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 whose smile I find more breathtaking than any sunrise or sunset could ever be.


The Renegade Lady Sheriff
by bsoiree

Section II ~
Trouble at Wild Horse Creek

Chapter 5 ~ Strife
California foothills
The day after Christmas, 1875


“Them fellers Ah driv outta town this mornin’,” Gaine warned Alonzo, “bees ‘sperienced killers. “’N Ah figure they’s mahty good trackers.”

Alonzo nodded, glancing down at the tracks they were leaving. Once they were out of sight of the ranch, Gaine pulled her rifle from its scabbard and rode with it in the crook of her elbow. He did the same. They knew the area well and rode with care far off the road in the outlying region. As they neared Barden’s Corner they moved even further out, riding deep inside the tree line when possible, skirting the more populated places where the fragrance of wood smoke hung heavily in the crisp winter air. They did not speak.

Northeast of town they cautiously moved through a large flock of sheep, pushing farther still from the road till they came into the intricate hill country traveling one behind the other on the hardest surfaces to minimize tracks. Where at all possible they avoided ranches and farms, threading into the high country where the air cleared and the blue sky arched to the scrub trees and underbrush.

Ultimately they crossed the side trail that branched from the main road leading to Big Creek. Looking around, Alonzo saw no other travelers. But without saying a word, Gaine raised a finger to stop them. Dropping to the path, she untied her bandanna and flattened it on the ground. She pressed her ear atop it and listened. “Yep,” she muttered, heading them into the brush and up a nearby rise where a group of boulders gave them a good vantage point for much of the area.

From this position they watched a buggy far off moving briskly along the primary wagon path to Big Creek. Too far to see much by eye, Gaine drew out her glass, focusing it on the buggy. “Them drummers,” she remarked. She checked all around for signs of other travelers, but saw none. Satisfied, she pocketed her glass, then turned her horse and headed them further upward. They broke their own trail as they went. She kept them to the shadows of the taller brush and trees, as often as possible on linings of soft pine needles. When possible she purposely brushed away any signs of their trail.

Moving higher up, the wind increased, became raw, and spots of snow on the ground became prominent. They pressed their hats further down on their heads. Gaine let her thoughts run to Ernie Lorence and his plight. Without good tracking, finding a fallen rider in a wilderness could be near impossible. Strange how Dalton had said Ernie’s tracks had disappeared.

They rode a long time in silence. “Coyote,” Alonzo remarked quietly. Gaine glanced down and nodded. Faint tracks showed a coyote had crossed through the wild thicket they were in. Like several other animals, coyote tracks were normally in a straight line, placing their hind feet exactly in the tracks of their front feet. But this animal had its rear prints landing ahead of its front. Gaine’s quick eye examined the pressure of the print, the length of its stride, the way the animal was moving.

“Big ‘n old, a’runnin’ scared, looks lahk.” She checked the tracks once more before letting her eyes scan the tree branches.

“Cause of a mountain lion, si?” Alonzo asked, also scanning the branches around them. This had been a bad year for them.

“Ah reckon.” The coyotes didn’t worry her, nor did their nemesis, the mountain lion. It was human danger that concerned her.

Without another word they bore northeast, skimming the high meadows, skirting around canyons, ever watchful. Gaine kept them high among large rocks whenever they left an area with trees, though it would have been much faster and considerably shorter following the open areas below along the main wagon paths.

With the snowcapped Sierras as a backdrop, she moved them into a narrow area where vertical walls of rock rose from the pitch pine, sugar pine and false cedar around them. The noise of tumbling water filled the air as a ravine funneled a shallow mountain torrent downward. Moving higher to cross the swampy headwater, they turned north, now headed downward, the Sierra peaks seeming to remain the same distance away. It seemed forever that they worked their way down.

Meeting another rise, both dismounted to retighten their girths before urging their horses up a long, steep incline till they finally came out on a semi-circular forested rim encircling a small picturesque central valley.

“A hidden valley,” Alonzo declared, surprised.

“Mmm. Jumpin’ Antelope Valley through tha sahd door,” Gaine replied. She surveyed with amazement the valley below them. It was extremely lush and rich. A land to dream about. How many years had it been since she’d hunted wild mustangs in this area, she, her brothers and her father? She’d been just a kid then, much more interested in the horses than the area they traveled through to get them. How many years was that before the Lorences settled down there, she wondered? Had to be quite a few, she knew.

