Fetchin’ Cousin Minnie

by bsoiree

Please see disclaimers in Chapter 1

Chapter 5

A short tap on the door brought both women instantly upright, their hearts pounding wildly. Meghan's eyes filled with terror. Gaine’s Colt appeared in her hand. They'd spent several hours in each other's arms, engaging in gentle kissing and caressing, pushing back the tension, exploring and savoring the taste, nearness and feel of the other, but restraining themselves from anything more than appropriate spooning. Eventually they felt secure enough in each others arms that exhaustion had won out and they’d dozed lightly.

"We're leavin'," a woman's voice stage-whispered outside the door.

"T'is all right. The sportin' ladies er leavin'," Gaine got up and rushed to the door. She opened it enough to see two women heading down the hall to the back stairs.

"He got arrested," the one whispered loudly pointing to room 217. "Cheated me out of business."

"That's a shame," Gaine whispered sympathetically, keeping her Colt from view.

"The sporting ladies?" Meghan asked from the bed with a trembling voice.

"Thanks for waking us," Gaine called in her own whisper. They waved and she shut the door. "Yep. Time ta git dressed," Gaine walked to the lamp and lit it. She slipped her gun back into the holster.

Meghan shut her eyes to bring her heartbeat back to normal and stop her trembling. She had finally felt safe in Gaine's arms, enjoying their intimacy till she fell asleep and the knock on the door petrified her. Her hands trembled and her stomach churned. She sucked in a breath and resolved to keep her nerves under control.

Gaine pulled out the chamber pot to use before getting dressed. Meghan sat on the edge of the bed with her face covered till Gaine was finished. Gaine understood Meghan's shyness but knew her bladder had to be ready to burst. "Ahl give ya some, uh, privacy, uh once't Ahm dressed," she muttered.

"No. It's all right." Meghan rose and Gaine turned her back to shake out her clothes and step into her underdrawers. When she heard the pot being pushed back under the bed, she buckled the belt on her trousers and moved back to sit on the bed to put on her socks and boots.

Meghan found her bar of soap in her rag just inside Gaine’s bag and poured water from the room pitcher into the basin to wash.

"Thar’s that bar Betsy done made ‘n thar somewheres," Gaine suggested. "Smells right fancy."

"No, this is good. There’s plenty. It’s plain soap, though. I’ll leave it out for you."

"Thanky," Gaine adjusted items in their bag as she watched the small blonde brush her hair in long sweeping moves. It was a wondrously beautiful sight, she decided. She watched her part her hair in the middle then force it back and pin it in place with bone pins. She helped with the blonde’s corset. She let her fingers glide across Meghan's soft shoulders.

"Cousin Minnie's a little, uh, heartier than ya be," she whispered in Meghan's ear, although she had no real way of knowing that. Minnie had always been slim as a child. "Best leave that thar contraption loose." She scowled at the corset, thinking such a torturous device had to be some man's contrivance. But there was little room for it in the carpetbag so Meghan had to wear it.

Meghan placed what was left of her bedraggled flower along with the shot bag in her cleavage. She pulled on her dress, buttoned it and put her veiled hat and gloves on. The mantilla sat on her shoulders. Gaine washed thoroughly, putting on her clean shirt. She took her time and sat to clean her guns while Meghan scrubbed the blood from her handkerchief. Then she paced and peeked apprehensively out the window shade.

They did not want to arrive too early and have to wait on the street in full view. That would be the dangerous time. They needed to time it right. Both wondered about the Deputy. They'd heard nothing unusual in the hall. Gaine checked her guns again. She needed them to be reliable. There'd be no blanks in this batch.

Finally Gaine surveyed the hall and they gathered their things and headed quietly down the stairs. It was too early for breakfast and the dining room wasn't open. But then, both were too nervous to be hungry. There were already some passengers milling quietly about the lobby and Gaine surveyed them carefully. Everyone moved outside as the coach drove up but Gaine had them stay in the doorway out of view of the balcony above and against the small portion of wall that was not glass. She wanted no line of fire from inside or out. She had more than the Deputy to watch for.

Gaine swept her eyes over the still darkened doorways across the street and kiddycorner, but saw no one in any of them. She looked in the windows to inside the hotel but saw no known threat. If the Deputy or the man with the scar were here, they were staying well hidden. She decided not to put on her badge. But she did keep her jacket tucked behind her pistol and kept Meghan behind her.

The stage was ready and Gaine moved out to hand up their case and her rifle to the man at the back boot. She was glad to see a new driver and Conductor. She wanted no repeat of the drop offs, although going up would not be as bad as going down. Plus, these men would not know Meghan. Storage, as always, was at both ends of the coach. She glanced up and just swept her eyes down in time to see the Marshal crossing the street toward them, his hat sitting back on his head.

Cussed rattlesnakes! she swore to herself, what's he a'doin' here? She calmed herself and forced easy strides to where Meghan was standing in the doorway. "Marshal’s here," she said softly.

A frightened tensing of the small blonde's body got Gaine's immediate attention. Meghan fumbled with her mantilla. "Relax. 'Member yer Minnie Sargos. He doan know ya. Ain't never seen neither a' ya." She muttered something unintelligible then laughed as though they had been cheerfully chatting.

More people had arrived and it was getting noisier for so early in the morning. The passengers were getting ready to line up to board the stage. The sky was still dark and the morning star still glowed brightly above the street lanterns.

The Marshal glanced over at the two figures ready to get in line. The Sheriff. She'd fussed with the Fitzgeraldson man he'd arrested and, frankly, he could see why now that he'd spent the night with the man. He might be tempted to challenge the churl to a duel himself. But she was heading out so it wasn't likely those two would butt heads again.

Oh, the old man’d get released easily enough..he'd pay his bond and go. Someone with the amount of money he was carrying in his money belt could acquire the legal means to get out of jail. But the tall beauty'd be gone by then. That relieved the Marshal. He didn't want her killing the old fool. He wasn't at all sure he could arrest her if she didn’t want to be arrested. She was a far better shot than he.

He looked at the small woman with the tall beauty and wondered at her outfit. This must be her Cousin Minnie. Everybody had mentioned that the Sheriff had come to Sacramento purposely to get her and take her home. But why cover her face? Was it just for dust, or was she hiding something?

It niggled him. All night the old man had yelled about having a missing daughter, but this had to be the cousin, didn't it? This was who the Sheriff had come here to get. Most likely there wasn't a daughter at all, though the old man had hollered about it every chance he got throughout the long, long, long night.

The Marshal waved at Gaine and quickly moved toward them. "Morning, Sheriff," he called in a deep baritone timbre. The lawman's dark features and large, square cleft chin gave strength to his face, but the circles under his eyes showed his weariness. His long aquiline nose offset his mustache. A western hat sat back on his head, giving the impression that he had more hair than he did. His face bore an investigative expression.

"Mornin'," Gaine called back, shifting her jacket to the arm by the Marshal. Other passengers looked at her strangely. A few had seen her in the saloon the night before and heard of her shooting exploits. Had the man just called her "Sheriff?"

"I hear ya made yerself an arrest last night," Gaine flashed him a weak smile.

"Yep. Seems that fella you had the upset with took a mind to do a little molesting. He was positively identified."

"Molestin'?" Gaine snorted, "Well, Ah shore wouldn't put ana'thin' past 'im. Glad ya got yer man."

The Marshal's eyes went to the small woman in the veil. "You must be the illustrious Cousin Minnie I've heard about," he said to her.

"How do you do?" Meghan said softly and did a small curtsey.

"Happy ta make yer acquaintance, ma’am," the Marshal's voice rumbled softly as he tipped his hat. He moved his attention back to Gaine. "Funny thing about that fella, though," he said. "He keeps insisting his daughter is being kidnapped while he’s sitting there in jail."

"His daughter's a'missin'?"

"He really does have a daughter then?" the Sheriff asked, surprised. Meghan stood very still, her hands beginning to tremble slightly. She swallowed nervously and moved them to grip her skirts.

Gaine moved just far enough to keep Meghan from the man's full view. "Uh, yep," the tall rancher replied, "A nice lady." Gaine slipped her mask of composure on, casualness flooding her reserved facade. "We done shared us a room on them overnight stops a'gettin' here. Ain't none like her Pa war! She war nice."

The crowd had started moving and Gaine took Meghan’s arm and led her one step toward the stage door. The Sheriff followed along beside Gaine.

"Ya don't say. She was seventeen, was she?"

"No. Not 't'all. She war twenty-one. That thar’s what she done tole me."

"Twenty-one, huh? She coulda lied."

"She warn't the type. Sides, why would she?"

"Dunno, exactly. You saw her at the hotel here after you got here?" Crows feet appeared at the corners of the Marshal's eyes. He squinted them and his bushy brows furrowed.

"Ah seen 'em ta supper time. T'weren't all that long since't we done got here. Then later I seen you in that thar saloon and the woman's Pa war thar as well. Din't ya see 'im?"

"Yep. I made note of 'im." He looked over at the smaller woman then back at Gaine. "You have any idea who might wanna kidnap the man's daughter?"

Gaine shrugged, "Ah seriously doubt thar war eny kidnappin', Marshal. That thar young lady din't appear ta be none ta fond a' her Pa. And she war terrible a'feared a' the fella her Pa 'spected her ta marry. No, seems more likely she'da run off ta git ‘way from tha both a' 'em, if'n she's really gone missin'. Her Pa din’t treat her none too good, ya know."

"That right?"

"Um hum. That thar’s cor-rect. He done slapped her smack'n the face 'n front a' the carriage full a folks fer merely po-litely replyin' ta the Lieutenant's cordial remark. Now he war a nice young feller, too."

"The Lieutenant?"

The line moved another step toward the coach. "Yep. An that woman's Pa war forever yanking her around. T'war disgraceful, ya ask me! But ya jest ask ana'one. She war twenty-one, an ad-ult, and vera well cultivated. She war'n't deserving a' his malice 'n any way Ah could see. He kept hisself a tight rein, Ah warn’t shore she war even able ta speak on 'er own. She never done talked ta nobody 'n the coach after that. Least afore Ah moved up top ta ride she din't."

