Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by bsoiree

See disclaimers in Chapter 1

----------------------------------------------CHAPTER 2

At breakfast Gaine sat on the bench next to the matronly woman of mystery, blue eyes furtively watching the door for the small blonde to enter. A tin platter, knife, fork and tin cup were at each setting. Gaine used her shirttail to wipe something unknown from inside her cup.

The driver sat holding court imperiously in a chair at the head of their table, his eleven foot, handmade rawhide whip coiled and hanging on the wall behind him. It had been oiled and the silver ferrules on the stock shone. The Conductor was at the head of the next where most of the men from on top were seated but he gave up his seat to move to the side when the whip, Mr. Bishan, of the other stage strolled in and hung his own impressive handmade whip on the wall.

The other stage had unloaded but there were only about five weary-looking passengers from it, two men and one ragged young woman and her two small children. They sat at the ends of the tables. Gaine wondered where they'd sit in the coach, but then considered they might be catching the opposite stage to Jubilee City or, more likely, the one to the train.

The mysterious dowager at her side again enveloped her bulky figure in a dark outfit complete with long black gloves. She smelled of lavender. She was seated to Gaine's right and her companion just beyond that. The brunette noticed that the woman ate by moving her utensil under the veil, which she had loosened enough below her neck to allow such movement. She did not show her face or even her neck at any time.

Ah reckon 'er husban' passed 'n t'is a grievin' thing. Er..er maybe that thar's one a' them recent travelin' fashions di-rect from Paris, France. Prob'ly writ up in some fancy society column, Gaine mused, surreptitiously examining the hat and dark veil. Yep, that must be what t'is. Er maybe, she chuckled to herself on this thought, maybe t'is a wanted outlaw tryin' ta git 'way as 'n ole woman. She glanced at the woman's glove covered hands. They didn't seem big enough to be a man's. She looked at her own. They did. She shrugged.

The tall rancher didn't do enough traveling to have any idea what the latest fashions might dictate. The traveling she normally did tended to be on horseback to nearby ranches or through nearby towns in pursuit of horse thieves. Her family had moved from the deep south to California when she was very young. She remembered little of life or fashions back there. And in the fall she drove cattle, but you didn't run into ladies of high fashion doing that, either.

She'd been in a few of the big frontier towns but hadn't spent any time noting what was in vogue. Of course, she'd gone into her own town often enough. She'd spent most of her life there. It changed when the gold mine closed and again when the copper mine opened. Ranches and farms steadied the economy between times. A number of folks moved on, some new moved in. It was a small place with one long street boasting a mercantile, a couple saloons, a church, an eating-house, a few other businesses and hardworking patrons. Faded sunbonnets and well-worn dresses were all too common. Most ladies wore shoes, but some didn't. Not in the summer anyway. And not till they got to the store. Then everybody put them on. The mercantile was the height of their fashion.

Gaine strained again to see the ambiguous woman's face, but the veil was very good at giving only impressions. Although the tall brunette was now willing to reevaluate her former supposition. This woman might be younger than middle age. Something in the sound of her voice the few times she'd spoken and the way she moved her arms...Gaine couldn't quite pinpoint it. However, what little jewelry she wore was definitely that of an older woman. She was an enigma.

Hands often gave away the true age of a woman, and Gaine looked carefully. But the lady's hands were covered with long gloves. They seemed small for the size of her body. That wasn't so unusual. She likely had tiny feet, too, but her skirts covered them. The brunette looked around but everyone else seemed to take the mysterious lady at face value and didn't seem at all interested in observing her. Probably figure she's an eccentric wida woman not worthy a' their interest, she decided. And maybe she was.

The Lieutenant eagerly sat down on Gaine's left, first leaning his Springfield against the wall by Gaine's rifle near where the driver was regally eating and haughtily avoiding discourse with his lessors, those other passengers who still wanted to talk about their ride through the drop-off area.

"Hear tell that thar Springfield a' yourn got itself a hair trigger when ya set it ta. Ain't that true?" Gaine asked as the Lieutenant sat down.

"Why, yes, that is true."

"Ya gotta cock the hammer then push the trigger for'erd with'n yer thumb ta set it, ain't that right?"

"Right again," he smiled. "Although normally it's a regular service trigger unless it's set otherwise." These rifles were new and he wondered at her knowledge.

"Yep. That's what I heared." She took a bite of her food then her eyes went back to his new rifle. "Gots that thar reg'lar buckhorn sight," she leaned back in her seat to get a better view. "An' ya got peep and globe sights. How fer on the peep?

"Um, 'bout seven hundred yards, I guess."

"More n'that, Ah betcha. Ya Army fellas gettin' right fancy. Ya like it?"

"Well, I haven't had it long. But yes, I do like it, so far at least."

"Um hmm. Ah see all them t'uther fellas a your'n gots 'em, too. Ain't they only fer officers?"

The Lieutenant smiled a sly smile. "I'm the Quartermaster. MY guard comes prepared."

"Ah," she grinned back. You had to respect an officer who looked out for his men.

He flashed her his most charming smile. She did not encourage him, but neither did she discourage him. She usually got along well with fellas, although they were never in any of her romantic notions. The town fellas back home knew not to even bother trying to court her and the punchers treated her like the ranch owner that she was.

The officer's uniform, his dark blue wool frock coat and light blue trousers with a darker blue welt trim, looked freshly pressed and absolutely dust free after a day's hard travel! His sword shone with freshly polished vigor. And his uniform bore none of the aroma of having a sweaty body trapped in it the day before.

Gaine marveled at that. Did he have himself a multitude of clean uniforms in his bag or spend his evening sprucing this one up? She took a deep breath. There was a pleasantly faint scent of citronella emanating from the man. She glanced his way. My, doan he cut a shine though?

She discretely turned her head from one of her own arm pits to the other. She tried to sniff the air a bit without drawing attention. The last thing she wanted was to be offensive, not with the small blonde riding in the coach beside her. For a second she considered--when was the last time she'd cared whether her shirt was clean and didn't smell or not? She couldn't recall that she'd ever given such thoughts much substance. Last night, however, she was mighty glad she'd worn a clean nightshirt, even if she didn't get to wash up before donning it.

Now she wished she'd brought more clean clothes so she'd have an unsullied shirt when she sat by the small blonde all day. Except that she didn't have any other fresh clothes at home. Clothes hadn't elicited a grim effort of will on her part and she had only enough to get by. When they wore out, she got or made new. Well, tomorrow she'd wear the faded maroon shirt in her bag she'd saved to wear when she met Cousin Minnie. It was her only other shirt and it was clean and pressed.

Maybe when they got to Sacramento she'd buy one of those white boiled shirts. Course, there was no real occasion for such a purchase, so she discarded the idea.

The Lieutenant's brown eyes twinkled. His impressive boots had been highly polished along with his brass buttons. His light brown, nearly blond mustache was neatly trimmed. It was a bit shorter than the day before, and his hair was wet and in place. His hair had been his only feature that looked disheveled the previous day. He'd been as dusty as everyone else, but nothing but his hair had looked disorganized. Now he was all spit and polish.

"Harvested some of them whiskers a' yern'?" she asked with a quirky grin.

"Just a touch on the ends," he smiled in return and his hand automatically went to one end and twisted it. He was surprised and pleased that she had noticed.

She saw Meghan enter with her father, who again had a grip on his daughter's arm and yanked the young blonde as far away from them as he could get them. The hair on Gaine's neck bristled when she saw how roughly he was handling the blonde. Gentlemen were not supposed to be bullies, and this man was a first-class bully. Of course, Gaine didn't think of him as any kind of a gentleman!

The young woman looked over and they exchanged a quick glance. The blonde's soft smile was so sweet it could make the angels cry and Gaine felt her heart strings respond. Gods, she wished she'd put on her clean shirt today! And she wished she had a better idea of how she was going to help the sweet lady. She saw the old man verbally snap at his daughter and instantly Meghan demurely turned her attention to him then to her lap.

Gaine was ready to go over and drive the man to the floor. How dare he treat Meghan that way? But she forced herself to not respond in any discernible way.

The tall brunette glanced over again, but the blonde did not look up from her meal. Her father, however, spit to the side in the aisle then glared back at Gaine with a snort, moving his mouth to mumble something. Meghan still didn't look up. The tall rancher defiantly let her eyes drift over both of them and the meal they were eating before bringing them back to those around her. The Lieutenant watched with admiration. He wished he had as much sand as this tall beauty.

The sky outside was becoming pale, drowning out the light of the stars, and all the shadowed forms had turned dawn's blue. After a speedy breakfast, the luggage and mail were loaded rapidly. A goodly portion of the mail they'd been carrying had been placed on the coach headed to the train where it would reach its goal more quickly than staying on the stage. Gaine slipped on her buckskin jacket. She was used to wearing it, hot or not. With her height, it gave her even greater presence.

A rooster crowed as they moved to board. The few rifles from those riding inside were again bundled together and strapped down to prevent accidents. Those on top kept their own in the crooks of their arms or safely wedged them at their feet. Once they started, all rifles atop were carried barrel to the sky. The Conductor always carried his shotgun loaded with buckshot and wore a handgun as well.

Gaine ran her eyes over the men on top, paying particular attention to the ones not in uniform. Wonder which a' them fellers her Pa shared with'n last night, she mused, an' what they jawed on. Her Pa ain't the kinda fella ya kin gin much trust!

All together there were four men not in uniform plus the ranchhand that got on late, making five. She didn't recognize the young wrangler, though she thought she might. One businessman had been replaced by a worker from the train. It occurred to her that one of the things road agents sometimes did was to send one of their gang as a passenger to get the drop on everyone before the others rode up out of nowhere. Such a plant would ride on top in the back. But any one of these fellas with their rifles in their hands could be a potential Trojan horse.

