by bsoiree C-SRE 2005 

Sequel to "Fetchin' Cousin Minnie" and subsequent to "Willy's Present".

Disclaimer:  This story is fictional though some of the places are real.  Physical descriptions of the characters may vaguely remind you of two others, but they aren't them.  Certainly any similarity between anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.  All characters are the sole possession of the author and the story may not be reproduced, posted or sold without the author's consent.

Subtext:  This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women.  If you are underage or this type story is illegal where you live, don't read it.

Violence:  It's a western--those were times of customary wildness and, all too often, violence.

For the Lady whose smile warms my soul.


Section I  ~ Voices from the Past

Early December, 1875.

"You're no lady!  Look at you, you're  nothing but a...a.... rebel, a renegade female nnn...." his anger clogged his throat "...nnnn Sheriff!"  His neatly-trimmed, fur-lined lip had curled with his terse words.  Full of perceived political power, he'd slammed his empty cup on the table for emphasis, startling some nearby teamsters in their slouch hats till they'd shuffled their great cowhide boots and cast cautious glares his way.  Some silent sheepherders at another table had also glanced over before once again dropping their silent gaze to their food.

Had this man lost his mind?  Surely he was fetching doom. 

Lordy, how've Ah put up with this here ponderous nonsense a' his? she'd considered.  The place'd been filled with men, many used to jostling one another as they sauntered the town streets--hardy, self-contained men who took little from others and from whom she often took even less.

She'd rocked back, hitched her trouser leg and casually put a booted and spurred foot midway on the table leg.  Keeping her features even, she'd stared back at the man with a humorless face.  And yet, there'd been enough twinkle in her eyes that amusement had lurked on some cafe patron's faces as they'd watched. 

That had further enraged him.  "Renegade!" he'd taunted again.

At that the corner of her mouth had threatened to turn up, but she'd controlled it.  Barely. "Ya figure yerself ta be uh ranny regardin' rebel ladies these here days, does ya?" she'd asked to subdued snickers.

She'd watched him clench his fists and briefly considered whether Westminster was actually going to throw himself across the table to try physically jostling her.  She wouldn't have put it past him.  Ole blowhard jest maht pop them buttons raht off'n that thar fancy vest a his.  The mid-thirtyish man was annoyed enough.  Instead he'd shoved out his chair and rose dramatically, compelling attention from every last customer in the small town cafe.

"Go ahead...laugh," he'd spat vehemently, "but mark my words, Gaine, someday someone'll teach ya a lesson, ya...damned...renegade...female!" 

"Westminster!" Etta had gasped.  "You know we don't suffer cussin' in here." The older woman'd stopped moving from table to table to glare at him, coffee pot in hand.  Etta's husband Wilbur'd stuck his head out of the door from the kitchen, drawn there by the disturbance.

Westminster's eyes had gone from Etta to her husband. "Sorry, Wilbur," he'd growled, then he'd stomped to the cafe's entrance.

"Apologize to Etta, not me," Wilbur'd said, but Westminster hadn't.  Etta was likely the only woman in the state--possibly in the whole country--who officially served on a Town Council.  She was on Barden's Corner's Town Council with Westminster.  Gaine had forced them to take Etta on as Treasurer, Clerk and Assessor, and Westminster hadn't approved of either woman.  

Gaine'd rocked further back in her chair, trying to balance on its back legs.  "Me a Lady?" she'd replied casually, bobbing back and forth some, searching for the exact point of balance, her features steady.  "Shore Ahm a lady, wha not?"  She'd lifted a brow.  Some of the men seated at her table had nodded in amused agreement. 

She snorted, "An' a Rebel?  Whal..mebee.  But Damned?  Westminster, ya ain't a'speakin' fer tha Almighty agin, er ya?"  Her voice'd sounded downright cheery.  As an afterthought she'd added,"Ah tis female...yep, Ah reckon Ahl agree ta the renegade part.  Ah doan know ‘bout no-un a'teachin' me no lessons, howsomever."  Then her face had hardened, her foot came off the table leg as she'd frozen in exact balance, deep blue eyes sobering to steel as they'd leveled on the man.  "Ya wanna trah?" 

Instant silence had prevailed.  Had Gaine finally challenged Westminster?

Westminster snorted it away.  Of course he didn't want to try.  No man in his right mind would go up against her.  But it hadn't halted the reply he'd yelled from the doorway,"You think you're so smart, you and that gang you've hired on!  You know what the voters think of them, don't you?" 

He'd ripped the door open, allowing in the ringing metal hammering from the blacksmith's shop, jingling harnesses from the street traffic and the constant pounding of new construction. "We know the kind of men YOUR riders are--" he'd called over his shoulder, "--wild, degenerate half-breeds and dirty, thieving gre...."

"WHUT! " There was the thump of her chair legs as Gaine had instantly swung upright, scattering patrons from around her as she'd continued in one swift motion to her feet.  Without a pause her finger had flicked off the leather thong securing the hammer of her holstered .44.

"The truth isn't so funny, is it?" Westminster'd taunted, turning back, his eyes triumphantly centered on a very shocked Wilbur.

Her spectacular powers of intimidation had not been hindered by her dark, classical good looks.  Every cafe patron had ebbed away and collectively held their breath.  Standing in brooding eloquence, Gaine's voice dropped to a threatening purr, "Mah rahders bees good honest, decent, hard-workin' fellers."  

Talking about her was one thing, her riders another.   Regardless of his standing in the community, she'd never thought this man was any great shakes in the brains department.  Oily tongued buzzard that he was, insulting her cowhands was more dangerously ill-conceived than he could fancy.  He'd done it this time!  These were fighting words and everyone but him knew it.  Her gun hand had hovered ominously near her holster, her voice cold, measured.  "Theys caballeros, gentlemen, e'er last one a ‘em.  Which bees more'n Ah kin say fer you."

"Easy, Gaine," Etta had muttered softly, her voice a'tremble. 

Gaine's tone brought Westminster's gaze her direction.  His sneer faded as recognition dawned that her gorgeous six-foot frame was now standing ready in mortal threat against him.  Patrons, unsure of his pistol accuracy, pressed further toward the back of the cafe.

The riders at Gaine's Circle S Ranch, like cowhands at most ranches, lived by a strict code.  Bravery, loyalty, laughing at danger, courage with hardships, minding their own past and not their neighbors', respecting women, kindness to children, it was all part of making a hand on her ranch.

Gaine's eyes had narrowed on the man frozen in the doorway in his dark three piece suit, bright white shirt and pseudo cultured ways, a man constantly strutting around in a town that he thought he and his Uncle, the Mayor, owned.  Now, however, as she stood magnificently in challenge, his mouth had suddenly run dry, his chest had tightened and all his blood had seemed to rush to his head where it had thumped wildly at his temples.

"Everun knows mah rahders.  Most uv been a'workin' ta mah spread fer yars ‘n Ahl give MAH word fer ‘e'er last one a em.  Challenge that, if'n ya dare.  Go ahead, reach!"  Draw ya rotten buzzard.

Reach?  Challenge it?  Westminster's face had gone sallow, his heart now slamming in his chest.  "No!"  Her reaction had taken him totally by surprise. "No, Gaine," he'd repeated. "No challenge.  No!"  His eyes focused on her gun hand.  He'd felt an unbidden tremor rise, and he'd found himself battling hard to control body functions as trembling overtook his moderately tall frame. Would his life end right there, that very minute?

He'd hastily lifted his hands, keeping them far away from his own holstered gun. She almost never took him seriously.  In fact, folks had marveled at how much jawing she'd let him get away with.  Obviously this time he should've hobbled his lips.   Sweat'd popped out on his forehead and run down, stinging his eyes.  It was at that moment that he'd decided that if he got out of this, he'd quit wearing a gun around town.  Surely she wouldn't ever call out an unarmed man. 

Normally frustration draped around him like a heavy buffalo blanket whenever she was near.  Now fear overcame him.  No one who knew her would buy this kind of trouble from her.  Certainly he hadn't intended to.  That time when he'd stood next to Shorty in the saloon with her back turned, back when he'd secretly inspired the drunk to draw on her, that had been plenty of warning.  He'd seen her eyes when she'd spun, and he'd never forgotten the terrifying intent of her gaze.  This was a feral woman--dangerous, wild, untamed, but surprisingly well liked and admired around town.  So much so that few had any reason to ever want to go against her. 

Oh, she had her detractors.  Disgruntled merchants, mostly.  And the Mayor.  But hadn't her posse gunned down Shorty before Gaine had a chance?  And hadn't those same posse members come back from their last trip totally enamored of the blasted woman, further subduing Westminster's ambitions of winning her job in any election.  Despite his thinly veiled insinuations regarding the kind of favors she must have given out in the woods to get such wholehearted support from the town's men, she had taken great amusement in such mentionings and remained cheerily disdainful of all his remarks till this very minute.  

But though he'd thought her capable of feral activity, he'd never really been seriously frightened of her before.  She was, after all, a woman.  He'd always insisted to those who would listen that being afraid of someone like her was ridiculous...she was nothing but a backward country hick without the sense to dress and act like a proper woman should.  She was a fast draw, but hardly the person to serve as a county official. 

Now he'd stood quivering before her. 

"Take ut back," she had demanded, her hand impatiently hovering.

"Wh...what?" His eyes had gone big as saucers.  Her hand had instantly pushed back her jacket so the dark grip of her Peacemaker was totally free.


"Fine.  Yes, I take it back,  I take it all back."  His voice had quavered.  His eyes went to every person there.  "I take it back, really, I do."  A moment of silence then he'd stuttered quietly, "I...I'm leaving now.  Ah..ah..all right?  I'm leaving."  She'd made no reply.  He'd stepped outside and carefully shut the door behind him, giving her no further cause for alarm before scurrying off.  Gaine had let him go.

"Gotta go change his britches, I reckon," old man Pickwick chortled.