"You able to speak on your own?" the Marshal suddenly asked Meghan. Gaine could see the thoughts running through the Marshal's mind.

The small blonde felt the small squeeze of Gaine's hand on her arm and smiled under her veil. "Why yes, Marshal," she said. "Whyever would you ask?"

"Jest checkin’, ma'am," he said. Gaine hid the thoughts she was thinking about the Marshal's blasted inquisitiveness and forced herself to listen as the deep voice continued, "Her father seems to think she might have run off with some Army officer that was riding on the stage. Think that would be the Lieutenant? I understand there were a number of Army men on that stage."

"Hard ta say," Gaine replied as the line slowly took another step to the coach door. "Like Ah said, the Lieutenant war a fine young officer. But the young woman war an ad-ult. Certainly she war old 'nuff ta decide ta run off with'n that 'un er not. Doan hardly sound like kidnappin' ta me."

Blue eyes looked impassively at the Marshal's brown. He tried to read something in the azure, something passionate, something honest, something fugitive.. anything. But there was nothing there to read. It occurred to him never to play cards with this woman.

"Well now, according to the young lady's father," the baritone voice rumbled over them as the Marshal flicked his eyes to the woman's veil and saw no eyes at all in that direction, "there was a fella that had already staked a claim on her. That the fella she was a'feared of, ya think?"

"Sounds like one an' the same," Gaine nodded, moving them forward another two steps. "Name's, uh, whadid she say it war, uh, Lendal, uh,...Hindlefarb! That's it! She mentioned ta me that thar man's prior wife done disappeared under mighty mysterious circumstances. It bothered her a heap. An' she said this here Lendal's cousin war a Deputy in thar home town, an' she war a'feared he mighta been involved with'n the disappearance."

"That so? Could she have made this up cause she didn't like this "Lendal" fellow."

"Well, shore but t'ain't likely. She war enviably noble an' honest. An' she acted a'feared a' him all right. But then, she war twenty-one and shoulda been more'n free ta make her own choices."

"Uh huh." The Marshal rubbed his chin. "And you wouldn't a' stopped her from running off if you'd had a chance, would ya?"

Gaine paused for a minute, holding up the very slow moving line. She looked the man straight in the eye, "No, Marshal, truthfully Ah would not. Not if'n that's what she wanted. Uh, we gotta git goin' here." They watched the family ahead of them finish climbing in. Gaine reached to help the young schoolgirl then she helped Meghan onto the stage step. She climbed onto the step herself once the blonde stepped inside.

"There some reason why your cousin’s wearing a veil to cover her whole head?" the Sheriff inquired bluntly.

Gaine rumbled a laugh as she turned on the step. "Shucks, Marshal, Ah see ya ain't been a'keepin' up with'n them latest fashion columns neither. So's yull know,'t'is the definitive French style an all the go back east. Ever'one in Virginy City’s a'wearin' 'em fer traveling these days. Ain’t that right?" she asked Meghan, who was now seated facing the front from the center back seat--the same one she had ridden in on the way there.

The woman leaned forward, "That’s right, Marshal. It's the very latest fashion."

"You wouldn't wanna take the veil off for me, would you?" he asked.

"And mess my hair?" she asked with as much indignation as she could muster.

"No, I 'spect ya wouldn't wanna do that. Listen, you tell Sheriff James hello for me when you get back to Virginia City, Miss Minnie," the Marshal remarked.

"I don't know him," Meghan replied softly, sitting back.

"No," the Marshal looked a bit embarrassed, "I don't expect that you do." Gaine guessed there probably wasn't a Sheriff James in Virginia City. Yes, this Sacramento Marshal was worth not underestimating. And thank goodness Meghan didn't try to go along with him on his comment.

"Well, Marshal," Gaine interrupted. She was seated by the rolled window with the shade rolled. "Like ah promised, ah din’t use mah guns here 'n town none."

"No, ya didn’t use yer guns," the Marshal agreed. "You just came to fetch your Cousin Minnie home." He stepped back and the stage moved a little from the anxious team's prancing.

"Yep." Gaine smiled a wide smile and the man found himself wondering again what it would be like to court a woman like that. He'd never cheat on his wife, not in a million years! But the smile that woman had could surely melt any man's heart! It made him sit up and take notice.

There was one other woman on the stage. She and her husband were sitting together opposite Gaine and Meghan. The middle section had two small persons on it and that was the couple's oldest youngsters, a sleepy boy of eight and a girl of about six. The mother was carrying a baby and the father had a toddler on his lap. The mother was sternly reminding the children how to behave in public.

Two men were also inside, one sitting by the husband and the other was beside Meghan. Two Chinese fellows came racing down the street and climbed up on top with the others as the Marshal watched. They were told sternly by the Conductor to sit in the very back on the other side of the luggage, which they did with their feet in black slipper-like shoes hanging down toward the back boot.

The door was slammed shut and both Meghan and Gaine grabbed a handhold, knowing what was next. Gain held her breath to see if the Marshal would stop them at the last minute. With a crack of the whip, the stage was on its way south from Sacramento. The sun had still not arisen from the previous day.

The Marshal rubbed his chin as he watched the stage leave. That veiled woman knew instantly that they didn't have a Sheriff James in Virginia City, he thought to himself. And everyone knows the woman Sheriff was specifically here to gather her Cousin. Yep, that was Cousin Minnie there with the Sheriff all right.

Satisfied, he jammed his hands in his jacket pockets and looked up and down the dark, empty street now that the stage had turned the corner and was out of sight. It was too early for most people to be out yet.

He wasn't sure why he was here at the hotel, really, except that the arrested man had been so adamant about his daughter being kidnapped. If she was, that was a crime and it was in his jurisdiction. He wondered if the Conductor from the northbound stage was still in town. He could verify everything. He wasn't on the stage that just left so it must be his time off. He'd have gone home. Course the driver might wander into the saloon later that night. He stayed in town and he liked his suds. He'd keep an eye out for him before he got too drunk to remember anything.

The Marshal strolled into the hotel lobby. "Howdy, Lem," he called to the clerk.

"Marshal, what er you doin’ here so early? Is there a problem with your arrest?"

"Maybe. You got a woman checked in last night first name of Minnie?"

"Oh, you mean the tall lady’s cousin?" the clerk asked. "Great Providence, that tall gal near drove us loco till that woman checked in. Yep, here it is. Minnie Sargos. Come from Virginia City. It was busy but I remember checking her in. You were in the saloon at the time as I recall. She wore one a'them veil things clean over her face." He motioned with his hands around his own head. "Why do ya ask?"

The Marshal stared at him for a minute. "Just checkin'?" He slipped some wire rim glasses from his pocket and placed the ends over his ears. He leaned forward and examined the written register. "Wonder how I missed seein' her? Sure enough, she put Virginia City for where she was from." He followed the line of registered names before looking up at Lem. "Oh, that fella I arrested really did have a daughter, apparently."

"That right? I wasn't here when the early stages checked in." He turned the register and ran his finger down the list. "Her name's not here. You'll have to check with Bill. He was on day duty. He'll be checking in later this morning."

"Yes, I'll check back. That fella I arrested is real concerned about this daughter. Been yellin' all night about how some handsome Army officer wooed her all the trip and her already having a betrothed here an’ all. Actually, what he said was that she was "kidnapped." From what I've heard, sounds like she just ran off, and perhaps with some merit to her leavin'."

"Well now, them Army boys can cut quite dashing figures. Yessir. And around womenfolk, well, some are like bluetailed hawks a’watchin’ chickens. And ladies, bless their souls, just can’t resist a uniform, ya know. Sometimes the Poppa’s gotta do the watchin." Lem adjusted the small floating tie at his winged white collar, "I was thinking I might join the Army myself, in fact," the clerk raised his eyes to the Marshal whose brows had both risen, "but I’m afraid my Gladys’d brain me good if I did!" They both laughed at that. Gladys surely would bash him over the head if he joined the Army!

"Speakin' of this Fitzgeraldson," Lem said, "can’t say much for the company he keeps."

"Ya don't say! Who, fer instance?"

"An ornery ragtag-looking cocksparrow. Come by in the middle of the night sayin’ he’s gonna leave a letter for a friend of this Mr. Fitzgeraldson... a man named Hindelfarb. You might wanna look it over before ya go. He threatened that it'd be the last thing I'd ever regret if this Hindelfarb fellow didn't get it."

"He threatened you, ya say?"

"He did. Why I wasn’t sure he wasn’t gonna pull his pistol and make a corn-sifter of my hide right on the spot."

"Uh huh. Lemme look at the letter, if ya would. You don't see a daughter listed anywhere there in the register, though, ya say?"

Lem checked again. "No. Don't see the name anywhere." He handed the envelope to the Marshal, who turned it over in his hands noting the seal and the crude penmanship. He offered it back. He had no right to read other's letters.

"You want to see the arrested man's room, Marshal? We're gonna have to move his things here to storage if he's not back before his paid time's up. No, wait, let me look again. I think he paid for two nights." He ran his finger down the line. "Yes, it's underlined so he paid for two nights."

"Two nights, huh? Well, go ahead and show me his room, Lem. I'll just make sure his things are there and nothing's been stolen. I don't want him a'yellin' robbery. You didn't put anyone else in there with him?"

"No, we were a mite busy, but we filled up the third floor instead." Lem made a face then leaned forward, "Moved the judge's wife to the best suite we have up there. Spectacular view! The best in the hotel. Big room. We charge two fifty a night for that room regular but we gave it to her gratis. Ran a bath for her in the bathing room. No charge. She grumbled about climbing the stairs, but otherwise we're treatin' her like royalty since this happened."

