THE RENEGADE LADY SHERIFF by bsoiree C-SRE 2005 Sequel to “Fetchin' Cousin Minnie” and “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 who gave me her heart oh those many years ago. A lifetime is not enough..
Section II ~ Trouble at Wild Horse Creek
Chapter 10 ~ Requiem
Barden's Corner, foothills, California
A few days past Christmas, 1875
The sky above Barden's Corner was overcast and the wind blew forlornly as the church bell tolled. Scudding grey patches of clouds flowed raggedly across the thinner grey layers. It was as though the weather knew it was the funeral of one of the region's men of good standing.
Slowly the crowd of mourners moved in a slender column from Dalton's home on the edge of town, walking the mile's distance to the burial spot in the cemetery. Men and women dressed in their coarse country clothing bundled over with heavy coats flecked with ever-present mud trundled solemnly along. A storm threatened.
Hats were pulled down against the wind, bonnets and scarves blocking the cold. Over the first rolling hill where the road dipped and sharply turned to the right, the end of the line became lost in sight as the procession snaked along the worn wagon trail. There were few townspeople not there.
At the front of the line was the Preacher in his long black coat and narrow string tie, his hands gripping the Good Book tight against his chest. Behind him the bearers carried the bier, Dalton on the right front. Boldly Mary Jane walked behind holding the hands of two of her small children. Beulah and her children followed behind them as she carried Mary Jane's youngest in her arms. The Preacher's wife and the rest of the town trailed behind.
During the prior night, Kate had spent little time dozing. Instead she had kept close watch over Gaine's poultices, changing them often, reheating the mixture each time. By daylight the tall Sheriff's fever had broken, there was no more oozing. The tall woman felt remarkably better, even though she ached all over, moving her arm was still very difficult, and she had a pounding whiskey headache.
With a confidence not shared by Kate, Gaine had the small blonde wrap her shoulder as tight as possible. Gaine dressed in the clean work clothes Kate assembled for her, and acted as alert as she could manage around the peddler when he came in from the bunkhouse for breakfast. Nell stood with mouth open watching Gaine. Could this be the same woman she'd seen on death's door the night before? Aside from the dark circles under her eyes, her deathly pallor had turned to a mottled grayish pink.
Gaine grumbled about Kate forcing her to clean up and go to bed early the night before, hoping to head off any stories Archie might decide to pass on to his customers about how gravely she'd been wounded.
Mary Jane's team and wagon was driven to town that morning by Gaine with Kate at her side. Garcia had worked with them for a good two hours before turning them over to Gaine, and they were much better behaved. Alabam followed, driving Gaine's magnificent matched greys hitched to the ranch's buckboard with Archie beside him. They trailed a sturdy old horse tied to the back. Archie was to get his spring wagon and the harness he had bargained for at the livery, hitch up Gaine's old horse then ride off to make his second wagon trade. He would return to the ranch later that night.
Word had come to town via the grapevine that the Mintons, a family with a sheep ranch in another valley east of the Lorence's, also in Sheriff Wilson's county, had been burned out the first night Gaine had stayed at the Lorence ranch. Every building had burned to the ground, killing what trapped livestock they'd not had time to rescue. All the building fires had started shortly after the family had blown out their chambersticks and climbed into bed. No one could explain why. Too many buildings were struck at the same time to attribute it to lightning.
The family had gotten out safely but the fire had transferred to the grass and brush. They had been able to stop the flames from spreading further by hurriedly plowing a fire break in the fire-lit darkness and beating the burning grass and brush with wet blankets all night long while hot cinders fell around them.
Fortunately the ground was still damp from the heavy rains earlier in the week. They soaked the blankets in the spring, theirs being one of the few properties around having a steady water supply. But by morning the family had lost most everything including part of their corralled sheep. They were greatly discouraged.
Word filtered out that they were going to sell their remaining stock and leave the area, selling out their property to whoever would make them the best offer. Rumors abounded that it had been the work of the same two gunslingers. The two had been seen in the area before the fire.
In the cemetery Gaine and Kate tied Mary Jane's team by the entrance then moved to stand near the back of the assembled crowd, Gaine's hat in her hand, her long mass of black hair braided down her back. Kate had her new warm cloak wrapped around her, its hood over her calico sunbonnet. Their heads were bowed, hiding the dark circles under the blonde's eyes as well.
Kate glanced at her hands and the worn, white gloves her mother had given her the last time she'd seen her. Oh Momma, she thought peeking quickly at Gaine, I nearly lost her. It could have been me where Mary Jane is now. Must death always be so close at hand, threatening disaster?
Gaine's hands were thrust into the pockets of her fringed leather jacket, her left arm clamped firmly against her side. She occasionally wore leather gloves when working at the ranch, but never wore them in town, being mindful of a Sheriff's need for a clean and fast draw.
The tall brunette felt hung over, in pain, and worst of all, the energy she had felt on awakening that morning was rapidly waning. Regardless, she made every effort to keep it from showing.
The church pastor led the crowd in the singing of the hymn, Shall We Gather at the River. As the last words died away, few eyes were not filled with tears as the pastor's voice invoked comfort and sustenance for Ernie's family. He prayed Mary Jane's faith would not falter as a chilly wind added emphasis to the bleakness of the occasion.
As he went on to speak of the frailty of life, the mystery of death and the meeting again in the great beyond, Gaine felt eyes on her and glanced over to see the admiring stare of Eli Hornbar. The man was standing next to the Mayor and Westminster, his face marked with surprise.
Westminster purposely did not look her way. He had his stylish, young fiancé, Maud Field, on his arm. Her father ran the town's copper mine with an iron fist, constantly overworking his shifts, unconcerned with the accidents it inspired or how many men were killed, squeezing the worker's wages to a pittance, replacing men at will with others willing to take less pay. The grumbling was getting worse, and Gaine worried that at any time it might inspire the violence of a strike.
