See Chapter 1 for Disclaimers
In Jubilee City Meghan's mother sat in the bedroom she shared with her husband, her face in her hands, sobbing. Her two teenaged sons were out doing the noonday chores. She'd done the milking, baking and window-washing. She didn't mind chores even though the desert wind made cleaning an endless job. Later she'd have the boys move the furniture then take out the carpets. Shed beat the everpresent sand from the carpet fibers and have them replaced after she scrubbed the floors.
It wasn't that her husband demanded their house be spotless at all times even when he wasn't there. Or else. If he came home unexpectedly and there was sand inside, there'd be hell to pay. No, that wasnt it at all. It was how powerless she was to his choices and his anger.
Tears poured from her eyes. Her sweet, darling, innocent Meghan. Gone to that horrible beast, Lendal. How could she change anything? She didn't know how to make anything in her miserable life different. How could she protect her precious girl, the one girl child that dared show some gumption? She couldnt help her run off. That was definitely not an option. Ruby had found that out. If she'd thought it was at all possible, she'd have taken Meghan years ago and fled far away. But it was a deadly choice...an illegal choice even. And she couldn't turn to her older children. Her husband had made sure of that.
"Oh, Meghan," she cried helplessly, "Ive failed you." She had pled with her husband not to send Meghan to Lendal. She knew Lendal all too well and the kind of vicious man he was. Her husband had scoffed at her pleas and seemed to take great pleasure in tormenting her with the fact that he was going to be sure their youngest daughter, her precious Meghan, married his dearest friend.
"Meghan needs a firm hand," he'd kept replying with that superior tone of his. She had tried everything she knew to convince him otherwise, but in the end she had failed. Her daughter was gone and would be Lendal's bride by now. She cringed at the thought. It was a fate worse than death. Why couldn't her daughter pick her own match? Why were women destined to this road in life?
The tired chambermaid turned the handle of the hotel room door with a heavy sigh. Practically a full house. Well, this was the very last room to be done today. They'd told her at the desk to leave it till last. She pushed the door open, bringing her basket of cleaning supplies with her as she took a step inside. The blind was shut leaving the room in shadowed darkness with only the mottled daylight from the hallway illuminating the edges of clothing and luggage scattered about.
The chambermaid shook her head. How could people live this way? Her eyes adjusted to the heavily shadowed room. Suddenly her scream could be heard throughout the three levels of the hotel, bringing the staff on the run.
Meghan's father's stern grey-green eyes were vacant as he lay on the floor on his back facing the ceiling. His voice was silent. The bustling city noises rose from outside the open window; the wind blew the shade till it flapped in the breeze. His room was a mess of scattered and torn clothes, toiletries, and shoe cleaning materials. The clothes he was wearing were also torn, and disheveled. And there was blood. A lot of blood. Everywhere.
Brogan Fitzgeraldson lay quite dead, several areas of darkened blood spots were on his torso. The one across his throat had flowed heavily and pooled on the floor, the others left large dark marks on his chest, clearly indicating the numerous spots where he had been viciously stabbed. The weapon was nowhere to be seen.
"Whatcha think, Marshal?" Herbert Windslaw asked as he stood looking down on the body. Herbert's father owned the furniture store and this son had been trained in the furniture business. But now Herbert was the city's official undertaker, a job he liked better. It fit his curious mind. Course, it would be his job to make the pine box for the burial if the family didn't get back to him in time with their wishes, and more appropriately, their finances for anything better.
The Marshal rubbed his chin. His eyes intently moved about the room, "Welp..the window was unlocked and open but the shade was closed and the door was also closed but not blocked in any way," he said in his deep tones, "The murderer could have come in and gone out either way. All the man's valuable possessions including a full money belt, coins from his pocket, and gold watch are missing. I know he had those things cause he had em when I arrested him last night. His other items are strewn everywhere around this room."
"Yep. Just like I figured. Looks like robbery was the motive all right."
"I wonder. I mean, somebody wants us to think this was robbery. And maybe it was." He rubbed his chin and ran his eyes once more over the victim. "But this was a vicious killing and I saw how that man talked to him earlier today. He was angry! Oh, he could have taken this man's possessions sure enough, but his motive would have been much more than simple robbery."
"Well, Ill be dadsapped. Which man was that, Marshal?"
"Fellow by the name of Lendal Hindlefarb...this man's daughter's intended, although not a man of her choice. And she went missing during the night. See how that dress has been ripped up?"
"I saw that. Musta been hers, huh? You think that fella did that? You think he's the murderer? Couldnt the old man have ripped it?"
"Maybe. But the old man didnt look strong enough to rip a dress like that and this other fella was strong and angry enough. And he was with the victim this morning."
Herbert stood staring at the body. "How long ya figure he's been dead."
"I dunno. What do you think? Youve seen your share of dead bodies."
Herbert smiled. He liked working with this Marshal. He always asked for Herberts opinion. "Well, Marshal, I'd say a couple hours maybe. A little rigor in his face there looks like."
"Um hum. Thats what I was thinkin, too. Right about the time that Lendal fellow was here." The lawman checked every pocket of the victim and found them empty except for the torn pieces of the note his daughter had left. He put those in his own pocket. Now he noted something in the victims hand.
"Well looky here." The Marshal pried the dead mans hand open. Inside was a star-shaped metal badge that read "Deputy".
"Well, pancakes," The Marshal turned the badge over. "This badge...that Lendal fellow had a relative. I remember them talking about it. And he was a Deputy." They both stared at the badge, "Looks like maybe he came back to help Lendal with this crime. That's my guess, anyway." He stood.
"A Deputy? Helpin with a murder?" Herberts brow raised. "Ya sure ya want that word to get out, Marshal?"
"It happens," the Marshal pushed his hat back. It happened all too often. It was not unknown for law enforcement to fall to those with their own legal vices.
Herbert nodded. "Sure bled enough. Hotel's gonna have trouble getting this stain out of their floor. And look at the sheet! Looks like the killer wiped the knife off there."
"Um hum, I noticed," the Marshal carefully observed the body then glanced at the bloody mark of the wiped blade on the sheets. "Bowie blade, looks like."
"That's just what I was thinkin', too. Course lots of men carry 'em these days."
"Well, that Lendal fella had one. I saw it myself." The Marshal walked around the room, looking back at the victim as he checked around. "Ya know, it took a strong man to do this killing. This fellow was hefty." He took off his hat and rubbed his hand over his head. "Two men would sure have made it easier, if thats what happened." He stepped close and looked down at the mans wounds, "but I suppose it could have been one--a strong one. Neck wound killed him. And hotel folks didn't see anybody near his room except that Lendal fella."
The Marshal stepped away from the body. "Well, let's look at the covers, shake 'em off and see if there's anything else here we should see." He liked working with Winslaw. The man was curious and expressed his opinions.
"Okay. Yer pretty sure, though, ya think ya know the murderers, right?"
"Maybe. Gonna have to send a wire to the victim's hometown so his family's been informed. Meanwhile, I'll see if I can't chase down these fellas."
The Marshal shook out the top coverlet and Winslaw shook the blanket. Then they shook the top sheet. Nothing fell out. They folded it with the knife's blood smear on top. They checked the bottom sheet and the pillow cases. Nothing. There were dirt smudges on the sheets where one's boots might have left marks if someone had gone to bed with their boots on.
"Kinda strange," the Marshal muttered. He'd seen the mussed bed that morning and still wondered why it was mussed the way it was. But he didnt want to admit to Winslaw that hed been snooping around in the mans room. Besides, Fitzgeraldson was alive at that point, so it didnt figure in his killing.
"What do you make of that?" Winslaw asked. "Bed looks like a hurrah's nest the way it was all mussed up like that."
"Uh, dunno. Guess he took a nap. Not involved with the murder, I'd guess."
Winslaw looked at the dead mans boots. "No, sir, those boots woulda left polish stains and these stains are dirt." He ran his finger over a stain then looked up, proud of his skills of deduction. He looked closer. "Strange, huh? Coulda been part of the murder. What if somebody got in bed with their boots on pretending to share the room only really just laying in wait for his victim?"
"Mm. Not too likely to be lying in wait in daytime. Fitzgeraldson was in jail all night and the hotel didnt assign anyone else to this room. No, it's not connected."
"But, why climb in bed with your boots on then?"
"Dunno." And in fact it still puzzled the Marshal.
"What did Bob at the desk say?" Winslaw asked. "He's on days. Saw you talking to him before you came up."
"He said they didnt put anyone else in here. And they saw this Lendal fellow come down the main stairs with his whip, calm as ya please, walk outside and open a gold watch to check the time. Only thing is, I don't remember seeing him with a watch when he was at the jail this morning. Now the victim had himself a gold pocket watch that he opened every two seconds, but not Lendal."
"Well, Marshal, seems ta me like ya know the murderer in this case. That's pretty sure evidence."
"Hmm. Maybe." He looked around one last time. But why walk out calm as you please? Would he think people didn't remember he was here if he moved slowly and didn't create a fuss? Did he think that wouldn't make him look guilty? Or was he one of those crazed killers that killed with a smile on his face then went about his business like nothing had happened?
"Any blood on 'im?" Winslaw asked, startling the Marshal from his thoughts.
"This Lendal fellow? They didn't mention seeing any."
"Sure enough blood everywhere else."
"Yep," the Marshal rubbed his chin then sighed, "All right, Winslaw, bundle him up and take him on down to the shop. We'll give the family a small while to get back to ya. I'll go to the telegraph office and notify their Sheriff after I've checked with the fellas in the saloon. Maybe somebody knows exactly who this Deputy fellow is that was outside the hotel here yesterday. I know a little about Lendal, but there's a whole lot more to find out.
Anger and challenge in her situation had been left behind. Instead Meghan had been vacillating between sorrow and terror... sorrow for what had been done to the soldiers and terror of people that could be that ruthless, relentlessly merciless and searching for her. And she had pulled Gaine into her problem and Gaine had pulled in the Army boys. How could she live with this?
