Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by bsoiree

See disclaimers in Chapter 1

----------------------------------------------CHAPTER 3

After leaving the two women, Gaine returned to the entrance of the building. She saw the Army guard standing outside. As she had hoped, everyone was finished at the wash basin and was gone. There was no clean water left, but she wet and soaped the rag in the used water and began to scrub her face, neck and ears. It smelled very much of lavender. She washed her hands then carefully dipped and patted the flower. Then she unbuttoned enough shirt buttons to reach inside the top and the neck of her undershirt to reach her arm pits.

She looked around but no one was there. Undue modesty was not much of a concern. She'd spent too many weeks living outdoors amongst the punchers to be worried about someone seeing her scrub under her arms. She scrubbed thoroughly, rinsed her rag, wrung it out and headed back to her room for the night. "Ain't Ah the honeysuckle dandy, though," she grinned to herself, damp flower in hand. "Maybe Ahl even warsh mah feet tanight."

One step inside the cubicle she saw the candle wink in the draft from the opened and shut door. Meghan sat on her side of the bed in her nightshirt wringing her hands, a hairbrush in her lap. The young woman was obviously upset. Gaine barely had time to place her bag and jacket on the floor and lean her rifle against the wall before the small blonde flew from the bed into her arms.

'Oh, Gaine! At last you're here.' Meghan's arms wrapped around the brunette and slid up her back while she pressed her face into Gaine's shoulder in a tight grip. Gaine's presence anchored Meghan's terror-ridden thoughts.

"Jest been a'visitin',' Gaine mumbled, embracing the small blond in return, her hands gently stroking Meghan's back. "Ever'thin's all right, Meg."

Meghan leaned back in Gaine's arms. " I was so worried," she whispered. The turmoil in her eyes pulled at Gaine's heart. She hadn't thought to stop at the room first and tell her she'd be late. Gaine was painfully aware that she had been unable to prevent the demoralizing day Meghan had had earlier and she kicked herself for not being more considerate now.

The tall beauty looked back gently into emerald eyes. 'Ahm sorry, Meg. Ah shoulda tole ya Ahd be late." She brushed blonde wisps from Meghan's face, pressing a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Ah wouldn't a run off." The blonde smelled of sunshine and Gaine wondered at that. Obviously the small woman had washed off the dust of the trip in the large basin. "Ahv growed powerful fond a' ya, ya know," she grinned.

'You have?" Meghan pressed back into the embrace, "And I of you.' She gave a small squeeze then whispered, "the shadows" and reluctantly pulled away. Gaine had forgotten the silhouettes they made in the candlelight on the cloth walls. Theirs was the end room, the mystery woman and Betsy were two doors down so at least one woman from the other stage was next to them, hopefully fast asleep. Meghan stepped back with embarrassment.

"Fer you," Gaine bashfully handed Meghan the flower, now cleaner but still somewhat worse for wear.

"For me?" green eyes lifted in surprise then went to the flower, accepting it, then clutching it to her bosom.

"Yep. Ah hoped ya'd like it." Gaine immediately took the blonde's free hand, pulling them both to the edge of the bed. "Ah ain't gonna leave ya," Gaine whispered as they sat and she began to pull her boots off.

"I wasn't afraid that you'd leave." Meghan's eyes went to the flower, then she brought it to her nose to inhale. "I was worried about where you might be," a nervous smile was directed Gaine's way. "He's not a nice person, Gaine. No telling what underhanded thing he might have tried to do to you or who he might have paid to help him."

Gaine saw the flash of fire and anger in Meghan's eyes that she tried by habit to conceal. Then the young woman began to chew her lip. 'You've made him very angry,' she remarked. 'He's been ranting about you. That's usually not good.'

'So Ah heared.' The brunette removed her other boot then pulled off one blue stocking followed by the other.

"If we ever get a minute, I'll darn those for you," Meghan murmured.

Gaine grinned, "Thank ye." She saw the fire mixed with vulnerability in the woman's eyes, the determination mixed with fear. Then she saw the bruise that had formed below one eye and tensed at that. He had struck her, bruised her, made her nose bleed and Gaine had been too stunned to prevent it. 'He ain't gonna git away with strikin' ya. Never 'gin. Ah promise.'

Meghan reached over and tenderly touched Gaine's hand. 'It's all over,' she said caressingly. 'You just be careful, please." A vision she had fearfully constructed in her mind while she'd waited for Gaine returned in force and she shuddered involuntarily--an image of Gaine lying face down covered in blood, shot in the back. It was an unreasonable terror, she told herself, but knowing her father's rage, she worried. "Don't turn your back on him. Not ever. Please.'

"It ain't all over," Gaine entwined her fingers with Meghan's then brought the blonde's hand to her lips for a hasty kiss before dropping her hold. Meghan closed her eyes. Please don't do anything foolish, she prayed, but she said nothing aloud. She knew how her father could drive someone to irrationality. She sniffed the pleasant floral scent. She'd often seen these flowers, but none as beautiful as this. And no one had ever given her a flower before. Not ever.

'Tell me what kinda thing yer Pa's a'feared a.' Gaine watched the blonde with the flower and was glad she'd picked it. She began to unbutton her vest. 'Cause Ahs seed him a'feared but he doan stay that way ta long.'

Gaine lifted her eyes to Meghan's and her heart began to race. Gods, she had such an urge to press her lips against Meghan's sweet soft mouth. Gaine shook herself from the thought and resumed undoing the buttons on her tight, figure-forming vest. "Ah know he bees 'stitious. He doan eat rabbit--least he din't eat none a tha rabbit theys served fer breakfast this mornin'."

"Rabbit? No. He doesn't eat rabbit ever."

"Ah know. The souls of yer grandmas' er s'posed ta've entered 'em, right? Er they's s'posed ta portend a fire er some t'uther bad luck."

"Right. He's forbidden us to eat hare. And he always spits over his left shoulder when he sees one and says his line about 'hare before, trouble behind'. But you're not from the old country. How did you know that?"

"Ahv heerd a' it. An' Ahv watched yer Pa 'n pondered on 'im. Ahv done noticed whatcha might figure ta be his little side-steps 'n di-vergences. Uh, so's what's he a'feared a?"

'Well, let me see." She sat thinking with the flower idle in her hand, "I don't think I've ever seen him afraid of anything, really. Your shooting his cigar seemed to have frightened him, but he got over that. The drop-off but he got over that. Uh, he was extremely mad at a customer once but he wasn't 'afraid' really. The man returned a wagon and said it was poorly built and only fit for rubbish and he wanted his money back. It was a very worrisome time at home. He'd, uh, take out his anger there. My father ranted and raved and threatened to put the other man out of business.'

'Did he?'


'Why not?'

'I don't know exactly, except that my sister Brenna, she's married and she and her husband both work at my father's shop only she works in the office. Anyway, she said the man came to the shop. She said father started to shout and threaten but the man didn't back up. In fact he moved real close and said some things to father while he poked him in the chest with his finger. She heard him say, 'Now let me tell you who I know...' and that's all she heard. She couldn't make out the rest. Father gave him back his money and never mentioned him again.'

Gaine nodded.

"Brenna risked a lot telling us. If father'd found out, he'd 've had her husband beat her."

That didn't really surprise Gaine nor did the fact that her father had backed off. She'd dealt with a lot of male machismo, men who expected their wives to be at home working when they came back from a day drinking and carousing in the saloon, men who physically lashed out at their wives if their ego had been bruised in any way, men who bragged of their adulterous affairs but would kill their wives if they so much as looked at another man the wrong way. And she'd always found bullies like Meghan's father to be cowards whose arrogant, controlling attacks on weaker opponents were used to bolster their own import.

But they only attacked what they perceived to be powerless adversaries. Once they were confronted and their surfaces pricked, like dough they often deflated and went to kick the dog instead. Poor dog.

'Ya doan got a dog, does ya?'

Meghan tilted her head. 'A dog?' Obviously she was puzzled. 'No, we don't have a dog. Not now, anyway.'

'All right,' Gaine smiled. He picks on his wife and childern instead, she amended to herself. And the law 'llows him free rein. She'd be happy to never have to deal with the ornery rattlesnake. But that was no option now. His actions had precluded that. So she'd deal with him. But she had to keep Meghan out of it.

Meghan had left a peg for her to hang her clothes, but she folded them neatly on her bag instead. She'd hang her holster and hat there as there was no bed post, just a curved iron bedstead.

She finished undressing, pulled on her nightshirt and saw Meghan's face blush red as she slowly looked off, her hand continuing to clutch the flower after she scooted over to her side of the bed. Again she had been watching the brunette undress. Gaine pondered with a nervous quiver what Meghan might have been thinking as she watched. Lordy, girl, she thought, ya shore leave mah stomach a'flutter when ya's look t'me that a'way!

Gaine got out her gun cleaning supplies, sat up on the bed and started on her rifle. Meghan looked over and Gaine's eyes glanced back to meet hers. The young woman's look was seductive, her cheeks now lightly flushed and her lips parted softly. "Thank you," she breathed, bringing the flower to her nose again.

Oh, dear heavens, yer gonna be the death a' me yet, Gaine groaned inwardly as she looked away first, her own flush on her cheek. The look had aroused her body but she diligently worked on her rifle, pushing the feelings down. She finished with her carbine and pulled the Colt out of the holster. She began to clean it.

"May I brush your hair?" Meghan whispered. "I won't hurt you. It'll help get some of the dust out. You have beautiful hair. Do you mind?"

"Oh, uh," Gaine looked nervously over into green eyes. "All right."

"Just stay there," the small blonde put the flower on her pillow, took her brush and moved closer, nestling a knee against each side of the tall woman. Gaine could feel her warmth while she unplaited the dark braid and fluffed out her hair. The brunette sensed the blonde's small body behind her. Her own body went on full alert.

The brush began to softly stroke. A soft moan slipped from Gaine's mouth before she could stop it. Lordy! It felt good! There was a rustling as the blonde rose higher behind Gaine and leaned even closer. Her scent surrounded the brunette. Sunshine! That's what she smelled like! Sunshine and rain. Gentle hands caressed her forehead and shivers ran down Gaine's spine. The brush flowed back from her forehead in soothing strokes. Gaine shut her eyes then swallowed hard and forced herself back to cleaning her sixshooter.

There were serious problems to confront. She had to have more information. It was important. She didn't dare give her attention to what her body wanted! 'Uh, does yer Pa plan ta have ya stay ta the ho-tel when ya get thar?' Gaine asked, instinctively leaning back even closer.

