THE RENEGADE LADY SHERIFF by bsoiree ©SRE 2005 This part is a 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 whose smile forever warms my soul.
The Renegade Lady Sheriff
Section II ~ Trouble at Wild Horse Creek
Chapter 4 ~ Mystery
Barden’s Corner, foothills, California
The day after Christmas, 1875
A bright band of early morning light fell across their faces through the front twelve-paned cafe window, outlining the high, bronzed cheekbones of the striking woman, emphasizing well-rounded brows and long dark lashes, dancing off long, silky, raven black hair. Stunning blue eyes squinted from the glare, momentarily taking note of movement across the street before focusing entirely on the man sitting across a corner from her as she slowly sipped her coffee.
Dalton’s ruddy cheeks paled in the glow of the early light. His troubled gaze flitted out the side window to the grey false-fronted buildings of the main street, settling on his harness shop. He hadn’t opened yet, and it was time. His eyes danced nervously to the front windows where across the street a surly stranger stood in a pugilistic pose on the boardwalk.
“Yonder’s John Hardy Cookerson,” Dalton said anxiously. The jittery harness maker had served on Gaine’s posse only months earlier. That shared duty had turned the group into much more than just neighbors. Now they were partners in arms, ‘komerads’ all.
They both directed their view out the front to the weather-hardened man at the rail across the street. A wide, vicious scar ran along the side of the man’s leathered face through his dark beard from his ear along his cheek below his droop mustache to his chin. Here and there his bushy beard covered it, but it was still very noticeable.
Hmmm. Ain’t no sabre wound. Knaf faht, looks lahk, Gaine mused. The stranger’s pants were stuffed in worn, knee-high, mule-eared boots, now planted menacingly on the boardwalk in an “I dare you” pose. His soiled white linen shirt had a faded bandanna at the throat and was covered by a dusty, long, black frock coat. Malice smoldered in his eyes.
Durned if’n that thar feller doan look lahk he done got his muzzle ta tha wind
a’searchin tha scent a blood. Whah, Ah wonder? Gaine’s eyes went to the horse then back. Good hoss. Rid hard. Older,‘sperienced feller fer shore. Meaner ‘n a basket fulla snakes, looks lahk.
Her eyes studied with care the two six-guns under his opened coat, grips out for a cross draw. A two-gun feller. Bluff er ballast? she scoffed. It was her opinion that a gunman might be skilled with one hand, but almost never with both. So why bother with two guns? Her gaze lifted to his face. The man’s shoulder-length, dark, unkempt hair was swept to each side out of his way. Insolence peered out from cold, grey eyes beneath the rattlesnake-skin encircled rim of his high-peaked slouch hat.
Dalton’s coffee sat on the table before him, steaming, untouched. It had been a couple months since the posse’s long trek bringing in the dead outlaws, trying and hanging the live ones. Excitement from that overwhelming task had faded away. Then the long awaited Natal day had come and gone. The air was crisp this high in the California foothills, high enough to be above most of the usual winter valley fog or extreme summer heat but below most snowfall.
Gaine thought life had pretty much returned to normal. Has ut? Apparently not, if Dalton’s ferment was any indication. She looked at the stranger then Dalton. No, something more than that man was bothering her friend. But it would take a wild bulldog to shake it out of him. Dalton was like that. When it came to holding back, this old boy was the bell steer. She wondered at the patience of his wife. Whut bees yer genuwine con-sarn, Dalton?
Christmas the day before had been calm, even with the minor flooding. She heaved a weary sigh. Now New Year’s Eve loomed less than a week away, and ‘calm’ was not a word she’d use to describe that celebration. Lordy, folks shore does paint they’s tonsils with’n tornado juice n’ raise hell ‘n put a chunk ta ut come New Years. This would be a centennial year-- adding fuel to the jubilation fires. Celebratory gunshots would be on everyone’s mind, that and drinking. Spirits and gunfire made very bad bedfellows. As Sheriff she didn’t look forward to New Year’s Eve. No, not at all.
She pulled her badge from her snug leather vest pocket and pinned it on her fringed buckskin jacket. She looked down the street toward where the new hotel was being finished, and decorations were being hung for the New Year’s Dance. A fanned star spangled banner adorned the wall above the doorway. She was hoping this year’s big New Year’s Ball would naturally funnel most celebrants’ ardor and passion into controllable directions. If not, she hoped her plan would suffice.
Gaine sat with her back to the wall near the side window but far enough away not to be seen through it. It gave her command of both the front and back doors. Her black sweat-stained Stetson hung on the corner rail of the empty spindle chair beside her. Her jacket was pulled back behind the dark walnut grip of her single holstered .44 caliber Peacemaker that she always wore tied low on her right hip.
She shifted a bit and the holster shifted with her, tipping the gun further backward. But there was no danger of it falling out. The thong was on the hammer, a fully tied down rig attached to the heavy chestnut brown store-bought britches that clung to her long sweep of shapely thigh. So far she was the only woman in town that dared slide on men’s britches without public outcry at doing so.
Closer hammering noises outside drew her attention. The sounds of construction could be heard, even at this early hour. The town was in flux, some folks pulling stakes while new faces continually arrived.
Dalton’s attention hadn’t moved from the man across the way. “Some say that fella there, that Cookerson fella, they say he throws a gun mighty fast...and that he’s a heap too familiar with outlaws, rounders and highbinders.
“Ya doan say?” Gaine’s eyes swept over the stranger again.
“Yep. Even heard he rode with Bloody Bill and Quantrill.” Dalton shivered at the thought then paused to nervously lick his lips. “Took particular delight in killin’ durin’ the war, folks say.” Dalton moved his wide-eyed look to her. “He’s gun slick, I’m told, and on the prod. Draws a bead right easy with that rifle of his. I dunno. Whatever he done, he’s a dangerous man, Gaine. And meaner than a one-eyed rattler. Got hisself a string of killin’s. Some say more’n sixty.”
“Sixty? Jumpin’ Jehosephat! Someun shore done embellished them past deeds Ah reckon.” Still, notoriety had been known to have a basis in reality. She considered the stranger as he calmly rolled a quirly with one hand. Lawsy! Sixty!
The line-back dun tied to the rail in front of him was wearing a B bar Z brand. The saddle was a well-worn Hope. She knew they’d been used heavily during the war and after. She noted how his lariat was hung, saw the rifle in its sheath and checked out the stirrups. Hmm. “B bar Z, ain’t from aroun’ here,” she muttered, then added louder, “We a’talkin’ war tahm killin’s?”
Nervous words tumbled from Dalton’s mouth, “Well, no. Ever afterward, too, I heard. Course, nobody’s said his picture’s on no poster, even though the shootin’s was ‘sposed to be mostly on the left hand of the law, heard tell. Belligerent fella. Heard he ain’t got a bone of fear in his body. Thought you outta know.”
Gaine nodded. “Whut’s he a’doin’ here?” There were mining towns that were rip-roaring, mostly board and canvas, lawless places crawling with violence. Even now most out-of-the-way towns like theirs, mining or otherwise, were pretty nefarious. But she was the law, and she saw to it that their little corner of the world, Barden’s Corner to be exact as well as the full county, remained law abiding, fit for families and decent folks.
Dalton scowled, “Dunno. Some folks say he’s workin’ for the mine owner, others say he’s workin’ for that big land company’s been stirrin’ up trouble down in the valley, gatherin’ up properties ever which way, drivin’ some folks off’n their land and cheatin’ the rest outta their’n. An’ others say he’s just here sniffin’ out trouble.”
“Uh huh.” She’d heard the rumblings about the new land company, but she’d received no official complaints. Most talk was about what was said to be happening in the valley. Gaine’s jurisdiction ran to the county line, though she was free to pursue any wrongdoers to the ends of the earth if their misdeeds took place inside Barden County--so long as she squared it with any involved local law enforcement she passed in pursuit.