They had been sitting in the hot, dusty carriage bouncing inside watching the landscape quietly through the dust for a number of stops already, side by side but no longer embraced. Each sat staring, mulling over their own thoughts.
A warm hand reached over and grasped Meghans and something inside her relaxed ever so slightly. She looked up to see Gaines smile, that fabulous smile that made her weak. "Ya all right?" the tall woman asked softly.
Meghan stared back. How does she know? She can't see my face. How does she know? "I guess so."
"T'is gonna be fine. It got itself a bad appearance now, but t'is gonna be fine."
Meghan stared at the tall beautys face and for the first time noticed the tight muscles in her jaw and the circles under her eyes, and the almost hollow look she was trying to hide. Meghan slumped back. "Im so sorry," she whispered.
Gaine leaned close to her ear and whispered just above the noises of the coach, "Doncha dare! Ya hear me? Doncha dare say nothin like that! Ya aint responsible fer none a this, sos doncha dare pologize."
Meghan dropped her eyes to her lap and chewed her lip. "I feel responsible."
A finger against the veil gently lifted her chin. "Well, ya aint!"
Gaine heaved a large sigh and glanced around her. They were in a coach full of people, each lost in their own thoughts. But everyone had been affected. They were all feeling their own degrees of shock. It drew them together in a sense. They were each finding what comfort they could in this ordeal, shared yet apart.
The parents were hugging their children, all squeezed together on one seat now, wrapped around each other as they bounced along. The two men were both sitting on the center bench, straddling it, each staring out the window of the opposite door regardless of the dust swirling inside.
Gaine leaned down to the smaller woman. "Ah done blamed mahself fer a spell. Ifn Ah hadnt had em git ceegars ta the hotel..."
"Oh, Gaine, you didnt cause this," Meghan said banefully.
"Ah know Ah dint. An you dint neither. Ya know what Ah figured? Ah figured them hateful, contumacious men..all three a em.. bees loco an what that Deputy feller done war beyond anythin' n humanity. There ain't no accountin' fer that. Ah, fer one, am more'n glad he's dead. An' may he rot n the fires a hell fer all eternity! See, Ah gotta horrible feelin' he's done this a'fore. An' he'd a done it gin if'n he ain't been stopped. But now he's done been stopped."
"But the boy...he was hurt so badly."
"Yep. He t'war. An he shore dint deservet. An' he's got all ar hopes an prayers fer his recovery. He gots hisself in Gods hands now. But that thar fella woulda picked some'un else ta smite. Whos ta say what innocent folk t'woulda suffered ta his hand? Ya dint do it ta the boy an Ah dint neither. One vera loco man swamped with evil done it. An hes dead an aint gonna do it neer agin. "
The tall beauty intertwined their fingers, working her larger fingers through the glove covered smaller hand. "Evil's a downright frightful happenstance," Gaine said softly squeezing Meghan's hand. "More sa whent attacks good folks. All's we kin do is ta fight it best we kin."
Green eyes looked out from the veil at Gaine's face and gently squeezed back. "Yes," she said softly. Then her head tilted down with her gaze focused in her lap.
Gaine leaned towards her and said quietly, "Doan drop yer head, please? Ya doan never hafta do that agin."
"Drop my head?" Meghan hadn't realized she'd done something she'd been trained to do since she was a child. She felt her jaw firm. "Youre right," she agreed and lifted her head. "I dont have to do it again. Never again."
The Marshal spent his afternoon talking with the men in the saloon and all the hotel employees. Some of the men from the faro game also played in Oakland saloons and knew Lendal. The Marshal wrote down the information, including the man's hometown of Miner's Flat. One of them remembered the local Deputy from the same town. Lendal's cousin...a hard man by all accounts.
All the information went down in the Marshal's notes. He fervently wished he'd read the note left at the desk for Lendal, even if it hadn't been "correct" to do so. Well, he'd head out to Miner's Flat the next day if he could get away. He was too tired right now. He'd sure be glad when his two Deputies got back. Working night and day by himself was getting very old, very fast.
A fight had broken out in another saloon and the Marshal was sent for. There were fighters or drunks that needed to be jailed. Maybe he'd crawl into one of the other cells and nap once he got them there. He'd need to get some rest before things picked up later in the evening. He didn't have time to head home. His family must wonder if he'd left town on vacation with his Deputy.
It was very late when they pulled into their first night's stay. As soon as they stopped, Gaine filled out the telegram for the connecting stage that would carry it to the telegraph office the next morning. She counted out the amount as Meghan waited beside her, but the stage company refused to have her pay.
Gaine and Meghan undressed quietly once they got their assigned room. They were both saturated with a deep weariness of body and soul. They hadn't really slept much the night before and their bodies, instead of seeking exhaustive sleep, were overwrought with tamped down tension.
As they climbed into bed and blew out the candle, Gaine pulled the small blonde to herself. She had intended a gentle caress and then to hold the small woman as they slept. But Meghan was eager, warm and soft and the memory of the prior night spent gently kissing and caressing each other settled in her mind. Now after the day theyd been through...
The small blonde needed the connection. Passion filled her eyes, sending a roar of arousal through Gaine. Gaine's lips reverently brushed Meghan's forehead, then eyes, then freckled cheeks. The brunette's trembling fingers gently held Meghan's face as her lips tenderly laid claim to those she yearned to possess again.
Once their mouths met, the gentle kiss left them desperately craving more. They kissed again, and this kiss quickly exploded into an urgent, passionate search. Pulses pounding, their heated bodies pressed together in a surge of desperate want, their lips offered entry to the others searching tongue. Gaine's fevered hands moved down the small woman's torso. Neither could seem to stop. They both ached to lose themselves in the other.
Meghan moved her own hands to Gaine's, directing them to her bosom with a throaty moan, "Gaine!" Their needs raging, their bodies became wildly alive with an intense hunger. Gaine slipped onto Meghan, her thigh pressing between Meghan's nightgown just as the blonde arched into Gaine's hands on her breasts.
Blood was pounding in the blondes ears but a niggling edge of reality worked its way into her thoughts. Oh, dear heavens, wait... She pulled her face back, "Gaine, love, wait." She trembled as she moved Gaine's hands away from her bust and down to her waist. She backed away slightly, pressing her legs together, forcing Gaine's out and buried her face in the quaking shoulder near her. "Please, my love, wait."
Hazy blue eyes gazed back in the shadowed darkness. "Meggy," Gaine groaned, the fire inside her fanned into a blaze she feared she no longer controlled. "What's wrong, darlin?" she whispered. "Did Ah hurt ya?" Her pulse pounded in her head, her skin was alive with unfamiliar sensations, butterflies fluttered in her stomach and a wet warmth was settled between her thighs.
"No," Meghan breathed. "Oh, Gaine, honey. Not...not like this." The small blonde wiggled completely out from underneath a very confused brunette and grabbed both of Gaine's hands in her own. "Not here. Not in reaction to something horrible that happened." They both looked around to the darkened muslin walls of the room they were now in, the one the mysterious woman and her companion had shared in this "hotel" on the trip down.
"Reaction?" Was it a reaction? Gaine's heart pounded. She wasn't at all sure about that. She knew shed wanted Meghan from the moment she first saw her. Her ragged breathing came in shuddered gasps. She froze in place, letting Meghan break contact and move into less dangerous territory. Gaine brought her hands back to herself and felt the overwhelming loss of the smaller woman's body next to hers. She closed her eyes as she contemplated Meghan's words.
"War it cause t'is sa soon?" she whispered. She opened her eyes to plead her case, "Cause theys them mailorder brides an' they marry soon's they meet the feller bringin' em out. We done met days ago."
"Barely four days ago, honey," Meghan whispered back, aching to reach out and stroke Gaine but keeping her hands to herself with great effort. "But that isn't it."
"No." There was silence. Gaine knew Meghan was chewing her lip. She did that when she got nervous. Finally Meghan whispered, "Do you know...for sure...what you want, Gaine?" The blonde's smaller hand gently pushed long black hair from Gaine's face. Green eyes searched the shadows of Gaine's face for understanding. A soft kiss was placed on Gaine's cheek, "Really know what you want..for forever?"
"Ahm not shore what ya mean," the brunette replied, her breath still coming in short whispered gasps. Blue eyes shut, "Ah want ya. More'n an'athin'." They reopened and she began to back away at the small woman's reluctance. "But not if'n ya doan..."
"No," Meghan took Gaine's hands and pulled them back around herself, settling herself in Gaine's arms. Then she wrapped her own arms around Gaine, pressing her face to Gaine's chest, holding on tightly, not allowing her to pull away but being careful not to make other intimate contact that would further tantalize and frustrate the tall woman.
Gaine inhaled a large breath and let it out. Her tingling body didn't move. "Ahm sorry, Meg...."
"No," Meghan lifted her face and put a finger over Gaine's mouth. "No."
Gaine was totally confused. "Ah din't mean ta offend ya none."
"You didn't," Meghan put her head back on Gaine's shoulder. "Not at all. I want you, too. So very much." She brought a finger to her bruised lips, "And that kiss, it was unbelievable. But we need to think about what's going to happen in the future. It's just..." she pressed her cheek to Gaine's shoulder and whispered without looking up at the tall woman, "There's so much to consider. So much to discuss." Meghan shut her eyes to try and let her swimming thoughts focus. "Can you forgive me, my love? We haven't decided anything and, uh, a lady has to, uh, I dont know, protect her honor, I guess."
Gaine felt numb. Protect her honor? What did she mean by that? Gaine would never do anything to dishonor her. If they loved each other, that couldn't be construed as dishonoring her, could it? Hadn't she wanted this as badly? It surely felt like it.
"We're both exhausted, sweetheart," Meghan whispered letting her own heartbeat settle back into a more normal beat. "Why don't we try and get some sleep. We can talk more about this later." Her own body was uncomfortable with the remains of her aching need. But she had known even as a child that while she would willingly give herself to the one she loved and wanted to spend her life with, it wouldn't ever be on a whim, and never without the promise and blessing of forever.