Soft chuckling was mixed with an audible sigh of relief that had swept over the crowd.  Customers moved back to their old seats.  Etta had walked beside Gaine and put a hand on her back before the tall brunette had reattached the gun strap and sat back down quietly, her eyes not leaving the retreating form of the man who had only been a supreme annoyance to that point.

Shoulda shot the buzzard...killed him outright, she'd mulled angrily.  The town likely would have found it justified.  But she was sure she couldn't have gotten him to draw.  So she couldn't have fired on him..

"I swear, that fella's saddle is slippin'," Thurman had said, breaking the ensuing silence and getting a number of head nods in agreement.  Anyone anywhere should have known such words as Westminster's would situate the speaker at the wrong end of Gaine's hardware.

Mebee Ah shoulda gie him till daybreak ta pull his freight, Gaine had grumbled to herself.  But again he had backed down completely, so even throwing him out of town hadn't seemed appropriate.  She'd sighed.  Danged if'n Ah t'ain't gone soft ta mah old age.  It was then she'd seen the others in the cafe looking expectantly at her. 

"Way Westminster war a'jawin'," she'd announced quietly, "Ah war plumb blandished ta the possibilities a punctiatin' them ramarks fer him ‘n unroosterin' all that thar crowin'a'goin' on."  There were scattered snickers as she'd casually pushed back the long braid she'd been wearing.

"Sometahms them ‘pinions a his bees uz welcome uz a blanket fulla fleas," she'd added.

That had been followed with more snickers and head nods of agreement. The crowd had relaxed--old man Pickwick striking his cane happily on the floor.  "Ain't she somethin'?" he'd beamed.  In his deafness he often spoke too loudly.  "Them Sargos gals, they're plumb fulla starch.  They don't take nuthin' from nobody!"

Gaine had added, "Specially since't ever'un knows mah riders be uz trustworthy ‘n up ‘n down uz a cow's tail."  The agreement from the crowd on that particular point, she remembered with concern, had been sparingly given.  "‘N t'ain't nobody best say none differ'nt."  She was very sure the crowd, once again solemnly quiet, had understood that possibility.  Even Pickwick sobered.

Now in the silence of the early morning's first light, Gaine's shirt covered forearms leaned on the rough bark of the hitchin-bar running most of the porch length of her large adobe home as she pondered the incident in town days before.  Ah hopes Ah done con-cluded that thar kinda jawin'.  She sighed, considering the man behind it all.  Cloud mah trail all ya wanna, tis gonna take more'n tha likes a you, Westminster, she thought.  No matter how hah larnt ya thank ya are er how much ya wanna be Sheriff.   

She considered him a political four-flusher and a first-class fool, but no great mastermind.  And she'd curled his tail good this time.  Why, he'd been shaking like he was in the midst of ague fever.  The problem was, once he got around his family, friends and duly promised fiancee, he wasn't wise enough to remain respectfully prudent. 

But this time he'd seriously skirted death.  Attacking her cowhands had been a dangerous gambit.  She still felt the finger tips of her gun hand tingling.  She wondered if he had any inkling of how close he'd actually come to having grass waving above himself?

Not that he was anything short of a whey-belly full of corral dust.  But a politician sparking prejudice was something she found unrivaled in wickedness.  Prejudice was an unpredictable force built on hatred, already with too great a foothold in their area, an evil force, and a card that politicians became very adept at playing to incite the passions of ordinary citizens, whipping them into a violent fury, creating untold heartache just so they could ride to political victory on the shirttails of the hatred. 

No, she firmly believed loose talk of that nature had to be taken seriously.  Getting folks on the prod, lighting fuses not easily extinguished--it was treacherous.  Look at the riots started in San Francisco against the Chinese.  How many politicians spurred those sentiments and got in office because of such abominations?  Two years later hatred and rioting had spread to the City of the Angels where they'd hanged fifteen Chinese men.  And why?  No reason she could think of.  No, that kind of talk was never to be taken lightly.  Though it wasn't the few Chinese citizens of Barden's Corner that Westminster had been targeting.  It was her riders.

Most of Gaine's cowhands were highly skilled vaqueros, Californios and  Mexicans with a few Anglos and two half-Indian brothers.  Nearly every ranch hired hands without checking too carefully into their pasts, not caring what rowels they'd gotten into prior to this stint, so long as they worked hard and kept out of trouble while representing the ranch hiring them.  It was no different with Gaine, though her ranchhands were mostly fellas she'd known a long time--men she knew and respected.

Besides those staying at the bunkhouse, she had hands riding line, patrolling the boundaries, staying at small shelters in the western reaches of her range, cooking for themselves, with a bog camp midway pulling cattle out of the treacherous winter bogs. 

Once times got really bad, as the economy had during the past two and a half years, a number of jobless cowboys rode the grub-line, stopping by, hanging around to get meals at the ranch or its outlying camps.  Tumbleweeds, some of them.  Those men she didn't always know.  She'd heard there'd been quite a steady number at her outlying camps.  The quick disappearance of supplies had confirmed it.  She didn't begrudge them the grub.  Most ranchers didn't.

The morning's cool air was bracing.  She felt the suspended moisture, hovering here and there near the earth in a misty kiss.  Across the rolling fields she saw a spattering of horses quietly cropping grass, their sharp outlines faded in fine blue-white vapor.  Far beyond, like blue-grey shadows among a few shrouded oaks, were scattered bunches of cattle.

The sun was rising, spreading its golden wings across the foothills, chasing vaporous breaths, laying a rim of molten gold on the mountains above the mist to the northeast and sending a feather soft touch of warmth filtering to the earth before her. After the last week's deluge of sporadic gully washers, swelling creeks and streams, mist was a welcome respite. 

She'd already gotten out of bed early to spend an hour lovingly working by the reflected light of the coal oil lantern in the barn's workshop.  She'd honed the last dovetail joint on the very last drawer.  A chest of drawers.  Kate's Christmas gift.

She breathed in the silence of the chilly air and pushed away the thoughts from town.  Her eyes went to the three large dogs diligently sniffing the stubbled grass around the corral then to the misty shapes of the horses.  Here it was a different world.  Peaceful.  Succor for the soul. 

Them cuttin' hosses.  Ah needs ta work ‘em some a'fore Ah leaf fer town.  She loved raising horses more than anything, though the money she used to buy land to expand their ever-growing ranch, came from their cattle.  It was only recently that horse sales had brought in enough to pay a large portion of their ballooning monthly expenses.

They had their own remuda of course, a large band of well trained horses, approximately seven to ten per summertime cowhand, which was when she carried the most men on the payroll.  For the winter she kept many of the horses in the rangeland down in the valley just south of where the cattle grazed.  With them were another large band of trained geldings ready to be sold for other ranch cavvys.  Two years prior they had done very well with just such a production sale.

Some of the stock horses, the brood mare bands each with their hand-picked stallion, she kept closer, pastured above the canyon, higher than halfway.  She'd have the mares moved closer still before foaling season.  Here in the home pasture and above she kept few cattle this time of year--mostly winter horses they were using, some stock she was breeding, work horses, the larger draft animals such as local settlers bought, and all the potros-young horses, colts, fillies she was gentling.  And, of course, her beautiful wagon team of dappled gray geldings, undoubtedly the finest team of its kind west of the Rockies.  

It was said that a cattle ranch was never better than their horses.  On most ranches, horses were four and barely halter broke when they went into a remuda.  It wasn't until five or six years later that rough usage had them at their peak of usefulness.  Not so with hers.  Gaine's remuda horses entered her cavvys highly trained, fully useful from the start.  She tutored her men in a kinder mode of training and gentling.  And such extra care made her bands of horses extremely desirable.

This ranch...the Circle S outta Fox Canyon,  Gaine Sargos' booted foot lifted and came to rest on an overturned bucket on the porch as pride filled her chest, tis tha fahnest spread aroun'.  She'd been buying up all the land as quickly as she could.  She'd filed on the waters in the canyon and bought additional land, some privately owned, some directly from the government, protecting her pasturage.  Miles of graze land extended by spotted miles of open range--a good day's journey west over and around till the way was bottled by Fox Canyon, once known for a pair of long-eared fox spotted there.

The walls of the canyon in places were low, with the sharp drop carefully managed by a narrow trail winding the canyon walls allowing them to string cattle down near the waterfall, a stream that in winter spilled out to a wash and, at present, made a fast, high running stream to the lower rolling rangeland.

She'd curbed the wash before but had a plan for permanently damming it, making a little lake to last all summer, but the last gully washer had swept that work away.  She'd send some fellas with teams back to fortify it once the rushing waters eased.

Another half day west through a bouldered area to the valley floor, from there it was an hour or two to the stage line beyond, if you stayed going west, but they rarely went that far.  An earlier turn north through the peculiar, barren dirt hills near the next water course was the route the cattle were usually started to her buyer in Stockton.  This year the train, now cutting in south nearly to Tall Pine, would change that, most likely for the better, though the shipping fees would have to be accounted for.

Traveling by wagon or buggy was next to impossible via Fox Canyon's steep, narrow, cliff-hugging path.  It was far easier to drive east to Barden's Corner from the ranch, follow the wagon trail there heading due south for a day and a half to the next county and the mid-mountain town of Tall Pine where the stage now stopped.  A main road there ran east up and over the mountains to the desert beyond or west down to the big valley below.   The mail and telegraph lines followed that route and now the train angled that direction, too.  That was the way the chuck wagon often went to meet the cattle where they came out in the big valley floor below Fox Canyon. 

Though it was not unknown for them to unhitch the horses, tie everything down, chain the wheels, use a Mormon brake and lower the chuck wagon down the canyon side till it reached Fox Canyon bottom.  It was faster.  And Gaine'd always felt the impossible was meant to be tackled occasionally, just for good measure.

Deep blue eyes scanned the misty whiteness that completely covered an intermingling of plants and animals over a wide variety of land. 