Big enough to take up to a week to fully patrol, hers was a tiny county population wise. The land was mostly high, wild, out of the way and unsettled, with Barden’s Corner the only town of any size left. There were some hangers on in the ‘ghost towns’ where miner’s camps had once peppered the hills. In those cases the local yoohaws had pulled their stakes and moved on leaving a very few bitter-enders. But the old copper mine in Barden’s Corner was alive and producing. She had spent much of her young life growing up right on this California frontier and considered theirs an excellent locality.
Not that it was always peaceful. She’d done her share of breaking up brawls between miners, cow punchers and sheep herders, gamblers and drunks. But nothing major. Most involved spirits. Still, the hard-drinking, hard-shooting, frequent saloon killings had stopped. The church was packed most Sundays and Wednesday night prayer meetings were well attended. The spire of their town church pointed skyward and was about the first building noticed these days when riding into town.
There was even a new Drama and Literary Society assembled, where folks met Saturday nights to discuss the high-toned ideals in literature, dissecting everything from politics to Christianity to science. They even planned small drama events. And now a new hotel had been erected. Culture, it seemed, had worked its way on the difficult-to-travel road to Barden’s Corner, and the civilizing authority of her star was a big part of the reason why.
There’d been talk about combining some of the sparsely populated nearby counties, but Sacramento was far enough away that it took little interest in their affairs. So Barden’s Corner, which was the county seat, had a county Sheriff, and the small town of Big Creek next door in Sierrasotta County had theirs under similar circumstances. Folks figured it didn’t make much sense having a town marshal in either town when a Sheriff could be had for the same price to patrol the whole county.
Hers was now an elected position though it hadn’t always been. It just so happened that Gaine had come up for election a month or so back at the same time that she and her posse were out on the trail of the outlaws who had gone on a killing spree in her area, had robbed the stage down in the valley and had been terrorizing much of the state.
She’d never bothered with politicking. Didn’t have time if she’d wanted to. Truth was, she’d begun to feel like she’d be happy to give up the job and spend her time just running her ranch. At twenty five, she’d served as Sheriff all of eight years already. Even with the effects of the depression of ‘73 and the terrible drought years before it, she felt she was enough on her feet financially to make a go of it without the addition of a Sheriff’s meager salary.
The Mayor’s nephew, Westminster, had run against her. The town, however, had refused to vote until after her successful posse had ridden back from their pursuit. Trailing half the killers draped over their horses, dead from Gaine’s sure shots, while the other half were tied to their saddles, captured and ready to be tried and hanged, it was a glorious accomplishment. She won the election in a landslide.
For a minute the tall brunette sipped her cooling coffee and watched her friend as he stared at the man across the street. Dalton did seem more than a little taken with the likes of this stranger in their town. Whah? she shrugged. She knew he’d say soon enough if she let him be. She asked casually, “Whatcha knows bout that thar cattle n’ land comp’ny?”
Dalton whipped his head around to focus on her. “You think they hired him?”
“Dunno. Ah war ponderin’ what kinda folks them comp’ny fellers war.”
“Uh, well, the head man seems nice enough. Eli Hornbar. Polite, soft spoken fella. Nothing at all like the rumors going around about his company. He’s making folks think twice, I suppose. He’s staying with the Mayor, you know. Some of his riders beddin’ down in the Mayor’s barn. Now, they’re rough men. Plumb cultus. But not this Hornbar fellow. He’s more than civilized.”
“Ain’t seed this feller’s rahders. They be’s har ta town?” She’d heard of them, but hadn’t yet seen them. She wondered if they were avoiding her.
“They were only here over night then rode out headed toward Tall Pine a few days ago before sunup, uh, before you came into town. Haven’t been back since.”
“Uh huh.” They’s headed down ta tha valley mebee? Er ta the desert ta the t’uther sahd a’tha crossin’? She wondered where a land company would send men like that in the middle of winter. Course, it was also a cattle company. Bees they cowhands? Er whut?
Dalton’s brow furrowed and his eyes went back to the stranger before flitting back to her. “Hornbar’s going to set up an office here in town, you know. A cattle company, Valley Cattle and Land Company. Give you, Hammond and Thornton’s ranches some competition, I suppose, since most of the other places around here are runnin’ sheep these days instead of cattle. Dunno where they’re plannin’ ta run their stock. Still, this company’s reputation mostly has to do with land. There’s plenty of that but it’s not like there’s an abundance of good grazing with water, even with all this flooding.”
“Yep. That’s whut Ah war a ponderin’. Ya wrestle steers fer a livin’, yer most lahkely ta bees clean ‘cross’t tha big valley n’ the vicinity a the Sierra Madres. Ain’t that many a us left chasin’ dogies ‘round here ‘bouts. Them droughts ten yars back er so done runned most ranchers clean out.”
N’ sheep took theys place, n’ brought theys owners raht good profits. Gaine scowled, Ar range land dang near been tooked o’er bah them sheep. N them dadburned woolies done ets everthang ta the bare dirt so’s grass doan come back lahk it outta! Wha, them snoozers kin walk theys sheep all round a cattle ranch ‘n ruint a body fer shore.
She looked around the room, seeing a couple sheepherders who tipped their hats at her. She smiled grimly and nodded in response. Course them sheepherders ain’t sa prosperous uz they t’war. ‘N ta ar good fortune, we’s all come ta workin’ agreements. What’s this here new cattle comp’ny gonna do ta that thar pre-carious balance?
Where other areas had disputes that degenerated into intense stock wars, Barden’s Corner sheep and cattle ranchers had come to agreements regarding use of range land for their stock. It was a tentative balance that let them coexist peacefully, if not uneasily.
As Sheriff, it was her job to be as unbiased as possible. Gaine reminded herself that everyone had stuck to their agreements and some of the sheepherders were her friends. Good people. Still, she was a cattle and horse rancher, first and foremost. That was one reason she’d gone into debt buying land and had plans to acquire even more.
Her attention was taken by a smaller man who joined the stranger across the street. This mousey-looking fellow was wearing a derby hat and a dusty gray linen suit with gaiters but no visible firearm. Somthin’ ominous ‘bout that thar feller, too, Gaine thought. Slippery uz calf slobber, that ‘un. He ain’t no town dandy. Ah reckon he done packs one a them large-bored stingey guns. Them thangs done packs a raht heavy wallop ta close range. Reckon he ain’t shy ‘bout usin’ ut, neither. Whut they doin’ har?
Dalton was gazing at his own shop. Something was surely bothering him. He glanced back at her. “Mr. Hornbar’s staying at the Mayor’s. Coulda stayed at Bessie Mae’s boarding house or the new hotel, but among other rumors, I’ve heard that he’s old friends with the Mayor. Some even said they were related somehow. From England, maybe. Both of ‘em, they said. Might even be titled gentlemen.”
Gaine laughed outright, “Furst off, Dalton, tha Mayor ‘n his nephew Westminster t’ain’t no gentlemens.” Both uv em a’struttin’ around town lahk turkey gobblers ut layin’ tahm. “‘N Tahtled? Whah, Ah reckon tha Mayor done commenced that thar rumor hisself. Truth be, Ah gots mah doubts theys e’er been a’foalin’ a eny nature ta they’s fam’ly whut comes e’en ta spittin’ distance ta England’s shore. Reckon tis notions a tahtles, more lahk.”
Titles had come back into fashion, but she would thoroughly check out the veracity of any they tried using and the Mayor knew it, or he would have been sporting a title of one kind or another long since. She further figured Westminster’s momma had named him after seeing an etching of Westminster Abbey. She scoffed, considering a glance at an etching was about the extent of their perceived blue-blooded English heritage.
She considered the port-bellied Mayor. He was no friend of hers and, in her opinion, no gentleman either. If he and Eli Hornbar were close, she questioned whether honesty kept Mr. Hornbar awake nights. If he was anything like the Mayor, she rather imagined it didn’t. And that thought left her uneasy about those men throwing in together.
“Well,” Dalton replied, “That’s what I heard. They might be relatives.”
