Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by bsoiree

See disclaimers in Chapter 1

------------------------------------Chapter 8

The next morning in camp Meghan quietly fixed breakfast, bringing Gaine a cup of hot coffee before she was even finished dressing. It surprised Gaine that Meghan was up so early. The coffee, again, was fixed just the way she liked it.

"Did I get it right?" the blonde asked with a soft flush.

"Perfect, Mrs. Sargos," Gaine replied, her soft blue eyes running over the small woman. She was so beautiful in every way. Her green eyes were slightly swollen this morning, proof of her emotional collapse the night before and a soft, shy blush was on her cheeks.

"Ah love ya," Gaine said almost in a whisper.

"And I you," she replied. They finished their meal, broke camp and headed to the ranch. They'd get there later in the day.

"Does ya wanna talk 'bout last night?" Gaine asked as the horses clopped along.

"No," Meghan replied. Her words this day were very soft.

"All right."

They pulled up to the ranch in the late afternoon past suppertime. Meghan's eyes moved from place to place. The ranch house was a long adobe building set in a small grove of oaks with a long porch across the front. It had a fresh white coating on it and the corrals and fences were in prime condition. The barn was of an old style but in excellent condition. Horses roamed in the pasture and chickens moved freely about the yard. A henhouse sat far off to the side near the large stable/barn near where pens of pigs were kept.

Standing on the porch in front of three handmade chairs with cowhide seats was a barefooted woman and a number of small barefoot children bouncing around her. The woman was sporting a black eye and a swollen lip and when she smiled a gap showed where two teeth had once been. Three large, wiggling mutts were among them and two older men in worn ranch wear.

"Ahl be damned," Gaine muttered and large green eyes came up to her face. "Looks like Shorty done it ag'in. Damn him, nohow."

The children ran off the porch at once and swarmed the wagon when it was stopped. "Stay away from them hosses," Gaine called to them. "Them hosses kick!"

"Yer Cousin Minnie, ain't cha?" the children called to Meghan as they danced around the wagon. The dogs joined them in their jubilation, all ignoring the horses. "Mama said the Sheriff was a'fetchin' ya. Howdy, Sheriff."

"Howdy. This here's Cousin Meghan," Gaine said. "Mrs. Meghan Sargos."

The two ranchhands came off the porch, the dark haired fellow limping. "Want me and Garcia ta unhitch the horses, boss?" the man with gray hair asked. Meghan remembered that Gaine had said he came out to California with her family. He was about twenty years older than Gaine. Before the tall brunette could answer, both men were tipping their hats, "How do, Cousin Minnie? How do? Good ta see ya ag'in. Ya done growed up real good."

"Yes, thanks fellas," Gaine replied. "See if ya kin git them hosses away a'fore them childern git kicked." She went around to help lift Meghan out of the wagon. "Joy, Beauty, Charm... get away, now," she called to the dogs.

She placed Meghan on the ground. Instantly the blonde protectively raised her arms and hands up out of range of the dogs and in protection of her face. The three large dogs were wiggling about and began jamming their noses at the two of them in all the most inappropriate places. Gaine finally scooped an overwhelmed Meghan up into her arms and marched up onto the porch and into the house. "Ahm sorry, Meg. Ah swear, them dogs er gonna plow us all down and beat us ta death with'n thar tails one a these days."

She put the small blonde down on the rough stone floor, then removed her hat and placed it on one of the nails by the side of the door before moving them further into the room. The main room had a large adobe fireplace.

"Sheriff! Cousin Minnie!" Shorty's wife called, following them in. "Glad ta have ya back." As she came into the house, her brood and the dogs followed them in.

"Howdy, Nell. Wait a minute. Wait! You dogs git on outta here now, hear? Kids, you take them dogs out while we git us settled, all right?"

"Are the children safe around those dogs?" Meghan asked nervously, her green eyes turned into saucers. She stayed a little behind Gaine.

"Shore thing, Sheriff," the children called as they grabbed handfuls of the dog's coats and pulled on them to get them out of the house. "We gotta git the dogs out. The Sheriff said so." Two of the dogs ran out with the children but one remained.

"They's gentle as kittens 'round younguns," Gaine replied. Then she spotted the last dog. "Go on Beauty, ya go on out with t'uthers. Yer a dog, too, ya know. Git!"

The dog's tail dropped between its legs and it slunk toward the door. All three women couldn't help laughing.

"The Three Graces? You named them after the Three Graces?" Meghan asked.

"Yep. Theys Joy, Charm n' Beauty."

"All right," Meghan mused. They both watched the mother of the children step toward them.

"Meg, Ahd like ya ta meet yer housekeeper, Mrs. Nell Mullins. Nell, this here's Mrs. Meghan Sargos."

"Meghan?" Nell said, surprised. "I always thought Melinda was the long form of Minnie. But howsomeever, it's mighty fine ta meet ya, Cousin Minnie."

"This here's Cousin Meghan, oh, what the heck. Looks like Shorty done it to ya agin, huh?"

"Ya said I could come out here and bring the young 'uns, Sheriff. If it's a problem..."

"It ain't no problem, Nell. Ahm pleased ta have ya. Please call me Gaine. An Ah knows Meghan's gonna like having a housekeeper ta help. Thar's plenty ta be done here." Gaine looked around. "Somethin' smells right good."

"I baked a berry cobbler cause Cousin Minnie was a'comin," Nell said proudly.

"How'd ya know we'd be here taday?" Gaine wondered aloud.

"I didn't. I baked some cobbler every day. We et the others already."

Meghan chuckled at that.

Gaine looked around. "Which rooms ya usin, if'n Ah might ask?"

"Uh, we're using the first two. One fer the boys, the other fer the girls, me and the babies. I figured you an yer cousin would want the end one. It had all your fixins in it."

"Sorry thar t'weren't no beds in t'uthers, Nell," Gaine worried.

"I fixed us some pallets on the floor. We're just fine."

"Good. Uh, if yull 'scuse us fer a minute, Ahl jest betcha Meg here would like ta freshen up a bit. T'war a dusty trip. We'll be right out fer summa that thar cobbler."

Gaine took Meghan by the hand and pulled her down the hall to the room on the end. As they moved, the sounds of a baby beginning to cry filled the air from the kitchen. Once they were inside the end room, Gaine shut the door and leaned back against it with a sigh.

"Ahm right sorry t'war sa swarmin' with people an' dogs, Meg. Usually ain't like this."

Meg smiled and looked around the room. The plastered adobe walls were clean and bright white curtains blew from the breeze of the opened window. Dark wood rafters lined the ceiling. A large hand-made double bed made of stripped pine poles stood with its head against the end wall. From a dark rafter above the bed a large curtain of mosquito netting hung tucked into each side of the head and the window breeze blew across it making the ends flutter.

"Uh, mosquiters git me purty bad," Gaine blushed. "Doan bother most folks but theys seems ta come a'lookin' fer me. So's Ah close in the bed bah night."

Meghan nodded.

It was the one thing Gaine did for pure comfort at home, though she spent many nights each year on the ground by a campfire open to their attacks. She was embarrassed lest Meghan consider her "weak" from such an allowance.

On one side near the head of the bed was a small handmade wooden table and an oil lamp. On the table sat a book embossed on the cover with gold writing and a picture in a circle of a man by the fire talking to children while his wife sat knitting. "Farm Legends" was the title. Other books sat stacked behind it on the small table. There was an old strapped chest at the foot of the bed but other than that, the fairly large room was bereft of furnishings.

"You read," Meghan said, almost with surprise.

"Yes, ma'am. Mah Momma learned us all how ta read. Ah take tremendous contentment in't."

"You own books?" she looked at the stack. There was a thick receipt book that spoke of common sense in running a household, with recipes for near everything. She would want to delve into that book. There was even a book of Shakespeare. She knew how to read but only her father owned a book, and that was a Bible.

"Yep. Ah do. Part a' mah recompense fer being Sheriff. From time ta time Ah gits cattle, pigs, a hoss er two, an' credit ta the mercantile an' sometimes them books the ole Professor pays n' taxes."

Meghan nodded. Her eyes went to the bed. The blanket was a store-bought dark wool blanket, well-used with several moth holes near the top corner, and the sheets were worn, clean but not ironed. The mattress was obviously straw covered with a tick covering and it sat on rope stretched tight in a woven pattern. The peg used to tighten it was jammed into the last hole.

Gaine wrung her hands nervously. "Uh, Ah ain't spent a good deal a time fixin' up the insides," she said with embarrassment. "It useta have handmade quilts an' rugs an' such, but mah sisters got most a' the beddin' an' rugs 'n the will."

Meghan nodded her head and looked around the room, larger than their hotel room had been in Sacramento. "I was wondering," she said at last, "where I was supposed to wash up."

"Oh, stars! A' course ya was. Here, let me fetch ya a pitcher and basin. They's one next door." Gaine stepped outside as the dark-haired ranchhand limped in with their carpetbag and set it by the chest at the end of the bed.

"You want this in here, si?" he asked haltingly with wide, dark eyes. Meg stepped aside and smiled. His ears flushed and he turned to scurry out the door.

Gaine nearly crashed into him on her way in. She had an empty pitcher floating in a basin of dirty water. She shook the drops off the pitcher's bottom and sat it on the chest and pulled the curtain back. She tossed the dirty water out the open window then pulled out the end of her shirt and wiped the basin out. She placed the pitcher back in the basin and set them on the chest. Then she disappeared again and returned with a bucket of water. She dipped the pitcher, filling it, left it in the basin then carried the bucket out. She returned with a worn shirt for a towel.

"Thar ya be," she said proudly, tucking her own shirt back into her pants.

Meghan glanced at the basin, her eyes still looking around the room. Gaine licked her lips nervously. She softly shut the door and walked to the small blonde. She slipped her arms around the woman's small waist from behind. "Ah ain't rich, Meghan," she said softly in her ear. "Ah ain't poor, neither. But all Ah got t'is your'n. Ah hope ya ain't ta disappointed."

"What?" Meghan turned in her arms. She gently gathered a fistful of Gaine's jacket lapels in each hand and looked up into anxious blue eyes. "Actually, honey, I was just thinking how the bedroom that I shared with my sisters would have fit four times over in here."

Gaine glanced around. She'd never thought of this room as large or small. "That's good, cause honey? Nell an' the kids used up all the soap Ah had ta the pantry. We'll hafta go a'shoppin'. We gotta go ta town tamorra, nohow."

