs out in front of him. He swallowed audibly several times, but when it became apparent that Kate did not require him to converse, he began to relax.

Everything was new to her, right down to the hard packed earth of the street before her. Gone were the cobblestone roads and fine horse-drawn carriages she was used to seeing. These had been replaced by plain board-sided buckboards and heavy draft horses, accustomed to pulling loads of supplies or stubborn stumps, whichever their owners required. The houses, though carefully tended and built to last, were a far cry from the stone townhouses where Kate and her friends had lived. Despite the stark utility of the place, Kate sensed an air of vitality and vigor she had not noticed in the staid surroundings in which she had grown up. There was a steady stream of ranchers and homesteaders in and out of town loading wagons, men calling to one another as they led horses in and out of the livery, and women passing by on the sidewalks, laden with parcels. She couldn't help but feel a thrill of excitement to find herself a part of this strange new world.

She watched another of the young cowboys who had been passing by all morning cross the street to the blacksmith's opposite her. She was coming to recognize the same purposeful gait and easy carriage that all the men seemed to have. Following the tall, lanky form clad in rough denim toward the corral, she was struck by the unusual refinement of the deeply tanned features. As he swept off his hat to wipe a sleeve across his brow, she caught sight of the thick, blond hair held back with a dark tie.

"Oh! My goodness," she cried in a startled voice, "that's a woman!"

"Huh?" John asked, rousing from his reverie. He had been nearly asleep beside her in the warm sun. "Who?"

Kate pointed in astonishment, quite forgetting that it was rude. "Right over there."

"Oh - that's just Jessie," John said dismissively. "Her mare threw a shoe this morning and she's coming to get her, I reckon." He finished, as if that settled things.

Kate stared openly at the woman who was leaning one booted foot on the lower board of the railing fronting the corral, deep in conversation with the blacksmith. What startled Kate even more than her attire was the sidearm holstered neatly against her muscular thigh.

"But she's wearing a gun!" Kate cried, amazed. She should have been scandalized, she supposed, but she was simply too surprised to be anything but curious.

"Why, I guess she'd better, riding into town alone, what with the way things are out on the range," John said matter-of-factly. "Settlers are fighting mad about expeditions crossing over their lands on the way to the Oregon gold fields, and my father says the miners are violating the treaties with the Indians, too. People are starting to get riled and the marshal can't be expected to be everywhere, you know," he proclaimed with authority, clearly still echoing the words of his father.

"Yes, but-- well, I mean, -- who is she?"

John turned to her, confused. "I told you. Name's Jessie Forbes. She has a ranch a few miles out of town. Does right well, too, so everybody says. She doesn't seem to have any trouble selling her horses. I wish I could get one of hers," he finished wistfully.

Kate turned to him, eyes full of wonder. "You mean she owns it?"

"Well, I guess so, since her father died a ways back and she's the only one left. I guess she owns it."

Kate stared at the woman whose features were shadowed now by the wide-brimmed Stetson that she wore. Now that Kate looked carefully, she could see that the body was not that of a young man. Jessie Forbes was lean and muscular to be sure, but there was a subtle curve to the hip and slenderness in the arms that betrayed her sex. And under the worn denim of her shirt, sweat-dampened in the back, there was a suggestive swell of breasts. Never in her life had Kate seen a woman wear pants, even in the confines of her own home. She continued to stare until she realized that the woman was heading straight toward them, leading a beautiful chestnut mare. Kate quickly averted her gaze despite the fact that she desperately wanted to see Jessie up close. The woman would think she had no manners at all, staring at her like a schoolboy!

Kate heard the jangle of spurs growing louder, until suddenly it stopped right in front of them. She looked down at the dusty toes of two very well worn boots.

Jessie threw the reins over the railing and took the two stairs up to the porch in one long stride.

"Howdy, Jessie," John said amiably.

"Afternoon, John," she answered as she stepped into the dry goods store.

Kate was surprised at the deep but melodious timbre of her voice. She glanced then at the horse standing quietly before them, taking in the well-ridden but still beautiful saddle engraved with an elegantly tooled JF. Her eyes widened slightly as she noticed the rifle tucked into a case on the right side. She turned to John with another question but stopped when she heard the spurs behind them again.

"Say, John, you can tell your dad I've got that colt down from the high country if he wants to ride out and see him sometime," Jessie said as she came through the door on her way out of the store. "Oh, sorry-- I didn't mean to be interrupting," she said when she saw that Kate had been about to speak.

Kate looked up into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Her glance traveled quickly from the sunbleached hair beneath the brim of the cowboy hat and over the strong cheekbones to a generous mouth and square chin. She dropped her gaze when she saw Jessie color slightly and felt her own face flame. What had gotten into her!

"Oh, it's okay, Jessie! You're not interrupting," John began, warming to his role as guide. "This here is Miss Catherine Beecher, and she's just come from Boston. Her dad and mine are going to run the paper together now."

Jessie reached up with a slim, long-fingered hand, browned from the sun, and quickly removed her hat. She looked down from what seemed to Kate to be a great height and said softly, "I'm pleased to meet you, Miss Beecher. I'm Jessie Forbes. You picked the right time of year to arrive in Montana. Spring and summer are mighty fine seasons." She smiled then, and her eyes flashed a gentle welcome.

Kate smiled back and held out her hand. "I believe it is easily the most beautiful country that I have ever seen, Miss Forbes."

Jessie took her hand in a firm but careful grip and replied, "Please call me Jessie." She held Kate's hand for an instant and then stepped back self-consciously. "Well John, you give your dad that message. I'd better be getting along."

"Sure, Jessie. See you at the sale."

Kate followed the trim line of Jessie's back as she went quickly down the stairs and grasped the reins of her horse. Effortlessly, she swung one long leg over the saddle and looked down at Kate almost shyly from her mount.

"Good luck to you, Miss Beecher."

"Thank you, Jessie. My name is Kate."

Jessie smiled easily and tipped her hat once again.

"Good afternoon then, John. Miss Kate." And with that she swung her horse away and spurred her into an easy canter out of town.

John didn't notice Kate's quiet concentration as they walked slowly back to the house.

"0h my, but what would they think of her back in Boston," she thought to herself, unable to forget the odd encounter. Kate had imagined all manner of new discoveries on the frontier, but she had never dreamed of anything as intriguing as Jessie Forbes.


Chapter three

Jessie turned slowly onto her back and gingerly shook each arm and then each leg. All intact, and no thanks to anything but good fortune. Her hat lay several feet away, where it had fallen when she landed on her face.

"Well, you won that round," she muttered goodnaturedly as she looked up at the horse standing quietly over her. She got stiffly to her feet, dusted the dirt from her slightly tender backside, and stroked his long, sensitive nose.

"How can any horse as friendly as you be so hard to ride?"

She had acquired the roan stallion in trade several weeks before, and after letting him settle in for a few days, she had saddled him up for the first time. He accepted the saddle and bridle amiably enough, but Jessie was no sooner seated than Rory neatly deposited her on the ground. After the shock had passed, she had laughed heartily, thinking that the rancher who had left with two of her mares might have gotten the better part of the bargain. She would have to remember to invite him to the next big card game so she could even the score.

As the days passed it became apparent that Rory would indeed be a challenge. He greeted her each time she approached with a friendly shake of his head and nuzzled her shoulder, looking for sugar or apples, but he would not let her ride him. This afternoon she had walked him, fully saddled, for almost an hour. He was well mannered and obedient. As casually as possible she pulled him up and mounted him effortlessly. To her great amazement he responded instantly to her touch and walked easily about the corral. She leaned forward to pat his neck and compliment him, which was when he kicked his hind legs and catapulted her over his head.

"That was a nice fall you took there, Jess."

She turned to see her foreman leaning against the fence, watching her with just the hint of a smile. Jed Harper was rawboned and weatherbeaten, with the ageless face of someone who had lived all his life in the open.