“Uh huh.” She’d actually met the head honcho for the Valley Cattle and Land Company some time back when he was just a visitor in town. Eli Hornbar. She remembered the slick, mannerly fellow, dressed in fancy pressed three piece tailored suits with an add-on collar on his white boiled shirt complete with soft tie, all duded up same as the mine owner, the Mayor and Westminster. Only he wore a pristine western boss hat on his head instead of the dark and dusty big city hats worn by the other two. Nary a drap a persper-a-sheon e’er teched that thar conk-cover a his, ya ask me. No sir, ain’t no real work ne’er been done ‘n Eli Hornbar’s hat.
He might not be hard working, but Gaine feared he was smart. In fact, he just might be a good deal more cagey and cunning than any of the others, a right wily mossyhorn. He was no tenderfoot, she’d wager that. Where the Mayor and Westminister were of dubious character, they were small town originals out to glad hand every available voter. They were more or less controllable in their many failings. But this Eli, what of him?
Gaine couldn’t help pondering why the esteemed Mr. Hornbar had chosen Barden’s Corner for his headquarters. How strong was his relationship to the Mayor anyway? Their little town was far off the beaten trail, an obscure village arrived at only after a couple days off the main roads. And it certainly was NOT the center of the current cattle or land industry.
The tall beauty took another sip of the strong coffee and scrutinized the larger of the two men on the boardwalk as he squinted against the sun’s glare to gaze down the street, now filling with buckboards, townsfolk and horses. He was a wide shouldered man with the strong, hard-boned, leathered embodiment of a gunslinger. His droop mustache hung to the sides of his brutal, whiskered jaw. He wore that scar of his with pride and held his head with arrogance. Unmistakable cruelty resided in his eyes.
Then her eyes went to his companion. From under the smaller man’s jaunty bowler hat small, ferret-like eyes darted about like swallows in the midst of bug season. His chin bore a fuzzy, light beard.
“That feller there with him be’s Wesley “Weasel” Ardmore,” Dalton said. “He gots a string of killin’s to his name, too. But it’s said he don’t never face a man on the square. Uses a parlor gun, they say, and waits for his “opportunities”, you might say.”
“Ah figured.” She studied the smaller man carefully. “Seems lahk he outta had his neck stretched a’ready.”
“Haven’t heard he’s on the dodge, either, exactly. They’re both professional gunmen from back East but with varying amounts of sand, I reckon. Always keepin’ to the windward of the law. I did hear there’s a string of towns plumb feared of ‘em. They surely spell trouble. Can’t help wonderin’ how much,” Dalton’s eyes stayed on the two men.
“But no idee fer shore who done hired ‘em?” Gaine asked.
She knew about the smaller Ardmore’s kind of man--yellow bellied with cowardly actions but enough bravado to grease the skids of his doubtful deeds. And sly enough to not be easily caught. In many ways this kind of man could be every bit as dangerous as the taller man.
“Lordy. Hahred killers. Frum back east.” Her eyes scoured the men.
“Yep,” Dalton nodded. “From one of them unruly cow towns I figure, uh, Dodge City, Hayes, er Cheyenne, maybe.”
“Nope. Theys frum Texas. See theys double rig,” she noted, observing just one of the indications. Double cinches were often used on the east side of the Rockies, Texas for sure. Californians used single cinches. A discerning person could tell what part of the country a man was from by how he dressed and the tack he used. “Check them rowels ta they’s spurs. See they’s stirrups ‘n how they’s riatas done bees placed.”
“By golly, you’re right,” Dalton agreed.
Whah theys har? Whut brung em? She’d worked hard to keep their kind out. Surely the new land company wouldn’t bring in men like this to the hometown of their head man. Nor would the mine owner, or any homegrown grafters in the Mayor’s office, not to a law-abiding town, where such things were obviously not tolerated. Soilin’ the nest, so ta speak, she pondered. Would eny a them coyotes do that?
Two decades after the big gold discoveries, settlers were still pouring into California to stake their claims, only claims these days were for land not gold. Land companies were scouring the huge valley below in an ever greater hunger for prime property. What the railroad didn’t control, the land companies did. Now Valley Cattle and Land Company was turning their eyes toward the foothills. Were those two trouble hunters hired by that land company?
Course, the mine was hauling out more copper than usual. And that required bigger pay deliveries. Maybe Mr. Field hired them. But if Mr. Field had worries about his payroll, he hadn’t said so. Course he could have hired them to make sure there were no problems. That was possible. Except that these kinds of fellows were much better at stirring up trouble than preventing it. Maybe robbery was their inducement.
Gaine glanced at the gunslingers and ran her thumb over the thong tie-down on her six-shooter.
“Them boys er a pack of trouble, Gaine.”
“Yep, Dalton. Ah reckon yer raht.” But that t’ain’t all thut’s got yer tail ta a twist, t’is ut? She focused her attention back on Dalton. Whut bees yer program, mah frien’? She knew this man well. If she was patient enough his real concerns would eventually come running out like ants from a burning log...IF she could be patient enough. She finished her coffee setting her cup on one of the red squares in the checkered tablecloth and waited.
“Are you the Lady Sheriff that runs a cattle ranch?” a drummer at the next table turned and asked.
Gaine studied the salesman, “Yep, that be me.”
“We came up from the valley,” he pointed to the man beside him, another drummer, “from the train, and we’re planning to stay for the big dance at the hotel on New Year’s Eve. Well, we have to repair to Big Creek for two days, then we’ll be back here. We’ve got us a huge hankering for some thick steaks. We can’t abide the mutton offered on all the menus. We know you don’t have many cattle, but....”
“Not meny cattle?” Gaine inquired. “Whatcha mean?”
“Well, aren’t those yours down near the valley floor? We rode miles and miles in our buggy and only saw a score of cows here and there the whole time. Okay, maybe two score.”
Gaine laughed. “Them war arn. We done happens ta run ‘bout thirty-eight hundert head a’ cattle down thar ta this har point.” Only half a ‘em’ll be a’goin ta market come fall howsomever. They were cash strapped among other things because after the last sale, as always, she’d purchased a couple thousand two year olds to add to her herd that would need to be double wintered.
Struck usns a raht good bargain. She remembered at the time confiding to Don Carlos after their cattledrive and sale, how disgusted most of the other drovers had been with the slight demand. Bah buyin’ theys remnants, we done got ta name ar prace. N’ each one a ar contract beeves we done sold war a’payin’ tha cost a two the yar afore.
Being a cattle rancher was a tense tap dance. But she’d brought the ranch into the black from being on the brink of extinction after her father had died, though some years had been better than others. And though times generally were arduous, they were holding their own even though restocking and land purchases tended to keep them perpetually on the line financially.
“Course, come tha spring thar’s gonna be a nat’ral increase,” she smiled at the drummer. “Than tha Circle S done gots hosses, too. So’s ya maht say ar range done bees stocked raht fahn.”
“Where are they then?” the man asked, his eyes widening. “We only saw those few cattle the whole way here. And very few horses.”
“Hosses done be grazin’ ta tha north, mostly. Livestock done takes lottsa land. Them steers be’s out thar everwhar. When ya ain’t puttin’ up winter feed, ya gots ta figure ‘bout twenty-five acres fer e’er’ steer.”
“Aren’t you afraid of them wandering off or being stolen or mixing with someone else’s cattle?”
Greenhorn, Gaine grinned. Lahkly raised ta tha city. “Theys al’ays a’wanderin’ n a’mixin’ goin’ on. But if’n ya means some catawampus usin’ a whad loop ‘n a runnin’ ahron ta profit frum ar stock, wahl,” she ran a hand through her hair and flashed a confident smile, “We done gots rahders down a’rahdin’ tha lahn. ‘N casual brandin’ shore would bring eny rustlers a heap o’misfortune. Ah am tha Sheriff, after all. ‘N mah rahders doan never turn frum sech trouble, ‘n Ah doan neither.”
“Oh, uh, well, uh, we wanted to see about dining on beef. The lady here at the cafe said she’s runnin’ out or she’d fix us steaks every morning, noon and night. Said we had to talk to you or someone named Thurman about resupplying them.”