"What?" Meghan's green eyes widened. "Oh, Gaine, gracious, you don't waste money buying soap, do you? It's such a waste, honey. Don't you have any wood ashes that you've saved in a hopper somewhere? And surely you save your cooking grease?"

Gaine dropped her head. "Ah ain't much fer cookin'," she muttered. "Ah ain't saved no grease. Mostly the boys an' me jest heated some beans o'er the fahr out 'n the yard off'n the kitchen thar. Beans n' coffee, mostly. An' some cans a cling peaches 'n greengages from time ta time."

Meghan sighed. "I can help you with all that."

A tiny smile tweaked the end of Gaine's mouth. "Yes, ma'am. Yer the boss."

Suddenly the door flew open and three shouting children and two dogs came pouring into the room followed by two more children and a trailing toddler. The two women pulled apart instantly. "Sheriff!" the children shouted even though she was right in front of them, "Momma says the cobbler's ready and we can't have none till ya get there."

"Hold it," Gaine said firmly above the din. "HOLD IT!" she increased the volume when they appeared to not have heard her. "You younguns ca'n't jest pop inta a room like that. Tain't mannerly. Ya gotta knock first."

They all stopped and looked at her to determine if she was angry or not.

"Ya understand?"

"Yes, Sheriff," they called happily, dancing out. She wasn't angry. The dogs wagged their tails and trailed after them along with the toddler. "An' put them dogs outside. They ain't 'sposed ta be in here."

"Yes, ma'am," they called.

Gaine stepped to the door and shut it again. She took a step back toward the blonde. A short knock was heard and the door flew open once more, nearly whacking Gaine in the back. "Ain't ya comin'?"

"You'se 'sposed ta knock."

"I did," the girl smiled. "Ain't ya comin'?"

"What's yer name?" Gaine asked.

"Willy," the girl replied. Her hands quickly clasped behind her back and one foot began twisting on the floor. The eight year old looked for all the world like she had done something wrong and been caught. Which apparently she had.

"Willy, when Ah said ta knock, yer 'sposed ta knock an' wait fer whoever's inside ta say fer ya ta come in er not. Ya ain't 'sposed ta jest open the door."

"Oh. Ya said ta knock and I did."

Gaine reached out a hand. The child cringed away slightly. Gaine softly ruffled her hair and the child relaxed. "Next tahm wait fer someone ta say ta come in, all right?"

"Sure." The girl flashed a huge smile. "Ya comin'? The cobbler's ready."

Gaine laughed a rumbling laugh. "Tell yer Momma we'll be right thar." The girl danced away and Gaine called after her, "An' git them dogs outta the house." She had seen how frightened Meghan seemed to be of the dogs.

"Yes, ma'am," came echoing back.

"They're outdoor dogs?" Meghan asked, moving to the basin to splash some water on her hands and face. Her father had dogs for a while, but they were vicious, trained to kill. They were kept penned outside and no one went near the pen if they didn't have to.

"Uh, well, ta tell ya the truth, uh, really they ain't outside dogs. Ah try 'n keep em out in good weather. But if'n't gets bad, theys stay in." She licked her lips. "Ah think yull come ta like 'em, Meg. They's real pertective. But fer now, Ah din't wan' em pesterin ya none."

"C'mon. Wash up and let's get some cobbler before the children have apoplexy from waiting," Meghan grinned. She had a little piece of soap left, wrapped in an old piece of her brother's shirt that her mother had packed for her. She dug it out of their bag.

Gaine gazed at the blonde's radiant face. She was so lovely. She could just stand and admire her for hours, only she thought the door might fly open again at any minute.

"Hurry, Sheriff," a child's muffled voice called from just outside the door. But the door wasn't opened.

Meghan laughed and Gaine began splashing water on her hands and face. "Ahm a hurryin. Land sakes."

The large table was filled with eager children and two ranchhands. Nell was dipping out the blackberry cobbler in the built-on, sloping roofed attached kitchen, a fussing infant cuddled inside a small wooden box on the dining table near the mother's place.

"Here, let me help," Meghan hurried to pick up the baby.

Nell muttered, "Only a minute or two or he'll be spoiled." The blonde lifted the crying infant and began to jostle the tiny child softly. Nell looked over from the large wood stove, "He's hungry. I'll feed him after I serve this cobbler."

"Go ahead and eat yours first," Meghan replied. She smiled and cuddled the small boy. He was fussy and Meghan worried that he looked unusually pale.

Gaine thought Meghan looked perfect with a child in her arms, but then the tall woman became momentarily sad when she considered that Meghan would never be a mother. Gaine could not provide that for her. But then, she decided, neither would Meghan be lost to childbirth as too often happened and that thought dissolved her sorrow.

To surrounding bowed heads Gaine said, "God bless usn's 'n ar victuals. Amen."

Everyone mumbled, "Amen" and raised their heads. Nell cut large amounts of the wild blackberry cobbler and dished them out to each of the adults, holding one aside for herself. She put out a pitcher of heavy cream for those who wanted some. The children's pieces were smaller, but not by a lot. Hot, thick coffee in tin cups was served to the adults, with milk for the children, also served in tin cups they had brought from their home. The ranchhands praised each offering with superlatives Gaine had never heard them use before.

"So what's been a'happenin' a'whilst we war gone?" Gaine asked, stuffing a fork full of cobbler into her mouth. "Lawsy. This here's de-licious." Nell smiled in return from where she was hurriedly eating her helping of cobbler.

"Dun mare got the botts," the older ranchhand called 'Alabam' said to Gaine between bites. He had hair that was turning white and a speckled beard to match. His cheeks were rosy red and, were he heavier, he might have been mistaken for Saint Nicholas. "We war of an opinion we war gonna lose her. But we done fixed that Injun medicine ya told us 'bout a'fore and danged if she ain't better today. Ya might wanna check her over tamorra. She's out ta the barn."

Gaine frowned, "I'll head out thar in a bit an' look her over. Ya made note a whar she war a feedin'?"

"Yep. An we got that wild mustang tempered down some, but he still ain't been rid."

"Ahl give that thar stallion a try 'n the mornin'," Gaine declared. They were going to town, but she'd have time to stay on the mustang for a short ride beforehand. Might as well start getting him used to it.

"Oh, an Tom Ziprew," the wiry ranchhand turned to where Meghan was walking the fussing babe to explain, "he ain't got a heap a' amicable qualities, ole Tom ain't." He turned back to the table. "Anyways, he got hisself a new buggy. Bragged it up somethin' awful."

He took a bite and chewed. "Well, sir, he hitched up that spirited black stallion a his... that un with'n the white blaze...." Both ranchhands looked at their plates and began chuckling. "An' danged if'n that cussed hoss din't up and run off with 'im. Swift as the swallows they flew, him a yanking on them reins and a'hollerin "Whoa! Whoa!" and screamin' "Help!". T'were a sight!"

The ranchhands twinkling eyes looked up at his audience and a large grin was spread across his face. "They run right past the dry goods store with all them customers a gawkin' at 'im. Then the stallion takes a mind ta get onta that wide curved road Fremont fixed past his front door. His "carriage road" he's taken ta callin' it. So's onta his property they dashed an' right past his doorway. Near took a tip over, riding on one side, t'uther wheels spinnin' helpless off'n the ground. Then they shoots outta there and around he come past the store fer a second look-see." He stopped to guffaw and everyone joined him.

"Shore did liven up the townfolk. They was lined up a'watchin'. Took off acrosst the bridge on tha fly 'n inta the countryside. Tom waren't hurt none and the buggy waren't neither once't that fancy stallion run hisself out, but ole Tom shore hollered enuff to bin heered clean across this nation!"

Meghan handed off the baby to Nell who went into the other room with him. The blonde sat down next to Gaine. "The children," she whispered to Gaine as they all laughed heartily while they ate.

"Huh?" Gaine asked, looking at the children who were laughing with everyone else.

"Accidents aren't funny," she whispered. "He could have been killed!"

"Oh, a' course." Gaine straightened her face. "Now childerns," she looked seriously at the young ones still laughing. "Accidents ain't nothin' humorous. And tain't good ta laugh ta someun's misfortune. But since't Tom t'weren't hurt none, we was only laughin' cause we was so reliefed."

They continued laughing but the older ones mumbled, "Yes, Sheriff."

"We rode up ta check on our fellas in the upper range and ever'thin' was going all right," Alabam inserted. "They'd been fussin' with some sheep ranchers. Seems theys ever'where these days. Danged sheep had et near ever'thin' in one area. Even the bushes'd been stripped. Boys moved our herd higher. Better rangeland."

"Mmm," Gaine frowned then glanced up at Meghan's puzzled look. "Most a' the cattle er raised 'n the coast ranges these days. They's not that many a' us cattle ranchers out this a'way, but theys more n' more a' them sheep herders."

Meghan nodded.

"Oh, an' they lost a calf er two ta a right stealthy mountain lion, but they kilt that feckless female 'fore she could git eny more of 'em. They ain't seen no rustlers, but they's keeping close watch an' doublin' up on rounds."

"Oh, good. That sounds good," Gaine chewed another forkful of cobbler and closed her eyes momentarily in pleasure. "Mmm, mm."

Garcia flicked serious looks her way. He was in his late forties and was the first man hired by her father when they got out here. He'd been kicked by a steer at the age of thirty-nine, and his leg had never healed correctly, leaving him with a permanent limp. That was when he was offered work year-round at the ranch instead of going into the hills with the herd in the summer.

"Speakin' a' rustlers," his dark Spanish eyes glanced up shyly below a head of purple-black curly hair streaked with white at the temples. Long dark eyelashes fluttered once around his disquieting glance. He was shy to a fault and his face flushed a little when the others quieted to hear what he had to say. They could tell it was grave news. "Uh, las gangas, uh, they striked at the Double X. Uh, you tell it." He motioned to the other ranchhand.

"Well, sir," Alabam started, his grey-bearded face now wrinkled with concern and his bushy brows drawn into a vee, "Kilt old man Dodson and wounded his wife bad, they did. Bullet wound. Stole a small herd a' their hosses they had in their lower pasture and, you ain't gonna believe this, but they even stole their right personal jewelry right off'n their bodies. Ain't that right, Garcia?"

Everyone gasped. The shy man solemnly nodded his head in assent.