'I don't know,' Meghan replied moving the brush to the other side of Gaine's head and continuing to brush. 'I think so 'cause we're supposed to meet in the dining room at breakfast the next morning when Lendal gets in and marry right afterward."

"Uh huh. What else did yer Pa tell ya 'bout yer schedule?"

"Nothing. I only know that much because Father was angry with me. He complained that he had to stay and wait for Lendal and that meant paying for a whole extra night at the hotel because the only stage back leaves there at four a.m. and Lendal wouldn't be there till after eight. He said he could've had a late night meeting with whoever he's gonna meet if it weren't for me. He said that at the very least my new husband could pay for his breakfast.'

Meghan stopped brushing and handed Gaine the brush. "Would you put this on my bag for me, please?" Her clothes hung from the pegs but her bag was on the floor. Her warm hand rested on the brunette's shoulder. She breathed in Gaine's ear as she spoke over the tall beauty's head. Blue eyes fluttered frantically.

The brunette hastily reached out and placed the brush on top of Meghan's bag. 'His missin' the stage the next mornin' t'war yer fault?' She ignored the notice her body was taking of the small blonde. She finished with her pistol and slid it back in the holster then withdrew some ammunition from her belt and took out her pocket knife.

'I guess so.' The blonde waited till the tall woman sat back up. Then she eased Gaine's hair to the back. "Hold still now, I'm going to braid it for you again." Gaine sat motionless, her heart pounding in her throat as the blonde began to loop one plait over the other. Every nerve end was alert and focused on the blonde's touch. She forced herself, however, to work carefully on the rest of her gun tasks.

"Where did I put your tie?" One hand held Gaine's braid while the other searched the bed for the leather tie. "Oh, here it is." Meghan carefully tied it around Gaine's braid then put a hand to linger on both Gaine's shoulders. "All done," she sighed once more in Gaine's ear, enjoying the barely noticeable quiver from the tall beauty. The ranch owner swallowed her groan. She felt her body's moisture and clamped her legs closer together.

Meghan moved back and Gaine leaned down to slip the gun supplies back in her bag and the ammunition back in her belt. Meghan slid down under the light cover facing Gaine and moved over to give the brunette room to get in.

Gaine hung her holster on the peg and softly asked as she slid into bed, "Did yer Pa ever hurt ya bad, Meghan?" She was unsure whether she might not be stepping over some personal line.

"You got lickins when you were a child. You told us about it," Meghan replied defensively. She breathed a long scent of her flower once more then handed it to Gaine reluctantly. "Would you put this by the candle, please?"

Gaine put the flower down on the small stand beside the bed then turned. "Thar's a heap a' differ'nce t'wixt a lickin' an' a beatin', Meg," she whispered. "Ah never t'war beat. Ah war paddled lots, an' switched. T'warn't never meant ta do me no harm. An Ah t'warn't never struck 'n the face. Jest 'n mah back sides."

"Oh," Meghan shifted nervously in her spot. "I don't really want to talk about it, all right?" She laid back facing the ceiling.

"Shore." The brunette also slid down under the cover and they both took interest in different spots on the ceiling highlighted by the flickering candle.

"My children won't ever be struck. Not ever," Meghan breathed wanly.

"Mm," Gaine lay quietly for a few minutes, her blue eyes darting over to check on the blonde lying beside her. "Ah hope ya woan take no off-ense, Meghan, but sometimes Ah thinks yer Pa needs a couple good hard licks from a broom handle upside his head. Might help ta organize 'is thinkin'.

Meghan giggled nervously and the laugh worked its magic on the tall brunette.

Relieved that the small blonde was no longer feeling so uncomfortable, Gaine sat up to blow out the candle. She blew then remained seated, resting back against the metal headbars. Meghan inched up and sat as well. It wasn't pitch black as soft light from candles further down cast their glow. Hearing snoring coming from the room beside them, they continued speaking in whispers, 'Does the man yer s'posed ta marry live ta Sacramenta?'

'Lendal? No. He lives in Miner's Flat, a small town outside Oakland, but he has some business in the countryside that he has to finish before he can meet us.'

'Ah spect ya gotta git thar a'fore six that evenin' ta git a weddin' performed. An' tha stage doan git thar till six. Can't count on none a'that, though.'

'I suppose. It doesn't matter. I'll need to get away before there's any marriage.'

'Yep, jest a'cogitatin'. This here Lendal's likely ta be a'wantin' ta git t'over prompt like. He ain't havin' a minister do it, t'is he? Cause they kin do a service ana time." She knew he and the minister could both be waiting when they arrived.

'I don't know. My father doesn't tell me anything. Can't I get away before then?'

'Ahl gitcha away, doancha worry none. There ain't gonna be no weddin'."

"Thank goodness."

"It ain't mah first plan, but if'n Lendal T'IS thar when we done ar'ive, here's what Ah wancha ta do: Ahl commence a di-version that'll git 'em all involved. Ya grabs yer bag an' skeedattle ta the BACK a' the ho-tel. Chambermaids gots an entrance 'n the back most times. From thar go ta the street 'n cross ta the next. Than head from thar fast's ya kin down ta the river. Train passenger station's thar. Look fer the smoke a them steamships moored ta the river a'hind the station. T'is on Front--'bout two blocks maybe. Run. If 'n ya cain't git ahold a yer bag, grab mine. Ya need ta have a traveling bag with'n ya and it doan rightly matter whose.'

'I go down the street to the train station by the river?'

'Yep. Ahl keep 'em all busy but first yus git ta whar ya ain't seed none bah the ho-tel. Then run quick as ya kin. Find the Lieutenant and have 'im help ya se-cure passage ta San Francisca. If'n ya cain't find 'im right quick, look fer that thar mysterious woman an' her servant. Tha'll help ya. They outta be thar, too. Are yer savin's easy ta git ta?'

'No, they're sewn in my petticoats. I had to hide them.'

'All right,' Gaine stretched over, fumbled in the semi-dark and grabbed her pants from atop her bag. She dug in her pocket and brought out a few bills and dropped the pants back. 'I've coaxed me out a little savin's. An' since't yer dress buttons n' the front, here's a peck to keep in yer, uh..' she glanced at what she could see of the intense young woman's serious face and moved her hand to between her own breasts, 'yer, uh,' her eyes went to the young woman's full, round bosom under the light material of her bedshirt and the cleavage between, 'uh, thar--whar ya kin git ta it right quick with'n yer Pa none the wiser.'

Gaine could feel the blush rise in her face although the young woman was nodding seriously. 'Here, take mah shot bag and tuck't, uh, thar.' The brunette grabbed her vest, emptied her bag of coins and jammed the loose change back in her vest pocket, dropping it back on her bag. She placed the bills in the bag and handed it to the blonde, folding the blonde's fingers over it in the darkened room.

'What do I do in San Francisco?' Meghan asked, her green eyes wide.

'Haf tha Lieutenant register ya ta the Occidental Ho-tel. Ah ain't been thar but Ah heared t'is nice. That's why ya need ta have a travelin' bag. They's gonna think poorly a ya if'n ya ain't got no luggage. There's 'nuff fundin' thar fer the train an' a couple nights ta the ho-tel. Register under the name a',' Gaine mulled over names she'd remember, 'Bea Silver'.' She smiled, ''nuther cousin.'

'All right. Then what?'

'Then Minnie and me, we'll come thar ta gitcha. If'n we doan make't tha next day, stay 'nuther night. We'll be thar. Remind the Lieutenant that Ah 'spect him ta behave like a well-mannered gentleman an' not ta take advantage a ya in eny way.' An in fact, Ah kill 'im if'n he touches ya.

The blonde smiled at that. 'I'll tell him,' she smiled. 'I wouldn't let him take advantage of me, anyway. What if Lendal's not there when we arrive?'

'Then we'll use mah main plan. We'll hafta play't close, but t'will work.' She thought for a minute, 'If'n yer stayin' ta the ho-tel 'n Sacramenta and Ahm a'makin' that thar assumption, they might have ya share yer room with 'nuther woman. 'Specially if'n thar busy. Gettin' by 'er could be a problem. But it doan matter. We'll work 'round it. Ahl have ya come ta our room once't yer Pa's convinced yer sleepin'. Yu'll git a dress from Cousin Minnie a'for she heads ta the next stage stop. Yer first job'll be ta make yer Pa think yer doin' ever'thin' he's a'wantin' so's he lets down his guard some.'

'How will we, uh, I, uh, get away then? And where will I go?' Now she was chewing her lip in earnest. Gaine took her hand.

'Ah gots a notion, but Ah needs ta ponder on't a spell more. Wouldja mind livin' ta a ranch?'

'No, not at all. I'd love it. I've always wanted to live on a ranch.' Emerald eyes locked onto soft blue and the tall brunette found herself falling into the green pools. Gaine mentally shook herself loose and gently placed the young woman's hand back on the coverlid. She looked away.

'Doancha worry none, we'll gitcha away an' make shore yer well took care a.'

That sounded completely impersonal. 'Oh.' Meghan's shoulders drooped at the words and she looked at the tall woman beside her in confusion. 'I thought...uh, I know it's a lot to ask, and if it can't be done I'll be thankful to get away, but....'

Gaine wrinkled her brow, 'Whatsa matter, Meg? Ain't this watcha wanted?'

'Yes, but, uh, is there a chance I could stay with you?' Her hand went to her blonde hair and she rumpled it pensively. You feel it, too. I know you do, troubled green eyes pleaded, I know it's not just me.

'Yep. That t'war what Ah war a'ponderin'.'

'Oh, thank you, Gaine.' The young woman again threw her arms around the surprised tall woman's neck. Liquid fire shot through the tall beauty. "I want to be with you,' Meghan sighed, hugging tight.

'Ya does?' Gaine froze except for her heart which began to pound furiously.

'I...I do.' Meghan looked shyly at the tall brunette. 'Unless you don't want...' She began to draw back from the embrace.

'No, no, Ah does.' Gaine nodded her head and pulled the small blonde back into the embrace. 'Ah does,' she repeated as they both wrapped their arms around the other. Gaine shut her eyes and it was as though her heart knew that she had waited a lifetime for this. All those things in life she had thought were important became unimportant in the blink of an eye. And something she had never considered suddenly became of supreme importance. Meghan. 'Ah does wanna be with'n ya.'

'I missed you today,' Meghan replied softly.

'Did yer Pa hurt ya a'tall afta Ah left?' Gaine held Meghan out at arm's length and looked her over. 'Ah swear, Ahl kill that man if'n he touch...'

'No,' Meghan moved back till her face was against Gaine's shoulder. 'No, he didn't hurt me. I just missed you.'