The Marshal chuckled as the two men headed up the stairs to the second floor. "Oh yes, I can believe that. Her word with the judge is good as wheat in the mill-hopper. Course, she’s his wife. I just hope she doesn't get me fired once they learn this fellow really did have a daughter."

"Be a shame to get in trouble over a barrel-headed fella like that."

"Uh huh," the Marshal agreed, "I’m shore tired of his snaps and snarls."

"Judge’s wife was awful upset. Tell ya the truth," the clerk admitted as they climbed, "I'd sure hate to be that fella you arrested. The judge ain't gonna take any too kindly to him whether he has a daughter or not."

"He called her an old bag of wind and said she was plug-ugly," the Marshal winked. "Among other names. She's not likely to forget that! And if that don't buy him thirty days or a nice stiff fine, nothin' in this town will!" Both men chuckled. "Listen, don't let the chambermaids into this room till he's back. This man's the type to make claims..founded or not. Best be safe. Do his room last."

"I understand. I'll tell them." He stopped in the hall. Lem checked the number on the door then slowly opened it. They both looked in cautiously but saw no one else there. The light from the hall flowed in.

"He musta been in bed already," the puzzled clerk said. He pointed to the greatly mussed bedding. "Cept he was fully clothed when he was caught, wasn't he?"

The two men looked at each other, both uneasily wondering what this meant about someone accused of molestation. "Yes," the Marshal agreed. "He was dressed. Maybe he laid down for a spell. Funny he didn't just lie on top, though." The Marshal removed his hat, running a hand over his head.

Lem lit the lantern. The mess showed up much more in the light. "Just look at that messy bed. Well, I gotta get back." Lem wrinkled his nose and hastily headed back to the desk, even though the hour was still early. The day began near dawn for their ranch customers and he didn't dare leave the desk unmanned if someone was going to check out or in.

The Marshal sat on the edge of the bed. "Well, looky here," he said to himself, pulling the opened bag closer to the bed. "That's a dress! Not likely to be his!" He thrust his hand inside the bag and moved it around. "There's a note in here." He glanced about, knowing he didn't have a right getting into the man's things.

He opened the curtain. Gray dawn was breaking in the dusty streets outside and light began to ooze through the window. He opened the note and read it. "Too late by the time you read this, huh?" he said to the silent room. "Seems like they planned to marry right away before they left town."

The Marshal was a curious man. "Wonder who did the ceremony?" He ran his hand down in the bag beneath the dress finding shoe and jewelry polishing materials. "She left her dress, a note and polishing materials. Unusual for a woman to leave a dress unless she's got a serious disregard for the man who paid for it. Maybe her beau promised her a new trousseau." He reread the note then his brows went up. "Kinda paper the Army uses, looks like. Maybe he was right."

He got up and hastily walked around the room with the note still in his hand. He felt uncomfortable being in the man's room. "No matter. Case solved. She wasn't kidnapped," he replaced the note in the bag. "She says herself she's twenty-one. And a kidnapper would have kept the dress along with the victim. Well, her father doesn't need to know I've seen this. The young woman's run off. Most likely married by now. Happens all the time. And if she's already married, she'll be the responsibility of the new husband's, not her father's no matter how much he objects."

He closed the carpetbag with the dress and opened the other bag. Inside were the man's personal items, all of high grade but none of what would be considered great value. He carefully closed the bag, took one more look around. There were two bags. He'd be sure Lem knew that. Everything seemed to be here. He pulled the shade again, blew out the light and closed the door quietly before leaving.

On his way back to jail, the Marshal stopped for a quick coffee and bakery roll at his favorite little cafe. It had just opened for the day but they started baking long about the time the stage left. The coffee was fresh and the bakery items were hot from the oven and delicious.

Fitgeraldson was still ranting when the lawman arrived back at the jail with an extra cup of coffee and a sweetroll for the prisoner. The cafe always loaned him tin cups for the prisoners and he took great pains to return them in good shape.

"Look's like your daughter's gone, all right!" the Marshal hollered from the outer room, putting the items on his desk. He removed his hat and threw it at the mounted antlers used as a hat rack by the door. It missed and he had to walk over to lift it off the floor and hang it back up. He grumbled as he picked it up and hung it on the rack. Both his Deputies could hit it every single time and it annoyed him that he couldn't seem to hit it once. "How old you say she was?"

"So! You FINALLY realized I DO have a daughter like I've been telling you all night long! You've arrested me under false pretenses," the old man railed.

"Well, I wouldn't say that. That's up to the judge. But it does look like ya got a daughter all right. How old did you say she was?"

"Seventeen," the older man growled in return. "And you should be out looking for her. She's been captured. Kidnapped."

"You positive she's seventeen?" the Marshal asked with a raised brow. He stood in the doorway with the coffee and roll. "Others at the hotel seemed to think she was twenty-one."

"Humpf," the man replied, turning his back. "She's seventeen and she's been kidnapped." Then he spun around. "You must have talked to that tall heretic in men's clothes."

"The Sheriff?" the Marshal asked.

"Sheriff? What Sheriff?"

"The tall woman. The one with the blue eyes and the most wicked gun shot in the west. She's a Sheriff. Reckon she didn't tell ya that. She's killed a number of outlaws. She understood that she could have arrested you, but she didn't have the time, she told me. She was just here to collect her Cous...."

"I know. I know. She came to fetch her damned Cousin Minnie home," he grumbled. "We all heard about it a million times on the way here." But he felt his stomach clench at the news that the strange woman that had threatened him had also been known to have killed people. And she represented the law.

"Yep. The two of 'em were getting on the stage to go back when I got there."

"She's gone?" Mr. Fitzgeraldson had a feral gleam in his eye. "That tall heretic's gone? Left town?"

"Yep. Like I said, she and her cousin caught the early stage back."

"Good! That crazy bitch," the man ranted then let out a breath. "Good riddance. But it's the Lieutenant you need to find. He's the one kidnapped my daughter. My YOUNG daughter. Kissed her hand before he left like it was some kind of signal to me. Laughing at me, that's what he did. Laughed and stole my daughter away."

"The Sheriff said your daughter told her she was twenty-one."

"She's lying. The girl's seventeen. What do you expect from someone who dresses like that?"

The Marshal handed the steaming coffee through the bars. "Uh huh."

The older man took a sip. "Cold. The coffee's cold. I don't like it this way." He set the cup on the floor and pushed it away with his foot. The Marshal handed the roll through the bars. The man examined it carefully before taking a bite.

"Cafe makes mighty fine sweet rolls," the Marshal exclaimed.

"I've had better," the large man said, eating it completely in about three bites.

There was work waiting on the Marshal's desk and though he had been up much of the night, he decided he was awake enough to get some of it done. Before he could turn and head back to the outer room, the older man pulled his watch from his watch pocket. It was an ornate gold watch with a lid that snapped open. But he always held it so that others could not see the time.

The Marshal had taken all this man's valuables including his money belt but had given him back his gold watch after he'd asked about the time for the ninth time within the first hour of being arrested. There was a wall clock in the outer office behind his desk, but the inner room and cells had none. The lawman had placed the other items in the store safe next door, waking Phineas Pott who lived in the back to have him open the store and the safe so that he could do so.

"What time do I go to court?" Mr. Fitzgeraldson growled, examining his watch.

"Bout eight," the Marshal replied and moved in the outer room to do some work.


At the first swingstation Gaine and Meghan climbed out of the coach and strolled away from the others where they could talk quietly in private. The sun was rising, a long line of gold glowing across the peaks on the eastern horizon.

"Howja know 'bout that thar Sheriff 'n Virginy City?" Gaine asked softly as the new horses were led out of the corral. They casually watched the process.

"I didn't," the blonde quietly replied behind her veil. "Father used to try and trick us like the Marshal did. He always assumed we'd done something wrong and most of the time we hadn't. It was always safer to be honest but give no more information than we absolutely had to. It was the details he could misinterpret that got us in serious trouble. So he'd ask something and we'd honestly say "yes" or "no" or "I don't know" and nothing else."

Gaine wondered at the sickening feelings of dread Meghan must have endured each and every day growing up. She was so brave. The brunette noted how properly the small blonde stood, her gloved hands clasped in front of her. To the rest of the world she was a prim and proper lady. And, indeed, she was to Gaine, too. But so much more. Gaine smiled tenderly, "Ya done good, Meghan. From the Marshal's reaction Ah figure thar ain't no Sheriff James 'n Virginy City."

"Do you think the Marshal knows who I am?" Meghan questioned, inhaling a jittery breath.

"No, Ah think he war throw'd off'n any trail a suspicion. Doan fret none." Gaine's voice was gentle, more so than ever before and it caught Meghan's attention.

"No matter what happens, Gaine, I’m glad for last night." She wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how to put what she was feeling into words, nor sure that she should. They had kissed and such kisses were bargains as sure as if they’d shaken hands on an agreement.

"Yep. T’is how Ah feels, too, sweet Meg." Soft azure eyes fell on the small blonde.

"I always knew it would be this way," Meghan whispered. She glanced around. This was not really the place to begin such heartrending conversations. What they had was theirs and no one else’s. She’d wait for a better setting. "Uh, what about your parents? Are they still alive somewhere? You didn’t ever say."

"No. Theys both passed." Gaine smiled in memory, "Mah Momma war a strong-willed southern lady. You’da liked ‘er. She war quick ta laugh an quick ta anger an' quick ta fergive. An' she had herself a deep, abidin’ faith, mostly ‘n goodness ‘n love."

"Your mother sounds like a remarkable woman."

"She war. Her Pa'd owned hisself a large plantation with’n lotsa slaves a’fore the war. Theys war vera well off. But she din’t ne’er belief ‘n people ownin’ t’uther people an’ hated how her Pa war. N’t pained ‘er how scripture war used bah her Pa n’ the O’erseer ta do harm ta folks she done growed up with’n. So’s she got hooked up with’n some t’uther folks ‘n secret n’ she n’ mah Pa got theyselfs inta a good deal a trouble with’n her fam’ly when theys helped git a large group a ‘em ‘way ta the north."

