Across the continent in a Boston neighborhood, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson, widow, was taking out her pen and ink. Wrinkled fingers turned the wick till the lantern sputtered then burned high and cheerfully. It was late and ever so dark outside. She and her sister enjoyed staying up late with no one to say them "Nay" but their budget. They were careful not to stay up late too often, however, so as not to spend too much foolishly on lamp oil or firewood. The bricks that would warm their cold beds were heating in the fireplace.
"Dear Sheriff Gaine Sargos," the older woman wrote on the paper before her.
Her younger widowed sister sat across the room enjoying a pinch of snuff while knitting contentedly on new tidies for the chairs. Her youngest son, Reggie, sprawled across a chair reading the paper. The house was swept and the wood piled by the fireplace. Reggie had voiced a desire to get more education, but planned to work and save to pay for it himself. He loved Boston, and he had proved to be a very great help so far. He did regular chores, brought in the water daily, chopped the wood in the shed and hadn't he caught a wild turkey and penned it in the yard? And weren't they feeding it well with anticipation of a nice, fat Thanksgiving gobbler?
It was a small, cozy home, close enough to the city's horse-drawn omnibus calculated to hold twelve persons. A big-city marvel yet their cottage had enough land for chickens, a limited garden and a small milking shed. They paid the neighbor lad to drive Bessie and her calf to the off-city pasture and back each day along with his family's and other dairy cattle in the neighborhood.
Her youngest sister had lived here with her elderly husband, who had recently passed. He'd been much older than she and most of his children had been raised by his first wife in this very house. The three children she'd bore him were married and moved away. Hers had also been an arranged marriage but he'd been kind to her in many ways.
The two sisters combined their resources. Meghan's mother still had not received any money from her eldest son, but she felt if they were thrifty and frugal with what they had, traded eggs and butter for basic supplies, took in a little laundry for others when necessary, and were careful, they could live here indefinitely without severe financial problems.
However she also felt she had to find her missing daughter and if her own methods failed, that would require funding. There was always the Pinkertons, although she didn't have any idea how she'd ever afford that. She sighed. At least she knew for sure that Lendal wouldn't be harming Meghan. She prayed he hadn't killed her.
The older woman looked out the dark window at the moon on the flowerbed in front. She would write this Sheriff Gaine Sargos that the Marshal in Sacramento had suggested. Strange for a Sheriff to be a woman. More than strange, really. Yet it sounded like the kind of person Meghan might have understood and probably would have liked. The Marshal had said this woman traveled with them on the stage, confronted her husband more than once, stayed at the same hotel and had returned home after collecting her Cousin Minnie when she came in from Virginia City.
Sheriff Sargos couldn't be a bad person if she'd confronted her late husband, his widow decided. Maybe this Sheriff or her cousin had seen Meghan. Someone had to know where her darling missing daughter was. Maybe Gaine Sargos knew. She wouldn't rest until she located her youngest girl.
In Sacramento the Marshal also sat penning a letter. A continent away from the older woman, the evening sun was just painting the red clay near his stream redder. It would add deeper hues to the shadows soon thereafter.
"Dear Sheriff," he wrote, "I said I'd keep you up to date. You'll be interested to know that with the help of Lendal Hindlefarb's youngest daughter, the body of her mother, Ruby Hindlefarb was discovered buried in the pasture beyond the house. She had a large number of broken bones and obviously was murdered. Some of her children admitted it was their father that had hurt their Mother.
The whole situation is being thoroughly investigated. A sad ending to a sad story, I'm sure you'll agree. But at least the children are no longer under the man's evil influence. And it's likely the town will be electing a new, and hopefully, much better Sheriff. Thanks to you and Mr. Thatcher, the Deputy will no longer be a problem. Unfortunately, no word of Mr. Thatcher's whereabouts has been found at this point.
He continued, "As I wrote you, Mr. Hindlefarb was hanged for the murder of Mr. Brogan Fitzgeraldson. Mrs. Fitzgeraldson, the widow, was anxious to find any information about her missing daughter. To that end, I have given her your address. Perhaps you'll remember something that will be of help to her.
The Marshal looked up then added another paragraph. "I've heard from the stagecoach company that you're heading a posse in pursuit of the men who recently held up the stage and murdered the driver. I have great hopes that you'll be able to catch them. As a Federal Marshal from the capital city, I'll be happy to receive any prisoners, living or dead, that your men might capture in this regard. I'm sure you're aware of the number of rewards posted for them."
The Marshal pushed his hat back further on his head as he continued writing, "Guess you're thankful you got your Cousin Minnie home before all this other murder and mayhem touched her life in any significant way. Please give her my best regards. Yours sincerely, Hector J. Tibbetslee, Marshal.
In the darkening bedroom Kate laid her head against Gaine's shoulder and listened for the ranch night sounds. She listened to Gaine's breathing and heard the soft sound of cattle lowing outside. She was familiar with them now. She knew the nighthawks were out patrolling while the others slept. This was home and Gaine was back. Gaine was finally here in her arms again.
How she did NOT want the tall beauty to leave again to meet the cattle drive. She didn't want to think about that. For now, Gaine was home. Safe. My dearest love, she sighed. She placed a gentle kiss on Gaine's cheek.
The tall brunette smiled and drifted up out of her deep slumber. Blue eyes fluttered open. She saw the children's box beds sharing their bed for tonight. She cuddled the small blonde beside her and shut her eyes again. How she'd ached all these past weeks to be home and feel this remarkable woman in her arms. Every moment that she was busy and surrounded by fellas, she'd still felt alone and lonely without her small beauty nearby. Something she'd rarely felt until she met and fell in love with Meghan Kate.
Her heavy lids pulled her back toward Morpheus' realm. Her last conscious thought was how wonderfully her life had improved since she'd left the ranch those long months ago to fetch her Cousin Minnie home.
Gaine was up early the next morning and filled with energy. She slipped into her new, clean clothes, tightening her belt on the new trousers that hung loosely on her. Kate was also up bearing a large smile. The riders from town arrived early and Gaine cut out the herd that had belonged to the two small children's family at the Rocking Star Ranch. It would stay with the children as their inheritance unless a family member came to claim it along with them.
"Write Michael 'bout the childerns," she advised Kate. "'Splain how theys happens ta be here. Ah doan want somebody who ain't got no real rights an' who jest wants ta collect the childern's livestock ta be tempted ta try an' take custody. Ain't nobody kin care more 'bout them little uns than yus. This stocks gonna be them young uns future. See what he says. He bees a right fine attorney, 'cordin' ta Charles.
"Yes, all right. Do you think we could raise them, Gaine?" Kate chewed her lip. She loved the two little ones and couldn't imagine having to give them up.