Sleep? Gaine didn't feel anywhere near relaxed enough to sleep. She was exhausted but her body was registering her frustration and her eyes had no desire to close. She wanted to go hop on a horse and ride the range for a few hours till her head cleared. Maybe she could figure out what had just happened. But, of course, she had no horse available here. And Meghan had a tight hold on her.
That kiss! It had been so...gods, she thought their hearts, souls and bodies would be permanently combined if it continued. She knew she didn't dare think about that. She was already entirely too overwrought. And now Meghan was next to her, keeping her body humming with desire. But if stopping was what Meghan wanted...
A soft moan of frustration escaped Gaine's lips and Meghan sighed in sympathy, "I know. Sleep, now, honey," she murmured. "it's all right." Smaller hands rubbed soothingly up and down Gaine's back.
It's all right? Gaine thought in chagrin. This a'wantin ya sa bad shore as shootin' doan feel like t'is all right! She flopped her head back on the pillow in frustration and shut her eyes tight waiting for her heartbeat to settle. But she would never intentionally do anything to upset Meghan or to hurt her. Not ever. So she would make it be all right, if that's what Meghan wanted.
Meghan closed her eyes and prayed she hadn't ruined everything. She wanted Gaine so badly, but her wants involved more than a quick physical release following a far too traumatic day. She wanted forever with the tall brunette and just knew it should be based on a commitment they hadn't even discussed. But she also knew that if she kissed her once more, none of that would matter.
Gaine, on the other hand, faced puzzlement. What exactly did Meghan want? She would do whatever it was. She felt such a strong physical desire for this woman who was seldom out of her thoughts, yet her respect and concern for her far outweighed satisfying that desire. And just holding the small blonde was like balm to her soul. But what did the small beauty want exactly? Gaine forced a calmness over herself. Yes, just having her in her arms was a haven unlike any shed ever known. She didn't want to even think of life now without Meghan. She craved holding her as much as she needed breathing.
Meghan. Her Meghan. She nestled her cheek to Meghan's hair. She had to deal with it. There was no doubt she was totally smitten with this woman.
"Night, love," Meghan whispered.
"Ah...Ah loves ya, Meg."
"Oh, Gaine. I love you, too." Meghan reached a hand up to again stroke Gaines cheek. "My beloved. But, uh, maybe I should, uh, face the other way. Your body feels entirely too...uh, good next to mine. Ill never sleep this way."
That brought a small smile to the brunettes face. Gaine curled up behind Meghan and wrapped her arms around the small woman. They shut their eyes and listened to each others hearts beating until their breathing deepened and their bodies made decisions for them, pulling them past their cravings into sleep.
Morning broke across the hills of San Francisco. A fog lay settled in the bay, blurring and obscuring the shapes of the four-masted schooners anchored there and the ferry boats as they plied their familiar routes. Lendal left his cheap hotel in this large city and paused outside the entrance. An early start, as usual.
He smiled, hooked his thumb over his belt and felt the watch in his tight watch pocket. No need to look. He wasn't a slave to time. He awoke at the same time very day. Besides, he'd seen the clock in the hotel. He felt the chain nestled below the watch. He didn't wear a vest and refused to show off the fob in any case. He thought it gave the wearer the look of a popinjay. And that would never do! He wasn't some pie-faced dandy and nobody better mistake him for one!
He swaggered down the street. He'd hire a horse at the livery and ride the three miles out to the Presidio barracks to nose around. The night before he had gone to a saloon frequented by current Army and retired Army men living in a local boardinghouse. He knew some of them. He'd discovered from them that meetings were, in fact, being held at the Presidio by the Army brass. There were many changes afoot. Quartermasters were sure to be heavily involved.
Now that the Civil War was a good ten years past and some of the Indian tribes were on reservations or under treaties, a number of the far western forts were no longer needed and could be cut back or abandoned. Four batteries alone from the Artillery had returned to the Presidio after the Modoc War in the northern reaches of the state just two years earlier. Not that all troubles were past, they werent by any means. But most of those in California seemed to be.
Lendal rode past the business houses, hotels and new construction then moved his rented horse out where a sawmill and lumber yard had long since been built by a small brook. A wharf extended into the bay there now. Not much further the city suddenly ended and there were few buildings anywhere. Others were out riding and a carriage passed him that pulled into a small group of buildings standing alone by a small pond separated from the bay by a low range of sand dunes. Washerwomans Lagoon, where large kettles for boiling clothes and fluted washboards had once held court. The surrounding land was a rich, black cultivated loam.
The road led through a small pass between the hills. He continued past them till he saw the flag, the cassons in the parade ground and the barracks ahead. An ancient long adobe sat at the south end of the parade. The Assembly and Officers Mess, he thought to himself. He had paid close attention to what his friends in the saloon had said. He looked around. He should see band barracks, artillery barracks, infantry barracks, and cavalry barracks. And there they were.
There were heavy wooden archways at the the principal carriage entrance. But Lendal was using the entrance the freight wagons used. Hed be visiting the sutler, hed tell them. The sutler was a civilian allowed to sell supplies not of government issue. His barrack was west of the Civil War barracks.
The place was very busy. Lendal tied his horse on the rail and decided to check at the busy adjutant's office to see if his "old friend", Lieutenant Pottsington was here. Brogan had claimed that was the man responsible for Meghan's disappearance. Lendal would see if that was actually true.
He gave the man behind the desk a phony name for himself then tried to chat casually, but the large brute of a man was all business and found no interest in such conversation. It was busy and many soldiers and a few civilians were constantly in and out.
Finally the burly man looked up from his work and asked, "Where'd you serve during the war?"
It caught Lendal off guard. "Uh, I was out here," Lendal replied. He hadn't served at all during the war. Hadn't wanted to. Why risk his life in a fight that he cared nothing about? The man repeated the phony last name Lendal had given him a few times then looked at him blankly. "Don't remember your name. And I don't usually forget the names of those who served. I was out here, too."
"Well, I was assigned to watch the Southern sympathizers," Lendal lied. He knew that had been done. Hed talked to his ex-Army friends often enough. He puffed himself up and sniffed. He couldn't help liking the fellow behind the desk. No smiles, no bows, no prissy "how do you do's". Not with this fellow. This man was a real man, a man's man. Lendal could see that and he felt an instant kinship with the non-communicative fellow. "I wanted to try and catch Lieutenant Pottsington before he headed back to his fort," he added.
The man in uniform looked back at him with a look short of contempt. Lendal ignored the look assuming it was due to the man's opinion of such officers. "First I need to know if he's actually here," Lendal added pleasantly.
"He's here," the man replied shortly. "Got in last night. But he'll be in meetings and not available. Leave your name. Ill let him know you were here."
"Maybe I can catch him at supper time," Lendal suggested. "When the meetings are over." He jammed his thumbs into his belt and assumed his toughest pose. "Id like to surprise him."
"Doubt it," the man replied, running his eyes over the visitor. "Meetings are expected to run late. Lots to do in a short time."
"Oh? He started this morning then?" Lendal inquired.
"No. Started the minute he got here, night before last. Those men havent had a free minute that Im aware of. And dont plan to."
Ah ha, Lendal thought, So he couldnt have married her yet probably. "Is he planning to get married soon, do you know?" Lendal slyly asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.
Now the man looked at him very skeptically. "Why do you ask?"
"Somebody said he was," Lendal replied. "Thought I'd buy him a drink. You know, to celebrate." He took his thumbs from his belt.
"Civilians," the man snorted in disgust, "I cant help ya there." He turned his back along with his chair and began sorting through some files behind him. The conversation was over.
Lendal waited a minute, then turned and left. So they won't talk about whether he's getting married or not. Maybe they're all in on it. The Lieutenant could have friends here. Well, it doesn't matter. He'd better not have done any deflowering of my bride. The man'll suffer painfully, if he has. Course, he'll suffer in any case, but I could make it extremely painful for him if he's already sullied my betrothed.
Once Lendal had gone, the man at the desk called one of the privates to his desk. "Run over and tell Lieutenant Pottsington a man was checking at the adjutant's office about him. Said he was a friend but lied about being in the service during the war and wanted to know if the Lieutenant was getting married."
"Yessir," the private saluted.
"Tell him he'd better tell his first wife if he's planning to take another. I don't think she'd like that too well and neither would her Daddy, the General."
"Yessir," the private replied and saluted again before scurrying off.
The Lieutenant was in a meeting. He was pulled aside and the Private whispered the message to him. The officer's face did not change. He nodded his head in understanding then whispered, "Ask him what the man looked like." The Private headed back to the front desk.
At a short morning break the Lieutenant hurried up to the Adjutant's office to talk with the man behind the desk and hopefully get more information. By description he determined it had not been Meghan's father. He mentioned to the fellow as casually as he could how this man, Meghan's father, had taken a dislike to him when they rode together on the stage. Then he remarked with disdain how the older man had tried to shoot a woman in the back. Now he wondered aloud if this same man was trying to cause trouble by sending someone else to stir up mischief.
"I'll post a guard if you want," the man at the desk replied noncommittally. "Guess you'd best stay on base and not venture into town to do any "celebratin'"." He smiled a perfectly unfriendly smile.
"I had no plans to go into town. There's far too much to be done here." The Lieutenant briskly turned and left. He'd post his own guard just in case. The last thing he needed was his father-in-law getting upset by some stupidly irate father. He'd merely kissed the girl's hand, after all. Hardly a hanging offense, although his wife might think so come to think about it. He sighed heavily and rushed back to his meeting.
It was shortly after that when the first wire arrived for the Lieutenant regarding the attack on his men in China Cup Valley the day before. The second telegram from Gaine would arrive about an hour later giving a little more detail. The Lieutenant was stunned. His men were attacked? He ran a hand through his wavy hair and pulled his mustache worriedly.
There was a very good man lying on the brink of death while all the others had been savagely beaten for no good reason that anyone could discern. It wasnt an Indian attack and it wasnt outlaws. But the perpetrator was killed and was said to be a Deputy. Now that was very strange. It was totally inconceivable. Why had it happened?
