See disclaimers in Chapter 1
In Jubilee City the Fitzgeraldson's oldest son, Brogan Jr., had immediately taken over. Within a half hour's time he had brought by the town's only attorney, Captain James, his dear friend, to verify to his mother that it was he, Brogan Jr., who was to settle the estate since his father had died intestate, without a will. 'Your husband always talked about drawing up a will,' the man smiled. 'But we never quite got around to it.'
No, she thought, he thought he was going to live forever. But she nodded politely to the man before her.
'You shall receive a third of the estate, ma'am,' Captain James had explained. 'Don't worry about a thing. Brogan here will handle everything.'
That had worried her. She knew Brogan Jr. was most like his father and would do his best to cheat everyone out of everything. But without legal backing, she didn't see how she could dispute him. And she knew no one else to go to.
Once Captain James had gone and the others had arrived, she served coffee with bread and butter while the family discussed the shocking event of Senior's death. They would all have to prepare their mourning apparel and she would have to prepare their house. Brogan Jr. announced that he and her next oldest son, Peter, would be driving a wagon to Sacramento to retrieve their father's body for burial in the Jubilee City cemetery. They'd be gone more than a week, maybe two. They'd find out details of what had happened in Sacramento, gather what possessions their father left and find out what happened to Meghan.
"Hopefully, she's safe," her mother said anxiously.
'Yes,' young Reggie, the youngest child, added, 'Meggy just has to be safe.'
"She'd damn well better be with Lendal," Brogan Jr. scowled, not unlike his father. "Anything else in unacceptable!"
"NO! What do you mean?" the new widow asked. Her daughter-in-law was sitting by her side, her brows raised in alarm at her mother-in-law's tone.
Brogan Jr. turned a familiar sneer her way. "It's business, mother. Keep your nose out of this. You wouldn't understand." Peter and his wife and Brenna and her husband looked over but said nothing.
"Business? What was your father getting in return for Meghan's hand? Tell me."
Her daughter-in-law, Jenny, immediately turned her eyes to her hands folded in her lap. Worry tinged her face.
The oldest son looked at his mother with disdain. How dare she talk to him this way? It must be the shock of his father's death. As he was to be the one taking over the new wagon shop his father had planned to purchase, he was fully aware of the secret business deal that should have been transacted in Sacramento with Lendal's silent partnership money. It would make them all wealthy, his father had said. And considering how hard times were, that would be a real coup.
"It involved some contracts. You need know nothing else. You just worry about doing the burial activities correctly. We don't want the townsfolk to think we're a bunch of barbarians, after all. Have you the material for your new dress? Jenny says it must be all black. No white anywhere." Jenny nodded mutely. Meghan's mother had been wearing her heavy scarlet-black dress since she'd been notified, but the touch of scarlet eliminated it as proper widow's wear.
"Yes, it's almost done. I got the cotton instead of the silk but we still didn't have enough credit on the books to get crepe for the house. Once they found out your father was dead, the mercantile cut off any additional credit."
"What? They'll regret that,' he muttered ominously. 'Well, tend to your dress, and leave the business to me. I'll have Jenny bring the other crepe to you." His stern eyes went to his pregnant wife and he demanded, "I'll give you enough money for what you'll need. Make sure my children are dressed appropriately then get the material to mother. I want it done immediately or you'll feel my wrath."
"Of course," his wife replied quietly.
"Oh, I hate to see us go in debt for this," Mrs. Fitzgeraldson exclaimed. "Shutting the shop, going clear back to Sacramento and then all this black cloth. You could go by horseback to the train. It's so much faster.' She looked around at her family. The shop was supporting so many of them in these troubling times. 'Surely you don't need the expense of bringing his body back all this way. Couldn't you have an inexpensive pine board coffin built? You could blacken it with shoe polish and have him buried there in Sacramento. Everyone's doing it. Even the Johnsons did when their grandfather passed. It costs so much less. These are hard times, son. We're in a depression. Think about the expense. No one here in town needs to know the cost of his burial."
"Good Lord, don't be ridiculous!" her son yelled and she shrunk back, "This is father we're talking about.' He glowered threateningly, 'I'm the one handling this estate. I make the decisions. Now that's enough from you. The shop WILL be opened after a proper time. Brenna and Will can handle it.' He shot his view to his sister and her husband. Both nodded in agreement. 'Father's body will be brought back and buried here with all the respect he deserves. I've already ordered a new coffin. Once he's here and properly buried, I'll sort out the estate. I'm sure there's plenty for his burial." Although he did have cost concerns.
Their father had taken all the liquid company funding with him to Sacramento, and that was a concern. He'd have to legally show that their mother had received a third of the estate, but with Captain Jack's help he thought he knew how to hide many of the business assets to trim her share substantially. Their Army contract brought in a good income and would sustain them for a long time but he wouldn't include it. And the sale of their father's house and furnishings would bring a notable amount.
He'd trim the recorded income everywhere possible. Her third would be downplayed and he would take control of it as well. He glanced her way. She might object to it, but that was too bad. He was in charge.
He intended to take his father's newer and better buggy and horse and leave his own in its place. He'd do that before they left today. He'd instruct his wife to go through his mother's kitchen supplies and take whatever was better than theirs. They would trade before he had to officially settle the estate.
As custom determined, the widow was not to be seen outside the house. He informed his mother that she'd have to do the milking before the sun came up. Mrs. Fitzgeraldson looked at her son and marveled at how much like his father he sounded. Of course, it was a woman's job and there were no other women left in the house. He wouldn't have Jenny do it, he said. He had chores he wanted her to do at home. For the evening milking his mother would need to take heed not to be seen. "Or you shall feel my wrath!" he warned his mother.
She made no reply but decided she would have to speak of other questions while her other children were there. Bravely she remarked, 'Reggie and Murphy are to get their father's guns. I believe your father would have wanted that.'
'There's no provision for it,' Brogan Jr. said haughtily, then noticed the expressions on his siblings' faces. 'All right, but it comes out of your share, mother. If you want to make sure everyone gets some token, it's from your share. The rest will go to the business.' That seemed to satisfy the other siblings from the looks on their faces. No one spoke.
The business? Mrs. Fitzgeraldson watched her childrens' expressions and knew that those involved with the business would be rewarded for their silence in what he was doing. The others, including herself, would be left out unless she did something to prevent it. And she wasn't sure what she could do.
'The Sheriff suggested that I move back to Boston with my sister,' she said quietly. 'He seemed to know quite a lot about these things.'
Brogan Jr. stiffened. How much did the Sheriff know about how estates were handled? They didn't need the Sheriff sniffing around what they were doing.
'Uh,' he looked at the others' expressions, 'Yes, that might be a good idea. The cost of getting there, however, will come from your share.'
'Yes, I understand that. But I will need living expenses while I'm there. Captain Jack said I was to receive a third of the estate.'
'Yes. But that's after all debts have been paid.' Skepticism was now outlined on the others' faces since they knew their father never kept any outstanding debts. He cleared his throat and added, 'Of course, I'll make sure you are sent a fair living expense regularly.'
No, you won't, will you? she thought, looking at him. He'd let the others think he was sending it, but he'd give her excuses and keep what he could. She knew her son all too well. She'd lived with his father many years under the same kind of tutelage.
'Are you sure you want to go all that way, mother?' Brenna asked. 'It's so far.'
'Yes. I think it would be best to do that. My sister's a widow now, and I can share her home.'
'If you think you must,' Brenna replied. She'd miss having her mother in town.
'It's best,' her mother replied.
Once the others had gone, Brogan Jr. stood with his father's extra suit and shirts draped across one arm. He'd been in their wardrobe. He pensively rubbed his mutton chop beard, then said, "Yes. Perhaps the Sheriff knows best. Passage on an emigrant train might work." In fact, he would actually be pleased to be rid of the responsibility of her welfare. Far away she'd be easier to put off.
Once he left, Mrs. Fitzgeraldson sat right down and wrote to her sister. She knew her sister would be delighted. The younger sibling had remarked in her last letter how so many homes in Boston had gone into bank foreclosures since the panic of '73. Many had been turned into Lodging Houses that provided nothing but spaces on a dry floor at five or ten pence a night. Flop houses. It was not a good sign for the neighborhoods and she feared the possible loss of her own home. She'd welcome having her sister come to share. They'd always gotten along well. Besides her sister'd have to consider remarrying very soon otherwise and she said she'd prefer not to have to do that.
Meghan's mother hummed a little to herself as she sewed her dress after Brogan Jr.'s family had gone home for the evening. The two youngest boys were busy with their evening chores. They were both in their teens and she considered them old enough to work in the business now. They should survive well at their sibling's homes, she had no doubt of that. Though they'd be free to join her if they chose. It was up to them, with Brogan Jr.'s approval, of course.
"Mother, Brogan's taken father's good coach and horse," Reggie said indignantly from her doorway. 'And left his.' He'd run in from their small barn.
"And they're going to exchange everything good from the kitchen and pantry with theirs. I heard him tell Jenny. He's cheating," Murphy added, coming up behind his brother.
The boys stood in the doorway both frowning at her. "I'm not sure what we can do about it," she replied looking up from her sewing.
"Well, I'm going to demand he give them back," Murphy said boldly. At sixteen he was the shortest of the boys. Even his younger brother was as tall as he was.
"Be careful of Brogan," she warned. "You're getting your father's guns. The Sheriff has those, so he can't switch them for old, run-down firearms. Be happy with that."
'You knew he'd do that,' Reggie said in surprise. 'You knew he'd cheat.'
I had hoped he wouldn't, she thought to herself. But he's so much like his father.
"I'm not afraid of him," Murphy replied boldly, but she knew in truth he was.
"He's cheating you, mother," Reggie remarked with concern. 'You know he is.'
"Yes, I know," she said calmly. "but I don't know what I can do about it. Our only town attorney is his good friend."
'It's not right!' Reggie grumbled.
'Don't you boys try and do anything about this,' she looked up with a serious expression. 'Brogan can do you great harm. Just leave it alone. Promise me.'
For a few minutes they were silent, but they saw the look in her eye. 'Yes, mother,' they both mumbled. 'But it's not right!'