Alabam continued, "Snatched her weddin' ring right off'n her finger, an' his pocket watch 'n her cameo an' sech. Some a' our boys from town joined the posse." Meghan touched her ring in horror. She couldn't imagine anyone stealing it.

"Lordy! The Double X?" Gaine sat up straight. That was getting a little too close to home. And the ruthlessness was unbelievable. The Double X was a large horse and cattle ranch that sat north. It was a good thirty miles as the crow flew to get there by horse. It was one of the pioneer ranches and had been providing beef and horses to the miners since the fifties. "They catch 'em, ah hope?"

Alabam replied. "No. Trailed 'em up inta the mountains an lost 'em, hosses n' all. Them damned wily buzzards..." This man did not embarrass easily but his face reddened and he looked shame-faced at Meghan, "Scuse mah language, ma'am."

Meghan smiled in return. Apparently they did not consider Gaine a "ma'am" since he did not turn his inquisitively apologetic gaze at her.

"Anyways, they done got aways."

"Damn!" Gaine muttered.

"Gaine," Meghan admonished softly. "The children."

Gaine ran her hand through her loose hair. She glanced at the children. They did take some getting used to. "Uh, yeah. So's their sons get down?"

"Yep. They had their Pa's herd a' steers ta the upper pasture, a course, and the boys an' their hands was up there ridin' herd. They come down ta bury their Pa and take care a' their Ma."

"Dam.., uh, horse feathers," Gaine replied, her forehead ruffled. "Ahm headin' inta town tamorra. When'd this happen? How many days ago?"

"Lessee. You been gone near onta two weeks now. This here happened 'bout midways. Ain't that right, Garcia?"

Garcia nodded his agreement.

"They ain't a'comin' inta ar town," Gaine said emphatically, letting her fist drop to the table with a thud. "Ah kin tell ya that fer damn shore!"

Meghan looked over but Gaine wasn't even aware she had sworn.

"Well, them fellas ya deputized been patrolling since't. But they ain't seen 'em. They'll be right relieved ta see yer back, though."

"Si. An' so'll the Mayor," Garcia added with a blush. "He's done lotsa belly achin."

"Yeah," Gaine muttered, "he would." She checked over her shoulder but Nell had gone in the bedroom to feed the baby. "An' ole Shorty took hisself ta the bottle, too, whilst Ah war gone. An' nobody done stopped 'im! He ain't gonna be happy ta see me, Ah kin tell ya that." The children looked at Gaine wide-eyed. This was their father she was talking about.

"Don't hurt 'im, Sheriff," the oldest boy pleaded. "Please."

Gaine looked at them and realized how seriously they were affected by her words. This was a man who inflicted pain on them and their mother every time he drank, yet they did not wish the same on him. "Oh, Ah ain't plannin' ta hurt 'im none. Doncha fret. But he ain't gonna hurt ya er yer Momma none, neither. Ahl do mah best ta see ta that."

"Kin we stay here, Sheriff?" Willy asked. At eight she was the oldest child. "We like it here."

"Long as yer Momma wants ya ta," Gaine replied. "Yer al'ays welcome here. Ya kin think a' it as yer permanent home, if'n yer Momma says." Then Gaine's eyes widened and she turned to Meghan. "That all right with you?"

"Of course," Megan smiled.

"Only, you childerns needs ta call me "Gaine" if'n yer plannin' ta stay. Ah ain't the Sheriff when Ahm here."

"All right, Sheriff," they chorused.

Gaine shook her head. "Well, Ahm gonna go check on that thar mare." Gaine rose. "Yer cobbler war downright wonderful, Nell," she hollered into the other room. "Ah licked mahn up like a cow a'lickin' salt." A chorus of similar compliments followed from the two hands and Meghan.

"Glad ya liked it," Nell called back. "I'll make another tomorrow. The children can collect the berries. They grow wild out there by your stream."

"Ah got me an orchard off to the side thar, too. Bose pears, n' apples, differ'nt kinds. Some peaches an such. Some outta be ready."

"I know," Nell called. "But I didn't want us to use up all your food."

"Nonsense," Gaine called, "That thar's wha mah folks done planted 'em! We's'll store a heap but ain't gonna hurt nothin' ta have ya eat yer fill. They's plenty." She turned to Meghan, 'Ya gonna be all right?'

Meghan nodded in the affirmative. Gaine and the two hands walked toward the door, leaving their plates on the table and taking their hats off the nails by the door on their way out.

Green eyes moved to the table full of dirty dishes. They were mostly tin and pewter ware. "I'll do these," Meghan viewed the kitchen.

"All right," Gaine grinned from the doorway. She'd had no thought of doing the dishes herself, besides, she wanted Meghan to feel like it was her home. She and the hands trailed out toward the stable and some of the children danced after them. The other young ones went to chase the dogs around the yard.

Meghan looked around. There were shelves of metal dishes and a leather strap nailed to a board on the wall holding silverware. Off to the side was a pantry, the lower shelves lined with a few pans, crocks, jugs and jars, many empty. There were some barrels inside, and she thought most likely one was filled with salt pork and the other maybe flour. A heavy rock sat on the top of one, about half the way down, holding the floating lid down. That was the salt pork, Meghan decided, sitting in brine.

The shelves themselves had few items on them-a small block of salt, some clabbered milk, a small crock of honey, saleratus, molasses, some beans, some jars of dried goods of some kind, coffee beans, a grinder and a basket for collecting eggs. On the floor near the barrels was a crock half-filled with butter.

There was one shelf dedicated to drugs. There were dried chamomile flowers, Fernet bitters for the stomach, castor oil, flour made from flax seed for poultices, a purchased nostrum in a corked bottle and various home remedy items for people and horses. And on one shelf was a needle and thread. Meghan stepped back. This must be the pantry where Gaine and Minnie slipped in the board with the rising dough her Uncle had stepped in.

Her eyes were drawn to the top shelves. The canning materials were no longer there. Probably went to one of Gaine's sisters in the will. There was a sadiron but otherwise it was painfully low on supplies and Meghan wondered how Nell and the children had gotten by with Gaine gone. Of course, on a ranch, you had easy access to eggs, milk and meat. She guessed she'd find milk and a crock of butter cooling in a bucket near the bottom of the well. But the apple bin in the barn was undoubtedly empty at this time of year and the smokehouse might be, too.

If one had plenty of flour and beans, coffee and some kind of sweetener, most folks got by easily enough. She began to open the jars and dipped her tongue-dampened finger tip in tasting then to take mental note of what was there and what might be needed.

She had made a small fire in the stove and was boiling the water to put in the dish pan when Nell came back in. The baby was asleep, apparently, since she no longer had him. "Here, let me do that," Nell mumbled as she hustled over. "Please. Otherwise I don't think I'd feel right about staying out here with the Sheriff." She kept her missing teeth hidden as much as possible with her lip. It was not at all unusual to see people with missing teeth. It happened a lot. But her lip was still swollen and the loss did not appear to be from natural causes.

Meghan stepped aside. "Uh, all right. But I do want to help. Did you do the milking already? Want me to scald a pan for that?"

"I already done it a'fore you folks come. Just sit and rest a spell. You've had a long trip."

"I'll get a scrubber and mop up the floor while you're doing that," Meghan glanced at the floor. Her father would have insisted that it be spotless. She was used to the work and, in truth, she liked living in a spotlessly clean house. But she could see she was making Nell uncomfortable so she forced herself to relax.

"I can do that when I'm done here," Nell suggested, glancing out at the floor. It didn't look that dirty to her. "You need to rest for now."

Meghan pulled up a chair and sat down. "All right. Uh, I was just taking store of what was needed in the pantry. Gaine said we'd go into town tomorrow and I thought I'd get some things as long as we were there." She rattled off a few things she knew were needed. "Can you think of anything else?"

Nell looked down at the pan. "I hate us usin' up the Sheriff's supplies," she said softly.

"Nonsense," Meghan replied. "You work hard here. It's your pay. And it's such a pleasure that you're here. Your desserts alone are a treasure. And from the looks of it, those ranchhands haven't had the best of meals till you arrived, either. Confidentially, I don't think Gaine ever did much in the way of cooking for 'em."

"Well, they have primed me plumb full'a compliments since't I come out here with the children and commenced cookin' their meals." Then her gaze fell again, "But the children...just feedin' 'em.." She glanced up quickly. "Our chickens quit layin', ya know? And our cow ain't givin' that much. Uh, they do that when they ain't fed enough. Shorty, he, uh, drank up all the grocery money this time. That's what we fought about."

"The chickens here look like they're laying well and there's plenty of them. And I'll bet the cows give plenty. It isn't much feeding children on a ranch. Gracious! I know Gaine loves children and me, too. I do love having children around. But you have to let me help. While you're responsible for the cooking and general housekeeping, I'd like to clean from top to bottom. I swear, Gaine's been as bad as the fellas at keeping things up. And maybe I can help teach the young ones to read and write, do ya think? I could use the teaching practice."

Nell perked up a little. "I heared you was gonna be the new school marm. It would be wonderful if these young'uns could get some learnin'. I just didn't see how we could afford our part a' the school they was proposin'."

"They may not want me in that position after I talk to them. I am a married woman..." she added what she and Gaine had decided she should say, "though my husband is far away seeking his fortune. But, it will be my pleasure to practice on your children, if you don't take offense."

Nell smiled back. "Heavens! Take offense? That ain't likely. T'would be a great honor." She wiped her hands on her apron. "Thank ya, Cousin Minnie. I'll do my best around here." She glanced out and noticed the skies darkening. "Gracious, where are those young ones? They should be headin' to bed." She moved to the door and hollered and the baby began crying again.

Within minutes the troupe of children and dogs came pouring in. Meghan directed them to the basin she was getting out onto the table to get washed up for bed while Nell headed to see to the infant. She helped the children, checking their hair as she did so. She would need to get after the lice she saw as soon as she had cleaning supplies. Her mother had used coal oil and vinegar water rinses when they'd come home from school with the problem once. She hadn't seen either in the pantry.

Meghan quietly moved down to the room she would share with Gaine. Dusk was turning the room shadowy. She lit the lamp and began to unpack their bag. There were no dressers to put things in although she did find some pegs on one wall where she hung their nightshirts and Gaine's dirty outfit. She had seen the broom by the stove and a rag mop by the back door. She got them while Nell was busy getting the children to bed. She went back for the floor bucket and added a small amount of water.