'He better not,' Gaine clenched her teeth then ran her hand soothingly down Meghan's back. 'Ah missed ya, too.' She pulled Meghan back into a closer embrace. They stayed entwined for a few minutes and Gaine added, 'Ah din't e'en dare look ta ya much taday. Warn't cause Ah din't wanna. Ah shorely did. But Ah din't want ta make 'im 'spicious. Ah doan wan 'im thinkin' bout us bein' tagather a'tall.'

'I know, Gaine,' Meghan replied. 'And I trust you. So tell me what to do, and I'll do it. Just get us away someplace where they can't find us.'

'Yep. Ah will. Ah promise.' They stayed in the embrace for a few minutes as Gaine gently rubbed Meghan's back. 'Uh, Ah reckon we outta go o'er ar plans afore we git ta tired.'

'Yes.' Meghan pulled out of the embrace then looked down at the shot bag still in her hand. She gave it a small toss and it landed on her case beside the brush.

'Good toss,' Gaine grinned. Then her face got serious. 'Ah war thinkin' that if'n Minnie's clothes doan fit ya a'tall, we gotta have sumthin' t'uther fer yas ta wear. Does ya gots a t'uther dress? One yer Pa ain't gonna recognize sa easy? Doan need't till we git thar.'

'I have a new one my mother made me before I left." Meghan folded her hands in her lap on top of the coverlid. "She didn't know it was going to be my wedding dress, it was just a new calico dress that I needed. I don't believe father's even seen it. He never pays attention to anything she does unless he doesn't like it.'

'So's yer Ma done packed it fer ya? He din't see it.'

'Father never does any packing. Mother did it. And she told me about it when I hugged her goodbye and she gave me her gloves. She said at least I had a new dress as a wedding dress and old gloves to remember her by. She was crying the whole time. Poor Momma. She said for me to be very careful and follow every one of Lendal's instruction. It's the only time I ever remember seeing her cry in front of father. She only has Murphy and Reggie left at home now.'

'Mmm. All right, thar's two things Ah wancha ta do tamorra.'

'All right.' Serious green eyes lifted to Gaine's face. Meghan fully intended to do everything needed for her escape! And she'd do them as perfectly as she could!

'Ah wancha ta watch that thar mysterious woman with'n the veil. Watch ever'thin' 'bout her, study her...how she done moves, how she maneuvers with'n her hands and how she talks, ever'thin'. Then later on Ahl wancha ta tell me what ya seen.'

Meghan blinked. That was strange. 'All right. You want to know about the woman in the veil..the old lady?'

'Yep. Then Ah wancha ta sorta pass yer time with'n tha Lieutenant, if'n ya catch mah meanin'. I doan wan yer Pa ta strike ya none, er harm ya, I jest wancha ta afford the Lieutenant the im-pression that yer mighty edified ta've made his acquaintance. Jest a bit. Well, actually if'n yer Pa t'were ta ponder on't, too, t'wouldn't hurt. Long as he doan hurtcha none. T'is hard, Meghan, Ah know, but doan go sa far that he done hurts ya. Cause Ahl kill 'im, if'n he do.'

'I can try.' Earnest emerald eyes flicked up beneath thick lashes and barely visible freckles. She would do it! Her father was very difficult in that regard, but she'd find some way to do it. 'But be patient if he does strike me, Gaine.'

'Ah ain't gonna be. He done used that chance up.'


'Yes, ma'am,' Gaine looked over innocently.

'Trust me on this, please? If I should go too far and he does strike me, I want you to leave it alone and keep on with our plan. Our plan is the most important thing of all. I'll be all right. Promise me you will.' There was fire in her eyes mixed with innocence--a deadly combination, Gaine reflected. Gaine's stomach clenched anew. Dear heavens, her heart sang, this woman is unbelievably beautiful! An Ah done be's some hapless moth ta that thar lily-white flame a hers.

'Promise?' Meghan repeated.

'Meghan, please, Ah...' Gaine began.

'No. Promise me, Gaine.' Then her eyes softened. 'Please? For me?'

Gaine looked away in frustration.

'Please?' Meghan waited for Gaine to look back then fluttered her eyelashes.

Gaine began to chuckle. 'Ah doan wanna, but Ah reckon if'n Ah gotta, Ah t'will. But Ah doan wanna.'

'Thank you.'

'Mmm.' Gaine grumbled then sighed heavily. 'Well, ah reckon we outta git some sleep. We'll be a'leavin' right early ta the mornin' ag'in.'

Meghan reached over and quickly kissed Gaine on the cheek. 'Thank you.' They both settled back on their own sides. Gaine missed the warmth of the small blonde next to her more than she ever thought was possible. She shut her eyes. She'd ached to be near her all day and there was comfort in having her nearby but it wasn't the same as holding her.

'Gaine?' the blonde's whisper was quiet in the darkened room.


'Would you....I mean, this is all so overwhelming. I, uh, get frightened. My stomach's doing flips. Would you mind...'

'T'is all gonna be fine, Meghan. T'would it help if'n Ah whar ta hold ya?'

'Yes, please.'

'Shore. C'mon.' Within seconds Gaine felt the small blonde wrap her arms around her and snuggle into her arms. How had her life ever gotten along without this? The brunette's large hands gently rubbed the blonde's back, not allowing her tall body to pay attention to the warm firm hips now pressed against her and the soft round tantalizing swell of breasts under the thin gown.

"Mmm," the small blonde hummed. "You smell good...like lavender."

"Ah does?" Gaine glanced down. Thanky, Betsy. She smiled to herself, pleased that she had taken the time to scrub at the washbasin with Betsy's soap. Safe and content in each other's arms, they soon fell sound asleep.

The room was still dark when the tall brunette's eyes opened to a now familiar weight. She knew it was time to arise. She felt the legs twined with her own and smiled. Meghan. Sweet Meghan. It felt wonderful. Tomorrow at this time - she forced her mind away. She dared not think that yet. One step at a time. She wanted nothing to hex their plans. Too many improbabilities could happen.

'Don't move. It's too early,' a sleep deepened voice threatened. Green eyes, however, had not opened yet.

'T'is time, Meghan,' Gaine whispered. 'They'll be a'ringin' that thar bell soon. If'n' ya wanna wash up er use the, uh, little house in back 'stead a the chamber pot, you'll hafta wake up.'

'Don't want to,' the voice pouted.

Gaine chuckled. 'Ah know, kitten, but t'is time.'

Sleepy green eyes opened on that and gazed up at Gaine. She called me 'Kitten'! She did not scurry over to her own side but laid looking at the tall beauty.

'You're wonderful, Gaine,' she whispered.

'And you're gonna be late if'n we ain't up soon,' Gaine grinned, touching her on the nose. "Ah seen how long ya takes ta dress." The brunette reluctantly pulled out of the embrace and swung her long legs out of bed.

'All right, all right.' The young woman ruffled a hand through her blonde tresses and yawned. She stretched then looked seriously at the woman now sitting on the edge of the bed shaking out her clothes. Her stomach clenched. It was almost time! 'I wish we were away from them,' she said nervously.

'Soon 'nuff,' the tall brunette agreed with a soft smile.

"I'll do my part, Gaine," she said seriously, moving to where she could lean against the tall woman, her cheek on Gaine's upper arm, her hand on the brunette's back and rubbing a circle. "Whatever you say, I'll do. I'll even fight if I have to."

Gaine looked down at her in surprise, "Ah shorely hope ya ain't gonna hafta!"

"But I will, if necessary. I wanted you to know that." She stopped rubbing and sat upright, "I'm not planning to be a helpless woman. I don't believe in that. I'll do my part."

A small smile twitched at the brunette's lips. "Ahm shore ya will, Meggy," Gaine agreed.

Gaine lit the candle and noted the wilting flower. The small blonde reached her feet to the floor. Gaine stood to give her room. Meghan arose robotically and started making the bed, only catching herself when she had a pillow in her hands to fluff. "I did it again," she mumbled and they both chuckled.

"It ain't a bad habit ta have," Gaine encouraged. "Ahm shore theys 'preciate it."

Meghan blushed. They were partially dressed when the hostler rang the bell.

"You're wearing a clean shirt?" Meghan asked as the tall woman took out her clean faded maroon homespun shirt and shook it out. It looked exactly like the shirt she had worn the day before except that it was maroon and was clean.

"Uh, Ah dunno. Thunk maybe Ah would," she wasn't sure she should. It was the only clean shirt she had. She wouldn't be riding next to the young blonde all day and there was no chance they'd be sitting next to each other at any meal.

"Oh," Meghan replied, pulling on her corset.

"But now Ah thinks on it, Ah might save it till Minnie gets here." She missed Meghan's grimace at her comment.

Gaine rolled the shirt and put it back in her bag. She grabbed her used blue shirt and shook it out. Surely there'd be basins in each room at the hotel in Sacramento and she could wash up before her cousin even arrived. She still had Betsy's soap. And they usually had bathing rooms with tubs at the end of each hall, though she may not have time for that.

"Would you help me with this?" Meghan asked.

Gaine took a breath and brought her fingers to Meghan's corset, her hands shaking a little less this time. She had the greatest urge to slip her arms around the small waist and plant a soft kiss on the girl's neck, but instead she hurriedly helped. "We'll hafta make shore we ain't takin' undue notice a' one t'uther taday," she whispered. "T'is important. So doan be offended none."

"I understand," Megan said seriously. "Don't turn your back on him."

"Right." Gaine watched the blonde take the wilting flower and place it with the shot bag in her cleavage. She's a'keepin' mah flower, she thought with pleasure as she stepped into the hall before the small blonde was fully dressed.

She glanced up to see the blonde's father barreling down toward their room. She put a firm, noncommittal look on her face. He was not supposed to be in the ladies' end. He brushed past her without comment. She paused to make sure he would not do Meghan harm, but he merely banged on the door and demanded that she "damn well better hurry up".

Gaine moved into the dining area and sat with the same group, the wrangler sitting across from her. The Lieutenant hadn't arrived yet.

They all watched Meghan and her father enter the room. He was more rough than ever, harshly yanking her by the arm and demanding her continued submission to his growled demands.

Gaine's brows furrowed and her fists clenched at his actions. He needed to unhand Meghan! Green eyes lifted her way for just a second before moving back downward. Volumes were telegraphed in that quick look, reminding Gaine of the patience she'd promised. The tall beauty knew Meghan was all right and also knew she had to ignore this man's actions for now.