"They helped them escape?"

"Uh, yep. But her Pa done figgered who’t had ta be from tha plantation that done it an’ he war furious."

"Were they married at the time?"

"Oh, no." Gaine thrust her hands in her jacket pockets. "Her Daddy din’t never think nothin’ good a mah Pa. He din’t like ‘im aforehand, n’ he hated ‘im after. An’ Momma war a’feared he war gonna try ‘n haf Daddy killt. She knew her Pa war angry ‘nuff ta kill her, too, but din’t never think he t’would. But the neighbors woulda, if’n they’d knowed fer shore." She shook her head, "They’s run off ‘n the middle a’ the night n’ married. Then theys had ta move all the tahm ta keep ‘way from any a’ the fellers her Pa sent searchin’ fer ‘em. Near e’er’ one a’ us childerns war borned ta a differ’nt place."

"Where were you born?"

"Texas. Warn’t that meny folks a’livin’ thar ‘n them days."

"Goodness. That would be horrible to have to run like that."

"Yep. T’war stressful. But mah Daddy’s momma’s fam’ly, the Gaine family, war big and t’war ever’whar. So’s they stayed with’n them most times..uncles, cousins, aunts. An e’en went bah the last name a’ "Gaine" fer a spell when they war most a’feared."

They sauntered back toward the coach. Gaine kicked some dust as they went. "Marshal done made me think ta mah Pa. Pa had a deep voice lahk that. He war a quiet feller, Pa war. An awful good with’n hosses. An he loved mah Momma more’n ana’thin’ ‘n this here world. His Daddy war from Greece. Grandpa done sailed over, met Gramma Gaine, married n’ they settl’d in mah Momma’s hometown war mah Pa war born but they warn’t never wealthy like mah Momma’s fam’ly war. Theys jest got by. Theys had fourteen childerns. ‘N that war why her Daddy din’t lahk him ta start with’n. Pa din’t have no high social standin’.

"I see."

"Yep. Bah the time Ah war born theys a’ready done had five childern, each borned ta a differ’nt place...two sisters then four brothers than me. Mah Pa drove some cattle here ta Californy an’ decided this here war the place fer us’ns. So’s when Ah war seven Pa hitched up with’n ‘is brother an’ we done come out with Pa’s brother’s family an some a’ ar wranglers. Ar two fam’lies done come’d out tagather."

"Yours and Minnie’s?"

"Yep. Pa’d hired ta have the house built by the time we got here. He done had ‘t built big ta handle both fam’lies. An’ we raised cattle. Then Ma’s younger brother, the only one ‘n her fam’ly that know’d whar we war, come out and stayed fer a’while, too. Lester. They got ‘long real good. It t’war a good time."

"You all lived together?"

"Yep. Than Minnie’s fam’ly moved. Her Pa din’t like herdin’ cattle an' worked a'keepin' records fer the mine ‘nstead. But them mines done been a'dryin’ up here so’s he moved ‘em ta Virginy City." A small smile flitted past Gaine’s face. She looked up at Meghan, "What ‘bout yer Momma? Whar wer she from?"

Green eyes looked up, "She was from Boston. Both my parents were. It was an arranged marriage. My father was in his late twenties and his family forced him to marry. My mother was seventeen. They moved out here with Lendal and his new wife just after they were married. I don’t think mother’s ever even liked my father. He’s not a likable person. And he was terrible to her. She did everything she could to protect me, but she didn’t have much of a chance." She looked at the gloves her mother had given her, "She’s always been more a slave than a wife."


They watched as the tired horses, loose now from their restraints, rushed to the barn to be fed and watered while the fresh horses made the crew's job of hooking them up more difficult as they pranced nervously in place anxiously awaiting their long run.

Gaine took off her hat and ran a hand through her hair. She had decided to leave it loose today. "Mah Pa al'ays useta tell mah Ma that she coulda married herself some fahn a-ristocrat. An mah Momma'd al'ays answer that she'd done been gived wealth beyond all imaginin's. Thar warn't nothin' n' the world she din't have that she war a'wantin', she'd say. Ain't no a-ristocrat nowheres could provide her with'n the treasures mah Pa'd blessed her with."

"That's the kind of treasure I’m interested in," Meghan said shyly with a blush behind her veil.

"Me too, sweet Meg." She put her hat back on her head. "Me, too."

An image from the wee hours of the morning came to the small blonde as she glanced briefly at the tall beauty--the amazingly personal time they'd spent spooning that night in each other's arms inside that room. If Gaine had meant to divert her attention from the tension of waiting, it had worked. Instead of tarrying in terror, she remembered Gaine's lips tenderly brushing her forehead, her eyes, her ears, then finally her mouth, their breath mixing, their tongues tentatively dancing, their hands modestly and chastely holding each other through the night, tying themselves together for all time with their kisses.

"T'is time ta git," the brunette breathed, gently escorting Meghan to the coach.


A little before eight that morning, a livid Lendal stormed through the thick yellow pine door to the Marshal's office, a large handplaited bullwhip in his hand. He demanded to know if Brogan Fitzgeraldson was being held there.

"He is." The Marshal continued sorting his papers with only a quick glance at the man before him. He had heard that same tone of voice all night long from the prisoner, and he was considerably tired of it.

"What's the charge?" the visitor sneered.

"Molestation," the Marshal replied placidly.

Lendal's brow went to his forehead. "What? What kind of hogwash is that? I demand to see him!"

The Marshal looked up from his desk and pulled on his ear. He stared at the man and his whip, pondering. Bull whacker, looks like. Strong, wide-shouldered, trim physique. Handmade whip, and mighty fond of it. He spoke calmly. "I can let you see him but I can't let you into his cell."


"Leave the whip on the desk and any other weapons you might have. Then I'll take you back. And, yes, I will check you for weapons." He took off his glasses. "It’s my job, ya see."

Lendal curled a lip and removed a large Bowie knife from inside his boot. The Marshal watched him drop it derisively on his desk. Time was when folks only carried a useable dirk but large Bowie's were now all the rage.

"You got a gun?" the Marshal asked, tucking his glasses in his pocket. Most town folks didn't carry guns unless they were going hunting.

"I don't NEED a gun," the man sneered. "A whip does just fine!"

The Marshal raised a brow, checked him for weapons then took him back into the inner room to the cell doors and left him outside the cell to talk with Meghan's father. The Marshal went back out to his deskwork.

"You're early," Meghan's father said with a scowl, finishing the coffee he'd lifted from the floor. He pulled out his pocket watch and hit the pin, popping it open. He looked at the time and snapped the lid closed, replacing the watch, his attached gold fob hanging proudly over his thick vest in a display of his wealth. He had been hoping the Deputy would be back with Meghan in tow before Lendal got there and had a chance to get upset. Lendal was always bragging about how good his cousin was at getting results. "It's not eight yet!"

Lendal hooked his thumbs in his thick leather belt letting his hands tighten in a pugilistic pose. His face screwed into a snarl. "What in the hell is going on here, Brogan? Where's my bride?"

Anger rippled through Lendal's body and Brogan's tone changed instantly. "I've been arrested on a trumped up charge, Lendal. Meghan went missing and I couldn't get out to search. That fool Marshal out there finally decided this morning that I really did have a daughter. All night he's claimed that I didn't. But I let your cousin know she was missing. I told the Deputy the minute I knew, uh, when I was being hauled off to jail. So he knows about it."

Cold grey eyes rolled suspiciously over the older man. "Oh, for Christ sakes, let’s get out of here," Lendal growled, his hands coming free of his belt. "Do what you have to do, pay whoever you have to pay, and let’s go. I don't know why you've stayed here all night."

"I had no choice," the heavy man whined. "This isn't Miner's Flat, Lendal."

Lendal had been directed at the hotel desk to the Marshal’s office upon his early morning arrival in town. The note from the Deputy, his cousin, that had been left at the front desk sat in his pocket and he ran his hand over it with cold deliberation and annoyance. He'd halfway expected this. That’s why he’d sent his cousin when he couldn’t be there himself.

The prisoner continued, "The Marshal says I have to go before the judge this morning. Then I can pay the bond and be released. We'll find her, Lendal. I swear we will."

Lendal's voice had a calmness that Brogan Fitzgeraldson knew masked a white-hot anger. "We'll find her all right. But I think we can agree this was poorly handled from the minute you got into town. You let her out of your sight and you got yourself arrested so that she had a perfect opportunity to just walk away. Apparently she looks at you as a man in petticoats," he scoffed. "She has no fear of you or she’d still be there quivering in her boots." His voice was low and meant only for the older man inside the cell to hear.

Meghan’s father raised his head. Lendal was holding him responsible for Meghan’s disappearance? He'd been afraid he would. Would it destroy their silent partnership arrangement and the takeover deal Lendal's added financing would make possible? He looked at the man's face. Dear heavens! Lendal was lethal when he felt he’d been cheated or disobeyed.

"It wasn’t my fault, Lendal," the older man whined. "When I checked she was in bed. When I went back she was gone and all trace of her was gone. Just that old woman was there instead. How was I to know that old windbag’d be there?"

"There's the matter of the Army wagons. Since when do they stop at a downtown hotel? You should have known instantly that something was wrong. You could have dragged her into your room, tied her to the foot of your bed and kept watch over her the minute you checked those wagons and knew she wasn't in them. You DID check the wagons, didn't you? Or can’t you handle your women?"

How did you know about the Army wagons? Was the Deputy there when you got here? Why wasn't he out looking? Warily the older man regarded the muscularly fit man on the other side of the bars. Lendal's vicious eyes stared back at him. His face was almost handsome but for his eyes. He also had curly mutton chops, but on him they lent a strong, dangerous look. Lendal Hindlefarb had been his friend since their childhood days. They’d shared a difficult boyhood with alcoholic, abusive fathers. And the older man had always been careful not to cross the younger man and his explosive temper.