"I'm glad it was you saw that, and not one of the men," she grinned ruefully. "He's a smart one, this Rory."

Had it been anyone other than Jed who had witnessed her most recent defeat, Jessie would have been embarrassed. Jed, however, had been around as long as she could remember, and she had nothing to hide from him. She was no longer certain whether it had been Jed or her father who had taught her to ride, break horses, and shoot a gun. In the years since her father's death, Jessie had become an able businesswoman and a just boss, but she depended greatly on Jed's common sense and easy way of handling the men who worked on her ranch. Jessie took an active hand in the actual physical running of the ranch, and her presence at roundups, brandings, and auctions was accepted without question. Most of the day-to-day affairs, however, she left to Jed, whom she trusted completely. Jed in turn couldn't have been more proud of his own child.

"I've seen them like that before, Jess. Stubborn streak a mile wide. He'll make you a great horse if you can win him."

Laughing, Jessie led the stallion toward the barn. "I guess my stubborn streak can stand up to his!"

It was cool in the dark barn and the smell of fresh hay was clean and sweet. Jessie removed the tack and gave Rory a brisk rubdown. There was dirt caked on her face and clothes, and a deep scratch across her right cheek. She would ache later when the bruised muscles began to stiffen.

Her blond hair was collar length, thick and rich, and she wore it pulled back at her neck with a wide dark ribbon. She was not vain about her physical appearance, in fact she rarely considered it, and she wore her hair shorter than was fashionable because it was practical. She couldn't very well work with it always in her way.

"I was hoping to bring you into town for the roundup to show you off," she admonished him as she worked the dust from his coat with a stiff wire brush. "You'll make a great stud and father fine foals, if you don't turn out to be too wild. People don't want horses they can't ride, you know."

Her voice belied her criticism. She admired his spirit, and she wouldn't break him down if she couldn't eventually tame him with her persistence.

"You'll have to sit this one out."

For almost a week, New Hope would be the center of a huge auction where she would put her animals up against those of the best ranches in the territory to buy, sell and trade. It was always an exciting time, and she would be working day and night to improve her stock and collect her profits. Doing well at the roundup was a necessity if her ranch was to survive. She, Jed, and most of the hands would drive the horses down early on the first morning for weighing and registering. Then Jessie would be free to look over the other stock being offered and make arrangements with fellow ranchers for sales or stud services.

Jessie had been a part of this process for as long as she could remember. Most of the ranchers had grown used to seeing little Jessie at Tom Forbes' side every year at roundup, and after Tom was killed, it was natural for Jessie to continue. She had earned a reputation as a good breeder and an honest trader. The fact that she was a woman was somehow never an issue, perhaps because she had always been there. Men who wouldn't let their daughters ride astride found nothing unusual in Jessie Forbes riding herd on her own stock or striking a business deal. Jessie was just Jessie.

Jessie straightened up slowly and grimaced at the ache in her lower back. She stretched her long, slender trunk and slapped the horse's rump.

"Go on, get in there. You can eat now. I'd better get moving or I'll be too stiff to ride in the morning."

Slowly she made her way across the yard toward the sprawling wood and stone house that had always been her home. Her father had built it to last when he had first staked his claim, well before she was born. It was of simple design, with a kitchen, pantry, parlor, and sitting room downstairs. They never entertained anyone other than men who came to do business, and the sitting room had become her father's office. This was the room that Jessie preferred.

The heavy leather chairs, gun racks and shelves of books were strangely restful. A sitting room with lace-covered couches and fine glassware would only have made her nervous. She often read for a few hours at night before the fire in her library, choosing from the collection of books that had been her father's. When she made her semi-annual trip into Bannack, the territorial capital, for the supplies she could not get closer to home, she always tried to find something new to add. Her days were full and she was rarely lonely. On the infrequent evenings when a strange melancholy stole over her, she had only to stand on the porch, looking out on the land that sustained her, and she would find her peace.


"Mr. Schroeder," Kate asked as her father and his friend joined the women in the parlor following an after-dinner cigar out on the porch, "tell us about the roundup tomorrow."

After only a month in her new home, Kate felt as if she had always lived there. She still had much to learn about everyday life without the comforts that she had been used to, but she viewed each new challenge as a test of her own ability. She looked happy, and she was.

"Humph. Just an excuse for those cowboys to come into town and tear the place up," Hannah grumbled as she reached for her sewing.

Thaddeus laughed, casting his wife an affectionate glance. "Don't you go listening to Hannah, now, Kate. The spring roundup is one of the biggest events in this town. Ranchers and drovers come from hundreds of miles and the place fills up to be sure. The hotel can't handle 'em all, and the saloon, well---" he glanced at his wife. "I guess things do get a little wild at times, but they're a good-natured bunch."

"Heavens, is it safe to go out?" Martha asked with concern. She pictured hordes of men riding roughshod through the streets.

"Now, Martha," Martin began, aware that his wife still found the rough western ways unsettling.

"It's not like it used to be, Martha," Thaddeus replied kindly. "The whole town gets involved. There'll be a big celebration the last day of the auction, over at the church. Most of the women prepare food and there's a dance. My Hannah is known for her pies over the whole territory!"

Hannah blushed and shushed him.

"I am so looking forward to it," Kate said with real enthusiasm. This certainly sounded much more interesting than the afternoons she recalled, sitting in a somber parlor discussing topics of no consequence with would-be suitors who didn't appear to care what her thoughts might be. She was relieved to have left that behind, if only temporarily.

"Will all the ranchers be there?" Kate continued, thinking about one rancher in particular. As different as the young women of New Hope might be from Kate's friends in Boston, in one way they were very much the same. They still spent their lives learning to be wives. Kate appreciated the way these women toiled so their families might survive in a harsh, unforgiving land, but, as she dutifully spent time with Hannah Schroeder learning how to preserve meat without ice or the best way to fashion pillow slips from old dresses, she thought about Jessie Forbes. Jessie owned property and went about town doing business unescorted, a possibility Kate had never even conceived of. The quiet, self-possessed rancher was unlike any other woman Kate had ever met, and she wanted to see her again.

"Every rancher in the territory will be here," Thaddeus Schroeder confirmed.

Kate looked to her father. "I'd like to watch the auction tomorrow. Where will it be?"

"I guess it's safe enough, isn't it?" Martin asked of Thaddeus.

Thaddeus nodded. "Why of course, Kate. I'll have John Emory take you over in the morning to see where the stock will be corralled. Some of the nearby ranchers will be here by then."

Kate smiled slightly. "That's just what I was hoping."


Chapter four

John grunted slightly as he shifted the heavy cases he carried in both hands.

"Father didn't say you'd be wanting to tote half the house out here with us," he grumbled good-humoredly. It was a common sight to see young John Schroeder escorting the pretty Beecher girl about town.

Kate laughed and looked up at him fondly. "Oh John! How could I miss this opportunity to make photographs?"

He had seen traveling photographers, and his father had several examples of their craft hanging in the newspaper office, but he had never seen one made. He had also never seen a woman do anything of the kind. Secretly he was astonished that Kate could make those pictures he had seen at the Beecher house. Kate tried to explain the process to him, saying it was quite simple, but he could not grasp it. The mystery of it only served to elevate Kate in his eyes.

"Are you sure about all this?" he asked a bit suspiciously. In one of the cases he could hear liquid sloshing.

"Yes," she assured him. "This was my father's equipment, and I've helped him make photographs since I was a little girl. He grew tired of it, but I never have. It was the one thing I would not leave behind!" She looked around her at the sharply rising hills and the expanse of endless sky, and thought that she had never seen country more beautiful. "I can't wait to capture just a little of this on the plates."

"Humph. Just a roundup, like all the others," he complained, but he thought himself the most fortunate man in town and would gladly have carried the damn cases all day. "Say, why don't we go over under those trees. You can see the auction stand and the corrals across the yard."