Though thick grassland was known to prevail at this height and above, a portion of the lower outlying ranch was arid land of chaparral, white-flowered chemise, sage with bunchgrass, yellow-blossomed rabbitbrush, natural alfilerillo hay, and even barren, rocky areas before lush lower grazing.  Above the ranch, high grassy meadows with pine and oak woodlands gave way to pinyon and juniper.  There were trees along the streams, mostly cottonwoods and willows, and solitary oaks spattered close to the house over rolling hills. 

Soon the vivid hue of spring would seem to green up everything in California, rejuvenating the world, especially after the rains, till the heat of the days turned the land golden and the hot wind again rustled dry grass. 

Ar ranch.  Carved outta tha frontier.  Ar home.  

The overpowering aroma drifting from the hot tin cup in her hand drew the woman's attention away from the misty scene.  She curled her left hand around the mug, shut her eyes and inhaled the full-bodied bouquet before sipping the strong, hot liquid.  Ahh.  Kicked up ‘n tha middle ‘n packed double.  Good.  Another quick sip and a satisfied smile.  Strong nuff ta stand a six-shooter ta end.  Just how she liked it.

She heard the door behind her open quietly, but didn't turn.  An unconscious smile edged across her well-formed, sensual mouth.  She knew who it was.  She felt the touch before it happened, relaxed into it.   Her smile widened as the hand gently rubbed her back in silent greeting then lingered momentarily.  She felt the loss when it was lifted. 

Tendrils of steam rose from the cup in the blonde's hand as she leaned her hip on the rail nearby, free hand also on the rail with her fingers discretely brushing Gaine's sleeve.  "Morning," the blonde's soft, sexy voice was still husky with sleep, with just enough undertone of the ardor they'd shared the night before to cause the brunette to feel her pulse quicken.  Green eyes regarded her partner, this woman whose unexpected tenderness melted her heart and whose touch set her afire.

Gaine's heartbeat seemed to quadruple.  "Mornin', darlin'."  

"Foggy today."  The blonde surveyed their ranch.  "Want more coffee?"  Her soft gaze settled back over the leaning figure.  Tall, tanned.  Strong.  Self-sufficient.  Strikingly beautiful yet so unconventional there was a continual risk of being...what? ungovernable perhaps.  The very air around Gaine seemed charged with restrained strength and energy.  Gods, she was exquisite--as always.  Kate raised her cup, "I'll get it for you."

Gaine's smile lit up her whole face.  "Ah see tha dough wrangler done rolled out," she teased softly, moving her foot from the bucket and standing upright.. 

"I didn't hear you get up."  The blonde eagerly took a sip of her coffee.

"Ya war sleepin' raht good."  Gaine glanced at her own cup, three quarters full,  "Uh, ‘n no, thank ye enaways.  Ahm fahn."

A narrowed breath was blown across the blonde's coffee followed by a whisper, "Oh, I need this."  She returned the cup to her lips, blew briefly again then took a long, scorching drink and swallowed.  "Yes."  She shut her eyes in satisfaction.  Mornings were never easy for Kate.  It took at least two cups to get her started.

Gaine's eyes lovingly studied this small woman...Meghan Kate...Katie.  Flyaway blonde hair unsuccessfully wrestled back into a bun, a mouth always ready to laugh, huge green eyes fringed with long, silky blond lashes, and a generous helping of freckles spattered across her pink cheeks.  Lordy, this woman al'ays done takes mah breath ‘way. 

Kate took another swallow, yawned, stretched, made a short mewling noise before settling her hip back against the rail.  She gazed adoringly  at the tall woman then shut her eyes. 

Gaine was bigger than life.  Was she real or imagined?  Was any of this real, their life together, this ranch?  It made Kate want to hold her breath for fear it might not be.  For someone who had never felt she belonged anywhere, she opened her eyes again to bask in the realization that Gaine was definitely real, and this was home, the first place in all her life she could give that heart-rending moniker.  Their home.  Of course, anywhere with Gaine would be home.  But this land, this ranch, was particularly wondrous.

The diffused light showed more peach blush than cream in the blonde's peaches and cream complexion. She wanted to touch Gaine, run her hands through that long, thick dark hair, taste those full, luscious lips once more, whisper sweet love thoughts.

Instead Kate decorously kept both hands wrapped around her cup, took a long swallow and shivered.  Even the tidy floor-length skirt, long-sleeved, high-necked collar of her calico dress with apron on top wasn't sufficient protection from the damp chill in this early morning's winter mist.

"Yer cold?"  She ain't gonna ad-mit it.  Kate Sargos owned two dresses, both calico, neither a winter material. 

A sleepy smile adorned Kate, "I'm fine."  She saw the look on Gaine's face and hastily added, "I work in front of that hot stove most of the day, Gaine, and it's easy to get too hot.  This.."  She looked over the landscape, her voice dropped to a hush, " a beautiful change."  She tried to force her shivering to stop.  Her eyes darted back.  She saw the look of sorrow settle in blue eyes.  She reached a hand to touch the tall woman's arm.  Her words were soft, "Really, love, I'm fine."

"Wull gitcha some winter material raht soon, Katie."  Gaine felt a darkness inside, a feeling of not being able to provide, an unreasonable anger at Daniel at the store for not having allowed her more credit so Kate could sew a winter dress.  She leveled narrowed eyes on the almost dreamlike scenery for a minute to collect her anger, then turned to face the blonde, "Whal, c'mere."  She shifted her cup to her right hand and opened her left arm to Kate.

Kate hesitated for a minute considering the propriety of it then stepped into the open arm and snuggled next to the warm body of the tall woman with a soft sigh of pleasure.  Home.  This was truly home.  Gaine's arms.  Gaine wrapped her left arm around the blonde's shoulders.  "Ahm sorry, kitten," the tall woman whispered into the blonde's hair.

"Don't you dare apologize, Gaine.  I have two, TWO very fine dresses, both as good as new.  And a new, warm cape nearly finished in the house.  That's more than most people around here have and as many outfits as you do.  It's a great plenty."

That was true.  Still, this was Katie, and Gaine wanted the very best for her.  "Ahm a'wearin' long johns," Gaine moved her cup near the opening of her shirt where the top of her union suit peeked out, "'N Ah gots three shirts fer choice."

And you'll have a new embroidered shirt when I get your gift finished.  "Well I have plenty."  Kate sipped her coffee, "‘Sides, you know the cold doesn't last all that long." 

"Long ‘nuff," Gaine grumbled.

"It's nice to have a winter season," even if it's muddy, Kate thought.  She looked at the landscape.  She'd been the cause of the mud.  She'd be glad when the rains stopped for the year.  It was hard keeping the floors clean with so many people tracking mud in and out all day.

"Gits colder n'this up har, Katie.  We e'en git snow sometahms."  Anger mixed with sorrow flashed in blue eyes.

"We have..." Kate spoke softly and rubbed her free hand in a small, soothing circle on Gaine's tight stomach, "the finest ranch in these parts.  We have food on the table...every meal, for all comers.  We have wonderful riders, a house full of healthy children and devoted friends.  We always find a way.  And we're together.  I love our life."  She shut her eyes and buried her face momentarily in Gaine's shoulder.  "I'm always afraid I'll wake up, and it will all have been a dream," she whispered.  "Tell me it's not a dream."

Gaine snuggled her close and brought her face close to Kate's, "Tis real, darlin. Doncha fret none ‘bout that."  But she understood Kate's thinking.  In all her life she had never anticipated being so happy, so content as she was just having Kate near her. 

Kate raised soft green eyes to Gaine's.  "We have each other."

"Yep," Gaine agreed softly.  "That we shorely does."

Kate blinked and looked around.  They should be careful.  She stood more stiffly upright but didn't step outside Gaine's warm hold. 

She thought of the children inside and their clothes.  She knew it was unreasonable to want more clothing for them.  She'd just sewn them brand new outfits, after all, from material Gaine had purchased.  Still, the youngsters had to strip down and climb into bed on wash day and wait for their clothes to dry.  They only had one outfit apiece.  Although they had more underclothing since the bachelor miners Nell knew in town still saved their flour sacks for her.  And Nell used those to stitch new unmentionables for her brood.

"I am a little concerned," Kate spoke more formally.

"Bout whut, Katie?"

"The children's coats."

Gaine pulled back a little.  "Ar two young ‘uns?"  She referred to the two young orphaned infants they'd taken in.

"No, Nell's."  Nell was their housekeeper, Shorty's widow with six young children. "They're growing so fast and their coats are getting pretty worn."

Gaine nodded.  Las' year the church done got childerns' coats donated frum tha states.  Mebee theys will this here yar, too.  The tall brunette hadn't talked to the Pastor in town in a while, so she'd wait to get confirmation on that before mentioning it.  "Ahl ponder ut."

"Thank you."  It was hard to believe that this same kind, hard-working woman could mutate from the gently intimate person she was being now to the hard, aggressive, life-threatening Sheriff the town knew.  Emerald eyes gazed up at the solemn face of her lifetime partner.  Kate smiled.  If only everyone knew how wonderful you are. 

But there was a feral side to Gaine, as untamed and dangerous as a range mustang. Sadly Kate knew that wild streak accounted for a good part of Gaine's success as Sheriff.  Kate lifted the brunette's hand to her lips, gently kissing the palm. "We are blessed, my love."

The fact that as two women they'd been attracted to each other had not been surprising to either of them.  They'd always had such inclinations.  Each had accepted it early on.  But their meeting, their partnership--that was as though it had been written in the stars.  They felt it was pure kismet--meant to be.

Katie softly caressed Gaine's hand.  It was gently disarming to the lady Sheriff.  The startling, intense blue in Gaine's eyes tracked back to the blonde.  How had she managed in such little time to trust this small woman so completely?   It was still a mystery to the brunette.  Hadn't she entrusted Kate with her innermost, hidden insecurities regarding the killing side of her job--feelings she'd never spoken of with anyone before?  Why, she'd even allowed the blonde to give her comfort after the last occasion. 