“Ahhh.” Deep blue eyes settled on Etta. Gaine’s good friend hated playing favorites when buying from the surrounding ranches. Most of the owners were cafe customers. Gaine glanced back at the men. “Shore. Ah figured theys had theyselfs plenty fer tha New Year’s crowds ‘n all, but Ah reckon they ain’t. Tell Etta Ah kin haf mah ramrod take keer ta ut.”
“Thank you. My mouth’s watering just thinking of it.” The man’s gaze fell appreciatively over her and he said in a flattering tone, “Say, you’re a mighty tall gal.”
“Yessir, that Ah tis.” At just over six feet she was used to such remarks.
“You going to the big dance?” he asked.
Men from town no longer chased her, though single men still cast their eyes longingly her direction from time to time. “Yep. Ain’t ever’body?”
“Last I heard, it’s gonna be the biggest dance for miles around. You wouldn’t, uh, care ta shake a hoof once er twice with me, uh, would ya?”
Gaine’s laugh lit up the whole inside of the busy cafe. “Ahl be a’workin,” she tapped her star, “but wu’ll see how them thar chips done falls.”
“I won’t forget,” he winked.
“Uh huh,” she replied noncommittally. Dancing all night with hardly a break was what happened to most ladies when you lived where women were habitually in lesser supply, although that was improving in Barden’s Corner. A centennial year meant she’d likely have considerable celebrating in the streets to deal with. And that with a townful of buggies, wagons and drays all pulled by nervous horses. No, she wouldn’t be dancing every dance.
Impatient now with Dalton’s natural reticence, she finally turned back to the worried expression of her friend. “All raht, Dalton. Whut’s really done gotcha all ‘n a twitter? Spit ‘t out.”
“Uh,” Dalton squirmed in his seat. He still hadn’t touched his coffee and the steam had quit rising from it.
She leaned forward, “Thar be more n’ yer concern regardin’ them fellers cross’t tha street?” Gaine knew there was.
“Uh, well, yep. I need ta ask ya a favor, Gaine. A big one, I’m afraid. And it might upset the Mayor.”
“The Mayor? Gaine frowned. “Whut done bothers him ain’t that much a concarn ta me. Whatcha need?”
“Uh, well, there’s other happenin’s. Strange doin’s. But they ain’t all concerned with our county, exactly. They concern settlers over in the Jumping Antelope Valley, you know, by Wild Horse Creek. You heard of the Lorences?”
“Mmm, Lorences? Ah knows several Lorences. The ones bah Wahld Hoss Creek bees o’er ta Sheriff Wilson’s jurisdiction.” Bill Wilson was the sheriff whose office and jail was in Big Creek.
“Yes. That’s them. They’re mighty close to the county line. Closer to here, really than the town of Big Creek. Anyway, the Lorences worked up a little spread in the valley by Wild Horse Creek, closed in on some right nice property, Ernie Lorence, his wife Mary Jane and their young uns did.”
“Oh shore, Ah knows em.”
Now Dalton’s words rattled out, “Sheriff Wilson ain’t recovered from the shot he took roundin’ up the outlaws when we combined our posses. Somebody said he developed lung fever on top of it. Anyway, I heard he’s gettin’ inta his office these days but he sure ain’t doin’ no ridin out in the county. And while he’s indisposed like that, there ain’t no law there, and my Beulla, she’s been a heap worried.”
As they spoke, Etta swung round their table with the coffee pot and refilled Gaine’s cup then looked at Dalton’s untouched cup with a scowl. “There something wrong with that brown gargle Wilbur brewed up this morning?” Her husband Wilbur always made the coffee cowboy style, roasting the green beans in a skillet before brewing.
“Oh, uh,” Dalton quickly took a sip of his brew then grimaced. “Kinda cold’s all.”
“Bosh! If you’d quit yammerin’ and drink it, it wouldn’t be,” Etta scolded, taking his cup back and emptying it into a small wooden barrel where they threw all their leftovers for the pig’s slop. She came back with a fresh, steaming cup. “There ya go. Now don’t let this one get cold.” She stood by their table, an exacting school marm’s look on her face.
“Yes, ma’am,” Dalton lifted the cup and sipped the scalding liquid while Etta watched. It burned his tongue and throat as he swallowed, but he tried not to let on. And the flavor was powerful, the aroma being its finest feature. Cowboy coffee, strong enough to cure anyone of worms. Etta’d made that claim often enough. She watched him intently. “Good,” he squeaked out. She smiled and moved off to the other customers.
“So’s, what kinda ‘strange doin’s’ ya frettin’ o’er?” Gaine watched her friend carefully. She wasn’t used to seeing the placid man this jumpy.
“Creek done rose afore Christmas, so’s we had trouble gettin’ out to visit the Lorences. Beulla and Mary Jane met at church a while back and became fast friends. Their family, uh, likes our church better than Big Creek’s, and we’re closer. We kept meaning to go out and take some of Beulla’s special holiday crumb cake. But with the water risin, well, we had to wait. And, course, they didn’t get into town even when the water went down some. We went by early on Christmas Eve Day, day before yesterday. The creek was finally down enough to cross. Beulla insisted.”
There was pain in his eyes as he looked at her.
“Uh huh,” she sipped some more coffee then looked at her cup. Lordy, if’n this doan curl mah toes, nuthin’ will.
“Well, Ernie wasn’t there and Mary Jane was beside herself with worry. He was overdue. She was sure he’d be back before the next day, uh, yesterday...Christmas...but we said we’d come back to make sure. We ended up staying. She was real relieved we’d stopped. She had the small gifts they’d made for the young ones ready. All Christmas Eve and Christmas morning we kept expectin’ him to come stompin’ in the door. Only he never come.”
“Ernie warn’t thar a’tall? Ta Christmas Eve er Christmas Day neither?”
“That’s right. But it gets worse. She said he’d been gone three days total at that point. That’s why I waited for you this morning as soon as I got into town. I tried to encourage the ladies, but, Gaine, I am fearin’ the worst. Ernie told her he was goin’ out to round up his small herd of horses he’d figured had been stolen by a big wild range stallion that was giving him some trouble. They raise horses and he figured to shoot that thievin’ mustang this time.”
“Uh huh,” Gaine sighed softly. It was not at all uncommon for horse stockmen to kill the range-stallions that were bothering their herds, although she had always managed to capture and tame any she’d run up against. It pained her to think of killing them.
“Ernie’d tried before to catch the big white stallion, but hadn’t had any luck. So he was gonna shoot him instead. Mary Jane said he was mighty angry at losing so many of his small herd. Only ones the beast didn’t get were the ones he’d penned up to start with. Them and his regular stock. Had them all penned in corrals.”
“Ah ‘members Ernie. Kinda small, wiry fella. Big fluffy mustache. Always a’smokin’ his big ole pipe? Cheerful feller. Older’n his wafe.”
“Yes, that’s him. Ernie’s a fine man, one who’d do to ride the river with. I figured maybe he was grassed, layin’ injured somewheres. Only his horse didn’t come back neither. Run off with the herd, maybe. Mary Jane said she heard a sound like a branch cracking far off in the distance, or maybe, she didn’t say it, but I got the impression it mighta sounded like a shot.”
“Lahk he’d fahred ta the stallion?”
“Yes, like that. The first day we were there I took my son and we rode all afternoon. Tracked him to the coulee where the broken boulders run up to the ridge. Found the trail of the horses just beyond there. Followed them into the junipers beyond the first rise, to the creek bed, but it was mighty full. Still too high to ford it down that far. That’s where we lost track. My boy and I rode it up and down till it got dark. Rode to the rises on the cabin side of the stream to see what we could. But there wasn’t no sign of him. And no fallen stallion anywhere. It was like Ernie had just vanished. The horses, too.”
A muscle in Gaine’s jaw twitched. This was trouble all right. There was no telling where the man might be. That area was filled with ravines winding about, splitting into coulees. It was familiar territory to the wily mustangs. And the bottom lands were all filled with mottes of trees and undergrowth, mostly along the water courses. A man could be thrown and not be found for months if he didn’t call out. But even if Ernie hadn’t caught his stock, if he weren’t mortally wounded, he should have dragged himself back by now.