She scrutinized the men's faces. Several looked particularly scruffy and rough, dirty clothes, bushy beards and long scraggly hair down below their shoulders. But most men had beards and shoulder-length hair. And not everyone tidied up to travel. It wasn't necessarily an indication of their character. Some of the most notorious thieves were handsome rogues who dressed neatly and acted with a refinement of manner suited to fancy gentlemen replete with swallow-tailed coats and high top hats...until they'd smile handsomely and mercilessly gun you down without so much as a "fare ye well".

One large man caught her eye, mostly because of the way he refused to return her gaze. He was tough looking, with bushy brows and a jagged scar that ran under one eye to his scraggly beard. He was a grisly man, built like a bear, dressed in shabby clothes that he'd obviously lived in quite a spell. He shore ain't no parlor folk, she determined. An' Ahl jest betcha a herd a folks runs fer the camphur bottle when he done knocks som'un down!

His light brown-grey pants, held up with suspenders, were heavily stained with dirt, particularly so at his knees and below. His rough spun cotton shirt was grey with wear and stained around the stomach. He wore a dusty black sack jacket, more grey than black from the dust. His dirty felt hat brim was rolled in front, his ears sticking out at the sides, and the bell-crown came to a soft peak.

His scowling eyes, when they did dance her way, were hard and there was something about the way he moved them that caught her attention-- besides the fact that he was riding in the back row on top. She'd keep him in her sights.

Once back in the coach, the passengers found the seating was much the same, much to Meghan's father's disgust. Two of the drummers had been replaced by railroad workers. Only the drummer with the checked trousers remained of the original three. He was a whiskey salesman. This time those on the center bench faced the front, giving Gaine more room for her long legs.

She settled in next to Meghan, a surge of cheer at the reunion but careful to give no reaction that could be observed by anyone. Meghan did the same. They almost appeared cool to each other, but their hearts were pounding in joy!

A cloudy mist sat over the stationhouse as the first fingers of dawn slipped across the horizon painting the rich orange-golden coloring back across the vast array of sweeping plain and a species of lighter, cheerful blue sky bled across the broad early morning canvas. They'd ride up and down among the foothills and in some cases go through old, all but abandoned gold mining towns. Silver and copper were still the rage, though many of those were washed out as well!

Meghan's father withdrew his gold pocket watch, snapped the lid open and gazed at it as though it contained the clandestine discoveries of the faculties of life. He always held it so others couldn't see the time, only he. His brows furrowed with his own opinion of the stage's schedule. He snapped it shut with a sniff of disapproval and jammed it back into his vest pocket. Gaine cast a glance. It wasn't likely that old man'd be engaging in any civil dialogue nor extending any cordial remarks regarding the weather today.

"Morning. Gonna be a hot one today," the drummer remarked. Soft greetings and mumbles of agreement were heard throughout the carriage, including from Gaine. The old man scowled. Meghan smiled in greeting but said nothing.

With the familiar crack of the whip, the horses again flew from their places and passengers' arms grabbed for steadying holds. The air inside the coach was much more pleasant but again the curtains were drawn to prevent the billows of dust from overtaking them.

They bounced along peacefully. The blonde's father resentfully fingered his cigars, but left them in his pocket. Nor did he jiggle his coins. The opposite row tried not to smirk, but it was obvious the man was vexed and they were pleased at not being inundated with his brazen cigar smoke.

The small blonde stole a glance at the woman beside her. She felt such an immediate sense of belonging with her. She didn't understand why. She'd never felt like she belonged anywhere or with anyone. She hoped the tall beauty felt it, too. Because the stakes for Meghan were life and death, as she well knew.

She glanced at her father's sour demeanor. Not much longer! I'm getting away! I'll not marry Lendal! But I'll need to be extremely careful! I'll need to stay away from you and from Lendal and anyone you both might know...and the law. I don't want to be dragged back to be handed over to either of you like Ruby was.

The Lieutenant looked over at them with a cheery smile. The small blonde liked this friendly officer even though he had been reluctant to stand up firmly against her father as Gaine had done. Still, he had voiced enough opposing views to make her father huffy. And he seemed to be very gentlemanly. If they ran into trouble, perhaps he would be of help. What harm was there in being friendly? She smiled warmly in return.

'Were the accommodations to your liking, mademoiselle? I trust you slept well?" the Lieutenant responded to Meghan's smile.

'Yes, very well, thank you, sir,' she replied politely with a soft blush.

Suddenly Meghan's father backhanded the green-eyed young beauty in the face with the back of his large, meaty hand...a loud, hard, deliberate smack, catching everyone by surprise. Meghan's hands rushed to her face and Gaine's to the Colt under her open jacket.

"No!" Meghan breathed softly aside to the tall woman whose gun was being lifted from its holster. She pressed her leg against the tall brunette to still the rise of the gun. "No," she breathed again.

'You heard me tell him to leave you alone! Don't you dare encourage him! I'll not have it!' her father growled.

'Ladies are not to be struck!' the Lieutenant said tersely, half rising.

'This is my daughter, young man,' the older man rumbled, 'I have every right, legal and otherwise, to strike her and any woman in my household! I'll thank you to keep your thoughts on the subject to yourself!'

Gaine was livid! Her entire body tensed and her features solidified. Only her eyes were snapping and her gun was in her hand! But Meghan had said "No" to her and it made Gaine pause. What to do?

The rotund man was completely enamored of his own power and appeared immune to Gaine's anger. He turned to the men in the center row who had turned back to watch him with dismay and a degree of disgust. 'A man must keep a steady hand on his womenfolk,' her father said ecclesiastically, rubbing one hand down one side then down the other of his bearded jowls, smoothing the bushy whiskers. 'It is man's duty and I am a man who accepts his duty!"

He sat back with a satisfied smirk while his daughter sat beside him with her face buried in her hands. Gaine couldn't believe his audacity! The hand on her gun twitched. One bullet, that's all she asked! One well placed bullet! It would solve so many problems. She gritted her teeth. But undoubtedly she'd hang for that one little piece of lead.

'Are you all right?' she asked Meghan tenuously. Meghan barely nodded her head. She was mortified and did not want her father to see and get further angered. Her nose was bleeding and she sniffed softly to keep it from dripping but it was hard to tell if she was crying or stopping the blood. She brought a handkerchief tucked in her sleeve to her face and Gaine saw tears in her eyes.

Gaine was finding it hard to control her gun. She itched to kill the man and damn the consequences.

'Don't talk to her!' her father demanded of Gaine in deep, rumbling stentorian tones. 'I'll not have my discipline questioned!'

'Strike 'er ag'in,' Gaine replied coldly, looking over at him with a totally fearless gaze, her hand still on her Colt, 'and yer name ain't gonna be on no list a' possible survivors!' Her eyes had contracted to a cutting glare of blue-grey steel. Her voice nearly shook she was so angry!

Meghan pressed her kerchief against the bleeding, her gloved hands going back to cover her face. Her father sneered back at Gaine tauntingly, ever so pleased with himself. Meghan caught a glimpse of Gaine's face and was startled by the cold, steely flash in the tall woman's eyes. It was frightening!

Suddenly Gaine knew what to do. She pushed the gun back into its holster and leaned forward a little more to face Meghan's father. In so doing, she brought her hand and arm forward away from the Colt and hung both arms loosely on her knees. She leaned close enough to breathe on the back of the workman's neck on the bench before her.

'Ah reckons mah whistlin' lead messenger in a duel a' honor would disfigure ya...," she glared into his taunting eyes, making him blink. Fast as a whip she reached her long arm past the blonde to the man before he could raise his hands in defense and smacked him hard with the back of her toughened hand, catching mostly forehead and eyes, 'Right thar!' The slap echoed in the coach like the crack of a whip. She withdrew her arm quickly and awaited his response.

She'd caught a bit of the sensitive part of his nose with her strike and knew it had stung, for moisture came unbidden to his eyes.

His fleshy hands flew to his face, 'Wha...you'b 'it be!' His hands covered his nose and forehead. Obviously he was not used to being struck. 'Dey all sab it! You'b 'it be!' He slowly removed one hand off his nose, sniffing, checking his hand for blood but there was none. He wiped his eyes quickly. 'You bitch! You'll be more than sorry for that!" he snarled, "They all saw it! You'll go to jail for this!'

Gaine snickered then sat back with a grin. Wanna call a Sheriff? Ah knows one, she chuckled to herself. One didn't usually go to jail over a swat, though men could be very fussy about how womenfolk behaved. Still, usually that kind of thing was solved between the two opponents. The law in the west for the most part had better things to do than quibble over such picayune events.

'Why, Ah war merely demonstratin' what WOULD happen if 'n ya abided with'n yer bullyin' ways. If'n Ahd a'wanted ta truly strike ya, yer nose'd be broke. Be yer nose broke? Course not. Whadda ya think, folks? Did Ah do ana'thin' ta this here fella 'cept demonstrate mah point?'

No one really wanted to be involved in this dangerous dispute other than the young officer who felt it was his fault that Meghan was struck in the first place. While laws often were engaged to keep women in their place, ladies were seldom placed in jail. And for sure no one wanted to defy this particular woman! The Lieutenant shook his head enthusiastically. "You merely demonstrated, Gaine!"

Momentarily the group waxed restive, yet they all silently nodded their heads in an antiphon of agreement. The jowly man growled in rage and spit out his words, 'You can't strike me and get away with it! I know important people!'

'Ah see," Gaine said calmly, "Bees ya a'challengin' me, then?'

Silence fell in the coach as the iron words dripped with chilling intent. THAT was the more expected and prevalent solution to this problem, though almost never engaged in by a woman.