She was worried about getting any funding from Brogan Jr. at all. She'd need to have enough to pay her share of expenses over a long period of time. But, in fact, she was not as worried as she might have been. Her oldest son might think he was taking over the whole estate, but she knew where her husband kept his emergency gold stash in the house and none of the others did. Even her husband hadn't known that she'd known. She had run across the loose floor board under the bedroom rug during her many times cleaning. She was sure the others weren't aware of it. It wouldn't come close to equaling her third of the estate, but it'd be enough to help her get by.
The rug in the bedroom hadn't been moved she noticed after her oldest son left the house. Well, she'd move the stash, just to be sure. She'd begin sewing the coins into her petticoats and make hidden pockets to tie at her waist under her clothing. Best the others not know. She wrung her hands. If she only knew her youngest daughter was all right and was not with Lendal.
Tears sprung to her eyes when she thought of the man. He was pure evil. She'd seen what he'd done to Ruby over the years, how vicious he was. She'd seen him break Ruby's ribs over nothing. And she knew he killed her friend in the end. She hadn't run off. And now her child, her youngest beloved daughter, was in his grip, left to his torture. She tried not to imagine what he might do to her precious girl. 'Oh, Meghan, child.' She dabbed her handkerchief to her eyes. She'd do anything she could to get Meghan away from his evil grasp. Anything!
When she went to stay with her sister she had to go through Sacramento to catch the train. She'd search for Meghan then. She'd find some way to get her away from him. What happened to her dear friend Ruby was not going to happen to Meghan if she could help it. She'd stop him some way.
The two men on the stage took out a deck of cards and tried to coax the ladies into joining them in a game. The men exchanged a flask between themselves even though it was morning. Gaine's face showed she was willing enough to join their game. She was actually a very good card player but Meghan had whispered to her to please not participate. She didn't think it was right to gamble. Gaine reluctantly turned down their request.
Gaine could see the small blonde tensing every time the two men from her hometown spoke to her. Gaine immediately answered for her until they finally got the idea and stopped addressing the mysterious woman in the veiled hat.
At the drop off the stage was stopped and all the passengers were told to get out and walk. It was too steep for the horses to pull them and the carriage. Those on top hopped down and joined them. For the whole of the area they walked behind the coach, staying far from the edge, while the horses struggled pulling the empty coach up the often steep rises. They were quite tired by the time they left the drop off area and got back into the coach.
At last they arrived at the noon dinner stop and climbed out of the coach to wait for their bag. Everyone else hurried past them to go in to eat. The Conductor stopped to shake their hands and bid them farewell. While the stage passengers were eating their noon dinner, the crew would be changing horses and the stage would again be on its way to Jubilee City almost before the passengers were done. Gaine considered eating with the others to save funds, but decided it would be far too hard on Meghan.
Meghan walked beside Gaine on the boardwalk as they went to retrieve the tall woman's buckboard and team. A part of the tall brunette's livery fee was returned and she dropped it loosely into her pocket. She remembered that Meghan still had her shot bag stuffed down the front of her bosom. It was a minor inconvenience that drew a smile from the tall woman. She'd have to get used to sharing her life and possessions with the small young woman.
A feeling of contentment swept over her as she glanced at the young blonde. It was almost an age-old feeling. This small blonde moved her in ways she'd never dreamed. She was ready to place her heart, her very soul in Meghan's care.
The buckboard was driven out and Gaine checked each of the horses quickly before getting on. The small blonde looked admiringly at the team. She could see how fine they were. Her family would have been very impressed. Then, still covered in her veil and gloves, she quickly climbed aboard on her side and they headed off down the town street.
"Ya all right?" Gaine asked.
"Yes. As long as I can be by your side, I'm perfect," Gaine couldn't see the smile but knew it was hidden there behind the heavy veil.
"Mmm, ya shore do be," Gaine pulled up at the town Mercantile. "We need usn's some fixin's," she explained to her puzzled partner as she helped her down.
Once inside the store Meghan wandered in amazement. She had never been in a store before and was astonished at the range of items and the prices. Gaine set about picking out some basic food supplies, a small bag of flour, some molasses, some beans, a small amount of jerky, cans of peaches and greengages, coffee and the like. She also bought four tin plates, four forks and an extra blanket. She loaded the items before the two moved to the counter to look at the jewelry.
Gaine nervously tried to remember how much money she had left. She had started with the bulk of her savings and it wasn't a lot by any means, but if they were prudent, they could afford a ring for Meghan. Or she could trade one of her wagon horses at the livery. She glanced out at the horses she'd worked so long and hard to acquire. She could trade down and end up with one different horse and enough for a more expensive ring. Her horses were beauties, but it would be worth it.
Gaine brought her attention back to the ring case. She saw a beautiful ring encrusted with jewels and had Meghan try it on. Meghan frowned and took it off. "We don't need a ring right now," she whispered to Gaine.
"Yep, we shorely does," Gaine whispered back. That surprised Meghan. She picked out an extremely modest band. Gaine put it back. Finally they decided on a moderately priced ring with a small diamond and two tiny red rubies set in gold filigree with small gold heart-shaped settings flanking the main stone.
Both were pleased. Gaine was sure she had enough to pay for everything, if she used her own lucky gold coin, the greenbacks she had left in her pocket plus what Meghan had in her shotbag. "Shot bag?" she whispered and Meghan turned her back and quickly opened enough buttons to draw out the bag before hastily buttoning her dress up again. She handed the bag to Gaine.
Gaine decided that trading her lucky coin for Meghan's ring was the height of good fortune and she cheerfully made the purchase. She handed the change back to the small blonde and slipped the ring on her finger. Meghan put back on her gloves, slipping the coins inside the glove's palm till she had a chance to put the shot bag away again. She grinned at the idea that Gaine wanted her to care for their funds. It made her seem very married.
Gaine and the small blonde climbed back into the wagon. They headed down the same road the stage had traveled to get there.
"Oh, I was thinking you lived north of this town, not west," Meghan smiled behind her veil as they began to leave the town in the distance.
"Yep. That be cor-rect."
Just below town they took the turn to the road that wandered more south than the one the stage took to the drop off road. "Do we have to get around a river or something before we go north?"
"No. We're a'goin' ta a little trip. Ya know what a bridal tour be?"
"Well, some couples when they git theyselfs hitched go off'n a trip. Showin' the bride off, Ah reckon. Ana'ways, Ah thought t'would do us fine ta do that."
"A bridal tour? We haven't set a date to exchange vows yet. We aren't 'hitched'."
"Be ya opposed ta the Fourth a July?"
"That's only a couple days!" Meghan sat up in surprise and faced Gaine.
Gaine stopped the horses. Her face became long as she looked at Meghan. "Oh. Doancha wanna?"
"Uh, well, it's not that. It's just so soon. I, uh..." She had hoped to have time to wash and iron her dress and get herself fixed up for Gaine.
"Ya wanted a longer courtship?"
"No. It isn't that. I, uh, well, uh, I want to exchange vows...very much." She looked at Gaine's face and saw the anxiety. She didn't want that. She smiled nervously, "I suppose the Fourth of July would be a good time, if you don't mind that my dress won't be clean."
Gaine let out a deep breath. "Tis you Ahm vowin' ta, not yer dress. Ya look beautiful no matter what ya got on. Ah ain't cleaned up mahself." Then she frowned, "Do ya want me ta wash mah clothes? Ah kin find usn's a stream."
"No. It's all right."
"Ya shore?" Meghan nodded and Gaine clicked the horses back on their way.
It was a whirlwind happening. They had met less than a week ago but she knew in her heart Gaine was everything she had ever wanted and the side issues were not really important. "Is it far?"
"Ain't ta long. Couple days maybe."
"Couple days to get there? Where are we going, Gaine?"
"They's a purty lake thar n' t'is right pleasant. That all right with'n ya?"
Meghan looked around and then slid over and wrapped both her arms around Gaine's arm. Imagine making their vows beside a pretty lake. She leaned her head on Gaine's shoulder. "That sounds wonderful, love. I've not been to a lake."
"Ya ain't?" Gaine guessed Meghan had only traveled to town farms where they'd lived and the long roads between them. "First thar' bees a mighty fine stream an place ta eat some dinner down the way here. Ya interested?"
"Yes! I'm starving!"
Gaine laughed. "Ah figured ya might be."
The dirt road dipped downward and Gaine handled the brake well to put less pressure on the horses. It wove and turned, but there was not a drop off anywhere like there was on the other road. Once the road leveled, Meghan took off her veiled hat and replaced it with her bonnet. She removed her gloves, put the money in the shot bag and placed it inside her dress. Then she gazed at her new ring. They were to be joined, she and Gaine. Forever.
Gaine pulled the team off the road by a small mountain stream. Dinner was the first chance Meghan got to do any cooking for Gaine, even if it was just coffee and quick biscuits. She was an excellent cook and yearned to prove it. She busied herself around the small fire fixing the coffee the way she knew Gaine liked it and baking quick board biscuits. They ate jerky and biscuits then Gaine took a hatchet and lopped the top off a can of plums.
"Heavens to Betsy, Gaine," Meghan exclaimed, "I could make a pie with these."
"Theys more," Gaine smiled, handing her a spoon. "Tanight when we stop ya kin do that. Ain't time now."
The spot was beautiful with the clear water cascading rapidly through the rocky eddies, but they hurried to get back on the road. They saw no one else for the whole of their afternoon until they passed a far-out ranch and saw some specks in the distance that Gaine said were ranchhands. After that they were again alone with the wild and the wildlife. There were trees and brush in this area and the road was little more than a path.
"Gotta be careful 'n the ravines," Gaine said, as they headed into one. She brought her carbine to one hand.
"Why? Do you think the stage robbers are here?" Alarmed green eyes rose to meet Gaine's and she moved closer to the woman beside her on the bench.
"Uh, maybe. But Ah war cogitatin' on them mountain lions 'n even some grizzlies that might be a'stalkin' thar."
But they saw neither although they did see a lot of deer and other wildlife. As they passed through one ravine, the horses became jittery and Gaine pointed out the scratches high on some trees they passed and said they were the marks of a mountain lion. She kept her carbine in her hand again.
Meghan sat wide-eyed, her head scanning the branches of trees they passed under but no other signs of the large carnivore were seen. Later, however, they did hear the call, sounding much like a house cat of great size. "That thar," Gaine remarked softly, "war a mountain lion." Meghan shivered.