The older man's glance moved to Gaine, his chin lifted and she noted that his cruel pale grey-green eyes had exchanged some of their ever present sullenness. In their place was outright impertinence. What was he up to? She would deal with him, but she dared not do it too soon. His memory tended to be very short and she wanted him remembering well when they got to Sacramento.

It was clear he was well lubricated this particular morning with animosity and rancor. Gaine wondered if it was because the man he'd paid had left without fulfilling his bargain. She wondered who he'd spent the night with last night and if he'd entered any bargains then. She'd forgotten to ask Meghan. Hang on, sweet Meghan, she thought, not much longer!

The faces of the hosteler and his wife along with the driver and Conductor were all pale as they seriously stood talking near the entrance. With them was a dusty man who was breathing heavily.

It wasn't long before both tables were buzzing with the news. The southbound stage had been robbed! They had ambushed the people at their night station and had seriously wounded two of them along with the Conductor of that stage. They'd stolen all the horses, taken everything from the express box, robbed all the passengers and headed out on the fly.

A posse was being formed and some of the men from their stage were offering their services. The fact that the outlaws had harmed unarmed people was blatant proof of their obduration. The posse would have to use what horses and tack they could get. Gaine clenched her jaw. She dared not go, much as she yearned to. It was something she always did, but this time she had Cousin Minnie and Meghan to think about.

"You going?" the Lieutenant asked as he sat beside her.

"Cain't," Gaine replied. "Wish't Ah could, but Ah gotta get mah Cousin Minnie. What 'bout you?"

"No. The Army doesn't allow that unless we're under orders. None of the boys will be in the posse."

"You a'goin'?" Gaine asked the wrangler across from her.

"Not this time," the young man replied without looking up from his plate and she wondered if there ever had been a time that he had been in a posse. Or was he, perhaps, on the other side of the posse question?

The Lieutenant leaned closer to Gaine. "Badly wounded three men and stole all the horses. One man shot...in the back. That's what that fellow was telling me. I talked to him outside before they rang the bell. I, uh, took the last guard duty instead of William or Ezekial. Guess we were real lucky to have you on top yesterday. Likely it was their group that you scared away with your shot."

"Dunno. Shore hope they catch them buzzards!"

"Yes. And string them up!" The Lieutenant added, his eyes hardening.

"Amen ta that!" Gaine replied. She glanced over at Meghan and her father and noticed that the old man's face appeared more somber than the last time he'd looked their way. It replaced some of his normal surliness. Maybe the news a' innocent folks gettin' serious wounded sobered him up some, Gaine thought.

The morning air was already thick and heavy with no breeze to ruffle the torpid summer heat. Everyone spoke in whispers as they moved outside. This time it was not because of the serenity of the dawn but the severity of the news.

The stage was delayed while they watched the volunteers mount up, some riding bareback, to follow the dusty man out of the station on the tear as they headed back down the road toward the southbound stage.

"Think they'll catch 'em?" the Lieutenant asked cautiously.

Gaine frowned, "Dunno. Sounds like them buzzards got theyselfs a right big headstart. Reckon it depends on who they got trackin' and which direction them hombres head. If'n they done split up, then t'is an even worse trial."

"Sounds like you know a little about this."

"I've been on mah share a' posses."

"You don't say?"


Gaine was glad she wouldn't be riding inside the carriage and fervently wished Meghan could be joining her atop. She glanced inside the coach and caught the blonde's eye. The young woman's gaze was tinged with mixed emotions--puzzlement, fear, hope, anticipation. Obviously the news of the attacked stage had added discontent to everyone including her. Again their look lingered only a minute before the blonde's eyes dropped to her lap, her face solemn.

Gaine saw the mystery lady and her aide hastily heading toward the coach, the boys in blue toting their bags. Betsy had a firm hand on the other woman's elbow, aiding the apparently enfeebled lady up the stairs and into the coach. Then she quietly climbed in behind past the drummer on the bench, who moved his legs to give them room to pass. The railroad men had joined the posse and were gone but two older gentlemen from the other stage had taken their place.

Their last day. Anticipation of journey's end had been totally overcome by the news of a stage being robbed and people being seriously hurt. The luggage was quickly loaded. Soberly the tall rancher climbed aboard. Everyone was quiet but she could feel the tired anticipation of the travelers.

The grim-faced men on top nodded to her this morning, a silent accord for her watchfulness from the day before. Where the night before some might have thought her shot a nervous reaction to some paranoid worries, today they knew she had most likely kept their stage from being the victim of what happened to the southbound stage. And they all appreciated that, all but one businessman who grumbled, "How'd ya know they were out there? Are ya in with 'em?"

Others muttered in opposition to the man's words. Gaine stopped in place and bore her cold blue eyes into the man. "Ah most assuredly ain't! Ah seen somethin' an Ah shot. If'n Ahda known t'war them, Ahda shot ta kill 'n make no question a that. So's git them raggedy ideas a' your'n clean outta yer mind."

"He didn't mean nothin', Gaine," the Conductor pacified. "We's all a mite touchy this mornin'."

Gaine said nothing but continued back. "Ya done good, Gaine," someone called and the others murmured their agreement. She stepped between two seated men who smiled encouragingly at her as she made her way back.

Gaine seated herself on an empty seat in the last row, the puncher still behind her in the luggage. Her eyes went to the peaks of the distant mountains as the dawn exploded over the tops, tingeing the tips of the world around them with liquid gilding. Within minutes it was as though the hand of a colorist had swathed the landscape with watercolor, dabbling one color here and another there, letting them run together to make even more nuances of color.

The horses sprang to life, wrenching the coach away from their night's lodging. The men's eyes ran like hawks over the panorama. Gaine checked each direction herself then settled back.

Over the next section the road again began its gradual curving climb. Rocky outcroppings dotted the hillsides along with golden grass, more oaks and occasional pines. Gaine soberly mulled over the events ahead.

She stayed on top at the first horse change though the young puncher hopped down and moved into the brush as did the old man. The Lieutenant stood outside the coach and looked up. She smiled at him. She eyed the scenery dispassionately as they rode on again with fresh steeds. Was Meghan all right? Gaine hated not being able to watch over her but it was time for discretion; no one must suspect they were planning anything.

She saw the lone bedraggled house by the river as they approached. Five vaqueros were there herding a group of half-wild mustangs onto the ferry run by a pipe smoking Yankee and his cigarritos smoking wife. The woman worked as well in skirts as any of the men did in trousers and smoked as industriously as did her husband. While they waited, Gaine scowled at the derogatory remarks muttered around her regarding the Mexican horsemen, whose skill was nothing short of remarkable to watch.

At last the ferry came back and took them across and they were again on their way. The next swingstation was in a small hillside village of about a dozen families. Majestic oaks added charm to the spot and many ditches carried water from the mountain streams above that were now used for irrigation. The talk was of a small tribe of Indians native to the area that were in town to hold some kind of peaceful ceremony nearby at one of their "sacred spots". Indian troubles in this particular area was rare these days.

Gaine knew some of the tribal members. She had worked with some as wranglers and her father had bought some horses from them at one time. She considered them friends and hoped to spot them again. She watched but didn't see them. She hopped down for a minute but went right back up on top with only a quick glance toward Meghan and her father before waving to the Lieutenant.

The road became more traveled and bumpy, bouncing the taller inside passengers perilously close to the stage roof. The other cart wheels had cut the roads into dust filled gullies where the stage wheels would plunge before joggling out again. At one spot as they wound down one golden hill and up the next a panoramic view of the large valley floor below opened and Gaine could see smoke from a train chugging far off in the distance going the same direction as they.

Thar's the death a' this here stage, Gaine grumbled to herself. Once the tracks were completed, there'd be no stopping progress. She shook her head but allowed herself no further grumpiness. Instead she went back to once again contemplating her plans for Meghan's escape. She just knew Cousin Minnie would be a big help and would find her part a thrilling adventure.

The next river to cross was in another fairly populated old mining town but this one had a fine wooden covered bridge. After that the road turned downward again and apple orchards appeared on both sides. Farms arose here and there and wagons and riders began to appear on the roads.

At every other horse change now at least one passenger was waiting. Some climbed on top, one a lady in a cumbersome dress. Because a few of the non-Army men on top had joined the posse, seats were available. At one stop the drummer inside got off, but new drummers were there to take his place. The empty spots filled rapidly with more getting on than getting off.

Was Meghan all right? Gaine hopped down, took a quick glance and strolled off.

Gaine climbed back on top then moved in amongst the luggage by the puncher to give the others climbing aboard some room. The faces had changed and it left an almost melancholy feel for Gaine. She had no idea why. She hadn't really known any of the disembarking passengers and hadn't even spoken to some of them. At least Meghan was all right. So far, anyway.

Meghan sat inside worrying. Her stomach was in an uproar. Normally ravenous, she was glad she'd eaten little at breakfast. Her father had been ranting to those inside about Gaine and she was powerless to stop him. She pressed her fingers to her bosom and prayed that the tall brunette wouldn't turn her back on him. She knew her life was about to change greatly and she prayed she managed to do everything correctly. If not, it could all end badly.

They stopped for noon dinner at a very pretty mining town that had grown from a rich placer region. Ditches miles long brought water from mountain streams, once to wash gold but now, as was often the case, used for irrigation. A picturesque white steepled church nestled beside a hillside cemetery. Many town miners had left but other folks had moved in with a few empty houses still standing sentinel among those occupied. They ate inside the dusky plank-floored building that'd once been a rip-roaring dance hall.

The Lieutenant searched Gaine out and the two of them joined their usual crowd at the end of one of the tables. At first the conversation centered around the stage holdup. Then it switched.

'Meghan's father's getting really bad,' lines of consternation etched the Lieutenant's forehead.

Gaine sat up straight, "Did he strike his daughter agin'?" Her hand went to her gun but she removed it when her eyes went to the small blonde who sat with downcast eyes.

'No. About you, I meant. He's said some horrible things about a woman daring to hit him and has even made outright threats against you. And he has the new passengers who don't know what happened paying close attention and agreeing.'

The mystery woman and her companion nodded in agreement.

Gaine saw Meghan was all right and relaxed. 'Oh, yes?' she asked pleasantly. She was sitting across from the mystery lady but between the cowhand and the Lieutenant this time. The puncher looked on in puzzlement.

'Ya speaking 'bout that fat old son of a...' the cowhand looked at the warning look in Betsy's eyes, '..uh, tinker? Ya mean he's been a'jawin' regardin' Gaine here?'

Gaine grinned. "Ah swatted him one on the forehead fer backhandin' his daughter. An' Ah shot off the end of his ceegar when he warn't gonna stop a'smoking."