They stopped in the shade of a stand of scrubby pines. Far to their left a part of the rim formed a saddle. At the lowest point if they looked hard they could make out the ribbon of the dirt road they’d avoided where the scorations of wagon wheels rolled a trail down into the lush valley. That was the road that led out then branched to either Big Creek or Barden’s Corner. Once they’d crossed the branch, Gaine had led them far around any signs of civilization. She hadn’t wanted them waylaid. Nor did she want them skylined now as they moved along the crest, not with angry gunfighters on the watch for her. Her hand reached for her glass.

Jumping Antelope Valley. It ran maybe eight miles or more. It was marked with ravines, a few rocky areas, springs at the coulee heads and rolling hills heavily covered with grass and scattered oaks of singular beauty while mountains rose to great heights beyond the rim to the east. Picturesque and beautiful, it struck her as being as close to a perfect place to keep cattle or horses as could be found in these parts. It might even be better for horses. They’d be more likely to dig through any winter snow to get to the grass, though there was no snow cover now.

“Pertected. Perty uz a heart flush,” she breathed in appreciation as much to herself as to Alonzo. “Lotsa self-made hay. N’ what snow theys git woul’nt bees deep ‘nuff ta keep theys lifestock from a’foragin’ ta winter.” Her partner nodded silently, his eyes appreciating the beauty before him. It was a spectacular valley, even in winter it sat knee deep in lush grass.

Much of Barden County’s area was more semiarid land, where stock-raising-namely sheep-was the most sustainable industry except for the mines. And in this county next door, Sierrasotta County, sheep had also edged out much of the cattle. A sheep herder could put far more sheep on pasturage than steers. But this here valley ain’t ne’er felt the graze uv a sheep’s teeth, Ah’d warrant. And in Gaine’s book, that was very good.

Below, nestled in a stand of leafless cottonwood and willow trees, she saw the smoke from the chimney of a stout log cabin fronted by a barn and corrals. It was the only sign of human presence in the whole of the valley that they could see. She searched carefully for any chimney smoke or other signs of ranch cabins further back in the coves of the hills but saw none. Only this one. The Lorences. It was quite a spread.

Bunchgrass filled the hills around the cabin. Mottes of willow and cottonwood conformed to the creek beds, while the oaks and even some manzanitas dotted the hillsides among the golden grasses and boulders.

This was still a land of fairly scant rainfall. However, if clouds were going to unburden themselves before moving eastward, this was where they’d do it. Yet the position of the valley itself seemed to protect it from the brunt of the winter’s storms. In the bottom of the valley it was apparent that the streams normally ran in broad, shallow beds, unless they’d dwindled down to sluggish trickles that were known to almost dry up completely in drought years. But in heavy rainfall, like they’d just experienced, streams overfilled their brims with swollen, muddy water that ran in wild torrents further up.

She could see a wide bend below where the stream could be dammed, forming a year-round pond sustainable even in drought. She wondered if Ernie’d made plans to do that yet.

At the north end she knew the valley diverged into at least one canyon, likely several more. At this end was the basin of Wild Horse Creek. High where they were the water tumbled full, mostly clear and fast through boulder enclosed runways and the chilly wind blew in funneled gusts.

A deer path took them toward the creek, but Prince, Gaine’s large buckskin began to champ his bit and toss his head nervously. She recognized the gestures. Black bears and mountain lions were thick here. She knew they couldn’t count on hibernation. The heavier bears did partake of some winter sleep, but those without more fat were active year round. Horses certainly had a sense about them.

Gaine hastily checked the ground for tracks, partially buried skat, even the remains of a kill covered with branches or leaves. She checked the nearby trees. Black bears climbed trees easily. “Thar,”she pointed. Alonzo’s eyes followed where she was pointing. Three trees back was a bear tree; fresh tooth marks blazoned as high as a bear stood and claw marks displayed above. But no bear was in sight.

He nodded, readying his rifle. They urged the nervous horses ahead. The minute they could, she had them move down to a lower area where the water course leveled out before plunging down again below that. The horses calmed as they proceeded downward. She edged them back into the shadows of the shallow tree cover and paused beyond the boulder strewn area rimming the stream. Looking across, they could see that the water was settled far over the banks, around the boulders, and looked exceedingly dangerous.

