Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by b.soiree

Please see Chapter 1 for disclaimers.

Chapter 10

-***-

Kate heard the noise on the ranch porch and wondered who'd forgotten something and come back. She glanced around, not seeing anything left behind on the table and headed for the door, the fussing baby in her arms. She opened the door to see a tall stranger clad all in buckskin standing before her. His face was red and moist, his eyes glazed with flashes of blue steel and his shock of light colored hair tumbled over his forehead. His shoulders were wide and robust and he looked at her with a quizzical intensity. "Mrs. Sargos?" he asked cautiously.

Kate stepped back, suddenly wondering if Lendal had hired this man to find her. She'd have to put the baby down to reach the rifle.

"Uh," her glance went to the Henry repeater above the door.

"Mrs. Kate Sargos?" he asked a little louder. Had they found out her new name? Did he know she used to go by Meghan but now went by Kate? She looked to see where she could place the baby. She couldn't shoot the rifle with a baby in her arms.

Suddenly the sound of galloping horses could be heard behind him. The man turned to see three vaqueros riding hell bent for leather across the pasture, heading straight for him. Trailing behind them were Alabam and Garcia. They all had their pistols drawn and aimed at the stranger.

He thrust his arms into the air. "I'm Saul Chenoth," he said to Kate, his voice holding a shock of fear. "Gaine asked me to resole your shoes. I've got ´em in my bag there. They're finished."

-***-

The men of the posse were constantly amazed by the Sheriff. She had a familiarity with the woods that a mountain lion might have and always seemed to keep them going in the right direction even when the tracks disappeared for long stretches. It was as though she could smell the trail. And they had no doubt that were she alone she could slip through the woods completely unseen by any one of them unless she wanted to be spotted.

So when they heard the crack and gunfire suddenly stopped them, pinning them in the small narrows where the river ran faster and the hills became more precipitous, they expected her to find a way to get them past the mossy rock hillside protruding from thick green foliage above. In the lead, she had instantly dived, thrusting herself off her horse, yelling for them to take cover, tackling her neighbor off his bay horse along with her. They had hit the ground with a thud then she began scrambling on her hands and knees for the safety of the brush they had just left. She'd grabbed his collar and pulled him along with her. It was not graceful, but the bullets pouring down around them missed their targets and they both made it safely to cover.

The horses whinnied in terror, reared and finally ran back to the cover, but the bay was seriously wounded by gunfire in the clearing and crashed to the ground in pain. "Gotta put him out a his misery," Gaine demanded of the horse's owner. Moisture glistened in angry blue eyes. They were both behind the brush at that point but the man was in shock and did not move. He had barely missed being hit. Would have been for sure if she hadn't literally dragged him to cover and now fear froze him in place. How close had he come to dying? "He's in pain. Ah's sorry, Thurman, but we gotta put ´im out a his misery," she repeated.

The horse was thrashing and throwing his head wildly. The most sure shot would have been close up. He was moving so radically any other shot might just have wounded him, causing him even more agony. So when the man gave a small nod of his head, she scrambled back out from behind the brush, crawling, using the horse for cover as much as possible and put a bullet in his head to end his agony. The sound of laughter echoed in the small area above them and her jaw tightened in rage. She pressed tightly against the still horse as bullets sprayed down about her. She clutched the horse, held her arm up aiming her pistol blindly above and pulled off four quick shots in reply.

"Give it up!" a voice yelled mockingly. "First we'll get your horses, then you," the man laughed. The rest of the posse fired back, but he had good cover and they weren't coming that close to hitting him. It did give her a chance to scramble back to the brush cover and further into the trees with the others and reload her gun.

She ran her eyes over the whole area, considering their next move. Reluctantly she realized the shooter had a perfect spot on top of the bluff and could stop all forward progress with little effort. They could always go back, but that wasn't an option in her mind. And he had a good repeater with lots of ammunition. They could try an assault, but it would be a serious risk to herself and her men. She wouldn't risk them.

The outlaw above had stayed behind, she was sure, to guard their back flank and to give his men ample time to move their stolen herd into some hidden area. She cursed under her breath and let her eyes examine each section of their prison but she saw no possible sign of an attack route. They would have to be patient.

"We gotta wait till nightfall," Gaine declared. But then she was sure he would be long gone and his pals ahead would have a big headstart again.

-***-

It was still beastly hot for early fall in Jubilee City when Mrs. Sarah Fitgeraldson and her young son, Reggie, readied to board the stage to Sacramento. From there they'd catch the train to Boston. Her youngest son had surprised her by wanting to stay with her and his aunt. Murphy, also a teenager, had already headed on horseback to his sister's home in Arizona, hoping to make a living in that frontier area. Neither wanted to work with their older brothers and sister in the wagon shop. Their mother worried for Murphy and made him promise to write.

Her oldest son, Brogan Jr., had informed her that he would have to sell the house and all remaining possessions before she could receive a share of the estate other than the tickets he purchased for them and a small amount of traveling money he'd given her. She would eventually receive some financial dispensation that he'd send in small portions monthly when he was able, he said.

She knew her deceased husband's business employed fifteen men regularly and nearly double that in the busy season. It was unthinkable that a third portion would be worth so little. But she had few options. She didn't care about being wealthy like her sons did. She just worried about paying her fair share once she got to her sister's. She had hidden the gold coins but they wouldn't last all that long. Brogan Jr. had explained that when their father had been robbed, most of the business funding had been eliminated. There was not much left he stressed.

She and her young son handed up their carpetbags to go into the boot of the carriage. Her son kept the pistol he had inherited in the band of his trousers. She looked back over Jubilee City, the sand and severe heat she'd always loathed. She didn't mind leaving this Godforsaken spot forever.

She ran her eyes over her children and grandchildren. They might not be everything one would want their family to be. Her husband's influence tainted everything with a dark and malevolent touch. But they were still hers and she loved them. She hugged and kissed each before climbing aboard. If only Meghan were here, she sighed to herself. Where are you, my child? Does he have you hidden somewhere? Has he hurt you already? Please forgive me, Meghan, if I've failed you.

"I'm glad to be going," Reggie said, looking out at the same scene. "I hated it here."

"Yes," she answered quietly.

They traveled the same route Meghan Katharine, now going by the name Kate, had taken when she'd left home with her father. When they got to the drop off, the passengers got out and walked while the wheels were chained and the coach was carefully eased down. Otherwise, much was the same.

Two nights later in Sacramento they registered at the hotel where Mrs. Fitzgeraldson's husband had died. She walked past the room where he had spent his last breath and shivered. Some other hotel guest, not knowing of the prior mayhem, was staying there. She gazed at the door. It left her with a strange feeling. Not sad. Just strange. "But where is Meghan?" she worried.

Then they went to see the Marshal. He was very sorry but he had no new information on the whereabouts of her missing daughter. Did he kill her? Oh, please let her be alive. She had already sent a letter to the young Lieutenant that the Marshal had told her about when he brought the watch for her identification. The Lieutenant wrote her from Fort Derwood that he had no idea what had happened to Meghan.

The only other person the Marshal could think of to try asking would be Sheriff Gaine Sargos. She had ridden on the same stage but he doubted that she had any information. He told her a little about Gaine and gave her the brunette's address just in case.

The Marshal gave Meghan's mother the additional information they needed and mother and son went back to their separate rooms in the hotel to wait. Reggie was sharing an inside room with a drummer and she shared a balcony room with a young woman headed to Wyoming to become a school teacher.

Before sunrise the next morning they were escorted by the Marshal to the scene of the event. A brass band was there playing for the large crowd. As the wife and son of the murdered man, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and Reggie were allowed to be up front. Her eyes met Lindal's as they led him out. His knees were weak and they were forced to half drag him to the scaffolding. "I'm innocent," he yelled to the crowd. "Do you hear? I'm innocent! I didn't kill him! He was my friend!"

Then he caught her eye and it filled him with resolve. He stared with hatred toward her, still trying to make her shrink back in fear. She did not flinch. "Where's my daughter?" she mouthed. He snorted and shot her an evil, imperial grimace, thrusting his head proudly into the air. She kissed her fingertips and touched her heart. "For Meghan and for Ruby," she mouthed again. "May you rot in hell, Lendal Hindlefarb." She breathed a heavy sigh, deciding that wherever Meghan was, she no longer needed to live under the threat of Lendal.

"Did you say something, Mother?" Reggie asked. It was not the first hanging he had witnessed. It happened often enough. But it was the most festive.

"That's an evil, evil man," his mother replied. Forgive me my sins, she thought.

-***-

Gaine's sharp eyes trailed around the lake. They had moved as soon as the sun went down, but the rider was gone. The day before she had sent the wagon to meet them at the lake where she'd promised to also meet Big Creek's posse. The wagon wasn't there yet, but it would be. As she expected, the outlaw's trail did lead this general direction, so maybe they hadn't lost so much time after all. Despite losing one horse, no one was hit in the gun fire.

They skirted the lake and commenced tracking, finally picking up the tracks of three of the riders leading down on a more southerly trail. "Damn!" Gaine grumbled tiredly, "Where'n tarnation'd them t'uther two men go? Them and that thar herd? Them tracks goin' down bees hosses only. War's the t'uther two?"

While they waited for the other posse and the wagon, Gaine had the bulk of her group set up camp at the lake while she and two of her men slowly circled the way further up. The thieves had to have come this way for a reason.