Kate seemed to sense her thoughts, "My life started the day I met you, Gaine.  We trust each other, you and I.  It's perfect, don't you think?"

Blue eyes studied her. This woman owned Gaine's heart.  Was it only  short weeks that they'd been together?  No, it had been nearly six months already.  In another way, in a wonderful way, it felt like a familiar lifetime together.  "Ah loves ya, Katie. How'd Ah e'er git bah without cha?"

"I don't know," Kate replied with a coquettish grin, showing her dimples.  "Keep asking yourself that, Sheriff. You'll need to remember to thank your lucky stars, I guess."  She patted Gaine's stomach playfully.

"That Ah will," Gaine replied seriously.  Ah thanks mah lucky stars fer e'er minute with'n ya, Katie darlin', she thought.  Ya cain't ne'er know how much.  And the truth was, though most people thought nothing frightened this tall woman, the knowledge of how deep her feelings ran for Katie terrified her more than a little.  How kin sumpin' so won'erful git me sa thunderstruck?

"Love you, too."  Kate whispered, threading her hands, one still holding her coffee cup, around the tall woman's waist, pressing her cheek against Gaine's shoulder in a full body hug.  

The .44 Colt always strapped low on Gaine's right hip pressed against Kate, reminding her with an additional shudder of the late summer day she'd been on her way back from the orchard and a hot gust of wind had blown her loosely tied bonnet clean off.  The path ran near the outhouse through an area overgrown with thick, tall, dry grass and brush unlike the stubby, nearly bare earth there now.  She had reached down in the weeds to retrieve the hat and came face to face with the largest rattler she'd ever seen in her life. 

It was shedding season, the snake was blind, and in a flash, with scant time for a warning rattle, the large viper's head rose up over the coil toward her face, already midair in strike. 

Before she could even pale, the roar of the .44 clouded her ears.  In front of her startled eyes the snake became a headless, thrashing mound of snake coils, flicking blood, flopping out onto the path and Gaine was there to pull her away, pulling her into her arms then, too, and holding her tight. 

That day every available hand was set to the task of cutting back the brush for fifteen feet on either side of the path all the way past the outhouse to the wider dirt path running to the orchard.  Kate could hardly complain about the few weeds, short bristle and mud around the house now.

Kate remembered Gaine had been more upset than she was.  The tall woman acknowledged she'd been terrified that she could have lost what she'd just found--her heart of hearts, her dearest friend and greatest love.  Later that night when Kate had had a minute to realize what a mortal moment she'd actually encountered, her shaking happened in earnest.  Again Gaine held her tight.

The small blonde had always lived in rattlesnake country, knew to expect them, most slipped quietly off but she'd killed enough herself with tools at hand when necessary.  She'd have had no opportunity for defense this time, however.  It'd been a closer run-in than anyone could've expected.

Every available minute of cowhand time after that was spent cutting back brush and tall grass from anywhere around the house, barn and garden and killing any snakes they found.  While the number of snakes killed had not been remarkable, Gaine said it'd been fewer than they'd seen in past years.  Now the open land meant thick dust in the summer and mud when the infrequent rains came as they had of late.

At this point Kate remembered Gaine's reaction to the event with a sense of, was it displaced pleasure?  She gave Gaine another warm hug then pulled back.  Her eyes scanned around them.  Could they be seen in this fog? "We really should be careful."  She started to pull away completely but Gaine held her arm firmly around Kate's shoulders.

"Stay.  Tis all raht.  Yer al'ays a huggin' someun."  The foggy mist encircled them, covered them, giving only hints of their surroundings.

But you aren't.  Kate glanced around. "I guess it's all right.  For a minute, anyway," she snuggled, enjoying more than just the warmth.  There was a feeling of rightness, of contentment, of safety being in Gaine's arms. 

Gaine knew their chances of being spotted increased the longer they stayed embraced, but she couldn't make herself step away from Katie yet.   "Ya warmin' up?"  She moved her hand to sweep a lock of blond hair from Kate's forehead.  "Finish yer coffee.  T'will hep."

The cup was brought to the blonde's lips.  There wasn't much left.  "I have to do the milking." 

Milking.  You could count on scant fingers of one hand the cattle ranches Gaine knew of that actually had milk served on their tables.  It almost never happened.  So the idea of "milking" tickled Gaine.  A mischievous grin spread across the brunette's face. 

Her ranch had never fussed with milk cows until Gaine first brought Nell and her seven children out to recover from one of Shorty's drunken fits.  She'd done that several times before she'd met Kate.  At one point the frail baby had been colicky, Nell's milk not enough, and Gaine decided a milk cow was needed.  A convenient trade with a neighbor had gotten her one that was far too long in the tooth.   A little later Gaine had been able to add a fairly decent milk cow from a Sheriff's auction.

But the bovine animals were more trouble than they were worth to Gaine's mind.  They had to be milked twice daily and ranch hands were loathe to do so once the Mullins family had returned home.  Then when Shorty was killed and Nell and her surviving six children moved to the ranch for good, they brought their own milk cow with them.  That skinny, scrawny beast was no top grade animal, either, as far as Gaine was concerned.  Although it had certainly fattened up since its arrival on the ranch.  And Kate loved those tom fool cows and their calves.  Gaine couldn't resist teasing her about them.

"Ya talkin' bout them rag tag sweeny boned cows ya calls milch cows?" Gaine asked impertinently, "Wha, Ah couldn't git fave dollars fer the lot a ‘em ta auction, e'en from the top bidder."

"Don't you talk auction to me, Gaine Sargos," Kate replied in mock threatening tones.  "And don't you or any of your hands go near those milk cows.  I'll not have them hauled off to market.  Those cows provide the milk you've come to like in your evening bowl of toast, not to mention all the butter that I hope‘s going to get us most of what we need this holiday.  So just leave those sweet cows alone."

"Ya could git jest uz good a contribution from milkin' one a them heifers.  Maht need ta be a tech more in-genius‘s all.  Though theys t'ain't near sa uppity, spectin' ta be milked ta the barn ifn it rains er draps a snowflake ta theys brow."

Kate gave Gaine a little poke with one finger near the tall woman's waist, causing Gaine to laughingly flinch.  "Leave them alone, Gaine.  I'm warning you."

"All raht, all raht," Gaine laughed, enfolding the small blonde back in her arms again.  It felt so right, so comfortable.  The strong connection between the two brought inner peace. Morning.  Peace.  Love.  In all of the earth, was there anything more perfect than this?

How their lives had changed since that fateful day when Gaine was headed on the stage to Sacramento to meet her cousin Minnie, and Kate was traveling on the same stage with her father.  The blonde was supposed to meet and marry her father's choice, Lendal, a savage, wife-beating older man she had feared and disliked.   Once the two women'd met, they'd lost their hearts to one another.

Many obstacles had to be overcome right from the start.  A note from Minnie waiting in Sacramento left them free to shanghai Kate from her father's abusive grip right under his nose.  Kate's father's murder in that bustling city was unknown to them till much later.  Adventures ensued as they made their escape back to Gaine's ranch. 

But before reaching Barden's Corner, the two of them decided they wanted to pledge their hearts and souls to each other.  And so they had, on the Fourth of July on the bank of a lake in the wilds before Gaine's cousin Michael and his partner, Charles.  The women became pledged partners for life.  Unfortunately, that pledge had no legal standing.  Nor would it have been looked upon with other than scorn by much of the populace.

Kate brushed her thumb across the filigree of the gold ring Gaine had bought her at Tall Pine.  It had a small diamond in the middle and two tiny rubies in heart shaped settings.  She hadn't thought she'd needed a ring.  But with Gaine gone so often, she now found it a surprising comfort.

A paper agreement, a marriage of convenience, was also filled out at the lake between Michael and Kate, allowing her to take Gaine's last name of Sargos, since it was Michael's as well.  It also was prevention against a forced marriage attempt by Lendal, should he locate Kate.  Of course, that marriage, Michael's marriage, was considered legal as far as anyone knew.

A sudden cloud of doubt swept the contentment from the blonde's face.  She leaned out a little from the tall figure and looked back quizzically.

"Gaine, do you think I'm foolish to worry that we could be forced off this land?  I heard people in town saying our ranch was prime property."  A flicker of fear was seen in large green eyes. "Etta was saying that more people than you'd expect were forced off their land this year." 

Gaine's brow rose in reply.  She interrupted the blonde's thoughts with her cup.  "Wanna finish this?" she offered what was left in her cup.  It was still warm enough to impart some heat, since the blonde's cup was now empty. "Tha most val'able property in these here parts, Katie," Gaine smiled, "Tis tha copper mahn.  Without ut, the town'd go bust."

"Thanks,"  Kate murmured, exchanging cups.  She swallowed down the dregs in Gaine's cup before frowning, "You heard about the Pardoes... forced off their land?   They took their ox team and wagon loaded with all ten children, and I heard they were lucky to find some abandoned, half tumbled down, flea-infested shanty with a torn cotton drilling ceiling down in the valley surrounded by some swampy area.  That's what Wilbur said."

"They's claim jumpin'?"  Gaine knew the family. "Theys shore ‘nuff went belly up ta theys farm to these here parts.  Course, that ole place done starved out three t'uthers afore ‘em."  She was supposed to have attached all the family's goods for the Mayor's land company and town merchants, but had put off riding out to their farm.  She hadn't looked forward to it.  They'd had precious little left that was worth taking.  And she wasn't going to confiscate their transportation, regardless of how much the Mayor and merchants complained to her.

"Claim jumping?  I guess so.  Mr. Pardoe left his family there with almost no supplies and went to someplace called Allen's Camp to look for work.  That's where the train crew is working, and he was hopeful he'd find a job.  So many other businesses are shutting their doors.  But somebody was complaining that the railroad had already brought in a large group of workers from China and probably weren't hiring anew.   What if we....?"   