Trying not to appear nervous, Alonzo took out his makings and rolled a quirley. “Water’s high,” he remarked, deciding she had chosen this place to cross.

“Yep,” she chuckled, “Butcha doan gotta chew ut none ta swaller ut up har. Down thar, ya does.” The water was running much cleaner here than that lower in the valley.

“Can it be forded?” he asked, doubting that it could be at this spot.

“Shore,” she glanced at the stream and its path downward. Flooding water tended to bring all kinds of debris tumbling down with it. “Ar hosses be good swimmers. Thull git usns across’t.”

He sucked in a breath, hoping she was right. He trusted her implicitly, but his eyes couldn’t help ekeing out the dangers portrayed in the fast moving stream.

Not wanting to risk being seen taking the horses to the water, her hat in her hand, Gaine slid off her horse, hopped between boulders moving as much out of sight as possible and swooped out a hatful of fast-moving, clear water from the stream. She brought it back to her horse, slipped the bit out of his mouth and let the animal drink. Then she did the same for Alonzo’s horse. After that they drank some water from their canteens.

“Cover yer flame,” Gaine said as Alonzo prepared to strike the lucifer for his cigarette. They were used to riding in wilderness without seeing anyone else for days on end. But today they needed to be careful not to display themselves as targets....“Jest n’ case.”

Strangers might doubt Gaine because of her gender, in fact they almost always made that mistake at first. But her riders knew better. Her unconventionality remained untrammeled by the dictates of society. They had seen her outdo most of the men in the skills needed to survive on the frontier. And she knew an amazing amount about the job of ranching. She tracked, roped, rode, herded and drove steers, broke horses and used a sixshooter and rifle with unparalleled ease. Her opinion was law. She was the boss, a job she never shirked, and she had the wherewithal to run her operation like it should be run. Alonzo instantly covered his flame.

Her sharp eyes scanned their surroundings. Everyone knew the newer rifles were powerful enough to kill at very long distances from places they might not expect. She remembered her Pa talking about how long shots in his day sometimes bounced off their targets. No longer. Those days were gone.

Whatever lay in the minds of the men she’d turned out of town, and she was sure it included rape, torture, and maiming, it had her as their target. She figured they’d want to thoroughly maul her, sexually break her and half kill her before dragging her back to town to finish the job before an audience, if they could. She knew they were dangerous men with unconscionable thoughts. But she fully intended to get the draw against them again, should they meet. To do that, she’d have to spot them first.

She’d have tracked them as far as the county line to make sure they’d left, if she hadn’t promised Dalton to help the Lorences. Now she considered that the two probably had headed directly for one of the saloons in Big Creek to nurse their wounded pride. That made them Sheriff Wilson’s problem for the time being. The road to there turned far back from this point. Still, she didn’t aim to give anybody any undo opportunities against them.

Alonzo watched her carefully. She was a constant source of amazement to him. He looked at the stream. If she said they could cross here, they could cross here, no matter how dangerous it looked to him.

He was a fine rider and his English was as fluent as her Spanish, though they rarely talked when they rode together. He’d ridden with her at the Circle S since he was a gangly fourteen year old half-grown between hay and grass, a distant cousin of Don Carlos. They’d more or less grown up together, and she’d never been one to chatter on the trail. He found her silence comfortable. Now, at eighteen, Alonzo was whiplike, as hardy and self-reliant as any man anywhere, with a defiant confidence borne of ranch life. His boyish spindliness had given way to lean, lithe, muscular strength although his stature was still on the short side.

Alonzo was talented with horses and the lariat. Most of Gaine’s riders were. He had practiced roping literally from the time he was a toddler. And the way he sat the saddle with his straight back, his stirrups low so his knees barely bent, his grace of movement as he rode, his dark hair and features aglow, was reminiscent of the handsome visage of his relatives, the rancho inhabitants of old California, the old-country vaqueros, the Californios as they were before the gold strikes. Those feudal barons, by and large, were directly from Spain, sitting on huge Spanish land grants now mostly wrenched away from them.

A gust hit him and he pulled his coat collar closer around his silk neckerchief. His short jacket ended at his waist and his low, flat-crowned, straight, stiff-brimmed sombrero threatened to fly off, but he tilted his head to keep it on, and tightened the leather cords holding it in place.

Gaine looked at the winding watercourse they would need to cross somewhere before they hit the bottom, scanning the area with her hand shading her eyes. She easily made out the high water marks on the trees by the river bank. She snickered, “Lower’n t’war.” Which ain’t sayin much.

