Fetchin' Cousin Minnie

by bsoiree

See disclaimers in Chapter 1

------------------------------------Chapter 9

Shorty was a quiet, nonassertive man when he wasn't drinking. He had managed to find a job on a farm and had worked steadily since Nell left with the children and had her neighbor take them out to Gaine's ranch. That was after he blacked her eye and punched out some of her teeth. Sunday afternoon he combed his hair, trimmed his beard and rode out to the ranch to tell Nell it was time for her and the children to come back home.

Gaine saw him coming and asked Nell what she would like to do about it. She was willing to go to whatever lengths Nell wanted, as much as she was able. She told the woman that if she didn't want to see him, she would tell him to leave. But Nell chose to see him. Without another word Gaine opened the door to let him inside. He stood quietly on the porch, his hat in his hand. He did not look at Gaine, but quietly moved past her to speak with Nell.

Meghan Kate joined Gaine on the porch. They both knew they would miss Nell and the children terribly if she chose to go back. They couldn't imagine the ranch without the cheerful sounds of the children and the sight of Nell cooking in the kitchen.

'But if Shorty has changed his life,' Meghan Kate said hopefully. She was trying to get people to call her Kate, but Gaine had trouble leaving off the Meghan part, so she had taken to calling her Meghan Kate. The blonde raised hopeful eyes to Gaine. 'He has a steady job.'

'Yep. Ah jest hope he's truly done with'n 'is drinkin', ' Gaine was almost afraid to hope. She'd seen him sober before.

An hour later Shorty left and Nell informed them that she had made the decision to go back sometime during the week. Since Shorty was gone all week, it would be a good way to ease into the situation. She opened her hand to show some greenbacks Shorty had given her. 'For expenses. But I should give this to you,' she said, 'to help with supplies we've used.'

'No. Yus git supplies once't yer back. Ahm glad he's workin'. T'is a good start.'

The next day Meghan and Nell rode into town with Gaine when she went to work. The two women thoroughly cleaned Nell and Shorty's ramshackle home so that lice would not be a continuing problem. The next day Nell packed up the children and Gaine drove them back into town. They brought five setting hens from the ranch to trade for five of Nell's. Meghan was sure she could get Nell's five laying again once they had better feed. Everyone at the ranch was sad when Nell's family left, but the dogs were devastated.

They had made an agreement of sorts about the children's education. When she had time, Meghan would come into town and teach the older ones, five years and older, hopefully using the church building. That would involve four of Shorty and Nell's six children. None of the little ones worked the harvest or fall roundup as such.

The pastor and church elders, however, refused to let Meghan Kate use the church building so Gaine offered her tiny office instead, which had the Mayor up in arms. Knowing that people in town did not think well of Shorty or his family, but believing that the pastor's wife was more kindhearted than not, Gaine went to her and shamed what her husband and the elders were doing. At last the Pastor made his way to Gaine's office with the agreement that as long as Meghan Kate brought her own broom and lamp oil, filled and cleaned the lamp chimney, swept and wiped down the pews every day after they were finished and didn't use the stove, she could use it.

To help trim expenses, Meghan Kate planned to pick the sunniest spot in the church to give her lessons with the hope of using no lamp oil at all. The weather was warm so she needed no heat. She collected pieces of soapstone to use as chalk and had Gaine provide her with a piece of an old wagon box for a chalkboard. She priced the broom at the store and flinched at having to pay twenty-five cents. Their budget couldn't afford that. Gaine said to use the one from her office and she'd deal with the Mayor, who grumbled everytime he passed her thereafter.

At last their plans were completed and the lessons in town began. And so it was that one morning while Meghan Kate was intently working with the children as they sat in the front pew of the church, the door opened and a town stranger cautiously entered, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the subdued light. He took a gold watch from his pocket and flicked the nob that popped the lid open before closing the lid again with a snap. His austere eyes caught Kate's and a confident edge twitched his mouth. He started up the aisle toward her.

"Oh, gods! No!" Meghan Kate muttered with alarm. Her heart was pounding in her throat. The man had seen her look up. "Willy," she whispered, "go find the Sheriff and tell her to get here right away! Hurry!"

"Yes, ma'am," the young girl replied and slipped from the pew, alarmed at the fright she heard in her teacher's voice. She had to go past the large stranger who was treading slowly down the aisle towards them, so she ran pell mell hoping to get past in a hurry.

The man reached out a hand and caught Willy by the arm in a firm grip, "Where ya going, Missy?"

"Let me go!" she demanded, swinging her leg to kick him. The man quickly stepped out of the way of her foot but she had taken him by surprise nonetheless. "Teacher, tell him to let me go," Willy demanded.

He laughed. "I ain't gonna hold ya up. Looks like ya gotta go."

"Cousin Minnie, who is that man?" little Dennis asked. All the children leaned in closer to Meghan Kate. The small blonde could not talk. Her voice was in her throat and she could feel the pulse in her neck throbbing.

"Sheriff! Sheriff! Where are ya?" Willy called into the empty Sheriff's office. "Cousin Minnie needs ya! Hurry!"

Gaine had been walking back to her office after stopping at the saloon to make sure there were no problems then she'd picked up the mail at the mercantile. She had a handful of new 'Wanted' posters that had come in on the latest delivery. She heard Willy shouting and ran towards her. "What t'is it? What's happenin'?"

"A man! He's scaring Cousin...uh, our teacher!"


"At the church."

Gaine took off on the run, dropping the posters in the street. She tore across in front of a wagon and barely missed being trampled. She hit the opposite boardwalk in two steps then hit the church stairs, taking them all three at a time. She flung the door open, her gun drawn. There in the front, before Meghan Kate, was the stranger in town.

He turned as she came in. "Sheriff," he said. "I see word travels fast in these parts." There was a smirk on his face and a watch in one hand.

"Marshal," Gaine replied, replacing her gun into the holster. "What 'er ya doing botherin' them thar school childerns durin' larnin' time?"

"An old man at the store said your cousin was teaching over here. I thought it was time to see her face. 'Sides, you weren't at your desk when I went by." His deep voice resonated acoustically in the room.

"Gaine, he says a Mr. Brogan Fitzgeraldson is dead," Meghan's voice was unsteady and her large green eyes were directed almost pleadingly at Gaine. Her face was very pale. Her eyes moved to the pocket watch in the man's hand.

"Mr. Fitzgeraldson? From the stage?" Gaine took off her hat before proceeding forward.

"The very one," the Marshal stated, facing towards her. His hat was in one hand, the watch in the other.

"How'd he die?"

"Stabbed." The five-year old Dennis put his hand on his mouth in terror and the children bunched even closer together.

"When? Whar? Who done it?" Gaine moved down to the group. Willy came along carefully behind her. Willy slipped back onto the pew with her siblings, protectively putting her arms around the nearest. The children sat quietly, watching the interaction, terrified at the thought of a man being murdered.

"He was brutally stabbed later that day after you two left town." The children gasped but he continued, "It was in his room. His valuables are missing so we're considering robbery as the motive. Now what else did you ask? Oh, yes, who did it? Well, that's really why I'm here."

Gaine tensed. "Ya thinks someones from here done it?" she asked incredulously. Meghan sat, shocked, her attention now on the door and not on either adult. Her father was dead? Had been for weeks? She felt...surprise. That was all. She knew she should feel something more, but she didn't.

"No. No one from here. I was just telling your Cousin Minnie here, that I'm on my way to Jubilee City to meet with the family of Mr. Fitzgeraldson."

"Couldn't ya jest wire his fam'ly?" Gaine asked looking curiously at the gold pocket watch in the Marshal's hand. "Seems like a fer piece ta go ta give notice."

"Oh, I did. But I've arrested the murderer," he said proudly, "And I need Mr. Fitzgeraldson's wife to verify that this was indeed her husband's pocket watch. I found it in the possession of the man I believe killed him, the last man we can prove to have seen him alive...that we know of, of course."

Gaine's eyes did not move from the gold watch in the man's hand. She remembered the watch Meghan's father had opened time after time on the stage. Blue eyes scrutinized the elaborate scene engraved in the gold lid, "Done looks like the same watch he had hisself on that thar stage. Same pitcher, nohow. Who war the fella ya arrested?"

"Lendal Hindlefarb," the deep voice of the Marshal echoed. Meghan's head whipped up, then she glanced quickly down to the floor. Lendal'd been arrested? The Marshal continued, "He had a motive for murder, the opportunity to do the deed, the likely weapon in his boot and a fierce temper. It was a vicious killing."

"Cousin Minnie," the smallest boy's lip had been quivering as he whimpered. He moved from Willy's grip and threw his arms around Meghan. "A man was murd...."

"NO!" Willy shouted to the small boy, "She ain't Cousin Minnie!"

The Marshal's shocked eyes instantly went to Meghan as did Gaine's.

"We's s'posed ta call her Mrs. Sargos. Momma said so. Said it's only fittin' fer a teacher."

Meghan embraced the child and ran her hand softly across his head. "There, there, Dennis, don't cry." She looked up at Gaine, "Not the topic to discuss around children," she admonished gently, her own mind whirling.

"No, ma'am," the Marshal replied. "I apologize heartily. The Sheriff here and I will continue this outside. You're the one I wanted to see, anyway, Sheriff. Uh, sorry children. Nice to have met you again, ma'am." The two walked down the aisle, hats in hand, Gaine looking back once to see that Meghan Kate was all right. She was sitting motionless watching them go out.

"Ya come quite a ways outta yer way ta tell me sumthin' ya coulda' writ about," Gaine said to the man as they stepped out the doors. She replaced her hat and stopped by the top step of the church entry and crossed her arms. Her beautiful black hair flowed over her shoulders, highlighting her deep blue eyes. But her stance was all business.

"I wanted your observation since I was gonna be in these parts anyway." The Marshal cleared his throat, put on his hat and pushed it back on his head. He leaned back against the railing.

"Mah observation?" Gaine tilted her head.

"Of the watch. You were on that stage. You saw him use it. I want your observation. Is this his watch?" He handed Gaine the watch. She took it, looked it over carefully, popped the lid and looked at the inside. She closed the lid, turned it over, looked at the bottom then held it to see the gold fob dangle.