"Ah doan know, Katie. Ah doan know bout relatives. Ah does know ain't nobody else wanted 'em. Ahm jest a'feared knowin' theys come with'n livestock now might be temptin' ta them a' unscrupulous 'tentions. See what Michael says."
"Yes, all right." It had been a worry. Now she'd follow Gaine's advice and ask Michael. If only they could stay!
Kate had decided not to go into town. She'd wanted to stay at the ranch because of the children but now she'd write a letter as well. Gaine bid them adieu and headed toward Barden's Corner with the chest and the outlaw's herd. She had big plans for the Mayor and his cohorts this day.
Gaine put the chest in Mr. Altenman's safe then checked on the prisoners. A crowd had begun to assemble outside the Mayor's barn but Gaine sent them away. The prisoners would not be on view today, she told them. The risk was too great for the captured rogues. She changed the exhausted inside guard, hearing from them how the Mayor had collected admission money from the townsfolk to view the thieves, and how they'd repeatedly had to keep villagers from trying to pummel the men.
Gaine posted an additional two men outside then pulled the wanted posters for this gang from her saddlebag. Kate had separated them from the others. She sent word that the town fathers were to meet with her in the Mayor's office to discuss the capture.
The town was filled with excited townsfolk, all wanting to pat her on the back and shake her hand. One coffin was finished and one of the killed outlaws was placed on display inside it while it leaned against the building on the boardwalk in front of the furniture and bedding store. It drew a large crowd. The second coffin was nearly finished.
In her office, she pulled Willy aside, and sent her to tell Etta to meet her at the Mayor's office right away. Gaine was swamped with congratulations from the townsfolk the minute she stepped outside the Sheriff's office door. And that was where she met Etta who was on her way to the meeting.
"Don't you look good," Etta smiled as she bustled up. "A bath and clean clothes make quite a difference. What'd you need?" Gaine smiled smugly and took her by the elbow, saying nothing but, "C'mon. You'll see."
"Sheriff! Everybody's just so proud they could bust!" the Mayor exclaimed happily as she and Etta walked into his office. He flitted around, pushing chairs up for them to sit. "We've all heard how our brave Sheriff brought these men down almost singlehandedly, pushing aside men so they wouldn't get hurt. Firing so rapidly the criminals couldn't get their own shots off. Word's all over town. Why, we'll be known far and wide as the town that finally caught these notorious villains! Uh, well, townS."
Gaine and Etta sat in the chairs put before them. Etta was still puzzled as to why Gaine had asked her to come. The men cast a bewildered glance at Etta. "Maybe," Gaine replied. "Dapends." She sat back and crossed her legs.
"On what?" the Mayor asked innocently, suddenly feeling nervous. "People in town are all excited about how we can build our glorious Sheriff a brand, new jail with a cell just like we've always needed."
"Like Ah avowed, dapends," Gaine linked her hands and put them under her chin, her elbows on the arms of the chair. Her cool eyes slid over each participant except Etta.
"What do you mean it depends, Sheriff?" Mr. Altenman asked seriously. "On what?"
"Dapends on who done caught them outlaws, the o-fficial Sheriffs and posses from here n' Big Creek er me, mah fri'nds an' Big Creek's o-fficials. Makes a difference as regardin' who all divides up the re-ward money." She held up a handful of wanted posters, "An thar do be a heap a re-ward moneys. Ya see whar Ah'm a'going here?" She flashed a beautiful, innocent smile.
Mr. Altenman's angry eyes fell on the Mayor. "I told you not to do that mercantile nonsense. I told you not to go off half-cocked against Gaine and not to appoint this fool nephew of yours as Sheriff."
"Mr. Altenman!" Winchester said indignantly.
"It was just a little misunderstanding..." the Mayor sputtered.
"Gentlemens," Gaine interrupted, "Ain't no cryin' o'er spilt milk. What's done war done. Let's take a good look-see ta the sitjeation." Exacting blue eyes swept over them, "Gentlemans, Ahd shore like ya ta meet yer newly see-lected Clerk, Assessor an' town Treasurer...Etta, here." Etta's jaw dropped in total surprise.
"What?" Westminster flew from his chair. "A woman can't serve in office!"
"No. That's correct, Gaine. It's in the charter. Women are not considered "persons". They cannot serve, I'm afraid. It's always been that way." The Mayor cast apologetically concerned eyes her way. "We have to uphold the charter."
Gaine raised her brow. They'd been over this ground before. "Well that thar done makes 't right easy. Ah reckon Ah ain't been a'servin' neither, than." She removed her badge and put it on the Mayor's desk and started to rise. "We'll jest be a'goin' an' Ahl get mah chest outta yer safe, if'n ya please, Mr. Altenman."
"Wait! Wait!" the Mayor replied. "Gaine, be fair. You know women can't serve. Yes, we made an exception for you. But our charter is quite clear, I'm afraid."
"Ain't askin' fer no exceptions, Mayor." She froze in place, "Nosirr. No, Ah figures ya gotta change't so's womenfolk bees persons. Ain't that hard. Ya writ the danged charter ta start with." She reached for Etta's elbow. She also rose. "But if'n ya cain't, ya cain't. Ahl jest git mah chest an tell the fellas we bees dividin' up all the re-ward..."
The Mayor hopped up, "Hold on! Sit down. Let's everyone take a deep breath and consider this calmly, now." He pushed Etta's chair in for her as Gaine dropped back reluctantly into her own chair.
"Ain't nothin' ta consider, Mayor. Either Etta t'is or she t'ain't the new town official. Ah ain't gonna wrangle with'n ya. Change yer town charter er doan."
Silence fell in the room. The three men looked at each other, knowing what a large amount of revenue the city would lose if Gaine walked out. They also knew the town would be angry enough to boot them all out of office if she did so. The Mayor slumped back in his chair. "All right, Etta's the new Clerk."
"An Assessor an' town Treasurer," Gaine replied.
"Yes, all right. It's a high price to pay. The men in town certainly will not understand this, but it's done."
"An she'll start by totalin' the money ya been chargin' ta see the crimin'ls. Goes ta the town. But, that ain't all," Gaine smiled sweetly leaving her badge on the Mayor's desk. Westminster also sat down, his face flushed and his anger discernible.
"What else?" Mr. Altenman asked.
"Ya knows how Ah's been a'handlin' things. Well, now thar's ta be a new town LAW writ down in writin' regardin' any feller that beats 'is wife. He's ta be arrested an' pay hisself a two hundert dollar fine whether Ah bees n' town er not. T'will be the law an' it cain't be changed if'n Ah'm not here."