They climbed till a heavy, unpenetrable stand of trees and brush sat on one side near the top of a rise and a gray wall of rock rose forbiddingly across the rest. They stopped in puzzlement. Where'd they go? Gaine and her riders rode the line of wall in all directions till at last she found a slab of rock that masked an opening where tracks beyond showed many livestock had passed. An unpleasant smell of death rode on the soft breeze.

"They forced them herds through here," she called to her two men, pointing to the rock. She moved her horse behind the slab and scoured the ground with her eyes then lifted her blue orbs as she visually followed the trail, wrinkling her nose at the odor.

"Lordy! Uphill, 'ceedin'ly narra, treacherous n' windin'." She started up the narrow trail then carefully dismounted. Buzzards were circling in the updrafts beyond them. "Loose rocks n' steep drops." She glanced down over the side but saw no dead cattle or horses far below. They'd be hid by them tree tops down thar if'n they's tumbled off'n the trail. Shore nuff kin smell 'em. With difficulty she backed her horse back down the narrow path. Her eyes scoured the surface of the rock wall rising above the trail. "Three a' 'em headed back down an' them other two drove that thar herd up an' o'er this here narra' path."

The men looked up with trepidation remembering how they'd been pinned down once already. They'd be fighting the steep trail and who knew whether the outlaws were hidden at the top ready to ambush or pick them off one by one. Maybe the outlaws had reinforcements up there, too. Even one outlaw left as a guard on a narrow trail could hold them off, like they'd already experienced.

They watched the Sheriff running her eyes over the rocky sides of the cliff. They placed their faith in Gaine. She'd get them up as safely as humanly possible. She didn't let much harm come to her posse if she could possibly help it.

Gaine carefully scrutinized the wall, then they rode back to the lake to find the Big Creek posse had arrived. She explained her findings to the large group. She could feel the excitement. She knew they were thinking "divide and conquer". Sheriff Rogers from Big Creek's posse was extremely anxious to lead his group up the trail.

"Ya kin," Gaine agreed. "Ah think one kin even the chances a mite, though, if'n ya leave yer hosses ta the entrance n' go ´n foot 'n the dark a' night. Take off all yer spurs 'n ana'thin' a'makin' noise. Send yer quietest scout first ta o'erpower the guard. Use knifes er even arrows. Somethin' quiet. They might not 'spect nobody'd walk that path 'n the dark an' they ain't gonna be able ta see ya when ya does. But they's likely gonna be waitin' thar. Now, if'n war me...."

"What?" Sheriff Rogers asked. "What would you do?"

"Well, Ah noticed a section. Ah'd send mah best climber on that thar wall. Looks unclimbable but t'war a couple places Ah seed whar ya could use yer lariat and climb on up. Ain't easy. Gotta watch fer rattlers on them ledges. They's blind now...a'sheddin' n' all. Theys'll strike ta anyathin raht quick. Oh, an' crumblin rocks. Watch fer them. But could be done. An' best a all, kin be done ´n daylight..least till tha climber gits ta tha top n' kin be seed bah the t'uther side."

"You want everyone climbing?"

"No. Jest yer best climber. T'uthers walk tha trail. Go ta dark. Cover yer faces n' hands with mud. Feller on top waits up thar till than, slips o'er an' gits ahind 'em. They ain't NEVER gonna 'spect that. Not NEVER! So's they ain't gonna be watchin' that di-rection. Ya's got surprise ta yer ad-vantage."

Sheriff Rogers took off his hat and hit it against his leg. He stood thinking.

"Ah could show ya, if'n ya want."

"Yes. If you would."

"We'll have a bite first. Than Ahl go with'n yer climber and git ´im started. Only thing," Gaine continued. "Them outlaw's all be raht good shots with lotsa practice under theys belts. Doan hesitate once't ya git thar. They's gonna try n' kill ya shore. Be ready fer 'em."

The other group was excited. This was what they'd been waiting for. First they'd eat then send a climber off.

Gaine agreed to take her posse after the other three and meet them again at the foothills near the Rocking Star Ranch. Whoever got there first would wait for the other. The wagon would stay at the lake then come down with Big Creek's posse.

After eating, she went up with the other Sheriff and some of his men. First she spent a good deal of time twirling a fairly short rope, letting the whole thing, loop and end, fly as high as she could. It landed high above, hooked over a spike of rock, far out of reach of retrieval. Then she took the groups longest rope, stood on the narrow trail with her feet on the edge, twirling it off the edge in a huge loop before hurtling it upwards at the scrubby brush she had seen growing along the cliff wall. Snagging it, she pulled the rope tight then tested it by beginning to climb. "Yep. Should hold ya. When ya gits up thar, pull ta the t'uther rope. Should git ya ta the top."

-***-

The Marshal invited Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and her young son back to his home after the hanging. His wife provided tea and cakes and they sat in the parlor quietly talking. It was mentioned that Mr. Fitzgeraldson had posted a five hundred dollar bond that just might be returned if the judge were so inclined. But it would really depend on the judge's wife, the woman Mr. Fitzgeraldson had been accused of molesting. Reggie's head popped up at that information and his mother knew she would have to explain everything to him once they left.

The Sheriff and his wife graciously took the two in their buggy calling on the Judge's wife. The woman understood instantly what kind of a marriage Mrs. Fitzgeraldson had been trapped in and took mercy on her position. She would see to it that all charges were dropped, she assured them, and the group rode together to the courthouse.

The Marshal ran back to his office as they waited for the judge's wife to visit her husband. When she returned, the case was dropped and the bond money was directed to be turned over to the widow. The Marshal came back with the gold watch and handed it to her. "You should have this, too. It was your husband's."

"Uh, do you know where I might sell it?" she asked.

"Indeed. I'll be happy to help you do so." After dropping off the judge's wife at her home, the Marshal and his wife took Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and her son to a shop where she sold the watch. "Can you show me how to send money to someone?" She would divide the proceeds from the watch and send it to her daughters that had received nothing. She'd hold out Meghan's share till she was located.

Cheques were sent from the value of the watch. Though a small amount she had no doubt her daughters would be pleased. The five hundred dollar bond money was secured in one of Mrs. Fitzgeraldson's inside pockets she had sewn. It still didn't come close to making up a third of her husband's considerable estate. But it would do to help ameliorate her worry. If she was frugal, they could make do.

The emigrant train was anything but luxury travel. Everyone used the stoves in the front of each car to cook and the hard wooden benches could only be turned into sleeping accommodations if you purchased the mats hucksters sold for less than the train company did when they swarmed aboard at many stops. Still, they were not uncomfortable and the two enjoyed every minute of their travel.

Hard boiled eggs and baskets of homemade items could be purchased from eager teenagers who boarded with their goods or at stands by station platforms. Business acumen was not limited to businessmen. The two had to watch their budget, however. Brogan Jr. had not allowed them all that much for food.

Still they found it completely delightful. The further they got from the Fitzgeraldson home, the more exciting it became. Reggie climbed off at each stop possible and looked around. The world was a wide and amazing place.

"Mother," Reggie cried breathlessly as he sat beside her again on the bench. "Just think how much of America we've seen. It's hard to believe we'll be in Boston tomorrow. Wagon trains used to take months and months and here we've traveled the continent in just over a week."

-***-

Had she been less busy, Kate would have made herself sick with worry about where Gaine might be. Her blue-eyed beauty had said two weeks and it had been long past that at this point. As it was, every available minute was spent caring for the small children. And they were improving, particularly the toddler. She was putting on weight and diarrhea was no longer a problem. The chemists medicine seemed to be working for both. But the two girls' survival kept her too occupied to participate in the other ranch happenings.

Kate was not sorry to miss the slaughtering. She had always hated that time of year and this was no different. But you didn't live on a farm without needing to fill your smokehouse. She was glad the ranch hands handled the situation and that Cookie was doing all of the smoking and cooking and packing.

Then suddenly one morning the cooking wagon was pulled out of the yard and a river of cattle was led out away from the ranch. Don Carlos led the drive and most of the vaqueros went along. They were taking those cattle to market. It would take about a month. A few men were left to look after the remaining herd and Kate was again expected to do the cooking. It took her a few days to get back into the routine. She was glad the children had gotten so much better. Supplies were tight, but trading fruit with neighbors helped stock the pantry with essentials.

Late one afternoon while straining the late milking, Kate was surprised to see a small rider thundering at a gallop bareback towards the house. She took the rifle and followed the rider's progress until she was able to distinguish that it was Willy. She replaced the gun and ran into the yard to await the small girl's arrival.

The horse was throwing lather and Willy was frantic, half-crying about her mother and how afraid she was that her father was going to kill her. He'd already beat her and she had blood all over.

"Why didn't you tell the Sheriff, child?" Kate worried aloud as she grabbed things to take with her. Her green eyes darkened with anxiety.

"I did, ma'am. He won't help her."

"Garcia, hook up the wagon. Quickly! She had Willy help her bundle the two little ones into their boxes and placed Willy and the oldest in the back while she held the small infant. Garcia drove and the team flew towards town.

"Tell me exactly what's happened," Kate said, turning to the back. "Where is Shorty now and where is your mother?"