They traveled till an hour before dusk, then found a camp spot by a small, fresh river. Meghan began to fix a meal of beans and biscuits but Gaine killed a large rattlesnake that she said would be good for supper. Meghan was unfamiliar with preparing it, however, so Gaine skinned it and cut filets. She suggested either boiling or frying. Meghan chose frying since she was already using the dutch oven to bake biscuits in the ashes of the fire. She made gravy to go with the filets and they ate heartily, although it wasn't either's favorite meat.
Meghan worked hard once she removed the biscuits. She stirred the ashes and added more as she prepared a pie in the dutch oven. When it was cool enough, she poured Gaine more coffee and cut them a large slab of plum pie.
The tall brunette carefully patrolled the camp perimeter making sure they were safe. Gaine was very careful about foodstuffs and hung them in the trees beyond camp where wildlife could be kept away from them. Meghan washed out their nightshirts with Gaine's scented soap as they would be sleeping in their clothes anyway. She hung them to dry on the bushes.
Boughs were brought and placed under the wagon for softness. Then Gaine's bedroll was unrolled out onto them and the new blanket was their cover. They crawled in and watched a couple nighthawks making slow turns around a thermal updraft. The bullbats had come out of the darkening trees and now coasted lazily around, feeding off the insects.
They listened to the sonorous swelling then ebbing of the cicadas at sunset. Under the stars, they found they were much more tired than they realized. Gaine even let them sleep in the next morning till the sun was up.
After Meghan fixed them a wonderful breakfast of hot pancakes smothered in the sugar-house molasses they had purchased and steamy, strong coffee, they broke camp and continued on, up over a low mountainous pass, over and around hills, stopping only long enough to eat biscuits, more jerky and slabs of pie. They ended up in the late afternoon beside a beautiful wooded lake. Gaine built a large fire in a pit on the beach beyond their wagon and caught a large fish that Meghan cleaned and fixed into a tasty supper along with biscuits and beans.
They sat beside the fire as the sun went down and the promise of a much colder night full of bright, twinkling stars dropped down around them. There were no signs of other people anywhere and no moon in the night sky. Gaine kept a fairly large wood fire burning in the pit. By this time the lake was much warmer than the evening air, and Gaine tried to talk Meghan into going swimming "naturale".
"No, Gaine," she sighed modestly, "It's not decent. Don't ask me that. Please."
"Thar ain't nobody out here cept'n us'ns, Meg," Gaine explained.
The small blonde blushed. "No. Honey, please. You said you'd never make me do something I didn't want to do. I...I can't do this. I can't go..," she whispered, "naked," then her voice was normal again, "Please don't ask me to."
Gaine nodded. "Yer right. Ah did say that, an Ah woan." Gaine threw another log on the fire for light as well as heat. A new moon, of course, gives no light. She had an idea. She knew Meghan had wanted to wash at least their underclothes but they had nothing else to put on. "What if'n we wear ar, ya know, ar under thangs? We could wash 'em out once't we're done a'swimmin in 'em? They'd dry bah mornin'. What 'bout that?"
Meghan pulled on her lower lip. "Wear our under things swimming?"
"Yep. They's a lot like them bathin' outfits stores sell."
"You're sure we're alone out here?"
"Yep. Well, thar do bees wildlife."
"And I could use your piece of soap in the carpetbag and wash them out afterwards when we get out?"
"Uh, wash yer'n out with'n that but Ah hafta go a'huntin' in mahn, so's they hadn't outta be flowery er the critters'll smell me a'comin'."
Meghan nodded and looked carefully around the area. "You're sure it's just us?"
Gaine listened carefully to the night sounds. "Yep. Jest usn's."
Gaine smiled her biggest warm smile. They undressed between the wagon and the bushes, placing their outer clothes in the wagon bed, taking their nightshirts out and leaving those and the blanket near the fire. Meghan took off all her petticoats and left on her chemise and long drawers.
The small blonde didn't know how to swim, so they played and splashed each other in the shallower water. It was really quite warm. Meghan's wet chemise showed the markings of her nipples in the firelight as did Gaine's undershirt and the open crotch of the small blonde's underdrawers did not guarantee much privacy, but her chemise was long enough to protect her modesty.
Gaine found the blonde to be ravishingly beautiful and could not keep her hands off her. Once Meghan lost her shyness, they wrapped themselves around each other, laughing, and wading out, shivering, till just their heads stuck out of the water, Gaine holding the small woman up at that point, her legs around Gaine's waist. It was much warmer staying under water.
They kissed and let their hands wander till Meghan playfully splashed the tall beauty. They laughed more and ducked under the water once, coming up before Meghan could be frightened. Then Gaine took her on her back and swam up and down parallel to the bank. Laughing and shivering, they ran out to the fire. Gaine threw on more wood. Shivering, they peeled off their wet clothes and put on their clean, good smelling nightshirts. They quickly washed out their under garments, Gaine using her lye bar on hers, draping them over bushes to dry.
Wrapped in the blanket before the fire Meghan told stories of her early childhood. Gaine listened in silence. On the whole the small blonde had not had a happy childhood yet she remembered semi-pleasant or humorous times particularly with her younger brothers that she used to pepper her stories. They watched the pit fill with hot ashes as the wood burned away. Gaine stacked a rim of rocks around the pit and added a log before heading to bed.
Once more they made their bed under the wagon and fell into each other's embrace where they felt above all else that they truly belonged. Gaine was amazed at how well Meghan could kiss! She didn't know who she was or where she might be when she lost herself in the small woman's kisses. It pulled her mind into a sexual haze that her hands and body unerringly followed.
For her part, Meghan found the tall brunette with her sexy, throaty voice and laugh, with her devastating smile and smoldering blue eyes, this fearless, sure-shotted, derrier-kicking "bad" girl, this unbelievable beauty, turned into a sizzling pool of passion once she had Meghan alone in her arms, unless she was working hard to control herself, which she was at the moment.
"Tomorrow's Sunday, the Fourth. We exchange vows then," Meghan sighed, running a finger over her ring. "We need to think of what we'll say."
"Yep," Gaine replied. "Tagather ferever, darlin'." She planted a soft kiss on Meghan's neck. "Yer sa beautiful," she breathed in the blonde's ear. Meghan shivered. "Do ya wanna use reg'lar vows er somethin' else?"
"I'm not sure I know regular vows," Meghan replied.
"Ah think we kin come up with'n what we wanna vow," Gaine nibbled her neck.
Meghan shivered at Gaine's breath on her neck. "Love," she sighed, "please not until we've pledged ourselves. I won't be able to resist if you keep that up."
Gaine chuckled. "All right, kitten. Not till we've promised."
They nestled down into their nest under the wagon, wrapped in each other's arms. They could hear some wolves howling in the distance, but neither were that concerned. "I love you, my darling," Meghan breathed as her shutting eyes drew her into Morpheus' realm. Gaine put her arms around her and held her safely and securely as she listened to the night sounds for anything out of order. There was nothing unusually amiss and she followed her into the mysterious dimension of dreams.
Before dawn they used the clear, warm water of the lake to wash up before they dressed. Their underwear was dry and Meghan's was fragrant, if not a bit wrinkled. The calls of many birds greeted the dawn, the 'keeeer' of a nearby hawk mixed in with the 'caw cawk' of pheasants and 'ka-kaw-kaw' of quail. Meghan put on her corset and two petticoats and Gaine did not dissuade her from the corset, although she made it clear that she hated it.
"I won't say my vows to you not wearing a corset, for heaven's sake!" Meghan announced primly. But she did allow it to be left less tight than she was used to.
While Meghan cooked breakfast, Gaine took her rifle and disappeared into the brush. "I can make another pie in these ashes," she pulled out the dutch oven and looked over the cans of fruit before settling on peaches. She used the hatchet to open the container and prepared the pie, shoveling ashes around it as three shots rang out.
She was setting out breakfast dishes when Gaine strolled into camp smiling, three large pheasants in hand. Meghan glanced up, "Three pheasants? That's a lot for us." Gaine never killed more than they could use.
"Yep. T'will be a great feast ta celebrate ar vows!"
"Gracious," Meghan replied. It seemed like a large amount of food for the two of them, but she wouldn't question Gaine. It had been ages since she'd had pheasant. She had to think about what could go with it. Maybe she'd use one of their cans of fruit to go with the pheasant.
After breakfast Gaine and Meghan worked plucking and cleaning the pheasants and getting them ready to roast. Meghan had decided on a whiskey-plum rub that she applied before Gaine buried the large dutch oven in the cooling ashes. More wood was set afire away from the ashes to be raked in later. The pheasants would cook slowly. She'd watch the ashes. It would be several hours before it was ready.
Megan washed the dishes and put them back in the wagon, then they hiked a short way to a rise above the lake. It was not as easy going in Meghan's dress and petticoats as it was in Gaine's pants, so they took their time. When they reached the top of the rise, Meghan saw a surprising sight. Below to the south, in the distance, headed in their direction were two riders, both men.
"Who are they, Gaine?" Meghan asked, clearly frightened.
"The solution ta ar problem, Ahm a'hopin'," Gaine replied, wrapping her arm around the small blonde.
"Which problem. You mean my father?"
"Yep. An' Lendal, an' callin' ya Cousin, but mostly havin' ya legally be a Sargos."
Meghan's head tipped sideways, "I don't understand."
"See that thar small feller?" Gaine asked.
"That's mah cousin Michael. He bees one a Minnie's older brothers. They doan talk 'bout 'im in the family much. He left home when he war vera young. He's kinda a black sheep. An' that thar big, burly fella with 'im is 'is dear friend a many years, Charles."
"All right," Meghan said, trying to figure what Gaine had in mind. "Where are they coming from?" Meghan pulled away, afraid they'd be seen embraced.
"Angels, uh, Los Angeles," Gaine replied, replacing her arm around Meghan's shoulder. "Ah 'magine they come through Cahunga Pass inta the San Fernando valley then over Newhall Pass ta the Newhall Valley then over the San Francisquito Canyon then took a turn an' headed this a'way."
"I see. How did they know where we were?"
"Ah sent 'em a telegram."