"That's immoral!" Westminster stood again. "No! It's just a way to interfere in a
man's marriage. No, I tell you. It's better that every woman in town be beaten than let one needing discipline go without. Absolutely not! She already has the women in town thinking what she's been doing in that regard with Shorty is right. No, Uncle, we cannot have this. We cannot make it into a law. She's already got the judge going along with her and some of the men from town. It's not right, I tell you. The next thing you know, these women will want to vote!"
Gaine sat back studying the men's faces but said nothing more. Etta's wide eyes went around the room. Gaine certainly had a lot of sand, bucking these formidable town fathers. They might be blowhards, at least two of them anyway, but they ruled the town.
"Sit down, Westminster," the Mayor sighed finally.
"She's doing it anyway," Mr. Altenman inserted. "How much different will it be if it's a written law?"
"NO! Absolutely not!" Westminster said, dropping into his chair and crossing his arms tight across his chest. "No, no, no! We must not give in on this."
The Mayor looked at Mr. Altenman who nodded in agreement and then at Gaine. "You're overruled, Westminster." The Mayor's nephew shot from his chair, kicked it back and stormed from the room. "All right, Gaine, I hope that's all, because the price is getting too high to consider any more," the Mayor warned.
"Maybe," she drawled slowly. Then she smiled, "You'll make the announcement out ta the boardwalk soon's we're done. Afore we does that, howsomever, you an' me gotta talk 'bout what all ya done with mah mercantile account. Ya charged me with'n items warn't mine. Ya made 't difficult fer mah ranch ta trade an ya owes me salary since't Ah been gone. An' Ah wants a raise." She raised a hand before the Mayor could reply. "A small 'un."
The Mayor cleared his throat. "How small?"
"Small," she replied. But large 'nuff punishment ta make you think twice't the next time ya wanna try summa yer hogwash, she thought. While he and Gaine discussed her account and her raise, Etta and Mr. Altenman waited outside on the boardwalk, the solemn man's mouth a tight line. Etta's eyes glittered and her heart pounded. They'd made her a town officer. Wait till Wilbur hears this! That Gaine, she's plumb remarkable.
Westminster angrily threw another shot of whiskey back as the other saloon patrons moved outside to hear the Mayor's announcement. "Ride ta Big Creek 'n bring Shorty back," he pulled a bill from his pocket and slipped it into the hand of the shabby wrangler remaining beside him. He could already hear the men from the Big Creek posse gasping at the new Barden's Corner news..another woman official besides their Sheriff? "And make sure he has something strong to drink all the way back." There's more than one way to stop Gaine, he thought. And, hopefully, this'll be for good. Shorty's already mad enough at her. Let's hope he's not a bad shot, even when he's drunk.
Big Momma Haze, the saloon keeper's wife, edged her way from behind the bar and to the door. She slid out and moved down the boardwalk where she saw Gaine, her badge shining on her chest, standing with Etta while the Mayor and Mr. Altenman solemnly finished their announcement. Etta curtsied politely to the crowd. "I'll be damned," Big Momma said to herself. "They're making Etta a town official! Don't that beat all?"
When the crowd began to break up, the two posses both headed back to the saloons. Big Momma caught Gaine by the elbow. "Westminster just sent a man for Shorty," she said quietly, "and made sure he'll be drinkin." Several of the men looked her way and she added in her familiar boisterous voice, "C'mon to the saloon and celebrate with yer fellas, Gaine." The men hollered their agreement.
"Later," Gaine replied. "Ah gots things gotta be done raht now. But Ahl see ya later, fellas. Ah promise." They roared their approval.
Gaine walked with Etta to the cafe then past that to Shorty and Nell's flimsy shack. Nell's head fell and her lip quivered when she heard that Shorty would be coming into town and would probably be drinking. She wasn't sure how much more her body could handle. She looked up into worried blue eyes.
"Theys a new law writ down prohibitin' a man from beatin' his wife. But doan mean he woan try. An' Ah gots a problem this tahm," Gaine told her. "Ah gots them t'uther criminals ta deal with'n. An' theys gots ta take first preference. So's Ahm askin' ya now ta go out ta the ranch till Ah kin git this here settled. Ah cain't be a'frettin' o'er ya an' the childerns while Ahm dealing with them outlaws. Will ya? Ya needs ta go on out now."
"Uh, if you really think so, Sheriff!" Nell agreed. She'd love to go to the ranch. She knew they were safe there.
"Ah do. N' Ah gotta mention somethin' more. Once't Ah kin deal with'n 'im, Shorty ain't gonna be 'round fer a spell. He bees a'goin' ta jail.
Nell looked at Gaine in surprise. "For what? You weren't here when he beat me."
"Meg., uh, Ah mean Kate said ya war pregnant an ya miscarried when Shorty done kicked ya 'n the stomach. Way Ah sees 't, what he done war murder. An he doan own no rifle, Ah doan know nobody would give 'im one, so's he musta stole it. So's Ahm chargin' murder an' theft."
"Oh, Gaine, he'll be so angry." Nell wrapped her good arm around her other arm. "He'll be furious." She began to shiver.
"He's gonna have a long tahm ta git over't."
Nell sighed. "You don't think the men in this town will actually convict him, do you? You know they won't." She ran a hand hurriedly through her hair.
"Well now, mah stock bees ridin' high raht now with'n the town folk. Ah thinks Ah kin press a number a things maht not us'lly get pressed. An' Ah in-tends ta do't. But Ah want yus an' the childerns out a the way when Ah do. Doan know how long t'will take. Ahm hopin' ta git Shorty 'n jail 'n keep 'im thar. But ta be shore, ya gotta stay ta the ranch. Ya ain't gonna be able ta be n' town ta do the laundry work ya been doin. 'Stead Ahm gonna ask ya ta hire on ta be ar housekeeper till Shorty's tahm bees up. Cain't pay much 'n the way a' cash salary, but kin pay ya food n' lodgin' fer you n' the childerns ta start."
"You'd do that?" she asked. "We don't want to be a bother."
"Yus ain't no bother," Gaine replied. "Yus' 'r a good cook, Nell, n' we really does need help ta the ranch. Kate gots those two little uns now plus summa the winter hands er down ta be fed daily, with'n more a'comin back from the trail drive. Ah gotta ride ta Stockton an' she's gotta handle't alone lest ya stay. So's, ya interested?"
"And you're sure Shorty..."
"Ah kin keep him ta jail fer a spell. Ah thought Big Creek maht keep him 'n thar jail fer me whilst Ahm gone, since't we doan got no jail here. An' Ah kin makes shore they ain't gonna be a'lettin' 'im go neither lahk some folks here might. An he ain't gonna come up fer no trial till Ah gets back nohow."
"All right. Let me pack their blankets and cups. Get your cups, children, and grab any clothes you're not wearing. Willy, get the blanket off the boy's bed. I'll get the girls'. I'll leave ours...just in case."