Well, this most definitely was Army business. It was certainly unbelievable that such carnage could be caused by one man. Because of jealousy? The wire said he was trying to find out what had happened to Meghan Fitzgeraldson and what Army man from the stage wore cologne. Or was that all a ruse, and it was really about something else? Arrows and blaming it on Indians did not speak of women and cologne. And if such an atrocity had happened before and WAS blamed on Indians, something else far more sinister was happening here. But with the guilty party dead, they might never know the real reasons.
The question whether other similar crimes had been committed in the locality, the Lieutenant decided, needed to be thoroughly investigated and was certainly enough to take any pressure off of himself. Not that he cared that much. Not with one of his men on death's door. He would have to do some explaining to the General before the Provost troops were sent out to investigate. Still he was relieved that he had been informed first. It would give him a chance to explain things before they looked bad for him.
What kind of loco people are these, anyway? he wondered. If it did involve him, he really hadn't done anything. A little smiling, a little flirting, a kiss on a gloved hand. It hardly warranted anything of this nature. No, this criminal's real goal must have been something far more malicious. He was attacking the Army and that spoke of traitorous intentions.
Lendal purveyed the open countryside as he rode away from the barracks. At one point the dirt road branched and led to the Filmore Street Wharf. He wouldn't go that way going back. It was longer. He stayed on the main road in open country, with few houses or buildings until he saw the lagoon at Washerwoman's Bay. Then there was more countryside again for a small stretch until he was suddenly in the city.
Hed found what he needed to know. The man was there. Hed be staying in the officers quarters, no doubt. He glanced at his horse. He didn't dare leave a horse or carriage on his return trip. Both would be too easily seen or traced. He'd ride the horsedrawn streetcars and get as close as possible to the Filmore Street Wharf then go by foot. It wasn't that far. A mile and a half maybe.
In his room he handled his whip then put it down atop the Daily Morning Call newspaper and fingered his knife. The best idea was to lure Pottsington where he could spend some time getting information from him. The best thing would be to get him completely off the grounds. There were plenty of rolling hills about where one could hide at night. He could find a spot. He'd learn where this man had stashed Meghan. And wouldn't she be surprised when he located her? Little whore! She'd learn to cry and plead and beg and much, much more before it was all over. He knew how to deal with bitches like her.
The Marshal reined back as he approached Lendal's mule ranch. He had taken the train to Oakland. From there he'd rented this red sorrel gelding at the livery to ride out to the ranch. The place was run down with rusted trash and garbage strewn about outside. Even the mules didn't look that well taken care of. He could see young men moving in the decrepit barn. The structure looked like it could collapse at any minute. He threw the reins over the rail in front of the house and moved through the broken down fence past blotchy, overgrown grass onto the rickety porch.
He knocked on the door and heard movement inside but couldn't see anything through the lace curtains. He waited but no one answered. He knocked again. Finally the door opened only a crack. "What do you want?" a girl's voice asked tremulously. There was fear in her voice. He took off his hat and replied in his calmest deep tones, "I'm here from Sacramento to see your father."
"He ain't here!" she replied. The quivering girl was probably in her teens. Smaller barefooted children huddled behind her. One young girl about seven smiled from behind her sisters skirts. From what the Marshal could see, the inside of the house was spotlessly clean, scant of furniture and very worn.
He tapped his badge and the older girl's eyes grew larger. "May I come in?" he asked, "and ask ya a few questions?"
"Ya hafta ask Thackery. He's out at the barn."
"Alright," he put on his hat and tipped it, "Thanks." The door was shut instantly.
He heard the braying screams of the mule and the snapping of the whip before he entered the barn. Stepping into the darkened interior he saw a boy wielding a whip standing over a mule, trying to get him to move into a stall. The mule was kicking and unwilling to move inside.
"Here! Hold up on that!" the Marshal boomed in his deepest voice. "Ya don't handle animals that way!"
The boy stopped mid strike and glared at him. "We do," he replied simply and brought the whip down again, striking the animal with force. The mule kicked and the boy tightened his jaw and swung the whip back again. The Marshal grabbed for the boy's wrist and locked his iron fist around it.
"How dare you," the boy called, trying to wrench his wrist free. "Let me go. Yer not my Pa. You can't tell me what ta do. Get off our land!" The Marshal figured this young fellow was probably in his late teens. He was a strong young man and struck a defensive pose when he could not release the Marshal's hold.
"Well, I'm the law," the Marshal replied, "And I can stop you from abusing this animal since that's what you're doin."
"You ain't the law here," the boy snarled. "My Daddy's cousin is the law here and that ain't you."
"You Thackery?" the Marshal asked. Another boy popped his head around the corner from a stall. He looked younger. They both had eyes neighbors might describe as being like their father's, although the younger boy's were softer.
"Yeah, what of it?"
The Marshal released the boy's wrist and stepped back. "I understand you're in charge when your Pa is gone."
"I'm looking for him. Know where he is?"
"No! So just get on your damn horse and get off our land or I'll get the shotgun!"
"Look, son, Im a federal Marshal. I can haul you into jail if you'd prefer. I came all the way from Sacramento to find your father. I don't plan to be turned away by any badly behaved, snot-nosed child."
"I ain't no child! I'm seventeen and I'm tellin' you again to get off our land!"
"Why do you want our Pa?" the other boy asked.
"Joshua, you keep still, or I'll tell Pa."
"I just need to talk with him, son," the Marshal replied. "Any idea when he'll be home?"
"No!" Thackery stated. "Now git yer damn hide out a' here!"
"That does it," the Marshal growled, pulling out his sixshooter. "You are under arrest," he grabbed the arm of the young man, but the boy began to raise the whip to strike the lawman. "And I'm addin' resistin' arrest to the charges."
"Wait, Wait! Don't arrest him, please," Joshua rushed to his brother's aid. Thackery lowered the whip when his brother stepped in front. "He didn't mean ta talk like he done. We don't know where Pa is. That's the honest truth. He left ta deliver some mules and said he'd be back with a new wife in a day or so. He said we was all ta stay out of the house when he got back. But he ain't here yet."
The Marshal pushed the boy in front of him as he released his arm. "There, see how easy that coulda been. All right, I wont arrest you this time," he slipped his sidearm back in its holster, "but you watch your step, young man. Cause I'll be back. And quit abusin' those mules. That is a lawful order you'd best follow."
He turned on his heel and marched back to the house as the two boys watched. One of the smaller children was in the front yard and another in the back now with scythes trying to cut the tall grass that grew in mats there. One was the girl who had smiled at the Marshal earlier. He stopped by the broken down fence and smiled back at the young girl.
"Howdy," he said softly.
"Hi," she said shyly. The other child, a boy of about eight moved quickly behind her saying nothing. The Marshal could see the curtains move in the house and knew one of the other children must have been there.
"I'm the Marshal from Sacramento. I came ta talk with your Pa."
"I know. Ya said already," the young girl replied.
The Marshal laughed a deep, friendly laugh. "Yes, I did. Where's your Momma?" he asked.
"She run off," the older boy said quickly, but the young girl's finger moved to across the field.
Thackery stood at the door of the barn. "You younguns git inside this minute!" he yelled. "Goddammit Bessie, keep them children inside! Damn females have ta have everything beat inta them. Can't think fer themselves."
The door flew open and the older girl's voice called, "Come in here."
"Bye," the young girl smiled. She turned and ran up the stairs with the boy. The Marshal waved and waited till the door slammed. He climbed onto the horse he'd rented. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and turned back down the road. His eyes moved in the direction the girl had pointed, but it was a large open pasture. There was no way one could successfully hope to search the whole thing for a buried body. Gods! What kind of a nightmare are these children living in?
He stopped at the Sheriff's office in town but found the personnel was very tight-lipped there. He asked about the man's first wife and got very little information. She had run off once before and had been brought back by a Sheriff in a nearby town was about all they would say.
He asked if the husband had beaten his wife and the Sheriff shrugged. "He's allowed," he replied.
"Not by law," the Marshall remarked.
"Ain't no law against it," the Sheriff looked the Marshall over carefully. "And it's part a' Christian doctrine. You agin that, Marshall?"
"Christian doctrine? I'm Christian and I'm against killin' someone," he replied. "That's definitely against Christian doctrine. And so is causing grievous injury. And I don't know of anything that says a man should beat his wife."
"She is to obey. And far as killin' is concerned, yer right there. But his wife run off. She weren't killed."
"Ya sure?" the Marshal asked.
The Sheriff just stared at him.
"His cousin's supposed to be one of your Deputies. He in today?"
"N0. Not due in till tomorrow. He took a couple days off."
"Any idea when Lendal might be back in town?"
"No. Why ya want him?"
He decided not to tell these people that Lendal was a prime suspect in a murder. He had the distinct feeling they might help him get away. No telling how many were Lendals actual family.
"Need ta talk to him. I'll be back," the Marshal stated. He headed to the local cafe. That was the best place to hear any gossip as long as he could avoid Lendal's family ties. And some of these small towns had fine home-cooked meals at their small cafes. Two birds with one stone, he thought. He'd look for whatever information he could get on Lendal. He couldn't help wondering where the man was, since he wasn't home. Maybe he'd have to put a poster out on him after all, if the fellow was on the run. A little early for that at the moment, though.
The stage had not had as many passengers going back as it had heading toward Sacramento. A number of people got on and rode to nearby towns then got off, perhaps to visit and return the next day. They always gave Gaine's clothes and badge a discerning look. The family from the prior day had gotten off and a pastor and his aldermen had taken their place, along with an older couple. They spoke seriously among themselves, but said nothing to the others.
For an hour or two the coach would be packed inside then at other times there'd be empty seats. The religious group got off three stops later. Two young men dressed like farmers got on soon afterward. They spoke little but were very pleasant. The Chinese men on top had gotten off to head out with the first connecting train stage to where they were working on the railroad. A few assorted men of various occupations rode on top as the coach began winding its way up the curved roads leading into the foothills and the small mining towns.
Gaine and Meghan swayed and bounced together inside according to the road, saying little while others around them spoke softly together. The Army boys' situation hovered over them like a wet blanket along with their muddled thoughts from the night before and the turn their relationship had taken.