"Uh, they might see us, honey." Meghan pulled away again and Gaine just grinned. They both stared at the two men, so different in size, girth and description. The smaller one was dressed in a dapper suit with shiny shoes, a white vest, a colorful scarf at his neck and a bowler hat. He was talking and using his hands to help tell his tale. The other man wore a well-fitted dark suit and tie with boots, conservative in every way. He was nodding mildly in assent. He carried a rifle across his lap but neither were looking their direction.
"Charles thar t'is a judge," the tall brunette said. He got hisself a wife somewhars back east, New York if'n Ah recollect correct-like. He ain't seed her in ten years and she ain't got no interest in a'seein' 'im. But they write one t'uther occasional so's ever'one still considers 'em married."
Meghan cast a puzzled look.
"Michael thar, he works with'n the judge. Ah think he's got hisself trained n' bees one a' them lawyer fellas, but Ah ain't sure a that. Ah jest knows he works with'n Charles."
"And you're thinking, what, exactly?"
"Ahm wonderin', uh, if'n ya'd like ta be legally married ta Michael fer a spell. He'd never touch ya, never even see ya. But he'd legally give ya the Sargos name an' ya'd really be mah cousin. An'..."
"I'm to be married to you!" Meghan gasped, "Today! Did you forget that so soon?" Meghan's face had a painfully hurt expression. She turned to fly back down the way they had come as tears rushed to her eyes.
Gaine quickly followed and grabbed the small reluctant woman around the waist, spinning her into her arms and did not let her loose, though the small blonde struggled to pull away. "No, mah precious darling, Ah did not ferget fer one second." She buried her face into the blonde's hair. "Please, lemme finish. Please, darlin'."
Meghan went limp and tears poured from her eyes. Gaine continued, "Ah knows that a'bein' divorced t'is a terr'ble, terr'ble stigma. But if'n ya kin bear the chance that some'un someday jest maht fine' out, yu'll also be divorced from 'im. Ya see, t'is full within that thar Judge's power ta grant ya a divorce."
Divorces were not easily gotten ever, some judges never granting them. But Meghan had always considered marriage vows sacrosanct so the need for divorce was moot. To do so would be extremely hard for her.
"Oh, Gaine," she wept. Gaine held her tenderly, her heart sinking.
"Oh, mah sweet love. Ah ne'er wanted ta make ya cry. Jest ferget it. All right? Please, Ah can't stand that yer a'hurtin'. Ah doan wan that t'all. It warn't never meant ta hurt ya none. Ah love ya so, kitten. Please."
"They're wedding vows, Gaine," the small blonde tried to explain through her tears. "Don't say you want me to marry someone else. Please, don't."
'Ah doan! Ah truly doan! Oh, darlin', Ah never wanted ya ta, not fer really truly, an that bees the God's honest truth. Ah loves ya, Meghan, an' Ah only wanna have ya marry me. Ever. Ah guess Ah war thinkin' the t'uther war all made up, like Charles' marriage an din't mean nothin'. T'war a right bad idea. Jest fergit it."
"How could it not mean anything? I don't understand."
"Oh, ya know. Sometimes theys them mock weddin's girls have when they's bored. They say vows, an' they kiss an' it doan mean nothin. Pretend, ya know. Onlys with'n more, uh, legal ramifications."
Megan dabbed her eyes with her sleeve, then looked up. "A mock wedding?"
"Yep. Cousin Minnie al'ays useta drag me inta playin' Ah war the groom in some pretend weddin' an' she war the bride. We'd hafta get all dressed up. The boys wouldn't participate but all our sisters done it, even if'n they war older. They war part a' the weddin' party. An they'd make us say them vows 'n ever'thin'. They knew 'em exact like."
Meghan sniffed, "A pretend wedding? You pretended to marry Minnie?"
"Yep. An' with this 'un, Ah war thinkin' ya'd legally be a Sargos even though the weddin with Michael war really pratend like. Once't yer married ya'd keep the name Sargos even if'n yer divorced. Then Ah figured ya wouldn't hafta tell nobody yer divorced lest ya wanted ta. They'd think yer still married an' Lendal couldn't think a'forcin' ya ta marry 'im 'n that case. An' they can't make ya a widda if'n they can't find yer husband, even Lendal couldn't, not that Ahd let him nears ya nohow. But mostly ya'd be a Sargos an t'would stop fellas from trying ta court ya an' ya could wear mah weddin' ring fer all ta see."
"Did you kiss her?"
"Uh, yep, but t'war jest a peck. It t'war pretend-like. Not like we been doin'. Nuthin' like that."
Meghan looked at Gaine seriously. Her tall beauty had kissed her Cousin Minnie and married her in a pretend wedding? She knew Gaine had very strong feelings for Minnie and she didn't like the idea of their pretend marriage, even if they had been very young.
"So you wanted me to do a pretend wedding with Michael? And I would say I was only doing it as a pretend wedding?"
"Uh, shore. But Charles'd pratend he din't hear ya none."
"Charles would marry us?" she sniffed.
She chewed her lip and more tears filled her eyes. "But it'd be legal, wouldn't it? Just like my father was going to force me to do with Lendal."
"No. Not like that t'all. This'd be legal 'n name only. What yer Pa wanted woulda been legal AN Lendal'd a taken ya ta wife fer true. This here is more like pratend cause Michael ain't gonna try and take ya ta wife."
"Why not? Why would Michael do it otherwise?"
"Michael needs hisself a wife in name so's folks doan think nothin' unusual 'bout 'im."
"Why would they think anything unusual? What if he insisted? He'd have rights, legal rights!"
"Honey," Gaine said softly, "Michael doan like girls. He ain't got no interest in touchin' ya fer one thing, an' I'd kill 'im if'n he even come close ta ya fer 'nuther."
Meghan looked puzzled. She didn't understand at all. This was not something she'd ever heard anything about. "I don't understand, Gaine. If he didn't like girls, why would he want to marry me?"
"Well, it ain't a live-in wife Michael needs. Fact, he wouldn' wanna have one. He'd jest wanna be able ta tell folks he war married. Charles' wife doan live with him neither. Never has. Ain't never gonna neither, t'war mah figurin'. It's jest easier, ya know, if'n folks think everone's all alike. Most folks doan take kindly ta things they doan understand even when them things ain't none a their business and doan hurt 'em none."
Meghan still stood looking very puzzled. Her blonde lashes fluttered.
"Michael bees 'n love with Charles, honey. Has been fer a long time."
"With Charles?" Meghan gazed at Gaine then looked out at the men moving closer. "Michael and Charles?" She stood gazing. It wasn't totally inconceivable that the two men could be hanged if anyone suspected how they felt for each other. "Why didn't you marry him?"
"Ah woulda. But wer first cousins. That ain't a good mix an' t'would be better if'n thar war a choice ain't gonna distress nobody. 'Specially his Momma, mah Aunt, who Ah happen ta know an' love."
"If you're not going to have children, what difference does it make?"
"None ta me. But t'uther folks ain't gonna have privilege ta that thar information. She'd be right flummoxed bah us'ns being first cousins. Ah wouldn' like that. She'd be a'frettin' all the time a'thinkin' we war gonna have childerns with serious problems, even though we warn't gonna have no childerns a'tall."
Meghan stood silently watching the men approach. Gaine squeezed the small blonde in her embrace. She began to whisper in Meghan's ear, "Darlin, Ahm so sorry Ah made ya cry on yer weddin' day. Fergit 'bout marryin' Michael. Yer gonna marry me, and that's what Ah want with all mah heart."
Sad green eyes looked up, "I...I always thought my vows would be once and forever," she whispered.
"Ah shore hopes they t'is. Mine er gonna be. Ferever, mah love, fer you."
Meghan leaned her head against Gaine's shoulder and watched the approach of the men. "Did they come all this way because they think I'll marry him?"
"Ah said thar war the possibility. But ya kin say ya doan wanna an t'will be jest fine. Ah promise."
Green eyes stared sorrowfully southward. Finally Meghan spoke softly, "I do want to be a Sargos legally but I want my vows to be for you and only you."
"Ah wisht Ah could marry ya legal an give ya mah name," Gaine sighed. "'N not hafta think up none a this here nonsense. Ah wisht it with all mah heart. But Ah cain't. Not legal like."
"I know, honey," Meghan said softly. Green eyes strained at the men as they drew near, "What're those things they have sticking out of their saddlebags?"
A huge grin transformed Gaine's face. "Fireworks!"
Gaine waved and the men waved back. Meghan looked at the small man. He was well-set with black hair, a sallow complexion, fancy clothing and a wide mouth, at the moment set in uproarious laughter. The two women turned and headed down the deer path back to the lake.
After the men rode into camp, introductions were made all around. Gaine pulled each man aside and quietly explained that Meghan had strong feelings about vows and only wanted them for Gaine. Both men nodded their understanding and gave no sign of disappointment although she knew Michael must be.
Michael was not very imposing and emotionally Meghan saw him as a sort of gadfly. She could see why he might need to tell others he was married. But she liked him and his disarming sense of humor got her laughing. Still, she stayed very close to Gaine at first.
Both men helped Gaine add more coals to the feast to let it simmer for an afternoon feast. The cooking meat was beginning to give off a wonderful fragrance.
"Mm mm. That smells good! Well, let's get this ceremony between the two of you underway, shall we?" Michael remarked once new ashes were shoveled. He ran his eyes over Meghan. "My dear," he exclaimed primly, "You'll need a little help." He pursed his lips and turned to the others, "I'll help the bride get ready and Charles, you go help Gaine get herself respectable. Shoo! Shoo! Give us some privacy here."
Meghan's eyes grew large as Michael swished the others away with his hands and wrists. Charles and Gaine dutifully moved down around a bend where they still had access to the water in the lake for cleaning up. Once they'd gone, Michael fetched a pan of water and brought it to the wagon. "All right, wash as best you can. Everywhere..neck, ears, feet, everywhere!"
"Feet?" Meghan blinked. Michael put one hand on his cheek and cupped the elbow with his other hand as he looked her over.
"I think we can tidy your dress up without much problem. But...no, that bonnet will not do!" he stood taller with a smile, "Maybe a ring of flowers in your hair, what do you think?"
"Oh, I thought I'd wear my bonnet," Meghan said nervously, putting her hand to the homespun bonnet she was wearing.