“Si.” He glanced again at the water and laughed quietly himself. If she was going to laugh in the face of danger, he would too.

She mounted, rested her rifle across the sixty-foot coil of riata looped around one side of her saddle’s horn. Few people could accurately throw a sixty-foot lariat, particularly in the wind, but Gaine had mastered it. Several years back he’d watched her skillfully work four unspliced half inch wide rawhide strands eighty five to ninety feet in length as she braided them tightly into this riata. Her riders all carried a forty foot coil, some hand made of hair, for twenty or twenty-five foot throws at which they were known for being exceedingly accurate. He patted his own handmade rope.

Alonzo sat back and enjoyed his cigarette as she pulled out her glass and again scrutinized their surrounding area. He pinched off the burning stub, nipping off the remaining sparks before dropping the butt in his offhand pocket. Gaine did not let her riders leave any evidence they’d been somewhere, if there was the possibility they were being tracked.

Gaine pocketed her glass, shifted the rifle to her left hand and dug out the package Kate had packed. Used to riding in the wind, she dipped her head so that her hat diverted the gusts from her face. Facing their horses in opposite directions, their eyes ever watchful, the two riders consumed the freshly baked biscuits within minutes.

“Carne seca?” he asked. She nodded, unwrapping the package. Each took a large piece, bit off a chunk of the dried meat to chew and pushed the hardtack along with the remainder of the jerky into their pockets. They would eat the rest as they rode. Apparently this was not where they would cross. Alonzo caught his sigh of relief in time to make it inaudible.

“Whan we’s gits down ta the water crossin’, loosen yer cinch ‘n take off’n yer bridle. That way yer hoss’ll take ya across’t and ya woan be able ta pull ‘im o’er.”

He nodded, but knew before proceeding Gaine would have them dismount, retighten their girths and check their guns before they climbed back into the saddles to continue on.

The tall beauty couldn’t shake the bad feeling she had about this unpleasant mission. Doan git ahead a yerself, she cautioned in silence as she coaxed her big buckskin down a bank of loose scree, holding the rifle out for balance as they half slid their way down to the next landing. She felt a gloomy weight from it all. She had chosen this horse in the event she found the missing man and needed to haul him back home. This big gelding was one of her most sturdy horses, not the fastest, but certainly one of the strongest.

A feller missin that thar number a days maht foretell anathin. But with his wife and family waiting during such a momentous holiday, it would have to have been a very bad mishap. Hostile Indians were not a factor in this part of the country, so that prospect could be discarded. Gaine knew if it had been her, no matter what, she’d have crawled her way home for Christmas. All of which made her question his predicament.

The first cut bank down was steep and very narrow in places. They again caught the deer trail that tacked and turned as they silently maneuvered their horses back and forth over the fresh animal tracks till the land began to level. Gaine knew to expect bear tracks down here as well. But no bears were visible, and the horses remained calm.

Alonzo took another large bite of his jerky, chewing contentedly as they wound downward.

Moving around a blind corner they ran smack into a large band of grazing antelope. The animal’s white rump hairs suddenly raised in warning as they bounded horizontally in wide, smooth leaps across the open area before bursting away with unbelievable speed. Gaine fluttered her lashes. She could feel her heart pounding. Lord a’mahty, them critters shore nuff kicked the steady raht outta mah heart beat! “Whoa thar.” Prince had also been surprised as he reared then pranced about. Less feedin’ off’n mah mahnd’, more ob-zervin.

“Madre!” Alonzo’s hand had gone unconsciously to his chest to cover his own alarm, then rapidly began to pound his chest as he began to cough on the large mouthful he’d swallowed unexpectedly. They both had to rein in their horses. Alonzo’s coughing continued.

“Ya all raht?” Gaine asked worriedly, sitting her dancing horse with great skill.

With his eyes watering, Alonzo nodded. “Thought we were following deer tracks,” he managed to rasp out, drawing her scrutiny from his coughing. “Sure didn’t expect antelope.” He gave a last pound to his own chest and a last deep cough then hurriedly wiped the moisture from his eyes with his sleeve.