The puncher laughed. "I heard 'em jawin' 'bout that! They was sayin' it musta' been one helluva.." he looked at the frown on Betsy's face, "uh, one hullabaloo uv a shot. Shore wish't I'd a'seed it!"

All eyes looked where the man and his daughter were eating at the far end by an elderly man in a wig. Meghan flashed a quick, nervous look their way and Gaine smiled what she hoped was a comforting, confident look in response then turned her attention to her plate.

'Yes,' the Lieutenant replied then turned to Gaine, 'He's bragging again about how he'll have you thrown in jail when you get to Sacramento for hitting and threatening him. There are outlaws such as you everywhere, he's maintained, and he's said a woman like you is as bad as any man. He says you need to be disciplined, perhaps smacked in the face hard a number of times to teach you a lesson. But some time in jail would work just as well. It's a moral man's duty, he said and he claims he's just the man to make it happen.'

'A woman like me, huh?' she grinned.

'That's what he said,' the Lieutenant replied. He had no smile, just lines of worry. 'Anytime I stood up for you, he reminded me that he was going to speak to my Commander.'

'Well, he jest might encounter more a' what kinda lariat a woman like me whirls than he'd ever like ta know 'bout,' she muttered, putting her attention on what was supposed to pass as food. She studied the meat on her fork carefully, musing aloud if it was something long-tailed found scuttling through the cooking area.

The others chuckled but looked carefully at their own food. Then Gaine examined the dead flies lying legs up in what was supposed to be a kind of gravy. She fingered a biscuit and muttered how she figured one could knock over a bull at fifty paces by lobbing these missiles at him. Others chuckled. She finished what she could of her meal.

'But he ain't struck his daughter agin?' Gaine asked, sneaking a look but the blonde woman was no longer looking their way.

'He hasn't hit her again, but he's growled at her pretty constantly and jerked her arm hard a couple of times.'

Gaine got very quiet, then she talked in a low voice, 'All right. Ahl take care a' the sitjeation.' She wiped her moist brow on her sleeve. Lord, it was sticky hot already. Today was going to be a scorcher. 'Ahl shore be happy ta see mah Cousin Minnie and not hafta see that jackass agin. His ole heehaw ain't a'fadin' o'er the horizon none ta soon fer me!'

The Lieutenant laughed. 'Yes. It's a shame his daughter has to stay with him.'

'Mmm,' Gaine replied. She looked at her meal. 'Where da ya 'spose they got these here victuals?'

'I think they're old condemned Army castoffs, to tell you the truth,' he replied. Specks on his food had been cut off and pushed to the side of his plate as well.

'Think we could engage usn's some butler type fella ta present these here servin's ta the owner a' this here stage line an' tag 'em as "supper"? Ya know, under a silver dome an all.' She leaned closer and said brazenly, 'And be mindful ta serve them dead flies fer an accompaniment." She pointed at them with her fork.

The Lieutenant laughed again. 'I like the way you think.'

'Well, you'd really love the way Cousin Minnie and Ah thinks when we gits tagather. She'd take them flies, mix 'em with rice n' molasses n' serve it right up ta 'em as fancy rice puddin' with raisons. Put it right out in grandma's fine china, she would."

Gaine thought for a minute, "Actually,' she barked a laugh, 'we done jest that ta ar older brothers oncet. We made real puddin' fer the family an' a small special batch fer them boys.' Then her face became more serious. 'Flies n' bugs doan hold up particular well 'n cookin', what with all the stirrin' an' such. But theys still bees dark specks. Them boys thunk it truly war raisons fer the first bite till one kicked its legs. Then they couldn't spit that thar puddin' far 'nuff.' She chuckled. 'Lordy, the hogs had theyselfs a little sweet treat that day!"

"You get paddled?"

"Oh,yeah. Ar momma's done been terrible wrathful cause, natur'lly, doan nobody got 'nuff ta waste no food. We had ta give our'n ta them boys an' we still done got arselfs paddled.' She grinned, "but we war used ta it."

'Your Cousin Minnie sounds like a first class rascal! I'm quite sure one would need to survey carefully anything she served to eat,' the Lieutenant laughed.

'Yep, best watch careful if'n she be's annoyed ta ya-least she useta be one snappy little rapscallion. Ah shore hope she still t'is. Seems like, in 'er letters.'

"Your brothers sound mischievous, too,' the mystery woman said in a deep, shaking voice, and all eyes went to her. She rarely spoke. She let her head tremble a little as an older person might do without knowing it.

Nice touch, Gaine thought. 'Oh, yes, ma'am. Both hers an' mine. They war all older and war al'ays a'troublin' us little girls. Most war bigger an' stronger an' they'd try an' make us scream, only Ahd never scream. Minnie, now, she war right talented at it. They'd hold us by ar feet over that thar pig waller and threaten ta drop us in an' the like lest ar parents stopped 'em.'

'The one you girls fell into in your new Easter dresses?' the Lieutenant asked with a twinkle in his eye.

'Yep, the very one. But we got 'em. One time we war out a'workin' durin' brandin' season and Cousin Minnie and me, well, we al'ays ariss first. Them boys got frightful annoyed cause the two a' us'd get to Big Joe's cook wagon a'fore they would an' eat most a' the bacon. He thunk we war cuter 'n kittens in a basket and he'd let us have ar fill. So them boys threatened us and badgered us and told us if we din't wake 'em up when we got up, we'd be right sorry.'

'What'd ya do?' the puncher asked.

'Well, one a' the hands had shot this here skunk that war a'troubling Big Joe some, so's we got us a rope 'round the carcass...oh, great post-holes. That thar fragrance war somethin' frightful. Anyways, we got on Bobby, he's the old gelding Millie an' me rode tagather on all the time, and we loped along draggin' that thar dead polecat right over them sleepin' lumps 'n their hotrolls. You ain't never seen young fellas move like they done. They flew up out a thar like thar behinds war a'fire. Millie n' me, we still laugh at that. She wrote me 'bout it not long ago askin' if'n Ah 'membered.'

'What happened then?' the cowhand asked, wide-eyed. 'It ain't easy gettin' that unhappy bouquet outta nothing.'

'No, it ain't! An' we got lickin's, a' course,' she smiled, 'But, oh t'war it worth it.'

Everyone chuckled then the Lieutenant looked out the door. 'Looks like they're loading up,' he finished the coffee in his own tin cup, shook it, attached it to his belt, stood and assisted her as she got up from the bench. She stopped herself from brushing away the hand he had placed on her elbow. She was in polite society, after all, and he was just being polite. 'Back to listening to the windbag. Gods, I miss your stories.' he added.

'I'll snare 'im ta the next swing station when theys swap them hosses if'n he disembarks. He al'ays does ta the stop subsequential ta eatin' noon meal.'

'He does, huh?' the officer commented. 'I've never noticed.'

'Ah have,' she said quietly. Ahv done noticed more'n he thinks, she added to herself. "By the way," she continued, "Ya know that thar little tin cup ya al'ays pack 'round with'n ya?" She pointed to the beat-up cup on his belt.

"My cup?" the Lieutenant questioned, unhooking the item in question. "It's not much of anything. Pretty beaten up. I need to get a new one."

"Yep. That 'un. Would ya sell it ta me?"

"No," he said, and she raised a brow. "I'll give it to you with my regards." His face took on a huge smile and he handed the item to her with a short bow.

"Preciate it," she replied as she took the cup. It was quite beaten and had obviously gathered considerable wear. She unbuttoned the belly buttons on her shirt and stuffed it inside, rebuttoning it again.

They climbed back into their places, the rotund man shooting acrimonious looks her way until he climbed inside the coach and withdrew his watch with a scowl. From on top she saw smoke tendrils rise moments later as they emerged from the stagecoach window before the driver even cracked his whip, and she knew the blonde's father was smoking his cigars inside again.

'Thunder and lightnin',' the young man in uniform near her stated as they both observed the smoke rising from inside the coach, 'that man's a case. You'd think he was a King or a Sultan or something. We sat by him at lunch and he was all puffed up. Yep, thinks he's some kinda potent..tate or something.'

'Yep, but he ain't,' she replied, becoming more angry as she thought of the man and the smoke he was exposing Meghan to. She didn't want to be goaded into something she didn't really want to do, nor did she want to spend time explaining anything she had done to some Sacramento Marshal. But avoiding the man was not going to be feasible. Planting the seed of fear in Meghan's father's miserable little mind was the best solution she could think of to back him down. And she was ready.

The next stop was a swing station between towns. They pulled up on the fly then came to a quick halt. There was only one new passenger and he climbed up on top as soon as they stopped. The fresh horses were already set to be exchanged.

A farm sat on the opposite side of the road, planted in drills of carrots and on the stage side was an orchard of various fruit trees they had passed coming in. Amongst the trees were scattered two orange trees, one with large ripe oranges, particularly near the top. The orchard ran behind the corral and on up the road. There were few signs of humans other than those working with the horses and the people from the coach.

"Doan them oranges look good?" Gaine remarked loudly to those on top. "That'n, right up thar near the top." She pointed and several of the men looked at the orange in question a fair number of yards back down the road. The citrus sat near the top of the tree and seemed to stand out from the others. It was much larger than most and was a nice ripe shade of orange.

"Taste mighty good about now," one fellow remarked and Gaine smiled in return.

Gaine dug out the cup and handed it to the puzzled cowpuncher beside her. "See that thar last corral post on up the road 'bout three er four hundert yards er so?"

"Yep," he replied.

"When Ah signal ya, Ahd shore 'preciate it if'n ya'd lope on down thar an' sit this here cup a'top't.

"The last post? Way down thar?" He started to rise and she put a hand on his shoulder.

"Yep. That 'un. But wait till Ah signal, if'n ya would. Ahl point ta it."

He nodded in reply and settled back. She left her rifle and jumped down as the young woman's father climbed out of the coach with a series of grunts. He was followed by all the other men from inside, leaving only the three ladies seated within. All but Meghan's father lit up their clay pipes, cigarettes and cigars.

She moved to where the Lieutenant had alighted and was standing watching. "Keep 'im back, if'n ya would," she said to the Lieutenant. She tipped her head in the direction of the Conductor, who was climbing down as well. "An may Ah borry one a' yer gloves fer a short spell? Ain't gonna harm it none."

The Lieutenant nodded in return, peeled off and handed her one glove and headed toward the Conductor. He felt the same thrill he got when riding into an unknown situation. She was going to confront this repugnant man and he could hardly wait.