"No, no, no, my dear," he groaned. "Take it off and let's see your hair." Reluctantly she did so while he circled her, touching and puffing her hair here and there. "All the pins out! It must fall loosely on your shoulders. You want her to die of wanting you, not think she's going to some prim town meeting with you. Here." He handed her the hairbrush. "At least one hundred strokes. Meanwhile, I'll collect some flowers."
Meghan began to brush out her hair, letting it fall to her shoulders. She knew that Gaine did like it that way, but she wasn't at all sure about the appropriateness of saying vows without a bonnet.
"One hundred strokes," Michael reminded before he disappeared heading toward the meadow. "And wash behind your ears."
"Yes, mother," Meghan muttered grumpily as she brushed her hair.
Charles, in the meantime, had tried to help Gaine tidy up her shirt by wiping it off with a wet cloth, but the material was so old it seemed to absorb stains without much effort. "Michael will kill me if I let you go out there with these stains," he muttered. Gaine chuckled. She'd forgotten how bossy Michael could be. "We'll just have to find another solution."
Meghan had brushed her hair assiduously and washed thoroughly with the end of the fragrant soap when Michael came back with a circle of flowers he was braiding. He set it aside and moved beside her, using his hands to work the hair into the order he felt was necessary. 'Oh,yes my dear, much nicer.'
"You're Minnie's brother," Meghan said shyly as Michael fussed with her hair. "She just got married, Gaine said."
"So I've heard," he replied and Meghan could hear the buried hurt in his voice. She guessed that Gaine had told him when they'd first arrived and that was the first that he'd heard of it. He fussed with her hair then froze his hands and looked at her face, "That was mother's doing, you know. She's tried extremely hard to get Minnie married off since she was sixteen. Minnie's resisted till now. Frankly, I always thought what Minnie really wanted was to live with Gaine."
"With Gaine?" Meghan asked, alarmed.
"Well, I never got the feeling that Gaine, uh, how can I put this, uh, shared the same enthusiasm. Oh, don't get me wrong, Gaine always liked Minnie a lot. They used to be inseparable as children. But I don't think she ever thought of Minnie as anything but a cousin. Besides anyone with eyes can see that she's gone completely loco over you. So don't take any of this the wrong way."
"Gaine said they had a mock wedding," Meghan chewed her lip. She tried to stand still as he pulled and fluffed various strands of her hair.
"Oh, Lord, yes! Minnie dragged poor Gaine into that, making her stand as her groom. She had to promise all kinds of things to get Gaine to do it, though. I remember one of them was she had to promise to help Gaine whitewash the outhouse. She did it, just to get Gaine to be her groom." He laughed at the memory but Meghan did not share the enjoyment.
He continued, "It sounds like she was finally going to come and visit Gaine and I'm sure that spurred Mother to her greatest heights." He put the finishing touch on her hair and stepped back to look. "Probably scared mother to death. If one looks closely, I'm sure this new husband can be completely traced back to her doings."
Meghan blinked, not sure exactly what Michael was saying. It was clear he was bitter about his mother. "She didn't want her to visit Gaine?" Meghan felt butterflies take over her stomach. 'Why?'
"I'm positive she didn't," Michael picked up the flowers and began braiding them together again. "I'm sure she was terrified that once Minnie got there, she'd never come back and mother wouldn't get grandchildren from her." He put the partial wreath of flowers in the wagon and grabbed the wash rag. "She has fifteen grandchildren already. You'd think that would be enough. Here, let me wipe your dress down a bit in the back. It's lovely. Just a little dusty."
Meghan turned and he began to wipe the back of her bodice and long skirt in quick strokes, paying heed to the hem. "Are you ready for your vows? Do you know how the ceremony goes?"
"Uh, I don't know what I'm supposed to do at all." Meghan began to tremble a little now and Michael stood upright.
His brow furrowed. 'We'll start with you there.' He pointed. 'I'll play some music then you move to there,' he pointed to a different spot. 'Then you turn and face that way.'
Meghan paled. She wasn't sure she'd remember all this and they hadn't even talked about vows yet. She hadn't thought they'd have an audience. She thought it would just be her and Gaine. She chewed her lip in earnest.
Michael watched her for a minute. "Do you want to run through a practice first? Would that make you more comfortable?"
Large green eyes looked over, "We could practice?"
"Sure. There are people that do that. CHARLES! COME AND HELP US!"
Michael began to look over the campground. Charles stepped into the clearing and Michael immediately pointed. "We need to practice. Charles, you stand there. You move to here, Meghan.' He pointed and Meghan stood in the appropriate spot. 'I'll be playing the music, so I'll stand here." He paused. 'La la la la la,' he sang, then paused again, "all right, now you move here. I'll pretend to be Gaine and move here beside you."
Meghan nodded, wide-eyed, now in her new place.
'Then I play again. La la la la la.' He turned to the small blonde. "It's going to be a modified ceremony, Meghan." She nodded and he turned to Charles, "What's Gaine doing?"
"Putting on a clean shirt," Charles replied. Michael nodded in approval. 'All right, walk us through the ceremony, Charles.'
Going through it step by step, the large man went through the modified ceremony.
'That what you want to vow?' Michael asked Meghan.
'Yes,' she replied. When Charles read the names, it was Gaine Sargos and Meghan Fitzgeraldson. When Charles said, "I now pronounce you man and wife," Michael reached over and pecked Meghan on the cheek. Meghan looked alarmed and Michael jested, "Gaine will do it much better, I'm sure." He saw the look still on the small blonde's face and quipped, "She wants a divorce already."
"Granted," Charles remarked.
With a twinkle in his eye, Michael remarked tentatively, "She wants a divorce between Gaine and Minnie for their mock wedding, too." He looked at Meghan and knew he was right on target.
"Granted," Charles deadpanned.
"Okay, Meghan, ready for the real thing?" Michael asked seriously.
"Yes." Meghan waited while Michael finished the flowers and put them in her hair. She was radiant. Charles had gone to fetch Gaine, and Meghan moved into her place as Michael got out his fiddle. He stood to the side and began to play appropriate music as Charles and Gaine stepped into the clearing and moved toward their chosen spots in the campground.
Gaine and Meghan's eyes locked immediately. The tall brunette was wearing Charles' clean, crisp starched shirt from his bag along with her pants and jacket, both of which had been thoroughly wiped down. She was glowing from the scrubbing she had undergone and her hair was neatly braided. She did not wear her hat. In her hand was a large bouquet of wild flowers.
Without breaking eye contact, she moved to Meghan and handed her the flowers. "Fer tha most beautiful woman 'n the world," she said softly.
Meghan blushed slightly and took the flowers. "Ah love ya," Gaine continued as Michael cleared his throat then frantically moved his eyes trying to direct the tall brunette into the place he'd chosen for her to stand. That renegade! She is every bit as difficult to direct as she was as a child, he grumbled to himself. He cleared his throat loudly several times as he played. Deep vibrant blue eyes stayed focused on the small blonde. She was more beautiful than anything Gaine had ever seen. Soft green looked back with total admiration.
Finally Gaine paid him attention and moved to her spot and he changed the music as Charles and Meghan moved up beside her, the bouquet in Meghan's hands. He stopped when Charles was ready.
The modified ceremony Charles read and had them follow went more quickly than they thought it would. Emerald green eyes remained steadily on fervent blue when the tall brunette repeated, "Ah, Gaine Sargos, take thee Meghan Fitzgeraldson ta be my wedded partner, ta have an' ta hold from this here day forward, fer better er fer worst, fer richer er fer poorer, in sickness an in health ta love and ta cherish till death us da part an' thereto Ah pledge thee mah troth."
When it was her turn, Meghan repeated with a steady voice, again her eyes not leaving the tall beauty, "I, Meghan Fitzgeraldson take thee Gaine Sargos to my wedded partner, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health to love and obey till death us do part and thereto I plight thee my troth."
Gaine placed the ring on Meghan's finger and gazed into Meghan's eyes, "With this here ring Ah thee wed an with all mah worldly goods Ah thee endow." Then she whispered, "ferever." Charles declared them partners for life. The kiss that followed was chaste but fervent.
Afterward Michael brought out a bag of sugar-coated almonds that he passed out as "wedding candies". It was a treat none had had in many years, so they were greatly appreciative. An expensive bottle of excellent Peach Brandy was brought forth and toasts for lifetimes of happiness were had all around in tin cups.
"Anabody else a'gettin' hungry?" Gaine asked. "T'is smellin' right tasty!" She removed her jacket and placed it in the wagon, rolling up the sleeves of the stark white shirt that was a bit too wide for her.
Meghan smiled and moved toward the fire. "I'm starving! There's certainly plenty there." She looked hopefully at the others. They all looked hungry. She took the shovel and unearthed the dutch oven. "Mmm, almost ready." Michael hopped up, "Charles, you and Gaine build up this fire. It will help keep the bugs away when we eat. The beautiful bride and I will fix a sumptuous meal. Show me what supplies you have, Meghan. I brought a few things."
Together Meghan and Michael assembled a delicious meal. She was surprised to find that the dapper little man was an excellent chef. In no time a wonderful gourmet feast was placed on their tin plates. They spread a blanket on the beach a little away from the fire since the day was warm. They all sat, Meghan with her feet tucked carefully under her skirts so that the holes in the bottom of her shoes would not show.
They ate with gusto till they thought they might burst. Meghan stared at Gaine throughout the meal. They were married. There was nothing more wonderful. She looked at her ring. Now, if only she could really be a Sargos.
Gaine and Charles laid back on the blanket, shutting their eyes and rubbing their bellies while Michael and Meghan cleaned up before joining them. They played by the water and chatted. The men rolled their pant legs and took off their boots to wade beside each other, hand in hand along the edge of the lake. Gaine and Meghan sat back on the blanket and watched them, Meghan's feet again carefully tucked. It felt good to share this part of their lives with others.
The men returned and flopped back on the blanket. Within minutes Michael began to tease Gaine about the old carpetbag they had both been using for their clothes. Then he went on to Gaine's lack of fashion sense. Though it was meant in fun, Meghan didn't like it. "That carpetbag has worked wonderfully for us and Gaine dresses just right," she exclaimed. Michael ignored her but Gaine winked at her with a large grin, helping her relax some at the onslaught.
"My dear, my dear, my dear! Such blasphemy!" Michael shut his eyes and dramatically shook his head. "She thinks you're just right, Gaine, but look at your trousers. So mannishly tedious and they're simply threadbare. I swear, you don't think to get new ones till your, uh, shall we say 'better nature' begins to show through." Meghan gasped at that but Michael merely made a 'tsking' sound as Gaine chuckled.