The brunette leaned forward again and gazed at him with a weltering, brow-raised gaze. All eyes were on the man. The jolting and creaking of the carriage as the bodies inside rocked forward and back together in concert, the soft rumble of the wheels as they spun and the rhythmical cadence of the thuds of the horses' continually pounding hooves hitting the softened dirt were the only sounds to be heard in the shadowed carriage. It was as though everyone had drawn a breath.

Outside the sunbaked landscape rolled by prairie-like, dry, unpopulated and wild with only an occasional steer, horse or sheep from a far distant ranch out on the bunch needlegrass or under a small copse of black-green oaks always visible in the golden rolling hills. Inside all eyes remained on the silent man.

Gaine's eyes narrowed and her jaw tensed . 'We kin settle this'n right easy come the vera next change a' hosses. Ahm shore someun kin rustle ya up a shootin' iron.'

The young blonde's heart was pounding. Gaine was defying her father? He might have to fight her in a gunfight? Could he hurt her? He was used to getting his own way! No one ever challenged him! But she didn't think he knew that much about guns. She kept her hands to her face but the bleeding had stopped. Her breath was held in her lungs, her own humiliation abandoned.

The tall brunette's blue eyes had steeled and her mouth was a tight line, the rest of her body wound like a taut spring. There was no doubting that she was a very dangerous opponent and she was focusing in on the heavy man to her right.

No one even breathed aloud. Out here disputes were often solved at the bullet end of a gun. It happened all the time. Nearly always between men, however. There were marshals, sheriffs and deputies who tried to keep the peace but still they had a hard enough time maintaining law and order with people used to handling their own destinies. And that fierce independence hung heavy in the air and ran through the hearts to some degree of most of the western citizenry. Folks understood it and tried to keep out of each other's way. If they weren't involved, they tried not to interfere.

Wild mining boomtowns were the worst and too often the unseemly sorts took over with a "might makes right" idea of justice. Vigilante justice, or injustice as the case might be, could sometimes be had at the end of a rope but calling someone out and gunfights were all too often the violent ends to a dispute in any of the places, no matter how serious the problem or how civilized the town.

Meghan's father quit looking at his hands for blood and looked around. The silence puzzled him. 'What? Challenge you?' he sputtered looking into her eyes and seeing for the first time the trouble he was in. Then he drew in a heavy breath, breathed it out and calmed himself.

A woman was challenging him? How dare she!? He had to think! To not accept would make him look like a coward. But neither was he fool enough to do anything like accept a challenge he wasn't a shoe-in to win. 'I don't have to challenge you! You'll go to jail! You've already made your mistake.'

'Ah ain't a'goin' ta jail! So's either challenge me er stop yer jawin'! Ahm perpared ta make orphans a' yer childern an' a wida a' yer wife at the vera next hoss change. You've seasoned this here atmosphere 'nuff with yer bluster and bullyin'. Strike a lady ag'in, eny lady, and Ah won't have ya hoppin' no twigs with mah new Peacemaker here, Ahl drop yer worthless carcass on 'em! Ya'd best understand that!'

He glanced back with hatred at this armed female so willing to confront and defy him, calling him a "worthless carcass"! Deciding there was something seriously wrong with any woman that would think she could deal with a man in such a manner, yet recognizing that whatever it was that demented her also made her uncommonly dangerous, he looked around to the others.

Seeing no support from anyone, the man sat back and crossed his arms. "Humpf!" he declared. The first bump in the downward road, however, forced him to uncross his arms immediately to grab for a hold.

Had they looked outside they'd have seen the greasewood, picklewood, salt grass and shadscale giving way to golden dried grass as they rose again to hillside oaks and pines. Further up the hills were the evergreens, the pitch pine, sugar pine, false cedar and even some Douglas spruce by the higher mining towns. But they weren't going that high. They were crossing up and over to the next crest.

With the man now silent, Gaine began to relax. She looked at the small blonde who kept her hands before her face, her eyes downward, a sad countenance surrounding her. I shoulda killed the sonuvabitch, the brunette resolved letting a murderous gaze fall back on the man. Might yet! He did not return her gaze.

The stage began to pitch as they hit the upward curves. They rode for a while in uncomfortable silence heaving back and forth. Meghan dropped her left hand to her skirts, adjusting them slightly and gently brushing Gaine's leg in doing so. It was as though she were calming the tall beauty, letting her know she was mollified and it worked. Gaine felt better with her slight contact.

Softer blue eyes fell on the blonde and saw the slightest corner of a melancholy smile directed her way through the glove and handkerchief of one hand.

"Ya all right?" the brunette asked tenderly.

"Yes," the young woman replied, her hand remaining across her face. A touch of blush was at her neck and cheeks. It was obvious that although she felt better, she was still embarrassed by the slap and did not really want any more attention being focused on her no matter how much she liked having Gaine care.

'Tell us about your Cousin Minnie,' the Lieutenant remarked nervously, hoping to ease the tension back to a more relaxed and less dangerous state. 'I believe you said you were on your way to pick her up.'

Gaine nodded, thought for a minute then couldn't help the smile that always broke loose when she thought of her feisty older cousin. Minnie would have slapped the old man! She was sure. And she'd probably have kicked him in the shins as well! Course, then Gaine would have had to protect her with her life.

She laughed aloud. Before long she was entertaining the others with tales of the trouble she and her Cousin Minnie had gotten into as young girls during the few years their families had spent together on the ranch.

She told about when they first got to the ranch and the boys caught small water snakes and put them in the girl's boots. They wiggled their toes inside before they discovered them. Minnie took off screaming and the boys laughed heartily till their mothers paddled the fellas for bringing snakes in the house. The girls learned right quick to always shake out their clothes as their parents had told them to do anyway.

"So's we figured we'd get 'em back with them horny toads that whar ever'whar," Gaine said. "Them little critters whar right cunnin' but Minnie and me whar terrible good at catchin' 'em. Ya had ta be extry gentle with'n 'em cause they had a ferocious propensity ta surprise ya t'utherwise."

Gaine looked around the listening crowd, "We done brought 'em in a'fore dawn one mornin' an' slipped 'em right gentle inta the boys' boots. They found 'em easy 'nuff when they done awoke an' laughed an' shook 'em out rough-like onta the floor. That riled them small jagged critters an' they done shot blood right outta they's EYES back ta the fellas, surprisin' 'em good. Them critters could shoot three feet er more...a stream a blood!" The older ladies gasped.

Lordy!" Gaine chuckled, "Ya ever hear fellas scream? T'is right pitiful!" she laughed. "T'war mighty unnervin' ta the household! Got ever'one up. Course we had ta catch them lizards tender-like and move 'em outside. Our Mommas' din't paddle us fer once't cause they figured them boys had 't comin'."

And Gaine had to keep the boys from pummeling Minnie later whenever they trapped her with revenge in mind. She told about the tadpoles they put in their brother's glasses of milk. The boys drank some of them. They both got paddled for that, but it was worth it, she claimed.

The sound of another wagon ahead had them drawing up the blinds and braving the dust to see what was happening outside. They peered through the thickened dust at a company wagon going the same direction loaded with shelled corn for the horses. Quickly they lowered the shades again as they passed.

'One Easter,' Gaine continued, 'our Ma's made us each one a' them matchin' calico dresses from a bolt they'd had on special ta the mercantile. Theys put us 'n 'em with bows 'n our hair and theys'd both scrimped and saved ta buy us them new, shiny store-bought little girl shoes. Theys bought 'em big so's we could wear 'em a goodly while. Theys war sa proud when theys slipped 'em 'n our feet and done hauled us off ta church. We war quite the news that day!"

She chuckled, "See, we couldn't afford much 'n the way a Sunday meetin' clothes so's this war mighty ex-ceptional. Afterwards we war ta stay lookin' fresh and clean. T'war Sunday an' company t'war a'comin' fer a cold Easter dinner. T'warn't allowed ta play none on Sundays nohow, so's we figured we'd just walk aroun' eyein' the animals like usual, so's out we went.'

Gaine removed her hat and ran her hand through her black hair. 'But ya know, them shoes theys puts little girls inta are a mite slippery. We climbed us up 'n them rails batwixt them pig pens whar we al'ays walked. It'd rained and the pigs had theyselfes a big old walla hole full a' sticky mud ta one side right by the fence an' they war a'wallowin' away in't, happy as could be. We war real good at balancing our way 'cross't them top rails. We din't weigh much a' nothin'. So's off we went, our arms out like tightrope walkers."

A smile emerged from Gaine's lips, "Minnie's Ma looked out the winda and near had herself a heart attack! She yelled at Minnie and it startled her. Well, Minnie screamed, stepped on the end a' one a' her big ole shoes and began to slip and she grabbed fer me. I war ahead a' her.'

She chuckled to herself for a minute as she recollected that experience. 'Yessir, down we both toppled off'n that thar top rail right inta the pig walla! Splat! The pigs war a squealin' and we war a thrashin' an' the boys war a'rollin' on the ground a'laughin'. Lordy, we war a sight! Our Pa's had ta scrape the mud off'n them new shoes and our Ma's stripped us right down and thrust us inta a big ole tub a water. That mud t'war mighty sticky. The company done a'rived a'fore they got us cleaned up.'

For the first time Meghan chuckled aloud along with the others and the sound was delightful. It completely enraptured the Lieutenant and was like balm to Gaine's feeling of helplessness at stopping the earlier occurrence. She wanted to wrap her arms around the small woman in a hug, but instead she presented a casual demeanor to the warm welcome she saw in the blonde's eyes. Lord! This small blonde was so attractive and how she stirred both Gaine and the Lieutenant, physically and emotionally! Gaine worked to keep bland features.

'Did ya get a lickin' that time?' the Lieutenant asked, bringing his eyes back to the tall brunette.