"He hit her and kicked her, over and over. He was awful drunk. I told the others to run and hide down by the river. Pa said he was going to get a gun and shoot her and us, too. She was lying on the floor by the bed and she was moaning. She told me to run and get the Sheriff. I tried, but he told me it was up to my father whether he disciplined her or not. I told him she was hurt bad, and he said she probably deserved it. I told him Pa was getting a gun and he said my Pa never used a gun. He said he saw him go into the saloon. So I got Mabel's horse and rode out here fast as I could."

"Did Mabel know you took her horse?"

"No. I didn't have time to find her."

"All right, we'll take care of that. Hurry, Garcia!" The wagon was already bouncing wildly enough as the horses tore along the rutted road to town. Kate turned to keep a hand on the toddler's arm, but the small girl seemed to like the speed and bumps. She laughed cheerfully with each bounce.

It seemed like hours before they crossed the bridge and headed toward the ramshackle cottage. Garcia slowed the team to a trot. Twilight was beginning to settle over the town and all seemed normal. Kate set the infant and her box carefully into the back of the wagon.

"Stay and watch these little ones. Do NOT come inside when we get there. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," Willy replied with a sob. It was clear she was terrified.

"I need to go with you, Missus," Garcia said as he pulled the team to the rail in front of the house. But he didn't dare leave the team with the three children in the wagon. Another danger was that he was a Mexican man in town hoping to fend off a white man. That was never a healthy situation. "Maybe she could take the children to Mabel's house."

"You help her. I'm going to check on Nell." Kate began to slide off the bench.

"No, Missus," Garcia grabbed her arm,"Gaine'd have my scalp if I let you do that."

"Willy, go get Mabel. Bring her here. Quick!"

"Yes, ma'am." Willy slipped out of the wagon and ran across the yard, ducking behind shrubbery till she got to Mabel's. Kate slipped off the wagon seat and to the ground. As soon as the small blonde saw the neighbor carefully working her way across, she asked, "Is Shorty in there? Do you know?"

"Yes," Mabel replied fearfully, running to the wagon. "He went in just before you got here. He was carrying a rifle, shouting about how he was gonna kill 'em all and he was staggering terribly. He's been drinking all day. And our so-called Sheriff has been drinking part of the time with him."

"Please, take these young ones to your house and make sure they're safe. Garcia and I'll go take care of Shorty." Kate gently handed the baby to Mabel.

"Goodness! Be careful! He's never taken to using a gun before. I wish my husband was home but he doesn't come home from the mine till the weekend. Willy, stay down behind the bushes. Don't run where your Pa can see you."

"Yes, ma'am." Willy carried the toddler, leaving the box in the wagon, while Mabel carried the infant. They ducked behind the wild shrubbery heading toward Mabel's house.

No sooner had Willy and Mabel moved across to Mabel's house than Kate held her skirts and marched toward the house. Garcia quickly tied the team, grabbed the rifle and ran to catch her, but she was already inside.

Garcia stepped into the house and came face to face with Shorty's rifle. The drunk man was holding it pointed at Garcia's stomach. Shorty laughed evilly. "I've wanted to kill me some Mexican trash and here ya'are, all ready ta meet yer maker. Putcher goddammed gun down, " he slurred. Garcia's mind was spinning. Where was Kate? Had he hurt her? His eyes swept the small room but she wasn't there. Slowly he placed his rifle on the ground and held up his hands.

Kate had rushed into the kitchen and had completely missed being seen or seeing Shorty on the way there. He had been in the bedroom until he heard Garcia running and moved to the main room. He stood with his back to her and his gun was dangerously pointed at Garcia.

Fear claimed Kate and momentarily she froze. Then she remembered Gaine had said to acknowledge fear and keep going. She told herself, all right, she was frightened. Now, what should she do? The sadiron was on the stove, but she didn't think she could sneak up close enough to hit him without being heard nor did she trust her throw with so awkward an item. The broom was leaning against the wall and she grabbed it. Moving behind Shorty, she heard him click back the hammer. She poked him in the back with the broom handle.

"Drop it!" she demanded, "Or by the heavens, I'll blow you to pieces!"

Shorty froze then drunkenly began to turn around to see what was behind him. As he did, Garcia reached for his gun and Shorty spun back, stopping Garcia mid reach. Kate poked him harder. "Drop it, I said, or you're dead and none of us ever has to worry about you again!"

Shorty swayed as he thought about it. "Come on, bitch, ya know ya wanna have some a my attentions."

"Dead on three," Kate said. "One." Shorty lowered the gun a little. Kate poked him again. "Two." Shorty dropped the gun and it fired, the report echoing through the house as the shot hit the door frame missing Garcia by only fractions of an inch. Garcia threw himself at the man and held him down. Kate squeezed by and got the rifle, holding it on Shorty while Garcia subdued him. He tied the man's hands with his own neckerchief then found some rawhide strips. Kate rushed into the dark bedroom.

Nell was lying on the floor in her nightshirt. Though dark, there was enough light to see it was covered with considerable amounts of gooey blood. It was too dark to see if she was still bleeding. She moaned and Kate dropped down to ask if she had been shot. She had not. "My children," she breathed to Kate.

"Willy had them go hide. I think they're safe. Take it easy. We'll get you to the doctor's. Where are you hurt, Nell?"

"No, no doctor," she mumbled, "can't afford it."

"Oh, Nell, you need a doctor."

"No. S'all right."

Kate thought about it. She had used all of Gaine's money on supplies. They couldn't afford it either, really, unless he'd take something in trade or give credit. And what did they have to trade...some butter and eggs. Maybe some milk. But they had more hands to feed now and if they took Nell and the children out there, too, they couldn't afford to trade any food items. But he had given her credit before. Maybe he'd do it again.

"What about Minton Ledderbridge?" she asked. "Would that be all right?" Chemists were very popular. A large number of people used them rather than pay the expense of seeing a doctor. Her father had always made use of them for the family. Of course, in her family only her father had ever been treated by a doctor.

"All right..... Shorty?"

"We have him tied up." Nell nodded and Kate called for Garcia to come and carry Nell to the wagon. Garcia had been lighting a lamp so they could see. Kate pulled the blanket off the bed and helped Nell roll onto it, then bundled her up as best she could. While Garcia struggled to lift the light woman in such a small space, Kate ruffled through the room gathering Nell's clothing. She would give her her own night shirt tonight. She'd sleep in her camisole.

Garcia limped out carrying the moaning woman to the wagon and placed her carefully in the wagon bed. Kate ran back in the house and grabbed the other two blankets they owned, one from each of the children's beds. A crowd had gathered in the darkened street and Kate could see Westminster struggling violently with someone. As she got closer, she noticed that it was Willy in his grasp. Westminster, half drunk, had her by the arm and slapped the child hard across the face.

Kate grabbed the rifle and took dead aim at the man. "Let her go, Westminster," she called. "Right now!"

The crowd was undecided as to how to act. Some men laughed but some men and the women murmured sympathetically.

"She's a horse thief!" Westminster called back cheerily, the alcohol heavy in his voice. "Maybe I'll hang her." Kate's temper flared instantly.

"And maybe you'll die trying," Kate replied roughly. "Along with any of the rest of you varmints that think this is funny." She moved the gun along the shadowed figures on the boardwalk who instantly ceased laughing. Then she returned aim at Westminster. "Now, let her go! She is not a horse thief. She borrowed Mabel's horse. I'm very sure Mabel is not going to press charges."

"Mabel said her horse was stolen. That's enough for me."

"She made a mistake. It wasn't stolen. Ask her. Mabel? Are you out here, Mabel?"

There was no reply. She must be in watching Kate's charges. Kate walked closer.

"Kate? Is that you?" Etta's voice called. The lights from the few street businesses that were open gave little illumination this far. "What's happened?"

It was hard for the small blonde to get used to being called "Kate" but she was the one who had decided to use her middle name. "Etta? It's Shorty. He hurt Nell very badly and threatened to shoot her. We're taking her and the children to the ranch. Just as soon as Westminster lets Willy go."

"What if I don't let her go?" Westminster taunted. Kate walked closer.

"Well, I guess I'd have to shoot you, then," she replied calmly.

"Oh, stars! Ain't she a pip?" Roger Pickwick called with a snort from down the boardwalk. He pounded the boards eagerly with his cane. Some on the dark boardwalk chuckled quietly.

Westminster laughed and let go of Willy, who ran to Kate and stood behind her. "You are indeed a spirited lady, Mrs. Sargos," he laughed. "And I do love spirited women. But I doubt that you could hit anything with that if you tried. Better put it down before you hurt yourself."

"How about one of the "O's" in the Cooper sign?" she challenged. She didn't know why she felt compelled to challenge him. Her temper could get the best of her, she knew. But in fact, with the clouded moonlight, it was too dark to see anything well. She could barely make out the sign. She was quite sure they wouldn't see a bullet hole. All she had to do was act like she'd hit it. Tomorrow they'd all be sober and it wouldn't matter. Hoping she could remember her shooting lessons, she took aim and fired and all eyes went in that direction.

"No fair, it's too dark to see," Westminster laughed.

"Betcha there's a bullet hole inside that Oh," Roger Pickwick declared, tapping his cane excitedly on the boardwalk. "Ahha! Jest like in the olden days. You rile her and she's a streak a chain-lightnin', that little lady. Yessir, them Sargos gals er real pips, ain't they?"

