Disclaimer: The characters are mine. This is an uber so physical descriptions may vaguely remind you of two others. But they aren’t them at all. Also, some of the places exist but most are made up and some might have existed as depicted in 1875, but most absolutely didn’t.

Violence: yes, eventually it’s in here. It’s a story about a Sheriff. There’s gotta be murder and mayhem. But nothing too gruesome, I hope

Subtext: This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If you are underage or this type story is illegal where you live, please don’t read it.

For She of the Effulgent Smile.


C-SRE 2004



Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by b. soiree

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yep," he nodded.

She tipped her hat, "Thanky kindly, Slim."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sorry," the blonde murmured softly, removing her gloved hand quickly as the movement evened out to a rolling gallop and everyone became readjusted again.

"Gaine Sargos," the tall brunette smiled, turning her deep blue eyes onto the small blonde, her smooth contralto voice adding to her appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Say, them Army boys up top, they be a'ridin' shotgun fer sum partic'lar reason?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah figured we'd make't past them drop offs safe 'nuff," Gaine smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That’s nice," the Lieutenant smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A snarl crossed the heavy man’s face. "That’s not a la..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"All right," Gaine called back, "We done resolved not ta smoke 'n here, neither."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ya shoulda asked 'em ta stop."

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

Gaine chuckled softly. "Mah new Colt sixshooter. T'is right accurate."

"I'll say!" the Lieutenant replied admiringly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Doan matter. You choose."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh. He gots ya doin' it ever night then?"

"Uh, yes." She looked over curiously. Wasn't that all right? she wondered.

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

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

"Who do he be a'sharin' with?"

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

"Ah see. One a' them boys 'n blue?"

"No. One of the others."

"Ahh. Yer Pa knew the feller then?"

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

"Uh huh." Gaine scratched at the bite on her forehead.

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

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

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

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

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

Gaine snorted. "No, Ah shorely ain't."

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

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

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

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

"You were going to take me with you?"

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

"Twenty-one," Meghan replied. "How old are you, if you don't mind my asking?"

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

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

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

"Ya doan wanna marry this feller?"

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

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

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

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

"Wait. If'n she run off, he still bees legally hitched ta her."

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

"Did they have childerns?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah reckon that thar Deputy feller's from Sacramenta since't that's whar yer a'headed."

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

"Then why stop ta Sacramenta?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green eyes fluttered. "I'm sorry? I don't understand."

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

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

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

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

"You’re a'runnin' off?"

"Yes." The blonde felt herself holding her breath as she waited for Gaine's reply.

"But ya doan know ta whar?"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She breathed deeply, "Uh, what sort a' bizness do yer Pa foller?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What does Lendal do fer a livin'?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah conjectured maybe relatives er past neighbors er somethin'?"


"Anaone ya could go stay with'n?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you, Gaine. Thank you!" Meghan felt incredible relief as she snuggled into the tall woman's arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What time is it?" the young woman mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ahl be busy 'nuff takin' care a' Cousin Minnie."

"That's right," Meghan mumbled.

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

Meghan smiled sweetly. "He is, yes. Don't worry. I'm used to it, but thank you."

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

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

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

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

Gaine moved to give her some room as Meghan worked. "Yer a'makin' the bed?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaine found herself swallowing with some difficulty. "Huh?"

"Did you sleep on it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She heard the far-off sound of a bugle and knew the stage from the upper foothill mines was riding into the ranch. She'd have to hurry to beat those passengers to the facilities! She ran to the outhouse leaving the chamberpot for Meghan.


Continued in Chapter 2

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