'Uh, no. Our guests war real po-lite like and intent on preservin' decorum. So's they all said how nice we'd looked ta church. And they laughed at the whole shebang, cordial like ya understand. They figured gettin' us clean t'were an exception ta not workin' ta the Sabbath. Minnie and me, heck, we war jest happy ta be back in cumf'table clothes. Our Ma's war plenty riled, but they din't paddle us none that time.' Then she added, "An' though mah Ma scrubbed an' brushed mah hair a'plenty, Ah still found little globs a' that thar mud stuck 'n thar fer months afta'wards."

The stories eased the strain and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Gaine was fervently aware of the youthful caress in Meghan's laugh, the remembered smell of her hair, the memory of her hand resting on Gaine's arm and their almost kiss that morning. The Lieutenant also sat transfixed, smiling at the blonde. Meghan's father sat brooding.

When they stopped to change the horses, they opened the shades and saw the wagon of corn ride in to be unloaded. Instead of getting out to watch, however, they stayed inside the coach to listen. All except Meghan's father, who got out looking for the Conductor, who was busy speaking to the man with the wagon of corn. Before he could thoroughly voice his complaint, it was time to leave.

He climbed back in just in time to hear the Lieutenant laugh and ask Meghan if anything like that had ever happened to her. She saw her father and dropped her gaze to her lap. Gaine gave the old man a hard look. He was angry and scowled back, but went no further. Gaine began to tell about the time she and her Cousin Minnie were told not to go near the abandoned mine. Their parents said it was dangerous. They said the girls'd get lost and their families would never find them again. Well, the girls figured they had a solution. Course, they didn't tell their families about it.

One morning they took a long twine from the barn and rode together on old Bobby to the mine. They tied the twine on a rock outside the mine entrance, hobbled the horse to graze then went in unrolling the other end. They went deeper and deeper, crawling over places where the ceiling had collapsed and taking a different direction each time the path split. They couldn't understand how the twine was stretching so far.

Finally they decided to walk out and halfway back they found the other end and the rock. They'd been dragging it with them, which was good because it left a trail in the places where the path wasn't hard packed and smooth. They spent all afternoon locating the drag marks to guide them out and made it just before it got too dark to see inside. Their parents never heard about that experience.

Gaine told about Uncle Lester who was a big tease. He was a short man and he teased them mercilessly. So one day when he was helping her mother get out the canning supplies, Lester looked around for the milking stool he usually stood on to reach the top shelf in the pantry. They had taken it, but the two girls quickly pushed what looked like a thick block of wood with an old flour sack towel on it. He stepped on it only to sink to the bottom. They had replaced his stool with the large mass of bread dough her mother had rising on her breadboard.

The coach passengers heard the bugle and knew they were riding into another swing station. Sulking and fearful that the Lieutenant would attempt to talk to his daughter again, the old man stayed inside this time. Gaine's stories continued. Time seemed to be flying past and it seemed like only seconds before they lowered the shades once more and headed out again at a gallop.

The oppressive heat cooled slightly as they wound their way up into the trees and across the finger hills. As they swung and swayed around the bends, others told of things they had done as youngsters. The other ladies did not contribute but the drummer and rail workers had very interesting tales to tell of their misbegotten youth. Gaine's father did not contribute nor did Meghan.

Gaine noted that Meghan's face had a large mark below her left eye from her father's strike. It was bruising but she would most likely be all right. The blonde, for her part, couldn't help enjoying the stories.

At lunch they arrived at a mostly deserted mining town. They climbed out, most of them happy and laughing. They stretched their legs then moved to the tables set up outside in a grove of oaks. The only inhabited building in town was a square-fronted hillside store-public house and tavern combined, surrounded by a few abandoned ramshackle cabins embowered in climbing roses.

Meghan's father was seethingly irate, and he pulled the Conductor to the side and regaled him with what had happened, giving everything his own twist and warning that he had friends in high places that would think unkindly of the stage company for allowing this. Why, that woman had struck him, he claimed, called him names and even tried to challenge him to a gunfight! What kind of miscreants did they allow on this stage? They should throw her off immediately!

Gaine watched for a few minutes then caught sight of the man with the scar. He was ready to slip into the tavern but Meghan's father was waving him over. Gaine inched by Meghan and whispered, 'That'un thar the feller with'n yer Pa last night?'

Meghan looked then quickly glanced away as the man shifted his unwelcome attention to her. Gaine received a hasty "Yes," and embarrassed smile in return. Just the nearness of the tall woman and Gaine's whispering in her ear had sent shivers down her spine. Gaine nodded and quickly walked away.

The small blonde felt the loss but saw her father glance her way and instantly dropped her head although she had a grim look of defiance on her face that he could not see. She continued looking down while her father and the burly man moved aside and spoke intently. Finally her rotund father huffed his way to Meghan and grabbed her arm. He glanced at Gaine's warning look. Her hand went to her Colt and he paused. He did not yank as he was wont to do but instead gingerly led his daughter to the furthest seating area.

The Conductor watched Gaine and talked quietly with some of the others. Gaine moved to the tavern entrance to peek inside. She decided that calling it a "Public House" dignified the notion. The floor was dirt, a sleeping corner had bunks of boards where one could throw their own blanket and there was not a chair to be seen inside. She could see fleas hopping in a ray of sunlight in the corner by the bar and much of the rest of the ground had been used as a spittoon. She hastily left, sure there'd be no talk of "stocks" or "claims" or "ledges" in there any more.

The meal was meager...tea, crackers, jerked antelope. Afterward the Conductor took the tall brunette aside and asked if she'd like to sit on the top. They could use her skill with guns there in case bandeleros were laying in wait along the way. There'd been problems and they knew there was a group in the area.

Gaine debated whether to explain what had been happening inside but the Conductor added, 'I heard what's been goin' on with that miserable old man. But the driver wants ya atop. He don't want us to have to waste time burying that jackass. Too much diggin.'

That brought a snorted laugh from Gaine but it also settled the situation. The whip's word was law. 'All right. I'll be sodded down with that herd on top,' she smiled, "and stake out mah spot thar but Ah gots a condition."

'What's that?'

'Put that thar Lieutenant fella next to the young lady and one a' them young Army fellas 'n his empty seat. Thar sense a' chivalry might add a little pertection fer the ladies.'

She was actually thinking that having an Army underling inside might bolster the Lieutenant's fortitude in opposing Meghan's father. She liked the young officer, but he wavered at standing up enough to the belligerent man. "And warn that ole man that if'n he strikes that thar young woman ag'in er any t'uther woman on this here trip, he'll be a'dealin' with me. And he ain't gonna find no favor with'n that a'tall!"

'Done!' the man agreed. "I'll make them moves and tell 'im, ya bettcha. Have Old Ben git yer rifle out an we'll be a'pushin' the wind a'for ya can turn about!"

Gaine caught a quick look from Meghan's father as the Conductor made the changes. This here's hasta luego, ya ole rattlesnake, not adios, she thought, glaring back at the repugnant man. Ah ain't fergettin' 'bout the likes a' you! Not fer one second! An' ya'd best not be a'botherin' Meghan none, neither! She turned and climbed on top, praying she wasn't leaving Meghan in further danger.

Inside, the old man was perturbed. He didn't want to sit in the middle with others on either side of him. But having the insolent, flirting Lieutenant who'd snickered at his being struck sitting next to Meghan was nearly unthinkable. The man had been oogling his daughter all morning! In many ways he was more unbearable and threatening than the crazy woman climbing on top.

In the end the old man scolded and threatened Meghan, kept her in the middle and sat in his normal place. A look of triumph filled his face when he considered that the tall, improperly dressed crazy woman was no longer sitting inside with them. And he was particularly pleased because HE had caused her to be moved.

Gaine, for her part, enjoyed being outside but worried about Meghan. On top her concern drifted to the burly man whose eyes stayed away from hers and whose thick neck was involved with a dirty, large grey handkerchief. Big 'nuff ta be used fer a face coverin' in a hold up. Wonder if'n he's done used that thar neckerchief fer that? Have Ah chased a gang a' yer'n? her meandering thoughts drifted into such corrals. No. Ah ain't chased nobody Ah ain't caught!

He sat in the last row, his rifle pointed upward but surreptitiously angled toward the riders in front. She moved into the empty seat on the opposite end of his row, also in the back. The ranchhand sat behind her amongst the luggage, chewing on a plug of tobacco and spitting periodically over the side.

Gaine let her repeater ride pointed to the sky but oriented slightly in the burly man's direction. She saw him take notice with a start. She swept her blue eyes over him with a look of cold suspicion. If'n Ah war gonna rob me a stage, Ah reckon Ah jest might send this here fella out as a passenger. He looks fast 'nuff ta get a drop on most ever'body. And with'n his rifle already directed that a'way, it'd be easy as ropin' a yearlin'.

But if he was a plant, why hadn't they attacked yet? Surely they didn't want him to ride the whole three day's distance. He'd been riding on top when she'd first climbed into the coach. His clothes were filthy, like a man who spent his time out in the wild. But he'd spent the night sharing that room with Meghan's father. Normally outlaws'd only ride a short way from their get on spot to where the gang hoisted the hold up...which spoke towards his presumed innocence.

Still he made her uneasy enough to keep her alert. And he was consortin' with the old man now. No tellin' what that old sap-head was willing to pay him to do. The man flitted his eyes toward her, the sun lightened the white jagged line of the scar on his face, making it very pronounced, and he looked away. Knife wound, she decided. In his quick look she thought she picked up a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

Do that feller know me? , she wondered. Or know a' me? She had a bit of a reputation at home. She and her posse had chased a ruffian or two around enough ravines, low hills and prairied savannas before they hauled each back, often slung over a horse, their activities permanently halted. And they'd put one group of three rustlers six feet under on the spot to end their little romp. Other towns had been harassed of late, but hers had not. Yes, she'd keep watch on him.