Kate nodded her approval. Already she was amazed at the number of people filling the street. There was a contagious excitement in the air borne on the sounds of men shouting and agitated livestock snorting and whinnying. She was captivated by the sight of the large animals milling about in the pens, huge masses of restless power. The immediacy and urgency of life in this untamed place was thrilling.

The cowboys who tended the corrals leaned up against fences or trees, talking quietly in groups, sharing a smoke. They certainly didn't look like a wild bunch to Kate. She exposed several plates, anxious to depict the anticipation of the waiting stands before the auction began. It was a time-consuming process because she had to fix the wet plates almost immediately or the surface would dry and lose the image she had so carefully sought. She was just about to expose her last plate when she heard John at her elbow.

"Miss Kate, you'd better let me get that contraption out of here," he said urgently. "There's a herd coming this way and you're going to be mighty close."

"Just fifteen more seconds, John," Kate answered calmly. This was a good exposure, perhaps the best that morning, and she was not going to ruin it. It took her nearly an hour to prepare the mixture of egg precipitate and chemicals that coated the plates, and longer still to develop each one into a finished image.

"Please, Miss Kate!" John shouted, tugging at her sleeve.

Kate heard muffled shouts to her right and felt the tremble in her camera support as thundering hoofbeats approached.

"Three, two, one .." she whispered, closing the shutter and lifting the cloth from her shoulders. "Oh!" she cried, grasping John's arm in stunned alarm. Not twenty feet away dozens of horses were streaming into an open pen as cowboys rode back and forth along the outskirts of the herd, trying to direct the fast moving animals into the corrals. Men surrounded her, shouting and waving their hats. A haze of dust billowed upward, engulfing her, and Kate stumbled backwards to the shelter of the trees, coughing and wiping dirt from her eves. John had the presence of mind to drag her camera back with him. He shouted something to her, but his words were lost in the uproar of bellowing men and rampaging horses.

Through eyes streaming with tears, Kate made out a dozen men herding the stragglers into the pen. The leader of the group leaned down from his saddle to swing the corral gate shut. With a quick flick of the horse's head, he turned toward Kate and John at a gallop. Kate drew a little closer to John as the horse and rider drew down upon them, kicking up clouds of dirt anew. Kate was sure that they were about to be trampled. When the charging horse was only feet away, or so it seemed to Kate, she saw the rider rise up out of the seat and dismount on the run.

Before Kate could catch her breath, the cowboy, caked in dirt from head to toe, grabbed John Schroeder by the shirtfront.

"Damn it, John! What's got into you, letting her get that close to the pens! If a stray got loose from that bunch, it could have run her down. I've a good mind to throw you into that corral over there and let my horses stomp some sense into you!"

Jessie Forbes was so mad she couldn't see straight. It was only because John Schroeder was a boy she liked that she didn't do more than shake him. She forced herself to let him go, turning to ask Kate, "Are you all right, Miss Beecher?"

Jessie's heart was still pounding with the sudden surge of panic she had experienced seeing Kate in the road as she led her herd down the main street into town. Already the horses in the lead had begun to spread out across the entire width of the road, and Jessie barely had time to direct the wranglers between Kate and the galloping horses. Another minute and Kate would have been under their hooves.

Kate stared open-mouthed at Jessie. Jessie's face was streaked with dirt and there was an angry welt running across her right cheek. Her shirt was plastered to her chest with sweat. She stood with her hands curled around the wide black holster, her long legs planted a little apart. Kate thought Jessie's hands trembled as they clenched the leather.

"It wasn't his fault," Kate croaked, her throat parched and sore from the dust.

Jessie finally remembered to sweep off her hat, and she forced a smile through her anger. "Now there you're wrong, Miss Beecher. It is right well his fault. He should have looked after you, being a newcomer. He knows what to expect around here on roundup day."

John nodded his head abashedly, having forgotten his initial scare when Jessie had grabbed him. He'd thought for a minute there he was in for a whupping, not that he didn't deserve it. "You're right, Jessie. She could have gotten..."

"Now just one minute," Kate returned hotly, her dark eyes blazing. "I am not a helpless child, you know. I have two legs, and I could have moved if I wanted to! I certainly do not need either one of you deciding where I should stand."

Jessie and John stared at her wordlessly and Kate stared back, her face flushed. She saw a grin begin to flicker across Jessie's fine mouth and Kate's anger slowly ebbed. Then Jessie tilted her head back and began to laugh, and, after a second, Kate joined her. John gaped at them as if they had both taken leave of their senses.

Jessie's tense body relaxed and she smiled down at Kate. "What was that thing you had out there anyhow?"

"A camera. I was trying to capture the feeling of this whole thing," Kate answered, taking in the street and the corrals with a sweep of her arm.

"Well, you almost got more of a feel for it than you bargained on, Miss Beecher."

"Kate," Kate softly said.

Jessie looked at her intently, her eyes sparkling. "Kate."

Kate studied Jessie with a worried expression. "You've hurt yourself."

"What?" Jessie replied, confused.

Kate's soft hand brushed gently across Jessie's face, touching the swollen cheek. Jessie blushed and turned her head away. "Oh, that's nothing. I've been having a running battle with a new stallion I've had the misfortune of acquiring. He and I don't see eye to eye on which one of us is the boss just yet."

"I find that hard to believe," Kate answered steadily, her dark eyes fixed on Jessie's face. Jessie struck her as the most capable woman she could imagine. I

Jessie wasn't sure why Kate's words stirred a flutter in her chest, but she cleared her throat and turned to John. "I've got to see to my horses, John. You make sure you take care of Kate, now."

"I will, Jessie," John mumbled contritely.

Kate placed her hand lightly on Jessie's sleeve and said boldly, "Would you show me your animals later?"

Jessie's body tensed. Damn if her arm didn't shake where Kate touched her! "Well, they're just horses, you know. Nothing special."

"Yes, but I'd like to see them," Kate insisted. She did want to know more about the roundup, but mostly she wanted an excuse to see more of this tough but strangely gentle woman.

"All right then," Jessie relented, surprised by Kate's request. It wasn't the sort of thing most women took a liking to. "I'll be busy most of the morning with the weighing. If you're here this afternoon, I'll be happy to show you."

Kate smiled softly. "I'll be here."

Kate watched as Jessie mounted and rode quickly back to the corral, calling to her men as she went. Kate thought she was quite the most dashing figure of a cowboy.


Chapter five

Jessie was busy working the rest of the morning in a makeshift shed by the auction stands, registering her stock and seeing to the hands. She paid them their wages, knowing full well that they'd likely spend a large share of it during the next week. Most of them would come straggling back to the ranch when their money was gone, ready to sign on for another year. A few would answer the call of wanderlust, eager to discover what was over the next mountain ridge, and never pass this way again. Their life was a hard one, and she didn't begrudge them their pleasures. She enjoyed a good hand of cards herself and more often than not came away a winner. It was no secret that the saloon offered more than gaming tables and good whiskey, too. Everyone in town knew that the women who lived upstairs in the hotel earned their living by befriending the cowboys who passed through. It was as much a part of life as anything else, and Jessie accepted that as uncritically as her men accepted her.

"Don't spend it all tonight, Sam," she said as she handed the draft to her lead trail man.

"No, Ma'am!" he exclaimed, grinning sheepishly.

"You make sure the boys don't cause trouble this week. I don't want it said the Forbes boys are a wild bunch."

"I'll see to it, Miss Jessie," the big man replied earnestly. There were some transients among their group, but most had been with Jessie through more than one roundup, and all of them were proud to work for her. She was fair and paid top wages. Her ability to rope and ride with the best of them had earned her their respect and loyalty.

"You can tell the boys the week is theirs, but I expect you all to ride out of here with me come next Monday," she said, pushing her chair back from the rickety wooden table and gathering her account papers.

Sam grinned down at her. "They'll be pleased to hear that, ma'am. It's been a long time between roundups.

Jessie sighed, running a weary hand over her face. "I know it, Sam. But we've a fine herd to show for it, and I'm right pleased with all of you."