“Them’s war deer tracks. Steady boy,” Gaine soothed, fully alert now. She settled Prince, determining Alonzo was fine. Instantly her glance dropped to the ground. Deer and antelope often grazed together. The ground was a mishmash of tracks. “Deer done moseyed on, Ah reckon.” She looked around in all directions. N’ Ahd best make shore them two fellers doan come a’bulging inta no places thut we ain’t aware a, startlin’ usns lahk them antelope jest done. Cause theys t’aint a’ gonna jest tip theys hats ‘n dart off with’n a ‘howdy-do,’ purty uz a pitcher. Again she took out her glass to scan the area as she readied her rifle. From here on they’d be moving in and out of areas with little cover.

Seeing no sign of other humans, she once again spotted the crossing place she’d selected while above. They wound their way toward the water, crossing through thorny brush, keeping to what cover they could find. They had not worn chaps, although now she wished they had. She saw the stealthy circling of a red-tailed hawk overhead, squinted to see its belly band, wishing she could ride on air currents and view the ground from such a grand vantage point. Ahd shore spot them gunslingers easy whar Ah a’rahdin’ tha wind up thar lahk that.

The subdued thud of horse hooves on soft dirt and hushed creaking of saddle leather as they moved was the only noises to indicate they were there. At the creek she reined back into the shadow of creek-lined trees, slid the rifle into its scabbard and began to pull off her boots, considering this the best crossing even though they would be most vulnerable here. She took off her stockings and jammed them into the boots then tied a long piggin string through one mule ear loop on each boot and hung them around her neck. She loosened the saddle girth and slipped off the horse’s bridle.

“Ahl go first,” she said quietly, lifting her saddlebag and hotroll onto one shoulder. “Move ta that thar little rise ahind us n’ belly down ta tha edge a the ridge. Done gives ya a better view.”

He nodded, tying his horse to some juniper brush while he moved on foot, crawling the last distance to the edge with his rifle in his hands. Once set, Alonzo looked around carefully then gave a short wave. Gaine held her rifle up on the left side, same as the saddle bag and bedroll, and urged her horse into the rushing water. The water was faster than expected and cold.

She always paid particular attention when her horses balked at crossings. High water, quicksand, and submerged branches were serious problems, and she knew which of her horses were best at nosing out such unseen dangers. She always listened to their body language, trying to read their concerns. This horse was good at it.

They entered the stream cautiously, making no splash. The large horse moved into the briskly moving water, stirring precipitously only once when his feet slipped on some rocks underfoot. The rushing water soaked the bottom of her pants when she brought her feet down to help his balance, and she could feel the water’s heavy push against Prince’s strong body.

He swam in a direction she would not have chosen but reached the other side without a great deal of fanfare. Gaine urged her well-trained horse into some heavy scrub, replaced the bridle, tightened her girth, replaced her saddlebag and hotroll, wiped her feet with her socks, put them on then pulled on her boots complete with spurs. She looped the reins on some brush. She held her rifle and moved upstream where she had the best view. Then she signaled for Alonzo to cross.

His horse was a smaller bay gelding, well used to cattle work and dangerous crossings. Yet experienced or not, cattle crossings nearly always had their share of grave crosses embellishing the banks. Many an experienced cowboy met his untimely fate in a river. Rarely used crossings such as this one were even more dangerous.

Alonzo loosened his girth and slipped off the bridle. His boots were taken off before he removed his saddle bag and bedroll. He held the saddle bag, bedroll and rifle aloft and kneed the horse to enter the stream, also getting his pants wet when his horse was pushed downstream some by the strength of the rushing water. Had he been with another man, they’d probably have removed most of their clothing before crossing.

Alonzo and the horse came springing out of the water into a bushy area and rode back to her before she took his bridle and slipped it on his horse for him as he put on his boots with their long rowelled spurs attached. He jumped down to tighten his cinch before they were ready to proceed. Neither liked riding with a wet saddle and saddle blanket, but it couldn’t be avoided.

They followed the deer trail the rest of the way down without incident. The afternoon was already heavy with shadows as they made their way toward the peaceful looking ranch. Gaine briefly checked for track then glanced up. At the door of the cabin stood a tall, thin young woman in her early twenties, of fair complexion, light brown hair, a shotgun in her hands. She was guardedly watching them approach.

Gaine looked around carefully, taking account of everything she saw. In the corral were some mustangs, their wild eyes and proud heads bowed at being penned. Mixed in were some domesticated Tennesse horses of good breeding. Gaine waved and called, “Missus Lorence, ma’am. Ahm tha Sheriff a Barden’s Corner, done come ta help ya fine yer husban.”