He looked at Meghan, "She was invariably the same as a child. Utterly hopeless." He brought his attention back to Gaine, "It's a good thing you have someone to dress you now. And speaking of that, consider your new bride." He directed his attention back to Meghan. "Women are wonderfully expensive creatures and should have their every whim granted in new styles, isn't that right Charles."
"I wouldn't know, I let my tailor dress me," Charles replied. "He has excellent taste. But, of course, there is you and that sash you keep wanting me to wear." Charles quirked a small uncharacteristic grin at the small, dapper man.
Gaine raised a brow. Michael was always trying to get her to wear a colorful sash as well. The smaller man stood, folded his arms and put one finger on his cheek as he sighed deeply and lowered his eyes half-mast to Meghan. "I am noted near and abroad for my excellent taste, Meghan dear, though I hesitate to blow my own horn, heaven knows. Still Dame Fashion has deemed to press her fevered brow of vogue and distinction upon me. It's a curse, a curse, to be placed here amongst such unimaginative heathens as these two.'
'Sumthin lahk that,' Gaine muttered with a chuckle. 'An Ah still ain't gonna wear no sash neither.'
'It would look good on you, but, both of you, ignore fashion at your own risk and prolong the tedium of unfashionability.' He stepped back and looked Meghan up and down. "Now for Meghan, I see your new bride in pink dimity...no, make that emerald green dimity to match her eyes...with real Val lace. Oh, the repercussions...' He shut his eyes and clutched his hands to his chest, then opened his eyes and spoke, 'like being struck with a streak of chain-lightning." His hands moved forming the lines of this imaginary dress. "A lovely frock with at the very least twenty or twenty-five yards of the finest, uh, all right... reasonably priced...material."
Meghan's brow rose at that. She'd never heard of using so much material in a dress. Had they no budget to consider?
"A long flowing bustle in the back perhaps with a bow," Michael continued, "and that beautiful hair....do away with that pioneer bonnet once and for all and get the very latest French chapeau. Lawsy! She would scream "elegance".' He nudged Gaine, 'Why, you could show her all over San Francisco or even New York. Imagine how she'd look on your arm."
His hands flowed with his words as he spoke to Meghan, "You simply should not be seen in simple homespun dresses, my dear. You're far too attractive."
"Ah like that thar dress, Meg," Gaine wrapped an arm around the blonde and pulled her closer to herself, "An ya look downright beautaful in it, honey," Gaine spoke softly then scowled at her cousin. "Ignore 'im." Meghan leaned into the tall brunette. 'He done had hisself ta meny nips ta the brandy jug.'
Michael did not break his stride, "Well, of course she looks good in that frock. It's charming for country wear. But she's too lovely for country life." He faced Meghan. "My dear, you'd look good in burlap. But for heaven's sakes, make Gaine take you to the big cities and buy you a worthy trousseau. Something to be packed in big leather portmanteaux and not that beat up little shot bag of hers that she calls a carpetbag. Drag her to the opera and the finest restaurants. You're going to have to do it, my dear, because Gaine there is completely devoid of fashion and culture. And you'll have to dress her. I swear, she'd go bare naked if she could get away with it."
Meghan was beginning to feel the liquor. She gasped at his comment, then put her hand before her mouth and giggled. Gaine laughed aloud, "Ah might at that. Doan fergit, Ahm tryin' ta git the ranch a'goin' agin, Michael. Ah ain't been thinkin' none a fashion."
"Oh, sell a steer or something, Gaine. It's time to take note of fashion for your lady. She's exquisite! Why, she could make the Queen look like a commoner."
"Well now, that she could," Gaine agreed.
"Not everybody wants to spend a small fortune on fashion, Michael," Charles said, his features characteristically serious, "like someone else I know." Everyone laughed as Michael stuck his tongue out at Charles and adjusted the jeweled scarf pin on the silk handkerchief at his neck and brushed some dust off his white vest.
"How about a little music?" Michael asked angelically. He got out his fiddle and put it under his chin. He began to play some lively tunes. Gaine asked, but Meghan became very shy and didn't want to dance. Secretly she didn't know the steps and wasn't at all sure that dancing was something that should be done. No one in her family ever danced.
Gaine and Charles hopped up and danced one schottische after another until they could hardly breathe while the small blonde laughed and clapped to the music. Meghan was finally convinced to join the dancing. Gaine taught her some steps and the two danced several more fast dances while Charles sat out and clapped his hands in time to the music. Then Michael played "Sweet Marie" and they all sat on the blanket, singing along, including Michael, who had a lovely voice. From there they went on to sing other ballads they knew.
Their voices wafted across the lake and through the surrounding woods. They sat together, laughing and singing, and even were able to sing a little harmony as they filled the area with joyous serenades. Then they decided they were hungry and dug up the other roasting pheasant with cooked plums and rice added by Michael, once more filling their plates, enjoying the sun setting over the lake.
By the heat of the fire Charles read the Declaration of Independence and they all stood with their hands on their hearts throughout the reading. Then they sat by the campfire, ate more pie and sipped brandy. They chatted and sang as the sun completely disappeared and the stars took its place. It was most enjoyable.
While Meghan and Michael cleaned up all traces of the food, Gaine and Charles set the fireworks up. Gaine then checked on the horses, moving them to where they'd be least affected, then moved back to the explosives.
Everyone gasped as each rocket went zooming into the sky. The two setting them off were as excited as children with their favorite toys. The rockets blazed with loud noises and brilliant sparkles. Everyone "Ewwed and Awed" and Michael started them lifting their cups and shouting, "Viva!' Gaine checked on the horses while Michael brought out another bottle of brandy and kept the glasses filled. The last rocket was particularly spectacular as it blazed into the colors of the American flag before dimming into the night sky over the lake. That brought applause and loud yells of appreciation.
Michael and Charles rose to take a moonlight stroll along the sands of the lake. Gaine hopped up to check on the horses again then joined Meghan on the blanket.
"Ya'd look mighty fine in them clothes Michael war detailin'," Gaine said softly, her beautiful features dancing in the light from the fire. She ran her finger down Meghan's sleeve.
The blonde leaned against her, "That's not how I want to live," she replied. "I WANT to stay and work on a ranch. You can't do that in one of those dresses."
A proud smile covered Gaine's face and she hugged the woman to her.
"I do want to be a Sargos. You're right. It would be much safer for both of us with Lendal and my father and maybe even my family out there searching for me. I would legally be married so even if they found me, they wouldn't be able to drag me in front of the court. But I want you to know that my vows are always and forever for you only. So, uh, I guess I could, uh, "pretend marry" Michael."
"T'is ya shore, darlin'? Ah doan wancha ta do nothin' ya doan wanna do."
"No, I've thought about it. We have to make do, like you said. I want to."
"All right." When the two men returned, Gaine explained Meghan's change of heart. The men sat on the blanket by the fire and discussed it quietly.
"There are papers that'll need to be signed, for that and for the divorce. I'll keep the originals and file them as things move along. I'll wait on the divorce filing until you've both had ample time to notify your families that you're married. Once the divorce papers are filed, you can decide to say anything about it or not," Charles explained, "It'll be legal but you can decide for yourselves. You can even let me know when you want the divorce filed if you want."
"T'is that all right with'n ya, darlin?" Gaine inquired.
"Uh, I guess so," Meghan worried. "The divorce part, uh, well, it's terrible of course, but it's not so bothersome." She licked her lips nervously, "Uh, I guess."
"T'is the weddin' part, ain't it?" Gaine asked.
"Yes. I don't really want to make any vows to anyone but Gaine." Meghan wrung her hands, "But I understand I'll have to..." She brought a painful glance to Gaine's face.
"No," Michael stated. "No, I think maybe we can work around that. Listen, remember the practice that we had today? We went through the whole thing, it was a complete enough ceremony. All the parts were there."
"But I said my vows to Gaine when we did that," Meghan inserted. "'I take thee, Gaine Sargos' was what I said. And it was only a practice with you there."
"Yeeesss," Michael grinned, moving his gaze to Gaine. "But it could work, couldn't it, Gaine?" Michael poked Gaine in the ribs.
Gaine's face sobered, "Ah reckon, if'n ever'one agrees. T'is up ta Meghan."
Michael turned to Meghan. "My full name, Meghan, is Gaine Michael Sargos. I've never been thrilled with having Gramma's family name of "Gaine" handed down as a first name and besides near all my cousins were strapped with it somewhere in their name, so I've always just gone by "Michael' and let her have all the glory of 'Gaine'. While you were actually talking about Gaine there in the practice, you could have been talking about me, too, legally."
Gaine looked at Meghan's startled face, "Ah wisht we din't never hafta go through this here nonsense, darlin."
"We wouldn't have to do another ceremony?" Meghan asked.
"Nope. But ya gotta sign papers Charles needs ta have. Ya all right with'n that? Cause ya ain't gotta do none a' this, if'n ya doan wanna."
"Uh, yes, I can do it. I want to be a Sargos legally. I'll still be married to you, though, right?"
"Like Ah said a'fore, our vows ain't strictly legal, but t'is as sincere as ana'thin' Ahv ever vowed ta ana'one ever 'n mah whole life. Ah ain't never breakin' mah pact with'n ya."
"Me, either," Meghan said softly.
"Good! Let's finish this bottle," Michael grinned. He poured the last of the brandy and they all raised their glasses "to happiness" before checking the fire and heading to bed for the night. They'd do the signing in the morning.
Meghan was quite light headed. The liquor had left her giggly. She and Gaine were finally married. It was a whirlwind romance but it still had felt like they'd had to wait forever till they were free to love each other completely.
Michael and Charles had decided to set up their own camp further around the lake, far enough to provide privacy for both couples. They took their horses and moved off toward their own spot. Gaine heard Charles say, "Well, you're an old married man, now," to Michael. She felt little about that. She knew the truth. She was hitched to Meghan, and that was everything to her.
Meghan got into her nightshirt beside the wagon, then Gaine, fully dressed with her rifle in her hands, checked the camp perimeter for safety before returning to peel off her clothes. She knew wolves were out there, and had moved a little closer. But that was not unusual. They'd stay their distance. She double checked the horses' safety.
