Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by bsoiree

See disclaimers in Chapter 1

---------------------------Chapter 4

Knowing where Meghan was calmed Gaine. Back inside her own room she closed the window and bolted it. She lit the lantern hanging from the ceiling though it was still light out and pulled the shade. She sat on the bed and opened her letter.

June 16, 1875

My Dearest Gaine,

I'm not sure how to write this letter except to say I can't begin to tell you how I looked forward to spending time in your dear company. Mother says that of course you won't be angry with me under the circumstances. I sincerely hope she's right.

You see, one month ago last Sunday I met a man at church named Bradley. He's a wonderful man, Gaine. He's five years older than I, but not enough for a twenty-five year old spinster like myself to be considered a child bride. I know you'd love him. I do and the folks adore him. He completely swept me off my feet. At first I held back but he did something no suitor has ever done before-he dared me to marry him! Imagine that, Gaine! He dared me!!!

"He shore done figured Minnie's leanin's," Gaine muttered to herself. "Ah hopes that thar's a good signpost." She drew her eyes back to the letter.

I've written to both places, hoping against hope to catch you before you leave the ranch. By the time you read this, I will most likely be newly married and on my bridal tour. He's taking me on a bridal tour to Salt Lake City and then on to Denver, where we'll be living before the year's out.

All the family sends their best. Mom asks if you'd please put some extra flowers on your parents' graves for her. She sends her love and says to tell you you're in her heart and thoughts daily.

Please be happy for me , dear soul, and don't be too disappointed. Make my apologies to the school committee. If I didn't catch you in time, I'll pay you back for your unnecessary trip once I can save it from household expenses. I did so want to see you again and get caught up with all our follies, joys and sorrows since we parted all those many years ago. I think of you often, my sweet defender. But life had a different turn ready for me. Will you forgive me?

As always,
with my deepest love,

p.s. My new last name will be Baxter. Please come to Denver and visit us. I'll send you my new address as soon as I have it.

'She ain't comin',' Gaine said softly to herself. She laid back on the bed, more disappointed than she wanted to allow herself to be. Her heart sunk and for a few minutes she just laid there, staring at the ceiling. "Well, how damn selfish kin Ah be!" she scolded herself. She abruptly sat up. She had certainly faced worse things than disappointment these last few years.

She sighed heavily then shook her thoughts and only allowed herself to think of her cousin getting married, whereon she smiled. If it made Minnie happy, she couldn't help but be happy for her. 'Well, that shore changes things,' she thought about her plan. 'Now it's jest the two a' us and no Minnie ta check in.'

She thought about Minnie and though her absence produced new problems, she decided maybe it was better she wasn't coming. She could concentrate all her time and effort on making Meghan's escape successful. Meghan. She needed to see her and talk with her about the plan. She felt her spirits lift at the idea of getting her away and thrilled at the thought of being with her.

She folded the letter and placed it back in her pocket. She moved quietly down the hallway to Meghan's room and tapped lightly. The door was opened quickly and she stepped inside.

'By yerself?' she asked Meghan while her eyes flitted around the room. The curtain fluttered softly at the breeze from the open window. They heard voices on the balcony and stayed apart, Gaine moving over to check who was out there.

'Yes, they haven't put anyone in here with me. Not yet, anyway. But father's going to be back any minute to take me to supper. He doesn't seem to want me to be out of his sight. I think he's afraid I'll bolt. I feel like he's watching me every second. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't drag me into his room and tie me to the bed post for the night.'

Gaine's eyes widened. She spun from the window, "Would he do that?"

Meghan paused. "No, I don't think so. But he'd think about it."

Gaine relaxed. She'd come up with a plan for that possibility, just in case. 'Well now, relax, eat good and try ta calm his fears. An calm yer own. Ahm three doors down in Room 205.' She pointed the direction.

Suddenly there was a tap on the door and her father's deep voice growled for her to hurry up. They heard his hand on the doorknob. Meghan's eyes grew wide but Gaine scooted out the window to the balcony pushing the window shut after her. She hastily stepped to the side by the building, out of view, glad to see the others looking down over the edge and not looking her direction.

Meghan walked to the door once Gaine was out of sight. Her father pushed past her as he barged in looking around. He was carrying his bag. "Is that window shut tight?" he demanded. He bent to look under the bed but the young woman moved out the door and started for the stairs to the dining room. Annoyed, her father grabbed her bag and trailed after her, slamming the door behind him. 'Wait for me, young lady!' he warned. "And you keep that window locked all night! Here! Carry your own case! I'm not your servant!"

"Yes, father," she muttered, taking the case. Most people felt comfortable leaving their luggage in their rooms since hotel robbery was a very uncommon occurrence, but not her father.

Gaine stood on the balcony beside her window but she had bolted it on the inside. She glanced down to the street, but everyone there was moving somewhere with a purpose. She walked to the end door where the people from the even numbered rooms had access to the balcony. She walked into the hall then to her own room.

Shutting her door and leaving her bag but taking her rifle, she went downstairs to eat. It was late but they were still serving supper even though many folks were finishing up. She spotted Meghan when she entered but moved to a dim corner table away from them and ordered the steak special. She only glanced their way once, then she ignored the blonde completely and purposely gave Meghan's father a scowl. He looked away quickly with a tinge of fear and Gaine went back to her meal with some satisfaction. He still remembered.

She didn't dare have him think she was interested in his daughter in any way. But she didn't want him to forget that she could turn him in. Soon, Meggy, she thought without looking, be brave, darlin.

Starving for good food, she found the hotel's dining room more than adequate. She ate the last of her pie before the other two even started on theirs. Meghan's father was taking his time, wanting his daughter under his eye constantly it seemed. The sun was going down and the lamps on the street were all lit. Few diners remained. It looked like they would be closing the dining area soon.

Gaine signed the receipt for her meal and walked out. It was included in the room charge. She glanced outside at the darkening skies then moved around inside the hotel, checking each area. The barber shop was closed but the aproned barbers were sweeping up. One was a woman, Gaine noticed with surprise, and from her style of apron it was clear she was not a cleaning lady! Ain't times a'changin'!

Then she slid into the employee's section undetected. There she found the chambermaid's back door to the attached 'necessary' or dirt closet where they emptied the chamber pots and another door at the end of a small hall that led to the side street entrance. She saw where one could enter this area from the back stairs that the maids used and exit unseen to the street from the side street servant's entrance.

Long strides carried her quickly back to the lobby where she sighed with resignation. Time ta throw some dust 'n Meghan's Pa's eye, she grimaced. Once his daughter went missing, she was sure he'd thoroughly check matters out at the front desk. This would not only throw him off the trail but buy them time.

It was busy in the lobby and the tall brunette had to wait to get to the counter. 'Has mah Cousin Minnie from Virginy City checked in yet?' she asked the clerk when she finally got there. It was a different clerk this time so she gave more information. 'Minnie Sargos. Wer a'sharin' room 205 if'n she gits in tanight.' From the periphery of her vision she saw the Fitzgeraldsons moving up the stairway to their rooms. He was puffing away on a cigar.

'Not yet,' the clerk told her. 'The stage from there could be a little late.'

'Thank ye,' she replied as the clerk instantly moved to help other customers. Thar! They'll recollect Ahm a'waitin' fer mah cousin.

She walked to the front door and glanced down the street. Without Minnie they had to change their plan. She turned back in and slowly climbed the stairs toward her room. She saw no one in the dim halls. The hall lanterns were all lit, but the light was shadowy at best.

Gaine entered her own room and lit the lantern. A small tap came at the door. Gaine opened it and Meghan stepped in, quickly closed the door and rushed into Gaine's arms. She was flushed with barely concealed nervousness.

She hugged the tall woman with a tight hug. "Don't you ever do anything like that again!" she scolded, her green eyes flashing. "Do you have any idea how awful that was watching him aim that gun at you with your back turned and you without any gun?"

Gaine returned the hug. "T'weren't near sa bad as't looked," she smiled. "Ah had a couple blanks in thar afta mah coin shot."

"Gaine!" the small blonde said steadily, "then you knew you were gonna throw him the gun all along?"

"Yep. Ah wanted them who war a'hearkenin' ta his jawin' ta get a good look-see fer the kinda fella he truly war."

Meghan pulled back and cast a dubious look the tall brunette's way. "I wish I'd known! I nearly had heart failure!"

"Ahm right sorry 'bout that," Gaine set her most comforting look and stroked hair from the blonde's face to her bonnet. 'Thar warn't no way ta let ya know."

"Wait a minute!" Meghan said. "You had two blanks?"


"He fired both of those and had the gun pointed right at your chest for the third shot as you walked toward him."

"Yep. Well, uh, that 'un t'war a bit trickier. Had ta keep 'im a'jawin'."

"Oh, Gaine! Don't do that again!" She threw her arms around Gaine again.

Gaine let her arms wrap around the small blonde. "No. Ah ain't gonna.' She paused for a minute then continued, 'Uh, we done got us a problem we should outta be discussin'," the tall brunette murmured. 'Yer Pa's in 'is room?' From observing him on the trip Gaine knew if he stayed with his normal schedule, he'd be there for at least ten minutes after his meal.

"Yes. What problem?" Meghan stepped back.

"Uh, siddown, all right? We needs ta jaw right quick like."

They both sat on the edge of the bed. Gaine rubbed her hand across her forehead, "Uh, Ah need ya ta register ta the desk as Cousin Minnie,' she continued rubbing her fingers across her forehead, a frown on her face. "Ah can't reconnoiter how ta make this here work without 'er. Yer Pa'll figger right quick whar ya be if'n she ain't here."

'What? I have to register?' Meghan gasped. "Minnie's not going to show up?"

'Her letter war waitin' here. She up'n got herself hitched and ain't gonna make it. We gotta have her check in. T'is part a' the plan ta throw yer Pa off.'

'She's not coming?'

That thought hurt Gaine again, but she pushed it down. She said casually, 'No. Not this time.'