The woman replaced the shotgun inside on the pegs above the door and stepped outside, followed by three small children, all holding to her skirts.

“Sheriff?” she asked as they rode closer. “We’re not in your county I’m afraid.”

“Ah knows, ma’am,” Gaine rode closer to the door of the cabin. “Sheriff Rogers still tain’t able ta rahd. Didja need ar hep?”

“Oh yes, yes, indeed. I didn’t mean to imply...”

“Tis all raht, ma’am.” Gaine reined near the woman. “Ah be’s Sheriff Gaine Sargos n’ this har be’s one a mah rahders, Alonzo.”

“Senora,” Alonzo tipped his hat.

The woman’s eyes flitted to the young man but spent no time there. They came back to Gaine. “The woman Sheriff. Yes, I know of you. I’ve seen you in town. Please, come inside and I’ll get you some coffee.”

“Uh, no thank ye, ma’am. Wer a’gonna head down tha valley a spell. Do a little trackin’ whilst the sun done bees up.” Gaine glanced at the sky. “Durned sun goes down sa early, we need laht ta see what we kin whal we kin, if’n ya doan mahnd.”

“Should I hold supper for you?” she asked.

“We’d shorely ‘preciate that, ma’am.”

She looked doubtfully at Gaine’s rider. “All right.” Her eyes focused on Gaine, “Please, call me Mary Jane.” It was easy to read the worry and exhaustion around her eyes. Unconsciously she gripped her children to her.

“Yes, ma’am, uh, Mary Jane. Yus kin call me Gaine un him, Alonzo. Wull jest leaf ar saddlebags ‘n hot rolls, if’n tis all raht with’n yus.”


They both removed their saddlebags and bedrolls and placed them in the lean-to beside the cabin. If they crossed another stream running into the one they’d crossed further down the valley, they didn’t want to fuss trying to keep everthing dry.

Gaine rode by the corral slowly, following the tracks that were leading away. She recognized the tracks of Dalton’s big mare and those she assumed were his son’s horse. They’d been shod. That wasn’t unusual for town riders, but on a ranch many of the horses were unshod. The riders Dalton had brought out left tracks that were also there, fresh and new and also shod. Four riders including Dalton.

She paid most careful attention to the older tracks, also a shod horse, the tracks days old. Ernie’s horse. She studied it carefully and pointed to it so Alonzo could also pick it out. “Only laht ‘dentations now,” she noted softly. “Days old.” Alonzo nodded. “Plated ‘n slippers. Smooth ‘cept fer a nick ta tha raht front. See ut?” she asked.

He peered more closely at the ground. “Si,” he replied.

They traveled quite rapidly, following the trail left by all the riders till they came to the running tracks left by the stallion’s herd. As Dalton had said, they were not moving flat out but instead were proceeding at a moderate pace.

Gaine noted with pleasure that Dalton had kept his neighbors from trampling Ernie’s horse’s tracks wherever possible. They moved up the hills, into the cove and made it to the banks of another creek where Dalton and his neighbors had crossed the day before and the herd as well as Ernie had crossed days before that. She and Alonzo stopped. She was surprised to see that the area on the other side actually opened up from there and rose to what looked like it might eventually be a natural crossing into the next valley.

The last rays of daylight were rapidly ticking away. She saw where Dalton and his son had ridden up and down on their side of the creek, searching.

“Water’s high,” Alonzo stated again. “And muddy, si?”

“Yep. Be’s thick,” she answered distractedly. She climbed down and began to walk along the water course, poking the thick growth in places along the heavily flowing stream with the barrel of her rifle. If a shooter expelled their cartridge shells anywhere near here, she hoped to find them. Finding nothing, she quickly mounted, calling, “C’mon.” She yanked off her boots. This creek’s water was slow, deep and mucky. Quicksand could be more of a problem here, even though Dalton’s group had safely crossed. “We done a’ready be’s wet nohow.”

“Si.” She urged her horse in, Alonzo’s bay following behind, the horses splashing water as they hurriedly rode out the other side. They quickly pulled their boots back on over their wet pants. The sun would be down before they knew it. They had to hurry.

“Check the hah groun’ ahead raht keerful,” she instructed, suspecting that the other groups had not headed directly to high ground except where the main herds’ tracks led. “Watch fer ana signs a hosses cuttin’ off haher. Fergit checkin’ tha creek fer now.”