The tall brunette put a long finger on the small blonde's lips.  "Shhh."  She gazed at the blonde, a soft smile on her face.  "Katie, doan turn yer ‘magination loose with'n tha bridle off, darlin'.  Ain't nuthin' bees gonna happen ta us ‘n ar land."

"They can't take it away?"

"Whal, Ah reckon thar be thangs COULD happen.  Al'ays tis.  But they ain't gonna."

"Etta said it was mostly hard times, but some of it was those large land and cattle companies or the railroad that comes through and just takes whatever they want.  And she said they always want the best land." 

"Shore tis hard tahms, but tis a good sahd ta that."

"Really?  What?"

"Whal, when cash money bees sa scarce, t'ain't meny corruptin' fashions fer the young folks ta a town.  Ar young folks ain't out a control.  Ah doan gotta spend lotsa tahm keepin' ‘em frum meetin' ‘n ponderin' uncertain inspirations.  Theys ta busy home a'workin'."

"The economy's pretty frightening for everybody right now, I suppose."

"Yep.  But wer better off ‘n most."  She knew, however, that at the moment their finances were more than tight.  All the people they'd brought to the ranch to live, the extra grub line riders, the new herd she'd purchased plus the monkey wrench the Mayor had thrown into their store credit before the last cattle drive had left their funds constricted.  "Tha Circle S bees tha most prominent cattle spread aroun' e'en though we tain't all that capacious."

"That's what Etta said.  She said we had prime land with good, year-round  water that everybody wanted." 

"She's raht.  An' Ahm shore they's lotsa ways ta get land frum folks, dependin' on they's fahnancial sitjeation an' tha state a the e-conomy.  Yessir, that thar panic a 73 done got a heap a folks skeered--businesses closin', banks a'failin', foreclosures ‘n tha lahk.  Shore left cattle drovers ta a horn tossin' state a affairs. ‘Specially back east.  Couldn't borry no money, so's lotsa cattlemen had ta put theys stock ta a weak market.  Lots war bankrupted that a'way.  But we warn't.  Them thut could, theys put theys stock ta winter quarters ta rahd it out.  Theys had tha ‘vantage."

"You put your livestock in winter quarters to ride it out?"

"No, beef market warn't glutted har ta Californy.  Fer some reason folks jest keeps a'swarmin' here.  ‘Sides, Ah already had a raht good signed contract fer mah beeves that yar.  Ah done fahn with'n ‘em."

"What about now?"

"Still tis damand.  Theys bringin' cows in bah rail, howsomever.  That compeetition tain't gonna help none.  But ar herds bees im-proved--color, weight, form.  Ain't  scrawny longhorns up frum Mexico no more.  An' them Durham bulls Ah got done graded up ar po-tential more'n a heap."

"You did well.  Will bringing cattle in by rail hurt our income badly, do you think?"

"Ain't done sa yet.  Ah still ain't had no problem gittin' contracts."

"So what was Etta talking about then?"

"Foreclosures, Ah reckon.  Plenty a them ta town."  Gaine thought a minute, "On tha t'uther end, Etta said them big land un cattle comp'nies," Gaine shifted her weight, "Whal, tis true some a them done gits downraht fraudulent gittin' ‘nuff gov'ment land ta handle theys large herds."

Kate frowned, "They're fraudulent?  How?  That doesn't sound fair.  Big companies should have to follow the same rules as everyone else."

Oh, Katie, tha world doan oft work that a'way darlin, "Whal, lemme chew that thar finer fer ya.  Cause it sorta makes sense.  Cattle comp'nies doan need farm land, theys needs land fer grazin', lotsa it.  See, tha homestead law war meant ta inspire small farms.  But not all land bees good fer farmin'.  Ain't no sense turnin' up a desert er a swamp.  Ask tha Pardoes, thar land warn't sech a good lay."

"All right," the blonde said doubtfully, "I understand that.  You're talking about government land, though, right?"

"Mostly.  See, lotsa that land bees bad farmin-good grazin'.  So's them big cattle comp'nies moves ta open land, stakes a claim, moves barrels a water ta each corner ‘n claims theys done brung irrigation water onta theys prop'tey.  Or theys digs a one-plow trench hunderts ‘n hunderts a yards long frum some small stream, e'en drah streams, a'claimin' theys got irrigation dug.  Or theys trahs ta prove up tha claim bah statin' theys got a buildin' let's say "fourteen bah twenty".  But ifn' enaone goes out ta check, tis fourteen bah twenty inches, not feet.  Thangs lahk that."

"Glory!  That's scandalous!  I had no idea.  Do they do that here?  What about land already owned by regular folks?"

"No, ain't happ'nin here.  But Ah ‘spose they's oh‘cassions whan cattle owners done driv theys herds o'er planted farm land, ruint a crop er two, but them plow-chasers oughtn't be a'settlin' theys farms ta range lands nohow."

Kate raised a brow.  "Gaine."  Coming from a farming family, she knew there was another side to that story, but now she had a decided interest in a cattle ranch. 

"Whal, theys oughtn't.  Ain't e'en got elbow room left as tis.  Whah, theys places them land speck-elators actu'lly done spelt tha damise a tha free range a'ready, selling off vast acreage lahk they done ta ever plow-chaser east a tha Mississip with'n a hankerin' ta start out west.  Now that thar's one way they could be forcin' ranchers off'n range land."

"Are they doing that here?"

"Har ta the foothills?  No, not yet.  But tis comin'Ah fear."

"Maybe that's what Etta was talking about." 

"Mebee," Gaine thought for a minute,  "That's wha Ah been buyin' up all the land Ah kin.  Ta pertect ar grazin'."

"And we're not late on any land payments?"

"We ain't."

"I wonder what she meant about the railroads."

"Doan git me started on them railways!" Gaine scowled. "Ah heared some railroad down ta tha valley done been sharpenin' theys horns.   Folks built theys farms, set theys crops ‘n that railroad done come in, brung a Sheriff, ‘n took claim ta large parcels a the land.  Jest lahk that!  Offered ta sell back ta them folks theys throwed off fer raht steep praces.  Im-proved land by they own hands.  Town folks petitioned Congress, but nuthin' come a it.  Too much railroad influence.  Got folks mahty riled."  Her frown lifted, "Not here, though.  No railroad's a'comin' this far in." 

She looked at Kate, a hint of a smile playing on her lips, "Sides, Ah heared tha Sheriff ta this here county ain't gonna be no party ta them kinda thangs.  She bees a renegade, heared tell." Her thoughts shifted to her snug vest pocket in which a tin star with the word "Sheriff" resided.

"Renegade?  Honestly, that Westminster!  What balderdash!"  Green eyes flashed.  Kate had a quick temper.  Gaine wondered if it'd show up now.  Kate scowled, "I hope you frightened the wits out of that man, not that he's got that many to start with."  Half-wit!

Gaine chuckled.  It was uncommon for Kate to speak unkindly of anyone, but the blonde had had her own run ins with Westminster besides having heard the current things he'd said about Gaine.

"And, just because you're Sheriff doesn't mean you're not a lady, and shouldn't be treated like one," Katie added indignantly.

Gaine snickered.  Treated lahk a lady?  She'd certainly never dressed like one.  And being expected to behave like one would seriously hamper her job as Sheriff.  She laughed.  "Ah did skeer that buzzard all raht.  Woan last, though.  Ya know him."

"He's probably THE most annoying man in town," Kate grumbled. "He and the Mayor." 

"Yep.  Whut Ah cain't figure bees wha tha mahn owner's daughter agreed ta marry tha buzzard."

"She's very young, Gaine," Kate said thoughtfully. "Just a teenager, really and him in his thirties.  And I've heard the ladies at church talk about how for all her wealth she's still not what you'd call particularly comely, though I think she's a charming girl.  Westminster dresses well, seems to be financially secure and could be considered handsome by some standards I suppose. Maybe she felt he was the best our town had to offer."

"Well, she ain't plumb daft," Gaine grouched.

Kate laughed.  "Maybe she's in love.  There's no accounting for love."

"He bees a poor choice," Gaine growled.  "She kin do a heap better."

"Without a doubt.  But it's not our choice to make."

"Ah reckon," Gaine stared off into the misty haze.

"Speaking of mines, did your father ever work in the mine?" Katie asked.

Gaine glanced down, "Which mahn?  First one war a gold mahn.  Barden's Corner war a comp'ny town fer ut.  Joe Barden war the owner.  Built tha town whar the road done turned to git up tha hill ta tha mahn.  Mah Daddy did a little work fer Joe as Ah recall."

"Then he quit?"

"Whal, gold mahn went bust ‘n a few t'uthers afore theys discovered the copper.  Some folks moved on but lotsa folks stayed.  Mostly mah daddy s'plied tha cattle ta feed the mahners.  He ‘n his brother, Uncle Teague, uh Michael ‘n Minnie's father, theys built this here ranch."

"Was it always like this...these same buildings?"

"This war four claims ‘riginally.  Hundert ‘n sixty acres apiece't, six hundert ‘n forty acres total back than.  Two claims frum mah fam'ly ‘n two frum mah Uncle's.  Raht thar tis whar them four corners done meets."  She pointed to the ground before the corral.

"The corners of each claim?  All four corners meet right there?"

"Yep.  Whar the dogs be a'sittin'.  Mah Daddy had tha main house built big fer both fam'lies.  T'went raht ta tha corner a the first claim.  Din't serve no grub thar ta start.  Tha cook-shack t'war built onta tha next claim.  T'war a crude cabin.  T'is gone now.  Than that thar bunkhouse thar war set back from tha third claim's corner.  Tha stable, sheds, blacksmith shop t'war built ta that thar last claim. Later tha stable war en-larged inta tha big barn tis taday."

"Imagine, four claims together."