Gaine's fatigued eyes studied Westminster's betrothed. Her father's princely revenue kept the girl in the lavish extravagance her gowns denoted and to which she, certainly, was accustomed. For all that, the young fiancee was not nearly as jaded as her father. There had always been a youthful innocence about the decidedly plain-featured young woman. She seemed a nice enough person despite her only parent, and Gaine was sure Maud's pleasant personality and station in life could get her many better suitors than Westminster.
The young lady shot Gaine a coquettish glance from under long lashes that left the tall brunette blinking in perplexion. Gaine looked away to direct her thoughts back to those of the pastor's message. Before she did she saw Westminster sneak his hand to his mouth and remove something before whispering into his fiance's Parisian-hat covered ear. He flicked his hand surreptitiously to drop whatever he held to the side. Clove stems, Ah reckon. E'er tha dandy.
“I told you she'd be here,” the Mayor grumbled aside to Mr. Hornbar.
“Amazing! That beauty's nothing short of amazing! Who's that next to her?”
The Mayor squinted. “Oh, her. That's an elbow relation. Another Sargos. Married to Gaine's cousin I believe. She's of a similar complexion, if you ask me. Both scheming, malicious women.” He scowled and fingered the cigars protruding from the pocket of his waistcoat, wishing nothing more than to light one but knowing he didn't dare.
Gaine glanced over and a fleeting thought crossed her face. With his black suit, white collar, black hat, and squat body, the Mayor looked remarkably like their barn cat. From the look on his face, she could just imagine him this minute slappin' his tail in annoyance. If the occasion weren't so solemn, she might have chosen to chuckle. Instead Gaine bowed her head and directed her attention to the pastor who was saying a prayer now for Ernie's spirit.
The widow stood pale and tired, each hand still holding the grip of a small child. She did not cry nor look at anyone. She stood somber and alone though surrounded with humanity, gazing into that deep, dark hole in the ground when her attention wasn't directed with agony at the cloth-covered, wooden box next to the hole, the box holding the lifeless body of her friend and lover, her kind, dear, always impractical husband.
A terrible pain welled inside the widow, but she would not let it out. Anger was wound around that pain, anger at the two men who were responsible and anyone else that was behind Ernie's death. Like Gaine, she had her suspicions. The whole town did. But she could not concentrate on that. She had to be practical. She had Ernie's three small children to think of.
She had refused to stay away from the burial as old customs prescribed. It had been upsetting to Beulla, but Mary Jane was enough her own woman that she didn't care. And customs were gradually changing in the west, where frontier conditions didn't often allow the pomp and circumstance of a bygone era.
The last hymn, Rock of Ages, was finished, a final prayer said. Voices faded till only the sorrowful sound of the wailing wind could be heard. It was when the coffin was finally lowered into the hole that a few of Mary Jane's hard fought tears streaked the widow's cheeks.
When her young son called out for his Daddy and seemed perplexed when his mother knelt to pull him into her arms, her tears fell more freely on his neck, only to be reined back with valiant effort. Such a reminder of loss and pain of grief left few with dry eyes. Without thinking families edged closer together.
A handful of dirt was dropped on the coffin top. Goodbye my love. Mary Jane thought morosely. She held her son in her arms and gazed forlornly into the dark opening. This was it. Their life as they'd known it was officially over. No more would she hear Ernie's deep laughter, feel his warm hand grip hers, see him lift his children into the air.
With a sorrowful look a very tired Kate glanced up at Gaine then dabbed her handkerchief to her eyes and nose. Gaine put her right arm around Kate's shoulders and drew her into a firm hug.
Perhaps it was Kate's exhaustion that had the blonde feeling so terribly despondent. She felt an overwhelming desire to break down and weep inconsolably. She wanted to weep for Mary Jane's loss as well as all her own, for every hurt, for every wrong done her, and there had been many growing up, for her lost childhood, for her fears of loss now that her life was so perfect. But she did not weep. She watched Mary Jane's children and couldn't help thinking how frightfully the Lorences' lives had been changed. And why? Because of the evil of two men. Or was it more than two? Two were there to pull the trigger, but how many were behind the deed?
Rumors abounded in town, and with the rumors something else below the surface, something not often felt in their small town. A breath of fear. Could this happen to them?
Gaine smiled down at Kate and it stirred the blonde's heart. She loves me. She's my rock. I don't need to feel lost ever again.
During the night as Kate had changed a poultice, Gaine had worriedly explained how she had ended up holding Mary Jane comfortingly in her arms that night as they ' d shared a bed together. Kate had replied that she was pleased...that it spoke of Gaine's compassion. She did not find it at all inappropriate. Relieved, Gaine had slept soundly thereafter, her good arm holding Kate near.
Now Kate snuggled into Gaine's warmth. She'd been greatly encouraged by the condition of the tall beauty's wounds that morning. Downright amazed, in fact. Gaine's leg was healing well, and while there was still some swelling in her shoulder wound, there was little other visible sign of infection. That was very good news. Gaine...Kate's mysterious and beautiful Gaine. She was healing rapidly. Maybe she was part mustang after all. And maybe there was something to this primitive stamina idea.
How Kate wished Gaine would quit her dangerous job and spend her time at home on the ranch. She pressed her cheek to Gaine's good shoulder. Gaine looked down at Kate with a heavy sigh, completely unaware that the two of them were thinking along the same line.