"Looks like it. Gots the same design. Ah does 'member that. But Ah doan know how many like it war maneefactured that year."

"Two hundred and seventy five," the Marshal replied.

"Mmm. That thar's quite a batch."

"Yes. However not that many were sold out west here. And it's the preponderance of evidence that's important. My suspect was there, he had the right kind of weapon, he had the dead man's contracts, he had a wad of money like the dead man had earlier when he was jailed, he was heard speaking angrily with the man, and he had the murdered man's watch but he didn't have the money belt."

"A wad a' money? Ah din't know Fitzgeraldson had that. He din't flash it around none er nothin'." Gaine smiled at the couple on the boardwalk walking past them. They glanced back with smiles, the gentleman tipped his hat in return before they continued along the boardwalk.

"Yes. He had a money belt as full as a fat man at a five day feast when I arrested him. Had to put it into Pott's store safe for safe keeping. It was mighty full."

"Ahl be.' Gaine thought about it then looked back at the watch, 'So's, what if'n that ain't Fitzgeraldson's watch?"

"If it could be proved it wasn't Mr. Fitzgeraldson's, then this Lendal's claims would have more weight and there'd be a good chance he'd go free."

"His claims?" Gaine's eyes stayed on the watch as did the Marshal's.

"Yes, he claims that the money was his. He was to become a secret partner with Mr. Fitzgeraldson, he said. And he did withdraw some money from his bank and he did have possession of some unsigned partnership agreements." The Marshal glanced up, "But one has to wonder why he didn't get them signed and pay the money to Fitzgeraldson when he was with him that morning? Why walk out and leave the man, without exchanging the money or the contracts?"

"Hmm. So, whadid he say whar the reason?" Inquisitive blue eyes focused on brown.

"He got angry and shouted 'Brogan cheated me!''

'Cheated him?' Gaine ran a hand on her neck, trying to loosen the muscles.

'Yep. That's what he said. He was angry and anger figures greatly in my theory of what happened. And the money, well this man had a good deal more money on him than what he withdrew from his bank. He claims he made a big profit on some mules he'd delivered to the crossroad and that was the extra, but the teamster he says bought them left town. He didn't know where he went or when he'd return.'

"Ah believe Ah heared that thar Lendal fella war a'workin' with mules, though."

"Yes, he raised them. So, of course he would say that's what he sold to get the extra money. He just can't prove it. Didn't find anyone to verify his claim except his oldest son. And believe me, I don't hang my hat on much his oldest boy says. And that boy influences all the rest so you can't believe any of them. They'd do whatever he told them to do."

'Ya doan say.'

'Yep. Then he told some big story about how he and Fitzgeraldson's company were going to invest in another wagon shop that was offering them a very good buy-out price. And there was a shop by the name he gave. But when I talked to those wagon fellows, two partners, they both denied any knowledge of such a deal. Both said it was ridiculous, they'd never sell for anywhere near that low a price. That's what they told me. So I figured maybe that's what Lendal meant about being cheated. Maybe the old man told him there'd be a takeover, brought money as proof of his share and it was all a sham to get Lendal's money."

"Maybe. I wouldn't put it past the old man. Did Lendal have the coin with'n the hole in't?"

"No. We figure he sold that somewhere in San Francisco and maybe threw away the belt the money was kept in. We didn't find it either. But he did have the money and the watch, which he claims were both his. So, a sure identification on the watch, if it can be made, would go a long way toward establishing his innocence or guilt. Now, his children say the watch was his, but they would, wouldn't they?"

"Ah 'spose. Did ya check on that feller's first wife?"

"And that's another thing. I'm still investigating it. Now that I've arrested him, and that wasn't easy, believe me... Anyway, I'm hoping I'll get a chance to get his youngest child aside and that I won't have to let him go before I can. I think she'll give us information no one else is willing to give about the first wife. But time's running out on this case. He's pressing hard for bail. So far I've been able to fend that off. And I surely don't want to have to set him free for lack of evidence."

'No. Ya had trouble arrestin' 'im, ya say?'

'First I had to chase him down. He got himself arrested trying to break into the Presidio.'

'The Presidio?'

'Yep. I think he was going after the Lieutenant as much as I can figure. This was after he left the Sacramento hotel where Mr. Fitzgeraldson was found in a pool of his own blood. Anyway, this suspect of mine convinced the Army that he was just trying to break in on a lark..a saloon bet of some kind. They let him go.'

'He bees a dodgy one, doan he?" Gaine frowned. Lendal was like a huntin' dog goin' for a rabbit. He had to have been going after the Lieutenant. The audacity of the man, trying to do that in a fully manned location. But then she considered what his cousin had done to the four Army boys, four against one. No, they couldn't afford to underestimate Lendal one bit, especially if the Marshal had to let him go. She'd have to be extra vigilant in watching over Meghan Kate.

"Yes. He's dodgy, all right." The Marshal's brown eyes looked away then returned to her blue. "Tell ya the truth, I've seen many a man, Sheriff, but this fellow is as evil as any I've ever seen."

'What Ah heared 'bout him shore fits that description.'

'Yes, well after being released by the Army he headed for Sunnyhill where you killed his cousin there in China Cup Valley. Funny thing is, Mr. Thatcher who also shot the Deputy disappeared after Lendal got there. Haven't found a sign of the man. Just up and disappeared. It's very suspicious, but I can't prove a thing against Lendal for that. If I were a bettin' man, however, I'd say he was involved.'

"That Thatcher feller war a nice man. Ah hopes he turns up alive 'n well somewhar.'

'He left all his things at the hotel.'

'Goddam,' Gaine muttered softly. That was not good news. She sighed heavily, 'that whar ya arrested 'im?'

'Yep. Me 'n the Sheriff of Sunnyhill. I recognized Lendal right off, even if he had shaved his beard. He tried runnin', and hidin'. But we saw him in the woods. When we finally got him trapped, which was none too easy, he gave up without a fight, claimin' his innocence of any crime of any kind. Hired the best attorney money can buy.'

'Well, Ah wisht Ah could tell ya definitively one way er t'uther 'bout the watch. Shore looks like his, gots the same designs an' all, an the same gold fob. They come with that?" She moved the watch and let the fob swing.


"Mmm. Well, that's as particular as Ah kin be fer ya. Sorry." She handed the watch back to the Marshal.

"That's all right. Every bit of information helps. Mr. Fitzgeraldson's wife is the one I'm hoping will positively identify it. See, it has a little scrape here below the release." He turned it over and pointed out the scrape to Gaine. "If she says its her husband's, your identification will support her word. So I'm glad to have your opinion. You were an eye witness to the watch. A Sheriff's word is always good testimony."

"Ah doan 'member 'bout no scrape. Sorry. Can't see it none when t'is held. 'N he al'ays held it so's nobody could see't."

"I remember." The Marshal jammed the watch in his coat pocket.

"So, do ya be four days glad fer my 'pinion? Cause that's what it done cost ya to come by here. Two in, two out."

"Yes. Four days glad. Oh, and his daughter that disappeared--she left a note. She was twenty one like you said."

Gaine forced herself not to blink. "Ah. Ya found a note."

"He had it torn up in his pocket. He was going to claim she was younger, I'm quite sure so we'd search for her as a kidnap victim. But we know it couldn't have been her that killed him."

"Why's that?"

"Well, women aren't killers," he looked at her and added, "usually. And it would take far too much strength for a young woman to kill a man of that size with a knife. With a gun, yes. But not with a knife. Now this murderer knew what he was doing with that knife. It woulda been fast and mostly noiseless. Cut his throat then stabbed him a couple times more afterward, likely in pure hate or rage. The knife blows show it was someone tall...tall as you. But you've got a perfect alibi. I seen ya leave and ya were on site at that Army wagon attack. I heard all about that business. You couldn't be in both places at once, not that I'da suspected ya, of course."

"Uh huh. We both know ever'body's a suspect 'n a murder. What all happened with that thar young Army fella that war hurt sa bad, ya heard?"

"Still alive when I went through a few days ago. Doctor's still got him at his house. Now the Deputy that perpetrated that crime was a real mystery. His name was Garblon, Baylis A. Garblon. They know where he lived. But the why of his crime just seems preposterous." The Marshal shook his head, "That cousin of this Lendal fellow beat that young soldier somethin' awful. Broke his feet up and bashed his innards. Just to find where the Fitzgeraldson girl went, far as they can determine. I do believe they're cut from the same cloth, those cousins. Army's got their boys investigatin' that affair. Imagine gettin' the drop on four soldiers! Ya gotta be damn cunnin' ta do that."

"An' skilled," Gaine muttered with a shiver. She thought how it likely wasn't the first time he'd done such crimes. She added, "So, what be the mystery 'bout that Deputy feller then, that he caught 'em off guard er the why a what he done?"

"No, the mystery I was referring to is that Mr. Fitzgeraldson died with the Deputy's badge in his hand. But the Deputy himself was in China Cup Valley at that time. So why did Mr. Fitgeraldson have his badge?

"Ah see,' Gaine furrowed her brow but couldn't think of any reason why Meghan Kate's father would have the Deputy's badge in his hand. ' that t'is a might strange."

"Yep. Sometimes there are mysteries ya never solve, I guess. I know Lendal and this Deputy were related and at least two crimes were committed, the murder of Mr. Fitzgeraldson and the attempted murder of the Army boys. I'm quite sure each man was responsible for at least one of those crimes. Guess I'm gonna have to be happy with solving that much."

"Hmm. Yep, Ah see whatcha means." Gaine started down the stairs and the Marshal followed. "Well, Marshal, appreciate yer sharin'. I hafta go check on mah riders and see if'n they done spotted ana'thing. We've gots usn's some rustlers a'ravagin' these here parts an Ahm determined they ain't comin' inta ar town er gittin' eny a' ar' ranches."

"I heard about that. The Double X Ranch they hit, wasn't it?" The Marshal's deep voice ruffled his mustache as he talked. He pushed his hat back on his head as they walked.

"Yep. Close. Too close." Gaine walked beside the man toward a horse with a saddle she knew must be his.

"I hope ya catch 'em," the Marshal remarked.

"Me, too. Here ya are, Marshal," Gaine stopped before the horse.