"He ain't gitten loose," Gaine reassured her. "Get Mabel ta take ya out, n'have Katie gie her a bushel er two a apples fer her trouble. They's ripe now. Ask Mabel ta watch yer livestock fer ya. Stop ta the mercantile n' tha way. Tell Daniel's wife ta give ya 'nuff tickin' fer two large mattresses. T'is gittin' ta cold ta sleep ta the floor. Put it ta mah account. Kate kin help ya sew it n' the fellas 'll git ya clean straw ta stuff 'em. An' theys kin build some frames fer ya, too."
"Thank you, Gaine. You don't know how much we appreciate this."
"Lookin' forward ta havin' ya'all back. Ah gotta git n' check on them criminals 'n see tha guards changed regular." She headed back to check on Big Creek's Sheriff and their other wounded man, then headed on to the prisoners, who were just as surly as ever. She set up a schedule for guards and again warned the crowd to stay away. She didn't think there were other gang members still out there, but she wanted to make sure they didn't have a chance to break these two loose if there were.
She was almost glad Big Creek's Sheriff and his posse'd be taking them to Big Creek the next day, if Sheriff Rogers could ride by then. Almost. Except that it meant she would have to leave town again. She'd meet them in Big Creek the following day with the dead bodies and the two Sheriffs would deliver the crooks and the bodies to Sacramento. From there she'd head to Stockton to meet Don Carlos and the vaqueros as they brought in her herd. Then, God willing, she'd be home for the winter.
Kate was surprised but pleased to see Nell and the children, and the dogs were jubilant. Nell insisted on getting right to work on the next meal. Kate began the work on the two mattresses while the children ran out to play. Alabam announced that he was going to look for some lumber to build the bed frames and a small group of youngsters and dogs suddenly appeared trailing behind him. "Ahl show ya how ta make bed frames," he told the small delighted crowd.
Gaine knew she wouldn't get home till long past sundown. The sky had darkened by the time she saw Shorty and the other man riding in. Shorty'd been drinking all right. He was loud and obnoxious. She let the two riders go into the raucous saloon before heading in after them. Everyone yelled their pleasure at her entrance, each offering to buy her a drink except Shorty and Westminster, both of whom stood at the bar angrily watching her entrance.
The piano music and laughter was loud and the alcohol had obviously been flowing freely. Gaine laughed at something that was said to her by someone near the door then brought her eyes to Westminster's. She moved over to the bar where they were standing.
"Shorty," Gaine's face turned to steel. "Ah wanted ta ask ya whar ya got the rifle ya used ta threaten yer wife. Ya ain't got none a' yer own. T'is been a'botherin' me since't Ah heared 'bout that thar in-cident. Who give'd it ta ya?"
Shorty sneered at her through whiskey-dulled eyes. "What rifle?" He wanted to add "bitch" to his sentence but was not so drunk that he'd lost his sanity.
"What does ya know 'bout it, Westminster? Whar'd Shorty here git that thar rifle he done used? Whar it yurs? An' whar bees it now? Shoulda been held fer evidence."
"It wasn't mine. But no one was hurt. There was no need to collect evidence," Westminster replied coldly.
"That bees whar yer wrong. Shorty here done committed hisself a murder that day an' Ahm a'gonna be takin' 'im in."
"What murder?" Westminster spit the words at her, then with a dismissive intent he turned his back on Gaine and faced the bar, his hand clenched tightly around his drink while an angry scowl crossed his face. "There wasn't any murder committed that day," he growled, watching her in the mirror behind the bar. Gaine's eyes moved to the mirror to lock with his own. Shorty also turned toward the bar, his back to Gaine and the loud crowd pressing nearby. He did not look at Gaine. He swallowed the last of his drink and poured another from the nearly empty whiskey bottle he had with him.
"Yep. T'war," Gaine replied, "he kicked Nell an' she done lost theys next child. Child whar alive, he knowed it, he kicked 'er 'n purpose 'n child died. That thar's murder." She heard someone across the room call her name. She turned around to see five men from her posse holding filled glasses and calling to her. "C'mon, Gaine. Ya give yer word. We wanna toast ya now."
The room was filled with Big Creek's posse, her posse and other men from town, all in a celebratory mood. Gaine had worked with both posses, but she'd pushed her own men particularly hard and they hadn't grumbled once. They'd done everything she'd asked of them and she knew this was the time for them to celebrate. "Ah'l be back," she muttered then turned with a smile and headed towards her men.
"Ah got me some toasts a' mah own ta give fer the two best durned posses 'n the entire west!" she hollered as the crowd cheered wildly. Suddenly the stinging report of a six-shooter rent the air. Gaine felt the instant heat and pain as a bullet nicked her upper arm. She spun with gun drawn but shots continued. Before her eyes Shorty fell to the floor, five bullets in his body and a pistol falling from his hand. Many guns now were trained on Westminster and the room instantly silenced.
"H...he pulled my gun," Westminster stuttered. "I didn't know he was going to do that. I didn't have time to stop him. Honest. I didn't do anything. Honest, fellas."
Gaine took off her neckerchief and wrapped it around her arm to stop the bleeding. It was only a flesh wound but Kate was going to be upset about the hole in her new shirt she was sure. She moved toward Westminster slowly, her gun trained on the man. "Did ana'one see what all happened?" she asked.
The man who'd been standing next to Shorty spoke up, "Those two were talking then all of a sudden that fella on the floor pulled this fella's gun from his holster, spun and pointed it at you and fired. That's when the rest of us pulled our guns and shot him. Sorry he got a shot off, Gaine," the man added sheepishly. "He took us by surprise. Guess all our drinkin' made us a little slow."
"Yep," another man close in added, "I figure he thought since we weren't your posse or even from this town, we wouldn't watch your back." He moved his eyes from Gaine to the man on the floor. "He figured wrong."
"Thanky, boys. What 'bout this fella?" Gaine's steely blue eyes did not move off of Westminster, who stood facing her, his hands up and his knees visibly shaking. "How much war he a part a' all this?" Westminster was terrified. He never believed the men would so readily defend this brassy, aggressive woman. It had never occurred to him that anyone would shoot Shorty except perhaps a dying shot from Gaine. His terror-filled eyes moved from speaker to speaker. Gaine watched him closely and just knew he'd put Shorty up to this.
Another nearby man spoke up. "He didn't turn around from the bar, Sheriff, if that's what you mean. And he didn't draw. I saw what Buckley there saw. They were talking and the smaller fellow grabbed this fella's gun, turned and aimed at you."
"Anybody hear what they war jawin' 'bout?"
Everybody shrugged. "T'was mighty noisy, Sheriff," the bartender shrugged. "Awful hard ta hear."