Who'd do this here job, Gaine wondered, if'n Ah din't. Phineas ain't near ready. Could we stand tha kinda life we'd done be forced ta lead with'n Westminster ta charge a tha peace? He'd shore set womenfolk back. Prob'ly pass a law that all females had ta wear skirts er go ta jail. An he'd done pertect any murderous bullies hahred by anaone willin' ta give him influence. She sighed again, Shucks, Ah doan think Ah could bear havin' im as Sheriff.
Gaine glanced at Mary Jane. She was impressed with the fact that the young widow was here at all. She didn't have to be. The woman was wiping her tears, holding back her sorrow, regaining a surprising tenacity.
Gaine wondered what her plans for the future would end up being. She really thought Mary Jane was young enough and strong enough to try running the ranch herself. It could be done. The Lorence's valley was a fantastic piece of property. It would all depend, of course, on what ramrod she hired and how much she was willing to learn about the ranching business.
She knew Dalton's wife, Beulla, had told Mary Jane the standard things--that she would remarry, find someone to take care of her and her children. There were a lot of available men in the state. It was only a matter of finding the one with the best prospects who would do the best by her and her small children.
Mary Jane held her young son and felt numb. She had married her husband for love, a deep, abiding love. Now her whole world had been turned upside down. The future they'd both looked forward to just days before was gone forever. Their dream was over. How quickly life changed.
“You'll stay with us, of course,” Beulla had told her calmly, “until you know what you want to do. This isn't a time to be alone. Besides, surely you don't want to be way out on that ranch by yourself. I mean, I know Gaine left one of her riders out there to make sure of your safety, but really, Mary Jane, do you want to be out on a ranch all alone in the wild with a man you don't even know, a...a Mexican man at that? What will the neighbor's think?”
“It was very kind of Gaine...” Mary Jane had replied. Now her mind was on overload as it had been from the moment Gaine and Alonzo had ridden into the ranch with Ernie's body draped across the saddle. Events seemed to unfold before her with alarming speed. Her head was swimming. She stood in shock while the neighbors surrounded her murmuring their sorrow, and Ernie, dear sweet Ernie, lay prostrate in a pine box, gone from her forever.
Slowly the townsfolk turned from the figure in black with her children, nodded to the Pastor and began to make their way back to town. Gaine and Kate watched the solemn exit. Ernie's death had touched many.
Gaine made note of Eli Hornbar. He did not look back. Nor did those he was with. She wondered if he had at least been reminded of his own mortality. This had been an homage to Death, even more so than to Ernie. She saw some of the other's faces. Fear was there, fear of death, fear of losing someone you loved, and perhaps fear of what it meant if you went against the wrong people. She gave them her most confident stance. Not ‘n ar town!
“Gaine,” Mary Jane called out as Gaine and Katie turned to head back. The widow transferred her hold on her children to Dalton and Beullah.
The flush of morning exuberance was past for Gaine, she was fading rapidly. They'd need to head home very soon. They walked to where the widow was still standing by the pastor and Dalton's family. Dalton's hand went to his hat and he dipped his head to them in silent greeting. Gaine nodded in return, shook the Pastor's hand then laid her right hand on the young widow's elbow as Kate shook the Pastor's hand.
“How ya holdin' tagether?” Gaine inquired softly.
Mary Jane answered by throwing herself into Gaine's arms. A startled Gaine slowly brought her good shouldered arm around the grieving widow. “Oh, Gaine,” Mary Jane whispered into Gaine's ear. “I'm so frightened. He was the star in my crown. I don't know what to do without him.”
“Shhh. Yull be fahn. Ah promise.” With remarkable tenderness the tall woman continued speaking softly to the woman enfolded in her arms, “Ya gots his childerns, Mara Jane. That thar's a blessin'. Ya needs ta concern yerself with'n them younguns, if'n ya kin.” Kate stood quietly watching, as did the others. “Ahs sa sorry, Mara Jane. Shhh.”
The widow did not lessen her hold. “Yes, I... I wanted to tell you, Mr. Hornbar has offered me a sale price on the ranch,” she whispered.
“Whut?!” Gaine pulled back. Blue eyes stared in disbelief at the woman. “When? He done that a'ready?” Her eyes went to the grave, Afor Ernie war even ta the ground? “Whah that rotten...”
Mary Jane gripped Gaine's good elbow and moved them a step or two away, putting her head close to the tall Sheriff's. “Yes, last night,” she whispered and turned away a bit more so others could not hear, “A cash offer. He said it was to help ease my mind in this time of sorrow.”
Gaine's jaw tightened. Well, ain't he grass-bellied with'n spot cash. That thar blasted sahdewinder! Kill ‘er husband ‘n steal ‘er ranch!...if'n he war tha one done hahred them gunslingers. The young widow went on to tell her the amount offered. Again Gaine pulled back.
“Whut?! That t'ain't raht! Whah, enaone would pay ya more'n that fer yer valley!”
“Would you?” She again pulled Gaine near and talked softly, turning her back even more to the others.
“Shore. Course Ah would. Anabody would.”
“How much would you pay?” Mary Jane's whisper was deadly solemn.
Gaine blinked. What was happening? Did Mary Jane want her to make a sincere offer on her land? Now? With her husband freshly lowered into the ground and not yet covered?
The Sheriff's mind was spinning. Apparently Mary Jane did want a sincere offer. Well, she'd offer a more fair price at least, yet how could they afford it? Of course it was a once-in-a-lifetime prime property with year-round water, easily fenced. That in itself would cut down on the number of hands needed to work it. Still, working cowhands would have to be paid, and how could they afford to hire more of them? How many would they need? One might be able to get by with three, four at the most if it was done correctly.
The Lorence land had a valuable stretch of sheltered, long-grass not touched yet by sheep. And the natural golden hay stood thick in the coulees. It was cured on the stalk. Handmade hay. There was less and less of that kind of land available each year, especially with such good year-round water resources. But Gaine was already paying on land and cattle she'd purchased in the past few years. She'd have to talk it over with Katie.