"How'd ya know this was my horse? Am I the only stranger in town?"

"Mostly. Sides, punchers doan need ta rent hosses from tha livery as a rule and that's what we got 'round here, punchers. Yer saddlehorn ain't got no rope marks on't, sa it doan belong ta no cowpuncher er even sheepman. Thar's al'ays gots rope marks."

"I've got a rope there."

"Yep. An' t'is hung on thar Texas style only ya ain't from Texas. Now Slim over ta the livery whar the stage stops, he's from Texas. This here's his doin's."

The Marshal laughed his deep laugh. "Ya ever want a job in Sacramento, come see me. I'll have one for ya."

Gaine took off her hat. "Thanks. Say, could ya send me any news 'bout this here case an' how it turns out? I'm plumb curious now."

"Sure thing. I'll let ya know what happens."

"'Preciate it." Gaine put her hat back on and turned toward her office as the Marshal mounted. She glanced in the street then back as the Marshal rode from town. Someone had picked up the mail she'd dropped. She'd likely find it neatly stacked on her desk.

Meghan Kate was quiet as Gaine helped her into the buckboard to head home that evening. She was still pale. They didn't have a chance to eat noon dinner together since Gaine had to ride out to the Wilson place about a missing horse old man Wilson thought sure the rustlers had stolen. Turned out it had wandered loose and was down by the water elms along the creek bank on his neighbor's property.

Gaine watched the small blonde from the side of her eye. It had to have been a shock to discover her father was dead, so the tall brunette tried not to push against her unusual silence. They started off without speaking, Meghan Kate's eyes drifting off to the horizon.

Partway home she turned to Gaine. "He had father's watch. He's really dead. Father's dead." Her eyes held disbelief. "And Lendal killed him. I can't believe it." She still had no particular feelings regarding her father's death save surprise. That and a touch of relief she resisted recognizing. "They were friends so long."

"Yep. Them things happen." Gaine knew exactly what her own feelings were-- liberation. She felt the way the blonde's father had treated Meghan Kate was malevolent and she bore no sorrow hearing of his demise. And further, if Lendal were to pay the ultimate price for his crime, so much the better in her thoughts. She saw Meghan Kate gaze open-mouthed at the scenery again.

"Did you see the scratches on the inside of the watch case? The Marshal didn't open it when he held it in front of me." Meghan Kate looked down at the slightly too large white kid gloves her mother had given her and wondered how her mother would feel when she learned of her hated husband's death.

"Scratches? No. Thar warn't no scratches inside."

Meghan spun and grabbed Gaine's arm. "There weren"t? You didn't see any scratches? Oh, Gaine!"

Gaine slowed the horses to stare at Meghan Kate's shocked face. "Warn't none. Jest a little scrape 'neath the re-lease."

"Oh, dear heavens! That wasn't father's watch!"

"It warn't? Look't jest like it war. Ah 'member the same scene a'bein' ta the lid."

"No! My father had me polish his watch all the time. Once a number of years back a little grit got into the rag and made some deep scratch marks on the inside of the lid before I realized it. He beat me soundly for that. They lightened with age, but they were deep and still there. That's why I always hated when he opened the lid. It reminded him and kept him angry at me.'

'Din't see none,' Gaine said softly.

'Oh, heavens! The watch was just like father's but it had no scratches." She gazed out into the distance and chewed her lip. "What do I do, Gaine? We've got to tell the Marshal. Stop! I've got to find him. He has to know."

Gaine reined in the horses. It would be hard catching the Marshal at this point. He had most of a day's headstart. Going after him might even mean riding all the way into Jubilee City. And Meghan Kate's family would know then where she was. No telling what that might mean for her safety, particularly since Lendal would most likely be released because of the information.

Gaine wildly grasped at possibilities. She could write a letter to the Marshal's office in Sacramento. Saying what? That she remembered scratches inside Fitzgeraldson's watch? A flat out lie unless she involved Meghan Kate. But it would be better than putting the blonde at risk. Then another thought came into Gaine's mind, "Uh, did yer Ma know 'bout them scratch marks ya made?"

"Yes." the blonde continued chewing her lip, "Everyone did. I think Mother suffered as badly from that beating as I did, just out of sympathy."

Gaine let out a sigh of relief. "Then doan worry none 'bout it, honey. Marshal's headed a'right out ta see her. Yer Momma'll point it out ta 'im." Gaine saw that information run behind Meghan Kate's eyes. The small blonde visibly relaxed some. Gaine clicked the horses on again.

Meghan Kate considered. Of course. Her mother would set the Marshal straight. "They'll let Lendal go." She shivered and there was a quaver of grief in her voice.

"Could be. What ain't 'n contention bees that he done had the right kinda weapon, the wrong kinda temper an' a congruous opportunity ta use both."

"No, honey," Meghan Kate replied, "I think when they know for sure that it wasn't his watch, they'll let him go. I wish they wouldn't, but I think they will."

"Ah know. They need ta find out more 'bout his first wife and get him fer that."

"Ruby? Yes. Do YOU think Lendal killed my father?"

"Could be. Would he steal from yer Pa?"

"I have no idea. He wasn't a nice man. That's all I know. I guess he might."

'Would yer Pa try 'n steal from him?'

'Father stealing from Lendal? I think he might have been too leery of Lendal's temper. That would be the only reason, though. Why?'

"Marshal said yer Pa war carryin' a thick belt a money that war stole from 'im and a wad war found on Lendal when they caught 'im. More'n he could 'splain away. So's thar be a question whether Lendal stole from yer Pa."

"He had father's money? I never knew when father was carrying money. I know he didn't ever put much stock in banks. Money was of greatest importance to him. He did have a business meeting set up for after I was to be married, so I guess he would have carried some. I don't know what it was or if Lendal was supposed to be involved in it or not."

"Well, doan worry none 'bout it, honey. Yer Momma'll let the Marshal know 'bout the scratches. Ain't nothin' more ta be done."

"Yes. Momma will set it all straight."


Three days later Mrs. Fitzgeraldson sat across from the Marshal in the parlor. Her young teenaged sons were sent out at her request. Her out-of-town children had all headed back home and they were now getting the house and remaining furnishings ready to sell.

"The boys've had quite a lot to deal with, with my husband's death and all," she explained. But in truth she knew her older boys would not want any of their father's sins brought up around the younger boys, should the Marshal do so.

The Marshal held out the watch to her and her eyes looked into his.

"Is this your husband's pocket watch?" he asked. "I'm trying to make a positive identification."

She questioned where he had gotten it, and he told her. He told her who the suspect was. He explained the man had been arrested for her husband's murder, but they needed to know if she could positively identify the watch. But she need feel no pressure either way, he told her. A simple identification one way or the other would be fine. Or if she didn't know for sure, that would suffice as well.

She knew, of course, that it wouldn't suffice. Not at all. Lendal's watch or her husband's? Lendal had possessed this one when they'd arrested him. Did they even know whether he had ever owned one of his own like this? She didn't think they knew. His children would have said he did, but considering they would be too frightened to do anything but lie for him, no one would believe them.

This man, this horrible vicious man that repeatedly beat Ruby savagely, maimed her and ultimately, she was sure, killed her...her dear friend Ruby. The same man to whom her husband had promised their precious Meghan...did he have Meghan? She felt a catch in her throat just thinking about it. She had to clamp down on her lower lip to keep it from quivering. Was Meghan under his evil influence somewhere? And what if she'd gotten away? He'd go after her. He'd search till he found her. And he'd hurt her so badly when he found her. She knew that much about him.

Slowly she pressed the button that popped the lid open. She looked inside and rubbed her fingers over the smooth gold metal on the inside of the lid. He might have Meghan right now. Like he had Ruby, her dear friend... They were neighbors when they were both starting out, young, innocent brides. Then she remembered the beatings Lendal administered to her. Even when she was pregnant, which she always was, he would beat her and kick her mercilessly. Ruby would roll her small body around the unborn child to do her best for its survival. Even so, she had a number of miscarriages.

She looked at the lid to the watch. She turned it over in her hands. She saw the small nick below the release. Was this watch her husband's? Could she positively identify it as his?


It took a while, but even the dogs got used to just the four adults being at the ranch. Meghan cooked, cleaned, worked on her rag rug and still managed to make it into town to work with the children three times a week until the fruit began to ripen. Then all of her time was taken up with drying and canning and storing for winter use. Even so, Meghan worried whether the children were eating well enough. They were naturally thin children but on the ranch their appetites had increased and they'd become more active and healthy. As Meghan saw them in town, however, the less active and the more pale they seemed.

Sure that they weren't eating regularly, she sent large biscuit sandwiches with Gaine each day to give to Willy, all her brothers, and three-year old sister, Bongo. And she sent bushels of fruit for the family at least once a week. She knew Nell would never accept a daily lunch for herself.

The attention did not go unnoticed by the townsfolk and drew mixed reviews. There were those who were pleased that this family was getting much needed help. But there were always those who were very unhappy that a family of such poor means not only had their children learning to read and write without paying a cent, but were also using the Sheriff's valuable time each and every day. And there were a certain few who thought the Sheriff should spend her time exclusively patrolling the saloons and other troubled areas and not spend a minute with this group of "filthy beggars".

Gaine ignored the talk. If she wasn't out of the office on business, she would ask Willy, "Ya ready fer dinner?" and the young girl who constantly hung around her office would answer, "Sure." Gaine would unwrap their lunch, take out her own part and push the rest across the desk to Willy. The eight-year old would stand and eat her share while Gaine sat across the desk eating hers, neither finding any need to chatter while they did so.

Life was not easy for Willy, Gaine knew. The town children harassed her and her brothers, but mostly her, and the young girl often found herself scrapping with them to protect herself and her siblings. They mocked her about her clothes, her drunken father and taunted that her family sorted through garbage to find scraps like stray dogs. Gaine stopped them when she was able, but she knew it was still going on.

Each day when they finished eating, Willy would tie the rest of the lunch in the cloth napkin, holler "bye" and run off to find her brothers and little sister to give them their share. She always returned the large napkin afterward. When Gaine was called away from town, she would either give the lunch to Willy early if she saw her or leave it on her desk for the girl.