Gaine moved closer. "Ah shore hope ya warn't involved in none a' this, Mr. Clardin," she growled at Westminster, "cause Ahl be a'gunnin' fer ya, if'n Ah hears ya war." She couldn't prove he'd been involved in the shooting. Slowly she put her gun back in her holster and the others did the same. She stepped right up to Westminster and whispered in his ear, "Ah know ya sent fer Shorty, an a body's gotta ponder, "why?" She stepped back and looked at the dead man on the floor. "Ah needs some volunteers ta take ole Shorty here o'er ta the furniture shop. He done needs hisself a coffin."
"What about Nell?" Big Momma asked. "Do you want me to go tell her? Poor soul, what will she do now with that household of youngsters and no husband?"
"No. Ah'l be a'notifyin' her. She bees out ta the ranch right now." Two men grabbed Shorty's body and Westminster hurried out with them, only taking a full breath once he was outside. Then he scurried for home.
"To the best Sheriff ever!" someone called and all glasses went into the air. "Gaine!" was boomed out and the drinking and laughing and loud piano playing resumed. Gaine finished her drink and moved out into the cooler night air. She kept her eye out for Westminster, but knew he was almost certainly quivering in fright at the Mayor's house where he was living. She knew him well enough. He was far too cowardly to mount any kind of attack on her himself. She got on her horse and headed home.
Nell and the children had long since gone to bed. Nell was awakened and sat sleepily at the table as Gaine explained all that had happened. Slowly the thin woman's face showed a puzzled reaction to the news of Shorty's killing while Kate's features displayed intense shock.
"Did he hurt you?" Nell asked Gaine, her eyes going to Gaine's arm. "He shouldn't be using a gun. He doesn't even own a gun. He was going to shoot us you know." The tall brunette was quite sure Nell had not really processed everything yet.
"Ah ain't hurt, Nell. T'war jest a clip. Do ya think t'would be possible ta bury 'im tamorra?" Gaine asked.
"Yes. He war shot 'n killed, Nell. He's gonna need ta be buried. We'd lahk ta come ta the buryin' if'n ya doan ob-ject. But Ah gotta leaf day after tamorra ta Big Creek. So's Ah war wonderin' if'n he could be buried tamorra?"
"Uh, ..." Nell stuttered unsurely. "Will we be here tomorrow? Can we stay here tomorrow?"
Gaine and Kate exchanged a mystified glance. "Yes, we'd love to have you stay here," Kate said tenderly. Kate's hand went to Nell's wrist and squeezed softly. "We'd like for you and the children to stay, if you'd like to."
Nell looked bewilderedly over at the blonde. It was almost like she was in a dream and strange things were happening. They said Shorty was dead. She had been worried about his drinking but his drinking didn't matter now. She had worried about how she'd be able to feed the children but here they were where they didn't have to worry about that. Everyone was being so nice.
Slowly her mind began to awaken but she still felt she was looking through a haze. She didn't have the finances to do any of the bereavement things society expected. There'd be no black crepe and she had no black dress. She didn't even have enough financing to bury him. Shorty was dead. Shot down when he tried to kill Gaine. He was going to shoot the children. He told her. And he was going to shoot her, too. And now the Sheriff. What was wrong with him? Why was he doing that? Didn't he know he'd be going into a pauper's grave? Didn't he know she couldn't afford to bury him? She looked at Gaine's quizzical expression and remembered she needed to answer a question. She remembered what it was.
"Tomorrow,uh, tomorrow's fine. I'll, I'll tell the children in the morning," she said softly. "But we can't afford.." Melancholy eyes lifted to Gaine's.
"Doan worry none 'bout that. We'll git 'im buried. Like Katie said, we'd like ya an' the childerns ta consider stayin' out here, permanent," Gaine continued, "Ain't that right?" She turned to Kate.
"Yes, we would," Kate answered tenderly. "Absolutely."
"We needs housekeeping help, Nell, an' they's lots a room fer the childerns. We kin make shore yer cow an' chickens are took care a'fore theys moved out here fer ya er sold. Whatever ya wants." Gaine saw a confounded look on Nell's face and realized how overwhelming everything must be for her. "Ya doan gotta decide nuthin' now 'cept maybe the buryin'. Take yer time an' git well first. Ah know t'is a big shock."
"The chickens? They don't eat enough so they don't lay well. It's never enough. They...somebody gave me chicken feed. I picked out the corn and boiled it to feed to the children. There wasn't anything else. Shorty wouldn't let me kill the chickens but I did sometimes anyway. The cow gives so little milk."
Kate looked at Gaine then got up and moved next to Nell. She put an arm around the thin woman's shoulders. "It's all right. We can talk about it tomorrow, Nell. Get some sleep now, all right? We'll bury Shorty tomorrow. And we'll help you any way we can. You have a permanent job here if you want it and your children will be fed. Don't worry."
"A job? I can work here permanently? You've always been so kind, Kate. Both of you." Kate helped her up. Nell wrapped her good arm around herself and her thin nightshirt. "I, I think I'll go to bed now."
"Yes. Get some sleep. We're so sorry for your loss." Kind green eyes looked to the thin woman.
"Thank you." Nell walked quietly to the bedroom she was sharing with her girls. Shorty was dead. Shot. What did it mean? Kate was sorry for her loss. But she and the children could stay here. It was safe here. Everyone was nice here. Her loss. All of her adult life had been spent with him. If only he hadn't ever had any spirits. He wasn't a bad person when he didn't drink. Her arm ached and she thought of his last drunken bout and the gun. He could have killed them all. She really thought he was going to. He'd killed her last child just as surely as if he'd used a gun. We're safe now, she thought as she crawled into bed. We can stay here. The Sheriff said.
"T'is she gonna be all right?" Gaine asked worriedly.
"Yes. I think so. It's a shock. After all the other things that have happened. She hasn't recovered from the last incident, now this. She'll need some time is all."
"Maybe we outta haf told Willy," Gaine's eyes stayed on the door.
"No, that child is already handling the trials of an adult. No, she needs to have a chance to be a child for once. Here, let me wash your arm for you, honey." Kate stood and started to untie the scarf from Gaine's arm. "Take your shirt off and your undershirt too. I'll go get something to put on your wound."
Gaine followed Kate's instructions, wadding her shirt and holding it to her chest to cover her bare bustline. When she came back, Kate held her breath and asked softly, "How long will you be gone this time?"
"Ah reckon t'will be maybe two weeks," Gaine murmured. "Less, if'n Ah kin. Then Ahl be back ta stay, lest sumthin' else't happens."
"Oh no, so long?" Kate saw the pain in Gaine's eyes and knew it wasn't something she wanted to do. Kate sighed, "Well, just come home safely to me."
"Al'ays, Meg, al'ays."