At one swingstation they got out to stretch their legs. They saw a young Mexican lad working in the corral and moved over to watch. The young man roped one of the horses and led him over to the ferrier who was working under a large oak tree. They wandered over to watch the horse being shod.
The young man's eyes traveled Gaine's body, taking complete note of her clothing and obviously not approving. But his eyes kept drifting back to her badge. They both heard the disrespectful way the ferrier and other hands spoke to the young fellow. It was not at all uncommon, but Gaine gritted her jaw and Meghan scowled behind her veil. Many of the men that worked on Gaine's ranch were vaqueros. She hated the prejudice they received.
"Howdy" Gaine said, tipping her hat to the boy, ignoring the other men. He's maybe fifteen er sixteen, she mused. Musta been doin' this all his life. He's right talented withn that thar lariat.
The boy nodded his head and continued to stare at her badge. When the horse was taken from him and he was told to go shovel some manure, he stopped beside her on his way. "Sheriff...you read, si?" he asked shyly. He merely glanced at Meghan, dismissing her with his eyes.
"She does," Gaine replied, nodding toward Meghan, displeased that the small blonde was being ignored.
"Quit yer jawin' and git yer damn work done, ya lazy..." one of the hands called.
Gaine touched her badge. "Ahm stoppin' 'im," she growled to the hand.
The fellow grumbled but the youth handed Meghan an envelope. "You read, si?"
"Of course," Meghan took the envelope and withdrew the letter. She undid the veil at her neck enough to look down to easily read the small writing. "It says "Estimado Pablo," She smiled up at the boy but he couldnt see it. "I received your letter requesting permission to begin visiting Lupe at our house." Meghan saw the boy hold his breath and wondered who he'd gotten to write the letter he must've sent. Probably his father.
She continued reading, "You will be happy to know that my wife and I know and respect your family and see that you are employed. We are happy you have decided to formalize your noviasco which we expect to last at least two years since you are both so young."
A courtin' period, huh, Gaine mused as she listened. The boy was paying rapt attention and his face broke into a huge smile. "You may start your visits on the days you return and visit from 7pm to 9pm. We trust your behavior will be honorable and show respect to our house." Meghan looked at the closing. "It's signed by Alberto Z. Herrera.
"Gracias!" the boy grinned taking back his letter. Then he ran to shovel manure.
The horses were switched and they hurried to get back in the stage. "What's a noviasco?" Meghan asked softly as she got seated.
"A formal courtin' time," Gaine replied. The whip was cracked and they were off.
Gaine gazed softly at the small blonde. Over and over the phrase Meghan had used, "A lady has to protect her honor" spun in her mind. If Gaine were a man, she could ask the blonde to let her court her, maybe not two years worth like Pablo but some. Of course even if she were a man, she wouldn't go to Meghan's father, even though that was standard procedure. The old man obviously had other plans for his daughter. But as a man she could ask the blonde to marry. She sighed. But she wasn't, so what could she do that Meghan would consider honorable?
Meghan's veiled face stared out the window. What would it be like to have Gaine and herself in a noviasco? Of course, her family would never agree to such a thing. But it would be everything she could ever want.
Gaine decided that Meghan was right. They did need to speak of the future. She, truthfully hadn't given anything thought beyond getting Meghan away safely since the present had been so pressing, so she sat back letting her mind mill those cogitations around for a spell.
They traveled in silence, letting their eyes run across the scenery as they wrangled over their thoughts. It was just as dusty as the trip down, but they didn't notice. They left their window open and ignored the thick dust. As the day wore on, the scenery became wilder with more open country and far fewer towns, though they barely noticed. Fewer people got on and off at the stops. Soon they and the few other passengers inside rode to solitary swing stations sitting out by themselves along the lonely road.
"'Bout last night," Gaine said softly to Meghan, "Ahm sorry fer..."
Meghan replied instantly, "Don't be sorry. I'm not. Not really."
"But Ah thunk..."
"I just said we needed to discuss particulars...the future. But I'm not SORRY.... about...things....at all."
Gaine smiled. "Ya ain't, huh?!" She felt a euphoria of sorts wash over her. Meghan wanted this as much as she did! She saw the veiled face tip towards her and Gaine sent a full, radiant smile. It was exhilarating. It was mutual. They would speak of the future when they got to their room tonight. Everything would be all right after all.
As the sun began to dip its large orange orb over the San Francisco Bay, Lendal adjusted the uniform he had managed to buy from a man who had just mustered out. Standing up straight, he put on the forage hat and smiled at himself in the mirror. He would walk as though he belonged there, right past any guards that might be about. He had a pretty good idea where the officer was staying. If the Lieutenant wouldn't come out to him, he'd go in to the Lieutenant and quietly bring him out at hidden knifepoint.
The uniform didn't fit as well as he would have liked, but he hoped the lack of light would allow his charade to go unnoticed. He had waited for evening just for that reason. He pulled out the pocket watch, popped the lid and checked the time. He wouldn't be going by the front desk where they had the wall clock. He didn't want the clerk seeing him in this uniform. He jammed the watch back and smiled at the knowledge of the Bowie knife he had hidden in his boot.
Lendal felt the wad of money in his pocket and his eyes narrowed. By now he should have had a wife and should be on the way to becoming wealthy as a silent partner. Only he'd been cheated. But not for long. He didn't put up with that. He'd locate the Lieutenant and wait for his opportunity. The man wouldn't know him and would have no reason to be concerned. Lendal smiled. His mistake.
The knife would get him the information he needed. He'd have to work quickly unless he could find a quiet enough place to drag the man where he could take his time. Even gagged the fellow would probably squeal like a stuck pig as he began his questioning. He glanced down. His boots weren't regulation boots. The man's boots hadn't fit, but his were close enough. No one'd be watching that carefully in the dark.
A hand ran across his smooth cheeks. He'd shaved his beard. The man at the Adjutant's desk had seen him with his beard earlier. Better to be safe, even though he hated shaving it. Nothing said virility and manliness like a beard. It set the real men apart from the others...the masters apart from the mastered. A woman looking at a beard knew this was a real man, and he'd take no nonsense from her. Well, it would grow back, he supposed.
The skin appeared lighter there than the rest of his face, but a rather handsome face had stared back at him from the mirror just the same. He fingered his whip. Too bad he couldn't take that. He enjoyed using it to get information. But not this time. It was all right. He was just as skilled with his knife.
He closed the door to his room and went out the back employees' entrance. He would return the same way. He'd given considerable thought to his get away at the barracks. He had several directions of escape in the cover of darkness. He could steal a horse and head across the hill to the Mountain Lake or he could head back to the wharf. Or he could try for the lagoon and go from there. It was longer but might give more cover. Once he got to the city, he could get lost easily enough.
He strolled along the streets, enjoying the admiring looks he was getting from the few ladies being escorted around the streets at this hour. Nothing like a uniform to attract the ladies. That's probably what the Lieutenant had found, too, he decided, but rankled at that thought.
He caught the horse-drawn streetcar and headed for his destination. Within an hour the sun had gone down and he found himself hiking in cloud covered darkness across a mile or more of countryside with a small smattering of lights from buildings followed by another mile of open ground toward the camp. The sky was lit by the twinkling gaslights behind him in the city. Hed seen the lighthouse being built on the island and wondered if it would cast light this way.
A cloud covered the sky and muffled darkness surrounded him. Pausing to take account, he examined the Presidio and took a deep breath. He was no coward in the face of danger and that was for sure. His eyes swept across the twinkling lights in the shadowed row of buildings before him with the dark open parade ground with its darkened flagpole and three canons, behind which followed the twinkling lights from the other two rows of buildings that erupted beyond. He knew which building was most likely and was ready to head in that direction.
Coming near, he heard voices and stopped...some soldiers out smoking and strolling in the moonlight, discussing their orders. He listened. They were being sent to a frontier fort in Montana. He brazenly walked up to them and asked about the orders, saying his were the same. They accepted him and he walked with them back towards his target, past sentries who merely nodded in their direction.
As they walked and laughed, he asked if any of them knew Lieutenant Pottsington then laughed when one mentioned that officers didn't know a hawk from a handsaw. "Aw, me boy," another laughed, "ya be agittin the officers fury cause yer always araisin' hob." He poked his friend. "Aye, and you've always the devil to pay fer yer misgivins and no pitch hot," his friend teased back. "Ya, dat is so," another goaded, "you're alvays da both a' ya in de pekel zitten." Everyone laughed but Lendal pressed his question.
The answer surprised him. The Lieutenant was in a different building than he had expected. Pleased to have narrowed his search, he bid them a good night and calmly walked to the building in question.
Pausing with the fading voices of the soldiers behind him, he straightened his shoulders and marched inside the building. He walked as though he belonged there. He had barely gotten three steps inside the building when there was a shout and a couple guards suddenly surrounded him, subduing him with great difficulty. A handsome man with wavy brown hair and a handlebar mustache stepped before him. It was apparent that he had been readying for bed. He was in his undershirt and military trousers. "Who are you?" the man asked, letting his brown eyes sweep over the muscled man before him. The prisoner sneered but said nothing.
"What's your name? You're no soldier here, and certainly no officer. Who are you? And what is your business here?" Again there was no answer. There was silence as the man walked around the struggling prisoner. "Who?" Again no answer. "Did Fitzgeraldson send you?" Lendal's head whipped up at that but he said nothing. So this man knew about Brogan? "Well, may as well take him away," the young man said disgustedly. He had no idea who this man was.
"Yessir, Lieutenant Pottsington," one of the guards said and Lendal snapped his head back to view the handsome officer. He spit at the young man as hard as he could though his shot fell short of his target before the two soldiers dragged him out of the building. The officer watched, perplexed.
Dammit! Lendal swore to himself. So that's the Lieutenant! He's handsome all right, but he won't be with parts of his body cut off! He struggled again in vain then gave in to the men hauling him to a different building. He knew it wouldn't be long before the hard questioning began. Even so he knew they would find out nothing about him. He would claim he was trying to gain entrance as nothing but a humbug saloon bet. Certainly he had no plans to divulge his real identity.