When she returned after five one afternoon and found her office locked with the package still there on her desk, she asked the men in the cooper's shop who had locked her office. They told her the Mayor had been by and locked it. Gaine was instantly furious. There were those who took a certain pleasure in grinding the downtrodden underfoot and the Mayor was one of them.

Ya rotten, mean-spirited buzzard! she slammed her hand on the locked door. Pickin' on childerns! Keepin' food out a their mouths! Ya ain't never gonna be a'doin' that ag'in! She pulled out her gun and shot out the lock, even though she had a key. Now it wouldn't lock!

Gaine looked around town but couldn't find Willy. Even Nell didn't know where she was. Whadid he say ta her? Gaine wondered. Finally she spotted the girl sitting forlornly on the bank of the river. She looked at an approaching Gaine with a sad expression then dropped her eyes back to the river.

"Here ya be. Ah left this fer ya," Gaine held out the lunch package to the girl.

"You brought dinner today?" Willy asked, her eyes registering doubt.

"Yep. Ah left it fer ya but mah office done got locked. Sorry. It ain't gonna happen ag'in."

"Oh," Willy said with large, innocent eyes. "The Mayor said you didn't want me by there no more. He said I ain't 'sposed to bother ya never ag'in."

Gaine sat down on the bank beside the small girl. "Ya ain't no bother. Ya knows that." She saw Willy's lip quiver. The girl wiped a quick tear from her eye then looked away. "Look," Gaine continued, "A Sheriff's office kin be a right dangerous place. Maybe he war frightened fer yer safety." She looked at the small girl and they both knew the Mayor had not been concerned about Willy's safety. "Tell ya the truth, Ah doan know what he war a'thinkin' but he got 't t'all mixed up. Ain't nothin' changed." They both sat silently staring at the river. Then Gaine continued, "Ya'd best eat that thar a'fore 't goes ta waste. Kate woun't like that."

"Yes," Willy's face turned into a smile. They sat silently while Willy unwrapped the package and ate while Gaine tossed small pebbles into the river. Gaine'd eaten her share of dinner at noon. They didn't say a word to each other. Then Willy wrapped the package again, stood, quietly said "bye" and turned to leave.

"See ya tamorra ta dinner time?" Gaine asked.

"Ya mean it?" a huge grin lit up the small girl's face.

"If'n Ah ain't called out. If'n Ah am, Ahl leave it fer ya on my desk like al'ays an' the door'll be unlocked. Ah promise. Ya got mah permission ta go in an git it eny time. An Ahl be a'tellin' the Mayor so's he ain't gonna git it wrong no more."

"See ya tamorra," Willy called through a happy grin. Her smile showed her tooth was coming in and the empty gap was filling in.

"Tamorra," Gaine called, rising to brush off her trousers as the girl raced toward home to find her siblings. At least they would have one meal today. Gaine's fists clenched and a tempest raged inside her. She needed to find the Mayor. She knew the miserable jackass would be in his office.

Gaine's passion was so aroused that she slammed his door loudly enough that all the windows in the office rattled and everyone in town knew she was in there. The Mayor looked up with a fair degree of fear and moved back in his chair. "Sheriff," he said. "You're back."

"Listen, ya damn miserable polecat. Ya ain't never gonna lock mah door ag'in er tell eny a Nell's childerns that they ain't 'sposed ta be in mah office. That thar's MAH office an' Ah run it as Ah please. If'n ya wants ta fire me, than fire me right now THIS VERA MINUTE an' Ahl go back ta the ranch an' we'll be done once't n' fer all. An Ah woan ne'er be a'comin back ta work fer ya. Ne'er ag'in."

"I don't want to fire..."

"If'n ya doan fire me, then keep yer damn blusterin' nose outta mah office. If'n Ah ever come back an' find ya replaced the lock on mah door an' locked t'ag'in, we're all gonna be able ta find whar ya been. Cause Ahm gonna jam that thar key so far down yer throat ya'll be a'trackin' key shapes 'n ever t'uther footprint. Ya understand that?"

"Replace your lock?"

"It got blowed away...an' the likes a' you outta, too!"

"Now, Gaine, I was just tryin..."

"Ta run mah business. Doan ya never do it ag'in. Ahve a good mind ta call ya out ta the street." She stood staring at him, then she pulled out her gun and calmly replaced the missing bullets with those from her belt to fill all six chambers.

"Gaine, now calm down. I was just trying to save you some aggravation. I know you don't want those filthy little urchi.."

Gaine reached across the desk with her left hand and pulled the man up from his chair by his fancy black tie. "Ya'd best stop right thar," she said in a calm voice that sent shivers down his spine. She moved her gun up towards him. "Ah ain't gonna have none a' yer name callin'. Ya ain't got no idea what Ah want er doan want." His eyes bugged out and she slowly lowered her gun. "Ah really outta knock ya flat 'n yer beam ends." She roughly pushed him back into his chair. "See that thar fly 'n yer ceilin'?"

The man slowly glanced up. "Yyyyes," he stuttered.

Gaine rapidly emptied her gun forming a circle where the fly had been. "The next time yer ponderin' whether ta put yer nose 'n mah business, ya jest stick yer miserable nose ta that thar circle 'stead and ponder whether ya really wanna fuss with'n me er not. Lordy, Ahm mad 'nuff right now ta kilt ya whar ya sit. KEEP OUT A MAH BUSINESS AN' LEAVE NELL'S CHILDERNS ALONE!!!" She turned, 'Ahm chargin' them bullets ta the town,' and stalked out the door, slamming it so hard behind her that one of the windows did crack.

People on the street gave her a wide margin as she turned from the Mayor's office. "Good job, Gaine," Etta said softly as Gaine bustled down the boardwalk past the middle aged woman and her husband, Wilbur. Gaine stopped and looked back. She took a calming breath. "Thanks, Etta."

"He's a trial, that man," The middle-aged woman said softly so others need not overhear. "And his pals in there, too." Gaine stepped back to talk with the couple. Etta shook her head, "You're the only one can scare him enough to make him stop and think. Wish you'd talk to him about the city finances. We were just in there. Their plans will sink this town into debt so deeply we'll never get out. They want a jail and a schoolhouse and a new bridge and they're trying to do it all without a vote."

"Ain't the church good 'nuff ta use ta the school fer now? An' seems ta me the bridge jest needs some simple repairs. Sides, thar be a teacher's salary ta pay."

"Yes. They're paying the Meier boy twelve dollars a month as school master."

"Twelve? Theys only offered mah cousin eight."

"Well, she's a woman, of course. In any case, these are hard times. People can't afford all this. Now, there's supposed to be some money there already, even subtracting the new salary. But he says there's not. I tried to talk further with him about it, but he dismissed us. Said I shouldn't worry my pretty little head. I've been talking to different fellas that come into the cafe trying to get Wilbur here hired as Clerk, Assessor and town Treasurer. Course the Mayor says the city can't afford to hire someone for that."

"Ya think thar a'stealin'?"

"No. Honestly, I think they're just stubborn, incompetent bumblers with grandiose ideas and no one to ride herd over them."

"She's the one should be looking into everything," Wilbur chuckled. "She's a whiz with finances, doancha know."

"Ah doan know that much 'bout city finances, Etta," Gaine replied, her temper waning. "T'is enuff ta work the ranch's finances. But Ahl help ya, if'n Ah kin."

"Thanks. You're doin' the right thing, helpin' Shorty's family by the way, Gaine," Etta looked down toward Nell's ramshackle cottage. "They need your help. I had my oldest at home feed their chickens and gather the eggs when Nell and the children were gone. And he did the milking, though Lord knows their poor cow doesn't give all that much. Shorty already sold their calf and likely drank away the money from it. I made butter and pot cheese and we traded it all to the store in their name so they had a little credit for at least some flour and molasses when she came back. We've helped with hay where we've been able, not that Shorty takes kindly to any kind of help. But they've got to be helped. So, thank you."

Wilbur put his hand on Gaine's elbow. "We know you shot a deer for them last year so they had some meat in their smoke house. We're trying to organize some of the people in the church to help them out on a more regular basis but it's a hard go. These're bad times for everyone, jobs scarce as they are. Even when he works, he...you know."

"Yep. They's good folks," Gaine said seriously. "Nell 'n the childerns, Ah mean. Mostly theys needs help ta be safe. Food n' clothin' comes second."

"Yes," Etta added, "Many of us in town firmly approve of your arrest policy...all the ladies in the church circle, the pastor and some of the husbands, too. It's Shorty that has to be watched. He's a quiet enough fellow when he's sober. And as long as you're here, he stops drinking. When you're gone..."

"We try to stop him," Wilbur chimed in. "My boys and I do. But some of the other men act like it's Shorty's right and honor as a man to get drunk and take out after Nell."

"Ah wish't ya'd run fer Mayor, Wilbur," Gaine smiled but the man just shook his head. "Barin' that, we needs usn's a city ordinance regardin' strikin' yer wife. Sumpin would apply each't time whether Ah bees here er not."

Etta smiled, "It's not likely that would ever happen with the city officials we have now." She glanced toward their cafe. "Goodness, we have to go. We left a note on the cafe door saying we'd be right back. I see old Roger Pickwick waiting for his dinner down there. He doesn't cook for himself much now that Lettie's gone."

"He kin afford ta eat ta yer cafe ever day?" Gaine glanced down to see the old man tapping his cane impatiently on the boardwalk while staring inside the cafe window.

"Not really," Etta smiled, then she whispered, "Don't tell anyone. We don't often charge him. He helps clean up before we close. And he's happy to eat whatever we have left at the end of the day. Mostly he's a lonely man and we like having him around. We've asked him to move in with us now that we have so few children left at home. He's thinking about it."

"Yer good folk, Etta...Wilbur." Gaine waved goodbye to the couple and headed for home. She wasn't going to check the saloons this evening. Each of the few times she'd been mad enough to scare the Mayor, he managed to keep down the crime wave that evening singlehandedly.