Quickly she swept the floor of their room and tossed the dust and dirt out the window. The walls were thick so she cleaned the shelf-like area around the window. She wet the mop and scrubbed till the flat stone floor looked a shade lighter and the water was black. She decided it was too dirty for the slop bucket. Greasy dish water was good for that. There were no flowers or herbs. Not yet.

She hadn't used much water anyway. It was more than precious where she'd lived before and she knew how to conserve. She poured the small amount of dirty water near the trees. She saw Gaine and the two hands talking outside the stable. This was a beautiful spot. And a beautiful home. She loved it already. Her home. She moved inside, replaced the items and went back to their room.

She would need to do the wash as soon as possible. She, herself, didn't have anything else to change into, however, other than her nightshirt and they had no soap. She remembered her savings and pulled off her petticoats staying on the bed to let the floor dry. Her money could provide Gaine with a dowry of sorts. It certainly wasn't much, but it was something. And she had worked very hard and risked severe beatings to get it.

She looked at the chest at the end of the bed with it's buckled straps and was sorely tempted to open the lid and look inside. But it was not hers and she didn't want to invade Gaine's privacy. She stayed on the bed, picking at the stitches in her petticoat to allow her savings to be released. Her eyes went to the chest often, wondering if there were scissors within that might make her job easier. But she resisted.

Finally she had released all the coins she had hidden away. She would need to resew the seams she had taken out. She had found the needle and thread that her mother had hidden inside the hem of her new skirt, but she had no scissors. Her mother probably tried to pack her a pair, but her father would have objected. And that would have been that. She dug out the threaded needle and carefully began repairing her petticoats.

Beforehand she piled the money proudly on top of the book for Gaine when she came in. Books! Very few people had more than a bible here on the frontier. She proudly looked at the coins sitting on the books. She would be paying for her share of supplies. She removed Gaine's shot bag that she had kept all this time and placed it nearby.

Gaine returned and moved quietly into the room, shutting the door and making sure it was closed. She glanced at the now dried floors and thought they looked different somehow. Lighter. She stepped toward where the blonde was seaming her slips by lamplight. Her eye lit on the coins. "What's this?" she asked.

"My share," Meghan smiled up at her. "The money I told you I'd saved. Oh, and your shotbag and the change."

Gaine mentally counted the coins. It was about three dollars. Three dollars! It took her five years to save three dollars?

'I've kept it hidden in my petticoats all that time," Meghan smiled. When I did the washing and did the petticoats, I was particularly frightened that I'd be found out. But mother never let on and Pa and the boys had nothing to do with the laundry.

'Uh, Ah told ya Ah wouldn't let ya pay me,' Gaine wondered what would have happened to the small blonde if she hadn't run into Gaine that trip. Three dollars certainly wouldn't have paid for much. And there weren't many places for young ladies to get help or find a job. 'How'd ya git it?'

'I knew I had to have money in order to get away. So I pilfered from the egg money when I sold eggs. A lot of travelers bought them going through town. I charged eighteen cents a dozen to the strangers instead of the normal fifteen to the townsfolk but I only gave Mother fifteen cents. Father didn't let me sell the eggs too often, but everytime he did, I saved some out. I always changed the pence for larger coins when I could, so I wouldn't have so much to hide.'

'Well, t'is your'n. Ya shore 'nuff earned it.'

Meghan looked at it and thought of the hard five years it had taken her and the risk she had gone through to get it and hide it. He'd have claimed she was stealing from him. Was she? Perhaps. Her beating would have been long and severe. He would have been so furious. 'Would you add it to your supply money, please? I'd like to contribute to that.'

"Yep," Gaine corrected. "But we need ta ponder on't." She smiled. "We done gived arselfs ta each other an' all ar worldly goods. Ain't mahn an' ain't your'n, Ah reckon. T'is both a' ars. Ya kin keep it 'n that shotbag with the t'uther money fer ar savin's. Ah al'ays kept mah savin's separate in mah shot bag 'n the chest thar. Now, the ceegar box n' the chest gots the funds ta pay salaries n' such, but ya kin decide whar we oughta keep ar savin's. Ain't gonna use it lest we gotta."

"Uh, what will we use for supplies then?"

"Oh, Ah got credit ta the mercantile. T'is how Ah git paid mostly. Now yu'll need some clothin', Meg. Not fancy maybe like Michael done said, but clothes ya kin wear here ta the ranch."

"This is a new dress, Gaine." A wrinkle ran across the blonde's forehead. "I don't really need another one. This will last a long time."

"Mmm, no, ya does need a new 'un. Yer Pa might think on what that thar dress looks like. T'would be safer if'n ya had a new one he ain't gonna recognize, not that that 'un ain't downright purty. T'is. But we should be keerful n' town."

"You need clothes, too," she smiled. "Uh, unless you have some in that chest."

"Ah doan think sa," Gaine frowned. She lifted the basin and pitcher to the floor and undid the straps to open the lid. Meghan got up to come take a peek. Inside was another old blanket, a torn sheet, some old letters tied with a ribbon, a cigar box that Meghan saw had some papers that looked like official forms of some kind, an account book, an old leather belt, a worn, wooden barlow knife and other small flotsam and jetsam of a person's life. Near the bottom was a pair of red wool longjohns.

"Love letters?" Meghan asked, pointing to the letters tied in red ribbon.

"Uh, yep. They war 'tween mah Ma an' mah Pa. The t'uthers din't want 'em and Ah couldn't toss 'em out. Ma saved 'em tied up with one a' her ribbons and Pa useta ponder o'er 'em after she passed. Ah decided ta keep 'em a spell." She added in a whisper, "Ah doan think she'd mind."

"I'm sure she'd be pleased, honey," Meghan rubbed Gaine's back.

"Ah war a'thinkin' Ah'd bury 'em a short ways down ta thar gravesite one a these times. Put 'em in a small wood ceegar box, maybe. When Ah think Ah kin bear ta give 'em up." She handled them reverently and looked at them with a loving gaze.

"I'm sure they're looking down on you with profound love right now, Gaine."

"Da ya think sa?" Her blue eyes held such an innocence and yearning to believe. Then she jogged her head like adding a period to the end of a sentence, "Ah hope sa." She placed them back and rustled around for a second then looked up again. "No. No t'uther clothin' Ah kin wear 'cept mah longjohns. An' thems fer winter." She grabbed the belt and looked at it. "Mah Pa's belt, t'war ta big fer me." She handled the two-blade barlow jackknife. "Grandpa's." She placed it back then dropped down the lid.

"Do you have any sewing supplies, honey?" Meghan asked.

"Not no more. Mah sisters got all that. Ah never did sew much. Ah gots a needle here an some thread ta the pantry. An' thar bees some shears ta trim beards n' hair n' the like ta the bunk house. That's all. Did ya wanna have me run git them shears?

"No, uh, I don't think so. I don't want to take the fella's beard trimmers."

"All right. We'll buy some jest fer sewing tamarra. Whatever ya need."

"I'll need coal oil, honey. Do you have some? The children have head lice, probably Nell, too, but we can get rid of it. And there's probably fleas from the dogs."

Gaine looked startled. "Oh, uh, well, Ah reckon Ah kin have the fellas warsh them dogs ta the barn." She knew the two men would be surprised. It wasn't something they ever did unless a skunk got them or something like that.

"Yes. Good. We'll need to scrub everything down and boil the clothes and bedding. And they probably have small toothed combs at the mercantile. They're good for combing out nits. If we can get one of those..." Meghan thought for a minute. "My mother used soap and coal oil and vinegar water and lots and lots of boiling water." Boiling wasn't new. She boiled all the laundry when she washed anyway.

"Boilin' water?!" Gaine's brows rose to her hair line.

"Not for people, silly."

"Ah, Good. Ah gots a big ole iron washin' kettle ta the back. An a board n' some smaller tubs fer rinsin'. Mah sisters left 'em fer me. Git whatever scrubbin' needs ya thinks tamorra."

"All right. Let's go to bed now. I'm pretty tired. How about you?"

"Yep. Ahm plumb tuckered." She pulled the ends of the mosquito net from behind the headboard and around the corner bed poles, leaving room for them to climb in.

They slipped into their nightshirts and crawled into bed. Meghan took the side away from the lamp. Obviously Gaine was used to the other side. The packed straw made a fairly hard mattress but that was cooler in warm weather than the soft feather mattresses of some beds. Her bed at home had been straw as well.

Meghan ran her hand along the sheet. "I can wipe the mattress down with salt water. I saw some salt in the pantry."

"Uh, all right. Ah ain't never been bit by nothin' in this here bed, though. 'Cept skeeters." Gaine blew out the lamp and overlapped the netting.

"I know. It's just a precaution."

"Ahh." They settled into each other's arms. Gaine held Meghan close, stroked her hair and asked, "T'is ya still troubled, darlin'?"

Meghan was quiet for a minute then replied, "Yes. They'll come after me, Gaine. You saw how determined they are. And how fierce. And I'm not sure my being married will stop them any. That Deputy cousin of Lendal's might be dead, but his death could make Lendal and father even more determined. As long as they're out there looking..." She shuddered. "Lendal's a particularly clever and vicious man, honey. And we can't know who either of them might have hired."

"Ah tole the fellas they's ta watch over ya like a hawk. You ain't never gonna be out here without one a' them fellas nearby ta pratect ya. An Ahm gonna learn ya how ta use that thar Henry rifle Ah keep o'er the front door. An, course, Ah ain't plannin' ta be ta far off, most times. Twixt them an' the dogs, they ain't gonna let no strangers set foot on this here property. And they'll send fer me the second any such indication occurs."

"I know." They lay together quietly for a minute. "Do you think I can be called Kathleen or Kate instead of Meghan? It's my middle name. Or if folks want to call me Cousin Minnie, I don't really mind. It's less likely anybody'll be drawn here looking for me if they think your Cousin Kate is here and not your cousin with the name of Meghan."

"Shore. If'n 't makes ya feel safer. Ah doan know why ya couldn't. T'is the honest truth...mostly."

"I would feel safer." Meghan reached up to press her lips to Gaine's. "Are you too tired, my love?" she breathed, bringing her lips past Gaine's ear.

"No, Ah shore ain't."

"We'll have to be very quiet."

"Mmm," Gaine replied, moving her lips to Meghan's neck. Of course it was necessary to be quiet. Everyone was. That was understood.