Now she and Mary Jane stood close facing each other enough away from the others to not be heard. Gaine's hands worried the hat she held while she chewed her lip. Whatever she offered would be higher than Hornbar's miserable pittance. “Uh, Ah'd offer a fair market valya, a course,” her words hidden by the wind. This was not appropriate funeral conversation by anyone's thinking. The others would be shocked, as was she. “But thar might be t'uthers could offer ya more.”
Gaine licked her lips and slipped her hat back on her head. If Mary Jane wanted a sincere offer, Gaine would certainly not cheat her no matter what, but there were serious limits to what she and Kate could afford. Then she added in a whisper, “Ar finances cain't allow no full cash terms. Most folks cain't afford nothin' like that, these here days. Do ya bees carryin' a contract?”
Mary Jane wondered briefly what the Sheriff meant by “our finances,” but made no comment on it. She thought Gaine was sole owner of the Circle S. “No, Ernie purchased it outright. And I trust you, Gaine, and would like to deal with you if it's at all possible. Could you put some cash down and sign a contract on the rest?” Mary Jane's voice stayed in a whisper. “Is that possible? I just have to have enough to get my children and me to San Francisco,” she paused, “and from there back to the states.”
“Uh, Ah think we could, uh, mebee.”
“I have to sell, Gaine. I....I can't stay there.”
“Ya could, Mara Jane,” Gaine suggested, “if'n ya got the raht hep. Ah could hep ya git a raht good ramrod.”
“No. It's so lonely. I couldn't stand one more night of seeing no neighbor's lamplight shining in the distance, especially knowing Ernie wouldn't ever be walking in the door again. I can't stay. That valley was never a homeseeker's paradise to me like it was to him. No, I need to sell and I want to sell to you. I don't want to have to sell to anyone else, particularly to Mr. Hornbar. I think, perhaps not, but I think maybe he might be... involved somehow. Dalton says I must be careful to never say that to anyone, but...”
She looked up into tired blue eyes, “Please, think it over and give me a price and some terms. I'll be staying at Dalton and Beullah's, but I want to head to San Francisco as soon as possible, hopefully in just a day or two.”
A day er two? That startled Gaine. Folks seldom found the need to act as rashly as Mary Jane seemed to want to do. What was her rush?”
“Ernie's brother and his family live in San Francisco,” Mary Jane continued, “They'll watch over us until I know what to do. I..I won't even go back out to box our things. I can't...I couldn't bear...without Ernie...” She looked away to wipe away a quick tear, then turned back, “Dalton and Beullah have volunteered to box and ship our goods to wherever we finally settle. I know it's short notice, but I need to leave here with a sale in hand. Please, let me know by tomorrow, if you can.” I'm counting on you, my friend. Putting a hand slowly to her lips and studying Gaine's complexion she asked with concern, “You are well enough to return to town tomorrow?”
Gaine straightened as tall as she could. She hadn't thought past that very minute. Most of her efforts had been spent fighting the fatigue that was trying to defeat her. Would she come in town the next day? Could she? Of course she could, it was her job. “Tamorra? Uh, yes, ma'am.”
Mary Jane gave Gaine another quick hug. Her words were still soft, “Can you leave your rider out there until it's decided?”
“Yep. T'ain't no problem. Ah done posted Alonzo a'ready ta what's ta be done.”
“Thank you, Gaine. I'll expect to hear from you. Tomorrow. Please.” The young widow stepped back. Her voice no longer was a whisper. “How are your wounds?”
“Uh, fahn, ma'am.” Gaine's eyes flickered around at the crowd still dispersing. Who was listening? This was not a subject she wanted to discuss, “Warn't nuthin'.”
Mary Jane raised a brow. “I treated you, Gaine. It was much more than nothing, but you look like you're recovering well. After the jury yesterday, the whole town's talking about you I'm afraid. I'm sorry I had to be so descriptive. Dalton said you don't like anyone to think of you as being vulnerable. I'm sure you surprised the town by showing up today and looking so..healthy.” She added softly, ”I'm glad you were able to. And thank you for bringing the wagon here. Do you have a ride?”
“Yes, ma'am. Alabam done gots ar wagon.”
“Good.” Then she whispered, “Get back to me tomorrow. All right?”
Gaine's mind was swirling. How could they make that happen? Especially in today's market. “Uh, yes, ma'am.”
Mary Jane then turned to Kate. Perhaps the Sheriff's cousin and her husband were more deeply involved in Circle S Ranch business than anyone suspected. She gave the smaller blonde a polite hug. “Hold tight to what you have, Kate,” she whispered in her ear. “It can disappear in a heartbeat.” Then she cast one more longing look at the grave, took her children's hands and turned to walk away with Dalton, his family and the minister toward their wagon.
Kate threaded her hand around Gaine's good arm. “Yes, I will,” she muttered softly to the wind. “I will.” A tear streaked down Kate's cheek watching the young mother, a woman all too soon forced to be brave, as she walked away with her children.
Gaine looked down at her. “Be's ya all raht, Katie?”
Kate raised her glove-covered hand to wipe the tear away. Her mother's gloves. A secret parting gift when she was wrenched from her mother's arms. So much parting in life. “Yes, I'm fine. Just tired, I think.”
Gaine wanted to reply “Me, too,” but there was no way she'd admit how depleted she felt all of a sudden. Instead she said, “Um, Katie? When we gits ta home, we done gotta consider some, uh, new prospects.”
“New prospects?” Katie looked up, perplexed. “I don't understand.”
Gaine looked at the crowd filtering back to town. “Ahl tell ya ta prahvate.” Lordy! Ah feel like Ah been runned o'er by a herd a hosses.