"Three a tha claims had tha stream runnin' through.  Theys dug the well ta the one that din't.   Tis a year-roun' stream most tahms ‘n the well's good.  Makes this here lan' val'able--year-roun' water.  Ah done bought e'er bit a land Ah could thut tha stream runs through plus some it don't.  Course we done worked out tha range ‘n water rahts fer tha range land balow."

"All four were proved?"

"Oh, shore.  Long ‘go.  ‘Ventually Uncle Teague's fam'ly sold theys patents ta mah parents ‘n moved on ta Virginy City.  Oh, ‘n tha corrals war put in bah mah Daddy ‘n Uncle Teague.  Theys brought wood down from ‘bove.  ‘N Momma's garden war fenced off with'n brush."

"Not a lot different."

"T'is lots bigger now.  Course war fewer neighbors back than.  Ahv added land so's we gots usns some elba room..  Gosh, Ah war young whan this here war built.  Minnie, Michael n' thar fam'ly shared tha house.  Me ‘n Minnie useta git inta all kinesa devilment.  She war lotsa fun."

"Yes, I heard some stories about the two of you as children.  She'd always play "wedding" with you as the groom.  Sounds like she had marriage on the mind for a long time."

"Frankly., Ah ne'er thought she'd da-side.  In her letters afore she'd al'ays say she war gonna be a spinster lady, she ‘n her frien' Emily.  But shore ‘nuff, she up ‘n wed."

"That's a good thing, though, right?"  Particularly since she always wanted to kiss you.

"Ah reckon.  Reg'lar marriage ain't fer ever'one.  But musta been fer her.  So's Ahm raht happy fer her."

"She and her husband are coming to visit us in February, aren't they?  Isn't that what the letter you just got said?"

"Raht."  A wide smile captured the brunette's face.  "Ah kin hardly wait."

I can wait.  "Uh, I'll move some things and make sure a bed is set up in the last bedroom.  We're using it for storage now."  Although I have no idea where we'll get the bedding.

Gaine's attention had gone to the nickering of a horse in the near field.  She listened intently as she always did, Kate noticed.  It's almost like she understands them, the blonde mused.  Both directed their eyes that direction. The way the light played in the mist the ranch was like a mystical world in the clouds, a monarchy unto itself.

Gaine shifted her attention to Kate and chuckled softly, "Ahm shore Etta din't mean ta git cha skeered, but Ah sees she done it.  Ahm sorry, darlin'.  Etta jest gits riled bah happenin's ta town.  We t'ain't ‘n no trouble.  Doan fret none.  Tis too beautiful a mornin' fer frettin'.  Look."  She swept her arm across the peaceful, misty landscape and gave Kate's shoulders a soft hug. "So purty it makes ya wanna whisper, doan it?"

"Yes, that's what scares me.  I love it so much here."  Kate's eyes brightened, "One day after the holidays I want to ride out with you to see this ranch through your eyes, Gaine.  Every last bit of it."

"We kin do that."  That drew a smile from both.  "Tis ar land." 

Well, it wasn't really.  Not yet.  Everything remained in Gaine's name only.  In most places in the U. S. married women like Kate could not hold property in their own names, it was to be held in their husband's name.  Not so in California.  Gaine had asked her cousin Michael to do the legal work of adding Kate's name to her property, since he was an attorney.  But Michael had advised it would be easier if he and Kate divorced first.  He would file the divorce, see it went through, then add Kate's name. 

That was the plan formed at the time of the paper "marriage", and Gaine had gone along with it.  They assumed Kate was now divorced, but they'd not received official word from Michael yet.  More and more, as months passed and Kate's name was not on the titles nor were divorce papers sent, the tall woman began to become restless.  Michael was a procrastinator, always had been, but this was ridiculous.

This morning, though, looking out there was nothing more idyllic than their ranch.  Soon enough the sun would dispel the softness of the scenery, opening the world to activity. 

Gaine leaned and placed a soft kiss on Kate's hair.  It was such a treat to share this land she loved with the woman who shared her dreams.  And she couldn't imagine them being anywhere but right here at her parents' homestead, a homestead she'd greatly increased in size. 

Gaine dropped her arm and stepped behind Kate, rewrapping her arms around the smaller woman's shoulders from behind, snuggling her face in Kate's hair till they were cheek to cheek, drawing the smaller woman back to her warmth.  Suddenly a deep, melodious voice came drifting from the barn, dissolving their cocoon of privacy. 

Regretfully Gaine let her arms drop and stepped away.  From the mist an aristocratic figure walked slowly toward them, trailing two saddled horses, his deep voice rising ever so softly in a Spanish song of old, the large rowels on his spurs seeming to jingle in rhythm with his song. 

As he neared, Gaine at first hummed along then stepped from behind Kate to the rail and softly sang the Spanish words.  How many times had she awakened and joined him in this same morning song as they rolled out of their bedrolls on long cattle drives?  In perfect tones she harmonized. 

Kate put a hand on the rail and leaned forward, feeling compelled to join in the song, humming since she didn't know the words or their meaning.  "You always greet the morning with a beautiful song, Don Carlos," she smiled as the song ended. 

"A raht purty git-up song," Gaine added, "Fahn way ta greet tha day."

The swarthy man quietly looped the horses' reins over the hitchin-bar a few steps away from them and stood before them, off the porch.  He was broodingly good-looking, lean and fit, standing in his short embellished leather chaqueta-jacket, leather chapareras worn over dark pants, wide sash and dark, smoldering eyes looking out from under a wide-brimmed hat.

"Gracias, Boss...uh," he tipped his hat to Katie, "Senora." Their ramrod left a shy smile for the blonde.  Gaine had to chuckle at that.  She knew he liked Kate.  Who didn't?  With the arrival of the additional women and children at the ranch, all the hands had forced themselves to not use the rough talk of the cowboy anywhere near the house.  At least, as often as they remembered.

Don Carlos spoke softly, reluctant to interrupt morning's peaceful arrival, "I learned this song from my grandfather and he learned from his father before him.  He was always the first to rise, my grandfather.  I sing and I hear his deep voice in my," he pointed to his head, "What do I say?"

"Your head, your memory?" Kate suggested.

"Si.  My memory.  Always when he finished his song, everyone in the house was joining in."  He added sadly, "An old custom of my people, now mostly forgotten."

"It's a wonderful custom," the blonde replied, pleased, "waking to a song and joining in."  She wondered at the simple, unpretentious yet almost regal conventions that tied generations together. Her father's conventions in her house growing up had been much different and totally despised.  "You must teach this custom to your children, Don Carlos."

"Si.  But..."  He shrugged.  Of all their riders, Don Carlos was the only one that was married.  And he had children. 

Gaine had offered to build a foreman's house so his family could be nearby.  But Don Carlos chose a walled-off private niche in the bunk house for himself instead since his wife preferred to keep their family far across the big valley below.  Their home was near both her parents and his in a small Spanish settlement that was once a large Spanish ranchero owned by his grandparents.  It's ownership had come under attack and was still mired in the courts, costing his family far more than they could ever afford.  He only had visits scheduled with his wife and family a couple of weeks a year, working in other short trips whenever possible.

"Tis a worthy song fer this here beaut'chus day," the tall woman murmured.  The saddled horse not far from Gaine's elbow sidled closer, nibbling at her sleeve.

"Mornin' Dutch," Gaine said softly, rubbing a hand gently on the gelding's nose, "Ah ain't fergot yer here." That drew a soft snort in return. 

Don Carlos shot a glance at the tall dark-haired woman.  His boss's clothing went against all conventions.  But she was not conventional in the least anyway.  Never had been.  The last few days she'd laughingly taken to calling herself a renegade woman.  Perhaps she was.

She wore britches over boots and spurs, a man's shirt, a neckerchief, a well-fitted leather vest, a six-shooter and often a Bowie knife on the other side of her belt, all topped with a worn, black western boss hat.  Men's clothing and weapons, but she was definitely a woman, and it showed.  Her clothes perfectly hugged her tall, long legged, extremely fit, female shape.  Long black hair, high cheek bones, deep tan, exquisite features and intense, sky blue eyes that could bore a hole through a man.  And tall.  Six feet.  She was the most magnificent woman he had ever met. 

Even after the years he'd worked for her, Don Carlos stood in awe of everything about Gaine, not just her looks.  She was a serious scholar of mankind and animals, not to mention her prowess at ranching and frontier skills that she made a purposeful effort to pass on to her hands. 

This remarkable woman could be as gentle as a kitten, though not usually around the men.  She could also be a cold-hearted intimidator of opponents.  And she never got caught sitting on her gun hand.  He'd seen her fearlessly stand off an adversary, emitting so great a threat, danger and presence that hardened desperadoes spoiling for a fight backed down without digging for their blue lightning.  Those that didn't sported hand wounds that left them unable to ever draw and fire a weapon again.  While the less fortunate were planted in nearby cemeteries.  Now, her reputation proceeded her in such affairs.

He glanced at her unbuttoned leather vest.  Although many of the men considered it unlucky to button their vests and never did so, she nearly always buttoned hers.  She'd been in a hurry this morning. 

"I saddled the horses, Boss.  You said you wanted to, uh, inspect the yearlings in the upper pasture before time to head for town.  I thought I'd go look, too, in case of having instructions."

Town.  Her job.  Her hours were irregular, and Don Carlos, as foreman, ran the ranch when she was gone, which was most of the time.  As County Sheriff she might spend the afternoon and early evening on duty far from home and not arrive back till long after dark, although such hours were driven by circumstances. Other days she went into town at daybreak or before and returned early in the afternoon, if she wasn't spending a week out riding the county.

"Good idee," she replied offhandedly.  The thought of town had reminded her of Kate's concerns.  As Sheriff she'd seen the increase in bankruptcies, in small, older businesses shutting their doors though it seemed more new folks were pouring in daily to take their place. 

