Innocent Hearts: Part 2

by Radcliffe


Chapter ten

A short walk from town, they found a secluded spot under a cluster of trees at the very base of the foothills that climbed precipitously toward the towering mountain peaks. Jessie helped Kate spread out a cloth on the ground. Above them the sky was a deep blue dotted here and there with dollops of white frothy clouds. There were no sounds save for the faint buzzing of insects and the far away lowing of the cattle in the pens.

"I'm glad that you suggested we bring the camera with us," Kate observed, unfolding the legs of the support.

Jessie watched the process, hands in the back pockets of her levis, a curious look on her face. "I still think my horses would make a prettier picture."

Kate merely smiled and gestured to a spot where she could see the mountaintop behind them. "Right over there, please." She positioned the camera, framing Jessie in the foreground. "No, leave your hat on. Just tip it back a bit." She looked up, meeting Jessie's gaze. "I like you in that hat."

The hint of teasing, and something else - something warm - in Kate's voice, caused Jessie to blush. "What should I do with my hands?" she asked to cover her embarrassment.

Kate lifted the cloth over her head and, in a muffled voice, called, "Just stand like you were talking to Jed. Pretend I'm not here."

"That would be some kind of trick, for sure," Jessie muttered.

Kate laughed. "And don't talk."

Through the lens, Kate focused on Jessie. Isolated behind the black covering, Kate was alone with her in a way that was so strangely intimate it made her pulse flutter. Kate was struck anew by Jessie's confidant carriage and supple strength. Jessie was unlike anyone, man or woman, Kate had ever known. She was so beautiful it made Kate's throat ache. With a trembling hand, she opened the shutter and began to count softly to herself. For a few seconds after she finished the exposure, she continued to look at her, absorbing every detail of her face and body.

Finally she called, "We're done." Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, and she was aware of an unsettling warmth in her depths.

"Can't say as I mind," Jessie remarked, but her tone was light. She stretched out on the ground next to the makeshift tablecloth, enjoying the breeze that played over her face, inexplicably content.

"Seems like an age since I've stopped more than a minute in one spot," Jessie sighed.

Kate sat down beside her, bringing the basket of food with her. She studied Jessie's face, catching the weary undertones in her voice. Jessie had tossed her hat behind her and was on her back, one arm behind her head, her long legs sprawled out in front of her. Her eyes were closed, her hair a thick golden mane that framed her tanned face, just touching her collar. A patch of pale skin on her upper chest that the sun hadn't touched was exposed where the shirt lay open. She looked terribly vulnerable, and Kate suddenly realized that for all Jessie's ability and strength, she was still but a woman barely older than Kate, and a very tired one.

"Are you all right, Jessie?" she asked softly, her voice husky with concern.

Jessie turned her head toward Kate, her lids fluttering open. She found herself looking up into Kate's deep, dark eyes and for a moment she did not answer. Kate's skin was the most beautiful color that Jessie had ever seen, like fresh cream. Her black hair and brows emphasized her loveliness, and Jessie thought of a picture of angels she had seen in one of her father's books. Just now, however, Kate's eyes were cloudy and there was a little frown line above her nose. Jessie smiled then, a brilliant smile that chased the shadows from Kate's eyes.

"I'm fine, Kate. This has been a hard week for my ranch. I've sold or traded most of my stock, and there were a few deals I wasn't sure I could make. But I think it's over now."

"You'll be leaving soon, won't you?" Kate asked, her expression darkening even more.

Jessie leaned up on one elbow, nodding. "The day after tomorrow, Kate. The men have let off some steam, and we all have a lot of work to do when we get back."

Kate looked away, her hands tightening in her lap. "Of course. I see."

Now Jessie was troubled. Seeing Kate upset bothered her more than she could say. "Kate. Is something wrong?"

Kate turned to Jessie then, her cheeks flushed. "Oh Jessie, don't pay any attention to me. It's just that all this will be over then." Her eyes were suddenly, inexplicably, swimming with tears. "And-- and you'll be gone, too!" she finished softly.

"Kate, I -I..." Jessie hesitantly touched the back of her hand to the single drop that had escaped Kate's long lashes, trailing unheeded down her cheek. "Kate," Jessie whispered, a tightness in her chest so heavy she thought she would stop breathing.

Kate placed her fingers gently on Jessie's. "Shh, never mind. It's not your fault."

Jessie's eyes widened at the touch of Kate's hand. The air grew thick and a fine tremor began in Jessie's fingers. Her head buzzed like it did when she'd been too long in the saddle in the August heat.

Kate gazed at Jessie, frozen. She could see so clearly the quick rise and fall of Jessie's chest. She wanted desperately to run her fingers over the bruise that still lingered on Jessie's cheek, but she didn't dare move. If Jessie took her hand from Kate's skin, Kate feared she would die. Time stopped, every sound stilled, as they leaned toward one another, their gazes locked. Kate knew her face was high with color but all she could think about was Jessie's eyes. How could anyone's eyes be so blue?

Jessie felt as if she were falling with nothing to hold onto. Her legs trembled so much she could not have stood. Something inside her stirred, hungry and scared all at once. Her blood ran hot and fierce with a want she had no name for. Jessie pulled away, struggling with an army of sensations she had never known.

Kate's hand fell back into her lap.

"The sandwiches.." Jessie mumbled, reaching toward the basket.

"Yes," Kate answered, her voice unsteady.

They finished their lunch and walked back into town, each of them quiet.

"You'll come to the dance, won't you?" Kate said finally as they prepared to part. They stood very close, but they did not touch. "Before you go?'

Jessie nodded. "I'll be there."

Kate smiled. "Promise?"

"I promise, Kate," Jessie said with an answering smile.

Kate did touch her then, a light brush of her fingers along Jessie's arm. "Good," she said as she stepped away.

Jessie watched Kate leave, wondering why it seemed like something was tearing loose inside her. She stood there for a long time in the gathering dust, feeling more alone than she could ever remember.


Chapter eleven

"Martha! We'll be late if we don't leave soon!"

Martin and Kate were impatiently pacing the length of the sitting room, dressed and ready to go. Martin didn't want to miss a moment of the night's festivities. Kate's hadn't been able to think of anything all day except that this was Jessie's last night in town, and that it would seem so dreary with her and the other cowboys gone.

"Well, Kate! Since almost everyone in town will be at the dance tonight, it feels like your coming out ball all over again." He smiled at his daughter. "You look lovely."

She wore a midnight blue dress that her mother had carefully packed and carried all the way from Boston. It was elegant in its simplicity, cut away at the neck only enough to show a hint of bodice, the skirt skimming her slender form in the latest style. Kate had worn it once before, but not with the anticipation she did now. Tonight she felt like a woman, and not like a young girl on display.

"I think after this evening we'll be seeing more than a few young men appearing at our door," Martin enthused, beaming with fatherly pride.

Kate smiled at him, dismissing the question of suitors with an easy shrug. "We shall never know if we don't get there, Father. I'll go see what's keeping Mother."

Kate left Martin peering at his watch and made her way upstairs to her mother's room. She found Martha seated before her dressing table, dressed to go.

"Mother! Is something wrong? Are you ill?" Kate was frightened by the strange look on Martha's face.

Martha turned to Kate and smiled slightly. "Frightened I think, Kate. You and your father have settled in so well, it's as if you've always lived here. We've been here for weeks and I still feel like a stranger. Oh, everyone is kind and helpful, but I feel out of place. Tonight, with the whole town there, I'm not sure I can manage!" She shook her head helplessly.

Kate went to her and put her hands on her mother's shoulders sympathetically. "You expect too much of yourself, Mother. There's no hurry. You'll discover in time that these people are really no different than those we knew in Boston. You have to look past their clothes and their different ways, and see them for the honest, good people that they are." She met her mother's eyes in the mirror. "I don't expect you'll like all of them, but I think you'll find most of them can be friends. Some of them are quite extraordinary." She gave Martha a little shake, laughing. "Come on now, before Father explodes!"

Martha followed her daughter downstairs, far from convinced, but determined to make the best of her situation since it was clear to her that her husband and her daughter had already made New Hope their home.


Jessie packed her valise and stood it at the foot of the bed. She planned to leave in the morning and had already settled her accounts at the bank. She only stayed tonight because of the town gathering and dance. It was a town tradition to celebrate the end of roundup, and despite the fact that she didn't know most of the townspeople any more than to say hello, she had been raised to respect tradition. And she had promised Kate that she would be there.

Thinking of Kate made her smile. There was something so fresh and eager about Kate that when they were together everything seemed so much more exciting than it ever had before. No one had ever made her feel at once so comfortable and so alive. She knew there were other feelings Kate stirred in her, but, not knowing how to explain them, she set them aside. Soon she would be back at the ranch and she would probably never see Kate again, except to nod hello in the street when they might happen to meet. Unaccountably saddened by the realization, she turned to the mirror above the dresser and surveyed her reflection, determined not to think about anything except the evening ahead.

She wore a black shirt with silver trim at the pockets and cuffs tucked into close-fitting black pants. Her blond hair was tied loosely at the back of her neck with a black ribbon. The heavy beaten silver trim on her ornate holster matched the shimmering silver threads in her shirt.

'I look like a tenderfoot," she thought ruefully, but she was not displeased. She reached for her black hat and closed her door.

When Jessie arrived she found the crowd already beginning to spill out into the street in front of the meeting hall. Music and the muted roar of many voices wafted out through the open double doors. She sidled her way through the crowd, nodding and exchanging hellos with wranglers she knew and townspeople she recognized. When she entered the large crowded room, she made her way slowly around the periphery toward tables in the rear where women offered food and drink. In the center of the space people jostled and talked and surrounded those couples dancing to the lively music of several fiddlers. Suddenly she was very hungry. A robust arm reached out for her, and she turned, meeting twinkling blue eyes and a broad smile.

"Jessie Forbes! You look mighty fine tonight," Hannah Schroeder bellowed to Jessie above the roar. "I heard that you did well at the auction this year. I'm pleased to hear it!"