She arrived at the ranch to a huge smile from Meghan Kate. The small blonde pulled Gaine into the large room and proudly showed off the rag rug she had completed. She'd gotten enough rags by trading fruit with neighboring families. Nell's children's clothes had started the rug, and the green-eyed beauty had been busy trading, braiding and stitching. Now with straw tucked carefully underneath to level the rock floor, the fairly large brown and white rug looked warm and inviting near the stucco fireplace next to the long table where they ate inside.

They both sat on the rug and marveled at how much more comfortable it was than the flat rock floor. Then they laughed when the two hands came in and asked why they were sitting on the floor. Before they were done, everyone had sat on the rug enjoying the comfort then stood to admire the beauty it brought.

It was only a few days later when Gaine got back to her office just before noon after being called out to a sheepherding ranch on a poaching claim. Now back, she sat in her office unpacking her lunch and wondering where Willy was. The girl had been by every day as usual, but this day she was nowhere to be seen. Gaine went out onto the boardwalk to check around and glanced down toward their house. She didn't see any children in the yard. That was strange.

Asking around she was informed that Nell's small infant, the little boy who had fought so valiantly for his life, had lost the battle. Shorty had come into town from the farm where he was working and the family was at the cemetery on the hill. Gaine went into her office and stared at the wall. Why? Why had this sweet child's spirit fled the earth? Nearly all of the town families had at least one child there at the cemetery, but they'd had such high hopes for Nell's youngest. She had to tell Meghan Kate. Her heart would be broken by the news.

The small blonde was surprised to see Gaine ride into the yard so early in the afternoon and was alarmed by the somber bearing of her partner. When Gaine got inside, she explained what had happened and pulled Meghan Kate into her arms where the small woman's tears could flow freely. This was an anguish that would be hard to diminish, for it felt like an aching void had been wrenched from their hearts. But soon the blonde composed herself and spoke of concern for Nell and the family, whose sorrow had to be unbearable.

Meghan Kate busied herself preparing a huge meal to take to the family. She spent the afternoon baking bread, pies, stew and vegetables. She had Gaine pick a full ham from the smokehouse, one of the last. When the afternoon's preparation had been finished, they loaded the items into the wagon and sadly drove back into town to leave the food for the family.

"What in the hell are you doin' here?" Shorty rudely demanded of Gaine as he stood weaving in the doorway of their hovel. She could smell alcohol on his breath and looked at him with narrowed eyes. This did not appear to be his usual drunkenness, but he was obviously on his way.

"We've brought food," Meghan Kate replied pushing past him, "I'm sure Nell can't think about cooking right now."

Surprised, he watched the small woman move past him with her arms full of dinner items and head to the kitchen. Nell stood stone-faced in the kitchen and the children sat quietly, perhaps more in fear of their father than understanding of what had happened with their youngest brother. Meghan Kate set the items down and hugged each child, trying to help them understand that they were safe. Then she sent some of the children out to the wagon for the rest of the meal. She busied herself preparing the dishes to serve. Nell did not look at her or move. On their return the children quietly sat back in their original places.

"Willy, help me get the dishes out," Meghan Kate said to the young girl who was sitting protectively by the youngest children.

"Yes, ma'am," she replied. They got out dishes and Meghan began to dish up food for each person.

Gaine stayed at the door with Shorty and crossed her arms. "Ahl arrest ya 'n a heartbeat, Shorty, if'n Ah gotta. Please doan make me gotta. Not taday. Ah knows this be a terrible happenin' an' yer a'hurtin', but thar ain't no need ta make 't worse't. T'is bad 'nuff ta lose that blessed child. But ya been drinkin' an' Ah ain't gonna let ya harm yer wife er yer t'uther childerns."

"Food! It's about time somebody brought us something to eat," Shorty spun inside and moved to the kitchen. "Can't count on her to cook nothin'," he growled at his wife. "She's a slacker!" he sneered. "She's worthless! Look at her just standin' there. What's wrong with ya, bitch? Fix me somethin' ta eat."

The children shrunk back but Meghan looked at him full on. "Go sit down and I'll fix you a plate of food," she said sternly. That caught him by surprise. He wasn't used to having anyone talk back to him, and Meghan Kate had even surprised herself.

"Well, you're a feisty little whore, ain't ya?" he asked, roughly grabbing toward her. Before anyone even saw her move into the room, Gaine had the man by the back of the shirt and the band of his trousers and was moving him out of the house. He was swinging his fists wildly but drunkenly hitting only the air.

"Fix 'im a plate an' send it ta the office. He's done had hisself a right stressful day so's Ahm jest gonna keep 'im over thar till he eats. T'is better fer the childerns."

Several gawkers on the boardwalk began laughing and Gaine scowled their direction. "This ain't funny," she growled. 'His baby boy done been buried ta the hill. Ain't nothin' funny in none a' it.' They hurried off along their way.

The small blonde busily fixed a plate that Willy ran over to the office. Her father was sitting in the chair with a sneer on his face, his hands tied behind while he threw flavorful invectives at Gaine.

"Thanky," Gaine smiled at Willy. "Kin ya bring me a plate, too? Ahl be a eatin' here with'n yer Pa."

"Yes, ma'am," she replied as her father swore more loudly at Gaine.

"Sheriff!" a voice from the doorway called indignantly. "Why are you holding this man? Surely you're not going to interfere at such a time."

"G'wan home an' mind yer own business, Westminster. This ain't none a yers." Gaine dipped a bite of food and held it out to feed Shorty. "Here, Shorty, eat somethin'. Yu'll feel better."

"This is unbelievable!" Westminster sputtered angrily, remaining in place. "I demand that you release him! Have you no shame?"

Shorty took the food from the fork with his teeth and spirited it in Gaine's direction. She jumped back out of the way, aware that Westminster was directly behind her in the doorway. She did not turn around. "Did ya wanna haf me arrest ya fer botherin' 'n officer a' the law, Westminster? Cause Ahm bout ready ta." She turned and faced the man, "This here's a hard time fer Shorty, an that's a fact. But ya ain't helpin' him none. So's, git on home."

Westminster began to sputter in return and Gaine's eyes hardened. She brought her hand to her gun. Westminster stopped, turned on his heel and marched off down the boardwalk. Gaine knew it would not be the end of the problem with him. "G'wan over 'n have Kate fix a'tuther plate, now," she said gently to Willy. "An tell yer Ma yer Pa'll be a'spendin' the night ta the ranch tanight."

"Yes, ma'am," Willy turned and ran home.

'Ah, damn, Shorty,' she sighed, 'Why da ya take ta drink so. Yer a right decent fella when ya ain't drinkin'. Ah shorely doan wanna be a'doin' this here.'

Meghan got the children fed and into bed. She helped Nell get seated by a plate of food, but the woman did not eat. She stared into the distance for quite a while. Meghan took Nell's cold hands into her own and rubbed them gently. "Your children need you, Nell," she said softly. "I know this is very hard. Get some sleep tonight, if you can. Your children will need you in the morning."

"Yes," Nell replied. Meghan dug out Nell's nightgown and helped her get ready for bed. She left the woman tucked in, her eyes open, while she went back to the kitchen to clean up. At least the children had eaten quite well. And there were many days worth of dinners left. She put the ham to soak so that it could be prepared the next day or the day after. It would feed them for many days.

It was late by the time they headed back to the ranch. Gaine had Shorty tied in the back of the wagon. He'd refused to eat and now sat spewing waggish remarks and outright blasphemy with no regard for the presence of any proper lady. Once home, Gaine locked him in the tack room and left him a dry meal.

By morning Shorty was sober and quiet, straightening up the mess he'd made in the room. Gaine had him eat and offered him a ride back to town, but he preferred a ride to the farm where he'd been working. He refused to look at either woman. Gaine had Alabam take him to the farm while she rode her horse into town. Garcia stayed to protect the ranch and Meghan Kate.

Gaine checked on Nell and the children and told them Shorty had gone back to the farm. Nell nodded and continued fixing breakfast for the children. Later in the day Gaine saw Etta and Wilbur stop by with more dishes of food for Nell's family. And the pastor from church stopped by as well, but the rest of the town stayed away.

"Not one touch of black crepe," one young teenage girl said to another as they stood on the boardwalk outside Gaine's open door. Their eyes were fixed on Nell and Shorty's ramshackle home. Gaine glanced up to see Nora Altenman, the town trustee's teenaged daughter speaking to Hettie Blen, the cooper's daughter.

"I expect they can't afford crepe," Hettie replied. She rustled her fancy skirt as they stood examining the house. 'Mother says they can barely afford to exist.'

"He's a tramp, you know, always looking for a job. And he drinks. That's what my father said.' Nora's tone was secretive. Both nodded in agreement. "I hear she's barely able to function this time," she added.

'You mean...?' Hettie asked.

'Grief,' Nora replied with a knowing aire.

'I know. My mother says she cared too much for that infant, that's all there was to it," Hettie agreed. They both stood silently for a minute watching the house. A few of Nell's boys ran into the yard to play, their faces and hands dirty.

"Gracious, living like they do, all those children running around like filthy ragamuffins. Perhaps this was a blessing," Nora added.

"Losin' yer child ain't no blessin'," Gaine said, stepping to her office door. The two young women looked up in surprise. 'T'is heartbreakin'. Din't mean ta listen in none, ladies, but ya might better spend yer time a'jawin' bout what ya kin do ta help. Ya e'er think a that?'

'Lawsy, Sheriff,' they both exclaimed, gathering their skirts and hurrying into the cooper's shop away from her view. 'Did you see her there?' one giggled to the other as they scurried inside. 'She near scared me to death.'

'Me, too,' the other agreed. 'She sure is tall.'

Gaine stood at the door and watched Mabel, one of Nell's neighbors, heading across the yard toward Nell's house with an old chipped bottle filled with what Gaine knew was probably oil for a lantern. Mabel's family had fallen on hard enough times but the woman was sharing what she could to press away the gloom of night. Gaine shook her head. Like all towns, there were folks of solid-gold constitutions and all too often they weren't members of the "qualities." She shut the door and started on her rounds of the saloons.

'Ya gonna larn the young uns taday?' Gaine asked the small blonde as they rode into town the next morning in the buckboard.

'No, I think I'll just help Nell around the house,' green eyes smiled back. 'I think she could use a little encouragement.'

'Yep, Meggy, yer prob'ly raht thar,' Gaine's face was sober thinking of how difficult it must be for Nell right now.