But Meghan saw the disappointment in Gaine's face and felt badly. Still she couldn't help feeling glad in a way as well. She worked hard to make sure her own pleasure at the information did not show and instantly felt guilty. How wrong was it that she didn't want to share this tall rancher with the cousin she obviously adored?

'I'm sorry, Gaine. I know how you looked forward to seeing her."

"Yep, well them things happen."

"Uh, but they've already seen me downstairs. They know I'm Meghan Fitzgeraldson. How can I register as your Cousin Minnie?'

'Ah, well now, 'member how Ah had ya watch that thar mysterious woman? Jest act like she done. Ah got one a them hats she wore an' she even tossed in one a them shawls an' some a' her dark gloves. You'll hafta carry mah bag. Yer Pa'd recognize yers sure as goats eat laundry off'n the laundry line.'

The young woman's hand flew to her chest, 'He'll see me? My father'll be there?'

'Hope sa. But ya'll be 'n disguise 'n Ahl be thar ta distract 'im. He's a mite flustered bah me raht ta the moment. He ain't gonna know t'is you. Ah promise. 'Member that mysterious ole lady? She war young, 'bout yer age er younger."


"Ti's true. Ah swear. Ah know ya kin do it, Meg. Might be fun. That little lady war havin' herself a good ole time.'

'Fun? No, it won't be fun!' Meghan looked askance at the tall brunette. Her stomach was now doing cartwheels.

"No, yer right. It ain't fun a'tall. Ah jest wancha ta relax a mite."

Meghan scowled and began to wring her hands. 'He'll go down for a drink before bed. Then he'll check my room both on the way down and the way back. So how do I do this?' She opened the door a crack and peeked out towards her father's room but the hall was empty. She'd said she'd do anything Gaine asked, so she knew she had to do this, much as she hated the idea.

'Uh, well now. Try 'n be ta bed 'n yer bed clothes when yer Pa checks a'goin' down. Oncet he's gone, leave yer nightshirt on, slip yer new dress over't and only strap on one a them petticoats, no corset er none a them t'uther thin's ...nothin' that's gonna take time. Ya doan wan' no young girl's figure nohow. Ya just hafta fit 'n the dress. Then come here an' slip on that thar hat 'n shawl 'n them black gloves. 'Member--yer an older woman, a year older 'n me."

"He might see the hat if I take it in there."

"No, come ta mah room 'n slip 'em on. An' leave 'em here when yer done. Now, here's the part Ah figured. Ya kin use that thar back stairway, go inta the servant's hall, they got a side street entrance down thar. Nobody war thar when Ah checked, but wait an' make sure nobody's 'bout. Go out that thar street door, come 'n tha front doors, n' register as Minnie Sargos. They'll give ya mah room number, 205. An' doan fergit ta carry mah bag."

"I use the employee's quarters to get to the street?"

"Yep. An try right hard not ta be seen by no one till yer ta the street. That part's a heap important."

"All right."

"It'll be dark, so's that done makes't easier." Gaine smiled. "Scribble yer signin' so's it doan look like yer writin' case yer Pa checks later on. Go up 'n take off them three things 'n mah room then down the hall ta yer room 'n slip back inta bed. Pratend ta be sleepin' when he done comes by afta 'is drink. I'll keep him down thar 'bout a half hour once't ya've gone upstairs so's ya gots time ta change.'

'Oh, Gaine,' she moaned nervously. She chewed her lip but squared her shoulders. "Should I use the outside balcony if the hallway isn't empty?"

Gaine considered it for a minute, "Uh, no, Ah doan think sa. Better ta wait till the hall's empty. Anabody seein' a lady a'rushin' from winda ta winda on the balcony'll be 'spicious. An' ya'd never know who t'war out thar a'watchin' ya from the dark. In the hallway ya can see well 'nuff ta know who's thar.

"You're positive this has to be done?" Meghan asked nervously. Her hands were shaking just thinking about it.

'Yer gonna do great! Just 'member that yer a mite older.' Gaine removed her Stetson and pushed back some loose hair strands. "Sometimes ya gotta sight life straight 'n tha eye an' throw yer rope smack dab athwart them horns, Meghan, ta pull't down ta its knees! This here's one a' them times." She replaced her hat and enfolded the small blonde in an embrace. Megan began to relax. "Yu'll do wondrous well," Gaine murmured into her hair.

As far as Gaine was concerned, this small woman had already shown she had plenty of sand. She'd have no problems if she could control her nervousness.

"I'd better go," Meghan whispered. "He'll be by soon." The blonde rushed back to her room. She undressed quickly and crawled into bed. She expected her father would check the windows and under the bed before he left. She knew him well.

Gaine turned the lantern very low, left her things inside and moved down the umbrous staircase lit only by the lamps' reflections at the check-in desk below. She stopped at the busy desk to ask again about her Cousin Minnie before going into the saloon where she could watch the hotel stairway.

She moved to the long bar and ordered a whiskey. Though there were many lamps in the room, there were still darkened pockets. A faro game was running in the back and the bulk of the crowd was gathered there noisily bucking the tiger.

For a minute while the faro crowd was milling about the table, she thought she caught a glimpse of the man with the scar, the one who had been on the stagecoach and had left mysteriously. Buzzards! He done come back ta catch me unawares, she thought with a grimace. Ahl hafta keep a sharp eye out fer him!

In an instant the vision was gone. She moved with her drink in hand to get a better view, looking here and there, but there was no one even resembling him there any longer. Maybe 'twarn't him nohow. She stood blinking and wondered if, in all the tension, her imagination was becoming overactive. She looked at her glass of whiskey. She hadn't had but a sip. And as it was, this stuff was little more than a watered down bracer a little old lady might have before a prayer meeting.

"Not strong enough for ya, beautiful?" a husky female voice asked. Gaine looked over to see one of the sporting ladies from the saloon, a smirk on her face.

Gaine chuckled and engaged the woman in conversation for a minute. She asked about the ladies who worked there and how they managed to get in and out without a lot of trouble from the citizenry since this was deemed a respectable hotel. Surely they didn't live here. The woman considered her for a minute, wondering if perhaps the tall beauty was looking for 'companionship' later in her room. She insured Gaine that they had a system that had served them well for years. The tall woman listened and nodded her head in understanding but graciously declined the lady's invitation to provide her with a visit.

Gaine did buy the woman a drink and watched her slug it back in one gulp.

'Thanks, beautiful," the soiled dove said in her gravelly voice. She winked flirtatiously before turning and heading toward the faro crowd.

Gaine wandered to a spot with a good view of the inside saloon entrance and the stairs to the second floor. She leaned against the wall, drink in hand just as Hiram walked into the bar. She felt guilty having him come so far since she wouldn't need him to act as an escort now.

Of course, he didn't know she'd ever intended to use him as an escort. She moved to the bar, slapped him on the back and bought him a drink. They discussed the cattle market, this year's prices and quickly settled on the same price mentioned when they'd met earlier. They shook on it and he bought another round. She mentioned her situation had changed, she didn't need the favor. But she didn't say what her situation was and he didn't ask. She apologized for bringing him all this way. His eyes went to the faro table and she suggested that he go ahead. She didn't play and was fine where she was.

He took his drink and headed toward the crowd. She saw him settle in with the players. Again she stood against the wall to watch the door. Before long a tall, sturdy man with a bushy mustache and a shiny shield-like "Marshal" badge pinned on his rough-woven tweed sack coat ambled in and up to the bar and took off his western hat displaying a receding hair line. He ordered a whiskey. The Sacramenta Marshal, she decided. Makin' 'is rounds. Wonder if'n Meghan's Pa is still sa all-fired anxious ta make his acquaintance?

The Marshal stood alone at the bar for a while scrutinizing the room, checking out everyone that was there. His coat was unbuttoned and so was his vest. His short dark tie stood out from the stiff collar on his obviously purchased boiled white shirt. His trousers, on the otherhand, looked homemade as did his vest. His eyes fell on her and remained. Then he tossed back his drink, put on his hat, pushed it to the back of his head and slowly strolled toward her.

'You that crack shot I've heard so much raving about today?' he asked stepping up to her and letting his eyes wander as politely as he could over her clothing. His voice was exceptionally deep, sonorous and nonthreateningly mellow.

'Not sure what all ya've heard, Marshal,' she smiled.

His discerning eyes moved back up to her smile. With a smile like that, he thought to himself, that woman could break any number of fella's hearts. His voice softened. 'Put a hole in a coin that was flicked in the air?' he continued. 'Can't be that many six foot tall women in men's clothes stayin' at this hotel. That right? You put a hole in that coin?' She could hear the accolade in his voice.

'Well now, that Ah did do.'

"With a sixshooter?" He noticed how blue her eyes were, surrounded with long black lashes.

"Yep. Mah new Colt." She patted the item on her hip and his eyes moved there.

"Amazin'!" He scrubbed a hand across his square jaw in thought. "Shot an orange off a tree then swung round to hit a tin cup on a post clean at the other end of the corral? Ya do that, too?"

"Uh, well, yep. Ah did."

"With a rifle."

"With mah carbine."

"Fancy shootin'!" He continued to rub his jaw. "So's I had to wonder why someone that's as good a shot as you and as experienced would purposely toss her gun to an adversary and turn her back." He leaned forward and paid particular note of the small pin holes in her leather vest. "Yer the law!" he added with surprise, his startled face whipping up to examine hers. She nearly laughed aloud from his astounded expression.

"Not right now, Ah ain't," she smiled, lifting out her Sheriff's star, giving it a quick glance and stuffing it back in her vest pocket. "Ahm here fer personal bizness, meetin' up with'n mah Cousin Minnie an' fetchin' her ta home."

He did not appear to be listening. "I know who ya are!" His eyes opened wide. "By jibbers, you're that woman Sheriff took out that Beedrix Boys gang a horsethieves singlehandedly! Ya have ta be her with that kinda shootin' ya done today. Why, every one of those outlaws was dropped with your gun within seconds. Good Lord, I heard about that!"