“He warn’t no tumbleweed, war he? Some fellers do that, ya know. It bees too much fer ‘em, an’ one day they jist slides off inta the naht, leavin’ thar families ta cope without ‘em.”
“No, no! He wasn’t like that at all. His family was everything to him.” Etta caught Dalton’s eye and he obediently brought his cup to his mouth again, blew and sipped. The older woman raised a brow and moved back behind the counter.
“Like I say,” Dalton continued, “we stayed. I sent my boy that night to round up some neighbors and they came out early Christmas Day, uh, yesterday. Ernie hadn’t returned. She’d given out the gifts but the children were crying for their Pa. We scoured the area, Gaine. Had to swim our horses across’t the creek. We followed his trail for a spell till the land got rocky. We rode in teams then, checkin’ the ravines, beatin’ the brush, lookin’ in every crevice in case he’d been throw’d, but it was like both he and the horses had just disappeared.”
“Be them mustangs he be’s a’raisin? Er done he brung some hosses frum tha states?”
“Mostly mustangs. Can’t make a livin’ startin’ out with much else. He had a couple sturdy Tennessee horses to breed with ‘em. Kept them corralled up by the house, them and a handful of the mustangs he was working.”
“Mustangs be wily, determined critters. More’n most. Maverick stallions been knowed ta steal anathin ta four lags--hosses, mules...anathing ya ain’t got tahd down. Mules love ta run with’n ‘em. An Ahv seed a herd lahk that outrun a whole pack a rahders hell-bent fer leather ta catch ‘em. He could still be a’trailin’ ‘em.” But it t’ain’t lahkely.
“We followed the trail on the other side of the creek, till it just disappeared in the area of the caprock.”
“Disappeared? That be strange. Ya ride circle past them rocks?”
“Yes. For quite a ways. No sign. We figured the rain had washed out what track there was up there. Earlier tracks showed they were goin’ at a steady pace, up into the hills, like they were bein’ herded. They didn’t make track like they was runnin’ hard. Then they disappeared.”
“And ya din’t strike his trail nowheres after that?”
“Not after that. Uh, that’s why I wanted to ask if you.... I know it’s not in our county and the Mayor might get upset, but...and I’d go with you, only I have a big order to get finished. What with the holidays and all, my customer’ll take his order to the harness maker in Big Creek if I don’t get it done for him right away. Wants it before New Years and we need the income.” His shoulders slumped “You’re the best tracker anywhere in these parts, Gaine. Maybe I missed something you can find.”
Gaine didn’t hesitate, “Shore, Dalton. Ahl do some trackin’ fer ya. Ah reckon his family done be’s worried sick. N’ Ahm shore Bill, uh, Sheriff Wilson’d be content nuff ta haf me done taked keer uf ut since’t he cain’t, but ya’d best send word ta ‘im. Maybe them drummers kin take a note. Theys headed that a’way.”
She put her empty cup down and glanced once more at the men across the street. She sighed heavily, then caught herself. She was certainly doing a lot of sighing lately. Maybe it was time to quit this job. The two armed strangers were talking and harshly laughing, and their faces showed the signs of hard-bitten brutality one might expect from anyone with either of their reputations.
“Mary Jane was at her wit’s end, I kin tell ya that.”
“Ah kin ‘magine,” Gaine stood and adjusted her holster. She slipped off the thong, freeing access to her gun. “Ahl lit a shuck ta home first so’s they’s knows whar Ahm a’headin’. Ah reckon Ah kin spare a couple days.” If’n Ah kin make it peaceful nuff round hereabouts aforehand. T’utherwise the Mayor’ll be a belly achin’ that Ah ain’t around here a’mahndin’ mah job.
She picked up her hat, then lifted her gaze out the window again as she ran a hand through her long black hair. Kate had brushed it for her that morning. The thought flitted a smile across her heart. One look at the strangers across the way, however, brought her back to solemnness.
“Ah reckon Ahm a gonna hafta take keer a some bizness here furst, howsomever.” She stared at the two strangers. They were blocking the boardwalk and making sure townsfolk went out in the street to go around them.
“Oh, Gaine, wait. Let me round up some of the posse to go with you.” Dalton looked around the cafe seeing only one other posse member, a man who had seen the strangers and obviously wanted to avert his eyes at Dalton’s beseeching look. The look on his face indicated he would participate, but with great misgivings.
Gaine shot a quick glance the man’s way.
“We can all confront them..” Dalton became flustered with the horrid thought of who all might die at these skilled gunslingers’ hands. All posses were made up of simple businessmen, farmers and ranchers, not gunfighters. And there were only the two of them now in the cafe. Even with Gaine’s skill.. “Or...or...” terror flicked across his face, “maybe you should just wait, dodge ‘em. They’ll probably leave town soon enough.” Dalton nervously looked out at the strangers, “They’re skilled, and their reputations...”
Gaine’s forehead crinkled. “Doan pull yer picket pin none, Dalton. Ah ain’t avoidin’ ‘em. ‘N Ah ain’t a’needin’ the posse lest Ahm a’chasin’ em. Them fellers wantcha ta be a’feared. But this har be’s ar town, mah frien’. Ain’t thar’n. Ah gives in ta thar ilk, Ah maht jest‘s well pack up and head on out. No sir. Ah ain’t avoidin’ ‘em.”
She jammed her stained Stetson on her head. Dalton looked up. “If Wilbur can lend me a gun,” he swallowed, “I’ll back you up.”
A soft grin fell across Gaine’s face. “No, Dalton. Ah doan wantcha involved ‘n this. ‘N Ah means ut. This bees MAH job. Ya savvy? Ahl tell ya if’n Ah bees needin’ tha posse’s hep.” She pushed the leather folds of her jacket back behind her gun once more and headed for the door in long strides.
“Gaine?” Etta called from behind the counter as the tall Sheriff got halfway. The cafe owner and town council treasurer had suddenly realized who Gaine was heading to confront. “Whatcha aimin’ to do?”
Gaine’s blue eyes moved back to her dear friend. “S’all raht, Etta,” she said softly. “Jest doin’ mah job.” Then she turned and finished weaving her way around the tables to the door.
“Go safely, Gaine,” Dalton whispered. This was one ultra-brave woman. The one thing everyone who’d ever ridden with her knew, she would surely do to ride the river with.
She turned back and smiled, reminding Dalton again of what a beautiful woman she was. He had always thought so. Most everyone did. She had a way of looking at a person that made them think they were the only other soul in the world. It was part of what made her job and her skills seem so improbable. Her hand pulled open the door and she strode out into the street.
The two strangers lifted their heads and stared at the apparition moving toward them in long, steady, confident strides. At first they thought from her height that she was a man. The light flickered off the badge on her jacket, and they knew this was the law. If they couldn’t tell by her hidden figure, as she neared they could tell by her features. This was a woman approaching, a beautiful, finely figured woman, a woman in britches wearing a tied-down gun, a woman moving with all the confidence and stalking gait of a dangerous catamount.
The big man snorted derisively. “Where’s your skirt, Sheriff? Best run on home and get it on, like a good little girl.” His deep voice was dry, hard. “Don’t tell me the menfolk allow their ladies to wear men’s britches in this town. And what kinda town would have to get a girl to act as Sheriff?” He pulled a long draw on what was left of his cigarette, inhaled and slowly let the smoke ease out of both his nose and mouth. “What kinda place is this?”
“One you ain’t a’wantin’ ta stay ‘n.” It was almost a purr, a dangerous purr. Gaine stepped onto the boardwalk and stopped close before them. She stood about the bigger man’s height, but his large frame of heavily hewed muscle easily outweighed her. Her blue eyes, steely now, made a frank appraisal of the large man before stopping at his eyes and holding. She did not look away. The big man did.