“All right,” Kate replied quizzically, hoping to get some hint of what was happening. Gaine just smiled that vulnerable, soft, beautiful, wistful, blue-eyed smile she used with no one but Kate. It melted Kate's heart, again.
“Let's go home,” the blonde whispered, hearing the gravediggers filling in the grave behind them. She took a quick glance back. When she turned around, she noticed how weary Gaine seemed to be getting. The Sheriff forced herself to stand taller once more at Kate's examination.
Thar bees fear ta this here town now, Gaine determined. Ah kin feel ut. Ah gots ta let tha town see Ah bees fahn. Wish't Ah felt fahn. “Uh, Ah gots ta check tha saloons first, Katie” the brunette replied flatly. “T'is mah job. Phineus ain't here. T'is little ‘nuff ta do.”
Kate's whisper was fervent, “No you don't, Gaine. Your job right now is to get home to bed. Everyone else might think you're well showing up here, but I know better. You're practically falling down. I will not have you relapsing. The saloons will manage without your presence for a day or two. The town won't even notice.”
“No, Katie. Now more'n e'er Ah gotta ‘peer ta be ta tha job. Ah doan want nobody thinkin' ar town ain't pertected.”
Kate stopped and studied the tall woman. This woman is so stubborn. “I doubt you can even walk back to town, much less....”
“We doan gotta walk. Alabam'll bring tha wagon.”
“What? When did you ask him to do that?”
How could Gaine explain that she'd grown up with Alabam? That more often than not he anticipated her needs? That just a look was all it took? She didn't have to actually speak words to the man who was more a grandfather to her than a hired hand. “Whan we left ‘im ta town. He'll see the folks a'headin' back an' bring tha team.”
Sure enough, when they looked above the receding line of mourners, there was the white-haired, white-bearded old man looking much like a thin Santa skillfully directing Gaine's beautiful team past them toward the burial ground entrance. Kate could see the crowd's admiring looks directed at the gorgeous team. They were undoubtedly the finest matched pair of horses in the state.
“Let him drive, Gaine. When we get in the wagon, let him drive. Please.”
“Ah kin drive....” Gaine scowled. Although she was fading rapidly and wanted nothing more than to close her eyes for just an hour or two. But her team was so well trained it was not much of a task driving them.
Gaine scowled then leaned against the iron fence installed around the Rendon family plot as they waited. The Rendons had been early pioneers along with Gaine's parents. They'd come out west on the wagon train together.
The Sheriff's eyes drifted over the markers. Cholera had taken three of the youngsters. She'd been a youngster herself then. The Rendon family'd had a cattle ranch for a number of years, but no longer. Current owners were running sheep. The Rendon grandfather had followed the children to the graveyard the next year. Then both the parents some eight or nine years later. That's when the rest of the family split up.
“Big fam'ly. One a thar daughters still done lives hereabouts...Lella Merkle. T'uthers moved on. She done married one a tha Merkle boys.” Lella'd always been a placid girl but Gaine suspected a continual ferment existed behind her stolid exterior. Her husband was a miner, used the land she'd inherited to run sheep and was given to drink.
The wind and sounds of the shoveling were joined by the jingle of the approaching team. “Nahce fam'ly, them Rendons. Mah folks done knowed ‘em raht well. Ah war little than.”
“I can't imagine you ever being small,” Kate looked up with a smile.
“Yep. Ah war. Ah war al'ays tall fer my age, a course. Bigger'n Minnie. That thar used ta git Minnie's bristles up somethin' awful.” She smiled at the thought of her cousin then scanned the headstones. “Them Merkles, now thar bees un unruly bunch. Theys moved here later. Them boys war al'ays a'cuttin' tha wolf loose. When Ah got ta be Sheriff, Ah shore war glad ta see thar shirt tails a'headin' off ta greener pastures. Only Andrew done stayed. Married Lella. T'is a mahner bah trade but done bacome a mutton puncher uz well.” She scoffed. Danged sheepherders had taken over the area.
“I know who you mean,” Kate said enthusiastically. “They have that small sheep ranch up beyond the mine. He's, uh, said to be quite an onery cuss. Tears up the saloons from time to time.”
“Yep. That be Andrew ahl raht. Ah think theys havin' some diff'culty ta thar spread. Ah heared theys prop'ty ain't holdin' up ta them hoofed locusts theys done bees a'raisin'.”
Hoofed locusts? Oh, sheep. “Sheep, Gaine, they're called sheep.”
“Yep,” Gaine muttered.
A corner of Kate's mouth inched up. Passions regarding sheepherders ran so deep in cattle ranchers that it was hard for Gaine to force herself beyond it, though she always tried. The fact that sheepherders helped vote her into office spoke highly of how hard she worked for fairness. It was also why the agreements the two groups had reached had kept an unsteady peace around Barden's Corner.
The wagon came to a stop beside them and Gaine helped Kate climb aboard. Then she hefted herself onto the seat with more difficulty than she expected. Kate was apprehensive. Alabam sat quietly surprised, startled that Gaine was allowing him to drive.
“Alabam, take me ta the Pettiford Saloon,” Gaine asked without looking at the old man.
Kate scrutinized Gaine's features. A pallor had crept back around the brunette's features and a deep exhaustion etched heavy dark circles under her eyes. She should be in bed, recuperating. This was against Kate's better judgment. “Is your arm sore again?”
“Not sa much.”
“A quick saloon check, Gaine, then we're going home.”
“Yep.” Gaine continued looking off at the landscape to avoid further scrutiny. What was wrong with her? She didn't ever remember feeling so spent. She couldn't help wondering if she could pull this off after all.