"Kate, honey, not Meg." Kate smiled indulgently at her tall beauty. "I used to be Meghan, and I guess a part of me always will be. But I feel like a whole new person now. Now I'm Kate. Kate Sargos. Katie to you, if you like." She put an herbal ointment on Gaine's arm that made her draw a quick breath.
"Ah do. Ah likes the name Katie." Gaine clenched jaw and blinked her eyes.
Kate wrapped a clean rag around Gaine's arm. "C'mon, let's go to bed. We have to bury Shorty tomorrow. And I'll patch your shirt tomorrow, too."
"Take some chairs with'n ya," Gaine smiled. "An Ahl take some. We'll push 'em tagather an' put the childern's boxes on 'em. Gie a tech more room ta bed."
They each took two chairs and headed for the bedroom. "I'd like some netting around their beds. Can we do that?" Kate asked. "It does keep out bugs and also keeps in a little heat now that it's getting cooler."
"Yep. Ah war thinkin' maybe Ahd have Alabam make one a them trundle beds fer under arn. We's kin pull it out n' put thar sleepin' boxes on't till they's old 'nuff ta use a bed. Trundles kin be pushed under fer more room durin' tha day."
"That's a good idea, Gaine," Kate smiled. "Eventually they'll have their own room, but for now, that's a good idea."
Dressed in their best, they went into town very early the next morning. Gaine stopped to hire a gravedigger then checked on the outlaws. Determining that the prisoners were all right, she awoke the carpenter and talked him into putting Shorty's body into the second of his coffins instead of the killed outlaw. They loaded it into the wagon with the sleepy children and headed from town to the cemetery just as the townsfolk began to arise and move around. Word spread quickly that Nell's family was burying Shorty already.
The grave wasn't finished when they arrived at the cemetery, so Gaine grabbed a shovel and helped the man from town dig. Finally they lowered the coffin. The pastor and his wife arrived and so did Etta and Wilbur. Mabel rode up alone, leaving her children at home. Willy and the children stood quietly, Willy holding Bongo's hand and the small hand of Kate's Sarah.
"They hammered a notice on your door last night," Mabel whispered loudly to Nell. Kate was standing with one arm around the frail woman, the other holding the baby.
"What kind of notice?" Kate asked.
"Eviction," Mabel said.
"Doesn't matter," Kate replied. "They're moving to the ranch."
Mabel offered to help them move and Kate thanked her. The Pastor moved to the hole in the ground and took out his Bible. Everyone quieted. Gaine picked up Sarah from Willy. The Pastor read a bible passage, Gaine paid him a dime and the troupe went back into town while the gravedigger was left to fill in the grave.
Nell and the children began packing their few belongings into Mabel's wagon while Gaine checked out the land records on their house. Kate and the two little ones stayed to help Nell. Nell said Shorty had bragged about owning this place. She said he told her he had bought it from the mining company. But Gaine found, in fact, that it was rented from the copper mine company as she had suspected. And Shorty was in arrears. Then she went to her office to speak to the Cooper about getting a used dry barrel for moving.
Everyone in town had heard about the eviction and were wondering aloud what Nell was going to do and how she'd support her large family. Those living near the edge of financial disaster themselves, and there were a few of them, cringed at the news, some pretending it had not happened. "They'll get by," they said confidently. But most amazing to Gaine was the lack of help offered. She decided it was because she and Kate had already offered to help and the town knew it.
The man from the mine's land office returned and Gaine saw him enter Nell's house. He threatened Nell with imprisonment if she didn't make payment immediately. He'd have the Sheriff throw her in the poor farm if she didn't pay, he warned. Gaine rushed over from her office and talked to him. They all sat at Nell's table. The baby had been placed on Nell's bed, asleep, and the toddler was in Kate's arms. The other children were gathering their things.
Gaine knew this man, of course, and knew he was following orders from the mine owner. Nell sat shivering, terrified, muttering, "what will become of the children?" while Kate murmured words of encouragement to her.
"Ahl tell ya what we'll do," Gaine told him. "She'll pay ya a small 'mount each month from her salary till t'is all paid n' full."
"The boss says it's to be paid now," he replied firmly.
"Tell 'im she jest buried her husban' an Ah woan be a'takin' Nell ta no poor farm. Not now, not never. So's he kin take a small 'mount each month er git nothin' a'tall. His druthers."
The man put his hat on the table and gazed at Gaine, trying to stare her down. Gaine understood why people felt as they did toward the men of big business. They considered them robber barons, men who worked their workers to death with little pay and stopped at nothing to make a dollar. Men who rarely met the common man face to face but sent their henchmen to rob them in their own way just as much as outlaws did with masks on their faces.
"Ah ain't got tahm ta dally," Gaine said, staring back at the man. "Dacide now, cause Ahm a'leavin' 'n a minute an' the offer disappears. An ya knows Ah means that, Rupert."
"You guaranteein' it?" he asked. Rupert Ashford was a cautious man.
"Course," Gaine replied.
"Done," the man said. "Make sure all the furniture stays here. These came furnished." Gaine looked around at the dilapidated condition of the neglected house, its bedraggled furniture and seedy appearance. She had no doubt it had been much like that when they'd moved in.
Gaine could see that Kate's temper was ready to flare. She hopped up quickly and grabbed the man's hat before the small woman could say anything. "They ain't takin' nothin' balongs ta yer boss," she growled, "Ahl show ya out." She grabbed the man by the arm and moved him quickly out the door. She tore the notice off the door and handed it to him. "This be yurs." She put his hat on his head and remarked, "Now git a'fore Kate tears ya limb ta limb."
Once she'd cooled Kate's ire and calmed Nell down, Gaine took Kate to the mercantile and did the shopping Kate had wanted to do while the tall brunette was gone. Gaine carried the gurgling toddler while the small blonde kept the bundled infant in her arms. Occasionally the toddler would yell out, startling Gaine as well as anyone within earshot. Gently Gaine told her not to do that, but the child laughed and pulled on Gaine's neckerchief. Gaine laughed with her, which brought a frown from Kate, who said firmly to the little one, "No, no. We don't shout!" The child's eyes grew large and her lip quavered, but she did not cry. Gaine, however, looked justly reprimanded.
Daniel was very obsequious, listening for Gaine's every utterance to him as they shopped. He kept his head bowed most of the time. Gaine grit her teeth but said little to the man. She had trusted him all her life. Now she felt betrayed. Sorrow bubbled up within her to accompany her anger.
It was close to noon when the troupe made their way to the ranch with both wagons, one filled with store supplies, the other with crates of chickens, few belongings, all the children and the thin cow tied to the back. The hands released the animals where they belonged and helped unload what possessions Nell had. They placed everything in their two bedrooms. The new mattresses were already on Alabam's bedframes so items were placed around them.