Later they slept that night, spooned beside each other. Gaine was home and knew the sounds. Except that children did add some additional chords to the mix. She listened but heard no disturbing night noises other than the occasional weak crying of the baby.

Meghan awoke in a strange room with the bed empty beside her. Light shone through the window and a warm breeze was blowing through the netting. It took her a minute to remember where she was...her new home. She looked around in wonder. It was so much more than she had ever expected. It was even bigger than her father's house, she thought smugly.

The delightful odor of sugar-cured bacon and coffee drifted into the room and her stomach growled. She rose quickly, made the bed, washed herself in the basin and dressed before running out back to the freshly whitewashed outhouse. There were two holes, one large and one small, both with lids. She was pleased to see that Gaine kept a large bucket of ashes there to sprinkle when finished to keep down the odor and flies. She had watched carefully for snakes on her way there, seeing tracks where they had been resting on the path in the sun.

She washed her face and hands again in their room and did a quick check to make sure the room was tidy. Gaine had let her sleep in and she did feel rested. She moved to the main room to find the others assembling for breakfast, their early morning chores already done.

Nell was serving a fine breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits, and thick gravy while the pale infant lay fussing in his box. The coffee again was strong, just like Gaine and the hands liked it. Meghan took the tiny baby from the box and sat at the table cooing to the infant and gently rubbing his tummy, trying to comfort him. He did not have enough hair to have lice, but the child was far too pale in Meghan's opinion. Gaine came in from outside, spotted Meghan and a huge smile spread across her face.

"Did ya sleep good?" Gaine asked as she pulled up a chair beside the blonde.

"Wonderfully!" Meghan replied. They didn't exactly eat in silence. Gaine and the hands discussed the dun mare and Meghan ate and jiggled her small charge at the same time while Nell gave instructions to the children about picking blackberries and watching for snakes.

After breakfast Gaine moved to the corral where the boys were bringing out the mustang, saddled and ready to be tested. The horse eyed Gaine and snorted. He pawed at the dirt, but Gaine spoke softly and worked her way to where he was being held. She mumbled softly, talking comforting words. The other two on horseback moved off some. It had been a while, but he remembered her.

She moved her hands over the stallion as she had practiced a number of times before she'd headed for Sacramento. The horse shuddered some at her touch and moved his ears to follow her progress. But he knew her voice and touch and stayed fairly still. She always made sure she could touch the horses anywhere before she tried to ride them. She touched the saddle and moved it a smidgeon. This wild fellow had also gotten a little used to the saddle. But he was extremely leery and huffed and snorted and danced. She talked calming words.

The children quit playing and moved along the rails, the dogs beside them. Meghan had been out looking around, marveling at the pigs, chickens, milch cows and horses that made up their livestock and was amazed by the amount of meat hanging in the large smokehouse. A lot of work had gone into this ranch. Gaine had done well...very well. Meghan moved onto the porch when she spotted Gaine in the corral with the mustang.

"Stay back, now," Garcia called to the children.

"Yessir," they called, moving their hands off the rail but not moving back so much as a step.

Once she was ready, Gaine was up on his back in an instant. The boys rode off to the sides and the horse began to buck furiously. All the children were around the corral transfixed and Meghan and Nell were on the porch watching. Meghan's hands went to her mouth when Gaine smiled her way. Gaine got herself off balance with the look and suddenly went flying off the horse into the air then plummeted to the ground on her behind with a thud while the horse continued bucking. She was up in a flash, using her hat to beat the dust from her outfit.

"Damned if Ah ain't out a practice in that short a time," she grumbled with annoyance and a goodly amount of embarrassment. The two hands rode out in the corral to capture the horse.

"I ain't seed ya do that a'fore," Alabam called with a chuckle. "Ya been practicin' some fancy flyin' tricks?" he teased.

"Are ya hurt, Gaine?" Garcia called.

"No. Ah ain't hurt," Gaine groused. But all the children were laughing and pointing at her. In fact her bottom was quite sore where she had landed with such force for only a nanosecond before she hopped up again. She had to concentrate not to move her hands there to see if anything was broken. She couldn't remember the last time she was bucked off. She'd have a large bruise. And to have it happen in front of Meghan and the children was too much.

"She done got bucked off," one of the boys laughed.

Gaine shot them all a disgusted glance. "Whacha laughin at?" she grumped, beating billows of dust off her trousers with her hand and her hat.

"We're reliefed," Willy called with a big smile. "Ain't we?" she asked the others and they all nodded in the affirmative.

Oh, brother, she's gonna be a leader, that un'. Ya shore kin tell early on, Gaine thought as she watched the others follow Willy's lead. "Reliefed? That Ah t'weren't hurt none, ya mean?"

"I dunno. Guess so," Willy said cheerfully. "Ya said t'was all right ta laugh if'n we're reliefed."

Meghan began to laugh aloud now that she saw Gaine wasn't hurt and Nell just looked with concern from the children to the tall brunette, wondering if she was going to smack any of them.

Gaine looked at Meghan then had to laugh herself. A deep rumbling laugh emerged that floated up to Meghan and made her feel more than relief. In fact, it left her with a bit of a flush and a touch of tension in places not meant for polite public discourse. That woman has the sexiest laugh, Meghan thought with a blush. Oh, my!

Her eyelashes fluttered involuntarily and she decided she'd better go in and check the nursery section of Gaine's receipt book before her thoughts got the better of her. Surely it had some ideas of what to do for the ailing baby.

Nell relaxed and grinned as well. The Sheriff wasn't going to strike her children.

On the way to town Meghan asked, "Did you say you had cattle? I didn't see any except the two milk cows."

"Mah boys gots them steers ta the upper range. They's a'comin' down a'fore long."

"I see." Meghan's eyes flew over the countryside. There was so much to learn.

Gaine was quiet for a while then asked, "Does childerns al'ays does that ta ya?"

"What, honey?"

"Throw what ya tells 'em right back ta yer face?"

"Willy's 'being relieved' you mean? No, not all children, I'm sure." Meghan smiled. "But I don't know, did you and Cousin Minnie do that when you were children?"

Gaine's eyes widened then she became quiet for a minute. "Oh, Lordy," she exclaimed mournfully, "Retribution."


Meghan's sister Kaitlynn and family arrived in Jubilee City as soon as they were able. They'd left the farm they loved in charge of her husband's parents. It was near the California coast several days away. They brought their family and rushed to help her mother as soon as they got word of her father's death.

Kaitlynn was concerned about Meghan but had no idea where she might be. She was surprised at her father's death, though she bore no sadness regarding the event. Her young brothers voiced their complaints about Brogan Jr. and maybe Peter, too, cheating them and her as well. Kaitlynn wasn't surprised.

Meghan's mother checked the bedding they had brought then stripped the bedding off the beds in the house and gave it to Kaitlynn. 'Quick, put this with your things and don't say a word. It's what your father would have wanted, I'm sure. Just leave me your older bedding, uh, before the others get here.'

Kaitlynn looked back skeptically. It was not at all what her father would have wanted. He would have wanted the girls to get nothing at all.

Brenna, her husband and their family along with Peter's wife and family were to join them for a large family dinner that afternoon even though Brogan Jr. and Peter were not back yet. She knew Brogan's wife, Jennie, would not be allowed to leave her home without Brogan Jr.'s permission. He'd be furious if she did, but she sent Reggie to invite her anyway, expecting the declination she received.

It was so good seeing her daughter Kaitlynn again. They had written as much as Brogan Fitzgeraldson Sr. allowed. And Kaitlynn seemed genuinely happy. The new widow explained she was quite sure Triona and her husband would be coming from Nevada in the next few days although she doubted that Noreen and family would make it from Arizona. And she knew from Polly's infrequent letters that though she lived in California, she and her husband were too bad off financially to be able to make any kind of trip with their huge family.

She would have to work hard to make sure neither of those daughters was left out. She wasn't sure what she could give them. The oldest sons would surely remember any valuables her husband might have owned. She'd have to think about it.

The widow busied herself making sure there was room for everyone to fix a pallet on the floor. Her boys would go to stay at Brenna's while the company was there.


Meghan studied Barden's Corner as they approached. The bustling business section was lined with typical large, wooden, squared-fronted buildings on both sides of the street with only a few shops without the false fronts, one being the blacksmith shop and another the church. There was only one main street. The side streets were lined with residences, small city farms, much like Jubilee City had been, only with fewer saloons--only two. Boardwalks lined both sides of the businesses on the main street.

A river ran a ways behind the town and they crossed a wooden bridge on the west end. They could hear the bleating of sheep, the hammering of construction and the pinging of the blacksmith's hammer. "They's the mill further down thar," Gaine smiled and pointed down the river. "They does a right thrivin' business. An' the salt mine bees on that road thar." She pointed to a road leading into a stand of trees. An' theys a copper mine still a'bein' worked out that a'way." Again she pointed before drawing the horses up before the mercantile.

They tied the horses to the rail in front of the store and began wandering through. The Barden's Corner store was in a large building but was not as well supplied as the store they had visited at the stage stop and the prices were higher. Still it smelled of coffee and cheese and contained a vast array of goods including local quilts, knives, shoes, harnesses, candy, sugar, honey, pistols, rifles, plows, ammunition, all sorts of dry goods and cloth besides the grocery items. In one corner was the post office and on the other far wall Minton Ledderbridge, chemist, had his own counter and wall of drugs, patent medicines, paints and oils. Those who couldn't afford the doctor, came to Minton.

Gaine whispered to Meghan as they walked through the green grocer aisle, "Ah gits mah green groceries from Maria. She done gots herself a right big garden and sells seasonals tah me fer lest."

"Do you have a garden?" Meghan asked in a whisper. She didn't remember seeing one.

"Uh, mah Momma useta, but Ah ain't been much ta keepin' it up."

Meghan nodded then wandered wide-eyed through the aisles, amazed at what things cost. She saw the high price on the sugar crystal cones trimmed by a guillotine-shaped cutter for them on the counter then weighed on the store scale. Molasses and honey were both much cheaper. She noticed the new washing-powder but decided she could use the cheaper lye soap bars every bit as well. After all, once she saved some lard and wood ashes, she'd be making her own soap and not buying it. The tobacco counter had tobacco at one pence an ounce. There was tobacco for chewing, smoking or snuff.