'Honey, please remember to start calling me Kate. I want to leave the name 'Meghan' behind and get people used to calling me Kate, Kate Sargos. But you're the most difficult one to get to do it, she thought but didn't say anything aloud.

'Oh, raht. Ah keeps fergittin'.' They rode in silence then soft blue eyes glanced over. 'Kin Ah calls ya Katie?' she asked.

'I'd like that,' Meghan Kate smiled.

A bushel of fresh fruit and some baked bread were in the bed of the wagon for Nell's family. Gaine helped her carry them in then went across to her office. Nell was functioning better and the two women chatted as Kate helped Nell with the washing. The small blonde was not surprised when Nell confessed she was pregnant again.

Gaine was not surprised either when the blonde beauty told her the information on the way home. She said she almost expected it.

After supper that night Gaine began to talk about the hands bringing the herd down from the upper pasture and driving the four year olds to Stockton. There would be a general round-up first, then the drive. 'T'is lotsa fun,' Gaine smiled. It all sounded very exciting to Kate. She knew, of course, about round-ups but had not participated or even seen one since she'd always lived in a town. She couldn't wait.

As if by some psychic sense, the next afternoon the very handsome Don Carlos, with his dark hair and mustache, rode down from the upper range in the afternoon to talk to Gaine. He was Gaine's foreman. Kate found his Spanish accent very charming when he explained in broken English that they would be bringing the herd down from the upper pasture very soon and he was down to speak to Gaine to work out all the details. They would spend some time rounding up and fall branding before the drive to Stockton. With fewer stockmen in the area, sorting out the herds should be much easier.

That night when Gaine got home, he and Gaine spent a long time at the table discussing this year's herd and how they each thought the build-up was going. It would be Don Carlos's job to keep the tally at the round-up. They discussed the arrangements Gaine'd made with Hiram, the possible numbers of four-year olds they had and the possible purchase of other herds to swell their numbers for the next year. She'd use Don Pedro for locating herds. He was semi-retired at this point and good at the job.

'Ahm plumb tuckered out, Meggy..uh Katie,' Gaine said as she crawled into bed. 'But Don Carlos bees a raht credulous foreman. Still, t'would be easier if'n Ah din't hafta work ta Sheriff all tha tahm. One a these here days, Ahm a'gonna up 'n quit and jest work ta the ranch.'

The small blonde Kate wondered how they would be able to afford that, but she said nothing. Gaine seemed to know her business and if that was what she wanted to do, Kate would support her. The green-eyed blonde had taken on the cooking, cleaning and sewing and the house had become more of a home. They had fallen into a pattern of living that served them both well. And though they knew Lendal would likely be free and out searching, and neither allowed much carelessness in Kate's protection, still they had relaxed to the point that it was not foremost in their minds.

Not many days later a wagon rolled into Barden's Corner with two armed men and an unusual cargo. They pulled up at Gaine's office and one of the men went flying off the wagon, his spurs clanking across the boardwalk and into the building. "Sheriff!" he yelled. "They hit ag'in!" He found himself before an empty desk.

Gaine had been down the street dealing with the Harlap boys who'd been bothering old Dell Renyard and his wife, Sadie, out on the edge of town. The old man was sure it was them that broke through their fence and tipped over their outhouse. Gaine had stopped to gather the boys and talk to their mother. They were mischief makers but not really bad sorts, in Gaine's estimation and, of course, their mother cooperated, giving her consent to whatever Gaine wanted.

She had escorted them back to the Renyard's farm, their mother insisting on accompanying them. Gaine pointed out that their footprints matched those found around the tipped building. Their mother's lips pursed, her eyes narrowed and she looked with accusation at the boys. She crossed her arms.

They stood, their heads down but with tiny smirks on their faces. The smell was overpowering. Gaine sentenced them to two weeks labor on the Renyard's farm. The first job involved setting the old outhouse back up, repairing and attaching it firmly to the ground. She got a list of other things that needed doing and had them start. She expected the outhouse to be up and useable again that day and the fence to repaired soon after.

"Oh, it will be, Sheriff," their mother agreed. "Have no fear of that. Everything on their list will be done, and done well." She raised her brow. The boys said nothing. With Gaine backing their mother, they knew they were in serious trouble. Their father might find it funny, but their mother did not.

The tall brunette was just heading back when she saw the wagon pull in down the street. She headed back to her office on the run.

"Sheriff!" the man called outside her small office door. The tall brunette dodged townsfolk as she barreled down the boardwalk towards him. "They hit again! Got the Rocking Star Ranch and killed the husband and his pregnant wife. Drove off their cattle and horses."

"Damnation!" Gaine's brows furrowed. So few cattle ranches and they were going after them all it seemed, although they had been known to steal sheep as well. A small crowd was gathering in the street and she called to Daniel at the store to round up the posse. It was time. And load supplies in the wagon,they were heading after the rustlers.

Everyone in town was aware this moment would arrive. They were ready. People began pouring out of the buildings onto the street. The weak wail of a child's crying came from the wagon. "What's this?" the brunette asked.

"Thems the survivors, Sheriff. We didn't know what ta do with 'em. Scrawny little things. Nobody round there'd take 'em, times being such as they is. They suggested findin' a foundlin' home somewhere but we figured we'd bring 'em in with us and drop 'em off to you. We buried the parents a'fore we come. Wife was right close ta having that child." The forming crowd gasped. Even with the most hardened outlaws, women and children weren't killed and certainly not a pregnant woman. The man in the wagon reached behind and picked up a wooden box. The crying stopped.

The Rocking Star was not really in her township's boundaries, but it was close enough not to split hairs over. Everyone was out to stop these killers anyway. She'd have to send word to the Sheriff of Big Creek. It was really closer to him. Didn't matter. They'd all go after these evildoers. Half the Sheriffs around already had groups out scouring the countryside for them.

"Heard tell there's a foundling home up near San Jose somewheres," somebody in the crowd called.

Gaine looked blankly at the crowd then back at the tiny, helpless baby, small and frail for her age. It was commonly understood that the survival rate of infants in foundling homes were nearly always very bad bets. "Maybe somebody here in town..." she muttered.

"No one here in town will take them, Sheriff," the Mayor announced firmly, moving beside her. "Not in these times. If they were older and could work...."

Gaine's eyes went to the small babe wrapped in a grubby blanket in the box then her gaze went to another small child of a little over a year sitting on a stack of sheepskins in the wagon, her eyes wide, not understanding any of what was going on. There was no freshness in the child's thin features, only dull color.

"Willy," Gaine called to the small girl. "Go ask yer neighbor Mabel ta come 'ere, quick like."

"Yes, ma'am," Willy took off on the run. Gaine went in to her desk and pulled out extra bullets for her carbine as the Mayor moved into the doorway.

"You can't go, Sheriff. They didn't hit our town or any of our ranches. We can't afford to have you out chasing them. Let Big Creek's Sheriff go. What if they strike here while you and all our armed men are out looking for them?"

Gaine ignored him. She filled her cartridge belt and slung it across her shoulder then slung another belt across her other shoulder. She checked her new Peacemaker revolver and brought extra ammunition for that. She put on her leather leggings tacked on to the quarters and laced up the whangs. They were made of tanned buckskin and could ward off snakes, needle-tipped brush and snow, should they go that high.

She wrote a quick note to Meghan, grabbed her canteen and bedroll. She pushed past the bellicose man. When she emerged on the boardwalk again, men were beginning to ride up, long since ready to head out.

Willy came rushing back to the Sheriff's office.

"Willy, you an' t'uther young uns behave yerselfs now, while Ahm gone. Ya hear? An stay outta that thar street. T'is gittin' ta busy fer childerns."

"Yes, ma'am," the panting girl replied. She had run as fast as she could. And, of course, she had run across the main street going and coming back.

"Sheriff, ya needed me?" Mabel's high pitched voice called. The thin woman pushed her way through the growing crowd past the Mayor.

"Yep. Shore do, Mabel. Kin ya take that thar infant and the t'uther little 'un out ta the ranch in yer buckboard. Git a box fer the bigger child ta the store. Turn 'em over ta mah cousin and give her this here note. Tell her Ah probably ain't gonna be back fer a week. Maybe two."

"I demand that you stay right here in town," the Mayor called. "It's your duty to protect us, not them. We pay your salary."

Mabel looked into the wagon. "Lawsy, Gaine, they don't look any too sturdy. They're more likely gonna end up on the hill than at yer ranch. But I'll get my oldest girl ta help." She took the box with the infant and the man handed her a soft, tied bundle of clothes.

"We brought that with 'em. What clothes we could find fer 'em. Ain't much. Family just startin' out...put most everything into their herd."

Mabel nodded. These were difficult times for a young family. She called to her oldest girl, a child of about eleven, to come and get the toddler. The girl gathered the small child in her arms and the two moved away from the dangerous hooves of the milling riders' mounts in the ever-growing crowd of riders.

Daniel and another man were busy loading some bags of flour, beans and coffee from the store into the wagon. The posse'd stop at local ranches when there were any. Otherwise they'd meet the boys in the wagon at prearranged places since a wagon would just slow them down otherwise. A moving group could not live off of meat alone for too long a time, and Gaine planned to be out long enough to catch these villains.

"This goes on the town's account, Gaine?" Daniel called. 'Not yours?'

"Yep, that's raht," Gaine called back.

"Stop right there, Sheriff!" the Mayor warned, "or there won't be a job for you to come back to."

"We're headed ta the Rocking Star Ranch, fellas," Gaine called, swinging her leg over her own horse and again ignoring the Mayor. Willie stood back against the building, watching the proceeding with awe.

Gaine's voice raised in volume, "Ya heared what them polecats done this time. They got theyselfs a good day er more on us, but we'll track 'em. Now we's gonna hafta be on the look out fer all them hidey holes a thars. Likely they got fresh hosses stashed. But we ain't gonna be stopped by none a' that. An' when we spot 'em, it'll be thar destruction. We'll be shootin' ta kill cause shore as sunshine, fellers, they's gonna be. This here's gone on long enuff. Tahm we stopped 'em."