The dogs were delighted at the new arrivals and the children were warned they must all stay away from the cattle and the working vaqueros. They also knew they needed to show respect for their deceased father. Regardless of that, their cheerfully subdued sounds as they played outside could be heard inside the house. It was comforting to Nell. It sounded like what a home should sound like to Kate and she found herself humming softly.
Gaine immediately rode her horse back into town. There was much to be done before she headed to Big Creek the next day. First she had to see the other Sheriff and posse off as they headed for home. She watched Sheriff Rogers climb onto his horse. The man was better and deemed himself able to ride. A large crowd was there, hooting and hollering at the outlaws as they were tied to their saddles. The Big Creek men were all anxious to get back home. Their town would get their chance to view the live prisoners for a day before Gaine joined Sheriff Rogers and the two headed to Sacramento with their outlaw captives, dead and alive.
It was decided that Gaine would keep the chest of loot and the livestock in Barden's Corner and those claiming a part of such would have to see her once she returned from the state capital. After a period of time, anything left would be evenly divided between the two towns as would all reward moneys. Gaine instructed Nell to make a detailed list of everything in the chest and a list of the livestock and their brands. Gaine got her some space in Mr. Altenman's office where she could start on the chest since the safe was there.
The town became unusually quiet as the Big Creek posse rode from town. The hammering of the carpenter working on the coffins was the first sound to echo through the hushed streets once they'd gone.
Gaine returned and conferred with Etta, going over some ideas of how to deal with the men of the town council, particularly if Gaine wasn't there to help. Then she decided it would be best to call a meeting right then so Etta had a chance to get other things started. After all, Gaine would be gone for two weeks.
Westminster was very subdued throughout the meeting and did not look Gaine in the eye once. Nor did he speak. Etta was to start some regular council books and was given all kinds of written scribblings that the Mayor had been keeping. It was important that Etta get it as right as it could possibly be. Everyone would be watching. And Gaine could see that the Mayor and the others would be inclined to treat her like a servant and not like a partner. Plus, they'd be looking for any reason to condemn her work. Gaine would be alert to that problem.
Bids were to come in for work on the new jail. That would have to be kept separate, but Etta seemed to know how to handle it. Years of running her cafe had given her quite an education. By the time the meeting was finished, there was more than enough work to keep Etta busy for two weeks.
They moved out onto the boardwalk. Etta was quiet and seemed almost stunned. "Ya bees all right?" Gaine asked.
"Oh, uh, yes, fine," Etta replied. "It's just a bigger responsibility than I expected."
Gaine smiled an encouraging smile. "Yu'll do 'n amazin' job, Etta." Equanimity came over Etta's face. "I'll do my best. Wilbur has faith in me."
"Y'all listen ta Wilbur. He bees a right smart feller. An' doan worry none." Etta smiled but they both knew what was at stake so far as women doing this job was concerned and it was much more than simple bookkeeping. A noise caught their ear, and their gazes moved down the street. There was a crowd forming in front of the furniture store. Adults, children and teenagers stood transfixed by the sight of the second dead outlaw being fitted into his coffin.
Both coffins on display got fervent attention. Even the wealthy owner of the copper mine halted his horse and sat in his carriage watching the doings. A businessman sat beside him. Gaine saw both men direct their appraising attention back to her. She merely nodded in return. Tom Ziprew rode by in his fancy new carriage but Gaine noted that it was being drawn by his old nag and not his spirited black stallion with the blaze. She chuckled, said goodbye to Etta and headed to check on the saloons.
Both taverns were much more vacant than they'd been the day before. Most of her posse was back at their jobs. But everyone in the saloons seemed happy. The large crowd had spent money and it had been a big plus for this small town economy. Some new faces were there, and Gaine paid close attention. They were newsmen from some of the closer towns. They were talking with everyone who would tell them anything. The stagecoach town newsman was smiling proudly and selling copies of his town's special one-page edition. It came out once a week normally. He had beat all the other papers to have out the first written account of the event and sales were brisk.
Gaine bought a paper then was rushed once the other newsmen saw her badge. They knew of her part and she had to talk fast to give them some quick quotes before she could get away from them. She knew this problem would only get worse as the days went by and more news seekers hit town. She was glad she was leaving the next day.
Deciding all was in hand, she went by her office then slid out of town on her horse. She wanted to spend this evening with Kate and their ever-growing family.
She found Kate and Nell seriously discussing the need for making apple butter. Nell seemed much more calm than she'd been earlier and Gaine wondered how Kate had managed that. Apparently it was the apple season and making apple butter couldn't be put off too long whether Shorty had just died or not. Usually such an event involved an apple bee where many of the neighbors would come to core and pare apples and share some fun.
Nell sensibly decided that she could fix refreshments, staying in the background. She'd be sure they understood she was a hired housekeeper and she'd be as circumspect as possible considering her husband's recent death so the neighbors wouldn't use it as an occasion to fault the ranch. She thought they'd all understand she couldn't afford to mourn in private, but neither would she be seen celebrating in public. Kate nodded in serious agreement.
The actual apple-butter cooking would start the following day after the bee, long after the guests had gone home. Early in the morning that day a large kettle of many gallons of cider would be boiled down to half. Then the kettle would be filled with the buckets of pared apples and would be cooked slowly, stirring constantly to prevent burning. That would take all day.
In the last hour sweetener would be added to taste. But if the apples were sweet enough, they didn't always need too much. Some sassafras root could be added for spicing. The apple butter would be poured in small brown, earthen crocks and covered with paper, placed in a dry, cool storeroom. Kate said they'd use the empty bedroom for that. Dozens could be stored and they'd keep several years, although undoubtedly they'd be used long before then.
Finishing their conversation, Kate told Gaine to wash up then called everyone for supper. The large table was nearly filled with Nell's family and the hands. Kate served large helpings of a delicious apple johnny cake. It was an inexpensive dish easily made. She served it as a pudding with cold cream and molasses. It was a perfect light supper.
Since noon dinner, Nell had been busy arranging their rooms all afternoon, Kate had put the cornmeal pudding on to cook and now everyone ate it with gusto and delight. Gaine sat and talked with the hands about the remaining herd and the horses and what she wanted done as the blonde worked packing food in a saddlebag for Gaine's trip the next day.
Nell quietly cleaned up. She'd told Kate she'd rather keep busy so she started making large quantities of bread, making potato yeast now that she had enough supplies to do so, then letting her batter rise overnight in the center of a quantity of flour. Shorty's name was not mentioned.