The heavy man had taken a shovel and was gone into the orchard. Out of politeness, no one looked in that direction. Gaine called to the cow puncher, "Toss me down mah rifle when Ah point up, all right?" The men smoking watched her critically. They knew what the older man had said. They also heard she'd kept their stage from being robbed. They weren't entirely sure what to think but they all agreed, they did not approve of her unwomanly choice of apparel at all.

"Shore," the young fellow called back to Gaine.

She took out her Colt, emptied the bullets, fiddled with some from her belt then carefully reloaded. She kicked the dust a little waiting for the man's return.

Meghan watched the tall brunette out the window. She was so remarkable. Her moves were lithe and powerful, sure and confident. She was a warrior, through and through and undoubtedly was the most appealing one ever seen on this side of the world. She was tall, absolutely gorgeous and sported lethal blue eyes.

Gaine spotted her prey heading back. She waited till he was in the exact position where she wanted him. "MR. FITZGERALDSON," Gaine called so that everyone could hear. All eyes turned their way at the challenge in her voice. The man looked at her with a snarl.

"Whaddya want?" he growled.

Gaine took two strides towards him. "I HEAR YA BEEN INSULTIN' MAH GOOD NAME!" She had moved in long strides and was within three paces of the man. He stopped in place and jammed the shovel in the dirt beside him.

"Good name," he hissed. "A woman like you hasn't got a good name."

"See this here glove?" she asked more quietly as his eyes went to the Lieutenant's glove tucked in her belt. She held her sixshooter but kept it pointing down.

"What of it?" he snarled.

"Ahm ready ta publicly smack ya one cross't the face 'n demand a duel a' honor."

Duels, though less popular than in bygone days, were still taken seriously in the west, and he knew it. "Now ya think yer Aaron Burr, I suppose?" he snorted derisively.

"No, Ah ain't Burr. But Ahl shore nuff challenge ya ta a duel all tha same." He started to say something and she held up her free hand. "A'fore ya remark on the possibilities, Ah think 'tis only fair ya understand yer options."

His lip curled. "Options?" He looked at the smokers. "I'm not fighting a..."

"One a three things bees gonna happen taday," Gaine continued. "We'll done come ta an agreement er yu'll be shamed by backin' outta a duel a' honor a'fore this here crowd er yer gonna choose the duel an' be dead. Me, Ahm a'hopin fer the last option...but t'is up ta you."

A cocky look crossed the man's face. "I won't fight a woman," he called with a cagey edge to his voice. He spoke loudly to be heard, "It wouldn't be honorable."

Gaine laughed a mirthless laugh. "Honorable, huh? Let's see if'n we can't put some grease ta that thar notion in a bit and slide it on outta the way." She took a step back and rubbed her chin.

Blue eyes glared. "Ya been jawin' bout whatcher gonna have done ta me with yer high 'n mighty friends. So's let's chew the rag some 'bout them...them folks yer al'ays a'crowin' 'bout an' seem ta think Ah should be a'feared a'.' He made no reply. 'Well, Ah gotta agree, some'un here OUTTA be afeared, and you'd better believe, it ain't me. Ahl shows ya why. Take out one a' them coins yer al'ays a clinkin' tagather.'

He looked at her with a puzzled look, but mostly his eyes went to the Colt she had in her hand, pointing at the ground. "A coin," she demanded louder. "Take it outta yer pocket and give it a healthy spin inta the air, if'n yer man 'nuff." She put her other hand on the glove and growled through clenched teeth, "Yer choice. If'n ya choose duel instead...." She started to pull the glove out and noted his expression. He didn't want to have to back down from any public duel challenge, especially in front of the smoking men who were watching intently.

"Toss up a coin, then, an why doncha make it that thar lucky coin a' yorn?"

He looked at her in surprise. How did she know that he had a lucky coin? Had his daughter told her? He glanced angrily at the coach where Meghan was, then back. 'Look here..' he started to snarl and she cooly cocked the hammer of the gun with her thumb, the barrel in full view of the passengers, still pointed down.

Her ardent eyes drilled into his. He thought about when she told him to put out his cigar. She hadn't given him any time to think about it. She just told him then shot when he didn't comply. Obviously she was crazy. He wasn't sure what she would do but he had no doubt she might shoot.

He nervously rustled through his coat pocket and pulled out a coin. He picked the smallest in his pocket. He scoffed to himself. Did she really think she could hit a coin tossed into the air or was she going to do something else? He gave it a very high flick far out away from himself then started to run around her towards the coach. She instantly shot. The coin jumped midair then fell to the ground. She quickly took giant steps into his path. He stopped and backed up.

The team of horses the crew was changing pranced around a bit from the noise of the shot and the others reared in their traces before the driver got them under control. Jaws dropped both in and out of the coach. The smokers quit smoking. The Lieutenant ran to collect the coin.

'My Lord,' he muttered, bringing it to her outstretched hand. She did not take her eyes off Meghan's father. She closed her fingers around it without once looking at it. She waited until the Lieutenant backed away again.

Gaine grabbed Meghan's father's meaty hand, forcing the coin into his palm and curling his fingers over it. Then she began to poke him in the chest with her finger. "Lemme tell ya who AH knows," she grimaced. "Ah knows Colt, an ah knows Remington. Ah knows Sharp, ah knows Winchester an' Ah even got a familiarity with good ole Henry. Hell, ah even knows Bowie right well, if'n that's yer choice a' weapon. An Ah kin use a bull whip ta tickle the behind a' eny big ole hoss fly on a hoss's rump without never techin' the hoss, if'n that's yer fancy."

Finally she stopped and straightened up. She backed up two paces and stared at him with a frighteningly stern look. Then she did something that totally perplexed him. "Meet one a' mah important friends!" She tossed her Colt to him, turned her back and took long strides to the back of the coach. Meghan gasped!

Gaine pointed to the sky then gestured to the fence and moved toward the back of the coach putting the carriage out of line of the old man's fire.

Meghan's father had fumbled with the pistol, dropping it. He'd quickly stooped to snap it up as her rifle was primed to sail down toward her hands. She had her back to the old man just as he shakily pointed the sixshooter her way and squeezed the trigger. Everyone gasped at the loud gunshot, but no one's heart was beating harder than Meghan's. Gaine instantly dropped to the ground. This was the scene Meghan had imagined the night before.

"NO!" she wailed from the window, giving voice to everyone else's thoughts. She threw herself toward the door but the arms of the mysterious woman and her companion grabbed her, holding her back. "Let go! Please, I have to stop him."

"He'll kill you, too," the mysterious woman said in a surprisingly younger voice, "Look how wild he is."

"I don't care," Meghan cried, trying to loosen their hold. "Please, let me go."

"Gaine's moving!" Betsy said, not loosening her grip on the girl.

Gaine had a slight smile as she double rolled on the ground with her rifle away from the carriage as the shot rang out. The old man tried to follow her with hasty, jumbled steps as he squeezed off another round directed as close to her as he could, using both hands to steady the gun. Again she rolled instantly out of the way and landed on her feet then moved swiftly toward the man. He had her gun in one outstretched hand now, pointed directly at her.

"You'd better stop right there!" he demanded, his finger beginning to squeeze.

"Nu uh," she said, stepping even closer. "Ask 'em." Her head tipped toward the smoking crowd. His eyes flitted there and back. Gaine continued, "Look what ya done. Ya took a shot at the back ov 'n unarmed woman. Why, yud dance ta the enduv a rope in many places fer that."

"Self defense," he grinned evilly, his finger still poised to squeeze the trigger.

"T'ain't," she grinned in return, moving carefully. "Ain't nobody gonna agree with'n ya. Ah din't have no gun in mah hand when ya took yer first shot." Suddenly the butt of her rifle was swung out, slapping the gun from his hand. The six-shooter flew a yard and a half away onto the ground.

In a fluid motion the rifle was swung back into her grip. She fired at the orange on the tree she had pointed out earlier then quick as lightning she hit the tin cup the young ranchhand had just finished putting on the farthest post. The cup cartwheeled into the sky off the post and the orange careened to the ground.

She brought the smoking barrel of the rifle to the man's forehead, smoking his skin slightly as she touched it. He stood frozen before he slowly raised his hands into the air. "Now this here's where ya get arrested fer attempted murder," she said quietly. "See how easy t'is? An by the way, Ah coulda kilt ya the second the rifle hit mah hand and long a'fore ya took yer second shot."

He looked incredulously at the orange that one of the men from on top was running to pick up and the hole in the cup the cowpuncher was showing to the men pouring from around the coach to see. Cigars and cigarretos were ground out in their haste.

"Why didn't you?"

"Well see, ah wanted them folks ta see ya a'tryin' ta hit me 'n the back so's they knows what kinda feller ya really be. Now ever' last one a' them folks seed it. An' yud best believe they would'a helped bury ya with good riddance if'n Ahda shot back. That thar would'a been self de-fense. An' they'll testify fer me now if'n Ah decides ta have ya arrested fer attempted murder...." she grinned, "by the Sacramenta Marshal."

"I...It wasn't a close shot...." The man's eyes were now as round as they ever got. "I tried to miss you. And I did. I just wanted to frighten you!"

Gaine chuckled. "Nope. Them folks seed it. Ya tried right hard ta kill me. An yer credulity 'bout being picked on by a woman like me dropped a heap with'n that thar move a' your'n. Not ta mention yer touted mor-ality. Yep, Ah'l be a ponderin' whether ta have the Sacramenta Marshal arrest ya er not." She lowered the rifle to the ground and everyone breathed more freely.

"First we're gonna talk agreement. See, Ah ain't gonna stand fer no more a' yer insults er yer bullyin' women er none a' that. Ah doan wanna hear no more 'bout yer 'portant friends er goin' ta jail er none a' that nonsense neither. An' ya best not think a' makin this here ana'body else's problem."

She saw the thoughts moving behind his eyes. She wondered if he knew how easy he was to read. She doubted it.

"If'n ya war ta hire some'un ta do me bodily harm, fer instance, yu'd best pray they doan never try. Ah doan take kindly ta such. This is betwixt you n' me n' NO'un else. An' believe me, hired guns tend ta holler the truth ta any judge theys dragged a'fore. Anathin' ta do less time. Not all lawmen er in yer employ, ya know, er even vera taken with'n yer notions. An' jail's a sittin' thar a'waitin' fer the likes a you now a heap more'n t'is fer...a woman like me."

He stood staring at her without speaking. "If'n ya'd rather, if'n we war ta duel," she continued, "Ahd let ya take yer pick a' weapons, a' course. Ahm 'bout as good with one choice as t'uther." She grabbed the handful of cigars from his pocket. "An stop yer damn smokin' 'n the carriage. Ya already been warned oncet."