She held on and viewed the passing scenery. The river ahead was a small sandy stream, fast but easily forded, running brown from the mining still occurring above in the hills. The splashing water rose in huge drops as the horses galloped across it. The golden grasses and oaks delineated the rolling hills and panoramic scenes of the flatland below opened up at occasional turns on the downward runs.

Gaine became surprisingly akin to maudlin with each passing mile, though she rarely allowed herself acquaintance with that particular emotion. The railroad was being built through the wide valley floor below and civilization would be right behind it. Open rangeland far as the eye could see would no longer exist. Cities and towns would spring up like they had in the gold fields.

She knew large cattle and horse ranches would give way to smaller farms, maybe more sheep ranches and orchards. There'd be city farmers, lotsa fences and urban development. The land'd be tamed and restricted just like back east and life would nevermore be the same. Progress, bah! she brooded.

At the first afternoon horse change, Gaine and the young wrangler both left their rifles and climbed off the father's side of the coach to stretch their legs. The old man also climbed out, grabbed a shovel and hustled into the brush. Gaines' and the young wrangler's glances flashed into the coach through the open door at the same time. They landed on the youthful, sweetly feminine face of the blonde who returned a wide, welcoming smile.

The cowhand leaned toward Gaine, his plug of tobacco in his hand. His raspy young voice met her ear, 'Wouldn't mind a'tossin' my rope 'round that little filly,' he muttered as he bit off a chaw and rolled it about in his mouth. "Friskiest fillies make the best mares!"

Gaine rankled but kept it hidden. Her eyes ran over the young man. He had to be younger than her--nineteen or twenty maybe. Just a kid, but he was a typical puncher, tempered by hard work and his sinewy muscles showed it. He wasn't tall, no more than five foot six or so. He had curly dark hair, a nose that had been broken and a thin scrawny mustache, stained at the corners by tobacco use. His dark, dolorous eyes were solitary and unthreatening and his battered boots matched his well-used, dusty pants, vest and stained bandanna at his neck.

'Her father'd take exception. Claims she's done took,' Gaine glanced back in the direction the old man had gone. She was not about to forget about him. She hooked her jacket back behind her holster. The puncher's gaze followed hers.

'He's pert full a' hisself,' the young man said and she nodded in agreement. She's taken all right, Gaine thought, clenching her jaw, but not by who her Pa figures. Then she blinked a few times wondering where that thought had come from! Just because she planned to help Meghan didn't mean she could be territorial. It was the young woman's life, after all. She hadn't kissed her and sealed their fate together, even if she'd wanted to at the time. And still did.

Gaine glanced off at the horses dancing excitedly at the ends of their traces as they were being switched, the new team anxious to be on the road, the old anxious to be fed and watered. Young stablemen bustled everywhere.

'We miss you,' the Lieutenant said softly, coming up behind her unseen. He had gotten out of the other side of the coach and circled from behind as they spoke.

Gaine spun and had her gun drawn and cocked before the last words were out of his mouth.

"Dear God!" he said, freezing before rapidly thrusting his hands into the air.

Gaine slowly lowered the hammer and replaced her gun in her holster. "Sorry," she said sheepishly. "Ain't usta havin a body sneak up a'hind me!" She had to quit thinking of the blonde and stay alert! She never let anyone come up behind her like that!

The ranchhand's eyes had widened as had those of everyone watching. It was undoubtedly the fastest draw anyone there had ever seen. Had she not stopped in time, the Lieutenant would be lying dead upon the ground.

The Lieutenant's arms lowered and one hand went to his chest. "Didn't mean to startle you. Next time I'll give fair warning! Kick some dust up or something."

"Fair 'nuff," Gaine blushed. The Lieutenant was one of the last persons she would have chosen to draw on.

The Lieutenant chuckled and stepped closer. 'Now that my heart's gone back into my chest....I was saying how we missed you. No more stories of you and your Cousin Minnie.' He made a sad face, drooping his mouth and his gamboge mustache followed in such a way that caused her to laugh.

'Be ya ridin' all the way ta Sacramenta?' she asked. The cowhand wandered off to watch them finish changing the horses. She glanced behind her and saw the burly scarred man take a shovel far off to the side. It appeared that he had also been watching. She turned just enough to talk and still keep an eye on him.

'Yes,' the officer replied. 'I see you've made a friend already.' He motioned his head toward the young wrangler.

'Mmm,' she replied. 'Same occupation, basically. So, what happens when ya get ta Sacramenta?' she queried. 'Ya goin' visitin' er maybe t'is yer home?'

His glove covered hands brushed some dust off his blue wool shirtcoat. He wasn't sure if she was flirting with him, but he took it as a compliment that she probably was. She was a beautiful and dangerous woman and danger only added to her appeal in his eyes. He adjusted the belt at his waist. 'Unfortunately,' he sighed putting both hands then behind his back, 'No. I am traveling on Army business. I have to catch the Central Pacific late train then the last sternwheeler to San Francisco. I have a meeting at Fort Point, uh, the Presidio, actually.'

'Stars! It'd be a heap closer ta get off ta Knight's Ferry er Stockton and go from thar. Yer a'goin' hours out a yer way by journeyin' clean out ta Sacramenta.'

She glanced in the direction of the burly man and saw that he had spoken a few words with the old man then jogged over by a dark oak on a small rise. Strange that he should go that far and uphill too. There was brush cover much closer.

'You'd think so,' the Lieutenant grinned, now crossing his arms loosely in front. 'But the Western Pacific, which is nearmost, doesn't have a connecting timetable. This is the only schedule that makes the right connections to get me to San Francisco in time. None of the others have a connecting stage, train or boat even though we get to those places earlier and they're closer. 'Sides, I need to go into Sacramento anyway to escort my men.'

Modern times and all that thar progress! Gaine thought to herself, Politicians touting all them new miracles a' transportation, rail lines a'stretchin' out 'n ever which way. It shore ain't always perspicacious. Crow still flies 'n a straight line but people get plumb potwalloped. "So's you an' yer boys er a'headin' fer San Francisca?"

"No, just me. They're picking up their loaded supply wagons in Sacramento. They'll start right back to the fort as soon as they get them and I'll follow by stage later when my meetings are finished."

A thought occurred to Gaine and her head tilted, "They a'takin' them wagons--Ah assume theys covered--anawhere nears the hotel whar this here stage stops?"

"Yes. They're regular Army supply wagons..not conestogas, of course, but covered. Two men to a wagon. And as a matter of fact, they go mighty close to the hotel. I could have them go by if you'd like to see them pass."

"Ahl buy them fellers a ceegar, if'n they wanna stop ta the desk," she grinned. "Ahl leave 'em thar fer em. We doan thank ar boys 'n blue 'nuff these days."

"Cigars? I'm sure they'd like that! Thank you."

"Ahd leave one fer the likes a' you, too, Lieutenant, if'n ya war gonna be thar."

"I'm not. And I don't smoke. But thank you anyway."

"What time them fellas gonna go by the ho-tel, war ya thinkin'?"

"Bout an hour, maybe two, after the stage arrives."

'Uh huh. An' what time do this here stage arrive ta Sacramenta?' she asked. "If'n ya knows."

She watched the burly man by the tree swing easily into the branches. Now that was strange, indeed. He didn't have his rifle with him, but she still moved out of any possible line of fire.

'Just after six. For me there's only about an hour's time between getting there and the train leaving. Fortunately the train station's just down by the river, only two blocks from the hotel.'

"Shame you'll be a'headin' out sa soon!"

He looked at her sadly, 'Why? Did you have something you wanted me to do?'

She smiled widely. 'No, 'cept I woulda liked introducin' ya ta Cousin Minnie. Ahl point them boys an' the wagons out ta her if'n she's thar by then. She's a'comin' in from Virginy City somewhar 'bout then. She's a might good lookin'!' She'd be your type, Gaine thought with amusement. And though Ahd like fer ya ta have a little more sand 'bout ya, ya wouldn't be that bad a match fer her. 'Sides, she's got plenty a' sand fer the both a' ya.

'The pleasure,' he bowed slightly, 'would have been all mine. She sounds like a fascinating woman.'

'That she be! Uh, war the old man treatin' his daughter well?' Her eyes followed the old man as he grunted and huffed back to the stage.

'He didn't strike her again, if that's what you mean. But he all but threatened her with her life and she's terrified of even looking in my direction, I'm afraid.'

In a perverse way that actually made Gaine feel better. Not that Meghan had been threatened and certainly not that the woman was struck by her father. But she had felt a tension totally unrelated to the father when the young lady had spoken pleasantly to this handsome officer. Then to have her riding right next to him. Well, she knew that was silly and that what she felt was suspiciously akin to jealousy. She recognized that fact immediately but pushed it back from her mind. 'It's shore 'nuff a shame. She done merits better.'

'Yes, she does,' he agreed. 'Her father has been saying some very uncomplimentary things about you, by the way.'

Gaine laughed her deep rolling laugh. 'Ah kin 'magine. So's far Ahv done shot off his ceegar and smacked him one in the puss.'

'He's made some...I don't know, almost threatening remarks. You might want to watch your back. And he's already told me he'll be speaking to my Commander at the fort if I so much as smile at the young lady. Actually, I don't get along that well with the General, so I've tried not to create too much of a problem. I can't afford trouble with the head man.'

'In what manner war he a'threatenin' me?' she asked. 'Ahm ready fer his challenge.'

'No, it's more about his powerful friends, having the Sacramento Marshal throw you in jail, that kind of thing.'

'Ah see,' Gaine had a plan she was working on for Meghan but she'd need to keep her eye on her father for sure.

"I see you're watching that fellow with the scar over there. Brawny man." They both directed their eyes to the husky fellow now making his way back in a hurry. He was carrying his shovel and Gaine noticed he was no longer wearing his neckerchief. "Any particular reason?" the Lieutenant asked.