The men's shouts rent the air as they shook their rifles above their heads. With that the band of about ten riders and the men in the wagon turned and headed out at a gallop in the direction of the Rocking Star Ranch. The riders wrestled to put their rifles back in their scabbards on the fly once they got out of town view.

The Mayor spun and stomped down the boardwalk back to his own office as the group disappeared. "Put those supplies on the Sheriff's account," he called across the street to Daniel. "Do NOT put them on the town's account. We aren't paying!"


Kate came out on the porch to watch the wagon heading toward the house. The repeating octagon barreled ranch rifle Gaine kept over the door was in her hands. Garcia was at the barn, a Remington rifle pointed at the newcomers from that vantage point. The dogs surrounded the small blonde, their barks announcing the wagon's approach. A cloud of dust rose from the road behind it.

When it was close enough to make out who the people were, Kate recognized them at the same time Garcia did. The rifles were pointed to the ground then hastily placed back onto their pegs above the door in the house and barn.

"Stars, Garcia! It's Mabel!" Kate called. A fringe of terror ran up the blonde's spine. Had something happened to Gaine? No! Please, no! Please let Gaine be all right! she begged the powers that be. The wagon was moving at too fast a pace to be a social call. Oh, dear God! She felt her hands begin to tremble.

Kate stood chewing her lip and wringing her hands when they pulled into the yard. In an instant Garcia was there at the head of the horse, holding it while Mabel and her daughter climbed down. "Cousin Minnie!" Mabel called. "Sheriff says to deliver these young-uns to you!"

"What?" Kate exhaled deeply as she instantly relaxed. Gaine was all right. Her eyes ran over the crying babe and the small toddler whose large blue eyes were filled with uncried tears.

"There's a note. She's gonna be gone a week, maybe two. They've gone after them killers. These poor babies were orphaned by them polecats."

"Why, these little things look like they're starving. Bring them in, Mabel. Hi, Clarissa. Bring that little one in the house, honey." They all headed into the house and toward the bedroom.

"From the smells of it, this little one could use a change," Mabel said, scrunching her nose. Then her face became serious. "I hope it isn't the awfuls!"

"There's an old torn sheet in the chest. I'll cut it into diapers. Here, bring them into the bedroom. Leave the tiny one's box on the bed and Mabel, would you mind bringing the milk up from the well? It's in a container in the bucket."

"Sure thing, Cousin Minnie."

"Please, call me Kate. Didn't they have any other clothes for these little babies?" Kate caught a whiff of the small baby. She'd need to cut a new diaper right away. She sincerely hoped it wasn't the awfuls.

"There's a bundle out in the wagon. I'll get it, Momma," Clarissa called, putting the toddler on the bed beside her tiny sister. Meghan smiled at the two little ones and moved the toddler back from the edge. She watched them constantly while she edged around to the chest to bring out the sheet.

Mabel's daughter ran out to bring in the store box and the few ragged things the men had brought with the small children while her mother moved to the well.

Meghan didn't get to read the note until a good hour later. They had changed and awkwardly fed both children, and she was walking with the tiny girl in her arms, her canning all but forgotten. The baby did have diarrhea and the idea frightened both women. Kate wrote out a list and sent Garcia on horseback to town to get the few food items and pocket wet nurse sucking bottles like they'd used to supplement with Nell's small boy. Alabam remained to keep watch.

Her peaches were pared, pitted, cut and in cold water, covered to keep off flies. Her kettle was standing ready as was the sugar to scatter between each layer. A fire was burning in the stove to start the kettle of fruit boiling. Her quart glass cans Gaine had gotten her with new elastics and metal screw lids stood ready to be rolled in a separate pan of hot water. Each had been checked to make sure the screw was in order, there were no cracks or nicks and the new elastic was firm and would fit closely.

Mabel and her daughter remained to help, Clarissa staying inside the bedroom sipping buttermilk where it was cooler, watching the children while Mabel helped Kate with the canning. When they finished, the women used their aprons to wipe the sweat from their faces as they moved to the bedroom. Kate noticed the young toddler was sitting mutely on the bed, a tin cup placed beside her for a toy. The baby was finally asleep in her box on the floor. She would need to feed the tiny girl often till Garcia got back with the feeder that allowed larger amounts to be consumed at one time.

Kate ran a hand nervously through her hair. It was a very hot day and the two ranchhands would be expecting supper outside once Garcia returned. She sent Mabel to the orchard with a bushel basket. Mother and daughter would fill it as best they could in payment. Kate moved the children to the shade outside and tried to assemble a cold meal for the men on the outside table.

"You be careful, Gaine," she muttered to the air as she brought out bread and jelly. Sweat beaded on her forehead. "Don't you leave me here alone with these two helpless little babies. And I mean it! I'll skin ya alive, if you do! You just be very, very careful. Please, darlin'." She shooed the dogs away. They weren't harming the little ones but their large bodies and fervent curiosity were overwhelming. They moved out without question at her command.

Garcia returned and Kate exactly followed the instructions from the book. Both children were underweight and looked unhealthy. The blonde read, took a breath and became determined to do every thing possible to save their lives. She waved to Mabel and her daughter as they headed home with their bushel of peaches.

By evening Kate was exhausted. The baby was finally resting in her box and the box was placed on Gaine's side of the bed. Meghan drew the mosquito net. Tomorrow she'd have Garcia work on putting two rockers on the baby's box to form a small cradle. The toddler she laid on a folded blanket in the larger box at the foot of her large, lonely bed where she could reach to gently pat and comfort her during the night. The little girl began to cry. Tiredly Kate lifted the small girl out, held the child and rubbed her back, humming to calm the poor child's spirit. She spread Gaine's nightshirt over her own pillow for her own comfort. It would be a long first night.


Gaine and the men rode into the darkening skies. They would not start tracking till they got to the ranch so having the sun go down was not a deterrent that day. They knew the way well enough in the moonlight. They would not camp till they were there. Hopefully they'd be making up some time on the outlaws that way.

On arrival they found the ranch to be little more than a dirt hovel dug out of the tall bank by a stream. It was obvious this young couple had put all their assets into their small herd and little into their own living arrangements. They probably had plans to build a more permanent home once they got their livelihood under control. What kind of people would so viciously attack a young family with such few resources?

She used a lantern and preliminarily searched the outlaw's trail while the others made camp. Yes, she'd trail them to the ends of the earth if need be. Finally she forced herself to go back, lie down and shut her eyes. She would be tracking all day. Night, mah sweet love, she thought gazing at the stars. Please doan be angry 'bout them little ones. Ah loves ya so. An' Ah truly belief them young 'uns gots a chance with'n ya they ain't got near anywhar else't.


Kate lay in bed, exhausted. She had placed the toddler back in her box. You be safe, Gaine, she thought. She was very nervous being alone in the house with the small children, so she let the dogs stay in the outer rooms. She knew that rollovers could be a cause of death for tiny infants so she left both in their boxes. She soon fell asleep again with a hand in each box. But the darkness without Gaine was unsettling and sleep would be fleeting in any case. She ended up leaving the lantern on since she found herself having to get up numerous times to tend to the baby anyway.

In the days that followed, Kate fought to outwit the demon illness that seemed determined to claim the two small children's lives, particularly the tiniest. Often she stayed up much of the night and found herself grabbing catnaps during the day. She worked hard remembering the things her mother had taught her and followed all the instructions from the nursery section in Gaine's "Common Sense" book. But the hold the disease had on the youngsters was terrifyingly persistent and she spent much of her time washing diapers.

The rumble filled the air. Deep bawling noises of many pitches created a cacophony of sound that filled the air as the black specks flowed toward the ranch. Kate shot up from bed and ran to the porch and looked out across their property. A dark, roving mass moving like molasses was rolling over the hill. Around them spaced in their proper places rode the vaqueros, skillfully moving the herd onward.

"Herds in!" Alabam hollered excitedly as the two hands pulled on their boots and quickly ran to saddle two horses to join the crew bringing in the herd. Meghan watched in wonder. How she wished Gaine were home. She heard a familiar cry and rushed back inside to see to the two small children.

Before noon the chuckwagon sat in their back yard and a man called "Cookie" was taking inventory of what supplies he had. There wasn't much. He was introduced to Kate then proceeded to walk past her into the pantry and took what was left of their barrel of flour, all their coffee and the buttermilk. "We gotta have supplies," he grumbled as he moved outside with the flour barrel while Garcia built a large fire in the outdoor pit. "Why aren't the supplies here already? It isn't like Gaine not ta have 'em here."

"Gaine and her posse, they trail the outlaws," Garcia called back to him.

Cookie frowned. "Guess I'll have to head to town then. Gaine's still got credit?"

Garcia looked to Kate who muttered, "As far as I know."

"Let's get some chow goin' here, Garcia," he called. "Mosta these fellers are danged tired a' beef n' beans. There's 'nuff flour for a week maybe. Then we'll resupply. Be good ta have fresh eggs n' butter for a change. Milk still kept in the well?"

"Yes," Meghan agreed. "But leave me some for the children."


Gaine and her men tracked the outlaws and the stolen herd through the savannah, to oak spotted green clad hills, past grey-faced cliffs and rugged, rocky outcroppings through densely wooded hills over a goodly portion of the near mountains. She was an excellent tracker, but often it was slow work and they knew the outlaws had at least a day's headstart to begin with. Still, no matter how the bandits tried to cover their trail, she forced herself to move methodically till she picked it up again. All too often it was slow, tedious work and they had to be mindful not to leave themselves open to easy attack.

They located one of the thieves' hiding spots and covered a good deal of land with little success. By the end of the week they met up with the posse from Big Creek. The groups worked together, discussing where they'd each been. There were so many hidden valleys and lakes in the mountains. Gaine's strategy was to discern the outlaw's general direction then form a net, closing in on the criminals from several directions. She didn't want them able to rest a minute. Soon enough they'd panic and make a mistake. And then they'd catch them.

The two groups went in two directions, vowing to meet at a higher spot in a day or two. The wagon would have to go in the general direction as well as it could. In the back of her mind Gaine considered what kind of targets these criminals liked and where those targets might be. Right now the outlaws were trying to get their plunder to safety, but they'd head for new targets the minute they could. Which way would they go then? Her group had to think ahead. Many men had already trailed these desperadoes and failed to catch them.