"Duel?" she asked him when he made no reply. He quickly shook his head no. "Then we gots us'ns an agreement. Doancha be a'breakin' it."

She turned, picked up her pistol, put it in her holster and walked to the Conductor, handing him the man's cigars. "Give them thar back ta that feller when we git ta Sacramenta, if'n ya please." She headed to the carriage where Meghan sat wide-eyed, her hands twisted together in her lap.

"Yes, ma'am," the Conductor said, placing them in his own pocket. "Tell me..." Gaine turned around to face him again. "Who are ya really?" the man asked reverently.

Gaine laughed. "Ahm jest Gaine Sargos, like Ah tole ya all when Ah got on. Ahm jest tryin' ta go ta pick up mah Cousin Minnie and fetch her back ta the ranch. Only that thar feller ain't give me no peace from the second mah eye lit on 'im." Then her face got serious. "Ya seed him take a shot ta mah back?"

"Yep. Ya wanna press charges?"

"Dunno. Maybe. We'll see when we git ta Sacramenta." She pulled out the glove and handed it back to the Lieutenant who stared at her with total admiration. "Thanky, Lieutenant," she grinned and leaned toward him to whisper, "Ah think he'll behave hisself now." The Lieutenant laughed.

"I think," the Lieutenant chuckled, glancing at the shovel, "it was a good thing he'd already taken care of business or he might have had to change his clothes before we could move on."

Gaine swallowed a laugh and poked her head in the window of the coach. "Ever body all right 'n here?" Her eyes settled tenderly on Meghan. All three women nodded. Meghan moved over to touch Gaine's hand. "Ah think he'll quit smokin' now," Gaine said softly to the small blonde, "an' he outta be a heap more po-lite," she added to the other two women. Reluctantly she pulled her hand away from Meghan's with a smile and climbed up to the top of the stage.

'We're running a little late on this stop, ladies and gentlemen,' the Conductor stated. Everyone including Meghan's father headed for the stage. No one spoke to him and he kept his gaze down. For once he did not pull out his pocket watch.

"I'm mighty sorry about what I said earlier," the businessman on top said skittishly as Gaine paused. "I didn't mean to offend your honor, ma'am." The woman seated on top in her cumbersome dress looked wide-eyed from one to the other. "Oh, my!" she said into handkerchief. "Oh, my, my, my!"

Gaine nodded. "Ah takes mah honor serious," she agreed. "An Ah 'preciates yer 'pology."

The crowd continued raving about the fantastic shots. They had all seen the small coin jump and mouths had dropped. The Lieutenant informed those on the ground that the shot was right through the middle of the coin. Well, it was a touch to the side, but he didn't mention that. And since the cowpuncher had given the cup back to the Lieutenant, he held that out for everyone to see where the bullet had gone in and where it came out.

All eyes on top zeroed in on Gaine as she made her way to her seat in the luggage area. Before they had seen her clothing, her beauty and sensed the danger around her. Now they were all astounded! They had never seen such a display of shooting before! Plus she moved so adroitly out of the way of the man's firing. Between the stage holdup and this, they had real stories to tell family and friends. Stories they'd never believe.

Gaine rustled in her vest pocket and dug out a copper. She passed it forward to the Conductor. "Fer the orange," she called up to him. "See it gets ta the orchard's owner, will ya?"

He passed it back. "Keep it. The orange is on us."

Gaine held the pence and looked at the others. "Did ana'body fetch it?"

"Yep," one of the men held out the orange. The small stem holding it on the tree had been shot away, but the orange itself was unharmed. That, in itself, was fabulous shooting!

"No, ya folks go on ahead an share," she remarked, adjusting her legs in her spot. The man began to peel the fruit, carefully putting the peeling in his pocket.

"Hey, share that peel," someone called. "We'd like ta prove we were here, too." He passed around orange peel and they each put a piece reverently in their pockets.

The cowpuncher looked longingly at the copper. "Ya want this'n fer a souvenir?" Gaine asked him with a chuckle. His face became radiant and he nodded. She handed it to him and settled back while he looked it over on both sides. "Too bad that wretched feller got the one ya shot!" He spit over the side.

"Mmm. His memory ain't none ta good. He needs't fer a reminder."

Those who'd sat near the heavy man during meals and listened to his arrogant comments about how women should behave, now had no intention of associating themselves with him in any way. He had tried to shoot an unarmed woman in the back and there wasn't anyone that didn't draw the line at that!

Meghan's father was very quiet when they got back into the coach. Betsy's hushed voice asked if he would show the coin. He firmly shook his head 'no' and stared out the window.

For the rest of the trip it was as though he was not even there. Others conversed pleasantly and the man paid them no mind at all. He stared out the window and fingered the coin in his jacket pocket. He didn't even seem to notice when his daughter shyly answered a few questions of the flirting Lieutenant beside her.

Gaine went over her plans. She sat in the breeze coming off the moving coach pondering "what if's" as the coach swayed and wove its way down into the valley. Occasionally her eyes strayed to small clouds chasing larger ones across the sky like riders herding strays on a traildrive. Their shadows echoed the chase across the heated ground.

At Stockton the wrangler touched Gaine's shoulder and leaned forward. "Adios," he muttered before he hopped down from the coach. He smiled up at her as he waited for his bedroll to be drawn from the rear boot then put a finger to the front of his hat in salute before turning and ambling into the town. A number of other passengers got off as well while new passengers took their places.

The smile in Gaine's eyes followed the young puncher. Yet she couldn't help wondering about him. She shrugged. Ranchers hired men every year that had questionable and sometimes notorious pasts. If they behaved themselves and worked hard, it usually didn't matter to them. The familiar face she was waiting for appeared below and Gaine quickly hopped down to shake the man's hand.

"Gaine! I've been watching for you since you wrote. So tell me the size of the herd and when we can expect them." He smiled at the beauty, wishing all the drovers he dealt with were so good looking.

"Hiram! Gonna be a mite larger herd 'n last year," she smiled, glancing back at the coach. "An outta be in 'bout the same time, Ah reckon. Ah heared prices been a'runnin' bout the same this year. Ah reckon that bees good news." It was, considering that there were few buyers for anything and prices everywhere were dropping on most goods.

They spoke for a minute about the market conditions and he named a price. Her face clouded before another price was reluctantly mentioned. She glanced over and saw the coach was ready. "Uh, kin ya meet me later tanight ta the stage stop hotel n' Sacramenta. Ah gotta git. We kin come ta an agreement then," She turned more serious, "Sides, Ah might have a small favor ta ask a' ya. Kin ya?"

He looked at her questioningly. She'd always made instant deals in the past and had never asked any favors. 'Sure, Gaine.' He wondered what it could be.

In fact, she hoped to use this man to escort Cousin Minnie safely to the next stage stop on his way home. Gaine quickly climbed back on and the stage clattered off, leaving him puzzled. She was young but of the old school. Her word was her bond. A price and a handshake and their deal would have been set. But she was well worth the extra effort. He'd be happy to meet her later. It wasn't that far a ride.

A little after suppertime the stagecoach arrived on the outskirts of Sacramento. It was a large metropolis. Dogs barked, children ran alongside and the peal of a distant church bell could be heard above street noises. Every stage window covering was rolled up and the passengers gazed out in amazement at the many passing homes and buildings. People stood watching as the coach moved through the tree lined streets to finally glide to a stop deep inside the town by the corner hotel.

The city was bustling with activity. People of all nationalities were on the boardwalk and in the streets, on foot, in buckboards, spring wagons, on horseback, in covered wagons and fancy carriages of all types. Ladies with parasols and men in all manner of dress were seen.

A number of Chinese people in their cultural apparel, were busy about the streets, some carrying items balanced at both ends of a pole held across one shoulder. Many of the men had put in the rail line over the near-impossible rise through the mountains headed east. Others had done the backbreaking work of building roads. Chinese women, fewer in number, had also done their share of heavy domestic and business labor. Now they all made their homes in the city.

The hotel stood three-floors high like a three-tiered wedding cake with large columns holding up the second floor balcony. A narrower balcony graced the third floor. People were out on both, watching the streets' activities, the long, doorsized arched windows from the rooms allowing easy access.

The main floor sported a lobby, barber shop, large dining room with a cooking area in the back, a chambermaid and porter area in the back with their own stairway, laundry and linen storage, and a large saloon on the corner near the front desk, which, by any standard, was busy. The stage office was in a small corner of the lobby.

Glad to finally have arrived and amazed by the sophistication and savior faire of this amazing city, everyone climbed out, their eyes like empty canteens filling with the fresh flowing fluidity of this urbane city. Gawking all around, they waited for their luggage. The passengers as a whole stayed away from the heavyset man and were accordingly fearful if not totally in awe of Gaine.

She drew behind the Lieutenant and whispered, 'Goo'bye, mah friend. Be shore an' tell the little gal adios. She'll like it an' it'll annoy her Pa somethin' frightful.'

"Are you going to press charges against him?"

"No. But doan tell him that. Ah wanna get Cousin Minnie an' git back home, an' if'n Ah charge 'im, Ah gotta stay an' go through court an there ain't no guarantee they'd convict 'im."

"I understand." He proudly held his cup with it's two bullet holes. "I've got my cup. I'll cherish it. I'm storing it safely in my bag as soon as I get on the train."

"Listen, doan forget Ahm a'leavin' ceegars fer the fellas. Ya shore it ain't gonna be outta thar way?"

"No. Like I said before, they pass close by anyway. For a cigar, they'd gladly stop anywhere."

"Well, they doan git 'nuff praise fer the work they done. Jest standin' guard last night war helpful. Shore ya doan want one? Ah could run in now an gitcha one."

"No, please. I don't smoke and the cup is reward enough."

"All right. Ahl point out yer fellas ta Cousin Minnie when theys pass bah later. She'll be right intrigued with that...uniforms an' handsome men an' all." Gaine grinned. "Uh, if'n she's in on time." From reading her letters Gaine was quite sure it was exactly the kind of thing Cousin Minnie would enjoy.

"If she's not, you'll see them anyway on your way home," the Lieutenant advised. "They'll be camping at China Cup Valley. They'll make an early start the next morning. You should pass by. They'd love having beautiful women wave to 'em."

"Ahl point 'em out an' Minnie'll wave her fool arm off, Ahm shore. Now doan let that old man try and pull rank with'n yer Commander thar ta the Fort. Be shore an' tell 'bout his true nature. Ya got all kinds a' witnesses."

"I will," He cast a boyish grin her way and chuckled, 'I thought I'd bid them both adieu. And I plan to smile at his beautiful daughter and even kiss her hand."