"Jest a hunch," Gaine replied. "He done shared a room with'n the old man an' thar's somethin' cagey 'bout 'im...Ah dunno."

"Do you think the old man hired him to harm you in some way? I certainly wouldn't put it past him!"

"Dunno. Maybe."

'Well, you be careful!' The officer ran his eyes over the man, who finally moved behind brush cover so the coach separated him from their view. "Tell you what I think. We've had troops sent out to bring in marauders," he replied. "Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised to find him in any gang that was brought in."

"Mmm. Yep. Maybe he's fine and maybe he ain't. But if'n ambushin' a body an' shootin' 'im in the back t'were the workings a' the day, nothin' ta say he wouldn't be a'sittin' smack dab in the saddle on that kinda hoss. But then thar's nothing ta say t'utherwise, neither. Jest a hunch."

The Lieutenant looked at Gaine seriously, "I know what you mean. Let me help you keep an eye on him."

Gaine laughed. "Thanky, Lieutenant. 'Preciate it." She glanced in and saw Meghan's father with his watch in his hand and a scowl on his face. "Lordy, that man!" Meghan looked out to see Gaine's affectionate gaze upon her before blue eyes turned toward the team. "Whoa! Hosses er switched. Reckon we'd best enter the fray, er t'will be left a'hind."

The new horses were eager and the Lieutenant hurried for his stagecoach door while she and the cowhand scrambled from the short wheel in front to the driver's seat above the front boot then back across the top seats to their places in back. The burly man was already there, his lever action saddle gun in hand.

They all grabbed their rifles and brought them to a relaxed pose, ready to continue on their way. All guns pointed to the sky, but Gaine's carbine was once again not that far off the direction of the large man, who did not look her way. She would need to make very sure not to turn her back on him.

Gaine liked riding on top. You could see forever and sat above most of the rising dust. Her hat blocked out the unrelenting sun. She was used to that anyway. The air was hot but the breeze was bracing and there was little conversation. But she missed Meghan. She mentally began to work out details of her plan. Her thoughts ran to the small blonde inside the carriage and a tender smile graced the brunette's face accompanied by a renewed firmness of conviction. She WOULD get her away safely, or die trying!

With some short stinging snaps in her face, the only disadvantage of the open air was again made known. The wind flipped her hair around too much, snapping it annoyingly in her face. Maybe she'd braid it like she did on long rides. She hadn't taken the time that morning.

She removed her hat, clamped the wide brim between her knees, put her rifle at her feet firmly under one foot, pushed her jacket behind her six-shooter and began to plait her thicket of dusty, long jet black hair into a braid that hung part way down her back. She pulled a thin rawhide strap from her pocket that she used for such occasions and tied the end. Then she retrieved her rifle and resumed her vigil.

Halfway to the next horse change they passed the southbound stage. It had fewer passengers although there were still those riding on top. They watched the others pass by and a few waved at them and they waved back.

They entered a draw and Gaine could see that it was a perfect place for an ambush. She stayed with her gun pointed above but angled in the direction of the large man. He flicked his eyes her way a few times. She turned in her seat so that she faced him. Her peripheral vision gave her a view of everything on top.

"Let's watch keerful 'n here, fellas," Gaine called to the others. 'Watch fer eny obstacles they maht put n' the road ta stop us. N' all wayside brush n' rocks jest maht hold ambushers. Keep alert!' The authority in her voice was clear and their attention became much more intense. Guns moved off to the many hiding places that might be found around them. She did not shift her own gun, however, nor did she check the rocks and other hiding places. She kept her eyes on the grisly man and he was very much aware of it.

'Specially watch whar the timber flows down n' fingers out n' the draw. Some a them outlaws lahks ta hide thar 'n aim ta a lead hoss ta bring 'em down n' stop the run.'

Everyone stayed alert as they made their way through, but Gaine's eyes never left the burly man. She breathed a silent, feathery sigh of relief when they came out of the area into an open plain again and the driver whipped the horses up to make time.

At the next stop they were again down on the plains just below the hills. Gaine dismounted along with some of the others but dared not look in to glimpse Meghan. Her father sat staring daggers out the window at Gaine. Instead she stepped behind the coach out of his view and watched the folks milling around. The horses were being switched with no problems and some of the passengers moseyed off a short way into the brush.

She saw the burly man walk briskly to the corral and talk with one of the men working there. The large man extracted a roll of money, pulled off some bills and the worker roped a strong, useful bay and put on a bridle and saddle.

Greenbacks, Gaine thought. Lordy! A small pilla size roll! She had some of her own, but nothing like that. Hmm. An in this here economy! Wonder if'n he war paid ta gin me a share a' difficulty? He done appeared ta be cheek by jowl with'n the old man. She brought her eyes back to Meghan's father who now stood just outside the carriage door, glaring at her, narrow-eyed with a touch of superiority as he puffed on his cigar. Yes, she wouldn't put it past him at all.

The burly man put a foot in the stirrup, took the reins and swung his leg over. He threw a fierce glance at Gaine before he rode away toward the hills. She watched him ride to the top of a swell and disappear. But why ride off?

"Figure he war a'fixin' ta get off here?" she asked the Lieutenant, who had noisily walked up beside her. She'd heard him get out of the stage this time.

"Dunno," the Lieutenant replied. "Strange. Out in the middle of nowhere. Not another person for miles. Guess we won't have to help you watch him after all."

"Reckon not. Be right back." She quickly moved to the corral and asked if the man had left his horse there and, if so, when.

The hand smiled. "No. Was my horse. I sold it and he paid plenty. I'll ride one a' the stages out. I'll buy two horses an' all their tack for what he paid." That certainly seemed strange to Gaine. But she'd file it in her memory for the time being. She had other things to ponder at this point.

She saw Meghan's father grind off his cigar on the side of the carriage, stick it in his pocket and huff back into the carriage. How inconvenient. He doan get ta finish his ceegar once't he fires it up. She saw the Lieutenant wink as he followed the older man in and she chuckled as she rushed back and crawled up on top.

Once they were off again Gaine glanced far up to the eastern hills and thought she saw the trailings of dust made by more than one rider. She sat up straight. It was too far to be the grizzly man and the amount of dust suggested more than one rider moving quickly. She focused her eyes but without a glass to check, she saw no more than that. She decided she'd best keep herself ready for anything.

A hawk swirled in lazy circles above the ground, patrolling the skies. Gaine saw but didn't hear the "vidididid" of a western meadowlark from a nearby bush over the clattering noise of the stage. Occasionally a roadrunner would emerge on the flat and sprint across an area, only to disappear under the fragrant shrubbery.

Her eyes studied the landscape but whatever created the dust had disappeared. Her thoughts drifted to Meghan's problem and she let her mind mull over the factors. She began her problem breakdown by asking herself the "what ifs" while trying to come up with plausible solutions.

She sensed the gun more than saw it. She spun in place and surprised the young cow puncher behind her, whose rifle was pointed in her direction. Instantly he moved it to the sky. "Uh, sorry," he muttered then spit over the side. "Warn't payin' no heed."

"Ya'd best make damn sure ya ain't lettin' it happen never agin," she warned, "This here ain't no storm 'n a washbasin Ahm referrin' ta!"

"Sure, Gaine. Meant no disrespect. T'were an accident. Sorry."

Gaine wondered if that was true. Or was he a part of those she needed to watch? She killed anyone that pointed a gun at her with intent. Did he have intent? Gods! She couldn't afford to be lax but she didn't need to be paranoid either. He was only a boy, but he was tough enough to grind his heel on many a man's tasks, she'd warrant. Robbery and murder were certainly in that corral and she fervently hoped he wasn't partaking in any of that particular round-up.

She thought about what she knew about him. He'd entered the stage alone in an area she was familiar with, yet she didn't know him or his horse, which did not speak for or against him. He could have been working on any ranch. He'd said little but stayed in the back with the topside luggage. Unfortunately, that put everyone's backs to him and gave him an opportunity to pick off anyone if he was part of any group of desperadoes. But she had no idea how good a shot he was. Course, that close, it wouldn't matter much.

Her blue eyes were disquieting as she centered their troubled directness on his face. "Ah tend ta shoot pronto on point a' threat, boy! Ya could find yerself down with yer boots on an' a lick a' bullet ta yer heart if'n 't happened again. So's Ahm gonna figure yu'v took yerself fair warnin'."

"Yep. I savvy. Ain't gonna happen ag'in."

"Make damn shore it doan. Cause Ahl kill ya without givin't no extry thought, if'n 't do."

He nodded and leaned his gun so that it pointed behind the coach.

Gaine sat back and let her gaze go out over the scenery. The stage rose again crossing the winding hill of a mountainous fingerling. As she half-gazed, half-thought, she saw a fox then noticed black-tailed jackrabbits cavorting and scampering through the nearby brush. She wondered when the milieu had changed to the long eared variety.

Several of the men laughingly pointed their rifles the rabbit's directions but each time the Conductor turned back and informed them they mustn't be firing. It would disturb the horses. Occasionally coveys of quail would rise from near the rock outcroppings beside the road before the galloping horses pounded by. The flying dots would quickly circle and settle back into the cheesebushes and sage further off by the road.

Gaine concentrated on Meghan and what it would take for her to get away from her father and how many different situations could arise in her doing so. She hoped the sweet green-eyed lady was being treated well inside the carriage then took her thoughts to the woman's escape. She thought of the intended husband and what would happen if he was already there waiting.

In the distance to the east were pronghorn antelope. Didn't see them that much any more. Maybe the hint of dust clouds she'd seen earlier had been from a herd of some animal or another. But she discarded that idea. She could usually tell the difference. Whatever it was, it had been moving in a steady straight line.