One would tend to look in the lower spots for someone who had been thrown. But Gaine knew those areas had already been checked in here.

“All right,” Alonzo moved ahead watching the area of the hillside as he moved. Gaine looked around, spotting a small rise covered with high brush behind her down stream. It was surrounded with huge boulders. It was a natural spot to overlook the lower area. A man who lost track might ride there to see where the herd was headed. Looking carefully, she did spot some faint, washed-out tracks heading that way, days old. They were nearly impossible to read.

She rode close by some good grass and dismounted. She made a temporary hobble for the horse with her bandanna and left him to graze while she scrambled up the rise, checking carefully on top for any signs that someone had been there. She moved around the rocks to the softer dirt. Nothing. The ground almost looked as though it had been swept. She moved the brush with the barrel of her rifle, looking everywhere for any sign. Anything. Ashes. Pipe droppings. Anything.

She moved to the most logical place to have drawn a bead on the running herd, the most logical place to have fired, and the most logical place to have expelled used casings. She poked at the near brush with the barrel of her rifle. The ground was clean, almost too clean. Then she moved in where the brush was thicker. That was when she spotted it. The casing of a rifle shell wedged under the cover of thick brush at the base of a rock. She reached in, wiggled it loose and examined it. A .52 caliber from the looks of it.

She would ask Mrs. Lorence what kind of rifle her husband carried. She looked out over the horse trail Alonzo was following as it led up toward the caprock. That was where the horses had gone. Someone had fired from here. It was possible it was Ernie. The stallion he was hunting most likely would have been in the rear of the herd, acting as driver and rear guard. Mustang herds were usually led by old mares with the stallion stationing himself at the rear. Staying in the back like that, the horse would have stayed in a pursuer’s sights long enough for the shooter to get a good shot.

She looked out again at the landscape. But there was no sign of an injured or mortally wounded stallion.

She turned the large casing in her hand. It had not been there long. If it had been Mr. Lorence shooting at the stallion, why weren’t his footprints here in the soft dirt? She glanced down at her feet. Why brush out his tracks? And where did he go after that? Even with the rain there would have been impressions left. There were none at all. It didn’t make sense. The possibilities were grim and sent a shiver down her spine. She’d had a bad feeling and it had just become worse. Doan git ahead a yerself, she cautioned again.

She poked some more at the brush, using the barrel of her rifle to examine the thick undergrowth carefully. In the waning light her sharp eye spotted something else half buried. She used her knife to shovel the loose dirt away. The remains of a cigarette. Also not that old. As far as she knew, Ernie smoked a pipe. Maybe his need for tobacco had driven him to a cigarette while on a chase. He would have to have carried the makings. But maybe it wasn’t his. And if not, whose was it? And where were their tracks?

She turned the cartridge in her hand again. Maybe one of Dalton’s riders had ridden up here and left the cigarette butt after Ernie Lorence had left the casing days prior to that. That was possible. But why cover the tracks, if so? Their tracks below from the day before, even on top of the horse herd tracks, had been easy to read. No need to cover anything. And it hadn’t rained in the last twenty-four hours. There should be tracks.

She rubbed a hand along her jaw as she thought. No, this was more ill-boding, she feared, than that. “Tis what t’ain’t har,” Gaine frowned, “that done tells ‘n ominous story.” And what wasn’t there, were tracks.

She studied the landscape all around, watching with care for anything moving. She took out her glass. Her view began in the far distance and worked its way closer and closer, trying to include everything. Were there interlopers out there? Rustlers? Outlaws? Killers? It could have been rustlers. In one place she saw some deer grazing, but no humans.

The sun set and the last glow of day lit the sky to a deep, glowing cobalt blue. They had to cross the creek before it got completely dark. She scrambled down, mounted and waved to Alonzo to head back. Again they removed their boots, held their rifles and let their horses move across the swollen, sluggish muddy waters of the creek.

The air was still and crisp, the darkness covered with a multitude of glittering stars seeming to hang so low she could almost touch them when they rode back toward the corrals. The moon gave a soft luster to the ranch, and the glow of lantern light showed in the window. Gaine drew a long breath through her nose, seeking any unusual scents, but found nothing but the aroma of the wood-burning stove.