“Look, Weasel, this town’s got itself a petticoat star-toter. Ain’t that something? Only she fergot her petticoats.” Now he turned cold eyes on Gaine. His voice turned to a threatening growl, “I’ve taught many a woman their place, little missy. Why just a move from me sets a heap of women trembling,” he quickly raised the meaty fist holding his cigarette as though to strike her and laughed, “a raised hand brings a panic.”
Gaine didn’t flinch. “Uh huh,” she said without concern.
The big man’s eyes narrowed. He positioned himself so his words would easily carry down the street. “Seems this little lady needs to be learned a woman’s place.” He flicked an ash. Both men laughed.
Once again Gaine made sure her jacket was behind her gun. “Ah reckon ya fellers need ta be a’ridin’ on.”
“Why should we?” The tall man asked belligerently, flicking his cigarette butt into the street and giving her his full attention.
“Cause ya be’s a’lookin’ fer trouble, an’ that thar be’s mah business.” She leaned forward slightly, “Ah ain’t gonna haf none a’ ut, not ta this har town.”
The man’s mouth opened in contempt. A feisty woman. All the better the challenge. He could make much of this. His elbows poked out, his hands moved into fists on his coat-covered hips that blanketed his two holstered guns, his darkly bearded jaw tilted back, and he roared with a booming sneer that resonated so that everyone about could hear, “Ho. Ho. This little girl isn’t going to have any of it!”
Before he could suck in a breath he felt the cold steel bore of Gaine’s .44 pressed tight under his chin, pressing up through his beard just above his Adam’s apple. She had closed the space in a nanosecond and now held him at extreme disadvantage before his head could so much as drop back down. He had not even suspected she’d drawn. “Ease yer hands ‘way frum yer shootin’ ahrons, fellers, raht easy now.”
All signs of laughter fell from his face. The man’s hands slowly moved out to his sides.
A small group of people had stopped nearby and eased between the closest buildings, leaning their heads and shoulders out to watch wide-eyed. Within minutes the busy boardwalk was empty save for Gaine and the two men. The horses at the rail moved nervously and the pounding noises of construction stopped. Everyone in town was aware of the drama playing out.
The smaller man began to inch his way to the side. Gaine did not lift her hard gaze from the big man’s eyes, Instead she lifted her thumb, steadily hooked it over the hammer pulling back with loud warning ‘clicks’ so they knew by sound her gun was fully cocked, ready to fire. The clicks were made louder by the sudden quiet surrounding them. “Tell yer frien’ ta stop raht whar he be. An ya’d best pray Ah doan dispatch mah thumb premature-lahk.”
“You can’t drop us both,” the big man replied arrogantly.
“Wanna fine out?” the slightest upturn came to her mouth. Weasel’s eyes grew large at the ice in her eyes, her rock steady hand and the confident challenge in her face. She was not in the least nervous, and she had already moved quick as a cat. He froze in place, keeping his restless eyes just on her. He knew better than to confront someone facing him, someone with this much sand.
The big man scowled. There were many things he could do, but if she was half as quick at firing as she’d been at drawing, he would be the first to leave this veil of tears with a bullet shot up into his brain. Weasel might get her in return, but it would do the big man no good.
He considered trying to overpower her, but again, she’d shown herself to be so danged quick and decidedly determined. No, there was no question she’d shoot. Why, she’d kill him before he could move a finger.
They stood in that posture for what seemed like a long time, nobody blinking.
“All right. This hand’s yours,” he finally pronounced, stepping back slowly and keeping his hands up in sight. Then he added with a sneer, “Sheriff.”
“Mosey on, fellers,” she warned. “Ain’t gonna be no trouble here ta Barden’s Corner.” Gaine stepped back, not lowering the hammer, just adjusting her aim. Now it was pointed directly at the big man’s heart. She did not let her eyes leave him. The blue bore of her short barreled Colt held a promise that could easily be read by anyone.
“You’ve had your turn, little girl,” the big man said defensively, carefully moving off the boardwalk to unhitch his horse. Gaine took a few steps to the side, each fall of her boots echoing in the silent morning air, before she stopped, her legs spread shoulder width. This position allowed her to follow both mens’ every move as they prepared to mount.
“The name be’s Sargos, Sheriff Gaine Sargos.” She stood defiantly facing them. “We doan cotton ta no trouble here ‘bouts. So’s you, Mr. Cookerson, an’ you, Mr. Ardmore, needs ta fine yerselfs somewhars else ta stake yer claim. Head on back ta Texas, mebee. Ain’t no trouble welcome ‘n these here parts.”
“You know who I am and where I’m from,” the big man stated, gathering the reins against a handful of black mane and the saddlehorn for balance, reaching his foot into the stirrup, throwing his leg over and settling his bulk into the well-worn leather. “That’s good. Best listen to what’s bein’ said about me. You’ve had your lucky move, girlie. When I decide it’s time for trouble, you’ll be the first to find out, and every man in this town will thank me for the lessons I’ll teach ya.”
“Uh huh. Didja wanna half me arrest ya now fer threatenin ‘n officer a the law?”
“It’s not a threat, it’s a vow!”
“You ain’t listenin’ ta good. We gots room ta the jail if’n ya wanna make yer threats. Ah kin haf ya dismount raht this here minute.” She was ready to take them to jail, and they both knew she would do it.
Gaine’s narrowed eyes studied the big man’s features. His neck had flushed with anger, his lips tightened, his eyes glared at her wild eyed. He was not used to being one upped. He had a heavy dose of impudence won over years far from the streets of Barden’s Corner. He wanted to reply, that was obvious, but he was smart enough to hold his tongue and bide his time.
There was no questioning that he was treacherous, a maliciously dangerous man, cunning, and used to running rough shod over anyone in his way. She would have to take heed of both of them. Yet she couldn’t help wondering how many of their victims had been unarmed civilians, old folks, women or even children. Or people who simply had their backs turned. Quantrill’s riders weren’t fussy about who they ambushed or burned out.
“If’n ya ain’t a’choosin’ jail, this here meetin’ done be’s closed,” she stated firmly. “Move along ‘n doan be a’comin’ back ta Barden’s Corner ner nowheres else n’ this here county. Ah bees a county Sheriff, ‘n Ahl arrest ya, if’n ya does. Er shoot ya. Makes me no never mahnd.”
There was contemptuousness in the bigger man’s face. She could see he was brimming with fight and further infuriated by the fact that he was being run off by a woman. But he’d underestimated her, and she’d beat him to the draw. The smaller man had narrowed his beady eyes at her, but remained quiet. She finally shot a steely glance at Weasel that near stopped his heart. He quailed before that level gaze and looked away. Who IS this woman?
“Remember my words, Sheriff,” the big man spit then clapped spurs to his dun heading down the street at a gallop, the gelding’s black mane and tail flying. The smaller man followed behind on his roan.
The mounted riders pulled rein before the Mayor’s office, circled their horses quickly in the street as they stared meaningfully at the three men standing there. Then they kicked their horses into a gallop again.
The loud clucking of chickens and squealing of pigs running from underfoot the horses, a clatter of hoofs running across the planks of the bridge at the far end of town, the bent backs of the two men as their horses turned, headed on the wagon road toward Big Creek, the sound of a barking dog noting their departure, and they were gone. As though by signal, all the construction noises once more commenced. People began to step back out onto the boardwalks.
Gaine saw the Mayor, Westminster and Eli Hornby standing out on the boardwalk where the riders had paused, watching the veteran gunslingers leave. She caught their eyes, but all three looked away instantly. What n’ tarnation be’s goin’ on ‘round har? she wondered. Whatcha up ta now, you damned mizrable polecats?
Her general dispute with the Mayor and his nephew over most everything was of long duration. And now Mr. Eli Hornby was standing with them.She shook her head. Well, tahm ta ride home n’ let Katie know Ahm a’gonna be gone fer a few days.
The smell of baking bread assaulted her senses the minute she opened the door. Baking Day. Mercy, it smelled good! The hands on her ranch had never eaten so well. Gaine shot a quick glance toward the fireplace where most of the younger children were on the rug. Little Sarah played in her box there. Some wet paper-wrapped loaves of ash bread were cooking in the hot ashes. Gaine’s favorite. Done the old fashioned way.