Sam flushed, happy with the compliment. He tipped his hat and turned to leave, almost bumping into Kate.

"Sorry, Miss," he said as he walked away.

Kate approached the table, smiling at Jessie. "Am I early?"

Jessie smiled back, folding her papers and slipping them into saddlebag by her side. Standing, she rubbed her face again ruefully and laughed. "No, I've just finished. If you'll give me a bit, I'll get washed up. I feel like one of my horses just now - rode hard and put up wet."

Kate stared at her, struggling for the meaning of the expression, but one at look at Jessie told the story. She was still dusty from the trail, and there were circles shadowing her dark blue eyes. She was clearly exhausted.

"How long has it been since you've been to bed?"

Jessie shrugged. "It takes the better part of a month to get the herd down from the high country where they winter, then foal in the spring. Always stragglers getting lost up some canyon or other. It takes every able body on the ranch to bring them in. Not many of us slept more than a few hours in a row for a while."

"We could do this another time," Kate offered, trying to hide her disappointment. She had hurried through dinner preparations with her mother so that she might have the rest of the day free to spend with Jessie.

"Oh, no," Jessie laughed again. "No way am I going to be tucked abed somewhere when I could be making a deal, or," she finished shyly, "taking a walk for no other reason than the fun of it."

Kate blushed, unaccountably pleased. "Are you staying at the hotel then?"

"Yes. Most everybody's got a room there for a week," she said as they turned toward town. She glanced at the clear blue sky, aware for the first time what an unusually fine day it was. "I won't be long. Where do you want me to meet you?"

"I'll walk you to the hotel, if you don't mind," Kate replied, suddenly afraid that Jessie might change her mind after all.

"I'd enjoy the company," Jessie said quietly, surprised that it was true. She was used to going long stretches without talking to anyone, except maybe Jed about some problem at the ranch. The idea of walking in the warm afternoon sun with Kate Beecher seemed more than pleasant. "You folks all settled?"

"I'm not sure that I'd call it settled," Kate said with a laugh as they strolled through the town toward the hotel, which was clearly the center of activity. "My father is quite beside himself with pleasure, but it's hard for my mother. The simple things we took for granted, like household items and ready-made clothes, are rarities here. Hannah Schroeder has been a great help, and I think I'm beginning to master the basics, but it's much different than I expected."

Jessie had never given such things much thought. Life at the ranch was simple. What they couldn't buy in the way of tools or goods, they made or went without. She didn't need more than the clothes she worked in. Game was plentiful on the range, and enough of her neighbors farmed that she could buy food staples for herself and her men locally. "I imagine it feels pretty uncivilized out here to you," she mused.

"No," Kate replied quietly, "it feels free."

Cowboys in groups and pairs straggled in and out of the saloon on the first floor of the hotel, shouting to friends they had not seen for months. Many waved or called to Jessie, who nodded back. Piano music floated through the open doors, providing a festive background to the general cacophony.

"There's a stairway around back here," Jessie said, leading the way down the narrow alley between the hotel and the land office. "That's no place for you in there."

"And you?" Kate questioned, amused at Jessie's protective attitude, but touched by it, too.

"Oh, that's different. I've ridden with most of those men, and played cards with more than a few," she replied straightforwardly. "Had to carry a couple of 'em home on more than one occasion. But no lady would want to go in there. Roundup time is a little crazy."

"I see," Kate said gravely.

Jessie caught the faint mocking tone in Kate's voice and saw the shadow of a smile flicker across Kate's smooth features. "Sorry. Don't mean to be preaching at you."

Kate laughed in turn. "Come on, let's get you upstairs."

They climbed the outside wooden steps to the second floor and walked down the hallway to Jessie's room. A plain bedstead held a narrow mattress, a single bureau stood against one wall with a pitcher and basin on the top, and a threadbare braid rug covered part of the floor. Jessie drew the only chair up to the window so Kate would have a good view of the activities below.

"I'll just be a minute. I want to wash the dust off my face and get into some pants that don't stand up by themselves."

Kate watched as Jessie unbuckled the heavy gun strapped to her thigh and laid it casually on the bed, stripping off the leather chaps she wore over her pants as well.

"Is that what you call a six-shooter?" Kate asked.

Jessie looked over at her, poised with one foot up to pull off her boots. "Most sidearms nowadays hold six bullets in the chamber. They vary a bit depending on the caliber of the bullets. That's a Colt forty-five. All the Army carries them. They call it a 'peacemaker', but I suspect they're foolin' about that."

"Oh, I see," Kate said, catching the sarcasm in the way Jessie said 'Army'.

"I guess you don't see many back East," Jessie said quietly.

"Have you ever been East?" Kate turned her chair from the window, finding nothing in the streets below that interested her as much as Jessie Forbes.

Jessie walked to the sideboard and poured a basin of water.

"My father said my mother would have wanted me to go for more schooling," she said, splashing her face, then dousing her head. Jessie reached blindly for a towel and covered her face. "I hated the idea, but I was supposed to go when I was seventeen. My father was stubborn on that point."

"But you didn't?" Kate asked with interest.

Jessie stiffened slightly as she opened the valise at the end of the bed. As she pulled clean but faded denim pants and an embroidered shirt from the case, she answered softly, "My father died in a stampede. I had to run the ranch."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Jessie," Kate cried quickly.

Jessie shook her head. "It's all right. That sort of thing happens out here."

Kate heard the edge of pain in her voice, but said nothing. She couldn't imagine losing her father so tragically, and she knew how much it must have hurt. Kate didn't think that Jessie could be that much older than herself, and she marveled at her composure, thinking that she had rarely met anyone more self-assured.

Kate stared as Jessie turned away and slipped off her shirt and pants. Kate caught her breath, surprised by the thin cotton undershirt Jessie wore in place of a corset and alarmed by the large bruise covering her left thigh.

"You're hurt!" she exclaimed without thinking.

Jessie turned, reaching for her clean pants, clearly surprised. She saw the direction of Kate's gaze and looked down. She laughed. "Oh, that. Pretty sorry excuse for a rancher, huh? Just a little present from that stallion of mine." She pulled up her pants and tucked in her shirt.

Kate was struck by the easy way Jessie moved and the sinewy strength of her limbs. She found her heart racing and looked away, confused by the sudden fluttering in her stomach.

"You must find this town a great disappointment after Boston," Jessie continued, unaware of Kate's discomfort.

"Oh no, I love it!" Kate cried. "Life is so different here, and there is so much to learn! Besides, there is no one like you in Boston..." She blushed suddenly, embarrassed by her forward remark.

Jessie laughed, and reached for her holster. "I don't imagine I'd fit in too well back there!"

"No," Kate said softly. "No, you wouldn't. I'm glad you aren't there."

Jessie stared at her intently, held by the quiet intensity in her voice. Kate seemed quite unlike the shy young women Jessie had gone to school with in New Hope. Despite her sophistication, Kate was easy to talk to, something Jessie was surprised to discover she enjoyed.

"I'm glad I'm not there either," Jessie said with a grin, pulling on her worn leather boots. "It will take some getting used to, but I hope you'll be happy here, Kate."

"I feel like this is where I belong," Kate answered, never meaning it more than she did in that moment.

Jessie laughed and stretched, feeling wonderful all of a sudden. Her fatigue had magically vanished. "Do you still want to see those horses of mine?"

"Oh yes!"

"Come on, then," Jessie said, reaching for her hand, taking it gently. "Dark comes early this time of year."

Kate was surprised by Jessie's careful strength and the utter tenderness of her touch. Unexpectedly quite unable to move, Kate sat staring up at Jessie, whose eyes suddenly grew dark. A pulse beat visibly in Jessie's neck, just above the collar of her shirt. Kate felt her own heart beat hard against the inside of her chest. For a moment neither of them spoke. Kate swallowed, aware of the faint tremor in Jessie's fingers that matched her own.