Jessie broke into a smile and shouted back, "Thank you, and your husband, too. I would say I'm pleased enough with how the Rising Star did!"

Hannah Schroeder nodded again and began to pile food on a plate. As she handed it to Jessie, she seemed to remember something and shouted again, "Jessie, I forgot to introduce you two. This here is Mrs. Martin Beecher. She and her family are new in town! Martha, this is Jessie Forbes, one of the ranchers from north of town."

Jessie looked quickly at Martha, who was staring at her intently, and doffed her hat. Now she could see the resemblance to Kate in that dark hair and penetrating gaze.

"Ma'am," Jessie said politely. "I'm pleased to know you. I hope you're settling in well."

Martha struggled to absorb the idea of a woman striding about in public dressed like a man, and carrying a weapon. Different, Kate had said? Indecent was more like it. Lord, what were people thinking of out here!

She answered stiffly, "How do you do, Miss Forbes." She turned away gratefully when a new arrival extended a plate for her to fill. All she could think was how relieved she would be when all this roundup business was over and these cowboys would leave town.

Jessie stared after her for a second, then nodded to Hannah and moved off to a quiet corner of the room to eat.

Kate had been watching for Jessie to arrive all evening, and when she first saw her, she caught her breath sharply in surprise. She had not known what to expect, but certainly not this! Jessie appeared neither as a dusty trailhand nor as another frontier woman in her best Sunday dress. Jessie was just herself - striking in shimmering black and silver, confident and sure, she stood slightly apart from the crowd and in Kate's eyes was the most interesting person in the room. Kate stepped quietly away from the group of young women she was with and made her way through the crowd toward her.

Jessie leaned back against a broad wooden pole a little away from the edge of the dance floor, listening to the music and trying to relax. A cool evening breeze drifted in from an open window nearby. She looked over the crowd, searching for Kate. She hadn't thought about much else all day except that she would see Kate that night, and she couldn't stop worrying over their strange lunch the day before. Something was troubling Kate, and that troubled her more than anything ever had.

Then Jessie saw her and forgot completely what she had been fretting about. Kate was a vision in blue, easily the loveliest woman in the room, and the smile she sent Jessie's way set her heart to pounding strangely.

"I thought you might not come!" Kate said breathlessly as she stopped in front of her, her eyes searching Jessie's face.

"And what else would I do during the biggest gathering of the year?" Jessie asked teasingly. She grinned a little shyly. "Besides, I told you that I would be here."

"Yes, you did," Kate said softly. She knew somehow that Jessie would always keep her word.

Jessie looked down at her, surprised by the wistful note in her voice.

"You look beautiful tonight. I like you in black." Kate said it quietly, realizing she really meant it. Odd, because ordinarily she didn't notice such things. Jessie had a way of capturing her attention without doing anything more than smiling at her.

Jessie blushed under her tan and looked away. When she spoke, her voice was thick and low. "I'd say beautiful was more what you are tonight, Kate." She looked into Kate's face, her heart racing as her gaze traveled from Kate's eyes, dark and deep with feeling, to her full lips, curled into a faint smile. She was dimly aware of blood pounding in her ears as she watched the hypnotic rise and fall of Kate's breasts against the brilliant blue of the dress. "You shine with it."

Kate couldn't look away from her. The sound of Jessie's voice was all that she could hear, the blue of Jessie's eyes all that she could see. She took a step closer. Her head was even with Jessie's shoulder; she watched the pulse beat quickly in Jessie's neck.

Jessie's right hand was curled tightly around her silver studded belt, so tightly her fingers ached. She drew her breath in sharply as she felt Kate's fingers, feather light on her own, but she didn't move. Kate's eyes were sparkling black diamonds and her face was misted with a fine perspiration.

"Jessie--" Kate said softly.

Jessie jerked her head around as a male voice said beside them, "Why, Miss Beecher, you look too pretty tonight to be standing off here all alone. I think you should be dancing. May I have that pleasure?" Ken Turner, the town's only lawyer and a relative newcomer himself, was smiling confidently down at Kate, waiting expectantly.

"I'm not alone!" Kate retorted hotly, not bothering to hide her anger at his rude interruption. "I'm talking with..."

Jessie quickly pulled her hand from under Kate's, took a step back, and added quietly, "He's quite right, Kate. This is a party, and you should be dancing. Please go ahead."

Kate glanced up at Jessie, unable to decipher the distant expression in her eyes. She didn't know how to politely refuse Ken Turner's request, although leaving Jessie to dance with him was the last thing she wanted to do. She nodded silently to the man beside her and took his arm, letting him lead her to the floor. As she followed, she struggled with her anger and confusion. She had not wanted to dance with him, and she did not understand why Jessie suggested that she should. As he placed his arm lightly around her waist Kate looked back to where Jessie had been standing. Jessie was gone.


Jessie pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon and surveyed the empty room. Even Frank the bartender was at the dance. She walked behind the bar and poured a brandy, leaving a coin on the countertop. She pulled out a chair and sat at one of the tables, staring into the dark amber liquid swirling in her glass. She wasn't sure how long she'd been there when she heard footsteps on the stairs behind her.

"Well, Montana," Mae's softly called as she made her way behind the bar. "You're home early from the dance!"

"I don't much feel like it tonight, Mae."

"Oh? And everyone's there, too." Mae tried to read the thoughts behind Jessie's smooth features and failed. She poured herself a whiskey and came around to sit down on Jessie's right.

"Something happen tonight, Jess?" she asked casually, noting the hollow tone in Jessie's voice. She sipped the whiskey and watched Jessie's face. Jessie was too honest to hide much.

"What?" Jessie asked, as if from far away. She couldn't find the words to describe how she felt, even to herself. Empty, in a funny sort of way. "Oh, no. Just tired, I guess."

"Maybe you've had too much of this easy town living, Jessie. Maybe you're just homesick for a rocky bed and cold food," Mae teased lightly.

Jessie looked fondly over at Mae. "Maybe that's it, Mae. Too much comfort can be bad for you." She stretched her legs out under the table and shrugged her tense shoulders. "Maybe I just need to get back to the ranch where I belong."

Mae got up and stood behind her, her hands resting lightly on Jessie's shoulders. She gently kneaded the tight muscles, leaning close to murmur, "Tell you what I think you need, Montana. A good old-fashioned bath. Finish your drink now. One of the girls was just drawing me a hot tub upstairs. The way these muscles are strung, you feel like you could use it more than me."

Jessie sighed softly and leaned back, eyes closed. Mae's hands felt good, and she was weary. "You'll have me asleep here in a minute, Mae."

Mae stared down at Jessie's finely chiseled features and stroked her fingers lightly over the silky smooth skin of her neck. Minutes passed and Jessie remained motionless, her slender hands resting quietly on her thighs, her head resting gently against Mae's body.

Mae finally moved her hand and whispered with effort, "Come on, Montana. I'll give you a hand with that bath."

Jessie shuddered and roused herself. She followed Mae slowly up the stairs, but her mind was still on the dance, and the way that Kate had looked in Ken Turner's arms. She had no idea why it bothered her so much that she wouldn't get to say goodbye.

"Shed those duds," Mae instructed as she tested the temperature of the water, and added a little more from a still steaming kettle sitting on the fireplace hearth in the far corner of the room. "And climb in here."

Jessie stripped, laying her clothes over the chair next to the bed. She lowered herself into the tin tub, sighing. "That does feel good."

Mae stood behind her, working up a lather with a bar of soap. "Dunk your head, Montana."

Jessie did, then shook the water from her eyes and rested her neck on the rim, stretching her arms out along the sides. The water came to just above her breasts. She closed her eyes as Mae began to wash her hair, groaning softly in appreciation. She drifted with the heat and the soothing rhythm of Mae's fingers on her scalp.

Mae watched as Jessie's limbs loosened and her breathing became slow and deep. Gently she rinsed the soap from Jessie's thick sun-streaked hair, smoothing the stray strands off her face. Mae rested her palms very lightly on Jessie's shoulders, her fingers trailing over the edge of her collar bone, just brushing the pale skin of her upper chest. Jessie shifted, sighing faintly. Mae held her breath for a long moment, her hands trembling.

"Jessie," Mae murmured.

Jessie heard the soft voice call to her from a long ways away. She smiled up into the face so close to hers, responding to the welcoming gaze with a swift rush of pleasure. She lifted her hand and caught the fingers that stroked her skin, turning the palm and pressing it to her lips. She was warm, warm and liquid deep within, and her limbs trembled with a sweet urgency that grew more insistent as she drew the hand she held onto her breast. She tilted her head, eager for a kiss from the lips so near her own. With the first gentle pressure on her mouth, she sighed again, the breath stealing from her body on the wings of desire.

"Wake up, Montana," Mae repeated, louder this time.

Jessie came awake with a start, sitting up so suddenly that water splashed over the rim onto the floor. "Lord," she muttered, looking wildly about. Mae stood beside her, a towel in her hand. "What happened?"

"You fell asleep," Mae said matter of factly.

"That's all?" Jessie asked, trying to piece together the fragments of the dream. All she could clearly recall were wisps of color -blue skies, and white bits of clouds, and dark eyes that held her. Eyes that were very different from Mae's deep green ones. Her body was quivering strangely and she thought her skin might catch fire from the inside. She drew a ragged breath, reaching for the towel, stepping from the tub on trembling legs. "You sure?"

"What else?" Mae said, heading for the door. She wasn't about to tell Jessie whose name she had murmured in her sleep. There wasn't any point to giving her ideas if she didn't already have them. The one way Jessie differed from the cowboys she rode with was that she was sweetly unschooled in matters of the flesh. Mae loved Jessie's innocence as much as it sometimes tried her. "You were just dreaming, Jess."

Jessie stared at the door as it closed behind her friend, the memory of the kiss still tingling on her lips.


Chapter twelve

"Kate, Kate darling! You must go upstairs and get ready. Mr. Turner will be here for dinner any moment and you don't want him finding you like that!" Martha called.