Then she heard the contagious, easy laugh of Kate at the other side of the big room, the kitchen side, and it warmed her heart. Both women had their backs to Gaine, but she was sure Nell, who Gaine had never heard laugh outright, was at least smiling.
The small blonde made another merry comment and held the oven door with a potholder while she placed loaves of risen bread dough inside to bake. This was Kate’s domain, where she felt most comfortable, and Gaine found her breathtaking in it. The blonde was bubbling over with so much spirit and joy that she gave her behind an extra wiggle as she bent.
Gaine watched in wonder and full appreciation. Putting a finger to her lips to stop the children’s greetings, she moved quietly past them to behind the frisky blonde and said in a velvet drawl, “Come’n jaw with’n me fer a minute’, if’n ya kin.” Kate shot up in surprise letting the heavy iron oven door slam shut. Nell put a hand over her mouth to hold back a laugh. Her eyes were dancing with silent mirth.
“Scared me out of a year’s growth,” Kate scolded, swatting Gaine lightly with her potholder. There were dabs of flour on her forehead where she’d been brushing back rebellious wisps of hair.
Gaine backed up a step. “Lordy, ye cain’t afford a yar,” she grinned. “Yer a’ready short uz tha tail-hold ta a grizzly bar.”
Kate’s face was flushed from working near the hot stove and the tall Sheriff found her unbelievably beautiful. The blonde quickly stuck her hands on her hips and scowled. Gaine heard Nell snicker as she moved back to rolling dough. The blonde turned back and took a quick peek into the oven. “Buzzards!. Two of ‘em are collapsing.” It was too late. They’d have to cook that way.
“Well, you’ll be eating it that way, and it will serve you right.”
Actually, Ah woan. But they’d discuss that in private.
Both Kate and Nell’s dresses were covered with aprons that were sprinkled here and there with flour. Nell was wearing her very worn, patched homespun Mother Hubbard with no more than one tattered petticoat under it and her new black sweater, although in her sewing basket were the makings of a proper widow’s black dress she’d already started, the material a gift from Christmas the day before.
Loaves of bread, hardtack and batches of biscuits, half enough for the week, sat cooling on the table and more were being rolled out by Nell to put in the oven.
The room was filled with the joyful sounds of children. Sarah, the toddler, and Willy’s younger sister, Bongo were being watched by Willy, whose eyes constantly wandered longingly from the basketful of kittens she was showing the children out the window to the corral where some hands were working with the horses. How Willy loved the horses.
Three year old Bongo sat on an upturned bucket on the rug clutching her new rag doll, her fingers in her mouth as Willy held a kitten for her to see. “No, you have to stay in your box, Sarah, or you can’t see the kitties. Pet it nicely, Bongo.” Willy stamped her foot as she shifted, once again proudly showing off her brand new Christmas boots. Her mother had had to insist that she take them off before she went to bed the night before. It had brought tears to Nell’s eyes to finally see her daughter so happy.
Sarah was in her sleep box, laughing, her little hands reaching for the furry kitten wisely kept just out of her reach. The smaller boys, four and five years of age, were on the rug, too, on their bellies trying to play checkers as they’d seen the older boys do, while the two older boys, six and seven, were still running in and out, filling the kindling basket in the kitchen. Baking day took a lot of fuel. Nine month old Deena, small for her age, was in her cradle box, awake but not crying.
Concern flowed over Kate’s face, “What are you doing home at this time of day, Gaine? What’s the matter?”
“Come’n jaw with’n me,” the tall dark-haired woman started to back up past the long table into the part of the big room where the children were.
“Wait. Try this.” Kate took a cooling biscuit, pulled it apart and slathered butter inside. Pressing it back together, she handed it to Gaine, who took a huge bite of the dripping baked good as she backed up.
“Mmmm, this har bees won’erful.” The flavor of cheese through hot buttered biscuit melted in her mouth, and the biscuit was devoured in seconds. Gaine continued backing up then edged towards the hallway that led to the bedrooms.
Kate followed. “Can you keep an eye on the little ones please, Nell?” she asked the woman who was busy rolling dough.
Nell looked up but then went back to her job. “Sure. They’re fine. Willy’s with them.”
“Keep a careful eye on Sarah, Willy, she’s fast and rascally of late.” Kate wiped her hands on her apron and followed Gaine into the bedroom, her long skirts swishing on the flat rock floor as she went. She was a small woman next to Gaine, her curly golden hair a sharp contrast to Gaine’s long, straight blue-black hair. Kate was as efficient in movement as she was in organizing the day’s work inside the house, and it was obvious that she took a contented pride in handling the domestic duties of the ranch.
The minute they walked through the door of their room and Gaine shut it solidly behind them, the tall woman gently slid one hand to grasp the blonde’s fingers. Kate gazed into deep blue pools and saw a familiar hunger Gaine made no attempt to disguise. With her free hand the black-haired Sheriff cupped Kate’s face. Silently they gazed into each other’s eyes, enchanted as always. Gaine slowly brought her lips down with a soft touch that evolved into a surprisingly forceful kiss. Kate wrapped her arms around Gaine, sunk into the embrace and returned the sentiments with equal gusto.
“Mmm,” Kate smiled when they broke for air, “That was very nice.” Her soft whisper was husky. She reached a hand up to brush some stray tendrils of black hair back from Gaine’s face.
“Ya knows ya be’s tha partner a’ all mah happiness.” Gaine nuzzled her cheek next to Kate’s then reached out and carefully dabbed the flour from the blonde’s forehead, “Uh, Ah gotta leaf town fer a couple days, sweetheart,” she whispered.
All pleasure drained from Kate’s face. She pulled back, “Why?” This was part of what she hated about Gaine’s job, the uncertainty and the potential violence it often foretold. It was unnerving, if she allowed herself to think about it. But she’d known all that when she’d agreed to spend her life with the tall beauty. She held her breath without even realizing she was doing so.
“Gotta rancher missin’ an ‘is family done be’s worried plumb sick. He war out searchin’ fer ‘is hosses a mustang stallion mahta stole off, ‘n he din’t raturn. Doan know if’n he gots hisself grassed er whut. Din’t come home fer Christmas. His wafe be’s baside herself.”
“He wasn’t home yesterday? For Christmas? Heavens! I imagine she would be upset!” Kate’s held breath escaped with force, “Who is it?”
“Ya done heard a’ the Lorences?”
“The family from Jumping Antelope Valley out by Wild Horse Creek?”
“Yep. How’d ya know ‘bout ‘em?”
“I’ve seen Mary Jane at church. And I saw them once at the mercantile when we were there. Come to think of it, I didn’t see them at the Christmas service yesterday. It’s Ernie that’s missing? Stars! He’s older than she is by about fifteen years or so, if I remember correctly. I think Etta told me that. Oh, that poor family. Maybe he got sick.”
“Mebee,” Gaine agreed, not letting go of her hold on the small blonde.
Kate furrowed her brow, “He could have been in an accident easily enough. I don’t think he knew a lot about ranching. He’d gotten an ‘itch’ to head west after his brother did, Mary Jane said. So he drew out all his savings and brought his family out here. He thought maybe he’d do some mining or raise cattle. His last option was farming. But then he decided he knew the most about horses and there were free ones running wild. So he bought some wild ones to start with from T. J. Huffman.”
Gaine’d never liked the way T. J. captured his horses. She frowned, “Workin’ mustangs t’ain’t that simple. Anaways, Ah tole Dalton Ahd run track n’ see whut Ah could fahnd. He n’ some tuther fellas done give it a go, but come up empty-handed.”
“Oh, how awful. Poor Mary Jane! When are you leaving?”
Kate stared at her. Suddenly Gaine was gripped in Kate’s tight embrace again. The small blonde’s kiss was filled with passion this time that left the tall beauty breathless, blinking. This small blonde had a will of iron and a kiss of fire.
“You come back to me as soon as you can and in one piece,” Kate whispered huskily. “You hear?”