"Gaine?" Meghan called softly as the tall woman returned and began to pull off clothing. The tall woman felt the seductive call go straight to her center and she cleared her tightening throat. Her pulse quickened and her cheeks flushed.
"Yes, darlin'?" she replied tremulously as she quickly pulled on her nightshirt. She hurriedly tucked her rifle within easy grasp under the wagon. She thought of the small blonde's consuming kisses and ran her fingertips lightly over her own lips before dropping to the ground to crawl underneath the wagon where Meghan waited.
"Come to me, my love," Meghan whispered, her arms open.
The southbound stage from Sacramento was jammed with passengers all disembarking at this small hillside town of Sunnyhill. The very limited town hotel was filled to the brim. Families were renting out rooms and tents had appeared on the edge of town. Reporters and thrill seekers of all kinds had ridden in as soon as word reached the big towns further north regarding the shooting and the mayhem that had occurred at nearby China Cup Valley.
The Army wagons and the boys recuperating were camped along the river in town and their site was roped off to keep away those coming in to learn more about the event. The town Sheriff kept a steady patrol there to keep gogglers out. Groups of people had walked outside the ropes, trying to gawk inside the tents to get as good a view as they dared of the injured soldiers. And the doctor in town spent the part of his day that he wasn't tending to his patient, sitting on his verandah talking with the visitors.
The saloons were filled with men drinking, discussing and commemorating the horrible affair that had taken place just outside town. The fact that the perpetrator had been killed was continual cause for raised glasses in celebration and the saloon owner had cheerfully sent his son for more supplies.
It had taken the Provost Marshal a full day to get on the site of the attack but his men were now camped beside the scene of the crime. In the morning they'd finish their work there and start their interviews to get further information from any they'd missed in town.
Word had certainly spread rapidly. Arriving that night in his own wagon, complete with his own small traveling room for developing, was a young photographer. His wagon was parked beside the town river, his horse hobbled nearby. Tomorrow he'd start making likenesses of the men involved, including the murdered man. First he'd head to the saloon to find out the latest word.
"Here, my love," Meghan said softly to Gaine, handing her a cup of hot, strong coffee just the way Gaine liked it. The sun was rising over the mountainous hills. Her hand tenderly stroked the tall brunette's as the cup was handed off. Gaine stood by the fire wearing her maroon shirt today, looking back adoringly. Their eyes met in full love and devotion. Their wedding night, though restrained somewhat by the knowledge that the men were not all that far away, had been wonderful. They had given freely of themselves, pledged their love and shared their needs and their bodies, eagerly finding the way to shared releases.
Fully dressed they both stood by the campfire while the penetrating smell of coffee filled the air. They had slept little. Gaine had already seen to the horses and they had washed thoroughly in the warm water of the lake. Biscuits were placed in the dutch oven to cook and the sound of the approaching horses drew their attention toward the men's camp as the two men rode in and dismounted.
Meghan turned her back on the fellows as she cooked and blushed a deep crimson. No one had said anything to her, but she knew from the men's searching, smirking gazes that they had to be thinking about the women's wedding night. She wondered if all brides went through that, and decided they must. Gaine, however, boldly returned their stares, immune to any of their regards.
The tall brunette was having trouble keeping her hands off the small woman, touching her each time she passed, and happily took some good natured teasing from the men. Her eyes seldom left the blonde, whose coloring finally faded enough to look as though she had merely been affected by the heat of the fire. Food was served and they all ate heartily. Meghan packed some food for the men to take with them.
Charles went over all the papers that needed to be signed as the sun rose higher in its glory from the east. Michael and Meghan both signed and copies were given to Gaine. Gaine folded them and placed them inside their carpet bag then gave Charles back his shirt, saying she didn't have time to launder it.
"It's all right, I send them out to be done anyway," he smiled.
It was time for the men to leave, for they had a long ride home. Meghan, who felt more comfortable in their presence, hugged them both goodbye. The two women stood watching until the men rode out of sight.
"Gaine?" Meghan sighed, "you know where the vows said "to love and to cherish till death us do part"?"
"Yes," Gaine said, moving behind the small blonde.
"How can men like my father and Lendal have their vows be legal? They don't EVER love or cherish their wives. Not ever! What they vow is totally false from the beginning and they know it, but everybody still considers those false vows legal and binding on the women forever even when they know the men lied. They focus on the 'obey' part and aren't concerned at all about lying about the 'love' or 'cherish' part."
"Ah dunno. Legal ain't al'ays the same as just, Ah reckon," Gaine replied. "Ah does know mah vows ta ya bees absolute. Ah meant ever single word."
"And mine to you," she smiled watching the men ride over the hill out of sight.
"Well, Mrs. Sargos," Gaine wrapped herself around the small woman from behind, lapping her arms around the blonde's small waistline and leaning her chin on Meghan's shoulder. "Would ja like ta head back er stay 'nuther night?"
"Mrs. Sargos," Meghan beamed, looking at her ring as she leaned back into the tall woman's embrace. Her face was a huge smile. "I like the sounds of that. And to think...it's legal, at least when he files it, it will be. I'm legally married to Gaine Sargos--my Gaine Sargos."
She tilted her head a little at that pleasurable thought even though she knew it wasn't so in legal terms, still it would always be true in her heart. Further she was pleased with the thought that her father could do nothing legal about dragging her back should he locate her. She sobered quickly, though, realizing that legal means would not necessarily stop him or Lendal from trying to get what they wanted.
"Uh, I'd like to stay one more night," she nuzzled her cheek against Gaine's. "Can we? I want my last memory here to be of us loving each other under the stars, not signing divorce papers. Then we should head home and get some work done. After all, my love and I have a ranch to build up."
"We shorely does, darlin." Then Gaine whispered, "Ahl work sa hard ta make ya happy."
"You don't have to work hard at all," Meghan replied. "You make me happy just like you are."
"Mmmm. Ya wanna go swimmin'? Ahl larn ya," Gaine asked hopefully.
"Later, when it gets really hot. Right now, I'd like to find some flat rocks."
"Flat rocks?" Gaine released her hold then turned Meghan around and brought her lips down to join the blonde's. She could not wait another minute for a kiss. Again there was a longing when they pulled away. They had a lifetime to ease that longing. "Why flat rocks?"
"For my flowers," Meghan whispered as she ran a finger along Gaine's cheek, then pulled away, "C'mon, help me find some."
The two spent considerable time searching for large flat rocks. When Meghan found two she carefully chose a couple of the best looking flowers from her bouquet and placed them insides the fold of the extra paper she had asked Charles to leave them. She pressed the paper with the flowers between the stones and had Gaine tie them tightly with her hair tie. "My wedding bouquet," she said to the tall brunette. "I want to always remember it."
They laid down together on the blanket, fully dressed, and soon fell asleep after gently caressing and kissing. When they awoke, they spent the day enjoying the water, eating as they wished, then made love in their bed under the wagon before falling asleep in each other's arms to the sounds of wolves howling.
A large crowd of the hillside town inhabitants and their visitors watched in wonder as the young photographer's head, shoulders then full torso disappeared under the dark cloth covering his bulky camera inside which his silver plated copper sheet would ultimately become a daguerreotype likeness of the deceased criminal.
Length of exposure would not be a problem for the dead man whose body resided in the pine box. Consideration had been given to the difficulty of the angle for the photograph and the pine coffin was carefully propped up inside the harness shop, after which his body was arranged to give his best likeness, notwithstanding the bullet hole in his forehead.
The dead man's eyes had been closed and it was whispered by some in the crowd that underneath the lids the retina of the deceased's eyes had been like a camera itself showing the last impression of the two who had killed him. It was said it could be seen easily in his dead eyes. Some shivered at the thought and some ladies remarked that they were glad his eyes had been closed although others wished the opposite, wanting to see the reflection of the valiant two who had shot the despicable creature. His body had been on display in the harness store window for several days so everyone in town had gotten a chance to see him.
Carefully the young photographer emerged from under the cloth and disappeared into his wagon's tall box room. After the final wash, the photographer emerged once more, entered the store, waited while they moved the coffin back to the window, stood beside the coffin and held the results up to the window and the crowd outside. The likeness, while reversed, was remarkable. Everyone cheered.
Mr. Thatcher had been accorded the best of rooms available in the hotel "gratis" and had spent all the days since the incident there. He was the next to sit before the bulky camera in front of a hung blanket outside the harness shop. He, however, had to be reminded to sit very still. It seemed like a very long time to him before the young photographer disappeared into the wagon's room. When he reappeared, the young man was all smiles. Mr. Thatcher's reversed likeness looked sternly back from the daguerreotype. More cheers and congratulations for Mr. Thatcher's valor were given all around.
The undertaker had dug out the shoulder bullet. Withdrawing the other would have done too much damage for the photo. It was determined by examining the reclaimed bullet that the shoulder wound was Gaine's shot and the man who killed this outlaw was indeed Mr. Thatcher.
"I was aiming at his shoulder," he muttered to himself, but didn't say it loud enough for others to hear. Instead he grinned and waved to the cheering crowd, calling out that he and the Sheriff from Barden's Corner had both shot the man. A scowling face in the crowd listened carefully. His fox eyes took in the scene and he listened to every word anyone around him spoke. This was a new comer who had just tied his horse to the rail down the street and moved to where the group was assembled. He'd heard his cousin had been shot, and had ridden all night, as fast as he could once he'd been released by the General as a result of his retired Army friend's pleading. A quickly purchased horse and he was on his way.
You'll be damned sorry you shot him, fella, Lendal grimaced. These Army boys were the men his cousin was interrogating. They knew where Megan might be. And what did he say? Something about the Barden's Corner Sheriff shooting him, too. I think I know where Barden's Corner is.
Deciding to stay and learn everything he could about what had happened, he searched the area to find a spot to camp. There was little room, but he figured it would be better that way. Easy to get lost in the crowd.
The Army boys had bet that it was Gaine that had fired the fatal shot, having seen her fancy shooting on the way to Sacramento. But the man's shot was proved and he was hailed as a hero and happily accepted the acclaim.
The Provost Marshal garnered great respect as the crowd watched him step over the ropes and move into the Army tents to reinterview the injured soldiers. The watchers muttered in soft tones how the one man most violently tortured was still at the doctor's home under constant surveillance. It was not expected that he would survive.