Before Meghan’s father could respond, the Marshal spoke from the doorway, "It’s time to be going to court now, Mr. Fitzgeraldson."

The visitor looked away. He didn’t discuss these matters in earshot of anyone outside their small group. The Marshal stepped back out to his desk and rustled through the drawer for the keys then grabbed for his hat.

"I DO know how to handle my women," the heavy man hissed in a loud whisper.

"I should think that a successful escape under your watchful eye would question that claim," Lendal replied pointedly, his gaze not wandering. "I have to wonder if you were involved in her disappearance. She’s gone. Who’s to blame? You."

The older man stiffened. "That’s not true. I'm not involved, I swear. She didn’t do this alone. She had to have help. It was that Lieutenant. Lieutenant Pottsington."

"I hold YOU accountable. You promised her to me. I told you she was the one I wanted. All you had to do was deliver her. I even brought the bride price you needed, the amount you said would make me a silent partner on your contracts."

Lendal patted the wad of bills in his pocket but his mind was reeling. Had his friend let his daughter get away on purpose? Maybe a better prospect for her had come up back home, a better business deal to be made from her marriage. Maybe he had her stashed away somewhere right this minute. Well, he'd better not have done anything like that He wouldn't live to regret it!

"I got her here. If you’d been here when we arrived, you’d have the new bride you wanted right now, we'd both be rich with this new deal, and I'd be on my way back home," the older man sniffed imperiously. He was not going to stand around and be accused of something he hadn't done. Lendal had his own part in all this.

Lendal grabbed the steel bars and shook, his knuckles turning white with his rage. The bars rattled. Through clenched teeth he rumbled in a louder voice, "Don’t think you can cheat me like this and get away with it, Brogan! I won't stand for it!"

The Marshal raised an eye to the visitor as he entered the room. "There a problem?"

"No!" Lendal replied letting go instantly. The Marshal looked at both then moved to the cell door. The clanking of the key in the lock echoed in the room. Meghan’s father didn’t look in Lendal’s direction. He knew the man’s anger was fierce. He'd wait till Lendal calmed down and then try to reason with him. He had to handle this ridiculous charge first.

"I'm leaving," Lendal announced and spun toward the outer room.

"Wait! Come with me, Lendal," Meghan's father pleaded. "Please. I'll post bond and we'll go back to the hotel. You know I wouldn't cheat you. I never have. Calm down. We've been friends a long time. On this other business, uh, I'll explain everything that happened. The events on the trip here. Everything. And I have considerable influence with the Comman...."

"I know what happened. I've got my cousin working on it right this minute."

"The Deputy? But you don't know about...."

Lendal snorted. "Army man, right?"

"How did you...?

Lendal laughed a sinister laugh. "You don't think I was just relying on YOU, do you? Oh no, I had my own insurance in place."

The older man considered, He must have talked with his cousin. Was he at the hotel when Lendal arrived? Why isn't he out looking? "Is the Deputy at the hotel?"

The Marshal listened quietly as he brought the prisoner from the cell. There was that reference to a Deputy again. Had a visiting lawman been in his town watching people's movements without checking in with him first? And who were they watching exactly? Were they expecting the daughter to run off with a beau as it looked like she'd done? Was this some kind of family feud? He hoped not. Those could get particularly nasty. And this visitor was obviously livid.

The older man continued, "I talked to him in the saloon after he got here, you know. He told me where he was going to stay," he glanced at the Marshal then back to Lendal, "uh, through the night. What did he see?"

Glaring, Lendal fell into step next to the lawman as they moved out of the jail. Stepping to the other side of the prisoner, the Marshal was careful of where the visitor was in relation to his own pistol. He did not expect any kind of escape attempt by either man, but you couldn't be cautious enough. He could not say he found the visitor very trustworthy, in fact, he didn't like what he'd seen of the man at all.

"Hush up, ya old fool!" Lendal's brow furrowed and he looked away. His voice rose at the end of his whip crackers' voice. And the tone left little doubt--his supremacy was not to be questioned. Not ever.

The infuriated man wore heavy boots, dirty pants held up with a thick leather belt and a grey shirt that stretched tightly across his chest. His upper body was heavily muscled and those muscles were now twitching slightly as his jaw clenched and unclenched.

"Yes. All right, Lendal."

The Marshal was amazed at how the older man's voice had turned from the repugnant, demanding voice he'd used all night long to that of a small boy. He watched them both with interest. So this was the intended, Mr. Hindelfarb. And his prior wife died under unusual circumstances, huh? He couldn't help feeling glad the young woman had gotten away, wherever she was. He'd just do a little poking into the prior wife's death.

They walked the street in silence to the courthouse and into the courtroom. Though others were there, the heavy older man watched his "friend" with visual trepidation.

This man Lendal might be the least of your worries at the moment, the Marshal thought to himself as he glanced at the older man who was looking with hope of understanding at his surly visitor. He would be going in front of the judge whose wife he was accused of molesting, the wife he'd called a'plug-ugly old bag of wind.'

That particular judge was not going to find this man or his friend near as important or threatening as they found themselves. However, the older man did actually have a daughter, so that much of his story was true. And the Marshal would have to testify to that fact. The judge's wife wouldn't be happy about it, but they were looking for truth after all.

Lendal stood silently in the gallery, his thumbs in his belt, throwing acrimonious looks the older man's way. The Marshal glanced back occasionally and wondered at the man's barely suppressed rage. Yes, he would certainly do some checking on this fellow and his missing first wife.

After a grueling two hour examination before Esquire O. Edgar Saddlinghouse, Broghan Fitzgeraldson was required to give a five hundred dollar bond, an exorbitant bond in anyone's opinion. Failing to do so, he would have been committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury at the mid July term of the circuit court.

"That was outrageous!" the older man railed as they stepped into the street, his old starch having returned. He needed that bond money and the money from Lendal to complete the secret business deal he had arranged for later in the day. Angrily he had agreed to the bond since it was that or stay in jail. The Marshal had indicated to the court that the man did have enough bond money being held for safekeeping by the lawman. He escorted the man and his visitor back, and the Marshal got Mr. Fitzgeraldson's possessions from Mr. Potts' safe.

Given some privacy in his cell while Lendal waited in the outer room, Meghan's father once again wrapped his money belt around his waist under his clothing, tying it securely. He angrily withdrew five hundred dollars in greenbacks for the bond. He counted the stack of change that had been taken by the Marshal from his coat pocket. He saw the coin with the hole in it and quickly slipped it into his pocket.

The Marshal had examined the coin before returning it and was absolutely astounded with the fact that it could be hit with a shot, much less hit near the middle. It was with reluctance that he had given it back to the grumpy older man, who finally signed all the necessary court papers and moved out to the street with Lendal, temporarily a free man.

They walked back through the now bustling streets, Lendal staying a good stride ahead and the older man huffing to keep up. "Sign for another night," Lendal growled as they entered the stage hotel lobby.

"I already did."

"Humpf," he replied. They headed up the stairs to Mr. Fitzgeraldson's room.

"Listen, Lendal," Meghan's father pleaded as they climbed the stairs. "This deal I'm making later today will make us both wealthy men. It's a once in a lifetime deal. Like I wrote you, one of the owners of the Barrister Wagon Shop up north has found a way to sell the shop right out from under his partner at a very favorable price to us. He gambles and he's gotten himself in a bit of a fix."

"Humpf!" Lendal scoffed.

The older man continued, "But our deal's got to be kept very quiet so his partner doesn't find out in time to stop everything. He's meeting me here this afternoon. You won't have to do anything but put in your share and sit back and roll in the money. I know Meghan was part of this and she still is. We'll find her. But I hope you aren't planning to hold up your money till Meghan's found. I can't make the deal without it. And I swear, it will make you a wealthy man."

Lendal's fists clenched and his jaw tightened. He wasn't about to be cheated like that. If Brogan thought he could cheat him, he'd better think again.

"Somebody's been in my room!" the older man exclaimed as he opened the door. Both men were surprised by the condition of the bedding. The old man stared at the bed. "Someone's been..." his eye caught the carpetbag, "wait a minute. That's Meghan's dress and case!" Lendal dropped his whip on the chair and yanked the dress out of the case. The note fell off to the floor.

"She was hiding in your room while you were being arrested?" Lendal growled, suddenly ripping the dress violently and throwing the pieces to the ground. Brogan froze. It took a lot of strength to rip a dress like that, even an old one.

Lendal scanned the older man's face. They'd been trusted friends a long time, but it was looking more and more like Brogan had masterminded her escape.

"I don't know how she'd have gotten in here without my seeing her," he pled. He looked at the breeze blowing in past the blind. "I didn't leave that window open."

"Humpf," Lendal growled again in serious doubt, his anger raw. No, it wouldn't have been at all hard for her to get in that way.

Her father quietly picked up the note. He tried not to look at the torn dress. Suddenly his jaw clenched and his face became blotchy with anger. "This note's from Meghan," he bellowed. "It’s that damned Army officer whisked her away!" he began pacing the room. "I knew it. Lieutenant R. L. Pottsington. He flirted with her the whole trip. He was taunting me. Letting me know he was going to take my daughter. He's not going to get away with this! I swear to heavens, he's not!"

The old man was putting on a good act, the visitor decided. But was that all it was...an act? "My Cousin's looking for the Army wagons. If she's with them, he'll drag her back. If not, those boys know what happened to her. He'll get it out of them." Lendal watched for the other man's reaction.

"Good! But, uh, the Lieutenant was going to San Francisco. He won't be with them. By now he probably has her tucked away somewhere across the bay."

Is that what you hope? You know where she is, don't you? Lendal thought grimly. He wadded the note into a small wad and tossed it forcefully at Meghan's father's face. "Throw this damn note away. Destroy it," he demanded. "Nobody’ll know but us. We'll keep to the story that she’s seventeen. You've got rights. You can claim kidnapping."