After supper Gaine sat reading by the small fire, Willy at her feet on the rug holding her young sister, Bongo, and the girl's brothers wrestling beside them. It was hard to believe they had put Shorty in the ground just that morning. Kate rocked the baby with her foot while the toddler sat in her box chewing on her cup and watching the other children. She was quite entranced with them. Kate's hands worked quickly as she pieced together squares of different colored material into wide strips. She had enough squares to make a quilt and they'd undoubtedly need many blankets as the weather turned cooler.
Outside the mellow voices of the hands as they laughed, smoked and told tall tales by the corral came drifting into the house. It all brought a level of safety and contentment the small blonde had never experienced in all her life and a soft smile settled on her face. Life could be so sweet. She loved Gaine beyond all else, her tall beauty was home, and she loved their simple life together.
Gaine handed her the one-page paper she had purchased in town. Kate read it with amazement. "Why, the way this is worded it makes it sound like the Mayor did everything to make the capture of the outlaws possible. He did offer his barn once you got them here, apparently, and you said he did make some kind of speech in the barn, but Heavens to Betsy, Gaine, this makes it sound like everything was his idea!"
"It's not funny. This is going to go down in history and no one's going to know everything you did. This is a historical event and this story is...is...well, it's not exactly telling lies, but it isn't the truth either."
"Katie," Gaine laughed, "Doancha knows the first rule a' readin' history?"
"What do you mean? I know how to read history."
"Yep, Ahm shore ya does. But mah Daddy al'ays used ta say 'Gaine,' he'd say, 'ne'er read history without a'askin'... who war 'n power when it war writ? Cause that be whose viewpoint yer gonna git. An whole lots a' real happenin's bah real folks n' true, ain't gonna be thar, fer me er fer yus.'"
"Poetry? Your father told you poetry?"
"Yep. He lahkt rhymin' sometimes. An' what he said war true. Why'd ja think thar's sa little writ 'bout womens? T'is cause they ain't 'n power. They's names gits left off a what they does. An' tain't jest womens, tis whoever ain't n' power. History ain't nothin' but viewpoints."
"But reporters are supposed to tell the truth."
"Whose truth? Ya knows that robber baron mine owner that gived Nell sa much trouble taday? Ahl betcha any time he's writ up, t'is gonna be as some fine salt- a'-the-earth gentlemans. Ain't gonna read how he evicted womens n' childern without one ounce a' mercy er how he worked his miners ta death fer near 'nuff wages ta git bah. All the robber barons er gonna be put down as fine upstandin' gentlemans. America's finest. Er Europe's. Er Asia's. They gots the power. History bees viewpoint."
"It's not right! It shouldn't happen in America."
Gaine continued chuckling. "Happens ever'whar 'n earth. But maybe yer correct. It ain't fair. But Ah dunno bout 'raht.' Bees viewpoint. How raht er wrong bees that?"
"Well, I want our viewpoint told. Cause that's what really happened!"
"Ah reckon." Wisely Gaine held further comments.
Nell called for the children to wash up for bed. They watched the youngsters hustle in where Nell was using a rag to scrub each face as they came in. Then the children headed to bed with Nell not far behind them. Gaine and Kate stayed in place, but Kate changed the toddler into her sleepwear and placed her under the covers in her box. The child's eyes had grown heavy and she now drifted off to sleep.
Gaine watched as Kate fetched a package from the pantry and tore off small squares of brown 'store wrap' paper and wrapped small pieces of molasses candy in them. Then she took a skein of yarn she had purchased and began to roll it into a ball. Every once in a while she'd stop, take a small piece of wrapped candy and place it against the ball as she wound.
"What 'er ya doin'?" Gaine asked, looking up from the book she was now reading.
"This is for when Willy learns to knit," Kate replied without looking up. "This will make the job of learning a little easier." Her face spread into a smile as she looked up. "She may only eat the treat if it falls out freely and she has knitted the yarn to that spot. She'll have some knitting done in no time and we'll all have a new knitted washing rag to make our lives easier."
"What if'n the fellers wanna learn?"
"If Nell agrees, it's fine with me. That's really up to Nell, though."
"Uh huh," Gaine rose to stoke the fire then moved back to her book. The heat of the small fire felt good although it wasn't all that cold yet. The days were gradually cooling and the weather was expected to worsen as autumn deepened. The two sat in companionable silence as the fire crackled, each centered in their own thoughts.
Blue eyes lifted from the pages of her book and settled on the slightly flushed face of the small blonde across from her. "Ah war thinkin," Gaine said softly. "Doan it seem like years n' years since't we shared that thar stagecoach ride? Lordy! Sa much done happened since't then."
Sparkling green eyes looked up to meet the blue. The blonde's thumb lovingly ran across her ring. "Yes. It has." She blushed slightly. "There's something so wonderful about living together. Everything else seems like it happened ages ago in a totally different time and a totally different place to totally different people. Happiness changes everything, doesn't it?"
"Yep," Gaine agreed. "It shore do."
Kate frowned, "But I wish you'd already delivered those outlaws and were back. Then I wouldn't have to miss you and worry so."
"Ah know. Ah wisht that, too." They both lingered, looking around the familiar room. It had come to mean so much to them both...home. The place they lived their lives together. The table where so many different voices laughed at funny stories, cried at sorrows, worried about a variety of things and felt peace together. Home. The place their dreams were centered.
"C'mon, let's go to bed." The tall brunette banked the fire and checked around the room to make sure all was well. She lit the candle and blew out the lamp.
Meanwhile Kate tucked away her sewing, carefully putting her needle in her hand-made needle-book and the thread in her small hand-stitched thread-case. "Can you carry the crib? I'll get the little princess and her box."
"Shore," Gaine tucked the blanket up around the infant as the light from the fire danced patterns of light across the tiny child's sleeping features. She was wearing a small cloth cap to keep her head warm and her face looked so angelic in sleep. She was certainly much healthier looking than when she'd been dropped off in town those many weeks ago. "Ah ne'er ferseen nothin' like this fer me," Gaine said, gazing at the small child in wonder.
"Are you sorry?" Kate stopped by her chair and gazed at the tall beauty.
"No. Not n' the least." Gaine reached a hand out and gently stroked the baby's forehead. "T'is such a miracle, ain't it?"
"Yes, it is," Kate agreed. They heard the dogs settle down on the front porch. It wasn't cold enough for them to start staying in the barn yet. They'd spend the night waiting for Nell's children to come out and chase them around.
"Ya knows what Ah wonders?" Gaine asked.
"What, honey?" Kate asked.
"Ah wonder if mah Cousin Minnie could poss'bly be anywhar near sa happy as Ah be. Ah doan see how t'is poss'ble."
"Yes," Kate smiled, letting her thoughts go to Gaine and her Cousin Minnie, "You know what makes me glad?"
"I'm so glad you fetched Meghan Kate home when you climbed on that stage all those months ago. That's what I'm glad about."
"Oh, me, too, darlin'. Me, too."