"It's there," Kate declared confidently, having no idea if it was or wasn't. "Now, Shorty's tied up in the house. Charges WILL be filed against him. It's your job to arrest him."

"What charge?"

"Attempted murder. He had a gun, said he was going to kill his family and he even shot it. Fortunately, he didn't hit anyone before we stopped him."

"He was just funnin' ya," Westminster said derisively.

"It's your job, Sheriff," Etta replied.

"Indeed," Wilbur added and a number of voices joined in assent. "Do your job. We demand you keep our town safe."

"Go ahead. Arrest him," a familiar voice said. Apparently the Mayor had been in the crowd the whole while. Kate had no time for him. Nell was hurt.

"Willy, get a barn lantern from Mabel and go find your brothers and little sister. Bring them back to the wagon. We're going out to the ranch."

Willy ran toward Mabel's house while Kate followed to collect her children. She gave the rifle to Mabel. Willy flew off toward the river with the lantern. Soon the young girl was back with her siblings trailing after her. The youngest toddler was whimpering. Willy wrapped her arms around her and told her it would be all right as the child clung to her.

They managed to get all the children into the wagon along with their bedding. With all of them bundled up, the wagon headed back down the street to the store.

Kate rushed inside where a group of men were seated near the pickle barrel playing checkers. She begged Minton, the chemist, to give her credit for medications and the man readily agreed. He was angry with the Mayor's underhanded treatment of Gaine and knew she'd settle this account when she came back. He went out to the wagon to talk to Nell, to find out where she was injured and suggested she splint her arm. He thought it might be broken. He went inside, crushed some pills into a powder and brought down a bottle of the new Lydia Pinkham pills. Kate listened carefully to all his instructions.

Nell was given some powder before they left. They rode home in the dark as slowly as they could to avoid painful bouncing. Nell's children huddled together silently near their mother, watching her in the moonlight with wide eyes. Kate's littlest charge, Deena, cried hungrily most of the way home.

Garcia and Alabam brought in some straw and the children quietly went to bed after eating what Garcia found to put out for them. Kate was busy preparing the baby's special feeding. Then she helped Nell get washed up and splinted her arm. There was considerable blood, but Nell was no longer bleeding. She fussed about using Kate's bed, but once she'd taken more powder, she fell into a sound sleep.

Kate decided she'd sleep on the rug. She placed her two little ones in their boxes on the rug beside her before settling down for the night. How she wished Gaine was here! Where are you, my love? Oh, please, come home. We need you.

-***-

Gaine's tired group mounted up to begin trailing downward as the other group quietly covered their faces with mud to mount their attack. Gaine followed the three men's trail the rest of the day, camping for only five hours that night before taking the men pell mell past roaring, tumbling streams, down through the timber past the land of few ranches toward the exhilarant savanna that ran clean out toward where the stage passed.

They lost the tracks for a while and when they located them again further down the hills, the tracks were for different horses. Gaine counted the tracks. Three riders again. The same number. Same age tracks. They'd exchanged horses somewhere. She had a good idea where. But she had to decide whether to track to the spent horses or assume these tracks were the same riders and go after them.

She sent two of her riders on to the hidden ranch she knew was in the foothills. They were to explore that possibility and report back. She and the remaining men headed on the new trail.

It was discouraging in many ways, but she refused to fall into that. They had tracked for so many days without another visual sighting. She cheered herself with the idea that they might be within a half-day, mere hours of the monsters. At least she hoped this trail was for the same riders.

Suddenly they came to one of the swing stations and a stage that had been robbed short hours before. The gang had killed the driver and pistol whipped the Conductor, although there had been no need. The man had his hands up at the time and was doing everything asked of him, the passengers stated.

They had removed the express box from the stage and the passengers had been robbed as well. One genteel older gentleman had been shot in the knee to the laughs of the villains. Taut bindings were holding back the blood. Again there had been no apparent reason. He was not armed nor resisting in any capacity. Gaine glanced at his injury and knew if he survived, he'd never walk again.

The posse's horses were exhausted. They exchanged with what fresh mounts the stage company had since the outlaws hadn't taken the horses this time. That was a good sign. That meant they were feeling rushed pressure and knew her posse had not stopped pursuing them.

She wondered how long it would be till they finally caught up with them...days? more weeks? And would it take her even further from home and Katie? See darlin, Ah ramembered ta think a ya as Katie ´stead a Meghan. The fellas better be keeping a close watch o'er ya. Ah shorely hope Lendal ain't been set free cause Ah know he'd come fer ya. So's theys better be watchin' ya close.

At the hidden ranch, Gaine's two men found the horses they'd been tracking up and down the Sierras for days. The man who lived there was weathered and independent. A surly cuss and by all accounts not terribly inclined to be cooperative. But when he thought they might hang him for aiding killers, he claimed, "Them boys never bothered me none nor caused me no trouble. They made a good trade, fair and square. I didn't have no idee they was killers."

With fresh mounts, Gaine and her posse headed as fast as they dared on the trail of the vicious killers. They were only hours behind them she was sure. Everyone checked their guns to see that they were loaded and ready. The fact that they had gained on them gave everyone a second wind.

"Theys likely ta be on bays and blacks," Gaine told them. "Watch in them shadows careful like." Rustlers rarely rode anything but darker horses that could fade into the night.

Gaine would track them by lantern light long into the night, they were all sure of that. There'd be no rest for these outlaws. Not with her posse on their trail. They were just hours away from their capture. They could feel it.

The outlaws, however, were very familiar with the area, knew how to cover their tracks and knew hiding places no one had ever thought about.

-***-

The next morning the populace of Barden's Corner was surprised and delighted to see a fresh bullet hole in the first "O" of the cooper's sign. Roger Pickwick stood for a long time tapping his cane with gusto on the wooden slats of the boardwalk, telling everyone who walked by what pips those Sardos women were. "You'd love it, Lettie darlin'," he chuckled. "They're just as perky now as in the olden days."

Nell appeared better that morning but Kate insisted that she stay in bed. She fixed a large breakfast for the children and hands while the dogs danced in delight at the appearance of their young friends. Kate took Nell a tray and firmly required that she take her powders. When they talked later, Nell sleepily admitted that she had miscarried from the beating. That was the reason for much of the blood.

"I've been taking in washing," Nell said drowsily. "We can't stay here too long, Kate. I have customers. It's our only income. I can't lose them. Shorty hasn't been working..."

"No. You need to stay till you're well." Kate heard the noises and moved to the window. Coming along the road was a fancy carriage with two men inside. "Minton thinks your arm is broken. You won't be lifting any heavy wash with a broken arm." She turned to see Nell sound asleep.

Kate stood on the porch, her rifle pointed at the two men, the three dogs around her, barking. Shorty jumped down from the wagon followed by Westminster, his badge prominently on his jacket. He tied the horse to the rail. Garcia stood at the barn, his rifle directed at the two. The dogs barked threateningly, occasionally baring their teeth.

"Don't bother getting out," Kate called. "You're not staying."

"I'm here in a legal capacity," Westminster declared. "Call off your dogs. Shorty demands that his family come home. I'm here to see that they do."

Kate did not call off the dogs, who barked furiously. Westminster drew his sidearm and pointed it at one of the dogs.

"Shoot that dog and you're dead," Kate threatened, her rifle aimed at him. "You two get back in that wagon and get off our property."

Suddenly the sound of another buggy was heard on the road and everyone looked to see a large buggy filled with a double row of ladies with parasols headed along the road to the house. Etta was holding the reins and directed the horse to the rail. She waited while the others held their skirts to climb down.

Kate called the dogs to the porch. Westminster hurried to their aid, gallantly holding out his hand for their use. "Shorty, help the ladies," he demanded. Shorty moved to the other side and helped the ladies from the back row. There were six ladies in all. Kate stood watching, unsure of what to do. She stopped the dogs barking then turned to Willy who was in the yard and told her to get the others and go into the room where their mother was sleeping and stay there. "Shut the door and don't come out unless I call you."

"Yes, ma'am." Willy gathered her brothers and little sister and hurried them into the house.

"Hello, Westminster," Etta said. "We've actually come to talk with you and Shorty." She smiled politely then turned to Kate. "Would you mind terribly if we came inside?"

"Uh...I guess not," Kate decided. "But you must all stay in the main room." Kate did not know these women other than by sight. They had not been particularly friendly to her, other than Etta, and she was suspicious of their presence. What she did know for sure was that they were NOT going to take Nell and her children out of this house...only over her dead body.

"Of course," Etta declared. She held her skirts and climbed the two stairs to the porch followed by the other ladies. The dogs moved to the side, watching their mistress for commands. Kate held the door open and directed the group to the big room where Sarah was in her box on the rug and Deena was asleep in her cradle. Kate, stood with her rifle still in her hand. Garcia came running across from the barn after the last two men entered.

"The main room only," Kate declared as Shorty stepped inside. She directed Garcia to wait on the porch and keep his rifle ready. "And call Alabam, in case we need more help."

"Come, have a seat, Shorty," Etta called. "We need to talk with you." The ladies sat primly at the long table and folded their hands in their laps.

Westminster pulled up a chair and joined them. "Ladies, I wonder if you understand that I am here on official business," he began. "It is my job to uphold the family and its values," he said politely, "and reunite a family that has been torn apart by those acting beyond their limits."