She frowned as Kate turned away from the window where she had been sitting most of the afternoon, silent and withdrawn. As her daughter disappeared obediently upstairs, Martha turned to Martin who sat before the fireplace, engrossed in the paper. "Martin, I'm worried about Kate. She has been so quiet these last few weeks. She spends most of her time in that dark room with her pictures, and she rarely visits any of her new friends. I do believe she's losing weight. She needs to get out more!"

Martin glanced up and chuckled. "Haven't you noticed all this mooning about started shortly after the dance last month? Just about the time young Ken Turner started calling? I should think you'd recognize the way a young girl acts when she's being courted!" He smiled and shook his head. "And I must say, I like that Turner. He's got a fine head on his shoulders and a promising future in this town! He'd make a very good husband for Kate."

Martha looked exasperated. She wasn't as convinced as her husband about the cause of Kate's moodiness. She knew how young girls in love acted. They might moon about, but only when it suited them. She saw none of the excitement in Kate's eyes that should have been there when Ken Turner came to call, and none of the eagerness for his visits that was the normal reaction. Ken Turner gave every indication that his intent was serious where Kate was concerned. Kate was polite and attentive, as was proper and expected under the circumstances, but when alone, she was melancholic.

"I'm not so sure, Martin. Kate isn't acting at all like herself.'' Martha hoped that Kate hadn't gotten some romantic notion about love confused with practicality. Marriage was the first priority. Fondness would follow, as it had for her and Martin.

Martin sighed and went to his wife, putting his arms around her. "Don't worry, my dear. No reason in the world why she shouldn't take to Ken Turner, and given time, she'll see that, too."


"I'm sorry," Kate said, blushing. "What did you say?"

Sitting with her parents and Ken Turner in the parlor after dinner, Kate found her mind wandering. She was restless and had a hard time paying attention to the usual topics of conversation that inevitably included discussions of the weather, the newspaper business, and the increasing lawlessness along the Overland Trail. As the conversation went on around her, she wondered why she wasn't feeling what she should for Ken Turner. He was pleasant and amusing and her parents approved of him. He had all the attributes of a proper suitor.

When he looked at her with fond regard, she felt like a bird in a trap. She wanted to flee, and realized with ever deepening dread that she had nowhere to go. She tried to imagine being married to him, for surely that was why he continued to call, and she couldn't. She could not imagine waking up next to him in the morning or talking with him over breakfast, and she could not, no matter how hard she tried, imagine lying with him in the night. When he kissed her cheek before leaving in the evening, she had to force herself not to recoil from his touch.

"I'm sorry?" she repeated.

"Mr. Turner was asking about the help you've been giving Millie down at the school," Martha chided gently.

"Oh! yes," Kate replied, trying to sound enthusiastic, for in truth helping Millie Roberts was the only thing preserving her sanity, or so it seemed to her. "There are so many more children now, and since she's expecting her own soon, Millie needed help."

"Admirable," Ken remarked. "A very fine thing for you to do until a regular teacher can be found, and you are married yourself!"

Kate stared at him, at a loss as to how to respond. It was true that teaching was usually considered an occupation for unmarried women, since women rarely held any kind of employment after marriage. Kate had never understood that, and as she considered her own future, it made even less sense. What was wrong with her?

Kate looked at the handsome young man in her parents' parlor and thought about the evening they had met. The only thing she could recall about the entire evening was a tall blond woman in black and silver. Jessie. Kate hadn't even had the chance to say goodbye. The next morning after the dance she had hurried through town to the auction yards, only to find that the pens were all empty. With a sinking feeling she had surveyed the gates standing open and the deserted corrals and a sadness had settled upon her that would not lift. She ached, and longed for something she could not name.

She had not seen Jessie since, but her memory of her was as clear as one of her photos. She kept looking for her every time a cowboy rode into town or she heard the jingle of spurs on the sidewalk behind her. When she lay down to sleep, she remembered the glow in Jessie's eyes as they stood close together, their hands lightly touching. She would find herself shivering, first hot, then cold, her heart racing. Her dreams were filled with strange half-visions of long, slender fingers, golden hair and blue, blue eyes. She would awaken in the morning even more unsettled, with a curious trembling in her stomach. What was happening to her?

"Kate, Kate!" Martha looked at her daughter with concern. "Mr. Turner has asked to see some of your photos, dear."

Kate forced a bright smile. "Of course! How kind. I'll bring some out for you." She escaped gratefully for a few moments to her room, counting the minutes until she could be alone again.


Jessie paced uneasily up and down on the broad porch that fronted her home. It was late, and the night was still under a black sky broken only by the faraway flicker of summer stars. For some reason she couldn't read. Her mind kept losing the thread. Her insides were churning, and even a bit of whiskey couldn't settle her. She had taken to riding hours on the open range every day, checking fences that didn't need mending and riding herd on horses that didn't need tending. She slept poorly and was short-tempered, flaring up at Jed over nothing at all. Even the sight of the sun setting over the land she loved failed to calm her. This land, her home, which had always been her comfort, seemed empty and barren.

The sound of her boots on the wood floors echoed aimlessly off the walls, and she was lonely. She sighed deeply and looked about her. She was tired, but she knew she wouldn't sleep. Instead, she walked to the barn and saddled her horse. She'd ride, and maybe she'd no longer feel the ache.

Hours later, she dismounted in front of the saloon in New Hope. It was near to closing and the bar was almost empty when she entered. She smiled wanly at Frank's surprised face as she leaned against the bar. "Evening, Frank. Got any of that brandy left?"

"Sure thing, Jessie. Kind of surprised to see you in here tonight."

"Me, too, Frank. I just started out and this is where I ended up."

He didn't comment. He'd been a bartender long enough to know that sometimes a cowboy just got tired of the silence out there in the night. He poured her a drink and filled her in on some of the local news.

Jessie listened and nodded, letting the warm glow of the brandy take the worry from her mind.

"Buy a lady a drink, Montana?"

Jessie smiled, her spirits lifting. She turned to Mae, nodding. "I sure will, if you'll sit and drink it with me, Mae."

Mae's sharp glance took in the circles under Jessie's eyes and the uneasy expression even the liquor couldn't smooth away. "You know there's nothing I'd like better, Jess. What brings you in here this time of week? Ranching getting too quiet for you?"

"Couldn't sleep," she admitted. "Didn't know what I wanted til I ended up here."

"Oh?" Mae's eyebrows arched, and she said in a slightly mocking tone, "and what might that be?"

Jessie flushed, suddenly shy. "A friendly voice and a warm smile, I think."

Mae took Jessie's arm in hers and led her to a corner table. She lifted her glass to her lips and stared intently into Jessie's troubled eyes. "I'd say you've got something on your mind, Montana. Want to talk about it?"

"I don't know, Mae. I haven't been right lately. You know I love the ranch, and the work has always made me happy. These last few weeks I've felt sort of uneasy, like something was missing. Can't seem to get my head clear." Jessie looked down at the table, confused.

"Maybe you're just expecting too much from it, Jess. Work can't be everything to a person. I'd say you need a little relaxing now and then. Never could figure how a body could work as hard as you do!"

Jessie laughed and tipped her brandy glass. Suddenly she didn't feel quite so alone. She bought them both another drink, and they sat and talked and waited for the sun to come up.

Finally, Jessie arched her back and looked out toward the street. "Lord, Mae! I've kept you up the whole night!"

Mae swallowed the last of her drink and answered slowly, "Can't think of anyone else I'd rather spend the night with, Jess."

A small smile played across Mae's face. Jessie looked into her green eyes and felt herself grinning like a fool.

"I'll remember that, Mae."

As she walked Jessie to the door and watched her walk out into the morning, Mae answered softly, "You be sure and do that, Montana."


Chapter thirteen

Martin groaned softly and turned over, struggling to ignore the pounding in his head. At last he gave in and opened one eye. It was then that he realized that the barrage was coming from his front porch. He reached for his watch on the nightstand and was astounded to see that it was not yet six in the morning.

"Who could that be?" Martha queried anxiously from beside him as she sat up, the coverlet clutched protectively to her chest.

"I'll go see," he muttered, searching on the floor for his slippers.

Kate's bedroom door opened and she peeked out, bleary-eyed and confused. "What is it?"

Martin shook his head, trudging sleepily to the stairs. "Don't know, my dear."

Kate pulled her robe tightly closed over her nightgown and followed Martin down the stairs. Through the curtains covering the window in the front door she recognized Thaddeus Schroeder's large form. He was raising his fist to bang again on the frame, simultaneously rattling the doorknob. The entire door shook on its hinges.

"Wait a minute!" Martin bellowed as he fit the key to the lock.

"Martin!" Thaddeus shouted before the door was half open. "Get dressed. We've got to put out a special edition of the paper! There's news, man!"

"What's happened?" Martin asked, instantly awake and turning back toward the stairs. "Let me get into some clothes."

Thaddeus followed into the foyer, calling after him, "A stagecoach was held up not far outside of town. It was on its way from the territorial seat in Bannack with some fellows from the land title office. They were carrying a fair amount of cash."

"The stage!" Martin exclaimed, turning back at the top of the stairs. "But who?"

Thaddeus shook his head angrily. "Outlaws from further west in the territory. Men who couldn't find gold on their own and decided to steal it. They held up the coach and scared the passengers half to death. Robbed them and then were fixing to shoot them all. Imagine that!" He glanced impatiently at his friend. "Come on, Martin, we've got to get down to the Doc's."

Martin frowned. "Doctor Melbourne's? What for?"

Thaddeus gave him an impatient look. "Because a couple of folks got shot up. I told you those boys were looking for trouble!"

Martin's face went pale. This was a little more excitement than he had been prepared for. "Shot! My Lord, Thaddeus, who?"

Thaddeus looked even more distressed. "The driver - Bill Marley - and Jessie Forbes."

Kate felt the blood drain from her face and she sat down quickly on the stairs, her head buzzing. She was dimly aware of her father rushing down the hall toward his bedroom, of her mother's frightened voice calling questions, of Thaddeus shouting something in the background about Jessie. She pulled herself up on the banister and waited for her head to stop swirling.