But it should have been easier tracking riders and a herd. It was annoying and frustrating to have them continually slip away. The outlaws knew their craft extremely well.


Kate watched Cookie's chuckwagon rolling up along the path toward the house back from town. She saw the scowl as he drew closer and worried what it might mean. She was surprised when he told her the store had cut off Gaine's credit. He had to have supplies. They'd be headed toward Stockton soon and couldn't go without supplies. He'd tried bargaining cattle for supplies, but he said the Mayor had told them he would not be able to do that this year. The man at the mercantile named Daniel had been willing but since the Mayor did so much business with the store, he was forced to stand behind the Mayor's word.

"The Mayor says Gaine isn't the Sheriff any more," Cookie explained, confused.

"What? She's out with the town posse for heaven's sake, risking her life chasing outlaws! This can't be right. Who is Sheriff, then?" Meghan asked, surprised.

"Somebody named Westminster something-or-other."

"Mr. Clardin. I know him," Kate clenched her teeth and wondered nervously what they should do. Everyone looked to her.

Don Carlos explained that they would be paid for the cattle once they got them to Stockton. It was what Gaine used for a yearly income. But they couldn't get the cattle there without feeding their riders throughout the round-up and the drive. She thought of the money in the trunk. Maybe there'd be enough to get supplies. She'd deal with one emergency at a time. "I'll go back with Cookie to town tomorrow," she said, "We'll get supplies. We need them, too." Besides, maybe the chemist could give her some ideas to help with the children. She prayed the trip there and back would not be too much for the weakened children.


"Look, fellas," Gaine announced to the group. "Ah knows they changed hosses ta their last hidin' spot. Theys got fresh mounts, we doan. An maybe thar's more stashes. An' maybe they gots folks helpin' 'em. Doan matter. This here's whar t'uther posses done failed. But we ain't gonna if'n ya jest hold firm. We's more stalwart 'n them an we's er gonna win. Them herds they stole ain't disappearin' off'n the face a' the earth. An they gotta change brands somewheres." She looked at the tired, but still determined faces before her. "The more we knows, the greater ar 'vantage, so's this bees tedious but keep yer eyes open no matter how tired ya be."

She pulled her horse into a circle till she was facing them again. "We done left two fellas ta theys last hidin' spot. If them two spot 'em, they's gonna come git us. If'n they ain't seen nobody in five days, they's gonna come find us. So doan be shootin' lest ya know sure-like who ya got in yer sights." The men nodded.

Gaine started them again. Her posse passed through ravines, windy passes, up draws deep into the Sierra range, guided by the practiced tracking of the tall brunette. They found another of the gang's hiding spots and stashes, but again the gang had evaded them. She left another two men as lookouts. Her group was diminishing.


Kate looked at the embarrassed face of Daniel as she marched into the store the next day. He looked away. She gave the toddler's hand to Garcia, who looked wide-eyed at the small girl. Men did not care for children. Particularly if they weren't the child's father. The tiniest infant stayed bundled in Kate's arms but the toddler held fast to Garcia's large, weathered hand.

"What's going on, Daniel?" Meghan demanded. Her voice was sharp and caught everyone's attention. "Why doesn't Gaine still have credit?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am," Daniel skittishly looked away. His wife glanced his way with a scowl. "Uh, Mayor says she's, uh, no longer employed.." Daniel replied. "It's the Mayor that's causing all this. I'd give you full credit, if it was up to me."

"Shame on you! She's out with men from this town risking their lives to catch those vicious criminals and you do this to her! It's shameless! Besides that, Gaine should have credit for the time she's worked since we were here last, even if they've decided she's no longer Sheriff. What about that?"

"Uh, no, she had some, that's true. But it stopped the day they left. Uh, the Mayor said I had to charge all the supplies they took to her account. That took care of any credit she had built up.'

'What?' Kate's face flushed with instant anger. The man shrunk back from her verbal assault.

'It's not my idea. I didn't want to do this. I had to. He'd put me out of business otherwise."

"A man shouldn't knuckle under to what he knows is wrong," she said without sympathy. "We have cattle nearly ready to head to market and we need supplies. I understand you wouldn't take cattle in trade as you've always done before."

Daniel looked down in shame. 'That was the Mayor's doing, ma'am.'

'No, it's your store, not the Mayor's. That was you,' she said sharply. Cookie and Garcia stood quietly behind her. Garcia lifted the small girl into his arms. The baby began to fuss and her attention went to the small girl. She glanced toward the chemist. "We'll get what we can and Cookie can go to other, more-willing stores along the trail to trade cattle for supplies if need be. But don't think for one minute that this is the last of this."

"No, ma'am," Daniel replied.

"And Gaine will be furious, you can count on that!"

"Uh,' that was not a pleasant thought at all. He and Gaine had been friends and neighbors a long time. 'Yes, ma'am."

"Cookie, pick what you need and select some supplies for the pantry, too." Meghan withdrew the shot bag she had tucked in the baby's blanket. It held all the money from Gaine's chest. 'I have cash money. That's still acceptable, isn't it?'

'Uh, yes, ma'am.'

She prayed there was enough. She moved quickly to the chemist's counter. Minton Ledderbridge was the town chemist and had been for a number of years. He firmly disagreed with the Mayor and muttered as much to Kate. She discussed the problem with him and he looked over the two young children carefully while Cookie went about picking items they had to have.

'Well, I have something I'd like you to try,' he said worriedly. These children did appear to him to be in seriously bad shape, particularly the infant. 'I read about it in some reports put out after the war...things they'd learned. I think it might help.'

Old Roger Pickwick moved over to the counter by Daniel. 'Ahha! Jest like in the olden days,' he chortled what he thought was softly. He was a little hard of hearing so his voice was louder than he ever knew. 'That little lady there will chew you up and spit you out. Yessir, she was a pip as a little scalawag. Still is. She'll tell you a thing or two. Yessir, Cousin Minnie, jest like in the olden days.' He gave his cane a couple good taps of glee on the wooden floor.

Kate glanced at Garcia, who was uncomfortably holding the small toddler in his arms. The small girl was happily pulling and chewing on a fistful of Garcia's hair. Meghan didn't remember ever seeing him look so awkward.

While Minton mixed the preparation for her, she decided to look around. There were many things they needed, but they would have to get by without them. If by chance they didn't have to spend it all, she'd have to save every cent she could. Times were worsening by the day, it seemed. She noted that calico had gone down to eight and a half cents a yard. She'd paid nine when they were here last. And flannel was also falling. Not enough people could afford to buy. Yet things were still too expensive for them. She wanted to make the children new clothes in flannel. Oh, Gaine, I wish you were here, she thought anxiously, then caught herself up and showed only resolve.

Gaine had to have new trousers. She had to have them the minute she came home. And Kate hoped that would be any day now. The tall beauty's others would be falling off her. They practically were when she left. Kate found a pair she was sure would fit. Then she moved to the material and looked at the flannel. It would have to wait. In truth she really should have some dark moreen, too, suitable as it was for ladies' thick outside undergarments for winter. But they'd get by without that for sure.

When Daniel figured the total it would take every cent and there was still not enough for Gaine's trousers. Kate chewed her lip, "You do still trade for butter, I presume," she asked sharply.

"Uh, yes, ma'am," Daniel replied. "And eggs and milk." She nodded. She had nearly ten pounds of butter saved so far. And their two cows gave goodly amounts of milk. She glanced down the street at Nell's children. She worried that they weren't eating well enough now that Gaine was gone. She was glad she'd packed a basket for them today.

"Garcia, take the basket down to Nell's children please while we finish up here. Cookie is here with me. It's all right."

"Yes, ma'am," Garcia handed the toddler to a surprised Cookie and moved out the door before he could be stopped. Cookie held the child out at arms length as his eyes widened. Then he looked helplessly at Meghan Kate.

"Gaine is going to be so angry about this," Kate reiterated, her hard green eyes settled on the store clerk. 'I know I am.'

"Uh, yes, ma'am," Daniel replied, knowing that indeed the tall woman would be furious. "Remember it's the Mayor that did this. If it was up to me.."

"Yes, yes," Kate replied in disgust, 'I've heard that story.' Daniel again hung his head. 'I'll send Garcia back with butter to trade for those trousers.' She paid the bill. She saw Daniel's wife speaking with the pharmacist, but the woman moved away quickly when Kate headed there to pick up the mixture he had ready for her.

'Oh dear, Mr. Ledderbridge,' she said to him. Again she chewed her lip. 'I'll need to trade you something. What do we have?' she asked herself.

'For you, ma'am, I'll carry credit.' He shot a hard look at Daniel. 'We don't all agree with what is going on. In fact, some of us disagree heartily.

'Oh, Mr. Ledderbridge, thank you, sir. I don't know how...'

'Call me Minton. Everyone does,' he smiled. 'I don't make a habit of this,' he leaned forward and said softly. 'I wouldn't like others to know I give credit. But it's the least I can do to help right a wrong. Just sign for it right here. I'd appreciate it if you'd not mention it to anyone. I can't afford to be swamped with requests.'

'Thank you so much. We truly appreciat this. I'll make sure you're paid, sir.'

The man smiled as she signed and added very softly for her ears only, 'Daniel's wife wrapped the trousers and put them in your wagon. She says they'll carry them as credit, too. Only don't tell Daniel.'

Tears popped into Kate's eyes. 'Thank you so much. Tell her thank you.'

'I will,' he replied quietly.

Once back at the ranch, the roundup went quickly although Kate was not able to participate or even watch. All of her time was spent tending to the two youngsters, ever fearful that the baby particularly would fall victim to the disease and not survive. The good part for Kate was that Cookie took over all the cooking duties leaving her with the time to nurse the little ones.

Without many other ranch steers to separate, the ranchhands simply had to tally the herd, separate out the four-year-olds, brand young calves and castrate them. Every hand was drawn into the round-up, including Garcia and Alabam...even the dogs. It was a busy time of hard riding, high feelings, hard work, laughter and camaraderie. The most social time they shared twice a year.

And that was how the man managed to slip past their notice and arrive at the house door unannounced one sunny morning.


Continued in Chapter 10

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