"Well, they war only three fellers. And they done shot and wounded one a mah Deputies. Ah doan never stand fer none a'that kinda circumstance without reprisal." That had been the first time she'd ever actually killed anyone. It was in her official capacity as Sheriff, happened years ago, in a nanosecond, but the memory still haunted some of her nights.

'They shot your Deputy?'

"Yep. An they war taking bead on t'uthers a mah men so's Ah sent 'em mah unwelcomed regards. T'were lucky, ah reckon," she added almost sorrowfully.

"And ya got 'em all, I hear, just like that! All three...before they could even think!" the Marshal raved. "Boom, boom, boom!"

Gaine's voice dropped and her words sounded tired. "If'n they'd surrendered, they'd be a'livin'...well, till they war hung by the court. When they ain't gonna surrender 'n' t'is a question a'whose life's up fer decision, ain't no discussion. Criminals die, not mah Deputies."

"Amazin!" he breathed. His glimmering brown eyes catechized her, "And they said that last night you fired at what they later thought was the outlaws that robbed the southbound stage. Conductor seemed to think you kept 'em from attacking your stage."

"Um, maybe. Doan know. Saw movement, but din't have no glass ta see what t'was. So's Ah aimed to startle, not ta kill."

"Uh huh." He shook his head and stared. Then he pondered for a minute and added, "And that brings me back to my original question. Why throw that man a gun and turn y0ur back? Conductor said the two of ya was frettin' with each other the whole trip."

"Well now, actually we was ponderin' them high 'n mighty morals he war a'spoutin'. An Ah wondered what he'd do if'n he had a gun 'n his hand. Then Ah tossed him mahn ta find out."

"Uh huh. What high and mighty morals?"

"Well, see, we war havin' this here discussion regardin' a duel a' honor 'twixt him 'n mahself. He war claimin' he war too honorable ta duel with'n a woman like me." She smiled slyly then ran a hand across her forehead for a minute and adjusted her hat. "Well, sir," she continued, "Ah figured regardless a' his elaborate jawin', he'd show his meddle fer ever'one ta see. He done liked fancyin' up his repeetation while speakin' downright poorly a' mahn. Ah figured his well a' good regards done been poisoned an' Ah alsa figured he'd show his true likeness...an danged if he din't."

"He coulda killed ya."

"Ah ain't that easy ta kill. But, uh, he did try, din't he?"

"You reportin' him for attempted murder?"

"No. He warn't that dire a threat. An' Ah ain't got no time ta deal with'n 'im. Sides, after mah coin shot, them next two rounds war blanks. How big a fool ya think Ah t'war?" She raised a brow.

The Marshal laughed. "Blanks, huh? That makes more sense. Say, mention was made about how he got all a'bluster with ya shootin' off the end of his cigar. Ya DO that? Inside a coach?"

"Ah asked him polite-like ta desist with'n the smokin' inside the coach. T'war botherin' the ladies. He refused. Ah handled it."

This time the Marshal broke out with a deep belly laugh. "Oh pancakes! What I wouldn't a'give ta be on that journey with ya! Sounds like quite a curvet. And you were ridin' with Mr. Russellman, too. Oh, buttermilk pancakes! A real curvet!"

'Mr. Russellman?'

'The driver.' The Marshal laughed heartily, 'That old rascal likes to drive those horses through that mountain dropoff fast as he dares. Makes it sound like he's holdin' 'em back, but he ain't. Has it down to a science. Scares the begeebers out'a all the passengers. Stage company's threatened to fire him numerous times, but he is the best driver they have.'

'He done that on purpose?'

'Yep. He and the Conductor bet on how many's gonna take up the shovel at the next swing station.'

'Why, them rascals,' Gaine couldn't believe they'd do that on purpose.

'Yep. They was quite took with you. Said you made the trip right entertaining except they feared they might have ta bury that big fella and his cigars if they didn't get here soon enough.' He laughed a few more minutes then sobered, 'Course, the other stage being held up wasn't funny.'

Gaine agreed, "'Yep. That t'were downright sorrowful!"

The Marshal sobered further. "Yep. They got Branston on their trail. He's a good man. I'da gone myself 'cept we're running shorthanded here. I'm hoping he and his posse haul 'em back to swing for that dastardly deed shootin' them three."

"Amen ta that," Gaine agreed. "The wounded doin' all right?"

"Nope. One of 'em passed on. The one shot in the back."

"Shot 'n the back,' Gaine shook her head, 'Buzzards!" There was a strict code of honor in the west. You didn't shoot women, children or stage drivers. And you never shot someone in the back.

"Exactly!" he agreed. Gaine looked him over well. The Marshal stood just under Gaine's height. He was the curious type--polite but dogged. One you wouldn't necessarily want on your trail. In all aspects he looked to be more of a country boy than a city fella. And she'd just bet anything he could read trail good as an Apache. It was a shame he hadn't gone after them. She was pretty sure he'd have had a chance to catch them.

This Marshal spoke softly but he reeked of persistence. She'd met his kind before and was cut from the same cloth herself. She just knew he'd keep on till all means he could think up had been exhausted. She'd put good money on that.

'Well, much as I'd like to see ya do any of them tricks again," he continued, "I'd be right grateful if ya don't go employing your guns here in town." He leaned in and whispered in his deep voice, "Consider it a personal favor, Sheriff."

The tall beauty's blue eyes twinkled, 'Ah ain't expectin' ta. Ahm only here ta pick up mah Cousin Minnie an' high tail it on back home. That's 'bout it.'

'Yep, I heard that, too. Well, try and avoid that other fella. We don't want trouble hereabouts.'

She smiled again. 'All right, Marshal.'

He considered her another minute. She must have chosen to be alone. She could find company as easy as dogs found fleas with that radiant smile of hers. He tipped his hat pleasantly then pushed it back on his head.

She watched him move back to the bar, get another drink and move down to talk to some other fellows at the end of the bar then move into the crowd at the faro table. She watched the group there for a minute and instantly spotted the man the Marshal was going to need to watch. The one she'd watch. He wasn't too far from Hiram. And he looked like he knew a trick or two. She grinned internally when she saw the lawman move near him. Yep, he picked him out right quick.

A sound of laughter interrupted her thoughts. She turned to find one of the men who had ridden on the top of the stage staring at her. She smiled and nodded in greeting and he jumped up to join her. He was staying here at the hotel, too, he told her, waiting for the morning train to the east coast. He invited her to join his table where he was sitting with some business associates.

The men hopped to their feet and treated her as though she was a celebrity. Chester introduced her all around and each man solemnly shook her hand before they all pulled out chairs and sat. Chester retold the story of what had happened, drawing out his orange peel for their perusal and their eyes examined it and her with great awe.

She answered all questions they had, letting her eyes drift to the desk in the other room and the lightless stairway behind it. She was pleased when their attention shifted to other topics and before she knew it, they were heatedly discussing politics. It wasn't long thereafter when she saw Meghan's father's shadowy figure lumber down the dimmed staircase and enter the hotel saloon.

"Shucks Aaron," one of the men was saying, "You said no man with a middle name could be elected President for a second term. But come '72 and old General Ulysses S. Grant gets hisself reelected for a second term. Whatcha say to that?"

"Weeell, it's an initial. All right, he's the exception," the man she assumed was Aaron replied. "He was the first. Look at all the others and none were reelected!"

"Like who?" Chester asked. Gaine sipped her whiskey and watched Meghan's father. He made contact with another shadowy fellow who'd just entered from the street door. They moved to a table by that door. She was sure it wasn't Lendal because she was very familiar with the mystery man's badge...Deputy. That thar's gotta be Lendal's cousin, she decided. Interestin' that he's here when Lendal ain't. Musta been sent fer the occasion. Them fellers doan take no chances, looks like. Meghan wouldn't a' had much uva chance on her own.

"C'mon, Chester, you know! There was John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, James Knox Polk. None of them boys were reelected."

Gaine glanced toward the Marshal to see if he seemed to recognize this Deputy, but he had his back to them and was talking with a non-player in the faro crowd. "What's you think, Gaine?" Chester asked the tall brunette. "You got good opinions." He noticed her attention wandering and he didn't want her to leave.

She brought her eyes back to Chester and took off her Stetson. She ran a hand along her braid before returning the hat. "Well fellas, thar ain't no point in mah having no opinions at'all," she smiled. They all looked at her with reverence. "Ah ain't ALLOWED ta cast no vote fer president, 'member?"

"It's not so much that women aren't allowed to vote," one man said. "They just don't have the interest or the background of information that it takes to vote."

"Nossir," Gaine flashed her smile. "That ain't true. That thar ejucated woman, uh, Susan...what war her last name? Anthony. That war it. Mrs. Antony. She done cast herself a vote last year back east and she war arrested. Arrested! Nossir, women ain't allowed ta vote, plain an' simple. Ain't got nothin' ta do with interest er background. Gots ever'thin' ta do with men havin' the power."

"Nonsense. It requires a great deal of reading and keeping up to date on worldly affairs to prepare to cast a ballot. Women don't like to bother their pretty little heads, nor should they have to. Voting is not in women's comprehension."

"Uh huh," Gaine grinned. "An ya figure women bees jest sittin' back bein' waited on hand 'n foot by servants an' such so's they doan hafta bother their "purty little heads"? Ah ain't an' neither t'is any t'uther woman Ah know. Most work danged hard."

"I'm not saying women don't work hard. I'm saying they don't have the comprehension that it takes to vote."

"Ya think Ah couldn't cast me no sensible ballot?"

"You're the exception, Gaine. I'm sure you probably could cast an informed vote."

"Uh huh," Gaine replied. "Most womens gots a heavy load a comprehension when it comes ta raisin' families, and doin' their share a work an' more, an figurin' budgets an the like. An' most still pay 'tention ta what's a'happenin' worldwide."

"Of course, but it takes a certain logical ability beyond all that."

"'Sides what it takes ta run a house full a childern an keep a farm a'runnin'?"

"It's not the same."

"It ain't? Fancy that. All them women keepin' their farms runnin' when their husbands wended off ta war. Ya sayin' they din't have no idea who would make a good President? Instead fellas are just born with this here natural ability ta make them thar comprehensive decisions. Is that what yer sayin?"