He wasn't that worried. He had some influential retired Army friends he'd use if it came to that. He grinned confidently. He'd be out soon. When he was, he'd find that blonde and take payment out of her flesh. No matter what it cost to find her, no matter how long. This was all her fault. She'd pay all right. First he'd take care of the handsome Lieutenant. This was just a temporary setback.
This night's stay, the last on the stagecoach line for them, was charged with a different tension. They changed into their nightshirts quickly then Gaine cleaned her weapons while Meghan sat on the chair, brushing out her blonde hair. Their eyes met and they both felt unusually shy as they glanced away.
Gaine replaced her Colt and sat upright. Meghan had stood, turned and bent to put her brush in their case. As she was standing up again, Gaine stood quickly and surprised the blonde by blowing out the candle. The darkness of their cubicle surrounded them although others further down still had their candles lit and that gave a soft flickering glow to the darkness.
There were few women riding on this stage so they once again had the last unit. Gaine knew they had less chance of giving off a shadow in the other units with no light in back of them. She moved behind Meghan and slowly wrapped her arms around the woman's waist. Meghan's warm hands lit atop Gaines.
Gaine's face moved near the blonde's ear and brushed the hair back with a breath. "Yer so beautiful," she breathed into the small blonde's ear. Meghan shivered and leaned back in the embrace, pressing against Gaine's firm body.
"I love the feel of you," Meghan whispered, her eyes shut. "And everything about you." Gaine's lips found their way to the blonde's neck and gently nibbled at the warm, salty skin. Gaine heard Meghan's breath catch while her own body responded with a rush of heat.
"Ah wanna cogitate on..." Gaine nibbled the blonde's neck, "that thar future a ar'n." Meghan moaned softly and Gaine had to chuckle, "Shh." They had to be very quiet. Gaine turned the small woman in her arms till they were facing each other. "Ah wancha ta know that mah intentions be completely an' totally honorable," she breathed. "Ah wont never do nothin ya doan want me ta do."
There were noises from the other cubicles but they kept their voices to a whisper. "Mmm," Meghan hummed in return.
Their lips met and the raw hunger of the night before returned. Gaine's head began to spin and she knew they could not remain standing much longer. She scooped Meghan up and placed her gently on the bed then climbed swiftly on next to her.
Gaine stroked the silken hair of the blonde as she leaned her face forward to whisper, "Ah loves ya, Meghan, with all Ah am. An this here love a' mine t'is true, bestowed only ta yer sweet continence an nowheres else."
"And I love you," the blonde whispered back, gazing at the face of the tall brunette. "But..."
"Ah wancha ta live withn me ferever, partners n' life." Gaine nuzzled Meghan's neck again. "Ah know ya kin say we ain't knowd one t'uther long, but Ah feels like we war meant ta be tagether ferever. Ain't ya felt it, too?"
"Yes, I have felt it. From the minute I first saw you."
"Would ya wanna live with'n me ferever, sharin' ar lifes tagether? Whatever done comes along? Would ya wanna do that?"
"With all my heart," Meghan replied, green eyes searching blue. "It's everything I've ever wanted."
"If'n ya wanna have me court ya, Ah t'would be right honored. An though Ah ain't got a lot, ever'thin' Ah does got t'is your'n from now ta ferever."
"I don't care about things, Gaine. But I do wish we could, uh, get sort of married, uh, or at least exchange vows. I want to vow to love each other for all time."
Gaine drew back to look firmly into the green eyes looking lovingly her way. "Ain't nothin' gonna be legal, a' course, but we kin make promises ta one t'uther a' that thar nature. Cause Ah wanna make them same promises ta ya, an, Meghan, yas needs ta know, Ah doan never break mah promises."
"Me either." Meghan joined her hand with Gaines' and brought it to her lips, depositing a gentle kiss. "Are you positive you want this, Gaine? We're talking about the rest of our lives. It won't be easy. No one would ever understand. We'll have to pretend to just be friends. I...I've thought a lot about this."
"Absolutely, positively shore," Gaine paused, "Ah ain't concerned none 'bout "easy". Ain't nobody's business, anaway. They ain't never gonna know. What 'bout you? Do ya be shore this'n's what ya want? Ah ain't a'wantin' ya ta do nothin' ya doan feel ya wants ta do."
"I want this with everything I am."
Gaine bent and found Meghan's lips. She drew them into a gentle kiss, not letting it develop into anything more. " Should we outta discuss more? Ah mean, do ya got t'uther questions ya wanna cogitate?"
Meghan considered, giving Gaine a full hug but did not reply right off.
Gaine had thought a lot about this during the day. "Ah loves ya completely, Meghan. An' Ahd do ana'thin' ta make ya happy. So's Ah doan wancha athinkin ya gotta do nothin ya doan wanna. If'n jest holdin' ya an kissin' ya's whatcha want ferever, Ah reckon we kin do that. Ah wanna be by yer side fer the wholea our'n lifes, till death done parts us."
"Oh," Meghan blinked, "But we could do more, couldn't we? I mean, we could do what we almost did... what regular married couples do...in privacy, of course, like they do. Once we've vowed, of course."
"If'n ya want, shore." Gaine had listened carefully to Meghan's replies. She knew she would be lost without Meghan in her life.
"Would it be bad of me if I wanted, uh, more?" Meghan's voice sounded unsure. "I want to be completely married to you. I...I want you to be completely married to me." Besides, her body had let her know in no uncertain terms how badly she wanted to make love with the tall brunette. She had never felt that way before in her life. It was totally new. But her body was a gift she wanted to be Gaine's and Gaine's alone. In fact, it wouldn't be easy waiting, but they would.
"Sweet darlin. Ah believe t'would be wonderful." They lay for a few minutes in each other's arms, gently caressing each other. They kissed a soft, gentle kiss reveling in each other's closeness. But it was hard to stop there. They paused then kissed again, a little more passionately this time. When they broke apart, Meghan ran a shaky finger along Gaine's bottom lip.
"Then we're promised to each other? We're fiancés? We'll set a date?"
"Yep. That we is gonna." Gaine decided to prove her resolve so she added, "Ah think, love, we'd done best try n' git usn's some sleep."
It surprised the small blonde. She knew if they kissed again, it would only get much harder to stop. She was pleased that Gaine understood. But she didn't think she'd go to sleep any too soon. She was thrilled. She hadn't forgotten those pursuing her or the soldiers who were wounded, but she'd push aside all those thoughts for now.
Meghan nestled down savoring Gaine's arms encircling her. Other than the thought of being able to leave her father's house, she hadn't really looked forward to the day she would marry, especially when she found it was to be Lendal. She would have been totally faithful, though, because her promise, once given, was absolute. But now she was engaged to Gaine, the only person she would ever choose on her own, the one person in the world she wanted to live with forever, the one she loved completely and would sacrifice anything for.
She shut her eyes and let her thoughts swirl. Engagees always primped for each other. It was traditional. But she had no new clothes to impress Gaine and no way to clean and press what she did have . She'd wipe off her dress with a damp rag in the morning and use some of Gaine's scented soap to wash up. She'd do extra brushing to make her hair shine. Was she being silly, she wondered? Perhaps. But now she had the fiancé of her dreams to impress.
The Sheriff of Jubilee City pushed the drunken man into the cell and slammed the door, locking it behind him. "Sleep it off, Perry!" he yelled to the man, who staggered to the cot and looked back at him with amazement as he dropped down. This was the second drunk tonight. The other looked up blearily.
"Gimme a drink!" Perry called back belligerently. "Yeah, gimme a drink, too," the other man echoed.
"I am nation tired of this," the Sheriff growled back, brushing himself off. "Dammit, Perry, you're gonna have to pay for the window you broke in that saloon. I'm not lettin' you out till your family brings in the payment. It's a wonder they have anything to live on the way you carry on. You love your drinkin' more'n you love your family."
The drunk leaned forward off the cot, scowling at the lawman. Then he broke into a huge smile and looked at the other fellow. "Yessir, yessir, yessiree," the man started singing loudly to the tune of a popular song of the day. "Whiskey jug, don't I love thee." The other man joined in as they often did at the saloon.
It was their favorite saloon's version of the popular song. The Sheriff scowled, "You heard me. You're not gettin' out till ya pay for the window." At least the first fellow hadnt broken anything. The officer looked at the man hed just arrested and shook his head disgustedly. How did this man's wife and children survive when he gave in to drink so freely? Last fall the Sheriff's own wife had spent time rounding up used clothes from the neighbors, clothes they couldn't afford to give cause his scraggly brood were running around half naked.
"Yessir, yessir, yessireeeeeee," the two wailed loudly, "a bottle of whiskey...just gimme a bottle a whiskey and I'll be quiet!" "Me, too," the other chimed in.
The part-time Deputy stepped through the outside door, a look of concern on his face. "Ya got a telegram here Sheriff," he said, handing the envelope to the man. "Barney just brought it over." He took off his neckerchief and wiped his head. It was dark and it was still scorchingly hot but at least it was a dry heat.
"A telegram? This time a' night?"
"He said he came by earlier and we weren't here. Roundin' up those drunks there, I guess and stoppin' that dispute with those Army boys and the fellas at the Star."
"Yep. Sometimes I wish the soldiers would stay at their fort and not frequent our saloons. Theyve got a canteen there." But both men knew the town's economy drew a lot from the Army's presence. "Well, let's take a look. They don't usually bring good news, telegrams don't." The Sheriff moved away from the bars.
Loud singing arose. "My friends and I drank all alone, at the Sandstorm Inn we called our owwwwn," The drunks roared with vigor, "They loved gin and I loved rum..." he added in conversational tones, "or whiskey. I'm right partial to whiskey!" "Me, too," the other chimed in.
"Keep it down in there!" the Deputy shouted back at the drunks as he watched the Sheriff tear open the envelope.
"Well, I'll be damned. Looky here. Brogan Fitzgeraldson, that gentleman that owns the wagon company, got himself killed."