Kate began to bristle and Etta caught her eye. "Coffee, perhaps, Mrs. Sargos, if it's not too much bother?" she asked. The polite smile did not leave Etta's face and Kate's upbringing clicked into being. She leaned her rifle on the wall then cautiously brought cups and a spoon for each person. Lifting the ever-heated pot that was left from breakfast, she poured each cup. "I'm sorry," she said curtly, "the cream is in the well. I wasn't expecting company." She did put out some honey as a sweetener. Westminster and Shorty helped themselves to large portions and some of the ladies had smaller amounts.

"So, ladies, what was it you wanted from us gentlemen, your most humble servants." Westminster bowed forward slightly while sitting. The sickly sweet smile plastered on his face was enough to make Kate want to slap him firmly across the face, or throw up, or both. Instead she retrieved her rifle and stood on the rug by the children, scowling.

"Well, it has been said that finding a job in these days of difficult circumstances is next to impossible," Mrs. Harney stated. "And it has come to our attention that Shorty has been trying very hard to find such employment to support his family and must be commended for his effort."

"Indeed!" Mrs. Pickering agreed. "We know how important family is, so we decided that there must be SOMETHING out there that would reward Shorty for his efforts. We have, if you will, put out tentacles, checking in all directions of our influence for a worthy job."

"Yes," Mrs. Ledderbridge agreed. "And the ladies of the church circle are very pleased to announce that we have been able, after great difficulty, to find one of the last jobs in the area for an earnest, God-fearing man not afraid of hard work."

"A job?" Shorty asked, drinking down some of his coffee.

"Yes," Mrs. Meier smiled. "A very good, steady job." The ladies all sipped their coffee while Shorty considered the prospect.

"The difficulty, however," Etta interrupted, "is that you must leave right away in order to get there. That's why we rode out here as soon as we heard, Westminster. We were sure you'd understand. It is a plumb job on a sheep ranch close to Big Creek and they want his services immediately. He must leave, good sir, as soon as you can get him back to Barden's Corner and before anyone else hears this ranch is hiring. There is no time to lose with all those other men out there searching for work."

"Well, Shorty, a job!" Westminster stated proudly as though he had been the one to procure this opportunity. "It will feel good indeed to have a worthy job, eh?"

"Uh, on a sheep ranch?" Shorty asked. "What do I do?"

"Why, whatever one does on a sheep ranch," Mrs. Meier announced. She sipped her coffee. "It is my second cousin's ranch, and he has offered this to us FIRST, more as a favor than anything. So, while we hate to pressure you, we do hope you will hurry. He promised to hold it for you, if you would get there as soon as possible. Do you think you can do that?"

"Indeed," Westminster gulped down the rest of his coffee, "I shall get him back immediately, ladies. Finish your coffee, Shorty. You are bound for employment, my good man."

"I'll give you exact instructions on how to get there," Mrs. Meier suddenly rose and moved toward the door. Shorty finished his coffee and the two men rose. She waited for Westminster to hold the door open for her before moving out to the porch, followed by the two men. Garcia and the dogs watched them head to their wagon.

"Come and sit down, Kate," Etta grinned. "They'll be leaving soon, but we're in no hurry."

Kate checked on the two little ones before moving to the table. "What's going on?" she asked, the rifle still in her hands.

"We met last night after seeing what had happened at Shorty's house. We decided this was what Westminster was likely to do and we knew Nell would not be in any shape to be hauled all over the country and put back into the same situation. So Mrs. Meier sent her son on horseback last night to the sheep ranch. He returned early this morning and said her cousin could find some kind of a job for this man. Shorty usually lasts a month or a month and a half before he's let go. They said they could afford to hire him for up to two months. This would give Nell a chance to survive and Gaine a chance to get back and put an end to all of this."

Kate silently hung the rifle above the door. "How is Nell?" Etta asked her.

Kate walked back to the table. "She's miscarried and Minton thought she had a broken arm. Right now she's taken his powders and she's asleep."

The door opened and Mrs. Meier walked back in to the sounds of Winchester's buggy heading out the roadway to town. "They're gone," she smiled.

"Ladies," Kate grinned. "Let me send the children out to play then I'll put some real coffee on and bring out some cookies. And I promise to put out cream for your coffee this time."

The ladies all murmured their pleasure at her suggestion. After chatting and enjoying their refreshments for another hour or so, they got up to leave. They each took a minute to look in on Nell, who was still sound asleep. Kate was glad they were leaving as it was time to start supper for the children and the hands. The small blonde walked out with them to their carriage.

"Oh," Mrs. Pickering said, reaching into the back of the carriage, "Daniel's wife has been saving all of Gaine's mail for her while she's gone. She's refused to put it in the Sheriff's box since it has Gaine's name on it. She gave it to me to deliver to you." A box of mail was lifted from the back of the carriage and handed to Kate, whose brow rose at the amount. "She said to tell you not to be surprised, the Sheriff gets unbelievable amounts of mail."

Kate thanked them and bid them adieu, then hurried in to get to her noon duties. The workers would be in soon to eat and she should have spent the morning baking. The box of mail was put aside in the pantry, waiting for Gaine's return.

After several days recovering, Nell decided that she and the children should return home. If she wrapped her arm, she claimed, it didn't hurt so badly. She felt she had to get back to work doing laundry in order to keep all the prior customers she'd been able to get. She needed them desperately. Shorty would demand that they come back anyway and she'd have no choice when he did. And she was afraid he would drink away most of his job money. But she could use her laundry income to pay for food for the children so long as she had customers.

Kate was not sure it was wise to go home so soon, but she knew it was safe. Shorty wouldn't be back in town for at least a month. She understood Nell's predicament so she bundled up the children and helped Nell and her family into the wagon. "You take Mabel's horse and ride out to get us anytime you need to," she told Willy. "Mabel says it's fine if she's not there."

"Yes, ma'am," the young girl said sadly. "I will."

Kate saw the sad faces of the dogs as Alabam drove the family to town. "I know how you feel," she said as she paused on the porch. "I miss them, too." Her eyes followed the wagon but her thoughts drifted. Oh, Gaine, come home to us. Soon, my love. Please! Everyone in town was nervous at the amount of time the posse had been away. Occasionally they got word of where they'd been seen. But mostly they waited, steadfast in their belief in Gaine's ability to protect her men.

That night after supper when the dishes were done and the mess cleaned off the table, Kate cuddled the oldest child, the one she had taken to calling Sarah after her mother, then put her on the rug by the table. She had a blanket down and a handmade barricade of chairs and the large bathing tub. The baby she called Deena after Gaine's mother, Costadeena. The infant was asleep in the box that Garcia had turned into a cradle. The rockers were removable. As a cradle, Meghan was able to rock it with her foot should the baby awaken.

She wanted to have everything ready when Gaine returned and she remembered the box of mail. Her tall partner would be busy dealing with the Mayor and with everything surrounding her job. Plus she had to meet the cattle drive in Stockton and complete that deal. She had no idea how using the salary money for supplies could be fixed. It would be one more thing Gaine would have to do. She would have so little time and Kate wanted to do everything she could to make it easier for her.

She brought out the box of mail and began to separate it with a large degree of apprehension. She had become attached to these small children and did not want to see a letter from a relative notifying Gaine that they were coming to claim them. How could she possibly survive such a letter? She didn't think she could although she knew she shouldn't let herself get so attached.

She made a stack of wanted posters. Many were bigger than an average piece of paper. A number of them offered rewards. Some were for information to help capture and some were for the apprehension of robbers, murderers, escaped prisoners, thieves and sometimes for lost objects. There was even one offering a one-time opportunity to view the hand of the gunned-down rogue, Stub-fingered Charlie, whose lightning fast stubbed gun fingers had been stepped on and mangled as a youngster by a Shetland pony.

How gruesome, she thought. Who'd pay to see a dead man's cut off hand? Ew!

There were a couple letters from nearby Sheriffs regarding the gang of outlaws that Gaine was now pursuing and one from the stagecoach company. And a number of posters were included offering rewards for the same men, wanted dead or alive. She put them in a separate stack. Kate decided to reply to the letters telling them Gaine and her posse were in pursuit. She didn't care what the Mayor might think about that.

She cooed lovingly to the toddler, who babbled her own language in return. Then she came to a letter with a return address from the Marshal in Sacramento. She debated about opening it, but decided she couldn't be of any help to Gaine if she didn't check all the mail. She hoped Gaine wouldn't mind.

Carefully she cut the end and extracted the letter. Her mouth dropped open then her hand went to her mouth as she read. It was informing Gaine that Lendal Hindlefarb had been tried and found guilty of the murder of Brogan Fitzgeraldson. He'd been sentenced to death and was hanged according to law.

Dear Heavens! Lendal was hanged! She wanted to feel relief, but for whatever reason, that was not the emotion that flooded her. Did I kill him? she considered with a feeling of despair. Her shoulders slumped Did I kill Lendal?

The information following that, however, really made her sit back and take stock. "The widow of the murdered man and her young son," the Marshal had written, "had attended the hanging, as was their due."

"What does this mean, Gaine?" Kate asked the still air, slumping back in her chair and chewing her lip. "I wish you were here to help me understand this." Her eyes stared blankly at a spot on the wall. But she knew what it meant. It meant her mother might purposely have let the authorities think it was her father's watch. Surely her mother hadn't forgotten the scratches inside the lid that Kate had paid dearly for out of her own flesh.