"Yes," Kate whispered as they both drew shyly away at the same time. She rose, trying to ignore the slight unsteadiness in her limbs. "We should go."


Chapter six

Kate and Jessie spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about the auction pens. Jessie pointed out her herd and explained some of their history to Kate.

"Our stock is pure Appaloosa - Plains Indian bred - with a little wild mustang thrown in to make 'em tough. My father was one of the first ranchers in this area. He was on his way to the Oregon territory with all the other fools looking for gold when my mother convinced him that land was where the real value lay, or so he told it." Jessie leaned a foot up on the rail and dangled her forearms over the top of the corral, watching one particularly frisky colt kick up his heels. "Back then the Indians and the settlers got along pretty well, before the Indians started getting crowded out of their land. They traded freely with the first settlers, including bartering their horses for supplies that the expeditions brought. My father found himself a couple of hands as crazy as him, and he started chasing down the wild horses to build our line. There were no reservations on the northern plains either. As long as he stayed clear of the Indian hunting grounds, there wasn't any problem." She frowned. "All the problems started when the damn Army started telling the Indians where they had to live."

Jessie looked quickly at Kate. "Sorry for the cussing, Kate."

Kate shook her head. "I won't faint from a word, Jessie."

Kate had heard of the 'Indian troubles', but until then it had seemed very much like the war with the South. Something that didn't really affect her. Suddenly, it seemed much more important. Questions tumbled out one after the other, and they didn't notice the sun starting to set until a brisk breeze caused Kate to shiver slightly and pull her shawl tightly about her.

Jessie looked up at the sky, amazed that she had lost track of time. That was something she never did. "Lord, Kate. It's 'most suppertime! You should be getting back."

Kate shook her head in protest. "Oh no! There's so much I want to know! Plus," she added impulsively, "I'm having too much fun!"

Jessie laughed, twirling her hat between her long, graceful fingers. "So am I, but won't your parents worry?"

Kate sighed. "Probably, despite the fact that I'm eighteen and quite capable of looking after myself."

"I expect you are," Jessie said seriously, "but this isn't Boston, Kate. Young women can't be out wandering after dark. I'll take you home."

"And I suppose you're quite safe?" Kate retorted, a storm threatening in her eyes. She would not have Jessie thinking of her as a child!

Jessie stared at her, confused by her sudden anger. "Kate," she said softly, "I'm not like you. There isn't a man in this town who would try to take advantage of me."

Kate blushed, understanding her meaning, and feeling foolish for not realizing that Jessie had only been thinking of her safety. It had nothing to do with her age, and much more to do with the gun on Jessie's thigh.

"I'm sorry," Kate said swiftly.

Jessie shook her head. "No need. Now let's get you home. Where is it?"

"At the other end of town, near the south fork."

Walking through town, they passed townspeople making their way home and cowboys lounging on the sidewalks. With Jessie striding confidently beside her, Kate realized that she had never felt so free, and yet so secure.

As they approached the gate in front of Kate's home, Jessie stopped. "I'll say goodnight now, Kate," Jessie said quietly.

"Come in for supper, please," Kate said suddenly, placing her hand on Jessie's arm. "It's the least I can do after you walked all this way."

Jessie looked away, uncomfortable. "No, thank you, Kate. I've got to check on the stock anyhow. You go on in."

Kate frowned slightly and faced Jessie squarely. "I had a wonderful time, Jessie. Thank you."

Jessie smiled, her eyes meeting Kate's. "No need to thank me for something I enjoyed more than anything I can recall in a long time."

It was Kate's turn to smile. She stood on the porch for long minutes until Jessie's retreating form blended into the night.


Chapter seven

"Catherine!" Martha cried as Kate came breathlessly through the door. "Where have you been? It's late and we were worried sick!" She grabbed Kate by the shoulders and peered at her intently. "I was about to send your father out to search for you!"

"For heaven's sake, Martha," Martin exclaimed. "Let the girl talk!"

"I was down at the auction grounds, you knew that," Kate answered, her thoughts still on her afternoon with Jessie. "And it's not even dark yet!"

"I know I've said this is a safe town, but this week especially," Martin began gently, "it's not safe for a young girl out alone at this hour."

"I was not alone," Kate replied, more forcefully than she had intended.

"And who was that young man who brought you home?" Martha queried archly.

Kate flushed a deep scarlet, her black eyes flashing against her pale skin. For a moment she was too angry to speak.

"That was not a young man," she cried indignantly. "That was Jessie Forbes. She's a rancher from north of town!" Uncertain why, Kate felt instantly protective of Jessie. Silly, because if anyone didn't need protecting, it was Jessie Forbes. Still, she faced her mother with a defiant glint in her eye.

"A woman!!" Martha cried, appalled.

Martin relaxed perceptibly and chuckled. "Kate couldn't have been with anyone safer, my dear. Jessie Forbes is an extremely capable young woman. I met her at the newspaper office some weeks ago. As Kate said, she runs a ranch - apparently quite successfully. She's bright and has a sound head on her shoulders."

Martha turned from her daughter to husband, a shocked expression on her face. "I saw this young woman, Martin, and it's a--a--a disgrace. She was wearing pants!"

"Well goodness, Martha. This isn't Boston. You could hardly expect her to tend her herd in a dress!" Martin replied easily. "Out here women dress more practically."

"Practically!" Martha, who even now would not consider wearing the popular bloomer, was scandalized. She looked with concern at Kate, who continued to look rebellious. "I hope this isn't the kind of thing that you find admirable. No decent woman would be found dressed like that in public. And I do believe she was wearing a gun!"

"It's actually a Colt .45 peacemaker, Mother," Kate announced, dropping her shawl on a chair and walking to her father. She took his arm, avoiding her mother's astounded glance. "Shall we have dinner?"


Jessie awakened shortly after nine that night, ravenous. After checking her stock she'd returned to her room and stretched out on the bed, meaning only to close her eyes for a moment. She'd thought back to the afternoon and the pleasure she had drawn from Kate's company. With the memory of Kate's quick smile playing through her mind, she had drifted off to sleep.

Once awake, she washed quickly, threw on a leather vest over her shirt, and went in search of food. She was in the mood for a thick steak and some fried potatoes. She ate alone in the nearly deserted hotel dining room and then ambled into the saloon. The din of male voices was considerable and the air ripe with the odor of horses, well-worked men, and rivers of whiskey. She pushed her way through the crowd to the end of the bar, away from the bulk of the cowboys and the occasional dancehall girl.

"Evening, Frank. Guess business is good, huh?" she greeted the bartender.

"Jessie Forbes!" shouted the portly bewhiskered man behind the long, scarred bar. "Good to see you. Yep, there's quite a bunch here tonight. Can I get you something?"

"I think a brandy, Frank," she replied, fishing a coin from her levis.

She turned, drink in hand, to watch the room, tipping her glass now and then when someone called a greeting. Those who didn't know her personally had heard of her from others. She did not feel strange in the room full of men, because, in many ways, she was like them. She lived and worked on the same land as they, and sweated the same on a hard day's ride, and bled just as easily when a horse kicked a stone her way or a jerked rope burned a raw gash across her palm. She gave it no more thought than she did what the next day would bring. She was a rancher; that was her life.

A man moved close to her in the press of bodies growing denser near the bar. "Cards, Jess?"

Jessie turned toward the voice, her face lighting with pleasure. "Hank Trilby! How are you? And how are things at your ranch?

The tall, dark-haired cowboy grinned with pride. "I brought my first herd down today, Jess, and they're a fine bunch. Hope you take a look at them tomorrow." Hank had been with her father before Tom Forbes' death and had stayed on after Jessie took over the ranch. When he had a chance to buy into a spread nearby, Jessie had willingly backed him. She had not been wrong. Hank owned the ranch now and was doing well.

"I'll do that, Hank. I've been looking for a few new mares. Did I hear you say cards?"

Hank laughed, pointing to a table at one side of the room where four men sat dealing cards. "We've been waiting for an easy mark," he teased.