"The devil ya say, how? Where? Runaway horse?"
"No. Says it was a robbery in Sacramento."
"Wonder what he was doing in Sacramento?"
"Business most likely. That man licked up business like a cow lickin salt." They both nodded in agreement. He was an astute businessman and his wagon shop had done plenty for their little town. "Damn, I've gotta break the news to his family. Oh whangdoodle," he moaned, "I don't look forward to that. A cryin' widow. I shore don't look forward to that."
"Some of his children still work at the shop, don't they?" his Deputy asked.
"Yep. Nice folks. Real good manners. Raised proper, they were."
"He always seemed overly harsh with em seemed to me," the Deputy replied thoughtfully.
"Spare the rod...You see the lesson there? Look how good his children turned out."
I 'spose. Listen, you'd better get home and get some sleep then, Sheriff. You goin' by there first thing in the morning? Seems mighty late to go by tonight. I can handle it here."
"Hmm. I should go by tonight. They have the right to know as soon as possible."
"Yes, but it seems cruel not to let them have a night of good sleep first. What would it change?"
"Welllll, I'm not sure it's right not to let them know right away."
"Earlier tonight when the wire came in might have made sense, but do you think you should wake the widow and his family tonight? This might be the last good night of sleep they'll have for a long time. Think on his poor wife's welfare."
"Hmm. Yes, I suppose there's something to that. We do have to look out for the ladies. It's the chivalrous thing to wait, I guess." He rubbed his neck. "Dead is dead. Knowing tonight won't change nothin', I suppose. Hey, what happened to all our racket?" They both looked into the cell. "Sound asleep!" the Sheriff exclaimed. Both men were passed out inside the cell. "Perry there don't get out tomorrow till he's paid for the window."
"Right, Sheriff. But the smithy might fire him if he misses work."
"He shoulda thought about that before he broke the window."
"Seems kinda hard on his family is all. But, you're right. See ya tomorrow."
"I don't look forward to tomorrow, I can tell ya that." The Sheriff squinched his nose. "Have Little Bear scour out that cell good when theyre both out of there."
"I want to be a Sargos, Gaine." Meghan whispered. Gaine was nearly asleep. "Do you think I could do that? I don't want to be a Fitzgeraldson. I want to carry your name, my old one's not safe and, anyway, I want no further connections with my father in my lifetime."
"Uh," Gaine paused to consider that then yawned.
"I know we're pretending that I'm Minnie Sargos till we get back to your ranch, but once we're there, I'd still like to be a Sargos." Then she added more softly, "Your wife, honey, but nobody else needs to know that. Do you think it's possible?"
Gaine's hand went to her forehead and began to run nervously back and forth across it as she thought. "Uh, Ah doan know 'bout makin' it a legal thing er nothin'."
"I know. It wouldnt have to be legal. My mother's had her legal married name all these years and the only time she's ever had to do anything legal with it that I know of was when we moved into town and all us children were officially listed for our births. And HE did it, not her. He took down the Bible that he'd written them in. I don't think she's ever had to sign her name even."
"Sign her name? Yes, she had a good education. She's just never had to use it."
"Uh huh. Well, uh, lemme sleep ont, all right?" She knew that when she had Meghan's name put on her property, they would have to use the blonde's legal name. And folks in town might find out about that. How did they get around it?
"Of course, darling," Meghan smiled.
The sun had not been up that long. The Sheriff of Jubilee City sat nervously in the spotlessly clean parlor, his hat in his hands. But he wasn't able to appreciate the absence of desert sand inside that seemed to harass nearly every other home in town. He had just explained to Mrs. Fitzgeraldson and her two young sons that her husband had been robbed and murdered while staying at the hotel in Sacramento. He held out the telegram.
Mrs. Fitzgeraldsons hand went to her mouth in a gasp. "What about my daughter, Meghan? Is she all right?"
"Uh, there's nothing in the telegram regarding her." He brought the form back and reread it. "She was accompanying your husband? Uh, how old is she again? I'm sorry, I don't remember..." He knew everyone in town but only saw the Fitzgeraldson offspring at infrequent religious gatherings for traveling pastors, except for the adult children that worked at the shop.
"Twenty-one. He was taking her to meet her...fiance."
"There's nothing about a daughter, so I would guess she wasn't involved. Probably occurred after she was married."
Meghan's mother gasped. "Oh. Does it say when he was...oh, my, I just don't know about this! Excuse me please," she whisked her handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed. The thought that Meghan might be married to Lendal brought a tearful response. When was he murdered? Had there been time for a wedding?
"It's all right, Missus. I understand this is overwhelming for you," the Sheriff nodded sympathetically. "Take your time." He was thankful now that he had given this woman the comfort of a blissful night of sleep as his Deputy suggested.
"It's such a shock." She looked over, "It doesn't say when this occurred?"
The Sheriff read again. "No."
"Do they know who did it?"
"Uh," he reread the short telegram. "No, guess not. Not yet."
"All right. I'll need to contact my other children. Some of them work at the business, you know. Oh my, what happens to the business now?"
"It will depend on whether your husband left a will and how he owned it, maam. Generally the widow's portion of his estate is a third but that might not include the business. It might require that you sell your home to pay off the other two thirds. Or buy them out if you wanted to stay here. A lawyer would have to talk to you about that."
"Stay here? I wouldn't have to stay here?"
"You have relatives somewhere else?"
"Uh, yes. I have a sister back east...."
"I'm afraid, Missus, you'll have many decisions to make in a short period of time. Your oldest son will most likely help you, however, and see to your needs. He or your husband's partner, if he has one, is most likely named as executor. The first decision will be what you want done with, uh, the remains."
"The remains? Of what?"
"Your husband. His body. Where do you want him buried. You'll need to wire them back in Sacramento immediately and let them know."
"Oh. Of course. If you'll leave the information, I'll consult with my children..."
"I understand." The Sheriff turned his hat in his hand nervously.
She quickly had a thought, "Uh, Sheriff, uh, I wonder if youd do me a favor?"
"Certainly, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson. How can I help you?"
"I hate having guns in the house now that my husband, uh... What I'm wondering is if you'll be so kind as to take the shotgun and pistol for now and, uh, teach my two young sons here to clean and use them?" Both boys looked at their mother quizzically, both ready to remark that they knew fully well how to handle the guns, but she quieted them with her eyes.
"Surely your oldest son will want to handle that," the Sheriff replied.
"He's so busy at the shop and will only be busier now. I'd really appreciate it."
The Sheriff looked at the two boys who sat quietly with puzzled looks. "Uh, of course, ma'am. I'd be happy to."
"Thank you. It will be a big relief to me. Murphy, go get your father's guns." When he returned, the Sheriff stood, placed the telegram on the table, took the guns and walked to the door. "I'll send for the boys when I have a minute's time. I'm sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson."
"Thank you for your help and your kind regards," the new widow replied as she bid him goodbye. She said a quick prayer that her youngest daughter had managed to escape before being married and that she had nothing to do with her father's murder. She had to think. What could she do about finding Meghan?
She nodded to the Sheriff as he moved across the porch. Meghan and her husband hadn't been gone that long. There was a chance Meghan got away before Lendal got there. She knew the girl had hidden money in her petticoats and, in fact, she had added what little she could, unknown to her daughter.
How she'd been praying for the girl's safety. She'd felt that Meghan, of all the girls, would try to run from a situation she didn't want to be in. And she knew her daughter had understood that marrying Lendal was a very bad situation. She said another prayer for Meghan's safety.
"Father's dead?" Reggie, the youngest, asked as she shut the door. "I can't believe it." Surprise swept across the thirteen-year old's expression. She wasn't sure if he was going to cheer or cry. But he did neither. Murphy stood expressionless, "Why did you have the Sheriff take father's guns? We already know how to use them."
"I don't like having them in the house. Besides, it'll be good for you two to get some further instructions from a professional like the Sheriff. Plus, uh, there's a good chance your father may have left them to you and it won't hurt to have them safely in the Sheriff's keeping till then. But keep that reason to yourselves," she added quickly. The boys exchanged puzzled glances. They'd handled guns since they were ten. Why give them to the Sheriff?
She walked back to the parlor, her mind spinning. She picked up the telegram and turned to the boys, "It seems your father is really dead. Quick, hook up the buggy and run to the shop and get the others. Be sure all your sisters and brothers here in town know so they can take proper action. I'll write to your other sisters." Of her ten children, all four boys and one girl lived in town. The other girls were married, living in different areas. All except Meghan. She prayed she wasn't married.
"Then stop at the mercantile and buy a bolt of black crepe," she continued. Have them put it on the account. Better get cotton, if he has it, instead of wool or silk. Silk is so expensive and wool..in this heat...Goodness, I'll have to have a pure black dress and we have to do up the house. Hurry, turn those pictures to the wall till we can cover them, all of them. Stop the clock. The telegram doesn't say what time he died so just stop it till we find out. And I'll turn the mirrors till you bring the crepe to cover them. Otherwise, what will the neighbors think?"
"They'll think that they'll see the face of the next person to die," her youngest son answered with a shudder. "Don't look, mother. Just turn the mirrors."
The Army Provost Marshal and guard were dispatched immediately to investigate the China Cup Valley attack. A portion of the Provost guard would accompany the men and their wagons back to Fort Derwood where they could fully recuperate unless the doctor recommended otherwise. The Lieutenant would eventually return once his duties in San Francisco were over.
In San Francisco the man being held had given no information whatsoever, not even his name, even though he had been questioned throughout the night. He maintained that he had done everything as a bet. The knife found on him made them suspicious and the man at the desk informed them this was the same man, minus his beard, who had come looking for Lieutenant Pottsington.
The Lieutenant reported that this man must have been sent by an unscrupulous Mr. Fitzgeraldson who had ridden the stage with him and was staying at the stage-stop hotel in Sacramento as far as the Lieutenant knew. The telegram had mentioned that the perpetrator of the Army wagon crime had repeatedly asked about the whereabouts of the Fitzgeraldson daughter.