"Mr. Schroeder," she gasped, her voice shaking, "Mr. Schroeder...."

"Yes, Kate," Thaddeus said distractedly, pacing at the foot of the stairs.

"Jessie. How is Jessie?" Kate held tightly to the railing, fearing that she might scream.

Thaddeus looked uncomfortable. "I don't know, Kate. She rode into it, apparently, and tried to stop the holdup. The Marshal and some other men rode out with a wagon not long ago to get her and Marley. They should be coming into town soon." He stopped as Martin brushed past Kate and clamored down the stairs. Both men rushed out, slamming the door behind them.

Kate slumped against the wall, willing herself to think. In her mind's eye she saw Jessie - her blue eyes, her golden hair, her shy grin. Kate was not a stranger to death. In the arduous months of their journey west she had seen accidents and illness claim the lives of men, women, and children. But like this? Could the life of someone as gentle and kind as Jessie simply be snuffed out by men with no regard for law or morality? For the first time, Kate understood that the bright new world she had discovered held evil, too, a darkness where death came quickly, without concern for goodness or justice.

"Oh Lord," Kate whispered, afraid for the first time since leaving Boston. "Not Jessie. Please."

Her fear was what finally galvanized her. She rushed to her room and hastily pulled off her nightclothes. As she searched in her dresser for undergarments, she uncovered the photograph of Jessie she had taken the day of the picnic and then tucked away for safekeeping.

"Oh," she gasped, lifting it tenderly in both hands. She stared at the image, her eyes slowly filling with tears as she recalled Jessie's easy smile and the soft touch of her hand as they sat side by side under a cloudless sky that had held no hint of tragedy. The memory was so powerful she trembled.

"Kate!" Martha called from the doorway of her daughter's room. "Where are you going at this hour?"

Kate crushed the photograph to her breast protectively and said without turning, "There's been a holdup. I'm going into town to see what's happening."

"That's no place for you," Martha admonished, more concerned for Kate's safety than propriety. "There may be trouble."

Kate finally faced her. "I must do something," she said stubbornly. "I can't stay here not knowing."


A large crowd had gathered in the street, shifting and pulsating with a life of its own. Men stood on the steps in front of the Marshal's office, waving rifles and shouting to others to form a posse. Men, women, and children milled about in front of the doctor's storefront office, craning for a view and talking excitedly all at once. Kate stood at the outskirts of the group, struggling to see, straining to hear any word of Jessie. With each second her anxiety grew.

"Excuse me," she asked of a man nearby. "Is there any news?"

He shook his head. "None for sure. Somebody's dead, but ain't no one saying who." He turned away as a swell of voices signaled that something was about to happen.

Kate's head was pounding so painfully she was afraid she would faint. Then she heard the rattle of wooden wheels on the rutted road and knew that the wagon was coming. She began pushing her way through the crowd without thought for good manners or behavior. She must see for herself or go mad!

As she drew closer she saw men lifting blanket-shrouded bodies out of the wagon bed and carrying them into one of the buildings. Her mind refused to register the horror of that image. She struggled up to the side of the wagon and looked in. Her eyes grew wide, and her breath caught painfully in her chest.

Jessie lay unconscious on the rough wooden boards, blood matted in her hair and an ugly dark hole in her shirt just below her left shoulder. Her chest and part of the blanket were soaked red. Her lips were white and she was so still. So very still.

"Jessie," Kate whispered, an eternity of agony in her voice. "Oh no, Jessie."

Strangers reached in to gently lift Jessie from the wagon, and Kate heard her moan faintly. Kate bit her lip to stop a cry, her heart twisting to see Jessie's pain.

"Let me get a look at her," an irritated voice commanded as a harried looking middle-aged man shoved his way through the press of people. Kate recognized Doctor Melbourne. He looked under Jessie's shirt, shook his head worriedly, then looked up into the faces of the townspeople gathered around.

"I need one of you women to help me with her. She's got a bullet in her chest, and if we don't get it out, she's going to die. I can't have somebody fainting when I start digging, so make sure you can take it."

A blond woman with striking green eyes moved forward to the doctor's side and looked quickly at Jessie's inert form. She met his gaze squarely.

"Let's get going then, Doc," she said calmly. "She's strong, but she ain't made of iron."

The doctor nodded, his face determined. "C'mon, Mae. We've got some work to do."

Kate stood staring after them as they disappeared inside with Jessie, feeling helpless and terribly alone.


Chapter fourteen

Kate sat motionless on the same bench where she had been sitting a little more than two months ago when she had first seen Jessie Forbes. A lifetime ago, it seemed to her now. As she watched the door to the doctor's office, hoping for some word, she realized that all she had wanted these last few weeks had been to see Jessie again. As soon as Jessie had ridden out of town after the roundup, Kate missed her. Every day, as she went about her business - learning about her new home and her new responsibilities, helping Millie at the school, taking the occasional family portrait for new friends and neighbors, even entertaining Ken Turner, she missed her. She missed her easy smile and her gentle way of talking and the way that she made Kate feel special. She missed looking at her in her dusty levis and work-dampened shirt, and feeling her own heart race for no apparent reason. She missed the way the sound of Jessie's spurs jingling could make her stomach quiver in that oddly nice way. She missed the light touch of Jessie's fingers when they brushed over her hand and the warmth it started inside. She missed her.

Kate's mind was blank for long periods, and then suddenly she would remember why she was waiting. Jessie was hurt. Her throat tightened and tears threatened to spill. Hours passed, but she had no real sense of the passage of time. The sun grew bright and hung high in the sky, casting a harsh, merciless light over the brown earth of the street. People passed by, some spoke to her, and she nodded automatically. Her eyes remained fixed on the door across the street.

Sometime in the morning a group of men came galloping hard into town and clustered in a roiling pack in the street in front of the doctor's. A man Kate had seen with Jessie at the roundup raced into the doctor's office while the others paced about outside. He came out a short time later and murmured something to the agitated men crowded around. Now they were sitting on the stairs or leaning against the railings, smoking and waiting, too.

Kate struggled for a way to describe emotions that she had no words for. What would she feel, if she never saw Jessie again? Without fully understanding it, she knew there would be an emptiness inside of her that would never be filled. She felt connected to Jessie in some deep way that she had never experienced before. It can't happen, she said over and over. Not now. Not when I'm just beginning to see.

It took Kate several seconds to realize that the door across the street had opened, so far had she drifted into that unbearable place of loss. The blond woman who had volunteered to help the doctor with Jessie was talking to the waiting men gathered outside. Kate gave a small cry and jumped to her feet. That woman would know about Jessie!

As the woman started slowly down the street, Kate hurried after her, the hem of her dress lifted in both hands, higher than was proper, so that it would not trip her. She couldn't be bothered about how she looked now. As Kate drew near, the woman's exhaustion became apparent. Her golden hair had fallen from its pins, tumbling in disarray over her bare shoulders. Her emerald green dress, far too revealing for walking about in, was rumpled and stained. Kate registered, in a distracted way, that she was quite beautiful.

Kate reached a trembling hand and touched the woman's arm.

"Excuse me. I'm sorry," Kate, said, her voice wavering. "Can you tell me how Jessie is?"

Mae turned, her eyes bleak. "She's alive, barely."

Kate swayed, suddenly dizzy. "Oh, thank God!"

"God had nothing to do with it," Mae answered bitterly.

"Please," Kate persisted, fighting to clear her vision, "could you tell me ..." Her voice trailed off as spots danced in front of her eyes. The turmoil of the day and the absence of any nourishment were making her light-headed.

Mae grasped the pale young woman's arm with a strong hand and peered at her closely, trying to remember where she had seen her before, and why she should be so upset. Mae sighed, too tired to be surprised by anything at the moment. "Right now I need a drink, and from the looks of you, you could use one, too. Come with me."

Kate allowed herself to be led down the street, scarcely noticing their destination. Relief washed through her and all she could see was Jessie's face. Mae took her down an alley and through a side door into the saloon. Mae pointed to a table in the rear of the deserted room, and Kate sank down gratefully.

Mae walked to the bar and slumped onto a stool. She pushed her hair away from her face wearily. "Frank, give me a tall whiskey. And a brandy."

Frank poured the drinks and looked at Mae cautiously. "You want me to get you something to eat, Mae? You look pretty done in."

Mae started to shake her head no, and then caught sight of Kate's trembling figure. The girl looked like she might swoon any second. "Maybe a couple of sandwiches."

He nodded, then asked quietly, "Jessie gonna make it?"

She looked at him, a lifetime of sorrow written in her expression. "If there is any justice in this world, she will."

She took the drinks from him, crossed to where Kate was sitting, and put the brandy into Kate's hands. "Drink this."

Kate looked at it uncomprehendingly, still not herself.

"Come on, now," she said, not unkindly. "Drink it. Then we'll talk." As she spoke, Mae took a stiff gulp of her own drink and welcomed the fiery trail it burned down her throat. The pain was much better than the hopelessness she had felt looking at Jessie lying naked, a great gaping tear in her, while her blood ran red onto Mae's hands. Mae closed her eyes and held the glass tightly, her fingers white.

Kate took a swallow. Her eyes widened and she coughed, half choking. Color flooded her face and she seemed to waken, as if from a dream.

"Oh!" she exclaimed.

Mae opened her eyes and touched Kate's hand reassuringly. "First time's the hardest. Drink some more."

Kate gasped and took another sip. She straightened up a little and looked intently at Mae. Her mind was clear although her stomach felt odd. "Would you tell me now?"

Mae smiled at Kate slightly, hearing the steel in her voice and thinking that she was tougher than she first appeared. Mae had a feeling she might like her under other circumstances.

"Well," Mae said slowly, "she's pretty torn up but the doc got the bullet out and he said it didn't do damage to any, uh, vital organs." She shook her head, trying to dispel the image of him probing in Jessie's shoulder with cold metal instruments while she held Jessie down. How could a person live after something like that was done to her? She was only thankful that Jess didn't seem to have had any awareness of it, only moaning softly as the doc worked.