The first of the failed sent packing had been bachelors mostly living together, combining their forces, making a killing from their crops or livestock or business one year, extending themselves too far to survive the next.  Some were simply vagabonds, often moving from place to place. 

But now families had fallen victim, too.  Foreclosures were high.  She always granted residents their transportation regardless of their debt, taking all the verbal licks from the merchants and Mayor onto herself.

Holding her pose, she doggedly ran her eyes for a last glance at their shrouded ranch, straining to make out the livestock in the mist.  They had debts, of course.  Weather, economy and circumstances had not always been cooperative with them, either.  But sa far uz tha eye kin see ta a clear day, Gaine thought, ‘n all di-rections, ar land, Katie darlin'.  An' we t'ain't losin' it ta nobudy. 

She snapped her gaze back to her head employee and good friend standing before her.  She had worked with Don Carlos since she was nineteen.  Now, nearly six years later, she found he always seemed to anticipate her needs. 

"Ya needs ta send some new supplies off ta them fellers ta tha bog camp ‘bove tha canyon ‘n ar lahn rahders."  She rubbed a hand on her face wondering how long the ranch's supplies would hold out. 

Don Carlos nodded.  Gaine continued, "'N Ah wants ta work them choppin' hosses this here mornin' a'fore Ah goes ‘n mebee summa them ropers.  Yu'll need ta haf ‘em brought ta the corral."

A cutting horse's training didn't start in earnest till it was at least three and a half or four.  And she had a number of those.  Otherwise they talked to the colts, got them used to the rope, and rubbed them down with a piece of gunny sack.  It all took a long time.  Under her direction all horses were gentled slowly, but these in particular.  That didn't mean they didn't need to top off a wild bronc from time to time, but her instructions were explicit--slow and easy. 

Every cowhand needed a couple cutting horses in the remuda.  On most ranches, top rate ones were more than scarce.  There were more in her remuda though she allowed few people to actually train them.  And the marketable cutters they turned out weren't just top rate, they were spectacular. 

Schooling a rope horse in the work of roping was also intensive, though she allowed most riders to train them.  Her men were skilled ropers, vaqueros, better by far than most.  Yet a trained horse was necessary or the proficient roper's skills were wasted.  Such horses had to be strong, intelligent animals because roping was one of the most dangerous types of work done on a cattle ranch.  As always, she found the inbred courage of her mustang mixes fit the bill perfectly.

"Si.  I told the men last night."

She smiled.  He was a prize foreman.  "Good."

"I'll bring you some coffee, Don Carlos" the small blonde smiled,  "You, too, Gaine.  Nell's fixing breakfast.  I guess I'd better hurry and get the milking done and help her out."

"Whut's she a'fixin?"

Kate knew what it would be.  "Saddle blankets and pig's vests with buttons." She smiled at how she was no longer tempted to say "pancakes and salt pork" instead of the ranchhand's lingo for it.

Gaine smiled.  They would eat after chores and before they really got started on the day's jobs.  All the hands within range ate at the big house.  In winter meals at headquarters were accomplished inside the house. In summer a long table was set up in the yard. 

Suddenly a sound like thunder rumbled nearby.  Everyone turned to watch.  From the mist came a small band of young horses on the run, majestic with flying manes and tails.  A rider stood rapidly pulling the last of the slip rails and the small band was driven inside the corral.  These were the horses Gaine had requested.

The cutting horses were the most prized, most talked about, and most expensive animals that they sold.  Buyers would begin their scrutiny of this year's potential offerings soon.  She wanted her horses to be ready.

A good, graceful cutting horse was a wonder to behold.  Over the last few years, their best had become known throughout the region, some, such as the mare S Star almost reaching legendary status.  Of course, most ranches these days didn't use mares other than as brood mares.  Geldings were solely used.  It solved many problems. 

Gaine loved working with the cutters, training them, and always drew a crowd when she did.  She sat a horse like she was born on it and moved like the most graceful of dancers.  It was pure art to watch horse and rider.  No matter how fast or in which directions the horse turned or spun, Gaine sat erect effortlessly following the moves.  She was almost never spilled.

There was a young three and a half year old filly in this group that she was very high on.  This horse was athletic and smart, already showing signs of synchronizing her movements with the cow, acting as though she were receiving no instructions at all from the rider.  "That thar little Lady Law," Gaine said with pride, her eyes searching out the claybank in question, "she's gonna be good uz S Star.  Mebee....better.  She kin turn on a dahm, and gie ya back change, that hoss."  

"Si," Don Carlos breathed, his eyes tracking with admiration where hers were.  He doubted that any horse would ever be better than S Star.  But this was a talented mare.  And he was certain Gaine would keep her for breeding purposes.

Cutting horses had to have the right instincts and that in itself was pretty rare.   The ranch's greatest advantage was that generations of horses with that natural instinct, courage, and intelligence tended to pass it on to their offspring.  So a good cutting horse had the potential to be bred.  And that's exactly what Gaine had been doing over the years.  Now she was beginning to reap the benefits with a reputation for true quality horseflesh.

The sound of the bunkhouse door slamming brought them out of their pleasant stupor.  A group of riders, two they didn't know, milled while others sat on their heels near the distant building, rolling a morning cigarito, stuffing their pipes, or biting off a chaw.  They'd finished their chores, their horses had been selected, they were ready to ride.  They'd be heading to the house, ready to wolf down their chuck, with another smoke before starting the serious jobs.  The work day had begun.

"Good gracious!  I'd best hurry.  The hands'll be here to eat and I haven't done the milking yet."  Kate took Gaine's cup with her own in one hand, lifted her long skirts with the other and scurried to the door.  Gaine moved to hold the door for her, but the blonde was already in and gone in a flash. 

The Sheriff and Don Carlos watched the door close in silence.  Kate was a small bundle of charm, spunk, innocence, worry, caring and warmth.  Don Carlos had noted the beneficial change in his boss since the blonde's arrival six months earlier.  The tall brunette seemed..not less driven but far more settled. "Ya knows them two rahders?" Gaine asked.

"No.  Here for grub."  Gaine nodded and the two went over the day's work schedule.  Apparently the door had not shut completely because it opened and a small toddler took a halting step onto the porch before suddenly breaking into a toddler's run with an excited, laughing squeal.  It was Sarah, one of the two orphans the two women had taken on.  Beauty, the dog, raced protectively toward the child as Kate arrived at the door, breathing heavily, her face flushed from her hasty sprint.

In a flash Gaine whipped out an arm and scooped up the small girl before she got near the horses tied at the rail.  "Whoa thar," the tall brunette exclaimed.  "Whar ya headin' thar, half pahnt?"

Kate's hand went to her chest as she panted, "Oh, Gaine, thank heavens!"

Gaine smiled at the blonde.  "Look whut Ah done captured.  Ya war only a step a'hind her, Katie."   Kate nodded, sucked in a deep breath and gripped the door frame to catch her breath. 

The toddler was shifted to Gaine's left arm.  The year and a half year old petite child suddenly became shy, sat on the brunette's arm bringing her tiny hands to grip the leather of the Sheriff's opened vest.  Then she laughed and pointed at the dog before her attention was directed back to Gaine's shirt front where her hands moved busily over vest and shirt.

"Looks lahk ya been on the dodge thar, little Missy," Gaine cooed.  "Got away frum yer keepers, Ah reckon."  Bashful, the child did not look up. 

"I'm so sorry, Gaine.  I thought Willy was watching her," Kate said between breaths.  "Oh, sweetheart," she said to the child, "you must never go out this door by yourself!"  The toddler did not lift her eyes or look Kate's way.  Her attention had focused on the dog below.  Kate cast a worried glance inside, "Where IS Willy?"  Willy was Nell's oldest, a daughter almost nine, a very responsible girl, and the one usually in charge of watching the younger children while the women cooked and did chores.

A sheepish seven year old came up to Kate just inside the door, his hands behind him and his face down.  "I was supposed to watch her, Miss Kate," Brian, Nell's oldest son said. "Momma made some crackers.  I gave her one, sat her in front of the fire, and only turned my back for a minute."

"Brian, you know she plays in her sleep box, darlin'.  She'll stay there.  Since she's learned to walk, she gets around much faster than anyone ever thinks she can."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You just can't turn your back on the little ones when you're supposed to watch them.  Do you see why?" The boy's head bobbed in silence.  Kate's heart was pounding but she tried to keep her voice calm. "That means you can't play and watch them, too.  Both Sarah and your little sister Bongo can get into trouble in a heart beat if no one's watching."  At three, his sister Bongo did know to stay with the other children, which little Sarah was not inclined to do.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Look at the dangers here."  Kate pointed to the horses.  "Sarah could have been trampled to death by those horses or at the very least fallen off the porch.  Thank heavens the Sheriff was here to catch her this time."

"Sorry, ma'am.  Sorry Sheriff." 

"There can't be a next time, Brian. Remember, all right? Where's Willy?"

"She's takin' care of the chamber pots," he kept his gaze on the carefully crafted stone floor at his feet. 

"All right, I'll tell you what.  Wash up, get the milking buckets from your mother, she's scalding the last one now, and start the milking.  The cows are waiting at the barn gate to be let in.  I'll get the little ones settled before Willy gets back.  Can you do that?"

He nodded yes.  Then the wide-eyed boy turned and disappeared toward the kitchen.  Kate took a deep breath.  Fear was a mighty master, and her heart was still pounding in alarm at what might have been.

"Tis all raht, Katie," Gaine said softly, holding the now squirming child next to her chest, drawing a little hand away from the collarless neck of her shirt.  "Ah gots her."  The tall brunette flicked her long hair behind her shoulders out of easy reach of little grasping fingers.

"No, it's not all right," Kate shot back, fire flashing in tear filled green eyes.  "She could have been killed, Gaine.  That's why I've taught her to stay in her box.  If she'd gotten to those horses, they wouldn't have known any better.  They'd have trampled her in minutes.  It's not all right."