She sat silently as she stared. The only sounds were the gurgling noises made by the small Sarah as she chewed on the tin cup then banged it on the ground in delight.

And that watch most likely convicted Lendal, Kate thought. A judgment her mother had chosen to observe being carried out. Why? She knew her mother feared him; hated him even, but that seemed...unbelievable.

Her mind went back to her years growing up. She was very young when they had lived near Lendal. Her father had started several businesses when she was a youngster and he moved his shops from time to time until the wagon shop at Jubilee City, where it seemed to catch on and he became established.

She remembered her mother crying sorrowful tears when her father was not around after they moved. However, she did not cry when he was there, even when he struck her, which was all too often. It was like she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her tears. But she knew her father had not been nearly as vicious to his wife as Lendal had been to his.

Maybe her mother really believed Lendal had killed her father and was afraid he would get away with it if she didn't do what she'd done--what Kate had done as well, though hers was unintentional. Maybe Lendal had been the killer. He had a vicious temper. Maybe they'd convicted him without the watch as evidence. But what if they hadn't?

I've killed someone, rang through her mind. How does Gaine stand it, knowing you've taken someone's life? It's such a horrible thing!

She lifted Sarah into her arms and moved to the chair. She cuddled the small toddler. The little girl smelled like the innocence of childhood. It was comforting. She held her to her chest and rocked forward in a short rocking motion until the small eyes of the child began to close. Even after she had fallen asleep, Kate continued to rock her.

When she finally looked around it was growing dark. She had not finished the mail. She would need to light a lantern. She placed the sleeping toddler in her box, lit the lantern and went back to the mail. "Only rich people with servants have the luxury of pondering their choices," she muttered and drew out some paper and the inkwell to write replies.

-***-

"The Sheriff's here! They're back!" Willy called for everyone in town to hear.

The news spread like an electric storm. People came out onto the street to watch the tired procession heading into town. The afternoon was pleasant with just a touch of a breeze but the riders took no pleasure in the day.

"And they got dead men on their saddles. THEY'S GOT DEAD MEN!" Willy shouted excitedly. Now the street filled rapidly and everyone within calling range ran out to make sure it wasn't one of their loved ones that had been shot as the posse tiredly made it's way to the main street.

"Lordy!" Willy hollered, sounding just like the woman she idolized. "They got prisoners--alive. LIVE PRISONERS!"

"Westminster," the Mayor hissed to the man standing on the boardwalk watching the coming procession. "Take off that badge. Here, give it to me." Westminster ruffled his brows, but seeing Gaine heading their way, he quickly removed the badge and handed it to the Mayor.

"I'm not Sheriff any more?"

"No."

Everyone's eyes raked over the motley procession, each scouring the group for their own loved ones. The Sheriff was at the front. Behind her were three horses tied together, each carrying a dead body strapped across the saddle. The posse itself followed, many men trailing an extra horse. Near the end of the riders were two surly men, hands tied to their saddlehorns. Men not from their town were mixed in with the posse making it double the size it had been when they left. At the very end of the approximately twenty riders came the wagon with two men riding on the bench and two men lying inside. One of the injured was the other Sheriff.

Behind that was a small herd of horses and cattle and a few riders keeping them corralled.

"Fetch the doctor," Gaine called and the doctor stepped forward. "We got wounded," Gaine said. "Better git yer bag, Doc. Hurry!"

"Bring 'em to the house," the doctor stated and Gaine waved the wagon around and pointed to the Doc. "Falla him," she called to the strangers.

"Good God Almighty!" the Mayor preened from the boardwalk, "Ya got 'em! I'll be jigged, Gaine, if ya ain't got 'em." He turned to the crowd. "She got 'em. I knew she would. Others tried, but OUR Sheriff got 'em. Jigged if she ain't."

"Nope," Gaine replied tiredly. "We all done worked tagather."

Wive's eyes scanned the troupe for their husbands. The men were filthy dirty, having worn the same clothes every day they'd been gone. Those who'd been clean shaven when they left now sported beards and scraggly mustaches. They all looked exhausted. Women stepped forward, embracing various of the ratty looking men as they climbed off their horses. Some remained in their embrace for quite a long time. Gaine's posse was back, all safe and sound.

"We'll look after your horse, Sheriff," one of two young man stated enthusiastically, moving up to take the reins.

"Howdy,boys, " Gaine said tiredly to the two Harlap brothers as she wearily swung down from the saddle. She glanced down the street and saw the new whitewash gleaming off the wood fence around old Dell Renyard's front yard. "Ya do all yer tasks?"

"Yes, ma'am," they replied earnestly. She saw complete admiration in their eyes as they gazed back at her. She put her hand on the shoulder of the closest boy. "Good work, fellas. Thank ya. Jest loop 'em onta the rail. 'Preciate it."

"Yes, ma'am!" they both carefully draped the reins over the rail and stood guard proudly by the horse.

"Glad yer back, Sheriff," Willy shyly smiled a toothy smile from the boardwalk where she was watching. Her permanent tooth had come in completely while Gaine had been gone.

"Howdy, Willy," Gaine ruffled the girl's hair and a wider smile spread from ear to ear across the young girl's face. "Ya got yer tooth in. Where's yer Momma?"

"In the crowd over by the doc's house."

"You doin' ever'thin' she tells ya?"

"Yes, ma'am," she replied. "I am."

"Good. Did yer Pa take ta drinkin' an' hurtin' yer Ma whilst we war gone?"

"Only once."

Gaine paused, then rubbed her neck. "Uh huh. Well, Ah'm right glad ta be home." Right at the moment she'd kill Shorty on the spot if she saw him so much as lift a drunken hand to any one of his family. Gaine turned and moved down the row of riders to direct what would happen with the prisoners and the livestock at the end.

"Drive them steers an' hosses on over the bridge ta the end a' town thar," she pointed. "An let 'em graze a bit. They'll be goin' with me." The riders drove the animals around the rest of the group and down toward the bridge. "Ahm chainin' them thar fellers ta yer barn, Mayor," she told the proudly strutting man. "Ahm too tired ta watch over 'em clean out ta mah place."

"Of course. Of course. Bring them right along. We'll strap those despicable outlaws to the beams, good and tight just like they deserve." He shook his fist at the men as some of the riders dragged them off their horses.

"They's prisoners, Mayor," Gaine warned. "Ya can't sa much as touch 'em. An nobody else kin neither. They's goin' 'n front a' the judge. That's how t'works. Ain't gonna be no necktie party in this here town."

"Yes, yes," the Mayor said dismissively. The surging crowd moved back to give them room then a few brave souls moved forward to touch the villains as they passed. The criminals turned with growls toward the people touching them but the men at the other end of their ropes gave firm yanks and moved them along.

The pulse of some whose indignation at the atrocity of these men's crimes ran highest snarled at the prisoners, who looked back with disdain in their eyes. "Ya ain't ta touch the criminals!" Gaine warned with more force, and the townsfolk drew back. The criminals were captives, but Gaine wasn't. They didn't want to tangle with her.

The crowd followed down the street to the Mayor's house. Into his yard and into his barn they moved. The men were tied to the beams in a sitting position. Then chains were brought out and added for protection.

"That outta do it," Gaine breathed, standing to move out. "They's not ta be harassed er harmed none now Mayor," she warned. "Ain't no firearms allowed in this here barn 'cept'n a Deputy's er mine. Ahm leavin' mah fellas 'n charge. Ah doan wanna hafta arrest nobody here fer murder. Them fellas'r already arrested 'n in mah charge. Harm 'em an' Ahl arrest ya."

"Yes, Sheriff," he replied seriously. She was at the barn door when the Mayor stepped forward as though he was making a political speech. "You men are done harassin', murderin' and foresakin' honest citizens and small children." The angry voices of other townsfolk muttered their agreement. "Your violent reign of terror is ended right here in Barden's Corner. Remember that name, you villains. May it die on your tongue. Cause you've met OUR Sheriff, and don't NOBODY fuss with her and win!"

"Not ta be harmed, Mayor," she repeated the warning. "Ahm sendin' two Deputies ta watch o'er 'em tanight."

"Yes, yes. Ladies and Gentlemen, Barden's Corner's finest, OUR SHERIFF!" He pointed to Gaine who smiled weakly as wild applause broke out before she left.

The crowd was then mustered out of the barn by the Mayor. They left with great reluctance but he whispered that for a nickel each, a dime per family, there'd be a viewing in an hour and they could stay as long as they wanted till he closed the viewing down. Except they couldn't bring in any firearms by order of the Sheriff. They all were mesmerized with the prospect of such vicious, blood-thirsty men so close to them and they couldn't get enough of just staring at them. They'd be back with their nickels and dimes.

Gaine flagged down one of the riders and sent him after the two men from the wagon. She thought they would be the most rested and could stand guard over the prisoners for the night.

She crossed back to the main street where the dead men were draped over the horses. The two boys were still there proudly watching her horse. Their wide eyes were scrutinizing the dead men on the other horses' backs and they bobbed up and down in place to try and see the dead faces under the draped bodies. Sweet Providence, these criminals were the talk of the state and THEIR Sheriff had caught them! And here those blood-thirsty fellas were, right here in little Barden's Corner. The excitement ran high.