“First she shows at the funeral and now damned if the Sheriff isn't headed to town, probably to check the saloons,” one stranger said to another as they stood on the boardwalk at the edge of town watching her buckboard approach. Clad in dusty woven cabbage tree hats, shaggy hair, moleskin britches, rancher's coats and worn boots, one wearing the cloth neck wipe of a cattleman, the men did not look that much out of place for run-of-the-mill workers in ranching country.
Gaine glanced at them, but did not recognize them. Frum hot country down south a'wearin' them straw hats, Ah reckon. There were already plenty of strangers in town for the big dance. These were just two more, although there was a rough look to the deeply tanned pair that snagged her thoughts. City a Angels? Er mebee Yuma? The prison was in Yuma. Ahl haf Phineous keep an eye ta ‘em. She wondered when the boy would be back from Big Creek. He hadn't been at the funeral.
“I hear she keeps a tight check on the saloons. Word is we can't meet there cause you never know when she'll come bustin' in. And one of her best friends owns the cafe, so she sticks her nose in there, too. Boss says it's better that we aren't seen in town together anyway.”
“What's that female made of? Goes against an ambush by two of the finest shots ever and sends both hoppin' over hot coals in hell while she's bounding off to check on her town. Ain't natural. Not that I'm saying women or children should be shot, ya understand.”
“I don't mind killin' no woman, if she's a Sheriff,” the other man snarled.
“You wouldn't mind killing a woman who wasn't a Sheriff,” the first laughed. “But she's likely best avoided. You see those two nickle-plated gunslingers outside the furniture store decked out in their new coffins? Smack between the eyes, both of them. That's fancy shootin'. But word is she leaned against a bullet or two in the fracas. Hopefully it's enough.”
“Doesn't look like enough to me. She's gonna be the fly in the ointment, watch and see if she ain't.”
“I agree. But the Boss says not to worry. He'll control her.”
“We got jobs to do. Better hop to it. Boss tells me to help wear her down, keep the saloons riled, shoot ‘em up a little before I leave. Guess I'd better get ahead of her.” They departed, one man taking out his tobacco fixins and heading down the boardwalk, slowly meandering toward Dalton's home where a number of neighbors had already gathered to pay their respects, while the other mounted a liver chestnut horse and headed to the wildest saloon.
Alabam pulled the beautiful dappled grey team to the hitching rail before the Pettiford, and Gaine slid off the bench to head into the first of the two saloons. The town's third saloon inside the hotel would not be officially up and running till after the New Year's dance, and the other new saloon and billiard hall was just in the early building stages.
The Pettiford was the least likely to have a problem. The miners, ranchers, teamsters and general residents it tended to draw were a little older and less inclined to raucous behavior. Besides, the Pettiford barkeeps, husband and wife, were old hands at dealing with trouble. Big Mama Haze was a husky woman while the husband was a large, broad chested man with small angry eyes. He kept a shotgun under the bar, spoke gruffly and was quick to squelch tempers that could flare anywhere.
“Hail, Sherrrriff! Good worrrrk!” a gentleman on the boardwalk holding his lady's arm sang out dramatically, heavily rolling his ”r”s in exaggerated Scottish fashion.
Gaine forced a smile their direction. They, like most of the town, had been at the funeral. A dignified woman, small in body but large in presence, sent a polished smile Gaine's way with a tip of her head then put her free hand on her elegant velvet hat to keep it from being blown off. The wind was gusting, and it showed signs of rain.
“Might rain,” Gaine remarked, directing their eyes from her to the sky.
“Aie, but Ernie can rrrrest in peace, God bless his soul. T'was an excellent serrrvice and of grrrrreater salience, you've brrrrought his killers to justice,” the gentleman continued, settling his eyes back on her. He was a man of Shakespearean temperament with a long brown mustache that drooped down over his mouth near his newly grown mutton chops.
The Buchannans. He done gots hisself wool now with'n tha handle left on ta his face, Gaine mused. His hand brushed one end of his ever-drooping mustache from his lips. His bushy brows moved as he spoke and added drama to every word.
Gaine wondered if Ernie wouldn't rest in peace anyway, whether she'd killed his antagonists or not. What choice did he have? But she nodded in return. “Ah hopes them signs ‘er near ready,” she said. “We needs ‘em pronto, Malcolm.”
“Small and larrrrge, I'll have them for you first thing in the morrrrning.” A sign painter by trade as well as investor in harvest items imported and sold to the mercantile, promoter of the sale of his wife's millinery creations, and general jack of all trades, Mr. Buchannan was a member of the Amateur Actor's Society started recently in town. He would be one of the main players in the “Washington Crosses the Delaware” commemorative skit the town was anxiously awaiting for the celebratory year. His wife, Gaine had heard, also did some acting.
“Lookin' for'ard ta yer upcomin' performance,” Gaine forced a smile.
“Why, thank you, Sherrrrriff!” the husband boomed, “We shall cerrrrtainly do our best.” Both nodded their heads proudly in her direction.
Ah reckon his wife bees ta tha skit, too. That surprised Gaine. What woman crossed the Delaware in the boat with Washington? Gaine tipped her head in return then took two steps to the saloon's swinging door before what energy she had mustered left her. Ye kin do this, she told herself. She could feel Kate's eyes on her back. Take a breath. She did. Feel tha strength Katie done sends ya.
She pushed through the batwing doors and moved inside. There were some regular early drinkers joined by a larger than normal group of the towns' businessmen returning from the funeral. Most had moved to the monte table. It was fairly noisy for this time of day. Some poker-playing gamblers were also at their tables, though the saloon was not nearly as noisy or busy as it would be later. Some of the ladies of the evening had made their way downstairs already and smiled in Gaine's direction.