"Ah know.  But theys din't."   Part way to being two, this little one was becoming quite a busy rascal.

At Gaine's soft words Kate felt her quick temper vanish and regret at having spoken so sharply flowed in to fill the space. "That frightened me so," Kate said in a whisper.

"Ah know," Gaine cast her a tender smile.   "Ah reckon we needs ta ponder puttin' some fencin' ‘round tha house ‘n keep hosses outsahd ut."

"Can we?" Kate asked.  "Then we could put a swing in that tree.  It would be a safer place for the children to play."

Gaine'd never had to think much about youngsters while running her ranch.  Now she did. "Yep.  Good idee."  The toddler worked her chubby fingers around Gaine's star and pulled it out of the Sheriff's vest pocket.  She looked at it with fascination.  "That thar's a Sheriff's star," the tall woman grinned, wrapping her long fingers around it, edging it out of the child's grip and returning it to her pocket. "Barden's County Sheriff."   

Gaine turned the girl who was about to cry at the loss of her shiny new toy toward the horses.  "One a these here days, Sarrie, wull go fer a rahd on a hoss, you ‘n me.  But a'fore than, ya gots ta stay far ‘way from ‘em.  They ain't useta little squealin' small frah.  Tis a no no, shore nuff." She gave a small tickle to the youngster, followed by the toddler's cheerful squeal.  Then the small girl pointed at the horses. 

"Yep, that thar's a hoss.  You ‘n yer sister, Costadeena, gots some hosses ta yer own out ta pasture.  ‘N some steers.  One day wull rahd out tah look ‘em o'er.  Ah got ‘em all racorded ta mah record book fer whan ya gits bigger."  The livestock recovered from the rustlers with the small girl's parents' brand was being held in their names since no one knew of any relatives the children might have.

Large eyes lifted to Gaine, then the toddler's eyes lit on Kate.  Instantly she stretched eager arms out.  "Mum Mum Mum," she called.

Kate lifted the small child from Gaine's arms.  "Oh, Sarah..."  Kate buried her face in the squirming child's hair for a moment, kissing her hair and head, till the blonde's heart began to pound less heavily. "You scared Mum Mum."  She pulled back, "You must stay inside the house, Sarah." Her scold was soft, "Those horseys could have hurt you."

The ever-present smile disappeared from the toddler's face at the tone of Kate's voice.  The tiny girl studied the blonde's features, put a hand on Kate's cheek, turning her own face into a matching scowl.  "No!" she replied emphatically. 

"Yes.  Come on.  Let's get you settled in your box and maybe I can get caught up this morning." 

The child babbled what Gaine considered incomprehensible sounds.

"Yes, I'll get you another cracker."  Kate turned with a relieved smile for Gaine, "Check your vest, uh, neck and sleeve, Sheriff.  I think Sarah left a cracker trail on you.  And...thank you again for catching her."  Then she and the child were gone into the house, the door shut tight behind them.

Gaine looked at her sleeve and vest and felt her neck.  She brushed then scraped with her fingernail at the leavings on her clothes.  Tiny mucky pieces of chewed cracker stuck to her here and there. "This here shore could ruint mah repeetation ta town," she mumbled.  She could imagine Westminster seeing her covered in cracker droolings. 

She looked up at Don Carlos who was chuckling.  She snickered, "Them little uns tends ta leak ‘n whan theys t'ain't a'leakin', theys leaf them little mouse droppin's e'erwhar, ya e'er noticed that?"

"Si, boss.  I am having five small children."

"Fave now?  Lordy, Don Carlos.  T'is a good thang ya doan git home more often."

"Si, Boss."  He chuckled. "That is what my wife is saying."

"Ah wonder whut she'd pay me ta not gie ya no tahm off this here yar?"  He laughed at that.  "Looks lahk yull hafta git yer own coffee.  Ah wanna look o'er them hosses afore we's heads back har ta the feed trough." 

Her eyes went to the horses.  She could spend her life just working with them.  She could almost feel the rope in her hand, a hooley-ann swinging out, the honda sliding down the rope on the neck of the horse she'd start with, her voice purring any of the animal's alarm away.

"I'll join you." 

Gaine stepped off the porch with a soft jingle of her slightly smaller spur, and the two headed to the corral, the three dogs bounding cheerfully around them, their tails swishing with delight.  The door opened and six year old Carl came out carefully balancing a hot cup of coffee in each hand.  Behind him holding the door was Brian with two clean buckets, anxious to get by his younger brother. 

"Sheriff, Mr. Foreman," Carl called.  "Miss Kate sent this for you."

Kate swept out the door in a breathless rush after the children, her face turned back to the room.  "Put your knitting aside, Willy.  I'll help you with it after breakfast.  Don't take your eyes off them for a second!  And keep this door shut!"  Her caution given, she pulled the door shut tight behind her and tested it with an extra jiggle. 

She glanced at the bench against the end of the porch on which was resting a tin wash basin with dirty water, a dish of soft lye soap and an old shirt used as a towel.  "Oh buzzards, the water in the wash basin hasn't been changed yet and the riders will be here to wash up for breakfast.  The creek's far too muddy to use.  I'll draw some from the well, I guess."  Kate hated to use precious well water for washing up.

She grabbed the basin and poured a small amount of dirty water on the vines she'd gotten from Etta and had planted on each side of the porch stairs.  She always carefully poured dirty water in the garden and on her vines, although with the recent downpours the ground was already fairly saturated, which was rare. 

"I'd best hurry," she muttered, then slogged quickly toward her garden, unlatching the henhouse door on the way.  She called out "Biddy, biddy, biddy" as the flock poured out around her.  She tossed some feed from her apron pocket to the outpouring chickens then crusted her work moccasins with red mud as she continued on.  "Where did the time go?"

The mist was dissipating.  Brian tore past them headed for the waiting milk cows but Gaine and Don Carlos stopped and waited for Carl to carefully carry the cups to them.  Gaine gave a sharp whistle, calling the dogs back so they didn't swamp the small boy with their adoring enthusiasm. 

Gaine couldn't help chuckling at Kate.  The small blonde did like to talk, even when she was talking to herself.  She do spout words run ten ta tha pound, Gaine chortled.  The brunette's mouth turned into a mischievous grin.  She nudged Don Carlos.  "This here'll git her Irish up," she grinned, "she done hates hafin' me tease her bout them milk cows."  She called to the blonde with all the wide-eyed sincerely she could muster, "Ah kin haf one a the fellers do the milkin' fer ya, Katie, if'n ya cain't git ta it this here mornin'."

Kate, now bent over in the garden, shot up to her full height of five foot four and turned back to the two, her eyes narrowed.  "Do not trifle with me, Sheriff, or you will sorely regret it!"  She fluttered her hand at Gaine, "You just go do whatever it was you were going to do.  The punchers, too.  Fresh milk will be on the table soon enough."

"Yes, ma'am," Gaine replied "Jest trahin' ta hep."

" foot," Kate muttered, her eyes filled with challenge as she scurried out of the garden, her skirts hitched in one hand, the empty wash tin in the other, her lips moving in further unheard conversation regarding cattle auctions.

But Kate knew it was a sign of acceptance to be teased.  And Gaine was top rate at it.  In fact, it was a way of life on most ranches. 

"You should be careful, Boss," Don Carlos whispered, "one day she'll take the broom to you and be whacking you hard with it."

"Ah knows," Gaine grinned widely.  "She bees sa easy ta rile."  Both chuckled.

Gaine raised blue eyes to Kate just in time to catch the small woman casting a sweet open look back over her shoulder.  Gaine had been tempered to the harsh ways of a harsh life, a life where romance was much of a novelty.  That thar look bees skally-hootin jest ta me.  She gazed at the blonde, almost confounded, taken aback by the pure sweetness of it.

A soft smile came to the blonde's lips, emerald eyes fluttered then opened wide to catch two azure orbs with a direct line connecting both women's souls.  Funny how a moment's pause could have the impact of a lightning strike, lighting them both within, before Kate hurried off to the well. 

Gaine stood staring at Kate's back, her knees feeling uncharacteristically weak.  Mah dolce, she thought.  Le adoro.  Then she smiled.  Katie shore ‘nuff done drapt her rope taht o'er me.  An unfamiliar emotion this adoration she felt for her blonde sweetheart.  It dearly warmed her heart.

"Gratias," Don Carlos said to the small boy, taking one cup of coffee for himself, nudging Gaine with the other.

"Huh?" Gaine reluctantly brought her eyes to the cup. "Oh, thank ye."

The youngster grinned. "Da nada."

"Whal, he's a'larnin' yer speak, Don Carlos," Gaine was pleased. "That's raht good, boy.  Bueno." 

Carl grinned proudly.  Being praised by the Sheriff was more than important.  Gaine took a sip of the hot brew and watched the boy run back to the house.  "Whap yer feet," she called to the young boy, who shot a surprised glance back at her.

"Yes, ma'am, Sheriff." He began to carefully scrape the mud off on the edge of the porch.  Everyone knew that when the Sheriff said to do something, you did it.  Pronto.

Don Carlos ran a hand over his short, neatly trimmed coal black beard.  "The little ones, they learn easy.  My little ones, they can speak the English pretty good," he supplied proudly.

"Ya teachin' ‘em Coyote Joe's speak?"  Coyote Joe and his brother were half Paiute.

"Si.  When I can."

"Ne'er hurts ta know uz meny lang'ages uz ya kin."  She herself could speak at least five with some degree of fluency, two of them native American.  But since she held with great tenacity to the rustic vernacular of her birthplace, Kate teased that the language Gaine needed to work on the most was English.  Gaine chuckled good-humoredly to herself just thinking about it.  She decided Kate's was a comment to which a truly "renegade" Lady Sheriff must always take good-humored exception.


Continued in Section I ~ Voices from the Past, Chapter 2

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