Gaine chatted for a minute with the carpenter, who also made the coffins. She would turn the bodies over to him. Once the agreement had been reached, she turned the string of horses over to the carpenter and headed toward her own horse. The boys backed away.

"Thanks, fellas," she said and their faces beamed with the recognition she'd given them. Then they tore out after the carpenter. They wanted to see the dead men when they were lifted off.

"Bet the Sheriff killed all three of 'em," one brother said quietly to the other, their eyes flicking back to the tall woman. His brother nodded in agreement. "I'm glad we did all the jobs she gave us," he replied, wide-eyed. "Me, too," the other agreed.

The crowd reluctantly leaving the Mayor's barn got wind of where the dead outlaws were being taken and followed along as the carpenter led the string. This was probably the most exciting thing they would ever see in their lives, they decided.

"Better take this, Sheriff," one of the riders brought over a small wooden chest with a hinged lid from the wagon. "You're the one in charge of it."

"Yep, I reckon," Gaine said without enthusiasm. She knew the chest contained the smaller spoils of the thieves' robberies. The horses and cattle had been kept in a beautiful, lush valley over the rise at the trail along the sheer rock wall. That was the place where the other Sheriff and one of his deputies had been wounded when they'd hesitated to return fire. The stock from there would be driven to her corral for the night. They'd sort everything out in the morning.

"Ahm headin' home," she smiled grimly at the man. "All the t'uther fellas been put up all right?"

"Yep. Bessie Mae's filled up her boardin' house. And the Jensens just outside town are taking the rest in their bunkhouse. Too bad the hotel ain't finished yet."

"Uh huh. Well, mah Cousin's gonna be right pleased ta see Ahm back."

"Yep. Tell Cousin Minnie howdy fer me."

Gaine smiled. Words would take too much energy. She climbed tiredly on her horse and rode across to the men from the wagon emerging from Doc's house and repeated their assignment. They grabbed their rifles from the wagon and headed for the Mayor's barn. She pointed her horse toward home, the small wooden chest under one arm. She crossed the bridge and the herd there grazing was headed out behind her by the waiting men.

Kate had just finished feeding the children when she saw the lone figure in front of the herd riding slowly toward the ranch. She knew instantly who it was. Her heart pounded in her chest. "Quick, put some water on to heat out there in the firepit," she called to Alabam who was near the fire. "I'll get the bathing tub. Garcia, dig in that bean hole please and bring up the stew cooking there. I'll bring out the biscuits and an apricot pie. Hurry!"

All eyes moved to the tired procession riding in. Kate ran back into the house and frantically began bringing out pantry foods to go with the hot stew for the exhausted woman. Then she stepped around Sarah on the blanket, bent over quickly to kiss her forehead, and ran back to the porch as Gaine pulled up in the yard. Gaine's two vaqueros rode out to help and the herd was separated and driven into the corrals.

"GAINE!" Kate cried excitedly. She ran to fall into the tall woman's arms as the Sheriff slid off her horse and opened one arm. "Oh, Gaine, you're back! Thank heavens!" They stood in an awkward embrace, Gaine still holding the small chest with her other arm.

"Come on," Kate chattered, ignoring everyone else. "We're fixing bath water for you. And there's some food if you're hungry. There's stew with potatoes and biscuits and apricot pie. Let's get you into the tub."

"Ah am filthy..." Gaine started to pull away.

"Pshaw!" Kate said gripping Gaine firmly around the waist. "C'mon now."

"See ya Sheriff. We'll be back tomorrow to help you bring the horses and cattle to town." The town riders turned their horses and gave a short goodbye wave.

Gaine stopped on the porch and gave a frail wave in return. "Thanks," she muttered. Her eyes went to her own hands. "Howdy, fellas," she said weakly.

"Get some sleep, Amiga. We'll talk tomorrow," Garcia called.

"Yep," Gaine replied.

Once in the house, Kate had Gaine sit at the table while she directed the two men to pour the water into the nearby tub. She dipped out some stew from the dutch oven and put a biscuit with it before sending the rest out for the hands' supper. Gaine picked at her food but was too tired to eat much.

Once the men had gone, the blonde came back to help the tall woman undress. Gaine had placed the chest, her cartridge belts and holster on the end of the table. Kate hung the belts on the pegs where they normally were kept.

The blonde's dancing eyes did not leave the tall woman. She was a sight for very sore eyes. She pulled one boot then the other off the tired Sheriff. The little girl made some noises on the blanket and Gaine looked over in spent amusement. "That ain't the same little girl?" she asked in amazement.

"Yes. Meet Sarah, Gaine," Kate said undoing the bandanna and unbuttoning the woman's shirt and pulling them off. She unbuckled the belt then the filthy trousers. "I'm calling her after my Momma. And the baby is Costadeena, after your Mother. And we've been waiting for you to get home ever so long."

Blue eyes lifted to green. "Ahv missed ya so," Gaine said softly.

"And I've missed you, my love, more than you'll ever know." Kate ran a hand softly over Gaine's sunscorched cheek. She had a few mosquito bites on her face, some old, some new. "C'mon. Let's get you into the tub."

She helped the woman remove her underclothes and step in and settle down before she handed her a washcloth and some soap. She was surprised by how much weight her tall beauty had lost. She looked carefully but was relieved to see no wounds anywhere. Just some swollen bites on her hands and face. Gaine began to scrub dirt from her neck and Kate flew from the room to get the tall woman's nightshirt.

"I'll help you wash your hair," she called as she reentered the room. She did a quick visual check and saw the baby was awake but quiet in her cradle and Sarah was chewing on the tin cup as she sat on the blanket. Kate looked at Gaine and saw her head was slumped forward. She moved closer and saw she was sound asleep in the tub.

"Darlin'," she said softly. "I'm going to help you wash your hair."

"Huh?" Gaine's eyes shot open. Kate put a gentle hand on her shoulder and dipped a small pan of water from the tub. "Your hair. Shut your eyes." She poured the water then added soap and scrubbed the long black tresses for the sleepy woman several times, before massaging her scalp.

"Mmm. Thanks, Katie," she sighed, forcing herself awake. "Ah kin do the rest."

"Let me rinse it first." Kate poured more water to rinse out the sleek long black hair.

"Feels good ta have it clean," Gaine smiled wearily.

Kate stood nervously by the table as Gaine began to scrub herself down. The blonde looked at the chest. "What's this?" She moved to the end of the table where the chest sat.

"That thar's the thieves'. Ah gotta watch over't."

"May I look?"

"Course. Only...."

Kate opened the chest. "Dear heavens!" She scrunched her nose, "There's rings, necklaces, watches and other things in here." She took a step back and brought her hands to her chest. "How horrible!"

"Uh huh," Gaine shut her eyes and continued scrubbing herself.

Something caught Kate's eye and she reached in and carefully pulled it out. "Gaine....?"

Gaine glanced over. "Uh, yep. Wanted ta talk ta ya 'bout that."

"It's just like father's. Lendal was hanged, you know. There's a letter there from the Marshal."

"He bees dead?" Blue eyes opened wide.

Kate managed to nod yes. Then she added softly, "For father's murder. My Momma went to see him be hanged."

"Good!" Gaine replied firmly, surprising Kate. "Yer Momma knew 'im better 'an most. If she figured t'war fittin', Ah reckon t'war fittin'."

"I dunno," Kate hit the button on the gold pocket watch she was holding and the top popped open. Inside the lid were light scratches in the gold. "Dear God!" Kate threw it back into the chest and jumped back, her mouth wide open.

"'Uh, member that thar feller from tha stage? Yer Pa shared hisself a room with'n 'im? The feller with'n the scar 'n his face?"

"Yes," Kate's voice quavered as she focused her saucer-shaped eyes on the brunette then brought them back to the gold watch she had spent many years of her young life polishing.

"Well, Ah war startled some n' Sacramenta when we bees thar. Ah figured Ah seed 'im ta the faro table. But lookin' closer, he warn't thar. Ah figured yer Pa hired 'im ta shoot me, but Ah din't see 'im no more. Ah watched keerful fer 'im."

"Oh, Gaine! You didn't tell me." Green eyes moved back to the beauty in the tub.

"Ah know. Ah din't want ya a'worryin'. Ya had lotsa' t'uther things ta fret on."

"But...father's watch." Her eyes reverted to the watch again. "The man with the scar?"

"Yep. Ah figure yer Pa done made hisself a bargain with'n tha devil with that feller. T'is mah thinkin' he come ta Sacramenta professin' ta fulfill his pact ta harm me but he war really aimin' ta rob yer Pa. He musta seed that thar weighty money belt yer Pa war a'wearin'. An' he seed the watch, too, Ah fancy. Ever'body did. Yer Pa woulda let 'im enter 'is hotel room easy 'nuff. An' yer Pa coulda riled 'im up a storm by maybe bawlin him out fer not killin' me. Ah dunno. Ana'ways, Ah figure he'd a kill't yer Pa nohow jest ta steal from 'im."

"You think he killed father...?"

"Yep. An' stoled that thar watch. Uh, he war one a' the thieves Ah shot."

"He's dead?"

"Uh huh. He do be truly deceased." Her voice broke off at the end.

One of the thieves she shot. How many did she shoot? It was rumored that the gang was large, at least five men. Kate wanted to know, she wanted to know everything that had happened. But not if Gaine didn't want to talk about it. Not yet. Gaine sat staring into space.