"Yes. Exactly."

"Well sir, Ah gotta disagree. Men ain't borned with'n no special ability makes 'em better ta votin'."

"Of course you wouldn't comprehend. You're a woman." His eyes widened when he realized the challenging remark he'd made to this woman that was such a good shot. He held his breath and watched carefully to see if her hand was headed toward her gun.

But Gaine just smirked, "Nossir, ya bees wrong. Ya see that feller over thar 'n the corner? The one drunk as a fiddler?"

All eyes turned that way. A man in very dirty clothing had draped his torso on the darkened table, his eyes shut, a bottle of whiskey still in one hand.

"Disgraceful!" one of the men replied.

"Yep. He shore nuff t'is that," Gaine replied. "An thar's a right good chance he ain't larned ta read ner write ner act as no educated 'xample ta nobody."

"Humpf. Correct!" the same man agreed.

"Well, that thar fella kin cast hisself a vote in eny e-lection he chooses. An he ain't gonna be arrested. But me, Ah would be. He ain't been borned with no magical ability causes him ta cast 'n informed vote. None a'side the fact that menfolk got the power an' kin prevent womenfolk from their fair process." The men looked silently at the drunken man. "A war mighta been fought, fellas, but thar ain't no emancipation fer the womenfolk."

One of the associates groaned and Chester rose. "C'mon Gaine, let's go chat over there," he suggested.

"All right, but let's move ta the door by the lobby," Gaine agreed. She kept her eye on Meghan's heavyset father as she and Chester moved toward the inside saloon door that led to the lobby.

The Deputy and Meghan's father were leaned toward each other in heavy discussion across the room. She looked to the Marshal but another man had joined him and he hadn't spotted the Deputy yet. Instead he was headed to the table where they were playing what looked like draw poker. Must be a potential problem there. Chester watched her move her gaze back to Meghan's father.

"That despicable old fool." Chester said. "Tried ta shoot ya in the back. An' you unarmed. Had us all mighty concerned."

"Yep," Gaine agreed. She looked at Chester and smiled. "Good thing Ahd put me some blanks in that thar gun, huh?"

"My heavens! I had no idea. Yes, it was a good thing. You must have expected him to do that. I thought you were too fast for him and just rolled away."

"Well, Ah mighta had. We ain't never gonna know. He war a'sellin' that thar snake oil regardin' the moral fortitude a' hisself, but his deeds jest din't match up ta them claims. Ah figured his true nature wudda showed itself once't he had a gun in hand. An it did."

One of the men from the table approached them. "All right, you two settle it for us. Benjamin over there says that no man who's been a Senator has ever become President. I agreed but Richmand says that's not so. What do you two say?"

"I don't rightly know," Chester replied.

"What 'bout that feller that war up fer all that impeachment nonsense--Johnson," Gaine suggested. "Waren't he a Senator? Or war that after he war President?" Her eyes went to Meghan's father and the Deputy. They were still speaking intently and Gaine was sure their purpose was to keep track of Meghan. She heard Chester's voice and when she looked up again, the other man was gone.

Chester noted her distraction but smiled, "So, tell me about your cousin."

Just then, reflected in the mirror behind the bar, Gaine saw Meghan dressed in her new dress with the thickly veiled hat and long black gloves. She entered the hotel and moved to the desk. It was odd how much the hat changed her looks.

The desk was still busy and she had to wait. Gaine's stomach clenched. She knew Meghan had to be nearly sick with nerves as well. She hadn't done as good a job as the other young lady pretending to be older, but she didn't need to. Gaine was confident that a reasoning eye would see her as someone older than she was.

"Uh, didja say mah Cousin Minnie?" she asked, stalling. She watched the Deputy get up and move out of the saloon's street door to the boardwalk outside. A glance at the Marshal still chatting in the back showed he hadn't ever seen the other lawman. Hiram glanced over throwing her a smile that she nervously returned.

Gaine's lips smiled but her eyes went back to taking in the happenings across the room. She glanced in the mirror at Meghan waiting then looked directly at Chester. "I'm here ta meet her, ya know. She's a'comin back ta the ranch. My, the trouble we got inta as childern." She shook her head with a chuckle but her eyes went back to Hiram who was again playing faro then to Meghan's father.

Whatever Meghan's father and the Deputy had talked about had restored some of the natural surliness in the miserable man's demeanor. He had risen and was moving toward the bar. She glanced over and the Marshal was also headed back to the bar. She saw the small smile of victory on Meghan's father's face. Gaine wondered what the Deputy had advised Meghan's Pa to tell the Marshal. What kinda snake oil tale are ya prepared ta spin now? she wondered.

She looked in the mirror and saw Meghan still at the desk. Well, maybe she could stop the blonde's father's progress as he moved closer to the lawman, who had stopped again to chat. She drew a coin from her vest and flipped it casually in the air, snatching it with a snap of her hand that caught the man's eye.

Her blue eyes bore into his, his glued to hers with a look of defiance. She ruffled her brow in challenge and casually flicked the coin in the air once more. He paused. His hand went to his forehead and the slight mark left there by her rifle barrel. He remembered her telling him that this was between the two of them and no one else. She could see him pale as he ran his fingers over the coin he had in his jacket pocket. He seemed to be considering.

That's right, ya rotten buzzard, ya jest think on it, she thought without breaking eye contact. Ah could walk over thar and we could jest speak ta the Marshal at the same time. Ya wanna chance bein' arrested? Ahm ready!

"Or if you don't want to talk about it, that's all right, too," Chester was saying. She brought her eyes back to him with a bit of a start. Stars! she grimaced, ah feel like one a them fellers a'jugglin a hundert things inta the air ta the same time.

"Uh, if'n ya doan mind, Ahd like ta hear somethin' 'bout yer family," she smiled warmly at the man and saw him respond before she glanced back in the mirror. Meghan was being waited on.

"My parents live back east..." Chester started. "There were fourteen children in our family but the two youngest died of Scarlet fever."

"Sorry ta hear it," she responded, letting her eyes go outside to where the Deputy had crossed the street and seemingly disappeared. It was dark and the street lights did not illuminate all that much. She wondered where he'd gone. Then in a dark store entry kiddycorner from the hotel she glimpsed the sudden glow from a smoke and knew that had to be him. He was standing where he could see all the doors of the hotel from both streets, including the employee's entrance as well as both balconies.

She glanced over and saw that the blonde's father was considering the fact that she was blocking his passage out of the saloon to the main staircase. Apparently he had decided not to talk to the Marshal. From his movements Gaine determined he was likely considering going back to his room, but didn't want to pass by her. She didn't budge from near the doorway.

The same scantilly clad sporting lady Gaine had chatted with earlier approached the old man. They spoke for a minute, he pulling out his pocketwatch as the two stood discussing something while apparently referencing the watch. She quickly left, flicking Gaine a hidden wink before moving toward the back tables. The old man's eyes judgementally trailed her swaying behind as she walked away.

Gaine half-listened as Chester talked. She nodded in the appropriate places and grunted non-distinct agreements in other places. Meghan's father looked toward her and had all the earmarks of a man trapped. The big man took a step toward the entrance to leave and Gaine moved to stand squarely in the doorway facing Chester, who was still talking.

She narrowed her eyes at Meghan's father and he moved back to his place at the bar. She watched the desk in the mirror, being sure to ask a few questions of Chester as Meghan finally hurried up the stairs. The blonde was moving too fast to be very old. Gaine didn't turn to face the desk and stairs at all, preferring to keep track in the mirror. That way Chester would think she was watching the heavy man nervously standing there.

She saw the blonde's father look toward the desk as well and again she moved so that he would focus on her instead.

Outside on the street two covered Army wagons rattled up to the hotel, two soldiers per bench. The Deputy stepped out of his doorway to try and see around them since they were big enough to obscure his view of both hotel doorways. The wagons stopped and one of the men hopped down and ran into the desk.

"Hey, ain't them the fellas from the stage?" Gaine asked, tipping her hat in their direction. Chester waved. Gaine saw Meghan's father look that way as well.

"You're right," Chester grinned. "They said they'd be bringing supplies back to their fort. Wonder what they're doing here and where the officer is?'

"Din't the Lieutenant say he had hisself a meetin' ta the Fort 'n San Francisco?"

"Hey fellas, have a good trip home!" Chester called from the doorway.

"We will!" The man got the cigars that were left at the desk for them and hurried back out the door. "And thanks fer the smokes!"

"Wonder who left 'em cigars at the desk?" Chester said. Gaine didn't answer.

She saw the Deputy outside walking around the wagons peering inside, seeing as much as he could by street light. Meghan's father was also watching out the window. He appeared to be very nervous at the Army's appearance. The soldier passed out the cigars to each man. Then the wagons started up again and headed down the street while the Deputy walked back to his doorway deep in thought.

Suddenly Gaine saw Meghan's father turn to leave through the saloon employee's back door that led to the back of the hotel. Damn! It hadn't been a half hour. What could she do to stop him or slow him down? She'd have to catch him in the upstairs hall and back him down the back stairs that were there. It wouldn't be easy. He'd be worried by what he saw and would want to verify that Meghan was in her bed and not hidden away in one of those Army wagons.

She quickly bid farewell to a disappointed Chester and wished him well. She ran up the stairs. She opened the door to her room, but her softly lit chamber was empty. The young womans' disguise items were scattered everywhere and her bag was by the bed. Obviously Meghan had taken things off in a hurry. Quietly she stepped back out and shut the door.

He wasn't in the dimly lit hallway. Then she heard him huffing up the back stairs and she tapped then quickly opened Meghan's door. 'He's comin',' she said quietly into the darkened room and shut the door. The young woman had extinguished the lamp and was just climbing into bed. Her room was dark.

Gaine took long, hurried strides through the heavy shadows in the hall back to the main stairway. She moved down two steps, turned and started walking up again as though she had just come from the saloon to go to her room. She knew Meghan's father was in the back of the darkened hall now watching her. She could hear him breathing in the shadows.