Jessie laughed, her eyes twinkling. "Haven't you got enough there already?"


Well after midnight, Jessie pushed her chair back and tossed her cards down. "That's it, boys. If I stay any longer I'll be selling next year's herd!"

Several men laughed, knowing that if anything she was slightly ahead. As she rose from the table a soft voice at her elbow murmured, "Hello, Montana."

Jessie turned, her gaze falling on a woman with long blond hair that cascaded thickly over bare, milk-pale shoulders. Her dress was emerald green, low cut and close fitting, with a constraining bodice that boldly lifted her breasts to the verge of immodesty and beyond.

"Why, hello Mae," Jessie replied warmly. "I'm about ready to turn in, but would you like to have a brandy with me first? You can catch me up on all the news."

Mae gave a deep-throated chuckle and rested her well-kept hand against Jessie's sturdy shoulder.

"You can have a brandy, Montana. I'll have a whiskey, thanks!"

Jessie smiled and made a path for them to the bar. As she placed Mae's drink down, Jessie tried to recall the first time they had met. It must have been her first roundup after her father had died. She had been barely eighteen and had come looking for Jed in the saloon one night when their best brood mare had gone down with colic out in the stockyard. The saloon had been more crowded than ever, and as she searched the room for her men, a big, burly Texan, a stranger, had grabbed her roughly from behind.

"Now looky here, will you, boys? Just take a gander at what wandered in. Isn't she a fine one, though, and wearing a sidearm, too!" He'd laughed drunkenly and pulled her hat off, one hand under her chin, the other still grasping her arm. Out of the corner of her eye,

Jessie had seen Jed with several others heading toward her, blood in their eyes. In a minute there would be a brawling fight, or worse.

Jessie stood very still and raised one hand slightly, waving her men away. Jed stopped, his body tense, and signaled to the others to wait, but his eyes never left Jessie's face. She pulled her hat out of the Texan's grasp, stepping back and freeing her other arm as she did so. She slowly put her hat back on and stood quietly facing the leering cowboy.

"I'm Jessie Forbes. You must be new around here, or else you'd know that. I don't believe I know your name. I'm here looking for my men, and I'd appreciate it if you'd let me through." She spoke quietly but her words carried to those nearest her. Several men turned a watchful eye on the cowboy. The air crackled with tension.

"Oh, you'd like to get by, would you?" he mocked, swaying slightly and making another grab for her. "How would you like to come upstairs with me instead? Might be I could show you a good time."

Jessie sidestepped quickly and remained facing him. "Mister, I wouldn't take any pleasure in killing you, but you're wearing out my patience. These fellas here are all trying to enjoy this roundup, and so am I. Nobody wants trouble. Now I don't want to have my men get all busted up trying to make you be reasonable, so if you don't go off somewhere and let me be, I'm gonna have to shoot you myself." She spoke quietly, and hadn't made any move toward her gun, but several cowboys nearby drew sharp breaths and pushed quickly out of the way.

The stranger had laughed hoarsely, his eyes flickering to the faces around him. None were friendly.

"You think you can take me?" he jeered, licking his lips, which were suddenly dry.

"I can, but I'd rather not." Her voice was soft but every man in the room heard her.

He looked at the deadly calm in her eyes, and dropped his gaze. "I ain't never shot no woman, and you're not gonna be the first," he muttered, turning slowly away.

As quickly as it had begun it was over, but Jessie had won her rightful place in the mind of every man present. As Jessie made her way through the crowd, a woman had approached, stopping her with a hand on her arm. Jessie remembered that her eyes had been as green as spring grass, deep and warm.

"I want to thank you for keeping these damn fools from tearing up this place. I'm afraid some of my girls would have been hurt. Mind you, I think you're daft."

That had been six roundups ago, and over the years since, she and Mae had become friends. Whenever Jessie was in town she made it a point to stop in to the saloon to say hello or to buy Mae a drink after the last of the cowhands had staggered off at the end of the night. Their friendship was an unconscious appreciation between two women who were often misunderstood, and Jessie had learned to value their moments together. She could talk to Mae in a way that she could to no one else, not even Jed.

"Hey, Montana, what are you dreaming about?" Mae asked as she circled her glass over the top of the bar watching the dark liquid swirl close to the brim.

Jessie smiled at the woman pressed close against her side. Mae's head barely reached Jessie's shoulder and Jessie had to lean down to make herself heard. "I was remembering that first night when I met you."

"Oh Lord, that was a sight," Mae laughed, downing the whiskey shot in one practiced flick of her wrist. "You and that cowboy in a standoff. Would you have really shot that fella?"

Jessie grinned suddenly. "I don't know. I hadn't thought about it yet!" She laughed at the look of dismay on her companion's face. "How are you, Mae? It seems like an age since we've talked."

"Oh, a little older, Jessie, but still holding up. Haven't seen you around too much these last few months. Not forgetting old friends, are you?" Mae searched Jessie's face, realizing once again how fine looking she was. Too handsome for a woman, but too pleasing to the eye for a man.

Jessie smiled at her fondly and shook her head. "Not you, Mae. I couldn't forget you.'

Mae colored slightly and gazed at their reflections in the mirror behind the bar, choosing her words carefully. "Say, Montana, who was that young woman I saw you strolling through town with today? Don't think I know her."

Jessie turned startled eyes on Mae. "Why, her name is Kate Beecher, Mae. She and her family just moved here from Boston. I didn't see you. Why didn't you call out?"

"Oh! I was busy doing something as I recall. An Easterner you say," she sounded wary.

"What's the matter, Mae?" Jessie asked, surprised by the suspicion in her voice.

Mae forced a laugh and looked up at Jessie, saying lightly, "Why nothing, Jessie. It's just that you have to remember those Easterners are a flighty bunch. They come out here and everything is new and different and they fall in love with the sparkle of it. Only after a while they get tired of it, and throw it all away like a worn out shoe."

Jessie stared at Mae, trying to understand what she was talking about. She was still thinking about it later that night when she fell tiredly into bed.


Chapter eight

Kate was at the auction as early as she could manage the next morning, having recruited John Schroeder to carry her camera and equipment once again. This time she chose a spot that wasn't directly in the path of careening livestock. Women from town had set up tables under a grove of trees just beyond the stockyards and were providing refreshments and sandwiches for the hordes of men congregating in front of the stands. Children raced about while worried mothers followed frantically behind them. And the cowboys kept coming, driving herds into town day and night. The numbers of men in town had swelled during the night, and the sound of boisterous revelry had filled the streets well after midnight. Kate had lain awake for hours, listening to the echoes of laughter on the night air, thinking about her day. She could never recall a time that she had enjoyed more. She could have talked with Jessie for hours, and she so wanted the chance to see her again. When she announced at breakfast that she was planning on returning to the auction later that morning, Kate's mother objected.

"What could possibly interest you in that place?" Martha asked in exasperation. "Dirt and animals and rough men!"

"Everything!" Kate had replied. "There is so much to see, and so many things to learn."

"And what about your plans to help Hannah with the spinning today?" Martha queried, thinking that this at least was a useful skill. Despite the fact that the dry goods store stocked sewing material and even some apparel brought by wagon from the east, it was clear that some clothing and household linens were going to need to be fashioned by hand.

"I'm going to the Schroeder's as soon as the breakfast dishes are finished," Kate affirmed, knowing that there were things she must learn that she had never dreamed of needing to do before. Most of the time she welcomed the opportunity to spend time with Hannah and some of the other women, but her heart wasn't in it today. Not when a mile away the streets teemed with excitement.

"Roundup only comes once a year, Martha," Martin had offered, seeing the disappointment in Kate's face. He was as distracted by all the goings on as his daughter, but he at least had the excuse of gathering information for the paper to explain his attendance at the events. "I'm sure that Mrs. Schroeder won't mind Kate's absence for a few days. I'll walk Kate over there myself and explain."