Mentally pulling herself up as tall as she could, Gaine walked to the bar and leaned on the counter. “Ya do whut Ah asked?” she queried.
“Yeah,” Lyle Pettiford, owner and bartender, growled. He squinted hard eyes in her direction, giving her a look normally inspiring fear in those not too far gone into drink. The meaty man weighed near three hundred pounds.
Gaine did not react. “Eny problems?”
“Nothing I couldn't handle.” He snorted a laugh, “A few folks fixin' to raise Caine. I told those lookin' down the neck of a bottle that it was Sheriff's policy and suggested if they disagreed they could go argue with them fellows on display at the furniture store.”
Gaine gently tapped the counter. “Good.” All was well. She did not speak to anyone on her way out, concentrating on keeping her feet moving. Her eyelids had grown heavy and her body seemed to be demanding rest, more so than earlier, but she was waging a war to override those thoughts. Rest would have to wait.
One step out of the swinging doors and another small group of townsfolk stopped her to applaud their Sheriff. They spoke to her with eager voices. Kate watched with horror as one large excited man swatted the tall woman solidly on the back in congratulations. Gaine paled more, her knees slackened and she sagged her good shoulder against the building post to gain her balance.
“Oh, sorry,” the man remarked sincerely. “Forgot they said you'd been injured. Are you all right?”
“Ahm fine. T'ain't nuthin'. Gotta go,” she muttered, managing to stay upright and taking a step to the side. She gave a forced smile, “Gotta check tha t'uther saloon.”
“You bet, Sheriff. We're all aware of how you've rid our town of vermin...Vermin.”
Whal, least they ain't been in-fluenced bah Hornbar's ‘stop tha killin' argyments yet.
She heard a brief comment regarding how pale she looked then was glad to hear one of the group continue their prior conversation about “The Innocents Abroad”. Gotta be part a the new Literary Society, Gaine decided as she put forth great effort to pull herself together.
“Like I said, his real name is Clemens, and he was one of a group of excursionists who traveled abroad in the steamer Quaker City,” the voice remarked. “And a more entertaining and interesting story you'd be hard pressed to find.” Voices of agreement rose from the group.
Gaine was surprised to find Kate at her elbow. “Are you all right?” Kate whispered taking Gaine's good elbow. She saw the pain lingering in the Sheriff's eyes.
“Ahs fine, Katie,” Gaine replied softly. The pain was remarkable, but it did get her drooping eyelids to open more. She no longer thought she'd fall to the ground asleep, not with the pain ringing in her ears and throughout her body.
The second saloon was across the street and down from where Kate and Alabam sat with the team. Gaine saw Kate studying her face. She knew those green eyes saw things in her others didn't. Jest one more step , she told herself each time. One more. Could Kate see how much pain that swat on the back had created or how spent Gaine felt?
“Let's go home,” Kate suggested, “Please.”
“One more, Katie,” Gaine hissed through clenched teeth. “Ahl be raht quick.”
Kate felt the weight of the tall woman leaning against her as they hobbled across the street. She nodded to Alabam to bring the team. This is too much, Kate worried with each step. This whole town expects too much from her. But she was aware that Gaine was the one who expected so much of herself. She needs to be in bed. She's been seriously wounded, for heaven's sake!
As they approached the saloon, the blonde's eyes went to the window and froze. She could feel her ire rise. From day's lantern-light inside the barroom, Kate could see that some kind of ruckus was going on.
Gaine saw it too, and sucked in a large breath. “Go back, Katie. Ahm all right.” She stepped forward without a further look at Kate and pushed through the saloon doors with all the energy that adrenaline and pain could provide, just in time to duck a spittoon being tossed in her general direction.
Two scruffy men with empty holsters were facing each other in the smoky room, circling, lashing out at the other with anything at hand, sometimes landing blows, sometimes not. They had no set weapons but their fists and what they could grab. A crowd circled them enough away from the action that they could watch without too great a risk of being injured.
Men were calling out, encouraging the fight and some were actually placing bets. Gaine recognized one onlooker she'd just seen down the street as they came into town. Din't take no time a'lookin' fer trouble.
The bartender saw Gaine and instantly demanded that they stop. Being ignored, he reached for the scattergun kept behind the bar. When the swamper put down his broom and also began moving toward the two, neither paid attention.
Belle appeared beside Gaine. “Hello, Sheriff. Come for the fight? Want some refreshments?”
“Coffin varnish, Belle. Whuts a'goin' on?” Gaine held her arms around herself and leaned her good shoulder against a pillar. Maybe the whiskey would ease the pain.
“Argument. Egged on by the others. I'll get your whiskey,” Belle hurried to the bar. One of the fighters picked up a chair, smashed it on the floor then grabbed and shook the broken chair leg at the other in a threatening fashion.
“I'll kill ya, ya dirty dog!”
Those words were not lost on Katie as she pushed her way through the swinging doors, her Irish definitely up, her tired but defiant green eyes flashing, blonde hair forcing its way out of her bonnet. How dare these men create this problem when Gaine could hardly stand?
Gaine glanced her way with amazement. “Uh oh.” That look in the small blonde's eyes got her immediate attention! “No, Katie.....” Gaine knew beyond any doubt that there was no controlling Katie when she was in fireball stage. You had to let her flame out.
“Stop this instant!” Kate demanded in the best school teacher's voice that anyone had ever heard in this town. She stood just inside the swinging doors.
A woman's voice, a school teacher? In the saloon? It was so incongruous that the action stopped and the room went silent, eyes whipping her way.
“Katie,” Gaine interrupted, worried for her safety. Kate should not be in here.
The small blonde did not look at her. “It's time to go home, Gaine,” she said, her eyes drilled on the men. “We've had a solemn funeral here this morning. If you gentlemen don't want us to schedule two more, you'll need to stop this nonsense this very minute!”