Meghan was already in bed so there was no need to confront him. He had stopped and was not continuing. She purposely did not look that way but she could feel his hateful eyes on her. Well, if he wanted a show, she'd give him one!

She got to her room, opened her door and exclaimed, 'Cousin Minnie! Ya made it! It's sa good to see ya after all this time. Ya look simply grand, darlin'.' She stepped into her room and heard him start moving down the hall. She closed the door as she heard him open his daughter's door. He hadn't even tapped on Meghan's door this time. He's gotta be plum nervous 'bout her a'runnin' off, she mused, he ain't even knockin'. Them Army boys shore done shook him up.

She listened with her ear to the door. She heard his lion's voice growling in a warning tone. She waited. He must be checking the window, she guessed. Still she waited. Finally she heard him walking back down the hall to his own room. Now they waited. She chatted to the room as she picked up the mantilla and folded it and then gathered the gloves. They'd need to organize Meghan's things as well as her own.

Ten minutes or so later there was a light tap on the door. Gaine opened it and a flushed Meghan was there holding her bag. "Hurry," she breathed, "there's people coming up the stairs." She hastily pulled the door shut behind her.

'Can we go now?' green eyes pleaded, 'I've got all my things from that room.' She was wearing the new dress her mother had made her with all her petticoats pulled on over her nightshirt underneath. She had her bag with her other underclothes. "I'd already packed my unmentionables earlier. I had to dress in the dark and pack my other dress. I'd left it out earlier especially for father to see. But I'm sure I got everything."

'Uh, wer a'takin' the mornin' stage back.'

'What? We're waiting till morning? Oh, Gaine! My stomach is doing flips."

Meghan stood chewing her lip. Gaine stepped forward and put her arms around the small blonde. She felt horrible that Meghan was so frightened. "Ah knows..."

"Wait! You said we're going back? Where you got on the stage, you mean?" Meghan took two steps back, her face registering concern.

"No, ta mah town, Barden's Corner. T'is a couple days ride away from that thar stage stop where Ah got on."

"Oh, heavens. I...I didn't give this any thought." Meghan began to pace the small room. "How can I go back there, Gaine?" Large green eyes implored the brunette, "We'll be so close. What if he finds me? He'll look...hard.'

'He ain't gonna find ya. Ah pondered this heavy, Meghan. 'Member, we ain't goin' all the way back ta yer ole hometown--we're a'goin' ta the ranch on this here side'a the mountains. He'd never think ta look thar. He ain't got no reason ta. He'd think like yer a'thinkin' now, that ya wunt never go back that a'way in a hundert years. An' he ain't gonna wanna come an' meet up with'n ME agin."

Meghan stopped and raised sadly etched green eyes toward Gaine. She sighed heavily. Gaine stepped forward and took her hand, "No one ta Barden's Corner's gonna know who ya be. Yer Pa ain't gonna see that you and me gots no connection. Ahve worked hard ta make me an him a frightful differ'nt problem he's a'gonna wanna abnegate like'n the plague. Ya outta be right safe thar.'

Meghan's teeth chewed on her lower lip as she worried. She didn't want to be that close to her old home but she wanted to be with Gaine. "Gods!" She pulled her hand back. "We have to wait till morning?' She rubbed her hands across her face. 'What if he has the hotel searched when he sees I'm gone?"

Gaine gently took her hand again. "He ain't a'gonna see yer gone. Not early on, leastwise. Yu'll be in yer own bed near till time ta leave. Ahl knock lightly three times when them sportin' ladies from the saloon sally off. One a' them ladies tole me they, uh, finish with'n thar customers an de-part jest a'fore the stage gets in so's they ain't seen. Theys go out ta the employee's entrance so's nobody complains an they pile inta a big ole carriages that takes 'em back ta where they got rooms up the street."

"The ladies in the saloon?"

"Yep. The sportin' ladies. That's when yu'll come ta mah room. Yer Pa'll be tired an likely a'snorin' by then. Ah seen him a'jawin' with'n one a them soiled doves. Do he ever, uh, participate in sech, uh, happenin's?"

Meghan mutely nodded "yes". It was not something her family ever discussed or admitted but this was hardly the time to be coy about her father's predilections.

"Ah figured. Well, we jest gotta sneak ya ta mah room. When he sees yer missin', first thing he's gonna do is check on them ladies an see if'n ya left with'n 'em. Once't he's done trackin' 'em down, we'll be gone. An 'member, Ah kin al'ays have 'im arrested if'n need be."

'Oh, Gods! I'm frightened, Gaine. I don't think I can sleep.'

Gaine put her arms around the young woman. 'We gotta take the chance. Ya done vera good registerin', by the way. Ya din't look nothin' like Meghan in that get-up.' She kissed Meghan on the forehead. They stood in the embrace for a few minutes, neither wanting to move. Meghan held on tight in what Gaine knew was real fear.

Gaine chuckled, hoping to alleviate some of the tension, "Them Army boys went by and it set yer Pa and that thar Deputy fella off. Ahm shore theys had visions a ya a'ridin' off with'n one a them Army fellers. T'wixt them an' the ladies, they ain't gonna know whar ya gone."

"Deputy fella? Was Lendal's cousin here?"

"Yep. He's a standin' watch 'cross't the street. But doan fret, he din't get out thar till ya war a'comin' inta the hotel as Cousin Minnie," she exclaimed.

"Oh, now I'm really frightened!" Meghan tightened her hold on the tall beauty.

"Yer twenty-one, Meghan," Gaine soothed. "And ya ain't married ta Lendal. So's ya ain't breakin' no law that ah know 'bout by leavin'."

"But what if I get dragged before a judge? My father would demand it."

"Well, that thar's the reason we wanna git ya outta here without ya bein' seed. Ya doan never know what one a them judges might adjudicate. They ain't all friendly ta the idea uva woman bein' independent. Some is, but some ain't."

"Oh, Gaine, can't I stay with you? It's so frightening being alone over there."

"Ah know, but if'n yer Pa sees yer gone, he's gonna have that thar Deputy here a'helpin' him search 'n no time. Ah doan believe they got cause ta go room ta room, but they'd be alerted an checkin' ever which way. Best they not be a'knowin' nothin' too soon. The longer we kin hold that thar off, the better."

"What are you going to do about the Deputy when the stage comes? He'll see me coming out with you."

"If'n he's still thar an not a'helpin yer Pa check the ladies, we'll jest walk right on out past 'im. He saw ya come in ta register. He knows ya as mah Cousin Minnie. He ain't gonna be 'spicious a ya. But if'n he war, he's gotta git by me and Ah ain't gonna give 'im access ta mah Cousin. No, t'is best ya jest stay in yer room till it's time. Ahl knock. He ain't the Deputy fer here, so's he can't do no demandin'."

"All right. I said I'd do my part, and I will." Large green eyes looked up at Gaine as the blonde chewed her lip then took a deep quivering breath. "But I'm very frightened," she whispered. She sighed and shut her eyes, burying her face in Gaine's shoulder.

"Ah know ya be." Gaine enfolded her more firmly in her arms and squeezed tenderly. She hated that this was so hard on the smaller woman. "But t'will be fine. Sometimes the best move t'is one right under thar noses. T'is least 'spected." Gaine shut her eyes and breathed in the scent of the small woman's hair. It felt so good holding her close but after a few minutes Gaine leaned back from the embrace and whispered. "Ah ain't gonna be far off. Are ya gonna be all right now? Are ya ready ta go back?"

"No, but I will," Meghan ran a shaky hand through her disheveled blonde hair.

Suddenly there was a piercing shout, 'HELP! MOLESTER! HELP! HELP!' Gaine pushed Meghan back, drew her gun and opened the door a crack. It was just enough to see the back of Meghan's father in the darkened hall by Meghan's room scooting quickly toward his own room near the back stairs, his head down and his feet shuffling quickly.

The Marshal came running up the stairs two at a time, his gun drawn, a brace of hotel porters at his heels. Gaine eased the door shut even more. Two gentlemen guests stepped out of one of the even numbered rooms further down from Meghan's room and nabbed her father as he tried to scurry by. He was instantly angry and shouted demands that they set him free at once. They dragged him back to outside Meghan's room where the Marshal stood scratching his head.

'I know important people,' Meghan's father hollered. 'Unhand me at once!'

Doors along the hall were opening, heads were popping out. Lying half out of Meghan's room was a heavy grey-haired dowager clad only in her long chemise, petticoats and corset. The expensive dress she'd just pulled over her head was billowed on the floor just inside her room. The woman had obviously fainted.

'I'll, uh, just grab a blanket here,' the Marshal said, stepping over the woman. 'Shut yer eyes, folks. This woman deserves some privacy. Cover 'em up now!'

The hotel people and guests covered their eyes but the Marshal noted that the man apprehended did not. He continued to scowl at the woman on the floor. Just as you'd expect from someone who tries to shoot a woman in the back, the Marshal thought to himself. Obviously there is no honor with this man!

"Shut your eyes, sir!" he demanded and Meghan's father squinched his mouth in protest then reluctantly did as he was told.

The Marshal threw the coverlet he pulled from the bed over the woman to cover her indecency. He stepped over her into the hall and dragged Meghan's father to the side more out of the way. One of the hotel personnel ran the hotel's green bottle of smelling salts up the stairs to revive the hapless woman.

'Unhand me this instant,' the portly man demanded of the Marshal, 'My daughter's in that room.' The Marshal stood him in one place and told him firmly to stay there. He peered back over the fallen woman into Meghan's room and looked into all the shadows but saw no one else there. He pointed to the woman on the floor. 'You sayin' this here's your daughter?'

Meghan's father growled, 'Don't be ridiculous. That's not my daughter. My daughter's seventeen years old. Meghan!' he yelled. 'Meghan, get out here at once! DON'T MAKE ME HAVE TO COME AND FIND YOU!'

Inside Gaine's room Meghan's hands flew to her mouth. 'He's calling for me,' she said in a whisper. 'He knows I'm not there. Already he knows. It's too soon.'