“If that thar war yer promise, belief me, Ahl be a’headed raht back on the tare,” Gaine smiled. She hesitated, not wanting to mention the rest. But she had no choice. They needed to be prepared.
“Uh, Ah wants ya to be right keerful once’t Ahm gone.” Gaine swallowed and licked her lips. “Thar war a couple a fellers Ah done throw’d outta town taday, an’ they be’s wicked cusses. Ah made ‘em raht orey-eyed, shore ‘nuff. Reckon Ah done stirred a stick ta theys rattlesnake den. Tall fella ‘n a smaller one with’n one a them pots a’top.”
“Pots? A derby hat, you mean?” Kate asked.
“Yep. Wants ya to thank he bees nuthin’ but a dandy. But he ain’t. He bees a killer. Both uv ‘em. Ahm gonna haf all the fellas Ah kin spare rahd up har close ta tha house whal Ahm gone ta watch fer ‘em, jest ta make shore. ‘N you be raht watchful fer ‘em whan ya feed any a them extry rahders. Ya needs ta sahd-step them two fellers, darlin’, they’s tha wilyest, orneriest n’ raht fearsomest coyotes e’er skulked tha range.”
Kate sucked on her lip and scowled. If Gaine considered them fearsome, they must be really bad. “All right.” Then she thought of their supplies, “Will I need to plan to feed a lot of extra riders?” The stores at the house were tight. She wasn’t sure how she could feed more people than they were already feeding.
“Doan thank sa,” Gaine smiled. How often lately had she seen Kate poring over their monthly account books planning and replanning how they would survive? Both Gaine and Nell had tried to tell the small blonde that they could get by with less food. They’d both had experience existing on nothing but coffee, beans and hardtack, Nell on much less, certainly no coffee. But Kate’s father had been well to do, and though he treated his family viciously, they always had enough food on their table to satisfy him. Kate wasn’t used to eating less. And her appetite, for such a little woman, was huge.
“Ya should know, Katie, them fellers got repeetations uz gunslingers. Concern tis, theys doan hesitate ta drop wimin ner childerns. So watch the little uns. Keep ‘em indoors whan ya kin. If ‘n doubt, grab that thar Henry ‘bove tha door n’ use ut.”
“You think they’re coming here?”
“Prob’ly t’ain’t. But Ah doan wanna leaf that thar possabil’ty unpertected. So’s keep watch.”
“All right,” Kate replied. Her features firmed but Gaine could see a certain nervousness.
“If’n theys do come har a’lookin’ fer me, tell ‘em ta leaf immedjetley. If’n theys doan, doan hesetate none, shoot ‘em outraht, Katie. No further warnin’s. Don Carlos tis a’gonna be a’tellin’ the fellers the ‘xact same thang. Theys’ll all gonna be a’watchin’ fer ‘em.”
“Gaine, you know full well that if I feel threatened, I WILL shoot.”
“Yep,” the Sheriff grinned, “Ah belief ya would. An ya’d hit ‘em, too. Yer gittin’ ta be a raht fahn shot. But Ah hears them fellers’re lahtnin’ fast, so doan turn yer back ‘n doan let ‘em clear leather. Be ready fer ‘em. Gitjer gun aimed the minute ya sees ‘em rahd up. Doan let ‘em git close ta ya. Stay jest ta tha inside ta tha door fer pertection ‘n aim fer the big feller.”
“All right. What about you? Are you going out there alone?”
“No. Ah figured Ah’d take me one a the fellers ta help out Missus Lorence. She’s gonna need lotsa help roun’ her spread, ‘specially if’n the worst done comes ta pass.”
This was the off season on their ranch and they were running a skeleton crew as it was. So it would be an inconvenience to leave one of their riders there. But when your friends or neighbors needed help, folks did what they could.
“You’re leaving one of our riders?”
“Yep, Ah war thinkin’ Ahd take Alonzo.”
“Oh, uh, maybe you should take Curly. I don’t think the Lorence’s are very tolerant of, uh, people different from themselves. I’ve even heard their children use names.”
“Ya mean lahk callin mah vaqueros names?”
“Yes,” Kate looked down. “They lump people together. And she said some pretty horrible things about the Irish, too. Something about them all being shanty Irish, drunkards and whores.”
“What? Din’t ya challenge ‘er none?” Gaine’s face became very solemn. Prejudice was not at all uncommon, but it was not like Kate to let a comment like that pass unanswered.
“No,” Kate looked a little miffed. “Well, I didn’t really get a chance. She didn’t say it to me. I overheard her. She was talking to someone else. She knew my last name was Sargos. I guess she didn’t make the connection. I’m sure she didn’t know I was Irish. But then..”
“She said those things one day after my school lessons when I was helping Etta drop off some of her freshly baked bread to the church ladies’ group.” Kate had spent some time in town teaching Nell’s children basic skills when Shorty’s family lived there. The small blonde furrowed her brow, “I opened my mouth to tell Mary Jane a thing or two, but Etta stepped right up and changed the topic before I could say a word.”
Gaine grinned. “Etta done that ta purpose. Ah thank them old biddies be dang lucky they din’t gitcha on tha prod er catch ya when yer temper war a’ready riled. Then yuda said more n’ plenty n’ couldn’t nobody a stopped ya. Yuda burned thar ears clean off!” Gaine grinned widely.
Kate nudged her, which made Gaine chuckle more. “I got the impression that Mary Jane hadn’t been raised around anyone different from herself. She and the children sort of copy the kind of talk Ernie uses all the time. He’s worse than she is.”
“Whal, Ahm takin’ Alonzo. Tis tahm fer tha Lorenca’s ta meet someun raht up close theys useta callin’ names. Git useta tha diff’ernces n’ see theys t’ain’t sa great. Sides, Ahl tell Alonzo that whan ‘n doubt, trust ta his hoss. Mah rider shore doan gotta stay, if’n he t’ain’t wanted.”
Kate threw her arms around Gaine again, this time in a hug with a touch of desperation. Gaine enfolded the smaller woman to her and tenderly nuzzled her hair. “Ahl be back a’fore ya knows ut, love. Yer mah wild n’ woolly Irish gal n’ yer raht good with’n a rafle. Them fellers best steer real clear a ya, if’n theys knows what’s good fer ‘em.” Then her expression became ultra serious, “But theys vera dangerous, them two fellers. Be raht keerful. Please?”
Kate didn’t feel much like a wild and woolly anything, but she steeled her expression and forced a quiet emotion over herself, concealing the pang in her chest at their separation. “Yes. We’ll be all right. Go help the poor woman.”
“Yep,” Gaine paused. She ran both hands gently down the sides of Kate’s cheeks, cradling her face as though she were memorizing each dimple, each freckle, each nuance of expression. Then she stopped to rub her thumbs gently along Kate’s lower lip. “Ah loves ya, Meghan Kate,” she whispered.
Kate forced a smile, wrapping her arms around the tall woman. “You know I just want to be called Kate, honey. Leave off the Meghan part. That’s my old life. And I love you, too. So very much.” Gaine gave her a quick kiss then stepped back, her hand on the door handle.
“Wait!” Kate hastily brushed the flour off Gaine’s clothes that had been transferred from her apron. They both smirked at that. How would they have explained it?
Gaine opened the door. Kate hurried out to pack some jerky, hardtack and fresh-from-the-oven biscuits for her and the extra rider while Gaine grabbed her spare flannel shirt off the peg and moved out the front door. Kate heard her telling someone to fill the canteens at the well as she stuffed her shirt in her pack. Then she saw the tall woman talking seriously with their foreman, Don Carlos. The small blonde quickly wrapped the items and took them to the porch.
The tall Sheriff and Alonzo mounted. Gaine rode to the porch and received the pack Kate held up to her and placed it in her pack.
“Thank ye. Y’all be keerful round here,” Gaine called. She winked at Kate and set off at a canter, Alonzo following. Kate stood on the porch and watched till the riders were gone from view.
Continued in Section II, Trouble at Wild Horse Creek, Chapter 5 ~ Strife
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