"And she'll be all right?" Kate persisted, her eyes fixed on Mae's face, looking for the truth.

Mae sighed and finished her drink at a swallow. "The big problem, he said, was all that blood she lost. If she does all right through the night, she should get well."

"Then it's not over yet," Kate whispered softly, feeling something inside her grow hard and cold. "She'll be all right. I know she will."

Mae looked at the set to Kate's jaw and the way her spine stiffened. 'The girl's got spirit, all right,' she thought to herself. She walked to the bar and returned with a bottle, setting it down between them.

"Let's have another drink, sweetie."

Kate looked at her and smiled grimly. She held out her hand and said, "My name is Kate Beecher, by the way."

"Figured it might be," Mae said dryly, and took her hand.


Kate looked up as a man approached, his face set and grim. It was the man she had seen with Jessie at the roundup, the one who had been waiting outside the doctor's office. He sat down across from Mae and nodded a weary greeting.

"I want to thank you, Mae. For what you did for Jess." His voice was very soft for such a big man.

"No need to thank me, Jed. Not when it's Jess," Mae said quietly. She turned to Kate. "This here is Jed Harper, Jessie's foreman. Jed - Miss Kate Beecher."

"Hello, Jed."

"Ma'am," he said absently, still looking intently at Mae. He continued angrily, "The damn doctor won't let me in there, Mae, and he won't say no more than that she's alive. What's going on?"

"I don't know much more than you do, Jed. We're just waiting." Her expression hardened. "Did they catch those bastards yet, Jed?"

Kate was shocked at first at the undisguised hatred in Mae's voice, and then realized that she felt the same way. She looked at Jed expectantly.

"Ain't but one to catch, Mae," Jed said, laughing darkly. "Jess got one herself, with both of them firing on her, too. And from the looks of things, she got a piece of the other fella before -- before he got her." His voice trembled and he looked away. He swallowed several times before he added, "I sure don't want nothing to happen to that girl, Mae. I promised Tom I'd look after her and, and-- I think it's her been looking after me."

Mae put her hand on his shoulder and smiled a little. "You know how hard-headed Jess can be, Jed. I don't imagine she's going to leave things at the ranch up to you."

Jed's grateful glance bespoke his thanks. He took a deep breath, suddenly looked determined. "You know, I'd best get back out there and see to things, or she'll be madder than a hornet when she gets home."

"I'd keep an eye on your men, too, Jed," Mae suggested sagely. "Jess wouldn't want them doing anything crazy if they catch this fella."

"No need to worry about the boys," he growled, his eyes hard. "When we get him, I'll take care of him myself."

Mae regarded him solemnly, then nodded. "Be careful."

"Thanks, Mae."

Kate watched him go. "Would he? Kill the man?"

"Probably," Mae said, studying Kate closely.

Kate was silent for a long moment. Then she said with quiet conviction, "If I had a gun, Mae, I'd be ready to do it, too."

"Might not be a bad idea, even if you're not fixing to shoot someone," Mae suggested. "Learning how to shoot, I mean."

That was something that had never crossed Kate's mind, although she had admired Jessie's apparent ability to protect herself. She looked thoughtful, but did not reply. Instead she examined Mae's face carefully, realizing fully for the first time how drawn and tired she looked. Mae had been everyone's strength all day.

"Mae," Kate said kindly, "why don't you go and get some rest. I'll wait here for any news."

Mae gaped at her as if she could not believe her ears. "Lord, girl! Do you know where you are? And who I am, for that matter? Your folks'll take a fit when they hear where you spent the afternoon! You can't stay here!"

That set look returned to Kate's face. "You helped save Jessie's life - that's what I know about you. And so far, this place suits me fine. Just fine." She placed her hand gently on Mae's, and looked intently into her eyes. "I'm not going anywhere until we know. Please let me do something, Mae. I can't sit at home and talk about foolishness. Please."

Mae gave in to her tiredness. "All right, honey. But you stay back here away from the bar. The boys are gonna be mean tonight, and I don't want you hearing all that talk."

Kate's eyes blazed, and she said bitterly, "Do you think words could bother me after seeing Jessie like that this morning?"

Mae nodded silently. She understood just what Kate was feeling, because she felt the same way. She also wondered if Kate knew what it meant.


Chapter fifteen

Mae awakened to an insistent rapping on her door.

"Mae, Mae-- wake up. The doctor sent word for you to come! Mae!"

Mae sat up, pulling the ties of her bodice together hastily. "Come in, Kate. I'm awake."

Kate hurried in, her face flushed.

"What time is it?" Mae asked as she hurried about the room, gathering her things and pushing her hair into some kind of order.

"A little before ten."

Mae stared at her. "Lord, girl! Your parents will have the Marshal out searching for you."

Kate shook her head. "No, they won't. I know my father won't go home until there's word from the Marshal about the outlaws, so I sent John Emory to tell my mother I was staying in town at the news office."

"There'll be the devil to pay for that, Kate," Mae said admiringly.

"That may be, but I don't care." She held the door open, too anxious to talk any more. "Hurry."

They rushed down the hall, the sound of the dancehall piano and loud male voices echoing up the stairwell from the bar below. Behind the closed doors on either side of the narrow corridor, muted laughter and low moans filtered through the thin walls. On any other day of her life, Kate would have been shocked to hear what was happening in those rooms. She didn't think anything would ever shock her again.

They left through the second floor door to the stairs into the alley, the same way Kate had come with Jessie their first afternoon together. The streets were strangely empty, many of the men still out riding with the Marshal's posse. As they passed the newspaper office, Martin Beecher stepped out, exclaiming with surprise at the sight of his daughter.

"Kate! What are you doing in town this late?"

"I'm on my way to the doctor's," she explained. "I'll be home later."

He stared at her, open-mouthed. Kate thought she heard Mae chuckle faintly beside her.

"But Kate," he protested faintly, "without an escort .."

"Don't worry, Father. I'm fine," she said as she hurried on.

"Wait for me there," he called after them. "I'll take you home!"

As they approached the door to the doctor's office, they slowed abruptly and stared at each other. Kate's eyes were suddenly wide and frightened. Mae's mouth was set in a grim line. Reaching out, Mae took Kate's hand.

"Come on, honey. Let's go in."

Kate nodded and together they entered the small anteroom. The doctor, looking weary and rumpled, sat behind the scarred wooden desk. Kate held her breath, waiting for his words like a sentence of judgment.

"She's better, Mae. Weak, but better."

Kate gave a little gasp and sat down quickly on one of the hard, straight-backed chairs that lined the wall opposite the doctor, her limbs suddenly refusing to support her.

The doctor continued speaking. "She's not well enough to move yet, but tomorrow I think we ought to get her over to your place. Can you look after her there for a while? It'll be a few days before she's likely to wake up, and the wound'll need tending."

"Sure, Doc," Mae said immediately. "Won't be the first time we've turned a room upstairs into a sickroom."

He nodded as he recalled all the times that Mae had quietly provided a bed and food and care to some unfortunate with nowhere else to go, and with precious little thanks for it, too. He had always thought that Mae was a damn fine woman. Too bad some of the good townspeople didn't think so.

"Doctor," Kate asked, her voice low but steady, "may I see her please?"

The doctor replied in a startled voice, "But she's not awake yet, my dear. She wouldn't know you were there."

"I don't care about that," Kate insisted. "Just for a moment. Please." Her voice was firm.

"But--" he began.

Mae took a deep breath, thinking how Kate had waited all day, pale and patient and determined. Knowing she'd probably regret it, she said, "Can't do no harm, can it, Doc?"

He looked from one to the other; each regarded him steadily, their eyes never wavering. Strange pair, a young society lady and a lady of the evening. But he'd seen stranger things out here in this godless country, and many things far worse. He decided that he was no match for the two of them together.

"Not more than a minute," he relented. "And don't wake her."


An oil lamp in one corner, turned down low, cast flickering shadows throughout the small windowless room. A single iron bed stood in the center of the narrow space, a straight-backed wooden chair nearby. The sound of low, raspy breathing broke the deep silence. As her eyes adjusted, Kate made out the still shape of Jessie's body beneath the covers. She pulled her lower lip hard between her teeth to stop its trembling, and quietly stepped to the side of the bed.

Jessie's eyes were closed, her face pale and impossibly defenseless. A bandage covered the right side of her head, and the sight of a bright spot of blood in its center tore at Kate's heart. She was reminded that Jessie, for all her strength, was vulnerable, too. Kate watched the slow rise of Jessie's chest beneath the thin blanket and realized how quickly life could change, forever.

She reached out and softly stroked Jessie's cheek.

"It's Kate, Jessie," she whispered softly. "You're going to be all right." She lifted Jessie's cool fingers and cradled them in her hand, stroking the work-roughened palm gently. "You must sleep, and get well."

She wanted to make Jessie well; she wanted to give Jessie her strength and shield her while she healed. Kate felt so helpless that her chest ached. Her throat tightened with a longing so intense she had to close her eyes against the pain, drawing comfort from the steady sound of Jessie breathing.

Finally, she leaned forward and brushed her lips gently over Jessie's cheek. "Rest now," she whispered.

When she returned to the room where Mae waited with the doctor, Kate said, "I'd like to help you look after her, Mae. You can't possibly do it all yourself."

Mae looked at her steadily for a moment, wanting to refuse, not entirely certain why. "I don't think I could keep you away, could I?" she asked quietly.

"No, Mae. You couldn't."

Mae nodded silently. Some things would have to be settled later.


"Martin," Martha Beecher began in an agitated voice after Kate had made her announcement and gone up to bed, "you simply must speak to Kate. It is just not fitting for her to be spending time in that - that place. And with those women! She has her reputation to think of!"

Her husband frowned, and replied shortly, "For heaven's sake, Martha, she wants to help take care of a woman who was - injured -saving people's lives." He thought it best not to remind his wife that Jessie had been shot. Martha was already distraught enough. "No one is going to think anything evil about Kate for that!"

Martha was hurt by the harsh tone in his voice and tears came to her eyes. "I'm only thinking of Kate!"