'Yep,' Gaine said from the door. "Put out that thar lamp, will ya? Ah think we done got us a change a' plans here."

Megan moved quickly and turned the wick till the light disappeared. "Heavens to Betsy, what do we do now?" she whispered. She wrung her hands and stayed away from the door. Gaine kept her eye to the crack in the door.

"Jest relax," she whispered back to the blonde, "He doan got no idea whar ya be.'

The woman in the hall moaned under the influence of the vapors and sat up with help from the night clerk. She pulled the coverlet around her girth. Then she spotted Meghan's father. She began to scream, "Oh, he's the one! That's him!"

"All right, Missus," the Marshal's deep voice calmed, "Tell me what happened.

'Horrible," the woman sat upright and clutched the coverlet further around her front. "It's so horrible," she put her face in the wad of coverlet in her hand and sobbed before looking up again. 'I was disrobing. I'd barely gotten into my room. He must have been watching, waiting for this opportunity to strike.'

"You just got to your room?" the Marshal asked.

"Yes. Just long enough to remove my dress and there he was...inside my room!"

"He was inside?" the Marshal quizzed. He cast a scorching look at Meghan's father.

"Yes,' she continued, 'I screamed. It must have frightened him, because he didn't even try to leave till I did. His intentions were...oh, my,' she sobbed as they waited patiently. She paused and raised her eyes to the Marshall, 'He had sins of the flesh on his mind,' she whispered. The thought made her weak and she started to faint again but the vapors were hastily thrust under her nose. She pushed them away.

'Easy now, ma'am,' the Marshal soothed.

'This is outrageous,' Meghan's father growled. 'Who would be interested in that old bag of wind? This is my daughter's room. I walked in to check on her. MEGHAN! WHERE ARE YOU? COME HERE THIS INSTANT!'

The large woman's eyes narrowed at the name he'd called her and her tears stopped. She sat up straight from her slump, pointed at him, 'There's no daughter here, Marshal. Look for yourself."

The Marshal stretched his head in the woman's room as much past the sitting woman as he dared. The lamp was lit within. "Yes, Missus, I have to agree." He turned to Meghan's father as he withdrew his head, "Bed's made. No luggage but this lady's engraved case. No sign of any daughter.'

"Did ya make the bed a'fore ya left?" Gaine asked Meghan in a whisper.

"Oh, sorry," she whispered back.

"T'were a right good thing, Ahm a'thinkin'," Gaine replied. "Wanna watch?" She moved so they both could look through the crack .

"She was there, uh, in bed, less than a half hour ago," Meghan's father stuttered.

"Uh huh. So are ya saying your daughter got up, dressed, packed her bag, made the bed, then disappeared into thin air in a half hour's time? Is that yer claim?"

"No woman could dress that fast, much less make the bed," the woman on the floor snapped, "It's lies, lies." She wadded the coverlet again with both hands, pulling it around her ample bosom. "He meant to..' she trembled, 'do his vile deed. Ohhhh.' She gasped and buried her face in her hands.

"I'm NOT lying, my daughter was there in bed, I tell you. Just a seventeen year old girl. She must have been kidnapped! You must help me find her."

"Uh huh," the Marshal muttered. They all looked at the older man with total disregard. It was pretty obvious he was trying to talk himself out of his crime.

Meghan could hear her father's words rumble down the hall and into Gaine's room. "That is a lie," she hissed vehemently. "I'm twenty-one and he knows it."

"He be's a'thinkin' they ain't gonna look fer ya lest yer younger," Gaine replied.

'Kidnappers who made the bed before they hauled her off?' the Marshall raised his brow. 'Not likely.' He rubbed his chin in thought.

'There's no daughter in here,' the woman on the floor cried, 'Never has been. And there's no honor in this man. No, his were vile, ugly intentions. I saw how he looked at me! Lawsy! It makes me shiver to think about it. Oh, Edgar was right." Again tears flowed. "Arrest this man, Marshal," she sobbed, "Do your job.'

One of the men from down the hall stood with a long thin stick or piece of straw sticking out of his mouth. It was hard to tell what it was in the shadowed hallway. He moved it to the side with his fingers and chewed. 'He was a'scootin' right along a'tryin' ta make his a'gittin' away all right, Marshal,' he said slowly. 'Innocent fellers don't try ta run.' He took the thing out of his mouth and pointed it at Meghan's father. "That feller, right there."

He was one of the men who had captured the heavy man as he made his way down the hall. The other man with him shook his head in agreement, "Just so."

The Marshall's shield-shaped badge flickered reflected light from the hall lantern. He stood pensively with his hat in one hand, the other rumpling his long, lonely strands of brown hair swept across the crown of his balding head.

'That man molested me. I demand his arrest. He was in my room and he had evil intent in his heart, Marshal. Oh, I should have listened to my dear husband,' the grey-haired matron wailed. 'He said not to come into the city till he could be with me. He said it had grown far too dangerous. But I didn't listen.'

'Shut your mouth, you stupid old woman,' Meghan's father demanded. The woman gasped. The older man turned to the Marshal. His face was red and splotched with anger, 'Why are you listening to this plug-ugly female? She has no reasoning. Females aren't capable of reasoning. You need to be listening to me. Unhand me at once. You'll be very sorry you've detained me. I'll have your job. You don't know how many important people I know.'

'Well, as I see it, you're gonna be a'needin' 'em,' the Marshal proclaimed. 'We'll just be locking you up and let the judge decide.'

"You can't lock me up. What charge?" the irate man hollered. "This's an outrage!"

"Molestation," the Marshal replied, then added in deep tones, "But I reckon I could tack on attempted murder for that business you pulled with that tall woman on the stage. You keep a'jawin' that a'way and I'll do just that."

'Mercy, he tried to KILL another woman?' the victim's eyes widened and her lashes fluttered. Her face paled. She saw the hotel employee's hand holding the smelling salts move toward her nose and recovered instantly. 'Why wasn't he in jail? He could have MURDERED me. Why is he free? It's your job to keep us safe. I'm so sorry, Edgar,' she wailed to her non-present husband. 'Next time I'll listen to you, my darling. I promise.'

'Well, now, I'm sure the judge'll be happy to hear that you're fine, Missus,' the Marshal said uncomfortably. 'This man's not already in jail because the other woman decided not to press charges. But you be sure the judge knows we caught him right off.' He clamped his hand harder on Meghan's father's arm.

The woman on the floor did not reply. Mr. Fitzgeraldson was tugged toward the stairs intensely complaining all the way. "No, stop! Where are you taking me? I demand my rights!" He and the Marshal headed down the stairs. "MEGHAN!'

"Well now, you're a'headed ta jail, charged with molesting that fine woman so's ya might as well stop your hollering. You'll be examined before the judge which will commence in the morning. Dependin' on the outcome, you'll either be offered bond or be bound over to jail to wait for the action of the grand jury at the next meetin' of the circuit court. And if I see that tall gal around that you tried to shoot in the back, I'll be adding further charges."

"You can't arrest me for this," the man began to babble, "Wh.. bu..I'm innocent!"

"Well, sir, yes I can arrest you. And I am. That's my job, ya see."

"I didn't molest that old hag. I didn't lay a finger on her. Who'd want to? I was merely checking on my daughter. Check at the desk. Meghan was assigned to that room. Meghan Fitzgeraldson. Check!"

The Marshal stopped at the desk but all the desk personnel were up helping mollify the agitated woman. At that moment they were offering the Judge's wife the finest suite they had available since she demanded to be moved. Cautiously they helped her to her feet with the coverlet wrapped modestly around her. The chambermaid rushed to aid the woman while the rest stood in the hall waiting for her to dress. Other room doors shut and finally things began to settle down.

Downstairs Mr. Fitzgeraldson was pleading his case, "Meghan was assigned that room, I tell you! She's been there all evening and now she's gone missing-- kidnapped...seventeen years old is all. We ate dinner in the dining room." They both looked towards the dining room, but it was closed for the night. "Check with them. You can't arrest me. You need to be searching for her."

"Well, let me just take a look here," the Marshal kept one hand on Meghan's father's arm and drew from his pocket some wire-rimmed glasses with his other hand. He slipped them on and ran his finger down the many names scrawled in the register till he found Mr. Fitzgeraldson. There was no notation regarding a daughter although his name was underlined as were a few of the others.

The Marshal wondered what that meant but there was no one there at the moment to tell him. "Nope. Nothin' there 'bout a daughter. No Meghan here. Come on, now. We're heading to jail."

"Ask the clerk, they were busy. He probably just forgot to mark it. Ask him. My seventeen year old daughter, kidnapped. You must start searching for her. You can't blame a father for being worried. Stop!"

"Uh huh. I've heard me some stories since I took this job. Gotta admit, you're good. C'mon." He pulled the man toward the door.

A listening crowd had gathered at the inside door of the saloon, one of whom was the soiled dove who had spoken with Mr. Fitzgeraldson earlier. 'Ya haulin' him off, Marshal?' she asked with concern.

He pulled the man next to her and asked softly, 'You losing business on this?'

'Yes,' she quirked her brow. 'Looks like he was trying to get it for free.'

'Mmm.' He looked up at the crowd, 'Show's over folks.' The Marshal, increased his grip and pulled Mr. Fitzgeraldson into the street.

"Deputy!" Meghan's father called desperately across the dark street to the man in the shadows. "She's gone, she's missing. I'm being arrested. It's a setup. Help me!"

"Deputy?" the Marshal asked, looking in the direction the man was calling but he saw nothing in the darkness. "I'm a Marshal, sir. One of my Deputys is ill and the other's on vacation. So there's no Deputy here." Pancakes, is this man delusional now? Surely he can read my badge!

"Goddammit!" the Deputy in the doorway muttered to himself, holding his cigar behind him. 'That old fool.' The Marshal would not be happy to know he was there and had set up surveillance in his town! One had to be very careful about jurisdictions with some lawmen. He'd wait till they left. Maybe he could go into jail and ask for favors, one lawman to another, if he had to. And maybe he wouldn't have to. He stepped back further in the dark doorway.