Hannah had more than understood. She had been packing lunches when Martin and Kate arrived, explaining that she had volunteered to watch one of the food tables. When Kate promised to help her later that day, Hannah had shooed her off with John in tow, saying, "You go on then. I'm 'most done here, and I've seen plenty of roundups. I don't mind missing a few hours of this one."

So by late morning Kate was eagerly searching the crowds for a sign of Jessie Forbes. She was beginning to despair as she wended her way through throngs of men, down one dusty aisle after another, corral after corral of animals that all looked alike surrounding her on every side. The cowboys looked all of a kind, too. Broad-brimmed hats, vests over faded cotton shirts, dusty levis and the ever-present leather chaps. Most had smudges of trail dirt on their faces, too, rendering them nearly interchangeable. Until Kate saw her.

Then Kate wondered how she had ever mistaken her for one of the cowboys just a few weeks before. Jessie stood talking with a burly fellow, her face in profile to Kate. Even with the brim of her hat tipped down, throwing shadows over her eyes, Jessie's subtle grace was apparent. She was lean and taut, much like some of the younger men, but the gentle arch of her neck and the elegant curve of her jaw were inherently beautiful in a way that even the handsomest youth was not. Jessie loosely clasped her gun belt in a pose Kate recognized, and Kate studied Jessie's hands, fixing on the long, slender fingers. She remembered the careful way Jessie had held her hand the previous afternoon in the hotel and her heart tripped a beat, her stomach making a sudden turn at the same time. Kate caught her breath, feeling suddenly, unaccountably, warm.

At that moment, Jessie turned and looked her way. Jessie smiled, and Kate smiled back, wondering at the rush of happiness that winged to her on that glorious smile. Jessie said something to the man she was with and hurried to Kate's side.

"Why, Kate! I didn't expect to see you here again today." She surveyed the nearby crowd. "Are you alone?"

"John Emory walked me down," Kate replied. "He's off with one of the wranglers just now."

Jessie grinned. "That boy has a real itch to be a cowboy. His father has something different in mind for him, I'll wager."

"Didn't yours?" Kaye asked as they began to walk back towards the main arena where the auctioning was about to begin. Her own parents had allowed her far more leniency than many of her girlfriends had enjoyed, letting her pursue her interest in photography and history and literature and other subjects considered inappropriate for young women, but Kate couldn't imagine that Jessie's parents approved of her working on the ranch. Even in this demanding place where women were forced by circumstance to labor in ways their eastern cousins would find unthinkable, Kate had quickly recognized that women did not, as a rule, determine their own destiny.

For a moment Jessie looked puzzled. "Not that he ever said. Out here settlers' children always work the land in some way or another. The littlest ones carry water and feed the stock, and the older ones rope and ride or plow, whatever needs to be done."

"The girls, too?" Kate asked carefully, thinking of the newspaper accounts she had read of the suffragettes in New York State who were speaking out for a woman's right to vote and even own property. It wasn't a popular concept. Her mother had declared that these gatherings were unseemly, and that no woman with any sense would want to take on the problems that went along with having that kind of say in things. "Some things are best left to men," Martha had said with a frown.

"Hello, Josiah," Jessie said to a man who spoke to them as they passed. "Well," she continued, "if there's work to be done, everybody does it. Boys cook, and men help with the wash if need be, and come harvest time every able body in the house, man, woman, or child, is in the field."

"And shooting game and herding horses?" Kate persisted.

Jessie grinned. "I've seen some women who were damn fine shots with a rifle. As to the riding, that's almost required if you're going to get anywhere further than town." She was suddenly serious. "My father taught me to be a rancher because I wanted to be. I don't remember much about my mother. She died of influenza when I was three. From the time I was small I wanted to be like my father. Jed says I was riding before I could walk, and by the time I was seven I had my first rifle. I liked school well enough, but I'd rather have been tending the herd out on the range. My father made me stay in school until I was fifteen, which is longer than any of the girls usually go. I'm glad now that he did."

Kate listened to the wistful tone in Jessie's voice and heard how much she missed her father. Kate ached for her loss, but she was struck, too, by Jessie's simple certainty. Jessie lived the life she loved. What an amazing thing. Kate walked along in silence, wondering why, until now, she had never though to question her own life and the path that had been preordained for her.

They stopped by the fence surrounding the main show ring, and Jessie leaned her back against the rail, studying Kate. Kate's dark eyes were distant, a touch of sadness clouding her usually animated features. "What's bothering you, Kate?"

Kate blushed. "Nothing. I was just thinking how much I envied you."

Jessie laughed, that deep melodious sound Kate found so lovely. "I doubt that you'd envy me after a night sleeping out in the cold, up some canyon with nothing for company but wolves and mountain goats!"

Kate laughed, too. "You'll have to take me some time so I can find out for myself." She hesitated, then went on boldly, "Would you? Take me up there sometime?"

"Kate," Jessie said softly. "It's rough country but a few dozen miles from here. Beautiful, but heartless. It's hard even for those of us who have done it all our lives." She hated the look of disappointment that flickered across Kate's face. "But I'd be happy to show you around the ranch. Not much to see but the bunkhouse and the cook cabin and a bunch of pens, but if you'd like..."

"Oh, I'd love that," Kate affirmed, "very much."

"Well, then, it's settled." Jessie pulled a watch from her pocket and frowned. "I'd better get along, Kate. I've got business waiting on me."

"I promised I'd help Mrs. Schroeder, too," Kate admitted reluctantly. "Good luck with the auction. I'll be thinking of you."

Jessie smiled, pleased. "Thank you, Kate."

"Goodbye, Jessie," Kate said softly as she watched her walk away, thinking that the rest of the day could hold nothing as pleasant as these last few moments.


Kate had no chance to speak with Jessie again, although she looked for her constantly. Once Kate spied her at the corral deep in conversation with another rancher; the next time, Jessie was leading a horse around the pen while several men looked the animal over. Kate waved to her on several occasions when she could catch her eye, and Jessie smiled back and tipped her hat. Most of the time Kate was too busy at the refreshment tables or with her photography to keep track of anyone. There was no photographer in the territory and people were constantly stopping to ask her questions. Many were skeptical that she could actually master such a complicated process, but that didn't stop them from asking if she could take their pictures. Kate found herself promising to take family shots for a number of neighbors after roundup ended. She had been working steadily much of the afternoon and finally stopped when the direct heat of the sun began to make her increasingly uncomfortable. She folded the camera's legs and dragged it over to one of the food stands nearby.

"You're going to take a stroke standing out there with that black cloth over your head," Hannah warned as Kate joined her. She handed a lemonade to Kate, who took the drink gratefully.

"You might be right," she gasped, chasing the dust from her throat with the tart drink. "I've never had a chance to take photographs like this before. I don't want to miss a thing."

Hannah nodded. "I remember feeling that way, too, when we first arrived. When I wasn't scared to death, anyhow."

"What was it like?" Kate asked.

Hannah smiled wistfully. "Thaddeus thought he would be a homesteader, but one season on that damn prairie cured him of that. The winds in the summer blow hot enough to parch every blessed thing, and then in the winter you freeze." She shook her head and moved the basket of food into a shadier spot on the table. "That land out there will kill you quick if you don't have a special love for it. And if it don't love you."

Kate immediately thought of Jessie, and the way she talked about her ranch, and nodded. "Some people belong to it, I imagine."

Hannah looked at her oddly, recalling Kate and Jessie Forbes strolling about that morning. She had thought then that it was a strange friendship. "Don't you be listening to the stories those damn cowboys tell. It ain't so pretty when you're hip deep in snow and starving. It's bad enough that John Emory's got stars in his eyes about wanting to be a wrangler! Don't you go getting ideas!"

"Oh, don't worry," Kate laughed. "I have no intention of becoming a cowboy!"

As to listening to the cowboy stories ... Kate thought she could listen forever if it was Jessie telling the tale.


Chapter nine

After the third day of the roundup, Martha gave up trying to dissuade Kate from spending time at the auction stands. She contented herself with Kate's promise to keep out of the sun as much as possible.