Finally she spoke again softly, "Meggy?"

"Yes?" Green eyes looked over at the tall beauty who sat looking almost lost. This job is not good for her, Kate thought as she looked into the beauty's sad eyes. It takes too much out of her.

Blue eyes blinked. "Hold me?"

In an instant Kate was on her knees by the tub, Gaine in her arms. The tall woman put her head of wet hair on Kate's shoulder and shut her eyes. She never allowed herself to let down like this. But she was so tired and she was safe with Meg. She was safe in her arms. Kate kept her arms tight around her tall love.

"I love you, Gaine," Kate murmured, knowing she was getting wet but not caring a whit. "You did what you had to do."

"Yep," Gaine replied, staying in the embrace a minute more. Then she pulled away and smiled. "Ahm all right now." She began washing.

"I"ll scrub your back for you, honey." Kate began to wash the muscled back and Gaine gave a small moan of pleasure.

"Thar war prisoners," Gaine said quietly.

"There were?" Kate continued scrubbing.

"Yep. Big Creek's posse got both a' thar fellas." Kate scrubbed without comment. "Course thar gonna hang 'em now. An' thar posse had two a' thar own wounded 'cludin' thar Sheriff. He war clipped but t'uther fella war hurt bad." She sighed heavily.

"Oh, no! Were any of your posse... Any of the fellas from town?"

"No." Blue eyes lifted and went to green. "Ar three outlaws t'war all kilt a'for they could kill er wound eny a' mah boys."

"Thank heavens!"

"Ah reckon."

Kate stared up at the wooden chest on the table. She handed Gaine the soapy rag. "All done in back. Uh is...is the coin you shot in that chest?"

"No," Gaine began scrubbing her arms. "Dunno what happened ta it. Ain't none a' the captured fellers a'sayin' nothin'."

"Oh." Kate rose and walked near the chest staring at the watch.

Gaine watched her. "Ya kin claim it, if'n ya want, darlin'," she said faintly.

"NO!" Kate backed away. "No!"

"T'is all right," Gaine soothed. "Ya ain't gotta. Goes ta the treasury a' the two towns if'n t'ain't claimed."

"Barden's Corner and Big Creek?"

"Yep."

"What do they do with it?"

"T'will be sold an' added ta the re-ward moneys. T'is likely Barden's Corner's gonna build a new jail an maybe procure theyselfs some new school books."

"I won't claim it, Gaine. I won't! Let it go for books."

Gaine nodded her head and smiled tiredly, "T'is fittin' fer yer Pa ta do somethin' fer t'uthers fer a change. Shore done his share a' hurtin' when he war livin'. Time fer 'im ta do somethin' decent fer once't, Ah figure."

Kate nodded. Sounds of cattle left behind in the upper pasture drifted through the window. Gaine sighed contentedly. "Sorry Ah warn't here ta git supplies fer Cookie. Ya git ´em for ´im? Don Carlos n' mah t'uther riders best be gone, too, Ahm a'hopin'."

"They left with the big herd quite a while ago. But it wasn't easy getting Cookie's supplies. I had to spend the salary money you had in the chest."

"Why?"

"The Mayor. He was horrible, Gaine! He said you'd been fired and he subtracted all your posse's supplies from your personal account. And that left no credit. Then he wouldn't let Cookie trade cattle for supplies. I didn't know what else to do."

"He done that?" Gaine sat up straight in the tub, "Why that dirty, rotten polecat!" She sat quietly thinking for a minute. "Maybe me an' the boys'll jest claim them rewards fer arselfs. Since't Ah warn't legally no Sheriff, they warn't legally no posse neither. We shore 'nuff din't hafta do nothin' fer the town's benefit. Them outlaws t'war wanted men. War'n't illegal shootin' 'em. Wonder if'n he's pondered eny on that thar state a' affairs."

Kate lifted the fussing baby from her cradle and checked her diaper. "I worried about spending the money." She made the change and settled the infant back in her cradle, giving it a light rock.

Gaine's eyes shut in anger, she clenched her teeth and frowned. She opened her eyes and rubbed herself with the wash cloth with more fervor. "Ahm sorry, darlin. That thar Mayor ain't never gonna do that ta ya ag'in. Ah promise." Her eyes narrowed. "He bees ´n ijit!"

"Yes. I'd have to agree with that."

Gaine's blue eyes lifted to her, "How'd ya manage, then? Warn't that much salary money thar. Did ya git ever'thin' ya needed? What ´bout supplies fer here?"

"We got by. I was so worried about using up every cent. But I didn't know what else to do. Daniel was adamant about not giving us credit. But his wife let me get your trousers on credit. And Minton was wonderful."

"Daniel refused? Daniel? Well, ya done ever'thin' 'zactly right, darlin. Doan worry none. We'll git ta the mercantile and work t'out. Ah cain't believe Daniel'd go along with'n that...that buzzard. Ah declare, Ahm gonna hafta kill that Mayor a' our'n and them nabobs he's a'workin' with. Them dirty, rotten..."

"Oh, honey, you're home and we got by. I'm just happy you're home." She put her arms around Gaine's neck again and kissed her on the cheek.

A determined look came across Gaine's face. "Tha Mayor's jest got ar town some changes he an his pals ain't gonna like a'tall. An Ah do believe we's gonna have us'ns a woman a'servin' in one a' them city po-sitions--treasurer. Etta Mae. Ah got me a great bargainin' position this time. A woman servin' and a law sayin' we's gonna throw 'n jail an' fine ana' feller that beats his wife. Two hundert dollar fine each n' ever time."

"Uh, Shorty beat Nell very badly while you were gone. And..and more. Nell, uh, lost the baby she was carrying when he kicked her in the stomach. She, uh, miscarried. And he threatened to kill her. That was so frightening! He took a gun to her. He threatened them all, but Willy had all the little ones hide down by the river. We brought Nell and the children out here."

"Shorty doan own no gun. Whar'd he git it? He musta stole it. Stealin' an' threatenin'. Why warn't he arrested? Why ain't he 'n custody?"

"He was, but Westminster let him go the very next day. The Mayor made Westminster Sheriff, and he brought Shorty out here the next day to get his family and take them home."

"Goddam!" Gaine slapped the water then sighed heavily, resigned to the fact that she'd need to ride back into town immediately to handle the problem. "He still thar with'n Nell an' the childerns."

Kate put a hand on her arm. "No. It's all right. Nell didn't go back until he was gone from town. Etta brought the Ladies Aid group from church into it and they found him a job on a sheep ranch over by Big Creek. He didn't have any choice but to take it. He's been there since."

"Good!" A large sigh and resolve drained from Gaine. Kate looked over, "C'mon, honey. Let me help you out and into bed. You look like you could sleep a year."

"Ah am plum tuckered. Ah pushed them boys hard, Katie."

"I know, honey. Let's get you into bed."

Gaine dried quickly and got into her nightshirt. Kate helped her into the bedroom then went back to check on Sarah who was still on the blanket. When she went back to the bedroom again, Gaine was in bed, sound asleep. Kate drew the mosquito cloth around the bed.

The blonde was cleaning up Gaine's uneaten food when a light tap came on the door. She opened it to see Garcia. "If'n ya want, missus, Ahl do the milkin." His eyes flitted around the yard, checking to see if any of the men were watching.

Kate looked at him with surprise. Men didn't do the milking in many places if there was a woman to do it. "Bless you, Garcia. But I already did it before Gaine got here."

"Uh, we was wonderin'," he blushed. "Gaine all right? We heard there were injuries. She looked....peak-ed."

"She's asleep already. I think she's just exhausted. A couple people in the other posse were injured. None in hers. And she's not wounded at all."

He nodded, "Bueno!" he sighed in relief and moved off the porch. Kate realized how many people counted on Gaine. She finished her chores, running back periodically to gaze at the brunette. She really was home. Gaine was home! And she wasn't injured. At least her body wasn't.

The children were placed in their boxes on Kate's side of the bed beside Gaine. The blonde pulled back the netting and crawled carefully over the sleeping woman into the small area left in the middle of the bed. She pulled the tall beauty's arms around herself. "Hey, beautiful lady," Kate breathed.

Gaine made a grunting noise and muffled her face in Kate's hair and began to nibble Kate's neck even though her eyes were tightly closed. Yes, they could easily share one side of the bed for tonight.

"Gaine, honey," Kate whispered, "the children..."

"Um, all right, love," Gaine replied before breathing deeply in sleep again. Kate glanced at the tall beauty. She was sound asleep. The blonde smiled. Gaine was home, safe, and those she loved surrounded her. The sun was going down and soon pitch blackness would fill the room.

"I love you, Gaine," Kate said softly.

"Mmm, love ya, too, kitten," Gaine replied, then softly snored.

Kitten. She loved when Gaine called her "kitten". She hugged the tall brunette gently. She loved her tall beauty so. And she loved her life. She ran her thumb across her ring. Mrs. Sargos. Mrs. Gaine Sargos, only no one else knew that. The times did not allow it. But none of that mattered at the moment. She knew and Gaine knew. Right this minute, she wouldn't change a thing.

Then she paused. Well, she would like to know how her mother was doing. That was the one and only thing she'd change. I care about the others but I can easily live without them in my life. But I do miss Mother. I pray she's all right.

-***-

bsoiree@comcast.net

Continued in Chapter 11

Return to the Academy