"We'll find her before the law does," Meghan's father replied. He made no complaint about being hit with the wadded paper. He meekly picked up the note and unwadded it. He read it again. "Don't try to find us. Humpf. Us."

Lendal's voice was cold. "We need the Marshal searching. It scares them plenty when they know the law is going to bring them back every time they try and run. Keeps them from ever trying again. Especially when they understand what happens to them once they're dragged back." His jaw jutted out, "The minute she's found, we'll marry. Then I'll take over and settle this score."

"You’re absolutely right," the girl's father declared. "I'll get rid of the note." He tore up the note and put the pieces in his pocket to dispose of somewhere else later. "What about this officer? If he's already married her...?"

You think that'll make it all right to cheat me, don't you? You think if she's already married, I can't do anything about it? "Officers can disappear just like anyone else."

"Oh, but the Army..." The idea of the Army being on their trail was terrifying to the large man. He lived near a fort and knew how relentlessly they worked. And that particular officer was from the fort close to his home.

"What'd you expect?" Lendal questioned, "You're the one that let her go."

"For heaven's sake, Lendal, I didn't "let" her go. It wasn't my fault. I swear."

The older man sunk onto the bed. Lendal was still mad and that wasn't good. Meghan's father ran his hand along the sheet as he thought. He was tired. He hadn't slept much during the night. Maybe he'd lie down for a while. He ran his hand under the pillow. Just an hour's sleep, maybe two. "Please consider signing the partnership papers and, uh, putting in your money before we find her. We can have that deal finished by this afternoon, then I'll stay and we'll all look."

Lendal paced to the other end of the room, forcing down his ire. "I'm not putting in one cent before she's back. This is all your fault, Brogan! No one is stupid enough to get himself arrested for molestation, dammit. No one."

The heavy man pulled the pillow onto his lap in an unconscious mode of protection and sighed deeply. Then he saw something sticking out from under the other pillowcase. A badge that said "Deputy."

Lendal spun toward him and the heavy man instantly wrapped his large hand around the badge, hiding it. Lendal showed his teeth in a snarl then stomped to the window where he sullenly pulled aside the blind and looked out. Muted voices could be heard from people strolling on the balcony. He yanked the window closed and let the blind bounce back into place. "No one else needs to know our business," he growled.

The badge in the old man's hand was disturbing him. He stuffed it in his pocket. The Deputy's been in here? Why? And why in my bed? Has he caught Meghan? If so, where is she? Where's the Deputy? What happened here? Has he violated her and is he going to blame it on me? That REALLY would make Lendal furious!

He looked at his angry friend. What's Lendal thinking? What game is he playing? He likes to toy with his victims. What does he know about my mussed bed? He didn't seem that surprised by it. Was he here, too? Did they both violate her and he's letting me worry about it? Lendal does that sometimes. How else could he know about the Army wagons? He had to have talked with the Deputy. But where is he? What's going on? Where’s Meghan? Why break into my room?

It made Brogan Fitzgeraldson very uneasy. Something about all this was very wrong. He felt the badge inside his pocket and worried.

Lendal turned and stared at his one-time friend, his eyes narrowing to pin points. "It was Sarah that did this, wasn't it?" His eyes glittered dangerously as he moved toward the older man. "She convinced you not to turn Meghan over to me. I know how she and Ruby used to be, whispering to each other when they did the dishes, exchanging glances all the time. I stopped that soon enough, but she's behind this, isn't she? Protecting her poor, sweet baby."

The older man's head was spinning. Yes, their wives used to help each other with chores when they lived next door to each other. And Lendal had angrily stopped that. Now he was furious again. The older man tried to remain calm. Lendal was furious, Meghan was gone, he'd spent the night in jail, he had an important business meeting coming up and now he was exhausted."

"Why in the world would I listen to Sarah? That's loco talk, Lendal." Then his eyes widened. Lendal would take that the wrong way. "Uh, I mean, I had Meghan here ready for you. I expect her to be your bride. I wouldn't cheat you, Lendal. I wouldn't. Honest!"

A cold sneer formed across the visitor's face. "Wouldn't you?"


The Marshal grabbed his hat. This Lendal fellow could use a little checking into. He didn't like the looks of the man. Once his deputies were both back he could put more time into it. Till then he'd mosey around to the saloons and ask about him.

He put the hat on his head and pushed it back. First, though, he'd get the payment to the court, talk with the clerks to get some indication of how upset the judge's wife was with him since he had spoken on the obnoxious fellow's behalf regarding his having a daughter. Always paid to know where he stood.

Then he'd head back to the cafe and get the two bit dinner special Clara Sue was writing on their board when he was in the cafe earlier. Four courses. He licked his lips in anticipation. Truth be told, they made a better meal than his wife ever did. But he wasn't about to tell her that.


The tiny woman across was obviously a woman to be reckoned with. Meghan watched in wonder as the dainty woman with her flashing brown eyes and quick tongue directed her husband's and children's actions. The blonde had never seen a woman rule a household and she watched for a while, amazed.

The blonde sat in the middle, her leg pressed against Gaine's as they bounced along. Despite the dust, the tall rancher had insisted on leaving the window beside her open, her face peering out. Gaine seemed particularly anxious and Meghan worried what it meant. Were they in imminent danger of being found? Was someone following them? "What's wrong?" she appealed quietly.

A brilliant smile that made her ache to caress the tall beauty and feel her lips on her own again came her way but it didn't erase the lines of worry on Gaine's face.

"Ain't nothin'...yet," she smiled. Gaine looked at the others and added in a tone more worthy of public travel, "Jest checkin' the view."

Meghan sighed but said nothing. Oh Gaine, please trust me with your worries.


Lendal made his way down the stairs, past the desk and out the door, his large whip in hand. He paused on the street deciding how best to get to San Francisco. He pulled out a gold watch from his pocket. The fob was attached inside the same pocket. He hit the switch to let the lid fly open and checked the time. There was a boat, but it was too slow. If he hurried, he could make it to the train before it left. Then a paddlewheeler and with a little luck in connections, he'd be in San Francisco by early evening.

Lendal's thoughts were not kind. The officer who thought he could steal his bride would pay and pay dearly. As would the bride. "She’ll remember this every minute of her life," he growled. His old friend, Brogan, had become far too soft. None of this would have happened if he hadn't. It was all his fault!

He hurried down the street to the train station and pulled out his return ticket. He'd have to trade his two tickets to Oakland for one roundtrip to San Francisco. He checked the fares, made the exchange, caught the train and slid into a seat by the window. This train would take longer. It was not the express; it carried both passengers and freight.

It wouldn't matter. He was a vicious but always victorious hunter as his prey would soon find out. He watched the familiar landscape slide by once the train started up. People had tried to pull things over on him before. Those who lived to tell of it never tried twice. It was never wise, and it wouldn't be now, either.

Customary places passed outside his window. Places he knew well. The train would stop often before finally arriving at the Oakland pier. But Lendal's thoughts wouldn't vary. He wouldn't smell the brine, the aroma of the wet rope or hear the cheery band music being played inside the ferryboat when he changed transport. Instead he'd still feel the same thrill he felt now at the thought of catching them and making them pay. He enjoyed extracting payment from his victims.


"Theys outta be out here somewheres. This here's the place." They had both quietly observed the family beside them at the breakfast stop, finding little opportunity to engage in private conversation themselves. Now Gaine turned worriedly to Meghan as they rode along, her brow scrunched. She turned back and scanned the countryside through the thick dust that flowed in the open window. She'd refused to close the shade until she spotted them.

"Who?" Meghan asked behind her veils. "Who are you watching for, Gaine?"

"Them Army boys from yesterday. They was taking them wagons back ta the Fort. The Lieutenant said they'd be out China Cup way. That thar valley's over thar. So's we outta passed 'em. But Ah ain't seed hide ner hair a' 'em yet. Even way up ahead. They ain't thar. Thar ain't no dust trails an' they outta be."

She squeezed Meghan's glove covered hand lightly then let go. "Ahl be right back. Doncha fret none," she rose and grabbed the handle of the door beside the young children on the center bench. She smiled across at the parents. "Hang onta yer young 'uns, if'n ya would, please." Meghan sat perplexed.

The parents grabbed a handhold on their children's clothes pulling them back as the door flew open in the wind and Gaine reached outside and swung herself up the side of the coach that was barreling down the road. She kicked the coach door shut and climbed to the top as everyone inside gasped.

The driver looked at her with surprise.

"Ya seen any fresh wagon tracks a'goin' this a'way?" she asked with a quick smile as she slid into one of the empty seats behind him.

"Up there, ahead," he nodded with his head. "Shouldn't be climbing up here when the coach is movin'," he scolded. Gaine put a hand by the rim of her hat to further shade the sun. She could see the tracks leading off to the side then disappearing into a small draw that moved beside a creek.

"Yep. That's it." Gaine drew out her Sheriff's badge and pinned it on. "Yer gonna hafta stop whar them tracks turn," she announced. Both the Conductor and the driver looked at her with alarm. "Ahm speakin' fer the law now. Sorry. Ahl try and hurry, but ya gotta pull 'em o’er and wait up thar whar them tracks turns off."

"What in heaven's name for?" the Conductor grumped. "We have a schedule to keep, you know."

"Ah understand and Ah bees plumb sorry. But Ah belief we gots us some Army boys ‘n some kinda terrible fix. They outta be out here ‘n this here road an’ they ain't. Woan take me but a half hour ta investigate...maybe a mite more. An' Ahl need a volunteer that's good with'n a rifle."

She looked over the faces of the few men riding on top. One fellow reluctantly put up his hand. "I ain't the finest shot in the west," he said slowly. "But I'm tolerable accurate at huntin'."

"Good! Ahm gonna depeetize ya so's ya kin help me unravel this here mystery."

"All righty, then." His expression did not change to either show pleasure or pain.

"Hold up yer right hand and repeat after me...." Gaine started.