"They're gone," Gaine said, shutting the door softly.

"Good!' Meghan stated, her brows furrowed. 'I wish we could go right now!'

'Ah know. But Ah think t'is safer if'n we stay. Doan ferget that thar Deputy's still out thar. Ya brung all yer things from yer room? Ya din't leave nothin'?"

"No, I didn't leave anything, but that's my father's carpetbag,' Meghan said pointing to her bag. 'Knowing him, he'll claim I stole it.' She began to wring her hands and Gaine knew how horribly nervous she must be.

'We'll jest leave it 'n his room, than,' Gaine suggested softly.

Meghan smiled wanly. 'Yes, I'd like that. I don't want anything of his.'

"Good, we gots mine ta use. Ahl be a'wearin mah clean clothes and so'ul you. We kin leave yer old dress. T'is too identifiable. One bag should work jest fine.'

"Yes, I'll take off my nightshirt and dress properly. Would you take out everything in the case except the dress for me, please? Oh, and can you get me a paper and something to write with?"

'Ya wanna leave a note?' Gaine wasn't sure that was a good idea. She upended the entire case on the bed and pulled out the dress from the smaller items. She saw the boot polishing materials tumble out. "Ya doan want them thar polishin' materials, neither. Leave 'em fer him ta use fer hisself fer once't!" She tossed in the polishing supplies then began to jam the yards of the dresses' skirt back into the carpetbag. It had a good four yards or more of skirt material.

The wilted wildflower also fell onto the bed and Meghan grabbed it instantly so Gaine could not put it back in her father's case.

"Ya doan wanna keep that, does ya?" Gaine asked incredulously. It was wilted and barely holding together.

"Yes," Meghan replied, clutching it to herself.

"Ahl git ya 'nother un," Gaine said softly. "That 'uns wilted."

"No, I'll keep this one." She put it gently atop Gaine's bag. "Don't forget paper."

"Oh, right." She shot a doubtful look Meghan's way.

'I don't want father claiming I was kidnapped. And if he thinks I've married, they won't consider that I'd be with you and maybe Lendal will give up.' Her fingers tapped nervously on the bag then she stuffed her brush into Gaine's bag and carefully added the flower with it.

'Naw. He'll demolish that thar note and avow kidnappin' nohow.'

'I know. But maybe he'll spend his time checking with churches or judges or other wedding officials while we get away.'

Gaine spoke softly, "T'would be best fer usn's ta acquaint as few falsehoods ta all this here as we kin."

"Yes. I thought of that. I won't say I'm getting married. I'll just imply it."

"Hmm." Gaine hated deception and loathed that it was necessary at all. "Aw wished Ah could marry ya," she mumbled aloud.

"You do?" Meghan's head flew up and her cheeks flushed slightly. She wished that more than anything, but she hadn't dared mention it. Did Gaine feel the same way? She ran her eyes tenderly over the tall brunette.

Gaine realized what she'd said and began to blush a little herself. How presumptuous she'd been. She added hastily, "Uh, yep, uh, t'would git ya from yer Pa an' prevent Lendal from a'tryin' ta force-marry ya." If they could legally marry, they'd simply walk away and Gaine'd use her guns for protection. She was good at that.

The tall woman watched in confusion as Meghan's shoulders slumped. "Oh," the blonde replied.

Puzzled, Gaine sighed, stuffing the last yard of the dress in the case, "Ah kin rip ya off half'n the parlance the Lieutenant done give me," she suggested, "An they gots fancy writin' accouterments 'n the hall. Ah'll bring 'em in here fer ya."


"Yep. He writ me out his ad-dress." She drew the note out of her pocket and carefully tore off the Lieutenant's name and address and placed it back in her pocket. She handed the rest to Meghan then quickly moved into the hall and brought in the inkwell, pen and penwipe.

"Thank you," Meghan took the paper to the stand and started writing in careful script. 'As I'm 21, I'm leaving of my own free will and making my own marriage choices," she wrote in steady, firm cursive, "By the time you read this, it will be too late. Don't try to find us. Meghan.'

"There!" she exclaimed, using the penwipe to blot what she had written. "No falsehoods. Hopefully it will keep him off our trail." But she knew for sure what it would do was make both Lendal and her father furious. No one in her family told her father what they were going to do. He made all the decisions. She shuddered at the thought of their fury, then deciding their fury would be there regardless. She firmed her chin and handed the note to Gaine.

Gaine read it and nodded solemnly. Obviously this was something Meghan needed to do to claim her own life. "Yes," she replied. She hurriedly replaced the writing supplies back in the hall desk. Coming back into the room, she picked up the bag. "Ahl set this here'n his room whilst ya change." She jammed the note inside the open case and moved toward the door, "Be raht back."

A flick of light on metal caught Meghan's eye. "Gaine?" she asked when the tall woman got to the door.

"Yes?" Gaine turned around and Megan approached. She reached to the tall woman's vest pocket and drew out the badge.

Her eyes widened to huge circles. "What's this?" she gasped. "You're....a... a...Sheriff?" She grasped the doorknob and wrenched the door open. "No!" The word was a furtive cry and she dropped the badge as though it were on fire.

Thoughts of Gaine's betrayal flooded her mind. It was a Sheriff's duty to return runaways. Why was she doing this...pretending to help when duty would require that she turn Meghan back to her father? She knew what had happened in Ruby's escape. Confused and startled by the finding, she rushed out into the empty hall. "No!" she said again between choked sobs. She threw her hand over her mouth to control her sobs while she rushed down the hall.

Gaine bent to pick up the badge, jammed it in her vest pocket, then rushed after her. The hall was empty of people as Meghan rushed past the main staircase for the back one. Gaine ran close after her. As the tall brunette passed the main stairs from the lobby, she glimpsed Lendal's Deputy cousin with his hand on the bannister, headed up the stairs. Fortunately his head was turned toward the unmanned front desk and she prayed he had not yet glimpsed either of them.

Throwing the arm carrying the carpetbag around Meghan's waist to stop her, Gaine clamped her other hand over the blonde's mouth. "Shh. Ain't what ya think, Meg," she whispered in her ear. "You're safe with'n me. Shhh!"

She looked around frantically, her keen eyes and ears ever alert. She could hear the tread of the man's boots on the stairs.

The Deputy eased up the stairs past the empty desk, his mind reeling. Had to be the Army boys. Why else would they be by here in their wagons? But was that old fool in on it? Was he cheatin' Lendal? That's the question. He whined about everyone..some flirting Lieutenant and that trousered woman in the saloon. Made a huge stinkin' fuss 'bout her the same time his daughter's slippin' out. Sneaky bastard! Used the tall grubber as a diversion while the girl's runnin' off with the officer, I'll just bet on it. I'll sure as hell look for clues. Stinkin' little bitch of his don't have much of a headstart.

Gaine knew they didn't have time to make it to the back staircase before he'd see them. Her heart began to pound. This was a vicious man but she didn't want to have to shoot him. That would create all kinds of problems, none of them helpful.

She noticed they were by Meghan's father's room. Frantically she pushed and it opened. She dragged the small blonde in and quickly shut the door. She silently set the bag by the father's bag then pulled a stunned Meghan behind the door.

Gaine leaned close to Meghan's ear. "Quiet!" she demanded in a whisper, "and stay right here." She pushed the blonde in back of her as they stood waiting.

Her back against the wall and Gaine's tall body pressing against her in front, Meghan stood wide-eyed, terrified. No sooner did they get there than the door slowly began opening and in the crack with the lamplight from the corridor backlighting him, she could just make out the Deputy's badge... Lendal's cousin! He was not looking her way and Meghan turned her face away from the door and held her breath. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Gaine drew her gun.

Lendal's cousin glanced both directions in the passageway before stepping in. Goddammit, wretched bitch! Lendal said to make sure she didn't run off and now she's gone. Hellfire! Lendal'll be furious. And that means somebody's gonna suffer dearly. It ain't gonna be me.

He had no right to be there, but he didn't care. He didn't trust the whining old fool. He'd check Fitzgeraldson's room before he did anything else. Besides, the hotel people hadn't seen him sneak up the stairs. Only one porter had been downstairs, and he was outside stealing a quick smoke while it was quiet.

He'd already checked with that porter once the Marshal and old man Fitzgeraldson left. The stupid old man had been yelling that his daughter was missing. This porter fellow said he'd been there all evening and he hadn't seen the girl. The Deputy had stepped into the saloon and quickly asked around. One fellow had seen the blonde in the dining room at dinner time, described what she was wearing but hadn't seen her anywhere else.

With the lamplight shining near the door in the hall, his eyes didn't have a chance to get used to the dark room. He stepped in cautiously. Suddenly in a ray of lamplight from the hall, he spotted the hem of the described dress sticking out of a carpetbag on the floor by the bed no more than three feet in front of the open door. "What the hell...?" He stepped toward the bag.

Swift as water over a fall, the butt of Gaine's gun came down hard on the back of his head and the man crumpled to the ground unconscious. He'd had no time to see anything before his world went completely black. Meghan shut the door silently and stared in the darkened room at the shadowy figure at Gaine's feet.

"Help me get 'im inta that thar bed case some'un comes a'pokin' 'round," Gaine whispered to Meghan. She pushed both bags away from the bed with her foot. "Pull back them covers. We'll put 'im under 'em. Some'un comes in, they'll find 'im here a'sleepin' an maybe they ain't gonna call the Marshal."

Meghan quickly pulled back the covers and they struggled to push and slide the dead weight of the large body underneath the unwilling sheets--boots, jacket and all. Once they both got him there, after much grunting and groaning on their part, they pulled the covers up to his head and left his hat on the bedpost.

Gaine grabbed Meghan's hand. "C'mon! He ain't gonna be out that long." She pulled her to the door, opened it, checked the hall, shut the door softly behind them then hustled them both back to her room.

Once they were safely in the room, Gaine pulled a reluctant blonde into a hug. "It ain't whatcha think," she told the small woman softly. "If'n yu'll sit, Ahl 'splain t'all ta ya." Their flickering lantern light outlined Meghan's confused face.