Meghan settled in and began to select the items on her list, choosing the lowest priced articles whenever choice was possible. She selected a small amount of the specialty food items for the baby suggested in the 'common sense' book.

Gaine and the city officials were the few that had credit at the mercantile any more. She had always been careful not to charge beyond what pay she had coming, but it was something they did allow her to do, if necessary. Barter was common even in non-depression times but when times were bad like these, the store didn't offer credit except to those few. Taxes were often paid in goods, livestock and homemade items, most of which ended up being sold at the store.

Gaine made sure that Meghan picked out plenty of material to make a new dress. Meghan was pleased to get some 'Simpson' indigo blue calico she thought would be superior to any other both in washing and wearing. She also picked what they had on sale that was perfect for new underwear for Gaine. They had enough credits to get some additional yards of white cotton that Gaine saw her fingering. It could be used for so many things: curtains, pillowcases, towels, an apron she desperately needed and a new bonnet.

The clerk took the bolts down, measured out the yards on the brass tacks on the counter and cut it for them.

Meghan held a bolt of heavy cotton trouser material, suitable for children's wear. "Do you think...?" she started to ask Gaine, "for the children?"

Gaine smiled and had them cut what they'd need. Meghan picked out thread to match the materials plus varied yarns for knitting. There was a large selection of wool yarn at reasonable prices. Meghan couldn't help smiling brightly. Her family had lived well enough, but rarely bought so much material at one time. How impressed they'd be. She hoped Gaine wasn't showing off and putting them in unnecessary debt. She could get by with just the dress she had.

Gaine was having "Mrs. K. Sargos" placed on her account so that Meghan could sign for supplies when an old man in farm overalls and a weathered hat hobbled on his cane toward them.

"Why, you must be Cousin Minnie," he smiled at Meghan. "I'd recognize you anywhere. Remember me, old Roger Pickwick? I was here when your family lived here all those years ago and you were just a little whippersnapper then." He chuckled then got serious, "Lost my wife Lettie a couple years back-wonderful woman. Your parents probably aren't aware. They'd remember her, for sure."

"I'm so sorry for your loss," Meghan replied sympathetically.

"Thank you, thank you. I do miss her. She'd remember you, for sure."

"Oh, uh, Roger, this bees Michael's wife, Mrs. Sargos. Ah think yer a'thinkin' a his sister," Gaine said to the older man.

The man cast a puzzled look at Gaine then smiled back at Meghan, "Sure 'nuff," he said. "Ya growed up jest like I thought ya would. It's good ta have ya back in Barden's Corner, Minnie."

"Uh, Minnie's Michael's sister. Please, call me Kate," Meghan suggested with a soft blush.

"Er Mrs. Sargos, if'n ya'd druther, Roger," Gaine supplied, but she knew Roger and others would persist in calling Meghan "Cousin Minnie". Once they got an idea in their mind, it was hard to change it. But she figured Meghan would answer to any of the names anyway.

"Let your family know about my Lettie," he suggested. Then he forcefully tapped his cane on the ground a couple times and leaned toward Meghan, "We ain't none of us sure Gaine knows how ta write or she'da done it before now." He swatted Gaine hard with his cane across the back of her legs and hollered out, "Ahha."

'Ow,' Gaine laughed. "Ya ole rascal. Ya jest wanted an excuse ta strike the town Sheriff, din't ya?"

"Ahha," the old man barked a laugh. "Town Sheriff, indeed. I remember when you were just a scrawny, little tipsy turvy girl harassin' them bigger brothers of yours. Lordy, how you always got the best of 'em. The both a' ya. Them were the days. T'was nice meetin' ya ag'in, young lady." He tipped his hat, turned and shuffled back toward the tobacco counter as he muttered, "Yessir, them two saucy little girls had them boys more riled n' a hornet's nest and a'runnin' in circles most a' the time. Ahha, but let some interloper call any one of 'em a name, and they'd all turn on that child faster'n a horse headin' back ta the barn. Ahha, them surely were the days. Course, my Lettie was alive then."

"You should be sure Minnie's parents know about his wife," Meghan said softly. "It's very important to him."

"Ah let 'em know jest after't happened. An' they done sent him a long sympathy letter. Guess Ahd best let mah Aunt know ag'in since't he doan 'member none."

"Yes, you should."

Gaine loaded the supplies then walked Meghan across to show her the Sheriff's office. It was a tiny side room of the noisy cooper's shop. It had a door facing the boardwalk and was barely large enough to hold a desk and chair. Wanted posters were tacked on every available wall. There was no jail cell.

On the way back to the wagon Gaine pointed out the livery, the carpenter's shop, the place where a hotel was just starting under construction, the town trustee's and Mayor's offices, a saloon and the tin and stove shop. "Uncle Tommy bees the town tinker. He comes out ta tha house once't a year ta remould broken pewter n' tin ware. Ar cups er tin but we gots dishes, some spoons, n' a pewter basin." Meghan nodded her understanding.

On the other end of the boardwalk was the harness-maker, Etta's small cafe, blacksmith shop, another saloon, doctor's office and church. Corrals on the end near the bridge were filled with sheep. Gaine scowled but did not mention them.

They climbed in their wagon and headed back. They stopped at the farm of Maria and her husband Leland on their way home. Maria's mother had been a full-blooded Pima Indian that had married a white settler before moving west, so some of the townsfolk insisted on calling their daughter 'Indian Maria'. Maria had grown and was now married to Leland, a tall settler from Missouri.

The pleasant woman raised a large, flourishing garden to help their family survive. Her husband was considering putting together a huckster wagon and covering the town farms and ranches trading green groceries in exchange for things like eggs, meat and cheese. The store was none too pleased with that idea.

They carefully selected their vegetables then Gaine ordered a pair of leather moccasins for Meghan. Meghan was embarrassed to remove her shoes so Mary could measure around her foot, but Gaine said she needed to have moccasins to wear around the house while her shoes were being resoled.

Meghan's eyes raised in pleasure to Gaine's. Her shoes were going to be resoled? Gaine explained that there was no official cobbler in town but Saul Chenoth did considerable shoe business on his farm. He was talking about starting a boot shop by sharing a bench in the harness-maker's shop in town. Gaine would take Meghan's shoes to him as soon as Mary brought out Meghan's moccasins.

"I can go barefoot," Meghan objected quietly aside to Gaine. "We don't need to go to this expense." She had gone barefoot a good deal of the time at home and her feet were tough as leather.

"Ah knows ya kin," Gaine whispered. "But you'll like 'em. They's right comfy. An ya kin wear 'im ta home when the weather done turns cold."

Not wanting to oppose Gaine publicly, Meghan was quiet. Besides, it was too late. The moccasins had already been ordered. They loaded their purchases and headed home. Meghan again noted how fine Gaine's team was and how those they passed admired them as she rode beside the tall woman.

At home the two ranchhands helped unload the supplies and Meghan used the book to fix a recipe for boiled farina milk for the baby, scalding all utensils as the pages directed. She read what the book said to Nell, who was not entirely sure of all the suggestions. Meghan read the other things the book advised for babies. It talked of what you should have your servants do, how you had them boil everything, and the like. They both laughed at the thought of servants but they both also knew wealthy babies had a much higher survival rate. And Nell's small infant had been suffering with diarrhea, which everyone knew was a killer of tiny infants. Nell had already lost two small babies. She was concerned enough to try anything.

Tears sprung to Nell's eyes when she discovered that they had picked up enough material to make the children some clothes. She had been worrying heavily about that. The clothes they were wearing were very worn. And Meghan talked to her about the head lice, explaining how her mother had dealt with it when Meghan was little. It was a commom enough problem that Nell took no offense. They agreed to attack the issue first thing in the morning.

Meghan went to her room and immediately began cutting the trousers for the boys. She looked at the white material and decided she could get some shirts for the children out of that and a dress for the toddler. Nell had said Willy would wear trousers, too, since she was too active to keep in dresses anyway. Besides, that way they could hand down the trousers to the next child as they grew, regardless of how the townsfolk talked about the impropriety of it. She mentioned nothing regarding Gaine's trousers.

Meghan purposely cut everything larger and skillfully placed seams that could be extended as they grew. She worked quickly and proficiently. And since she had no meals to prepare, all her time was put to the task. By the end of the day she had Willy's and her next smaller brother's trousers completed and the others well started.

After breakfast the next morning, Gaine had water brought to partially fill the large kettle. A fire was started beneath it and Meghan cut some shavings from one of the lye bars and dropped them into the pot. All Nell's and the children's bedding was brought out, and one at a time Meghan scrubbed every square inch on the scrub board in the pot as long as the items were cool enough to handle. Still it turned her hands red.

Then each item must be scalded, so she left Willy with the stick to poke them down every few minutes in the boiling soapsuds while she swept up the straw in their bedrooms that Nell'd put down on the stone floor as pallets. She had the hands haul it off while she scrubbed the floor in both rooms thoroughly with lye soap and water.

Meanwhile, Nell was in the kitchen treating each child's hair. The outside table would be set up for noon dinner.

When Meghan got back, the tub was boiling well. She used the stick to lift one blanket into another smaller tub. Just enough cold water was added to make the blanket handleable. Again she rubbed the blanket on the copper scrub board. Then she lifted it and swished it around in the same tub before wringing it out by hand and hanging it on the line to dry. Then she went back to the next blanket.

She had Gaine haul fresh straw to put down in the two bedrooms while she continued with the laundry. By the time Nell had noon dinner prepared, all their bedding had been washed and was on the line. Then she got the sheets and blanket from hers and Gaine's bed, their's and Nell's nightwear and boiled them.

By afternoon it was time to wash the children's clothing. The warm rinse water was moved inside into Gaine's large bathing tub placed in the kitchen to bathe each child. As one child stripped down, their clothing was brought to Meghan to boil in the large tub. Meghan brought the blanket from the chest and Nell had each bathed child sit on the bench under the blanket. They were given crackers and tin cups of milk to eat as they waited.

Between chores Alabam and Garcia were instructed to take the dogs to the barn and scrub them thoroughly. They'd never had to do that before. Quietly they did so, though the dogs did not enjoy it at all and quickly went to roll in the dirt once they were freed.

The clothing dried quickly in the summer breeze and sunlight, particularly the lightweight underwear and the children were soon running around in the house in their now clean underwear. The outerwear and the blankets took longer.