"He'll likely cogitate somethin' mighty disagreeable tawards ya," Gaine laughed, "even if'n he doan dare say nothin'."

"Probably. You know, it was SO good meeting you, Gaine. Give your Cousin Minnie my best. And you two stay out of mischief.' He couldn't seem to take his eyes off her. "Uh, if I ever get to your town, I'll look you up and we can laugh about this trip. It was one of the most memorable I've ever been on."

"Well, Ahm right easy ta find. Ever'body knows me ta town...Barden's Corner. An' Ah 'spect Ahd look ya up, too, if'n Ah ever got ta the Fort, that t'is."

"Mmm. I'd like that. I'm fairly easy to locate, but let me give you my address. I'd love to have you stop in. I'd introduce you to everybody there. Or even write if you take such a notion."

Gaine stood and smiled while the man took out a folded paper from his pocket and tore off half. Must be his orders, she thought as she watched him jot down his name and address and fold the paper over several times. "I'm sorry I have to hurry," he said as he bowed, took her hand and gently kissed it.

She took the paper with a smile and put it in her pocket. Before leaving he pulled her into a hug then stepped away as the mystery lady and companion stepped up to Gaine. A wink and he was gone.

"Best of luck," the veiled lady said softly through her netted disguise. She spoke to Gaine in a muffled voice. "I hope our paths cross again someday. This has been a most extraordinary journey."

"Thank ya fer ever'thin'. You two be right heedful," the tall rancher replied gently. "Ah shore hope ya find that thar satisfaction ya been a'seekin'."

"We'd best hurry, ma'am," Betsy spoke aloud to the mystery lady. "You'll be in my prayers, Gaine," she said to the tall beauty, putting her hand on the brunette's arm.

"And you two in mine," Gaine replied with a tender smile. Her hand overlapped the black lady's hand.

"Bless ya, child. Ya tell your cousin she's not ta let you get inta too much trouble, now, ya hear?" the older black lady squeezed Gaine's arm lightly. "And don't you be pullin' any more of those dangerous feats of yours. Ya'all keep safe. The both a' ya." Both let go of their hands and she waggled a glove-covered finger at Gaine.

Gaine laughed. "We will. Doancha fret none."

The rancher raised her hand in response to their parting waves. Then as the two had their luggage loaded into a buggy to head to the train station, the tall brunette turned and dashed into the hotel. On the way in she glanced out the window and saw the Lieutenant had stopped to say goodbye to Meghan and her father. The old man's face held unconcealed annoyance at the handsome man.

The Conductor was nearby watching them, the older man's cigars in his hand to return when the officer had gone. The officer's hat was in one hand, he was bowing before the blonde, gently holding and kissing her gloved hand in his other hand as the point of his sword dipped out the back. His heels had been smartly clicked together.

Meghan returned a smile to the young officer. Her father looked at the Conductor then back at the young officer. He wasn't sure if he was going to be arrested or not and it was making him very jittery. He had worried about it all the way. He'd claim the woman had threatened him not only with the gun but with a knife the others hadn't seen. That would give him reason to shoot at her when her back was turned. She had mentioned knowing about Bowie knives.

The old man looked up and down the street. Most of these people from the stage would be leaving town anyway so no one would know. He'd take Meghan and himself to a different hotel away from the stagecoach people except that they were to meet Lendal at this one. If only Lendal were here now to help him. He kept his hand on Meghan's elbow and pulled her back as far from the bold young officer as he dared.

A chuckle slipped from Gaine's mouth. Meghan's Pa looks hot n' agitated as a fresh dropped steer droppin' with near as much steam a'risin' from 'im. When she looked again the man in uniform was hurrying down the street to catch his train, his forage hat on his head and his tin cup hanging on his belt. The men under his command had already left to pick up their wagons of supplies for their long journey back to the Fort.

Gaine stopped at the desk. Minnie hadn't checked in yet. The stage from Virginia City didn't arrive until later and the train from Nevada would be in within the hour. But there was an envelope waiting for her. She took it, stuffed it in her pocket, and went back out to the boardwalk where most of the others were still getting their luggage. She hadn't seen any sign of anyone that might be the man 'Lendal.' She looked carefully.

She and Meghan exchanged glances as the young woman's father forced the small blonde ahead of him into the hotel. He carried both of their bags. The brunette stayed outside and watched as he registered them. Father and daughter would have separate rooms, obviously. Anything else would be indecent considering Meghan's age. He could get a suite, of course, if the hotel offered them. But the cost, considering his frugality, would rule out that choice.

The man elbowed his way in the crowd and pushed his way to the desk, instantly calling to the clerk, "A room for Fitzgeraldson and put my adult daughter in another thrifty room close by." He dipped the quill in the ink and began to sign his name on the next line. Mumbles of complaint at his aggression could be heard from those around him who had been waiting, but he ignored them.

"Oh, and...," he lowered his voice and leaned forward to the harried clerk who had been busily registering guests since the earlier stage arrived. He whispered loud enough to be heard by the clerk, "Don't put her in with that tall woman...Sargos, that was her name. Gaine Sargos. She's not to share with her or we'll leave!"

Meghan looked away at the words. She hadn't expected to be able to room with Gaine. That would have been too fortuitous.

"Sir." Another man at Mr. Fitzgeraldson's elbow called for the clerk's attention.

"One moment, please," the clerk said to the other man. He quickly found Gaine's name. "Miss Sargos is already sharing with someone else," he replied.

"Good," Meghan's father retorted, then looked around nervously lest she be anywhere near him. "Oh, and I'll pay for two nights for myself but only one for my daughter. My room can be a better room."

The clerk didn't lift his eyes. He continued scanning the book, mindful of the crowd. Two stages in, one after the other, and the train crowd would be joining them very soon. He could hardly wait till eight rolled around and he'd be off till the morning. He'd been working since eight that morning. "All right Mr. Fitzgeraldson," he ran his finger down the list of available rooms.

"Sir, this scoundrel crowded in. You should be waiting on me first," the man beside Meghan's father demanded with a scowl at Mr. Fitzgeraldson.

"One moment, sir. I'll be right with you," the clerk replied. He didn't have time for petty arguments. He saw the room number with a circle around it. That meant it was reserved for a woman but she hadn't checked in yet. It was close to the room he could give the man. All the inexpensive rooms that faced the back were already held by drummers. No women were on that side.

He recognized the name of the woman reserving the circled room, of course. She would prefer not to share he was sure, but she didn't have a choice if they were full. It was one of the more expensive rooms. The hotel was filling rapidly but so far they didn't have that many lone women guests that day. He'd put the daughter there for now and move the older woman if she complained when she checked in, if there were any good rooms left at that time.

"Sir," the indignant man said to the clerk. "I WAS here first."

The clerk put a check by the circle. He'd fix it later when it slowed down. He underlined the man's name meaning it was for two nights and turned to Meghan's father, "You have a room facing the balcony as will your daughter. Both at two dollars a night. I'm afraid that's the best we can do."

"Two dollars for hers? No sir, a dollar and a half. That's what you advertise."

"That's a room on the other side. We have none available there for women on that floor. I can put her on another floor. Otherwise, that's the best we can do."

"Highway robbery," he complained, but he wasn't about to require her to be on a different floor. He demanded with annoyance, "Close by?"

"Yessir. I've marked it down. You're in 217 and she'll be in 209. Odd numbers face the street." The clerk faced the other man, "Yessir, I'm sorry for the mix-up. How can I help you, sir?"

"Plan A," Gaine thought as she watched the father and daughter head up the stairs. Suddenly her carpetbag was being tossed down. She caught it, adjusted her rifle and glanced down the street toward the river.

She saw a swell of passengers moving her direction and decided the arriving train from Nevada had come in. Minnie could be on that. She felt her pulse pick up at the thought. She watched carefully for a few minutes hoping to spot her then realized that more guests would be registering at this hotel very soon.

Gaine walked quickly to the back of the crowd at the desk to wait her turn. Minnie had told her where they should meet and hotel reservations had been made by post. When she got to the front, Gaine looked but didn't see what room they had placed Meghan in. She did see the father's room and knew he wouldn't have his daughter too far away.

"You sell see-gars here?" she asked as the man pushed the register for her to sign.

"Yes, we do," he said, raising a brow. "Some very fine cigars indeed."

"Can ya set four a' yer best ones aside fer four Army fellas? They's gonna be by later ta fetch 'em."

"A dollar a piece is our best," he said warningly.

"What? A dollar each? In these here hard times? Stars! The room only costs two dollars an that thar includes meals."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Uh, best make that the best ya got fer two bits then. Four ceegars at two bits each. I'll dig ya out a dollar." Nickle and dime cigars were standard, she knew. She signed and carefully counted out a dollar. She handed the money to the clerk. "Ya won't fergit, now?"

"I'll set them aside right now, before I do forget," he said, writing something on a scrap of paper and putting it in the desk drawer with four cigars. "All set. Next?"

She and Minnie were on the second floor and so was Meghan, she was sure. She scanned the crowd but didn't see Minnie. Quickly she climbed the stairs to her own room, amazed to see a small, compact writing desk and chair in the hall at the top of the stairs under a wall mounted lamp. The desk was complete with inkwell, quill and penwipe. "Ain't that fancy," she muttered. Hotels had certainly improved since she'd last been in one. Looking around to see if anyone was watching her, she lifted the desk lid to see if any paper was included, but none was. "Gotta go ta the desk fer paper," she muttered. "But ya kin sit raht here an write all day if'n ya takes a mind ta." She shook her head, 'Fancy.'

She moved to her room, left her things, and stepped out the arched window onto the balcony. She glanced down the street but didn't see her cousin walking from the station. She needed to locate Meghan. She knew inside rooms were saved for drummers so she should be in one of the rooms facing the balcony.

First she walked to the short end trying to spot Meghan in one of those rooms. She didn't see her there. She turned and went back, continuing on past her own room. She saw the blonde three rooms down and tapped lightly at the window.

A couple on the balcony began walking toward Gaine. She quickly walked to the edge of the balcony and looked down so they wouldn't tie the two of them together. Meghan watched her walk away with her first feeling of calm. Gaine knew where she was. Everything would be all right!

Gaine leaned on the balcony rail and smiled the blonde's direction before heading back to her own room. Meghan watched till the tall woman was out of view. She wrapped her arms around herself. Oh, Gaine, she thought, I'm so frightened. I wish we could just run away right now. She took a deep breath. But I'll do whatever you ask. Just get me away safely. Please.


Continued in Chapter 4

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