Martin went to his wife and put his hands on her shoulders. "I know you are, dear, but you must try to understand. Life is hard and women out here have to be different. All of us must do things we never had to do before. Kate understands that. She is doing the proper thing."

Martha looked at him, clearly unconvinced. "What she needs is to be settled and safe. I'm not at all sure that this place is good for Kate. Not sure at all."

He sighed, "This isn't the usual situation, Martha. I'm sure that Kate will fine. You said yourself that you liked Ken Turner."

Martha rested her head on his shoulder, her anger draining away. "Oh Martin, I'm so worried about her. She seems to have changed somehow since we came here. I feel like I hardly know her."

He smoothed her hair, holding her carefully. "Kate is a good child, Martha. Let's give her a little time, and if you still feel she's not on the proper course, we'll talk about what needs to be done. I'm sure that you know what's best for her."

Martha nodded, wishing fervently that Kate had stayed behind in Boston.


Chapter sixteen

For a long time there was a horrible pain somewhere inside her, and when it began, her mind retreated. She slept. While she slept, she dreamed. She wandered over vast barren prairies and through dark mountain passes, searching for a place to rest. Each time she stopped, she waited, lonely and so cold, for the comfort that never came. She drifted in and out of consciousness, dimly aware that she was not alone. Soft voices soothed her and softer hands placed cool cloths on her burning forehead, bathing the fever from her skin. Gentle, insistent hands held her and forced nourishment between her lips. She struggled less and less with each touch, letting herself be healed. In the end, it was hunger that woke her.

Jessie opened her eyes and turned her face slowly toward the open window. She blinked against the first assault of sunlight, even as she welcomed the banishment of the dark that had surrounded her for so long. A breeze gently fluttered the curtains. Kate was sitting before the window, a book open in her lap.

Jessie lay silently for a moment, studying her. She didn't appear to be reading. She stared down into the street, her expression distant. Wisps of black hair, too thick to be contained, framed her face. Her full lips were unsmiling and there were dark smudges under her eyes. She looked worn and weary, and older than Jessie remembered. Even in her exhaustion, Jessie thought her beautiful.

"How long have you been here, Kate?" Jessie said quietly.

Kate gave a cry, turning to Jessie, her eyes wide. What she saw was what she had prayed for, every moment of the endless days since the wagon had carried Jessie into town: Jessie, her deep blue eyes clear and strong; Jessie, perfect lips curled into a faint smile of greeting. Jessie.

The resolve that had sustained Kate through near sleepless nights and days of worry dissolved with the swift rush of relief, and tears sprang to her eyes. She whispered Jessie's name, holding herself tightly, and cried.

Jessie waited for the storm to pass, wishing she could comfort her. "Kate," she said gently as Kate's quiet sobs abated. She made one feeble attempt to sit up, but quickly abandoned the idea when a searing pain ran down her arm. She gritted her teeth for a moment, then tried again. "Kate."

Kate swiped at the tears on her cheek and came to Jessie's side, smiling tremulously. "Don't try to get up."

"Don't worry," Jessie gasped, leaning back on the pillow. "I'll save that for a bit later."

Kate brushed her hair back, but the heavy locks would not be tamed. "I must look a fright!" she said, suddenly selfconscious.

"No," Jessie said seriously, "You're beautiful."

Kate colored slightly, but her eyes shone with pleasure. She asked tenderly, "Are you in pain, Jessie?"

Jessie forced a grin. "Not as bad as the time the bull ran me down when I was ten." She held Kate's eyes for a long moment, marveling at their dark beauty, and quickly forget the throbbing in her shoulder. "How long have I been here?" she asked at last.

"Almost a week."

A week during which she and Mae and several of Mae's 'girls' had taken turns sitting by Jessie's bed, changing her nightshirt when she soaked it through with sweat, replacing the bloody bandages and cleaning the terrible wounds, forcing her to drink and soothing her when she had cried out in the throes of some dream terror. Kate had come every day, despite Martha's increasingly vocal objections, and she often sent the others away, preferring to look after Jessie herself. All except Mae. Mae would often come in when Kate was there, to simply stand at the foot of the bed and watch Jessie sleep. When she was satisfied that Jessie was all right, she would disappear into the night. Where she went and what she did were none of Kate's affair, although Kate was fairly sure that she knew precisely what Mae was doing. Kate found that she didn't care. Jessie had almost been killed. Realizing that if it hadn't been a gunshot it might have been a stampeding horse or a rockslide up in the hills, Kate suddenly had a new appreciation of what truly mattered in life, and it certainly wasn't judging what someone else did to survive.

"The doctor says you'll be fine, but you need to rest," Kate assured her.

"Damn, I feel weak as a kitten," Jessie frowned. "And I'm not going to get any stronger laying up here."

Jessie tried again to push herself up again. A wave of dizziness rolled over her, followed quickly by a fierce surge of pain. She groaned and struggled not to faint. Kate reached for her without thinking, moving onto the edge of the bed and supporting Jessie's shivering body against her side with a protective arm around her shoulders. She held Jessie's face to her breast, stroking the damp hair back from Jessie's forehead. Jessie trembled and Kate caught her breath as something inside of her turned over.

With an effort, she said quietly, "You can't get up. Not just yet."

Jessie relaxed into Kate, too weak to protest, and Kate just held her. Kate had never been this close to another human being before, other than her parents. Nothing she had ever imagined had prepared her for the wave of tenderness that swept through her. She could scarcely breathe.

"Well," Mae said acerbically from the doorway behind them. "I guess our patient's getting better." She carried a tray to the dresser before turning to the women on the bed.

Kate released Jessie gently and stepped quietly to one side. She met Mae's eyes squarely but could not read the expression in her cool green gaze. Then Mae looked away from her toward Jessie, and her face softened.

"How are you, Montana?" Mae asked, her voice husky.

Jessie worked up a smile. "I'm downright embarrassed, Mae. Letting a couple of no-goods get the best of me, and causing all this trouble!"

Mae smiled fondly. "Jess, the only trouble you would have caused is if you'd up and died on us!"

Jessie grinned a little sheepishly, but the pain had taken its toll. "I can't seem to stay awake," she complained weakly."

Mae turned to Kate, a hint of challenge in her eyes. "I suspect we'd both better go and let Jessie rest a bit."

"Yes." Kate answered slowly.


Jessie awakened the next day to discover that the sun was already high in the sky, and she had lost nearly another day. She didn't mind so much when she found that she was not alone.

"What is that you're reading, Kate?" Jessie asked, managing to sit up this time with much less pain.

"The sonnets of Mr. William Shakespeare." Kate placed her finger on the page and lightly closed the cover on the leather-bound book. She looked across the room at Jessie, heartened to see how much better she appeared. There was color in her face and a sparkle in her eyes that Kate had feared she might never see again. "Do you know them?"

Jessie shook her head. "I've heard of him, but I'm not much for poetry. I'd rather have a story, I guess."

Kate smiled. "Every time I read one, I find something new to enjoy, even though I know most of them by heart."

Jessie nodded, contemplating Kate's words seriously. Finally she ventured, "Like always being surprised at how pretty the sunset is, even after seeing a thousand of them."

"Yes," Kate said quietly, her gaze meeting Jessie's tenderly, "exactly like that."

Jessie flushed, having never known such quiet communion in the rough world of cowboys. For some reason, it did funny things to her breathing, and it wasn't from something broken, but from something right. Kate's hands trembled as they held tightly to the thin volume in her lap, knowing that Jessie saw her as no one ever had. To others she had always been just another young woman with her future predetermined by virtue of her sex and status. Her father had allowed her to be different than other young girls, but only to a point. She might read in the college library, but he had not suggested she attend classes there. Jessie seemed content to let her simply be. The silence grew heavy as their eyes held, two women united not by common experience, but by a common sensitivity that drew them together more surely than convention or class.

Eventually Jessie, comforted in body and soul, closed her eyes and slept again. Kate, her heart full, smiled at her and returned to the poems.


Chapter seventeen

Jessie pulled the curtain aside, looking down the street for Kate. It was well past the time that Kate usually arrived in the morning, and Jessie was starting to worry. It was only a mile or so from Kate's home into town, and almost the entire route was well populated, but still she was a woman out alone. Ordinarily Jessie wouldn't have been so anxious, but her nerves were jangling as she considered what she was about to do.

"Well, you're up and dressed awfully early," a voice behind her observed.

Jessie turned. Mae stood just inside the door, still in her dressing gown. "I want to go home, Mae," Jessie said without preamble.

"Now Jess," Mae said, working to keep her voice even, "the Doc said you couldn't ride yet. You know darn well if you go back to the Rising Star that's the first thing you'll want to do!"

Jessie leaned against the window and muttered under her breath. Her face was thinner, but her color had returned. "Mae, I just can't stand it anymore! Lord knows what's going on out there! Jed is a good man, and I know it. But that's my ranch!" Jessie paced the room impatiently, frowning. She just wouldn't be right until she got out into the air again, out of town!

"It won't be much longer, Jess," Mae tried again. Lord, you couldn't tell these cowboys anything! "If you open up that tear in your shoulder, you could be in real trouble."

"Mae, I swear!" Jessie fumed, pushing her hands into the pockets of her levis. "I just don't feel healthy in here. And as kind as you've been, I feel like I'm fettered."

Mae went to her, laughing, and put her hands on Jessie's tense shoulders. She had to stand on tiptoe to look into Jessie's eyes, and she leaned against Jessie lightly for support. She shook her head, smiling at the perplexed expression in Jessie's eyes. "Oh, I know you're grateful, Montana. And I know just what you're feeling. I've known a lot of cowboys in my time, and I know better than to try to tame one. But if you go, you'd better promise to look after yourself. You ain't seen nothing til you've seen me mad!"

Jessie smiled down at Mae and put her hands gently on Mae's waist. "I want to thank you, Mae, for everything you've done for me. I know how bad off I was, and I owe you my life, I guess."