The Sacramento Marshal rubbed his head. He wanted to shout out a cheer. He had finally been able to continue tracking the movements of Lendal Hindelfarb, his number one murder suspect. The sick Deputy on his staff recovered and returned, freeing the Marshal to continue his pursuit. He'd heard of the Army boys situation. Everyone had. And he knew Gaine had stopped the stage and shot the man responsible called 'the Deputy.' He'd sent word to Sunnyhill that he might have some information on who the 'Deputy' was.
He put his hat back on and pushed it back on his head as he boarded the paddlewheeler to San Francisco. By the afternoon he'd been to a number of hotels but finally found that Lendal had registered in a small hotel near the dock. It wasn't under his own name, but his somewhat unusual style of whiskers had given him away. The hotel clerk told him how the man had shaved his whiskers and had not returned for several days to get his possessions. When he did come back, he was wearing an ill fitting Army uniform. He'd changed back into his regular clothes and had left the Army clothes in his room.
The Marshal viewed the clothing, scratched his head and headed to the livery. He'd ride to the Presidio and see what they knew about Lendal Hindelfarb.
Meghan watched the landscape carefully on their way home. It was quite different from the high desert she was used to in Jubilee City. They climbed a little into the foothills on the western side of the mountains. Though it was hot, they climbed till pines were sprinkled here and there, shading them with a fragrance that was overpowering. She didn't think she'd ever smelled anything as sweet in her life.
They were headed for a life the two of them would share together, a life she'd never even dared dream she might live. Oh, she'd hoped the husband selected for her would not be too horrible, but she never believed she would really be able to live with someone she loved. She'd never felt even the inklings of love for any man, and Lendal was more of a person to fear than ever want to marry.
Even her sisters had explained that the best that could be hoped for was to develop a fondness over time for the one they married, and they all had had romantic feelings toward young men that she had never felt. You would love the children you bore for your husband, they explained, and hopefully he would allow you to help raise them if you were a good and obedient wife. They were his children, of course. It was simply the way things were.
She knew that only one of her sisters was particularly happy in her marriage. The others were resigned to their lives. They were doing what society expected of them, however, and what they had grown to believe was necessary, and that gave them some solace and comfort. They were married women bearing children, accepted by society and willing to have that be enough.
She wondered about the family in the stagecoach from Sacramento, the family where the mother held such say in what they did. That was amazing to her. What would it have been like to have been raised like that woman? And what about Gaine's cousin Minnie and her choice of husband, even if it was arranged behind the scenes by her mother. At least Minnie'd made the choice. And she'd remained unmarried for quite a while till she'd made that choice.
She glanced at the tall brunette driving the team so skillfully. How she loved her. How happy she made Meghan and how lucky the blonde had been to meet her. She shivered at the thought of what might have happened if Gaine had not been on that stage. She'd already lived her life in fear that only had the promise of becoming far worse once she married Lendal. Gaine was her knight, but that wasn't the reason she loved her. It was so much more than that.
She thought of her unpleasant childhood and how harsh her father had been to her, even more than with the other girls. They had made extreme efforts to please him whereas she had felt more inclined to try and stay out of his and her brothers' way. It rarely worked, however, and she was often punished.
"Not ta far from home," Gaine smiled at Meghan. "We'll be thar tamorra."
"Oh, uh, good," Meghan replied, brought from her train of thought. Home, she pondered, what will that mean for me?
That night they camped beside a small stream and made a fire to cook their dinner. Gaine didn't expect to run into anyone where they were, even though they were by a well-enough used road. Mail and supplies for their town's mercantile were picked up once a week but Isaac didn't usually make the run on this day. The only other people that might be traveling the road would be someone planning to meet the stage or ranchers looking for strays.
Meghan was quiet but couldn't seem to lose the smile that graced her charming face. She all but danced around the fire as she cooked their evening supper. Gaine noticed how full of vitality Meghan was, looking young and free, delighted and trusting with the complete vulnerability of youth. For all her father had done, for all his brutality in handling her, she was still a loving, trusting woman. She smiled at Gaine, and the tall beauty melted into return smiles.
That night they crawled under the wagon, Gaine's rifle and six-shooter beside her. Gaine's arms wrapped around the blonde as they had every night since they'd met. The stars twinkled and the night air became uncharacteristically cooler. They didn't speak, they just stayed in the warmth of their embrace.
Gaine looked down and saw silent tears streaming down the blonde's face. "Whatsa matter, kitten?" she softly asked in alarm. "Did Ah do somethin'?" Blonde hair bounced as she shook her head in the negative. The tears turned into a torrent of uncontrolled weeping. Meghan buried her face and her small body shuddered in the tall woman's arms. Gaine tightened her hold as the sobs built. "T'is all right. Yer safe now," the tall woman muttered, rubbing Meghan's back.
Safe? Was she safe? Would she ever be safe? Meghan cried until she couldn't cry any more. She wasn't entirely sure why.
"He ain't never comin' near ya agin, darlin'," Gaine said tenderly stroking the weeping blonde's hair. "Let it out, Meggy, t'is all right." Finally the fatigued young woman's sobbing stopped. She lay exhausted in the tall woman's arms. Her eyes were shut tight and her thoughts were muddled. She wasn't sure where all the emotions had come from. Before she knew it, she was sound asleep in the comfort of Gaine's strong arms.
Gaine gazed at the twinkling stars. The whole trip had been a wild affair of bounding emotions that the tall woman also had not allowed herself to feel. Now she was lying with a small blonde sleeping in her arms and her own eyes on the stars. She was bone tired, but there was an elation and sense of ease that totally filled her. Meghan. Sweet Meghan. Together forever. They might be expecting Cousin Minnie at home, and even though she wasn't going to make it, her darling Meghan would be coming back for them to meet and adore as she did.
Struggling to control her own sudden sweep of feelings, Gaine gently stroked the sleeping woman's back. The tall woman's own life had been thrown into turmoil at a tender age. And now in her mid-twenties she felt as though she knew more about life than anyone her age would ever want to know.
She had always been ruggedly independent, even as a child. Her older siblings had felt no guilt at moving away to find their own way. They were leaving Gaine to watch over their parents. Gaine could do it. Gaine could handle things. She always had, no matter how young.
She was the one left to nurse her beloved Ma during the fever epidemic, to watch helplessly as the mother she'd relied on all her life suddenly became weaker and weaker then slipped away. At sixteen she was the one left to console her father when the disease claimed her mother's life. None of her siblings came home for that and it wasn't because they didn't care. They all loved their mother dearly. It was because they were too far away and didn't even know of their mother's passing till weeks and in some cases even months after it had happened. All of which was better, Gaine thought, because they weren't sure the epidemic had passed.
When her father couldn't be consoled, she took it as a personal failure but did not say a word. She just kept trying. She had taken over his duties one by one when he failed to perform them. What a hollow her mother's loss had left in their lives. He would spend hours by her grave while jobs sat undone unless she did them, both his and hers. She fell into bed each night exhausted by her day's work, aching for her loss and her father's as well. She had lost her mother and, in a profound sense, she'd lost her beloved father as well.
A few of her siblings came home after her father died the following year. He had left a will and Gaine's oldest brother, Ari, was the executor. She watched her siblings load their possessions into their wagons or herd the stock that was their share, say their goodbyes at their parents' gravesite, hug her, kiss her, then leave the family ranch most likely never to see her again.
Ari left Gaine to ship the remaining items, most having sentimental value, to the others who could not make it, things like the sewing machine, Grandma's china, quilts that were handed down. They were carefully packed and driven to the stage for their trip to the train that would take them to her other siblings. That took a great deal of time, effort and expense--fees there really weren't the resources to pay for. So she sold most of the remaining stock, wagons and supplies to get it handled.
She had been left the land and the buildings. It was the lion's share in her estimation. Her brothers and sisters didn't begrudge her that, for which she was ever thankful. No one loved that land like she did. But without proper stock and supplies it was a monumental job to eek out a living. So at the ripe old age of seventeen she and the wranglers that stayed began the arduous task of rebuilding her family's ranch, the Sargos Spread.
Now years later, after accepting the job of Sheriff in town to help with the expenses and working it around her jobs at home, the ranch was slowly returning to its past glory, not that it had ever been more than a meager financial success. But things weren't as dismal, she had some stock and had been able to keep on some of her father's loyal vaqueros. That's when Cousin Minnie had written that she was coming out to spend some time.
And now there was Meghan. Her dear, sweet Meghan.
The lid on the pine coffin was finally nailed down and the man known as "the Deputy" was buried in a pauper's grave at the cemetery in the small hillside town. A board cross with the painted words saying "Deputy-a deplorable criminal shot down" and the date was hammered into the ground. They had leads regarding who he might be. People were still pouring in from out of town to see the site of the horrid event and now the dead man's grave.
Articles began to appear in newspapers around the state. If they had the finances, the articles included likenesses of the daguerreotypes the young photographer had taken. An article was written for the valley paper and the photo of the dead man and the other of the man who had shot him were placed side-by-side in the paper. It was the talk of the valley.
The Sacramento Marshal discovered at the Presidio that Lendal had been released. He found the man who had sold Lendal the horse and had pointed the direction his suspect had headed. He knew instantly where Lendal must be going. He must be headed to where his cousin had been shot.
The Marshal procured a horse of his own and headed in the same direction. He wasn't all that far behind him after all, he decided. He just hoped he could catch him there. Once Lendal left, there was no knowing where he'd go.
The Provost Marshal prepared to move on to check out this "Mr. Fitzgeraldson" in Sacramento and the Marshal who had information on the Deputy's identification. Though the purpose of the attack, at least in all outward appearances, seemed to revolve around Fitzgeraldson's daughter, the Provost Marshal had grave doubts that such was the true cause of this violence. No, this was much more than a romantic embroilment.
In Sunnyhill they loaded up their supplies. The Provost Marshal and part of his unit headed to Sacramento while the others set out for Fort Derwood with the recovering soldiers.
That very evening Mr. Thatcher disappeared from Sunnyhill, leaving his few belongings behind. The people at the hotel were puzzled by the disappearance. If he had left on his own, why not take his belongings? The local Sheriff asked around and even organized a group to search the surroundings, but his whereabouts were not located.
Continued in Chapter 8
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