The small blonde mutely left the embrace and sat on the bed while Gaine checked the door. Worried green eyes looked over as Gaine sat beside her. The brunette began to explain how her job did not entail the same duties as most Sheriffs' jobs. She defined the terms of her hiring.

"Why didn't you tell me?" the blonde asked, wanting to believe but still unsure.

"Ah ain't here o-fficially. Ahs here ta get Cousin Minnie. Din't seem important."

"Not important? Gaine, it's your duty to return me to my father."

"No, t'ain't. That t'ain't 'just'. Ahd never do that. Ah 'splained that. Ah serves justice. Sides," she added softly, "ya din't marry Lendal. So's that'll leave him outta that thar ownership corral. We gotta ponder 'bout any a' yer Pa's legal rights. Ah figure he ain't got none ta mah town."

"They'll come after me," Megan said shivering. "And if they find me, I'm dead...or worse!"

"They ain't gonna find ya," Gaine replied. "Please trust me. Ahl git ya 'way. But this ain't the best time ta be out a'runnin' ta them empty streets a'tryin' ta git hosses. They's gonna figure ya'd do that. Ah 'spect that's whar they's r'gonna be a'lookin'. Now, they knows mah Cousin Minnie's here. They seen ya sign in. They ain't gonna 'spect ya. Sides, Ah done gots me a little leeway, bein' a Sheriff n' all."

"Do you think so?"

"Ah do." She looked into troubled sea-green eyes. "Kin ya sleep now?" Gaine asked softly. "We got us'ns the time an' we's gonna need ta be rested."

Meghan remained on the edge of the bed, rubbing her neck anxiously. Everything within her was saying to run, to get away as soon, as far and as fast as possible. She gazed at the tall woman. No, despite everything, she did trust Gaine and she'd do as Gaine asked. "No. I'm sure I won't be able to sleep."

Gaine took her hand in her own. "Ya should try. Tamorra's gonna be a long day."

Meghan's eyes swept to the door. Her voice dropped to a whisper, "He could come searching here, though, couldn't he?" She felt herself begin to tremble.

"Nuh uh." Gaine slipped her arm around the blonde and Meghan leaned into her, "What'd be his reason ta search? He shore ain't gonna admit he war in yer Pa's room. Sides, hotel ain't gonna let 'im wake folks."

"Will he see our light under the door?"

"Doan think sa. But let's be shore.' Gaine blew the lamp out.

Meghan pulled away. "Lord, Gaine! How can you stand this?" Her mind was swirling. Tears sprung to her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"Shhh. T'is all right." Gaine protectively put both arms around the blonde who reached up a hand to quickly wipe the tears from her eyes.

"Ah ain't gonna let 'em hurt ya, Meg. Ah cares sa much 'bout ya."

"He's vicious, Gaine!" More tears fell and Meghan angrily wiped them away.

"Ahl git us 'way if'n Ah gotta shoot us out, darlin'," Gaine coaxed, snuggling closer. "But Ah ain't gonna hafta. 'Member, Ah outrank 'im if'n't comes ta that."

But she didn't outrank the Marshal and this was his town. The Deputy could go for his assistance, and she knew that. But what could he say? He wouldn't want to admit he'd been checking around at the hotel without the Marshal's permission. No. She knew his type. He'd wait in ambush if he had any idea of what was really happening. And she was quite certain he had no idea at all.

Slowly the words sunk in. Gaine was a Sheriff and Lendal's cousin was only a Deputy. Meghan allowed herself to sink against the tall beauty. She shut her eyes. "Don't let me go," she whispered.

Gaine's lips brushed across Meghan's temple. "Ah ain't gonna. Not never."

Pressed together in their embrace Gaine felt the world and its troubles drift away. How was it this small blonde could do that to her with just a touch? In the dark Gaine felt the blonde's face rise towards her. Ahm gonna kiss 'er. Her head lowered and before she knew it, she was claiming Meghan's soft, warm lips, giving herself to the sweet taste of the blonde's mouth. It was new to both of them, but neither wished to stop.

At first it was tender, then it became more demanding. Meghan's hands rose, rustling into Gaine's hair, pulling her to herself, adding an urgency to the kiss until they were both gasping when they finally came up for air.

Meghan sighed. "Oh Gaine, I've wanted that since we've met."

'Ya wanted mah kiss?'

'Yes,' Meghan whispered. 'But I only wanted to kiss you. No one else.'

Gaine pressed her lips back to reclaim Meghan's once more. Meghan groaned and melted into this kiss but pulled away with reluctance before it escalated. "Have you....ever done this before?" she asked the tall beauty.

"No. Ah ain't never felt this way 'bout no one a'fore," Gaine sighed.

'Me, either.' Meghan closed her eyes and let a feeling of contentment ease the turmoil of emotions threatening her. "Could you...hold me while we wait?"

"Shore. Move over onta the bed an Ahl hold ya." An maybe kiss ya oncet er twicet agin, she thought with a twinkle in her eye.


The Deputy's head was throbbing. His eyes wouldn't focus and the sheets and blankets were trapping him in place. In anger he wrenched his way from underneath, fighting the bed coverings until he sat ruffled on the edge of the bed, running his hand over the sore lump on the back of his head. He shut his eyes to avoid the wave of nausea. Then he fumbled for a lucifer and lit the center lamp.

He had to sit back down quickly with his head in his hands to let the squeamishness pass. He dragged the carpetbag with the dress towards him with his foot. Reaching carefully, he rumpled around inside, locating the note.

"Goddammit!" he stormed as he tried to make out the words. He didn't read well, but he had a good idea what the note said. "That little bitch thinks she's gonna tell us what she's gonna do? That female needs lessons in obedience. Severe lessons! Lendal'll kill 'er and she'll deserve it. And whoever she's run off with is gonna get a mighty unpleasant surprise when I cut off his manhood. Probably thinks marryin' her will keep Lendal away." He snorted in ridicule.

He looked more closely at the note. "This is the kind of paper the Army uses," he murmured suspiciously. "I knew it had to be the Army men."

He rubbed his chin. "But who hit me and lifted me into this bed?" The only thing he remembered was the very faint scent of something, floral maybe. He touched the sore lump on his head. It couldn't have been the little blonde bitch. He was was hit too high and he weighed too much. Besides, she wouldn't dare.

He sat mulling it over. Had to be a man...no, men. Men might wear colognes that smelled like flowers. Something to cover their sweat. He rubbed his sore spot again. " Gotta be. The officer's men. What did the old man say his name was? Pottsington. That was it. Lieutenant Pottsington. So, how many soldiers were involved? Lendal wouldn't be so mad about the girl slipping away if he knew there were a lot of Army men involved. And if the girl's Pa was involved, too, well, Lendal'd keep his attention right there.

He looked around the room and saw nothing amiss. He saw the father's bag and pulled it to himself with his foot. He lifted it onto the bed and opened it. He rustled through it. 'No money. He knew I was comin' in here all right.' He shut it and dropped it to the floor with disgust. 'The old man was in on her escape. Had to be. Shoulda been some money here. This is too well planned.'

So when and how did she get away? He thought he knew. She'da slipped out the back the minute the Army wagons first got there and when they blocked the doors, before he moved over and checked them out. Wouldn't have taken much. She could have rushed off up the street n' the dark, her and her officer, leaving a couple fellows behind. Her Pa probably had the extra men right in this room waiting, knowing he'd come to check. Then her Pa makes his fuss and gets himself arrested to supposedly prove he's innocent. 'Then the Army boys stop me from going after her.' He laughed evily, 'Least they think they have.'

He jammed the note back in the other bag and rubbed the sore lump on the back of his head again. "Yeah, two men--maybe three. The lump's high. Had to be a tall man. He grabbed his hat. "So, where'd they go?"

He thought again of the wagons. Wherever the men who stayed here went, the wagons could be caught easy enough. That he knew. And she'd either be with them or they'd know where she was. Might take most of the night to catch 'em, but when I do, they'll talk. Oh, yeah, they'll talk sure enough. I know how the Army thinks and how they camp. They've got themselves a big woeful surprise a'comin'.

He kicked the bag away with his foot. His knees felt more secure and he put out the light and staggered out then decided to go out the back stairs and come in the front. The desk clerk who was now snoozing in his chair behind the counter didn't need to know he'd been upstairs. He went around then came up to the desk. He glanced at the wall clock and noticed that he'd been up there over an hour. He stood at the desk and slammed his hand down. The clerk jumped up instantly.

"Sir! How can I help you," the clerk blinked the sleep from his eyes.

A dangerous and sinister look shot back at him. "A man's gonna stop by about eight in the morning asking for Mr. Fitzgeraldson. His name's Lendal Hindlefarb. I'm leavin' a message here for him."

"Will he be a guest here?"

The Deputy leaned forward and growled, "You see that Mr. Hindlefarb gets it."

"Yessir," the clerk pushed out the inkwell, pen and a piece of hotel stationery. He looked down the register and saw the name of Mr. Fitzgeraldson. He was the arrested man. And this dangerous ruffian was associated with him. Well, that certainly was no surprise. He swallowed with difficulty.

The Deputy dipped the pen and with great effort began to print.


yer riht. shes gon. spect her fother nu. mene arme men helpin lewtent Potsinton frm the staj. 2 arme wagons stopt at hoetl last nit. I lookt. she wuz not ther bt she disaperd then and yer frend got arestd so he lokt inasent. U dasid if he wuz. I got big dowts. Im on tha armes tral.

He signed his name, folded and placed it in an envelope. He wrote "lendl" on the outside of the envelope and handed it to the clerk.

"Seal it. Lendal Hindlefarb. If you forget, it'll be the last thing you ever forget!"

The clerk blinked. "Yessir," he said, adjusting his short tie tied with a barrel knot which suddenly seemed much too tight. What a miserable night this was turning out to be. "How do you spell his last name?" He dipped the pen to add it.

"You figure it out." The Deputy turned and hurried out the door. Time to get on the trail of the wagons.


Continued in Chapter 5

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