"I had help," Mae acknowledged as she tilted her head back and searched Jessie's face. Suddenly serious, she said softly, "Something special would have gone out of my life if I lost you, Jess." She pressed closer, sliding her arms around Jessie's shoulders, and put her lips gently on Jessie's mouth.

Kate pushed open the door and let out a startled cry of surprise. She stared, speechless, at Jessie holding Mae in her arms.

Jessie looked up, quietly releasing Mae. The kiss had taken her by surprise, and she was momentarily stunned by the softness of Mae's lips. She remembered dreaming, that night in the bath, of kissing lips as soft as those. But it had not been Mae she dreamed of, and, with a hint of relief, she said, "Why, Kate! Come in."

"I'm sorry. I should have knocked," Kate said coolly. Kate's first flush of embarrassment at coming upon such an intimate scene was quickly replaced by something else. She wasn't sure with whom, or why, but the sight of Mae in Jessie's arms made her angry.

Jessie smiled, innocently pleased to see her at last, the kiss forgotten. "I've been wondering where you were!"

Kate stared from one to the other of them, confused. Jessie's greeting was warm and welcoming, the way it always was. She chided herself for making too much of what she had seen, but a feeling of disquiet still lingered.

Mae stepped slowly away from Jessie, turning toward Kate with an enigmatic smile. "Yes, Kate. Do come in. I was just, uh, saying goodbye to Montana here."

"Goodbye!" Kate cried, her anger forgotten. She had consciously avoided thinking about what would happen when Jessie was healed, because she knew that Jessie would leave. Then, Kate feared, she would be left as she had been before, alone in a life she found increasingly oppressive. Her heart sinking, she repeated softly, "Goodbye."

Mae touched Jessie lightly on the arm as she headed for the door. "Don't forget to come calling now, Jess."

Kate turned sharply to Jessie, who was awkwardly trying to strap on her gun belt without using her injured arm.

"What are you doing?" Kate asked, fear making her tone sharper than she intended.

Jessie looked up in surprise. "Why, I'm going home, Kate."

Kate put the parcel of books and basket of food she had been carrying on the dresser and crossed to Jessie. "You'll hurt yourself," she admonished, struggling not to raise her voice.

Jessie held up a hand when she saw the frown on Kate's face. "Now don't you go at me, too! Jed is coming in the buckboard so I won't have to ride."

"You haven't been out of bed but for a day, Jessie," Kate said softly, reaching around Jessie's waist with both arms to settle the wide holster on Jessie's narrow hips. She stood close to her, threading the worn tongue through the silver buckle, fumbling slightly with the clasp.

Jessie went very still as Kate worked, acutely aware of Kate's fingers brushing over her legs. Kate's hair smelled fresh, like flower petals ripe with spring pollen.

"I promise to lie low when I get home," Jessie insisted. "But I need to get home, Kate."

"How does this thing tie?" Kate asked, her head bent as she studied the thong hanging from the holster.

"Around my leg," Jessie answered a bit hoarsely. She was starting to shake, but she didn't feel ill. She stiffened as Kate's hands encircled her thigh. She felt again as she had in the dream, stirred deep inside.

"Oh," she murmured in surprise as swift heat hit her in the stomach. Suddenly unsteady, she placed her good hand on Kate's shoulder to keep her balance. "Kate," she breathed uncertainly.

Kate stood quickly, reaching for her. Jessie's hands came around her waist. They stood, a whisper apart, while the room and reality receded, leaving only the two of them in a place out of time. Jessie leaned her forehead to Kate's and closed her eyes, content to rest. Kate rubbed her palms gently up and down Jessie's back, liking the hard strength of her. Somewhere out in the hall a woman laughed.

"You're not well yet Jessie," Kate whispered, her lips close to Jessie's cheek.

"I know," Jessie conceded, her voice trembling. "But I will be, Kate. I promise."

Kate sighed, half in anger and half in exasperation. She leaned back in the circle of Jessie's arms, her dark eyes probing Jessie's blue ones. She took a step back when she saw that the decision was made, breaking their embrace. "Jessie Forbes, you are the most stubborn woman I have ever met!"

Jessie nodded, a grin flickering at the corner of her mouth, and she moved to the side of her bed where her valise stood open.

"It's not funny," Kate snapped, but she couldn't look at her and hold onto her anger. She thought Jessie was never more attractive than she was now, leaning against the bedpost, her arms folded across her chest, one leg crossed in front of the other, all leather and worn denim and cocksureness. Kate felt her face grow hot and she knew Jessie saw it.

Jessie recognized the lingering blaze of anger in Kate's eyes, and saw the worry there, too. Seriously, she asked, "What is it, Kate? Have I done something to upset you?"

"I just can't bear to see you hurt," Kate whispered. "Will you be careful, Jessie? Please?"

"Of course," Jessie answered softly. She closed the satchel and lifted it in her right hand, wishing she could erase the unhappiness that still clouded Kate's face. "Come visit, Kate," she said suddenly, realizing that she didn't want to say goodbye. The best thing about being here had been seeing Kate every day and the peaceful hours they had spent just quietly talking. For the first time it occurred to her how lonely the ranch would be now. "Come out to the ranch one day soon."

Kate smiled. "You did promise me a tour." The glow Jessie's suggestion had brought to her eyes disappeared just as quickly. "But it's an hour's ride, isn't it?"

Jessie nodded. "Less on a good horse, but you'll need a buckboard. Have John Emory bring you around. He's always itching to spend time with Jed and the boys. I don't imagine he'd need much prompting."

"I will," Kate affirmed, thinking that she intended to have John Emory do more than drive her. "This week?"

"Yes," Jessie said as she walked to the door. As an afterthought, she added, "Will you do something for me, Kate?"

Kate caught her breath, feeling in that moment that Jessie could ask her anything and she would agree. "You know I will, Jessie."

"It's Mae."

"Mae?" Kate echoed, not understanding.

"You're the only friend, besides me, that Mae really has in this town. I don't get by nearly enough and I expect it gets hard for her with only cowboys for company. Will you look in on her now and then?"

"Of course I will, Jessie," Kate promised, wondering if she and Mae were friends after all.


Chapter eighteen

Jessie sat on her front porch, her boots up on the rail, oiling the stock of her rifle with more vigor than it required. Across the yard she could make out Jed and several of the men cutting tree lengths for fence posts. She muttered colorfully to herself about foremen who didn't have an ounce of respect.

Jed had finally lost his temper after the third time he had to take the saw away from her, and told her he was sorry he ever went to pick her up. "Would of left you there in that damn hotel, if I'da known you'd be this much trouble to have around!" he complained. "You won't be worth nothing the rest of the year if you don't let that shoulder heal. And I don't plan on doin' your share of the work forever, so just let that damn saw be!"

She knew that he was right, but after three days at home, she was chaffing under the weight of inactivity. She had worked every day of her life in some capacity, with the exception of Sundays, when even nonbelievers took a few hours' rest. There was work to be done but most of it required physical strength, which left her sitting on her porch or pacing a path outside the corrals watching the men work her horses.

She saw the clouds of dust before she heard the clatter of wheels on the road to her house. She was on her feet in an instant, straining to make out the driver and passenger. When she saw who it was, she bounded down the steps to meet the buckboard pulling up in her yard.

"Kate!" she cried. She walked alongside the wagon, looking up at Kate in undisguised delight, while John Emory slowed the team. "You've come!"

Kate looked down from her perch on the high seat, almost too happy for words. She forgot completely the struggle she had had with her parents to get permission for John Emory to take her about in the buckboard. Properly, the two of them should have been chaperoned, but even Martha acknowledged that no one in town would object to the Schroeder boy escorting Kate for her own safety. And since Kate insisted that she needed the buckboard to carry her camera while visiting some of her new friends who lived outside of town, her parents had agreed to the arrangement. It had taken very little convincing to get John Emory to take her to Jessie's ranch.

"You look wonderful," Kate said, pleased to see the healthy color in Jessie's face. "How are you?"

Jessie grinned and reached up as Kate stepped onto the runningboard to climb down. She wasn't thinking about her shoulder. She didn't seem to be able to think of much of anything except Kate when they were together. "I'm better now. Let me get you down from there."

Kate frowned, placing one hand on Jessie's right shoulder to steady herself, holding her skirt up with the other. "You can't lift me. Let John."

Jessie merely laughed and slipped her right arm around Kate's waist, pulling Kate into her arms, supporting most of Kate's weight on the side away from her injured shoulder. Jessie held her for just a moment, surprised by her firm suppleness. Then she gently released her. "I'm fine," she repeated, her eyes on Kate's flushed face, thinking how much better she felt whenever Kate was near.

She looked over at John Emory, who had jumped down and was standing by the back of the wagon, hands stuffed in the pockets of his trousers, looking uncertain. "Jed's over in the corral behind the main barn with some of the men," Jessie said. "Why don't you go on over."

"Sure thing, Jessie," he exclaimed, looking relieved. "I'll be back in a bit, Kate," he added as he hurried away.

Kate nodded, unable to take her eyes from Jessie. Jessie wasn't wearing her usual workday vest and chaps, and the levis and soft cotton shirt accentuated her slender body. Kate knew very well what Jessie's body looked like under those clothes, but for the first time she was thinking of her not as a patient, but as a vital, attractive woman. Kate realized that she was staring and said shyly, "It's so good to see you."

"Yes," Jessie replied, finding it hard to do anything but look at her. Finally, she asked, "Would you like to walk around a little? See the ranch?"

Kate slipped her hand through Jessie's arm. "Oh, yes. Please." Almost as an afterthought, she added, "And I was hoping that you could teach me how to drive the buckboard, too."

Jessie stopped dead. "The buckboard?"

"I can't very well drag John Emory out here every time I want to come visiting, now can I?"

"Well, you can't drive out here alone, either, especially unarmed," Jessie said with finality. She began walking again toward the horse barns.

"I thought that I'd save the shooting lessons until the next visit," Kate remarked calmly.

Jessie glanced at her quickly, saw the look of determination in her eyes, and grinned. "We'll let your hands heal from the blisters you're gonna get handling that team before we start in with the Winchester."