Meghan was determined that before they headed to bed each of Nell's family would be washed, their hair treated and their clothes boiled. With all the clothing but Nell's on the line, Meghan wiped off their mattress with salt water, having Gaine turn it over so she could do the bottom. After supper Nell took her bath. Meghan helped her treat her long hair while Nell's dress, petticoat and other undergarments were outside boiling. She changed into her night gown.

By the time Meghan fell into bed that night, she was exhausted. But Nell's family was washed and clean and sleeping on fresh bedding. Of course, they only had blankets and fresh straw. All but one of the buffalo skins Gaine's family had always used as pallets had gone to her sisters in the will. The bedding Meghan and Gaine used was also clean, although Meghan was embarrassed that she hadn't had time to iron the sheets. She'd do it in the morning. She had to get up early to get Nell's dress and apron off the line and iron them before Nell could dress to fix breakfast the next morning anyway.

Gaine's hands moved soothingly along Meghan's back, carefully rubbing sore muscles. "Ahhh," Meghan moaned, "But I'm too tired, honey," she whispered.

"Ah'm jest rubbin' yer back, darlin'," Gaine whispered, hearing a familiar soft snore in reply. She smiled and put her arm protectively around the small blonde before closing her own eyes. Home. Together. Forever. There was nothing more perfect in the world.

Meghan awoke as Gaine was getting up the next morning. She had so much to do. She'd get to bathe later today and get her own clothes washed, ready to iron. She'd wash Gaine's clothes, too, and the hands. Then all kinds of mending needed to be done, not to mention ironing before she got back to her sewing.

And the angelic little infant was already showing signs of being better. The formula did seem to ease his discomfort, and the diarrhea also had eased some. But first she must get in there, start a fire and get Nell's clothes ironed.

The remainder of the week was spent getting the rest of the laundry done and some sewing. Meghan washed the hands' clothing as well as Gaines' so that it dried overnight. And she spent one whole morning trimming each person's hair while each nervously sat outside on a chair. Meghan was very experienced at it.

Running the narrow-toothed comb through each person's hair, particularly the childrens', became a daily event. Ironing was also a hot, sweltering early morning job inside the house, though the doors stood open all day. Meghan ironed while Nell cooked and watched the children. The little ones played happily, ate well, the baby steadily improved and Meghan was pleased she didn't have to do the cooking. She almost felt overwhelmed as it was.

The children's clothes were beyond mending, so that they were scrapped once the new ones were completed. Meghan cut them into rag strips she would sew together for a braid rug. The hands' clothing and Gaines' did merit repairs. Nell's clothes were threadbare, too, but Meghan was sure she could save them with careful patches since they didn't have enough new material to make Nell a new dress and the woman refused to let her use her new material for anything but a dress for herself. Long into the evening Meghan sat sewing patches or mending where possible. They would make do, all of them.

Meanwhile Gaine took two days off her job as Sheriff and rode to the high pasture to check on her herd, spent the night and returned the next day.

By the time the bulk of the mending was done including Gaine's socks, life had fallen into a pattern of washing and ironing and checking hair. Meghan found some time and used her newly purchased scissors to begin cutting the parts to new clothing. Nothing was discarded. Every small scrap of good enough material was cut into a square quilt pattern and placed in the trunk till she had enough. Smaller pieces were cut in other quilt shapes.

In the days that followed, Meghan learned to load and shoot the breech loading Henry rifle that sat on pegs above the front door. She became a fair shot. She practiced every day, though only with a few shots to save ammunition. She spent the remainder cleaning, sewing, rooting out the last of the lice and began teaching the children their alphabet and basic arithmetics while Gaine went into town daily in her job as Sheriff, often returning very late at night.

Meghan became the undisputed lady of the house, although she made no such claims herself. Everyone acknowledged that running the house was her job. She even had manure from the stable dumped onto the old garden area and began to dig it under herself as her mother had done on their small town "farm". "Let it settle into the ground," her mother had said. "Before planting, do it again."

Alabam informed her they had a plow. They raised all their own wheat, barley, alfalfa and oats, or at least Gaine hired crews to do so. A few days later Alabam brought out a horse, hitched it to the plow and plowed it under for her. In the meanwhile she worked quickly at her sewing. Using her material frugally, she soon had a new dress for herself with enough left over for a new finished shirt for Gaine and numbers of small pieces for a quilt.

The crew that Gaine always hired to cut the hay had been by. Alabam and Garcia worked with them, shortening the time needed for the hired help. Nell cooked for the whole crew as well as everyone else till the work was done. Alabam and Garcia were now busy loading bales into the barn for the winter. Being in the foothills, even this close to the valley floor, their winters could be quite cold. It was not unusual to see an occasional snowflake, though it was rare.

Mary brought out the moccasins and took home a number of bushels of hand-picked fruit from the orchard when she left. Meghan wore her moccasins while her shoes were being resoled, unbelievably pleased that her shoes would be repaired. Her father always had them stuff paper inside and wear them till they fell apart, risking punishment if they let anyone see the holes in the bottom.

Her moccasins were comfortable, almost like going barefoot. Meghan realized she could wear them at home and save her newly resoled shoes for special occasions and for when she went to town. It would make them last much longer.

As each fruit tree ripened, Nell and Meghan cut up some and set it out to dry while the two hands stored the rest. They had Gaine bring home glass cans from the mercantile and together they prepared batches of fruit to seal and keep in the pantry. When she had time Meghan began sewing an apron patched together from the remaining scraps of white material. Then she began new underdrawers and an undershirt for Gaine. As an expert seamstress, she rapidly finished projects.

She was extremely pleased to have a wardrobe that included two dresses when the town fathers trooped out one afternoon. She saw the three men driving up the road from town and quickly slipped on her newest dress. After all, these were the town "quality" as Nell called them. Alabam and Garcia recognized them instantly, put back their rifles and did not prevent the men from entering.

As Meghan changed, she thought proudly how she would always be able to appear in public in tidy clothing with such a variety at her fingertips. She grabbed her bonnet and tucked wayward locks back behind the pasteboard.

The men's faces showed their disfavor with finding Nell and the children in residence. "Gutter purchase," Meghan thought she heard one of the men mutter as a child ran past, but Nell, who was closer, went about her duties as though nothing had been said and Meghan wasn't sure exactly what had been uttered or by whom. Otherwise she'd have stopped them instantly and challenged them.

Nell shooed all the children outside while Meghan served the men coffee and molasses cookies, feeling the cavernous depth of their severe thoughts as they rigorously scrutinized her. How she wished Gaine was with her and not in town working. She felt the eyes of Westminster Clardin, the Mayor's thirtyish, unmarried nephew perusing her body and wanted to shiver at the intentions he might harbor. Though unmarried, she was sure he was not inexperienced.

Once seated the Mayor spoke sternly of a teacher's job, an opening that paid eight dollars store credit per month for a three month season. Meghan was very interested. The men each took another cookie before sternly quizzing her on her knowledge of reading, grammar, spelling, geography and U.S. History. And though they made an effort not to show it, they were pleasantly swayed by her ever correct replies. She had indeed learned her lessons as a student.

They helped themselves to more cookies as they went over a daunting list of unacceptable personal behaviors and an equally daunting list of expectations. Nell quietly refilled the plate while they explained that the daily expectations included not just teaching but general upkeep: sweeping, building and maintaining the fire in the stove, filling and cleaning the lamps, drawing the water, emptying the ashes, moping any mud or water tracked into the vestibule and stacking the cleaned slates. She was also expected to cultivate perfect behavioral control and reveal demonstrable progress with each student, some as old as eighteen and as young as five. McGuffy's readers or any other books might or might not be provided. They did have one or two old New England Primers available, they explained between bites of the freshly furnished cookies.

Nell refilled their coffee cups as they clarified that they also expected numerous public spelling bees and a Christmas pageant to be performed by the students under Meghan's guidance regardless of nonexistent supplies necessary to offer such a presentation.

Their eyes darted to Nell and back as the Mayor reminded Meghan unyieldingly that a teacher was to serve as an example and an inspiration to townsfolk and must be extremely careful of those with whom she associated. There must not be a hint of impropriety in anyone she chose to be around.

"I'm sorry. I guess I don't understand. What are you implying?" Meghan asked politely. Surely they didn't consider that her knowing Nell was improper.

"Associating with the lower classes or interfering in the holy union of matri..."

Meghan's face showed her surprise. Were they calling Nell and her children "lower classes"? And surely saving Nell from a violent drunken husband did not constitute interference in matrimony!

Before the Mayor's nephew could finish his sentence, Mr. Altenman, the third man in the group, interrupted, "We were implying nothing other than what was said, of course. We assume you'll be attending Sunday church services without fail and shall demonstrate a purity of purpose as befits a young woman in such a prestigious position, Miss Sargos." His features were stern, solemn, austere and he looked as though his face had never once broken into a smile.

Meghan was stunned and greatly annoyed but she was also cognizant of the fact that these were people Gaine had to work with every day and so would she, if she were hired. She dared not speak with too sharp a tongue. She seized on the word "Miss". "My name is Mrs. Sargos, gentleman. I am a married woman," she replied coldly, letting her ring show. "And my friendship with Ne..."

"What?" Mr. Altenman demanded. All their faces turned grim. "No, that will not do! There'd be grave parental misgivings about hiring any woman that's married. It is not done. A married woman's place is in her husband's home.'

"Gaine said her cousin was unmarried," the Mayor thrust at her, intoning that someone was lying here. He swallowed the last of his latest cookie.

"That's my sister in law you're thinking of," Meghan replied. "And she very recently married, I'm sure since Gaine last talked to you."

"No, I'm quite sure she said you were unmarried."

"Well, I'm not. But if it makes a difference, I have no plans to have children and my husband is very unlikely to be around for a good, long time." She saw a raised brow or two including Nell's and added, "He's off seeking his fortune." Everyone nodded knowingly. California was filled with men, many financially and emotionally broken at this point, who set out seeking their fortunes, their families left waiting years for their return.

"And I consider Nell and her family to be good frien..." Suddenly the door burst open and a flushed Gaine strode inside. She had ridden hard from town to get here. "I heared ya done comed out here ta see mah cousin," she faced the Mayor.

"Sheriff," the Mayor said addressing her stiffly in return. "We didn't feel it was necessary to inform you of our plans since we were here to contact your cousin, not you." He grabbed another cookie and took a large bite.