Certain women didn't raise concern when they were spotted in the saloon...soiled doves or the Lady Sheriff or even occasionally hard-drinking Mrs. Olive Agrilant. But to see a female member in good standing in the community step inside the saloon doors making demands was not something anyone expected. It compelled complete attention.
Both men responded instantly. They looked up from their brawl to see a very angry small woman in a long calico dress covered with a wool cape, her hands on her hips, green eyes flashing, her cheeks flushed in anger and her bonnet fluttering with indignation. Her forefinger began shaking as well.
“You heard me. Put that down! Honestly, I have never seen such tomfoolery in all my life! And from grown men mind you!” For all the world the two men had taken the look of boys with boyish impulses. “Shame, shame on you! And shame on you people for allowing this! What is wrong with the lot of you?”
The crowd stood slack jawed watching her then began to back up a step. The barkeep held the shotgun now pointed at the floor. Both men in question grabbed their hats from the floor, shook them off and stood nervously looking down as they wheeled the rims in their hands. Amusement lurked in the eyes of two soiled doves standing near Kate.
“What do you have to say for yourselves? Excuse me, ladies,” Kate said, passing the ladies of the night to move closer toward the two pugilists. Used to being treated by townspeople as though they were lepers or didn't exist, the two ladies moved politely out of Kate's way. “Yes, ma'am.”
Kate continued, “Shame on you, causing the Sheriff there to have to come in here when there's a million other things she should be doing. A good man died and you mar the dignity of the event in this manner? Did you want to spend all day in jail? Or should she just shoot you and get it over with?”
Their eyes whipped to the Sheriff and widened. Would she shoot them?
Wisely, Gaine remained silent.
“Why,” Kate expanded, “I've a good mind to take you each by the ear and march you right off to jail myself. And throw away the key.” Flashing green eyes drilled into the closest man. “Do you have a dollar?”
Wide brown eyes raised her way. He dug frantically and drew out some coins. “Uh, six bits,” he replied meekly.
“Put them on the bar.”
He did so and Kate turned to the other, “Do you have a dollar?”
“Yes, ma'am,” he grinned proudly. He rustled around in his dirty sack coat jacket and withdrew a silver dollar, holding it up with a toothless smile. He put it in his mouth, tapped his gums on it several times then proudly held it out again.
“Put it on the bar,” she demanded, trying not to show how much she did not want to touch that coin. When he had done so, she continued, “That's to repair the chair and anything else you've broken.” She looked quickly around at the furniture, but saw little else that wasn't just overturned or pushed out of the way. “You still owe two bits,” she said to the first man.
“You most certainly do!” Her hands balled on her hips. “And don't you forget it Mr. Bartender. Be sure he pays.”
“Uh, yes, ma'am,” the man replied.
“Now go home, both of you, and sleep it off, and don't ever return to this place again if in your hearts you have the idea of creating a fracas. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma'am,” both men quickly sloshed on their hats and headed for the doors, passing as far from Kate as they could. Everyone, Sheriff, bar girls, hardened gamblers, steady drinkers, all watched wide-eyed. Slowly the bartender returned the shotgun to the shelf under the bar.
Kate's eyes evaluated Gaine, deciding she should be able to walk out on her own. “Come along, Sheriff, there's a guest at the ranch and we don't have all day,” the small blonde turned on her heel causing her cape to fly out behind her. “Excuse me ladies, please,” she muttered as she held her simple calico skirts that again brushed the brilliant finery of the two soiled doves she passed. She turned back. “Are you coming?” Her eyes scrutinized Gaine for signs the tall woman couldn't make it.
“Uh, yes, ma'am,” Gaine replied. “On mah way.” She pushed off the pillar as Kate went through the doors.
Belle stepped beside the Sheriff, keeping her in place. “You should be training her as the next Sheriff,” the madame whispered, “since I know you're hankerin' to work your ranch. She's got bigger cojohenes than...”
“Belle!” Gaine warned and the woman laughed. She glanced at the doors, now swinging. Kate was gone. Belle handed Gaine the shot of whiskey and Gaine tossed it back in one long swallow while Belle poured another from the bottle in her hand. Gaine tossed that one back as well, handed back the glass then tried to get her good hand in her pocket to find a coin to pay.
“It's on the house,” Belle said. “Tell your friend ‘thanks'. I hope folks in town don't give her too bad a time for coming in here.”
“She doan care whut folks ta town thanks,” Gaine replied, “She jest better ne'er see them two fellers goin' at ut agin. Theys maht not live ta tell ‘bout ‘t next tahm.”
“Deputize her, Sheriff,” Belle chuckled, “She's a winner.”
That she do be. But not fer somethin' dangerous uz this. “Who bees the feller with'n tha straw hat?”
“Don't know. He's a stranger. Tough ladino. Made a big fuss about surrendering his six-shooter. Likely keeps a hide-out in his boot.” She leaned toward Gaine, “The first to spur those two fellas into a fight.”
Gaine nodded. “Whan Hornbar's rahders war ta town, war he one uv ‘em?”
Belle shook her head. “Never have seen them together.”
Again Gaine nodded. She'd need to keep an eye on that fellow. She forced herself to walk to join Kate at the wagon.
It was with monumental effort that Gaine was able to climb up to the buckboard seat. A very worried Kate had her crawl past to sit between them. Thinking back, Gaine didn't remember climbing up. Fighting total exhaustion till they passed the bridge and town trailings, finally giving in enough to let her chin fall to her chest, she didn't remember as the trail fell behind them and the rain began. Pressed upright between Alabam and Katie, she slept deeply till they reached home.
Continued in Chapter 11
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