In the early evening mule deer were seen heading toward a shallow stream they had forded. Barely visible behind a rock a coyote stopped and sniffed the air before giving the stagecoach a look of scorn and padding away. Gaine turned and watched the animal, hoping to catch sight of its mate. Usually coyotes hunted in pairs, but she didn't sight the second one this time.

The sun dipped lower in the sky and shadows began to play across the now wind-swept land as they rolled up and down across the hills. Darkness when it came, would hold its own danger.

They stopped for supper at a way station rife with bugs so large the cowpuncher claimed they could be broken to saddle. When the driver sat, the first course was served. It was large pewter basins of soup placed along the table with spoons within each. Everyone waded in, eating from the basin closest to them. Gaine suddenly whipped off her hat and whacked desperately at a large cockroach darting across the table, drawing most everyone's attention. For its size it was fleet of foot. She swept it to the floor then quickly stepped on it, crunching it under her boot. She was glad they would not be spending the night there. The floor was littered with crushed bugs.

Meghan's nerves were on end. She wished Gaine had been able to stay beside her instead of the Lieutenant. Aside from the earlier humiliation, her father snarled at her constantly, leaving her less time to concentrate on her escape and gird herself for it. Then he became extremely smug and that always bode ill for someone. She knew his malevolence was directed at Gaine and that worried her.

She looked over toward the brunette, the depth of her green eyes showing much more of a message than her wan smile. I missed you. Gaine likewise had missed being beside the small blonde, but she was careful not to let her eyes wander that way too often, directing them only momentarily. Gaine was about to smile in response when Meghan's father's eyes darted her way. She sent a threatening scowl instead that he returned. Meghan noticed and dropped her eyes to her lap.

Gaine wrenched her attention back to her own table then almost laughed aloud when she noted the drummer stooping down with a muttered curse wiping his shiny shoes with his large handkerchief after he'd seen a roach run over one toe.

The Lieutenant drank from his own cup that he always carried with him. Gaine sipped coffee from the tin cup the host had distributed. It was mighty thin but she liked it. Aside from the presence of bugs, Gaine found the next course of supper not that bad particularly after their very light dinner. Beef and beans with sourdough bread was tasty though she found the beef a touch leathery. Finishing up with spicy dried apple pie, the meal was most satisfying.

"Well, Ah'm full as a tick," she smiled to her companions as she rubbed her stomach. They had cut dark specks out of their food, unsure as they were about the multitude of bugs and how much of the pie was actually 'spice'.

Gaine climbed back with the wrangler among the large pieces of luggage tied atop after dinner. This was a particularly dangerous time. She did not want to worry about what might be hiding out there in the landscape with rifle power as well as the young ranchhand beside her. She moved to where she could watch both. Instead of sitting, she crouched. Make mahself a smaller target, she said to herself. The young man did the same.

Once the horses flew off she shifted innumerable times to stay comfortable and noticed her companion doing the same. The landscape went flying by and cool blue eyes were busy observing it all. The sun went down and the evening, despite the danger, was pleasant as they swayed among the hills in the crested moonlight. Still she wiped her hand across her brow eliminating the nervous sweat that had gathered there. There was just enough moonlight to keep the darkened surroundings in view.

They headed down into a canyon and she kept a steady vigil as the horses pounded along the lowering, winding, darkened trail. A shot on a downward trajectory had a much better chance of hitting her than one trying to shoot up. Her eye caught a quick movement along the canyon ridge above them. She instantly shot, aiming low and to the side to frighten rather than harm. She heard the shot hit a rock and ricochet aside, echoing along the canyon walls. There was no return fire and she observed no more movement.

The young man beside her squeezed off a ricocheting shot in the same direction. She found that to be to his credit but reached a hand out. "Hold yer fire," she said to him. Everyone atop the stage moved their guns in that direction. It could have been an animal or even an innocent person headed for a far-off ranch. Or it could be something far more menacing. Whatever it was, hers was a warning shot and from the sounds of it, so was the boy's.

"What was it?" the Conductor called back, his gun following the darkened rim.

"Dunno. Maybe nothin'."

"Did ya hit it?"

"Din't aim ta. Just a warnin' shot case there's ana'one there a'thinkin' we're free pickin's down here.

The canvas curtain by the Lieutenant was rolled up and his head came bobbing out the window. "What's happening?" he called.

"Jest warnin' shots. Likely nothin'," Gaine called back to him.

"You want me to climb up there with ya?" he called.

"Naw. It ain't nothin'. Ahl call if'n we need ya!"

"All right." The Lieutenant drew in his head.

"Anyone hurt?" Meghan's father asked almost hopefully as the Lieutenant began to close the canvas curtain again. The older man's tone of voice was priggish, showing no surprise. That alone drew everyone's perplexed attention his way. But the coach was dark and it was impossible to discern his expression.

"No. Gaine fired a warning shot. Don't know at what, but no one was hurt," the Lieutenant replied. Meghan quietly exhaled in relief.

"Humphf," the old man snorted. Meghan looked his way wondering what he might have had to do with the whole thing. She knew that smugness of his all too well even if she couldn't make out his features.

The Conductor on top held his shotgun tight. He encouraged the driver to keep the horses at the fastest pace possible even in the dimmed light. He was busy scanning the rim from side to side as they moved along. He would not be napping this evening.

"Keep yer eyes skinned, fellas, an' look powerful sharp," Gaine called.

Up and down the canyon, among the rock outcroppings and huddled motts of squat, dark trees on the edge of the rim the eyes of the men on top of the stage peered through the moonlit darkness in solemn quest of movement. Gaine would almost bet they were being followed. She could feel it.

The tall brunette hated this state of affairs. All she wanted was to arrive in Sacramento in one piece. There was no chance she could form a posse and go out after any outlaws if they struck and got away. Not with Meghan needing her help and Minnie coming to meet her. Her cousin was not going to believe all the complications that had erupted on Gaine's way to fetching her as it was. However, knowing Minnie, she'd find it all an exciting adventure.

After a long siege of continual alertness, they finally pulled out onto the waving gold grass of the savannah where views seemed to go for miles and ambush spots were much harder to find. Everyone relaxed, some wondering aloud if there really had been anything out there. Gaine remained ready, however, as did the puncher beside her. There'd been something there all right. Neither let down their guard all the way till they got to their stop for the night.

When at last they stopped, the sky was sparkling and magical, as though a huge bowl of stars had been overturned above them. A creamy white band of billions of specks of light spread across the sky. One almost felt that a reaching hand could touch the glittering diamonds above and draw them down. The sounds of the crickets were joined by frogs and the howling of a distant family of coyotes. The fragrant perfume of summer scented the warm night air.

Few words were spoken by the men from the top. They were particularly glad to be arriving somewhere safe. Gaine wondered how safe it actually was. She took her rifle and hopped down. Stage stops weren't any safer than a running stage as far as she was concerned. They could be attacked easily and sometimes were.

"Keep yer rifles handy tanight, fellas," she suggested. "Jest a precaution."

She checked her vest pocket. Her badge was still there. First thing she'd do would be to clean her rifle and sixshooter. She usually did that nightly anyway. She thought of Meghan and suddenly a panicked thought came to mind. She looked around and saw the blonde's father starting to crawl out of the far side of the coach. Meghan would be behind him. Would it be like last night? Would they get to spend the night together? She prayed they would, but if they did, she'd have to clean up! Stress tended to pour perspiration out of her.

"What was it?" the Lieutenant asked as he rushed to her side.

"Baheld me some movement thar 'n the rim. Din't wan' 'em gettin' no fancy thoughts 'bout us being empty tins on no fence post."

"Are ya sure? Sometimes heat makes things seem to appear that aren't really there."

"They was thar," she replied shortly. Then she added lightly, "whatever t'was."

"I'll put my men on revolving guard tonight," the Lieutenant said assuagingly, "two hour shifts. That way they'll each get some sleep and we won't be left unguarded while here."

"Thank ye," Gaine replied. "Ah think that thar's a right perspicacious accommodation. An we all 'preciate it."

The Lieutenant flashed his boyish smile and Gaine couldn't help enjoying it. He was such a rake, but a most enjoyable one.

They watched Meghan and her father head for the building, their bags in hand. The small blonde carried her own and he carried his. Blue eyes tracked the small blonde's graceful figure in the lantern light, her small waist, softly swaying hips and loose strands of blonde hair tiredly escaping her bonnet edge. Meghan dared not glance back but Gaine yearned for her quick smile. Ah missed ya, sweet Meg.

The worker struggled to lower the mysterious lady's heavy leather cloak trunk tied on top. The Lieutenant got his bag and rushed off to help her and her companion with all their luggage. Gaine waited with the puncher for them to get to the front boot where both theirs were stored. "Ya done good," she muttered to him. He nodded. She stooped to pick a dust-covered wildflower. She gave it a couple of quick flicks, but a coat of dirt remained on it.

She held her smile upon learning she'd be sharing with Meghan again. But instead of going to their room, Gaine carried her carpetbag, rifle and flower and went calling at the room of the mysterious woman and her traveling companion. The Lieutenant had already left them. Another modern home station made much ado about by the stage company. Gaine decided it was built by the same people. The rooms were like their first night's lodging although there were pegs on the wall this time and no chair. The two women were surprised to see her but cordially invited Gaine into their small cubicle.

"Was there somethin' out there, Sugah?" the companion drawled, motioning for her to sit beside her on the bed. The mysterious woman slowly lowered her matronly form atop her hearty portmanteau while the candle danced their enlarged shadows around them.

Gaine sat down and smiled at the pleasant southern drawl the black lady had. "Yep. But ar shots eased its' ambitions some, Ah reckon. Lieutenant's posted guards so's thar ain't gonna be no depredations committed tanight."

"Won-der-ful!" the companion drawled. The pace of her words was slower than Gaine was used to, and she found it charming. "That mis-rable old man acted like he maht a' known somethin' 'bout it," the woman intoned, "but then it's hard telling with folks like him."