Inside the coach Meghan had slid over to Gaine's seat and was coughing through the billowing dust to see what was happening outside. Suddenly the coach came to a stop and Gaine and a man from on top hopped down. "What's going on?" the mother across the way asked. The window covers were all raised.

There was some rustling above and Gaine's rifle was carefully tossed down to her. The man still held his. They both turned and headed off jogging down the side road, following the tracks. Gaine pointed to some fresh horse tracks.

"Them tracks don't belong here," Gaine hollered to the man, who nodded but said nothing. Before long they were running down into the draw and out of sight. The passengers watched in surprise. They were between towns. Why stop here? And where were those two going with their guns?

"Why we stoppin'? the husband called up to the top on his wife's urging.

"Sheriff's orders," the Conductor called down. "Gonna be here 'bout a half hour or so, but she says to stay in the coach for a hasty exit if it's necessary."

"A hasty exit!" Meghan repeated with alarm, looking where Gaine had disappeared. If you do something that makes you leave me now, Gaine Sargos, I'm gonna kill you! she thought with a goodly tinge of fear running down her spine. You just be danged careful out there!

They jogged for about a half mile till the road dropped. They followed it quickly then came to a bend that curved around the hill they were descending. In front of them was a small cup-like valley. A creek wound before them with cottonwoods abutting it. Their line of sight was still above the camp site. Gaine extended a hand for them to stop. She put a finger to her mouth and pulled them both behind some scrub where they ducked down so as not to be seen from below.

They crawled further off the road around the hill and the angle of the descent became more difficult to maneuver. Still they all but duck walked around, sliding into places where they would have a better view. Looking down, they perused the scene. The horses were pin hobbled as the Army was wont to do. The animals pricked their ears, moving them about as they ate the lush grass that grew by the stream side.

Gaine rose enough to sight over the scrubby hillside growth. Both wagons were sitting where they were likely placed on their arrival. A horse, still saddled, stood to the side out of immediate view from the campsite. As the two of them froze in place, they could hear the muted sounds of voices, blows being landed and agonizing groans.

Gaine moved them quietly around a little further across a recent rattlesnake track in the tall grass and brush. They paused to glance down. There by the waning campfire were the four men in blue. All were on the ground, sitting, tied with their hands behind their backs. Their bare feet were also bound. One of the tied men was being kicked by a man Gaine recognized instantly...the Deputy. He held a knife in his hands and delivered a heavy kick to the man's stomach.

The faces of all the soldiers were black and blue. The Deputy was yelling and dragging the man he had kicked face-down nearer to the hot coals of the fire.

They were a good distance from the scene, many hundreds of yards, but with any luck their shots would still be on target. "Aim from here," she whispered to the man. "Ahm goin' thar. Wait for mah signal." She wanted to tell him to try and wound the man, not kill him. Normally she aimed to kill when she fired at criminals, but she wanted to question this man. She wanted him implicating the others so they'd all go to jail and be off Meghan's trail, at least for a while. But they'd be lucky to hit him with any accuracy at this distance. "Aim high. Miss them soldier boys!"

The man with Gaine nodded and Gaine moved out quiet as a panther across the steep side of the hill to the heavy clump further away as the man she left carefully took aim. She eased around some small rock outcroppings then lowered to stay below the brush until she got where she wanted. Lining up her rifle on the standing man who had the Army boy's ear in his hand pulling it up ready to slice off, Gaine yelled, "NOW!"

Both rifles cracked into the air at the same time, the reports echoing off the walls of the valley. The slumped Army men looked up in surprise. The Deputy spun, his eyes lighting on the rising tall woman he recognized from the saloon. Then as though in slow motion while the two shooters stood and cocked their rifles to fire again, he dropped the knife, loosed his grip and fell to the ground across the fire.

Gaine and the other fellow instantly headed down the hill at a run. "I aimed high for his shoulder," the man called. Gaine nodded. She had, too.

"Gaine!" one of the soldiers called. "We're damn glad ta see ya! Howdja find us?"

Without answering they pulled the Army man out of the fire, then Gaine pushed the Deputy out of the fire as well. She swatted her hat at the burning edges of the man's sack coat. His face was scorched but he was dead, two shots in his body, one in his shoulder and the other a head wound that had killed him instantly.

"Ya done good!" Gaine called to her helper. "What was a'happenin'?" she asked the men, but she was afraid that she knew. "Lieutenant tole me that thar stage oughtta pass ya on ar way back home. Ah watched fer ya. When ya warn't up thar, we come a lookin'."

"Thank God ya did! That demon was crazy! Caught us all by surprise. He knew all about how the Army set up watch. Got the drop then tied us up. First he said he'd let us go soon as we told him what he wanted to know. But we didn't know the information he wanted. Then he took our boots and stomped on our feet saying all we had to do was tell him!"

Another of the men shook his head. "Wanted to know who we knew in the Army that wore cologne. None of us do. He...he asked if the Lieutenant did." The man raised sorrowful eyes to Gaine, "we ended up telling him that he did. Citronella, we told him, but he kept saying it was some flower."

"He was crazy," the first fellow offered.

Gaine helped untie the other prisoners and checked them for injuries. They found their boots and brought them to the men but their feet were swollen undoubtedly with broken bones and they couldn't put them on.

"Damn him ta hell!" Gaine breathed.

"Yes," the first man agreed, "Then he began hitting us with his rifle and kicking us. Kept askin' us where that miserable man's daughter went. Hell, we plain didn't know! He insisted we did. Asked where the Lieutenant had her. The Lieutenant’s at his meeting in San Francisco. We told him that. Then he took his knife and said he'd cut off our ears and noses and, uh, other things and gouge out our eyes..slowly. He was gonna kill us all then, he said, and blame it on the Indians. But he said we could die easy without any cuttin' if we talked." The boy breathed deeply and an unbidden sob slipped out at the same time.

One of the others piped up, "He had some Indian arrows with him. They're over there in his saddlebag along with a bow where his horse is hid. Said he would end our lives with 'em, but we'd be pleading with him to do so long before he was done." One of this man's eyes was swollen shut and his nose looked like it had been broken.

Gaine felt horrible. This would not have happened if she hadn't left them cigars at the desk. It had seemed like an innocent enough diversion to rattle Meghan's father while giving a treat to fellas that rarely got recognition for their hard work. She had no idea then that this Deputy was involved or that he was so skillfully ruthless. What kind of monster kills folks for information? And who'd think he could get the drop on four Army men with good rifles?

She carefully looked over the last man the Deputy had dragged to the fire. He was by far the worst off. Gaine was very concerned about his chances. He was not really conscious, drifting in and out and moaning.

"Git the back off'n one a them wagons and we'll run him back ta the stagecoach. We kin put him on that center bench and git him inta the next town faster'n you fellas kin. Kin you boys git yer wagons hitched and move on out er should we send some'un?"

"We can get them going, Gaine. Go ahead and take Sanford there with ya. We'll drive into the next town as soon as we can."

"We'll get him to the doctor thar," Gaine said.

One of the man's friends looked at the severely injured man with tears in his eyes. "Ya ain't gonna have time ta carry him back ta the stage. Ya gotta take 'im on one a' the horses. His time's running short."

"All right. Kin ya put that miserable polecat's body in one a' yer wagons?" She pointed to the dead man. "And kin ya spare two hosses? Ah kin ride with'n the injured man but this here fella is off'n the stage, too."

"I can stay with them and help," the man said. "I'll catch the next stage. I'm not in any all-fired hurry."

"Kin ya? That'd be a tremendous big help, if'n ya could. Them fellers are gonna have trouble walkin' much less hitchin' up their teams," Gaine's eyes went over the man again. "Ah didn't catch yer name, friend," she said.

"Robert Thatcher," the man replied.

"Gaine Sargos," Gaine nodded. They shook hands quickly then Gaine ran and got the saddled horse that had belonged to the Deputy.

"Can ya wire the Army what's happened? Send it to the Lieutenant in San Francisco," the severely injured man's friend asked.

"Ahl git it ta the first spot on our stage route that done gots a telegraph office." Gaine rode over where the injured man was lying.

"Thanks. Tell 'em we'll wait in town for further orders." They handed her up the injured man and she cradled him in her arms as best she could. She spun the horse, and headed back to the stage at a gallop.

They heard her before they saw her. A cloud of dust rose from behind the horse as she spurred the tired animal ahead. They weren't that far from the next town but she wasn't sure the horse would make it at the pace the stage was going to be going. She'd leave him hobbled at the main road. The Army wagons could pick him up when they came by.

"Clear that thar center bench," she hollered as she rode up. Men from on top the stage began to scramble down to help.

"Good Lord! What happened?" the Conductor asked.

"Some loco fella got the drop on 'em and was plannin' ta kill 'em all. We doan git this fella ta the doctor in the next town pronto, that damned polecat's gonna git part a his wish."

A number of hands now helped move the injured man to inside the stage. The parents gathered their children onto their laps from the center bench and the man on the end crawled up top.

"Leave that thar hoss hobbled ta the side. They'll bring 'im in when they come by with'n thar wagons. Ah doan think that thar hoss kin keep up if'n we tie 'im ta the back a’ tha stage."

Gaine watched one of the men run for the horse. "Bring ‘is saddlebag with'n us, if'n ya kin. It's done got evidence on it!"

"There's arrows in this saddlebag, and a bow!" the man at the horse called. "Was it Injuns?"

"No. He done wanted folks ta think it t’war, but t’warn't."

"They holdin' the guilty party?" the Conductor called.

"They got his body," Gaine replied as she climbed into the stage to ride with the injured soldier.

The others threw the saddle and bags to the top and clambered aboard. The driver cracked the whip and the horses flew down the road. The injured man inside moaned with each bump, but they were making good time. They'd be into the next small town within a half hour.

Meghan looked at the boy with terror. What had they done to him and why? It was the young man that'd been assigned to ride inside when Gaine moved to the roof. His face was battered and there were small ash-covered burns on his cheeks. His arm was broken and occasionally he spit up a little bright red blood.