"Uh huh," Gaine scrutinized their faces. They didn't want her there during the negotiations more likely. Had they offered Meghan the teaching job then? And if so, at what salary? She was sure she could negotiate a higher amount.

"They didn't realize I was married," Meghan remarked, glad to see Gaine. The small blonde sat primly with her hands in her lap and Gaine could feel annoyance rolling off her. Gaine wondered what they'd said to rile her.

"Well," the Mayor huffed, "It won't do!" He jabbed the air with the rest of his cookie. "It is a woman's job to promote the comfort and well-being of her husband and rear his children to be good citizens. She cannot do that and teach as well. It just is not done." He took another bite.

"Seems ta me that if'n her husband ain't gonna be 'round, it ain't gonna matter if'n she takes yer job. She ain't gonna be seein' ta no husband's well-bein' so's ya might jest sa well change yer rules an hire her."

"No!" the Mayor replied, "It is man's job to make the laws regarding all things, to keep everyone in their proper place as God and nature planned and women need stay in the sphere provided for them--the home." He glanced at Gaine and amended, "Uh, I meant married women, of course." He popped the last bite in his mouth and wiped his hand on his trouser leg.

"Course," Gaine snorted, "But that thar sounds a heap more like'n man's plan than nature's plan." The men scrunched their brows and each nervously grabbed for another molasses cookie. "The most dangerous cougar bees the female, Mayor. Doan never fergit that. Nature done made her a right fierce huntress. She doan stay ta home knittin' by no fire. An Ah heared tell all them bees out collectin' an a'makin' that thar honey done bees females, too. They jest use a few males fer...uh, you knows, uh, with'n the queen. Anyways, best not be a'speakin' ta quick regardin' nature's plans an' whar females done fit in 't."

"Good Heavens, Gaine," the Mayor huffed. "Don't be lecturing me about the bees."

"Then doan be conveniently a'fergittin' 'bout what all done constitutes nature."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Meghan inserted quickly, disgusted at their treatment of Nell and not wanting Gaine to argue with them. She rose from her chair. "It would seem you've come far out of your way for nothing."

"Yes, we have," the Mayor grumbled, jamming another cookie into his mouth as he rose. He rammed his hat on his head and sipped the last of his coffee with his mouthful of cookie.

"Ah coulda telled ya she war married, if'n ya'd asked," Gaine crossed her arms.

"My dear," Westminster said stepping up to Meghan, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. "A kiss for luck," he said with audacity. The look in his eyes was not that of a proper gentleman, "I'm sure you must get very lonely way out here with no proper male company. If you'd like, I'd be happy to bring out my carriage and escort you around the countryside sometime. Perhaps this Saturday?"

Gaine's brow flew to her hairline but Meghan answered quickly, snatching her hand back, "No. I'm sure you understand how that would be completely improper for both of us. I would never consider such a thing, sir."

"It IS improper, Westminster," Mr. Altenman stated firmly. "You have forgotten yourself, my good man."

"Come along, Westminster," the Mayor growled. Gaine walked the three men to the door as they quickly finished their cookies. She watched them get into their carriage to head back.

"Nell, I'm sorry for what that horrible man said," Meghan whispered as Gaine stepped outside the door to watch the carriage pull away. "I don't know why they think they can get so puffed up with their importance."

"It's all right," Nell said. "They're right. They're the "qualities". They do run the town and they know where we all fit in it. Besides, I've heard worse."

"No, they're NOT right. And I don't care if they run the town or not. You and your family are worth a thousand of any one of those men."

"Ah coulda saved 'em the trip," Gaine mused aloud as she returned from the door. "Ah swear, that Mayor a' ar'n bees a fool more times n' not." Nell looked over with surprise. When her husband was drunk he spoke disrespectfully of anybody in town, but she had never heard the Sheriff say anything about anyone else.

Gaine saw her questioning glance and added, "Well, jest lookit 'im a'usin' 'is ole wore-out dray horse. He gots hisself a sturdy young carriage horse but he al'ays says he doan wanna wear the carriage horse out. So's he uses 'is ole dray 'nstead while 'is carriage horse gets fat n' unusable from no exercise. Ain't no gittin' 'round 't..he bees a fool. Sides, he din't hire Meghan, an' ain't he a fool fer that."

"Gaine," Meghan scolded. Then her voice changed. "I'm glad you came back."

"Ah'm sorry ya doan git ta be no town teacher. Ya'd be right talented, Ah knows."

"Well, I get to work with Nell's young ones," she smiled toward the woman who was preparing supper. "And they're doing wonderfully."

"I'm honored to have you teachin' 'em, Kate! Both me and Shorty," Nell's eyes were still quite wide at their evaluations of the Mayor and the town trustees. These men ran the town. "Thank you for taking the time with the young uns."

Nell didn't know how to read or write herself and often worried about her children. They couldn't afford this new school the town was starting. But by listening to the childrens' lessons, she was beginning to understand how reading and writing worked. She was even learning to write her own name, even though Shorty would probably be furious if he found out. He barely knew how to write his name and wouldn't want her knowing more than he did. She'd have to pretend she didn't know anything.

"You're welcome, I'm sure," Meghan brushed off her skirt. "I'll get my apron and help you with supper. Goodness, Nell, they loved your cookies. Can you believe how many they ate?" They all looked at the empty plate. "Who do you think they'll get to teach in my place, Gaine?"

"Uh, prob'bly Meier's son. Ah heared he war a'comin' home fer a spell."

"Do fellas that teach have to follow the same rules as the ladies?"

Gaine shrugged. "Sortta. They doan let fellas teach if'n theys had a shave 'n a barber shop," she replied, "er been ta public halls, er smoked er drank none."

"I understand some of that, but why the barbershop part? We didn't have a barbershop in Jub..uh, where I was raised."

"Barbershops ain't seemly, Ah reckon. Hows they's talks an' such casts doubt on tha fella's intentions er integrity. An' they does keep many a' them shops open on Sundays, ya know."

"They do?" Meghan paused,"My father smokes AND drinks, maybe they're right."

He gots far worst besettin' sins 'n that, Gaine thought, but she wisely mumbled, "Mmm."


In Jubilee City, the two oldest sons returned to find each family's house filled with visiting sisters and their families. They did not have their father's remains with them. The heat on the trip forced them to bury him in a small town cemetery on the way home. He was placed in the ground in the Sacramento pine box which they blackened with shoe polish as their mother had suggested. The grave, which they paid a digger twenty-five cents to dig, was marked with a wooden cross with his name and date of birth and death.

The family understood the impossibility of the men's task. The family "mourners" gathered at their mother's home. The unwelcome news that Mr. Fitzgeraldson had not only been arrested for molestation, but had been seen by a stage full of people trying to shoot a woman in the back was discussed in hushed tones in the kitchen with Brenna's husband while the others filled the parlor and front porch completely unaware of such "sins" of the older man.

Mrs. Fitzgeraldson worked quietly nearby, but the men quit speaking if anyone else entered. At this point, they said, their father's five hundred dollar bond was in the court's hands and might not be released. The three men vowed to keep all this news quiet and prayed no one from their town would hear of this disgrace.

The murdered man had few possessions in Sacramento--some clothing and some cleaning supplies. But all his valuables were gone. The Deputy there said the Marshal hadn't made an arrest, but was out of town on that job as they spoke.

They were informed that from what the Marshal had told him, the murdered man's daughter had gone missing the night she arrived, but it was thought she had run off, possibly with the young officer who had ridden on the stage with them. They'd know more when the Marshal returned.

Her mother's eyes lit up at that and her heart filled with joy. Perhaps her daughter had gotten away. She said nothing but felt instantly giddy with the information although her oldest son scowled like his father at the telling.

Brogan Jr. was livid. Meghan had been needed to complete their deal. While they were there they decided they'd try to locate Lendal to see if he had signed the partnership agreement and taken Meghan as agreed. They looked everywhere but hadn't been able to locate him or Meghan.

That brought a further look of hope to their mother's eyes. They reported that even more discouraging was the news that their father's financial funding for the new business had apparently been stolen before he had completed the deal with the northern wagon company. Brenna's husband swore and all men agreed.

The bright side, they remarked, was that knowing Lendal's doggedness, he'd find Meghan before long. They said they went out to his home to get a signature on their contracts as had been previously agreed. Their father, of course, wouldn't be able to sign them at this point, but they were representatives of the company and could do so in his place. They had hoped to scrape together enough money to complete the original deal. They fully expected to find Meghan there, but she wasn't. Nor was Lendal anywhere to be found. His family didn't know where either might be.

Peter said they then went by the Sheriff's office in Miner's Flat where Lendal lived and discovered that the Deputy, Lendal's cousin, had gone missing, too. He hadn't returned for work as expected nor had he left any word as to where he was going. The only thing they could think was that the two men were out searching for Meghan. This brought a look of terror to their mother's eyes.

Brogan Jr. reassured them that Lendal would track her down. And they, of course, would give him any help he needed. When he found her, however, he needed to sign their contracts. He suggested that they write a letter to him with that firm proposal. It was only fitting. He'd already agreed once and it meant money in their pockets as beneficiaries of their father's estate. It would be a wealthy future for them all. Their mother's elation disappeared. She prayed fervently that they were wrong about Lendal, but she had great fear. She knew Lendal and it was an understatement to say he was relentless, cruel and ruthless.

Peter said they felt badly for their sister, of course. Lendal would deal harshly with Meghan. But she'd brought it on herself by running off. She needed to understand her duty. "Father always said she needed a firm hand!" he added.

I did not raise you well, their mother thought. Forgive me. You both sound so much like your father.

The Jubilee City editor had written a favorable death notice in their small town paper. It called Mr. Fitzgeraldson "a man of upright character, noted for his morality, rectitude and keen discernment in business matters."

Everyone in town wondered what would happen with his business. The new widow knew that Brenna and her husband, plus Peter and Brogan Jr. would continue running the shop. Not much would change. She knew that Brenna would never cheat her siblings, but she wasn't at all sure about her daughter's husband. And she knew her oldest two sons would undoubtedly do so.

Clad in her new widow's weeds, the widow dried her hands on her apron and moved out into the parlor to gain some quiet strength from her other children. She could not bear to think of Lendal in pursuit of her daughter, or worse yet, actually in possession of Meghan. She noted the black eye worn by Brogan Jr.'s wife, Jennie and sighed heavily. Please get away, Meghan. Get far, far away.


Continued in Chapter 9

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