"You'll ruin your skin," Martha warned.

Kate had kissed her cheek fondly, reached for the bonnet hanging on the coat tree by the door, and called, "I'll wear it, don't fret!" as she hurried down the walk to the street.

She was eager to get there early, because she wanted to find Jessie before the business of the day became too hectic. She was taken with an idea that had come over her suddenly the night before and couldn't wait another minute to talk to Jessie about it. She headed straight for the area where she knew that Jessie's stock were corralled, searching for her distinctive form. When Kate saw her astride a great beast of a horse, she stopped to watch, standing back under the shade of a tree.

Jessie's face was all but indistinguishable under the low brim of her hat and the bandanna that covered her neck and mouth. She rode the horse hard from one end of the coral to the other, pulling back on the reins quickly several times to change direction, and then leading his head in a tight circle so that his body nearly twisted on itself. He was powerfully built and gleamed black in the bright sunlight, a glorious mass of muscle and might. Kate was captivated by the sight of Jessie commanding him with the subtlest turn of her hands and the swift kick of her heels against his huge sides. She stared at the way Jessie's thighs lifted slightly from the sweat-stained saddle as she leaned forward over his arching neck, urging him to run with the sheer force of her own will. Kate's breath quickened and she was suddenly flushed, even though the air was still cool. Her heart hammered and she bit her lip to still its trembling. She had never felt anything like this twisting, falling sensation in her belly before, and she would have been frightened if it hadn't been so terribly pleasant at the same time. She leaned against the tree, welcoming its sturdy pressure against her back and struggled to steady her shaking legs. Maybe Hannah was right. Maybe she was suffering from heat stroke.


Jessie swung one leg down from the saddle and dropped easily to the ground, walking to the fence with the reins in one hand. The horse followed, snorting noisily from his run.

"He's a dandy, Jed," she announced to her foreman. "He'd be a great line horse. He's got good legs and he never tires. I'm for buying him."

Jed nodded, chewing thoughtfully on a plug of tobacco. "If we could get us a mare or two like him, we'd have a solid start of a working brood line."

She slapped her hat against her legs and great clouds of dust rose from her chaps, then wiped her sleeve across her face, her expression distant. "The railroads won't come this far north for a lot of years, and we'd have plenty of market for working horses with the stagecoaches running through here. I say we do it."

"Yep. Me, too."

"I'll go talk to Josiah Bradley about his mares this..." She stopped abruptly, staring past his shoulder. She tossed the reins over the fence rail and in the same motion braced both hands on the top rung. She vaulted up and over in an instant, bolting across the adjoining pasture, leaving Jed to stare after her in astonishment.

"Kate!" Jessie cried anxiously, skidding to a stop by her side. Kate appeared pale and shaken. "Are you all right?"

Kate gave a tremulous smile. "Yes," she said just a bit uncertainly. "I think so. Perhaps a little too much sun."

Jessie glanced at the clear sky, and felt the skitter of a breeze across her cheek. "It's not that warm, Kate," she said with concern, her fingers brushing Kate's hand. Her blue eyes darkened with worry. "You're shaking."

Kate took a deep breath, smiling for real. "I'm fine. Truly." She felt foolish now, appearing fragile when it wasn't that at all. She tried not to think about the fact that Jessie's light touch on her hand had started up the falling sensations all over again. She pointed towards the corral, wanting to change the subject. "What was that you were doing in there?"

Jessie followed her gaze to where Jed was pulling the saddle off the stallion she had been riding. "Just working him out under saddle. I'm planning on buying him, and a few others with similar bloodlines. I wanted to see how he'd handle."

Kate was afraid that anything she said would sound inane, but she didn't think she had ever seen anything as beautiful as Jessie Forbes on that horse. "I want to take your picture," she blurted without thinking.

"What?" Jessie exclaimed. "Me?" She stared at Kate, astonished. Then she laughed. "Oh, Kate! Why on earth would you want to do that? With all this beautiful country around here, you want to take a picture of a dusty trailhand?"

"You're beautiful, too," Kate said quite seriously. When Jessie blushed, Kate hurried on. "You are - I mean, the way you look on that horse, like the two of you were born connected. It's - it's -" she stopped in frustration. Why was it so hard to put words to the way she felt about Jessie?

"Kate," Jessie said quietly. "If it would please you to take my picture, then I won't say no."

Kate's brilliant smile was Jessie's reward. "This afternoon?"

Jessie laughed again. "Whatever you want. Should I change my clothes? I'll be riding all morning, and by then I'll be a sight."

Remembering how Jessie had looked in a sweat-dampened shirt, Kate shook her head. "No," she said softly, shyly now, "I want you just like that."


"Millie, could you let me have two of your sandwiches?" Kate asked. "I'll take over here for you tomorrow morning in return."

Millie was a new bride, the young wife of the town Marshal. She was rumored to make the best brisket in town, and her stand was a popular one with the cowboys. She had been one of the first women in town to befriend Kate, and being of a similar age, they made easy companions.

"Of course, Kate." Millie regarded Kate with a knowing smile. "Two, is it? You aren't trying to bribe your way into some man's heart with one of those, are you?"

Kate colored self-consciously. "No, I'm taking one for Jessie Forbes."

"Well," Millie announced, packing a basket, "if she's anything like my Tom after a day on a horse, you'd best take three."

"Thank you, Millie," Kate said, gathering the basket of food.

"Of course, silly. Oh! Don't forget the dance tomorrow night. Everyone will be there."

Kate smiled, her eyes fixed on the auction yard, her mind on Jessie. "I won't forget, Millie."

It was the biggest auction day of the week and the yard was packed. Kate walked to the edge of the crowd surrounding the auction platform. She watched as several prize steers, or so the auctioneer claimed, were auctioned off at apparently high prices. Kate found it hard to follow the bidding because men seemed to signal without saying anything.

"Now, gentlemen," the auctioneer called, "the last sale of the afternoon, and the one you've been waiting for, I imagine. I'm offering the best brood mare this side of the Mississippi. She's gonna throw the finest foals this territory has ever seen. Do I hear an opening bid?"

Kate heard a murmur pass through the crowd and she saw Jessie, across the yard, touch her hat brim nonchalantly. Jessie had one heel up on the railing and was leaning an arm over the top post, looking relaxed and casual. The bidding became rapid and Kate lost track of the amount, but every now and then she saw Jessie touch her hat. Finally the bidding slowed and the crowd quieted.

"Do I hear another bid, gentlemen?" the auctioneer called. "Any other bids? Going once, going twice, SOLD!" He looked Jessie's way and shouted, "To the Rising Star ranch."

Jessie broke into a smile and turned to the cowboy beside her who pumped her hand vigorously before walking off toward the holding pens. As the crowd started to disperse, Kate picked her way carefully across the yard. Jessie watched her approach, too happy to contain a wide grin.

"Hello, Kate."

Kate was always surprised at the deep, mellow quality of Jessie's voice. She tilted her head back to look up into Jessie's face and said a little breathlessly, "Is that the horse you wanted?"

"She is. I've been waiting almost two years to find the right animal, and this is the one!"

"I'm glad for you," Kate said, meaning it. She lifted her napkin draped wicker basket. "I brought some sandwiches. If you're going to pose for me, I thought I should feed you first!"

Jessie looked surprised, and then pleased. "I could do with something to eat! I've been so worked up over the bidding today I think I forgot all about my stomach." She frowned. "Where's your camera and all?"

"I left it back at the tables. We can get it after we eat."

"I'm about ready for that right now."

Impulsively, Kate threaded her arm through Jessie's. "Good. Then let's find a nice quiet place to celebrate your new purchase."

For an instant Jessie went utterly still. The nearness of Kate's body was completely strange to her. She never would have thought that the soft touch of a woman's hand could make her feel so tall.

"I think that's a fine idea, Kate," Jessie said softly.



Part Two

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