Kate nodded. "That's sounds quite reasonable." Then she smiled at Jessie, an excited smile so brilliant that Jessie was lost.

"I'll show you the brood mares down at the corral, then we'll take the buckboard out to the north pasture where the yearlings are summering," Jessie announced. "Don't see why you can't drive."

When at length they returned to the shade of Jessie's porch, cool drinks in hand, Kate had seen most of the Rising Star ranch within easy riding distance of the house. She had also discovered that driving the buckboard was quite a bit easier than controlling the heavy wagon she and her family had traveled west in. There had been times during the trip when her father needed to lever the wagon's wheels from some mud laden trench or to lead the horses by hand through a dangerous stretch, and Kate had taken the reins. She had loved the excitement of handling the team then, and she loved the freedom that it would give her now.

"Try this," Jessie said, handing Kate a tin of some thick yellow salve that smelled surprisingly like honey.

"It's so peaceful here," Kate remarked, smearing the ointment over the sore spots on her palms. Jessie's gloves had protected her some, but she wouldn't want her mother to see these blisters! She placed the tin on the rail and surveyed the slowly rising expanse of hills that climbed steeply toward the mountains edging the horizon. A stream ran in a ribbon of blue across the golden brown flatland. The gently undulating plains were marked here and there by patches of greener grass and clusters of trees. As she turned her head, she caught sight of Jessie's face in profile. She thought how much Jessie was like her land, bold and strong and sure. "Beautiful."

Jessie nodded. "Yes."

"Do you ever get lonely?" Kate asked, wondering if perhaps she were the only one who longed for something more.

Jessie met her questioning gaze. "Sometimes." she said quietly. "Sometimes I miss you."

Kate smiled, feeling far, far less alone.


As the days passed, Jessie's strength returned. Her shoulder healed, and she could finally ride again. From sunup to sundown, she kept busy with the ever-present demands of the ranch, but when evening came, she stood on the porch surrounded by silence, feeling the disappointment of another day when Kate had not come. Sleep remained an elusive respite, and she grew weary in body and soul.

One morning she decided to survey the creek where she meant to build a dam. There was a small hollow between two wooded knolls that would make a fine natural shelter for the animals to winter. All it needed was water. The day was warm and she let Star have her head, riding low over her neck as they flew across the countryside. Nearing the hill overlooking the gully, she saw figures moving under the trees. Rustlers were not uncommon and she approached slowly, one hand casually on her gun belt.

Kate had been watching the rider race across the flatlands, and she knew long before she could see her face that it was Jessie. She couldn't mistake her lean figure or graceful seat on the galloping horse for anyone else. As Jessie drew closer, Kate saw the wary tension in her face. Ken Turner napped contentedly beside her, lulled to sleep by the effects of a hearty lunch and the warm sun. She placed her hand gently on his shoulder and shook him as Jessie rode up to them.

"Jessie," Kate cried, elated to see her. She had tried for days to convince her father to let her take the buckboard out alone, but all her arguing had been to no avail. She wanted desperately to visit Jessie again, but John Emory had been needed to at the newspaper office and could not accompany her. To complete her frustration, she could no longer politely refuse Ken Turner's repeated invitations for an afternoon drive, and so she had found herself in the only place she wanted to be, on the Rising Star ranch, with precisely the wrong person. It had been agony sitting for hours with Ken Turner, making casual conversation while her mind was on Jessie.

"Hello, Kate," Jessie replied, her voice tight as she looked at the man slowly sitting up beside Kate. Her glance quickly surveyed the picnic lunch and Kate's hand on Ken's shoulder, and she flushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you. I didn't know who you were."

Ken, awake now, smiled in a rather superior way. "Oh, not at all, Miss Forbes! After all, we are trespassing, so to speak!" He slipped his arm possessively around Kate's waist.

Jessie stared at him coldly, her eyes impenetrable. "Kate is always welcome on my land. I think she knows that." She tipped her hat slightly to Kate and said tersely, "Good day then."

Before Kate could answer, Jessie whirled Star around and galloped away. Kate shook Ken's arm off, staring after Jessie, her heart sinking. She had hurt her, and that was the last thing she ever meant to do. She barely heard Ken as he informed her that he had news of some import to discuss. All she could hear was the receding thunder of hooves and the fading jingle of spurs.


Chapter nineteen

That evening, sitting with Ken Turner and her parents in the parlor, Kate was especially uneasy. Ken's polite but possessive manner was becoming more difficult to bear, and his subtle but persistent caresses harder to avoid. The longer she spent trying to act as if nothing were wrong, the more certain she became that she needed to make a decision. Something must be done, but she couldn't help but feel that there was some vital point she did not understand. When she could bear the social pleasantries and forced cheeriness no longer, she pleaded a headache and escaped to the quiet of her room.

Now she stared into the darkness, struggling to understand her feelings. Not being able to see Jessie these past weeks had been an agony in itself, but to finally see her with Ken Turner by her side had been even worse. She had not been able to tell Jessie how much she had missed her. The pain in Jessie's eyes that afternoon haunted her. When Jessie had ridden away, Kate feared that her heart might break. She needed help, and she knew of only one place to go.


Kate hesitated outside Mae's door, her confidence suddenly waning. When she had awakened early after a restless night, it had seemed so clear to her. Now that she was there, she wasn't so certain anymore. Finally she forced herself to knock.

"Kate!" Mae said with surprise when she answered the tap on her door. The sun had barely risen, and since she kept late hours, she had barely been to bed. She tied her robe and gestured Kate into her room. "What is it?"

"Can I talk with you, Mae?" Kate asked, standing awkwardly just inside the door. She had never been in Mae's bedroom before, and the sudden intimacy of the moment embarrassed her.

"Of course," Mae replied, gesturing to two chairs on either side of a small dressing table. "Sit down."

Kate sat quickly, afraid that she might suddenly lose her resolve and run. Mae's sharp eyes took in the tremor in Kate's hands and the uneasiness in her expression. She pulled a chair close.

"What is it, Kate?" she asked softly.

Tears brimmed behind Kate's lashes. "Mae, Ken Turner intends to speak to my father about marriage."

Mae looked at her intently, not particularly surprised. There wasn't much going on around town that she didn't eventually hear about. She had hoped that the rumors about Turner and Kate were true and that there was a match in the making. But looking at Kate now, she began to doubt it. "You don't look too happy about it, Kate. I always thought that's what a girl like you would want. I should think he'll make a good catch, well-respected and responsible and all that."

Bitterly Kate said, "Oh, you're quite right. He is a fine man, and I have nothing against him. But--" Her voice trailed off, and she struggled for the words.

"But what, honey?" Mae said gently.

"I don't love him!"

Mae laughed, although there was an edge to it. "Do you think you'll be the first woman to make a good match with a man she doesn't love? If he provides for you and doesn't mistreat you or disgrace you, you may find after a while you'll love him. The heart does funny things, sometimes. And if not, you'll be no different than a lot of women and better off than many."

"I don't want to spend my life with someone I don't love," Kate insisted.

Mae eyed her sharply. "Love doesn't put a roof over your head, Kate, or feed you, or earn you respect from your neighbors. I know."

"I won't marry him just for that," Kate said with finality.

"Then wait for a fellow more to your choosing," Mae acquiesced, having heard that stubborn tone in Kate's voice before. "You're young yet."

Kate looked at Mae and said in a low voice, "What if --- what if there's someone else?"

Mae had been expecting something like this, but the girl's honesty surprised her.

"Is there someone else, Kate?"

Kate nodded slowly, relief softening her tense features. "Yes."

"Who is it?" Mae asked, needing to hear the words. Maybe she was wrong. Because if she wasn't, she didn't know quite what she would say.


Mae sighed, closing her eyes briefly. When she opened them, Kate was staring at her intently. "Jessie is it?"

"Yes," Kate answered, her voice filled with sudden wonder. "Yes. Yes, Mae! I love Jessie." After so many weeks of not seeing, of being so close but not knowing, saying the words made everything clear.

"I've been wondering if you'd ever figure that out," Mae said quietly.

Kate drew a surprised breath and looked at Mae questioningly. "You knew?"

Mae laughed darkly. "I was pretty sure, but I was hoping you wouldn't keep on. That you'd marry your Mr. Turner and settle down the way you should."

"But why, Mae?" Kate asked, hearing Mae's opposition but still not comprehending it. How could it be bad when what she felt for Jessie seemed so right?

Kate's obvious naiveté finally ignited Mae's anger. She got quickly to her feet, seething. "Why? Because of Jessie, for Lord's sake! You say that you love her. She'll love you, too, you know. Probably already does. Do you have any idea what that's going to do to her?"

Kate stared at her. "Mae - I-"

Mae continued as if she hadn't heard. "Jessie's been waiting her whole life for this and she doesn't even know it. You'll let her believe, Kate, and then you'll leave her, sooner or later. That will destroy her."

"No!" Kate cried passionately. "I won't hurt her! I couldn't hurt her. Believe me, Mae, I won't change!"

Mae looked at her silently, uncertain whether to go on. But Kate had come to her, and there might not be another time. "Kate, you're young. When you're young, blood runs high. I believe you've got feelings for her. I do." She took a breath, then finished, "But think what you're saying. If you let Jessie love you, how long do you think it will be before Jessie wants to love you like -- like --- a man loves a woman?"

Kate felt her face redden, but she would not avert her gaze. She thought about the way her heart raced when Jessie was near, and the way her breath tripped when she looked into Jessie's eyes, and the way she trembled at the barest touch of Jessie's hand. She envisioned Jessie, sweat-dampened and dusty and so incredibly beautiful, and she was suddenly warm all over. She knew what she felt. She studied Mae calmly, her face composed. "And you, Mae. Could you love her like that?"

Mae's expression was proud, but her eyes were sad. "I would now, if she'd let me."

Kate nodded slowly, and rose. She touched Mae's arm lightly as she left. "Thank you, Mae."

Mae looked after her, admiring her grit, and praying that she'd come to her senses before it was too late.



Part Three

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