"He do anathin' in particular?" She twisted the flower in her hands as she talked.

"No, just the way he sneered an' almost acted, I dunno, hopeful almost."

Gaine laughed. "He kin drag 'round that ole mule a' hope all he hankers. Ain't nothin' but extry baggage far's Ah kin see. So's--are the two a' ya headed ta Sacramenta ta stay?" Both women looked at the flower but said nothing about it.

The mystery woman replied, which was a surprise, explaining in a wavering voice that from Sacramento the two of them were catching the late train that made the connection to the ferryboat to San Francisco. They had arrangements they dare not miss. They wouldn't be staying at the hotel in Sacramento.

"Lieutenant's a'doin' that same thang," Gaine tilted her head at the sound of the mystery woman's voice. Waver or not, it was much younger than she had been expecting but she gave no reaction. Instead she begged a favor of them and the mysterious woman hesitated before guessing why the tall rancher was asking, although the brunette would not confirm it. The less she confirmed, the safer Meghan would be. She set aside the flower and dug out her shot bag to pay for the favor, but the mystery woman reached over and stilled Gaine's hand.

"No need. My pleasure." Then, to Gaine's surprise, the matron removed her hat and veil in front of the tall brunette while she and the black lady named Betsy watched from the bed in the flickering light of the candle. The woman removed some pins and shook out long wavy brown hair.

"Lawsy!" Gaine blinked. In front of her was a spunky young woman, most likely Meghan's age or even younger with a definite flash in her friendly brown eyes. Her cupid's bow mouth was drawn up in a provocative smile and she was very comely, Gaine noted. Gaine sat openmouthed staring at the young lady.

'Catchin' flies, Sugah?' the girl grinned roguishly, peeling off her long, black kid gloves to reveal young, smooth hands, 'My disguise...'til I get where I wanna be.' Her smile flitted coquettishly, her voice betraying a bit of a Louisiana accent.

'Uh, ain't folks gonna figure who ya be by yer, uh, companion here?' Gaine turned to the black woman, Betsy, who was sitting beside her on the bed.

The mystery girl laughed, 'They're looking for a young woman with her maid." She tossed her head to throw back her long hair, "I don't fit their description.'

'An' futhermore, young lady,' Betsy drawled, looking straight into Gaine's eyes, 'No one's gonna remember me. I'm just a servant woman traveling with an older lady. They'll know my skin color, a' course, but they won't be able to accurately describe me. I have this little veil, I rarely speak to the others or draw attention to myself. Why, I'll bet anything that no one on the coach could give you a really good description. They think of me as a servant then dismiss me from their minds. All servants look alike to them.'

Yep, and all them folks a' any t'uther race does, too, the brunette agreed mentally. 'Ah reckon t'would work,' Gaine decided.

'Well now, we haven't been discovered yet,' the young woman laughed. 'And we've been at this a while. We came from New Orleans two months ago using a number of different stagecoaches to get here.'

Gaine's eyes grew round as the mystery woman unbuttoned the front of her dress and pulled out a series of small pillows from inside her corset and tossed them atop their other bags. Gaine nervously twirled her flower again.

"Ah hah, Ah sees how ya do that," Gaine smiled, modestly moving her eyes then to the door as the young woman buttoned up her loose hanging dress to conceal the corset beneath.

"Yes, she's wearing one of my dresses and corsets," Betsy chuckled. "Girl's no bigger than a feather in a windstorm, but with a few pillahs...."

"Yep," Gaine agreed. It hadn't looked like pillows. The corset had squeezed them into a lady's shape. 'Whatcha runnin' from, if'n Ah might ask?' Gaine queried.

'Same ole story. I have no intention of marrying the man mah Daddy chose. Mah Daddy may be wealthy and powerful, but I tole him I'm not the type to be led 'round by a ring in mah nose an' he jest laughed. He kept assuring me his choice is not a bad person. I don't care. I don't wanna marry some old codger. I don't care how wealthy the codger is or how much it will help Daddy's business. I have passage waiting on a ship out of San Francisco that will eventually get us to New York City."

"Yer sailin' clear 'round ta New York?"

"Yes. Well, to Panama at least. We'll get the train across and then board another ship on the other side. But if I weren't otherwise engaged with what I'm doing, I might fancy spending some time with that Lieutenant. He is a handsome and gentlemanly devil!" She leaned forward, "And he always smells so good!"

"I heared they's fever some folks git travelin' across't thar in Panama. An them big ole snakes an' 'gators ever'where!"

"There's fever to be gotten traveling here. Or even staying right where you are. And snakes and gators are old news to us."

"Ah reckon. But ain't thar lots quicker means ta New York from New Orleans," Gaine proclaimed, puzzled. She ignored the comment about the Lieutenant. "An ain't the Santa Fe near finished goin' west ta Los Angeles? That's a heap closer and shore wunt a took ya two months."

"Yes, but mah Daddy will be looking those directions all this time. When we finally get to New York, he'll have lost interest in those ways and be looking elsewhere. There's a young man I've wanted to know better that lives there. I've written and he'll meet me. If it works out, we'll marry--if he's not too stuffy. If he is, I'll head for Europe. I've relatives there. Fortunately my Momma's Daddy left me very well taken care of. And Momma's makin' sure I can get my hands on it without Daddy's permission. I don't have to depend on him. I will no longer be his chattel to be used for the benefit of his business!'

'Ah understand,' Gaine nodded, although she had no real reason to understand at all. Her family had never pressed her about marriage. She had grown up as the youngest of six, left to work on her parents' ranch when the others married and moved away to start their own farms and ranches elsewhere.

In fact, mention of marriage was never made at home. Course, before she knew it, Gaine found herself handling more and more of her father's duties after her mother yielded up her strength and died of an outbreak of fever when Gaine was sixteen. So marriage was not a concern of anyones'. Her heart ached for the loss of her mother, but her father seemed to lose his way completely and was never the same thereafter, so she had that loss, too. It wasn't a huge surprise to anyone when he passed on a year later at an early age, leaving Gaine alone on a ranch sorely in need of resurrecting at the tender age of seventeen. Every effort of hers had gone into the ranch since.

'We surely miss you, honey,' Betsy told Gaine, putting a warm hand atop hers as she spoke. 'My, my, how that old blowhard can go on without you there to shoot off his cigars and smack him upside the head once or twice.'

'It was only once,' Gaine blushed.

'And how I enjoyed that 'once' after what he did to that poor little girl. He should be ashamed of himself.' She folded her hands in her lap. The young woman sat on her portmanteau nodding her head in agreement.

'Yes, he should!' Gaine concurred, setting the flower on the bed beside her.

'Well, you just come back down and join us,' the older woman said.

'The whip wants me ta ride up top. Had the Conductor ask me. Ah reckon he doan want me a'shooting the old buzzard.'

'Such a shame,' the black woman replied. 'I was looking forward to more tales of you and your Cousin Minnie.'

'Me, too,' the young mystery woman grinned.

A wide smile came to Gaine's face. 'Ahl be a'seein' her tamorra night. Kin ya believe it? Seems right strange afta' all this here time. Fourteen years. Sa much done took place o'er them years. Ah kin hardly wait.'

"She's lucky to have you," the black lady said.

Gaine did a quick sniff of her shirt and her face became serious. "She ain't gonna be a'thinkin' so if'n she catches scent a me downwind, Ahm a'feared. Ahd best git n' head out to that thar warsh basin 'n clean up. T'is late."

"Wait! Take a wash cloth!" the small brunette jumped up and opened her case. "I finally found where I put them. You'll like it and I insist." She didn't wait for Gaine's reply. She rustled around, pulling out a thick, expensive washing rag. "And here's some of my special soap. I have plenty. Betsy makes it. Put it in your case." She included a bar of fragrant, lavender soap. Betsy smiled proudly. 'Least we can do for your big reunion.'

Gaine slipped them in her carpet bag, graciously thanked the two women, gathered her things and quietly shut the door behind her.

Betsy and the young woman watched the door after she left. "My, oh my," the young girl intimated. "Now THAT is an exciting woman, Betsy. I rarely find any woman that interesting, but lawsy!" Her eyes remained on the door. "If Thornton weren't waiting for me in New York, I'd be tempted to take some time off and follow her right out to her ranch. There's so much to learn. Did you see her eyes when she swatted that miserable old man after he hit his daughter? Such a defiant and....almost... reckless gleam!'

'Yes, she doesn't take a lot of flapdoodle from anyone! And that's the truth!" Betsy declared. 'Mmm, mmm.'

'Indeed! Why she literally reeks of challenge and intrigue and adventure.'

'Mm hmm,' Betsy agreed.

The young lady got very quiet as she sat thinking. She lifted her eyes to Betsy and a rascally grin appeared, 'How do you think I'd look in trousers?'

'Oh, child!' Betsy exclaimed.

'They'd be a right fine disguise! Think what fun it would be!'

'Oh, child,' Betsy wrapped her hands together and began to wring them.

'I could walk right into saloons, why there wouldn't be any place I couldn't go! Why, you could wear them, too, and come with me if you wanted!'

'Oh, child,' Betsy worried. 'It's so drastic, don't you think?'

'She does it!' the heiress pointed to the door.

'Yes, but she's very skilled with a six shooter to back up her choices.'

The heiress nodded slowly. 'Yes, that is true enough, I suppose.' Then she hopped up. 'Well, it's late. We'd best get some sleep.'

Betsy rose from the bed and shook the dust off her gloves. The heiress stood and began unbuttoning her dress. 'But it's something to think about,' she muttered.

'Oh, child!' Betsy exclaimed, shaking her head. Then her lips pinched together. 'I am NOT wearing trousers! Don't even think about it.'

The young heiress laughed. 'No, perhaps not.' But I might!


Continued in Chapter 3

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