Gaine sat in the middle to provide support for him and Meghan immediately moved to the end where she could run her damp handkerchief over his forehead to help calm him or wipe away the spittle.

"Doan talk ta 'im," Gaine whispered to her with a sigh. Gods, how she hated this ruse! "He'll know yer voice."

Meghan nodded but kept her attention on the man, trying to gently dab away some of the dried blood on his face. "Shhh," she calmed. "Shh."

As they neared the town, the man opened his eyes and focused on Gaine. "Gaine," he whispered. Gaine smiled worriedly back at him. "Hang on thar, mah friend. War a'gettin' ya ta the doctor's fast as we kin."

He moved his eyes to the veiled woman beside Gaine. "Cousin Minnie," he whispered. Megan soothingly drew her handkerchief over his brow. "Shhh," she replied. He smiled softly before again blacking out.

The stage drove right up to the doctor's home. Men piled off and hurriedly they and Gaine got the injured man inside to the doctor's examining room. Gaine stood back as the doctor systematically began to examine him. He turned to her, "You’ll have to step out," he said gruffly. "I'm takin' his clothes off now." Then he spotted her badge. "Oh, yer a Sheriff." His eyes swept over her clothes with disapproval.

Gaine had been so intent on getting the boy help, she’d forgotten the situation. "Uh, certainly," she said. "Ahl wait out thar." She moved out to the parlor where some of the other passengers and stage personnel were milling. She saw Meghan across the room. Meghan saw Gaine and headed towards her. Men came out of the room remarking how the man was covered with bruises and breaks from head to toe. Even the bones in his feet had been broken.

"We have a schedule to keep, Sheriff," the Conductor said worriedly. "We have to be on our way." At that moment, Meghan moved beside Gaine.

Before the tall brunette could reply the young town Sheriff forced his way through the group and stood with furrowed brows before her. "Who are ya, and what's goin on here?" he demanded, looking from Gaine, back to the Conductor and then to Gaine again.

Suddenly Meghan stepped in front of Gaine, blocking her from the annoyed man.

"She’s a Sheriff, sir," Meghan snapped. It was odd not to be able to see Meghan’s face through the veil as she spoke, but Gaine was sure there was fire in her eyes, "She saved that man’s life, if indeed it is saved."

The man frowned, blinked his eyes and began to move his hand. Meghan flinched and took a small step backward into Gaine, but firmly held her ground. Startled by her action, the man stepped back and instantly pulled off his hat. "Uh, sorry, ma’am."

"Yessir, this is a Sheriff," the Conductor agreed, looking towards Gaine. "And we stopped on her direction."

"Uh," Gaine stumbled over her words, still surprised at Meghan’s ferociousness. "Ah am a Sheriff, uh, ta Barden’s Corner. An this here’s the stage Conductor and, uh, mah, uh, Cousin Minnie." For a moment she felt a touch of deja vu, since Minnie might very well have put herself in front of danger this way.

"What’s going on?" the man demanded, his hat still in his hands. He glanced at Meghan and stayed back. "Who’s the wounded man and who did it?"

"We kin git goin' right quick here," Gaine assured the Conductor. She put her hands on Meghan’s shoulders, "if’n ya’ll escort mah Cousin back ta the coach, please. We’ll be raht ‘n ar way." She looked at Meghan with an appeal, "Doan fret, Ahl be raht thar," she said softly, releasing her hold.

Meghan reluctantly stepped aside with the Conductor to move out to the coach and Gaine moved a step to leave them room to pass.

"Hold on there," the town Sheriff grabbed Gaine's arm. "Ya can't leave, if you have direct evidence on this crime."

"Unhand her!" Meghan demanded, quickly moving back and forcing herself in front of Gaine. She was so short and slight compared to those around her but all eyes looked down at her with surprise. The Sheriff pulled his hand back as though Gaine were on fire.

"That’s better," she said. This was a side of Meghan Gaine had only seen glimpses of in her eyes.

"Minnie?" Gaine took her arm and leaned down to her face. "Ahl be raht out. Please, go git ‘n the carriage ‘n Ahl be raht along."

Meghan looked up into Gaine’s eyes, "You’re sure?" Gaine nodded. Meghan turned toward the door unwillingly then looked back, "you’ll be all right?"

"Yep. Ahl be raht thar."

Meghan turned and slowly let the Conductor escort her out, the whole time glancing back at Gaine.

"Now," Gaine turned to the town Sheriff, "Ahl be happy ta let ya know what Ah kin. But thar ain't gonna be no trial. Army's gonna take over, Ahm a'thinkin'. An they kin find me easy 'nuff if'n theys gots the need. Name’s Gaine Sargos. An Ahl be ta Barden's Corner."

"Obviously this involves the Army," the Sheriff stated, writing down her name.

"Yep, that Army boy ‘n thar bees ‘n bad shape. Nows after ya done jawed with’n ever’un, if'n ya still needs more news on this here event, ya can send fer me later. But, like Ah said, Army's gonna take this here doin's over. Ahl be wirin' 'em. Whar's the nearest telegraph?"

"The first stop that heads to the train. The stage there will take your message to the line. Telegraph lines run along the tracks and it’ll be sent once it gets there. But I'll send a rider back north to the nearest telegraph that a'way."

"Thanky. Ahl wire 'em from mah stop an' you wire 'em from yern. Send it ta Lieutenant Pottsington ta San Francisca. Them boys 'er under his command."

The man looked unsure. "Boys? There’s only one fellow in there." Gaine wondered how long he'd been Sheriff and how hard a job it was in this small town. Probably about the same as in her town.

Gaine removed her hat and ran her hand through her hair. "They's two wagons a' Army men done been injured a'heading in from China Cup Valley. Ya might send some fellers out ta help 'em. One a' the fellers from the stage, last name a' Thatcher, is with 'em and he'll tell ya ever'thin' what happened. He an' Ah killed the perpetrator a' this here crime. Wa each done put a bullet ‘n 'im. That buzzard war a’kickin' this here fella ‘n draggin' ‘im inta the fire when we got thar."

"One fella was doin' this?"

"Yep. They'll be a bringin ‘is body in."

"So the man responsible was killed?"

"Yep. We caught 'im ‘n the act, the t'uther fella an me. Ah already Depeetized that Robert Thatcher fella, by the way. He war actin' in an o-fficial capacity when he fired his rifle, jest like Ah done. Tell the Army. This criminal war gonna blame his crime on the Indyuns. That thar's his saddlebags. Ya kin see what he war up ta!"

"He was gonna shoot them with arrows?"

"Yep. But them t'uther Army boys kin tell ya 'bout that when they git in. Now, ya might check n' see if'n thar's eny t'uther atrocities a' this here nature hereabouts that folks thunk war perpetrated by Indyuns. Cause it might well a'been this here feller's handiwork ‘stead. He war plumb loco with’n rage."

The man wrote information down as Gaine talked. "Ah recognized the feller that done this. Doan know 'is name. We jest come from Sacramenta and he war there ‘n the hotel saloon last evenin' a jawin' with a feller by the name a' Fitzgeraldson. Heavy fella..barrel chest, big belly, jowly whiskers, businessman. An here's the part causes uproar 'bout this here dead man--he war wearin' a Deputy's badge last evening. He din't have it on taday, though. But if'n ya look close when they drag 'im in here, yu'll likely see the pin holes ‘n his jacket whar it useta war."

"A Sacramento Deputy?" The man’s brows flew up.

"No, doan think sa. Ah thunk he war from a place called Miner's Flat. But this here Fitzgeraldson fella could tell ya fer shore. Ah only knowed Fitzgeraldson cause he war on the same stage Ah rode in on yesterday. He war from Jubilee City. We din't get on much tagather, him an' me. Warn't a kindly sort."

Meghan sat worrying in the coach with the family across from her. She listened to the mother quietly bringing comfort to her children. Finally she watched the people from the stage come swarming out of the doctor's house and climb back onto the coach. She moved to give Gaine the window seat. They rode quietly back to the main street and to the changing station where fresh horses were brought out.

"Is the boy...?"

Gaine looked over with a solemn face. "He's alive but hanging bah a string. The t'uthers should be a'gettin' there a'fore long."

"Oh," Meghan said sadly. She took Gaine's hand. "Did that Sheriff treat you right?"

A small grin crossed Gaine’s face. "Yep. He war fahn."

"Someone said," a veiled face looked up, "they said..the man who hurt the boy was a....Deputy?"

Gaine licked her lips. "He din't have no badge with’n 'im, but yep, it war that Lendal's cousin, the Deputy, all right. Ah recognized 'im from when he war ta the saloon last night a'talkin' ta, uh, ya knows who."

"Oh, Gaine!" Meghan said and Gaine knew there were tears in her eyes. Gaine put her arm around the small woman and held her to herself. "Shh, t'is all right. He bees dead now." Everyone in the coach was quiet, dazed by the happenings.

Sob-choked words barely audible drifted from behind the veil, "Will it EVER really be over?"

"Yep," Gaine said softly. "T'will."

The new passenger that got on at the station, climbed to the top grumbling about the stage being late. Soon he was set straight as to what all had occurred and his muttering stopped. The Army wagons were just entering the small town as the stage flew out on the gallop.

"Thank goodness you watched for them," Meghan sniffed.

"Ah reckon," Gaine replied, but she was quite deeply subdued by the event. Guilt swelled within her. She could have let them go their regular way and not lured them by the hotel to get a quarter cigar. She knew that kind of thinking, the "what might have been", was fruitless, but it was also human and she indulged herself in it for a short while.

"You did everything you could, Gaine," Meghan said softly. Gaine nodded.

There was a heavy pall over everything with what had happened to the Army boys. It could a' been Meghan, Gaine thought with horror. That thought was too horrible...far too horrible. She would make absolutely sure that Meghan was protected every minute once they got home. There was no way she would let Meghan's Pa or that Lendal fellow anywhere near her. She'd kill 'em first.


Continued in Chapter 6

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