The Provost Marshal considered it, talked it over with the General then decided because this was a full scale attack on the Army men and their supply wagons, there was little reason to believe this was anything other than an outlaw robbery scheme or some type of political insurrection. The Fitzgeraldson daughter had to be a red herring. No one did this kind of damage over a woman. But he said he'd check out this Mr. Fitzgeraldson in Sacramento once he was finished in China Cup Valley to see what his relationship was to the criminal that had harmed their soldiers.
Meanwhile the prisoner was demanding to see one of the well known retired Army officers in the area. The Lieutenant was concerned that the higher brass would grant that request and the retired man would use his influence to get this man freed. At this point his infraction could be considered minor.
The Lieutenant strongly recommended to his father-in-law, the General, that they wait for the Provost report from Sacramento before they granted any of the prisoner's wishes. His father-in-law, as usual, walked away with scorn for the younger man's ideas.
The Sacramento Marshal rubbed his balding head. His sick Deputy was still ill, but the other would be back from his trip back east at the end of the week. He still wasnt sure where this Lendal fellow had gone. If Lendal ended up back at his home, the Marshal had a woman from the cafe in Miners Flat that promised to send word by telegram the minute she heard either he or the Deputy had returned. Amazing what a good, verbal appreciation for good cookin could do, especially when the lady doing the cooking didnt like the Hindelfarbs to start with.
He had talked with the train personnel and they remembered a man of Lendal's description heading to San Francisco. Once his Deputy was back, he'd catch the train and ask the folks around at the steamboat docks. From there he'd go into San Francisco and check with all the hotels. He hated the headstart he was giving this man, but the killer would not get away if the Marshal could help it!"
"Mornin', darlin," Gaine leaned to press her lips against Meghan's.
"Mmm, morning, love," Meghan replied, chastely returning the kiss. Gaine couldn't help thinking how like an angel the small beauty looked in the morning with her sleepy, innocent green eyes, soft freckles and mussed golden hair.
"Time ta git up." Gaine watched with surprise as the blonde sleepily arose without argument and made the bed. Then she used her wet rag from the night before to wipe down her dress before carefully brushing and pinning her hair and washing thoroughly with Betsys soap. Though Meghand gotten up right away, getting ready was taking longer than normal and they'd be rushed at breakfast. But Gaine didn't object. It thrilled her heart to see how remarkably fresh and unbelievably beautiful Meghan was as she put on her veiled hat.
Meghan sat at breakfast with a smile on her face behind her veil. She couldn't remember ever being so happy. For the first time in forever her future looked promising. She loved Gaine completely and was honored to be with her, even if no one else would ever know. No one else needed to know. Theirs was a private relationship. Theirs alone.
Gaine also sat with a pleasant smile on her face. Shed never even dreamed that her life could be so miraculous. She loved this small blonde with her beautiful green eyes. And they were going to make vows to each other to live together with love as partners forever. Mah cake bees dough, Gaine grinned to herself. She's done got me thoroughly hobbled and tied to a post! And that thar's a fact.
The tall woman's smile disappeared when she thought about what Meghan had asked. Meghan wanted to be a Sargos. If only Gaine could legally marry her, she would be. Maybe she wouldn't be Minnie Sargos, but she'd be Meghan Sargos.
Gaine sighed. But that couldnt happen so the thought wasnt worth bothering about. She played a little with her food then brought a bite to her mouth. And just calling her "Sargos" was a poor choice in Gaine's mind. It went against everything she'd grown up believing and there were too many pitfalls.
Getting Meghan away from Sacramento as "Cousin Minnie" was deception enough. And though she understood the need, even that bothered her. Meghan's safety, however, was not to be questioned, and in that regard she would lie, cheat or steal if such were the only choices. And certainly she'd kill to protect her.
Tis a great need...but.... It was obvious that this Lendal and his cousin were far more ruthless than one might ever expect. Be her Pa sa ruthless? He got hisself a billy goat's personality, but war he that ruthless? To be willing to kill four men just to find where some woman who didn't want to marry Lendal might have gone, was beyond her comprehension. And Meghan's father must have known about it. Well, obviously, all three needed to be set off the trail. And "Cousin Minnie" was the red herring for that purpose. Gaine sighed.
The tall brunette took another biteful and chewed. She glanced at Meghan who had just about eaten everything on her plate this morning. My, that little lady had a healthy appetite unlike on their way to Sacramento when shed barely touched anything. Gaine wondered where she was putting it all. She was such a little thing. She inhaled. Meghan surely smelled good.
Gaine drank some coffee, much too weak for her tastes. Well, leastwise that thar Deputy war dead, she thought to herself, and for once she was pretty sure it wasn't at her hand, not that she'd have cared. She had aimed at the shoulder to wound. She was quite certain the deadly shot was the other man's. But it didn't matter. The Deputy was dead and in the long run that was good!
Would Meghan's father come after her like Lendal's minions were doing? Somehow she doubted the big blowhard had the sand to do so unless there was a huge profit of some kind to be made. Anyone in her family could be a threat to Meghan, though, but the biggest threat was Lendal. And from what Meghan had said, he was the most vicious and would be out there searching for her. If he could sneak up and find her, he'd force-marry her instantly to give himself legal rights. That'd be extremely hard to fight if he could carry it off.
Her eyes drifted to the small veiled woman beside her while her thoughts darted to what they'd spoken of the night before. She'd given a little thought to picking a date for their vows but the other problems were more demanding. Suddenly an idea popped unbidden into her mind. She blurted out a laugh.
"What?" Meghan asked, looking over with her cup in her hand. Drinking from a cup was a little more difficult under the veil than eating.
"Ain't nothin' wrong. Ahv had me n idee. Does ya trust me?"
"Of course, I do." The brunette could feel the smile the blonde was sending her.
"Yer gonna be a Sargos," Gaine grinned back.
"Good," Meghan whispered then tipped her head, "I just wish it was legal."
"T'will be," Gaine laughed. "Sortta like."
A veiled look came her way but Gaine could not see it and just smiled. The driver had gotten up and they both rose as well. The stage was leaving.
"Does ya mind takin' the bag and gettin' ta the stage? Ahl be right back."
"No, that's fine." Meghan lifted the bag and headed to the coach. Gaine grabbed the hostler and moved away. She quickly filled out a telegraph form and paid. It would go on this mornings stage to the railroad where telegrams could be sent in a heartbeat as far south as San Diego and north to Portland or Seattle, even east.
There was a bounce in her step when Gaine came back to assist Meghan onto their stage for the last part of their journey. Meghan, however, was stiff and tense standing to the side almost as though she were hiding. "Gaine," she whispered to the tall woman. "Those two men getting on the stage. They came in from the railroad stage. They're both from Jubilee City! I recognize them!"
"It's all right, darlin'," Gaine replied in a whisper. "Don't do no talkin' and they ain't gonna know t'is you. Jest ignore 'em."
Gaine helped the small blonde on and had her sit by the window this time while she took the seat next to one of the men. He withdrew a cigar and she remarked that there was no smoking inside the stage since all the passengers were not comfortable with it.
"And with what authority are you speaking?" the man replied haughtily, running his eyes up and down her clothing. "Good Lord, you're a woman. And you're wearing men's clothes. Disgraceful! What authority could you have?"
"Yes," chimed in the man with him. "By who's authority?" he snorted, a cigar primed in his hand as well.
What t'is it 'bout them fellas from Jubilee City and their ceegar smoking? Gaine wondered. Maybe thar well water's done gone bad an affected 'em all er somethin'. She felt Meghan reacting to how they were talking to her and gently leaned against her. She took out her badge and pinned it on. "By authority a' the Sheriff," she smiled tapping the badge. "But ya kin check with'n the Conductor if'n ya please."
One of the men looked at the badge then at her. "A woman Sheriff? Not likely. And I suppose you'd arrest me if I smoked?" he laughed cockily.
"No," she replied seriously, "Ah believe Ahd have this here coach stop n leave ya off ta hoof it back ta the road ranch on them sole-leathers. You an yer ceegar."
The open door was suddenly slammed shut from the outside and the Conductor's head came to the window in the door. "We're headin' out. Anything more you want us to do, Sheriff, before we go?"
"No," she smiled. "We're gittin' off ta the dinner stop. But when ya gits ta Jubilee City ta'night, ya might send word ta the fort regardin' what all done transpired."
"Yes, ma'am," he grabbed hold of the heavy wooden wheel to climb up into the box with the driver but paused. "Anyone particular there ya want us ta notify?"
"No. Whoever's in charge. Oh, an ya might inform these here gentlemans that thar ain't no smokin' allowed in this here coach."
The Conductor paused, looked at the men with their cigars and laughed. "Listen here, young fellas. The last man that smoked in there when she told him not to, got his cigar shot right out the winda. Word is the bullet missed him by," he held his thumb and forefinger a few inches apart. "And I can tell ya for a fact that she's already faced and killed one very dangerous outlaw on this trip. You might wanna listen right special to what she tells ya and folla it... to... the... letter." He chuckled as he climbed above into the box.
"Guess what them two fellas inside wanted to do?" he said to the driver. "They wanted to smoke their cigars in there after the Sheriff told 'em not to."
They both went into gales of laughter till the driver snapped the whip and the horses sprang from their spot onto the road. The men replaced their cigars in their pockets with a searching look at Gaine and her sixshooter.
"So we're to believe that you're a crack shot?" one asked incredulously.
"Ah reckon," she replied.
The other man's contemplative eyes ran over her clothing then back to her face. "Where is a woman supposed to have learned to be a crack shot?"
"On a ranch," she smiled. "Lead ain't never cheap so's yer marksmanship had ta count er ya had ta pay some'un else ta hunt fer ya. Sees, when ya ain't wealthy, ya gots all kinds a' in-centive ta make do with what ya got. Improves yer concentration a heap an sortta speeds up the larnin. That's what Ah done."
"Unlikely," the man replied and ran his hand over the cigars in his pocket, but he didn't remove any. He looked away.
Gaine chuckled. Let ever tub stand ta its own bottom, Ah say, she thought.
Continued in Chapter 7
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