“Missus Lorence ain’t got ‘nuff kindlin’,” Gaine remarked to Alonzo, knowing riders like Alonzo generally hated physical labor unrelated to riding. “Noticed that whan we done rode in afore. An that thar stock n’ the corrals be’s a’needin checkin’.” Now that was more in Alonzo’s expected line of work. “Ahm gonna guess them stalls ta the barn ain’t been mucked out, neither.”

“He comin’ back, maybeso?” Alonzo asked.

Gaine carefully eyed her rider. “Mah best Course, Ah cain’t rahtly say. But doan say nothin’ tills we done bee’s shore.”

Alonzo nodded. The door opened and the comely wife looked out, back lit by the inside lantern. She was a young woman with a pleasant figure and normally enjoyable facial features. Although now she looked more haggard and tired than anything.

“Did you find any sign of him?” she asked hopefully.

“Raht little,” Gaine replied. “Wu’ll trah ‘gin tamorra.”

“Oh......yes, of course. I held supper for you,” her voice held a great deal of discouragement.

“Thank ya, ma’am,” Gaine replied. “We gotta git them critters took care a first, n’ wu’ll done be in.”

“Uh, are both of you coming in?” the woman asked in surprise. It certainly didn’t jibe with her concept of the fitness of things. “I could bring out a plate for the help. There’s room in the barn...”

“No, ma’am,”Gaine said firmly. “Wu’ll both be a’comin’ in, if’n ya doan mind. Ah t’ain’t a’wantin’ ta take no liberties, but tis what we does back ta the ranch.”

“Oh. Well, uh, yes, uh, I guess it’s all right. I’ll just make sure the children are asleep.” She stepped back inside and shut the door.

Alonzo started to comment, but Gaine raised a hand to stop him. She knew he’d prefer staying in the barn. She turned and began to strip the saddle from her horse. She lifted it with a tired grunt and put it on the top rail of the corral hanging the wet saddle blanket next to it. Alonzo did the same. They would turn their horses into the first corral with the Tennessee horses rather than chance staking them in the grass. Besides, it would give the tired mounts a chance to roll in the soft dirt.

She put her hot roll on the small porch near the short bench and tin wash pan.

Gaine wondered if the frisky Tennessee horses were what they used as a wagon team. Or if their team had been whisked away by the stallion. She noticed that the second corral held some of the purchased mustangs Ernie had been gentling. It was amazing those animals had been held back by the corral fencing when the stallion came by.

She gave a hard push to one of the posts. Yes, they had been put in deep enough. Ernie might not have known a lot about ranching, but he knew enough to sink his corral posts deep enough.

“Ah reckon thar be ample provision fer the saddle stock ta the barn,” she noted. Her hand swept toward the corrals, “Let’s make shore they’s all done been seed ta. We’s gotta git them saddles inta the barn ta drah. N’hang them blankets, too. Doan wanna git no saddle gall, if’n we’s kin avoid ut. Than we kin walk the corral.”

“I could stay in the barn, boss.”

Gaine ignored him. They turned the horses into the corral. Alonzo’s spurs jingled as he went into the barn to check on feed while Gaine slipped through the bars into the first corral to check on the condition of all the stock there. Her slightly smaller spurs made little noise. She knew how to move silently.

She advanced quietly among the work horses, visually checking each horse in what little light there was as they moved away from her. They looked well fed and there were no visible galls or other problems. She saw no limping. She’d have to do a better check the next day. Undoubtedly the neighbors had seen to the animals the day before, if the wife hadn’t.

“Seems ahl raht,” she muttered to herself. With all the rain they’d had, she was glad not to smell the tangy scent of imminent moisture in the air.

She carried her wet saddle to the barn and helped Alonzo put the saddle blankets where they had a chance to dry out. When all the horses had been looked to, she and Alonzo walked around the outside of the mustang corral, each step leaving a hard jingle as they went. They spoke in soft conversation regarding the animals as they walked once around then around again. They ran their eyes over the mustangs and even called gentle words to them, but did not approach them.

“Tahm fer supper,” Gaine smiled at last. “Ah could et me a hoss.” Alonzo looked grim. He had put up with enough prejudice in his lifetime. It was a fact of life in nearly every town he went through, and something he had to deal with, but never at Gaine’s Circle S. Now this woman in the cabin was obviously not disposed to dealing with someone of his ancestry.

“Por favor, she needs yer help, Alonzo,” Gaine said seriously. “If’n she doan cotton ta it, ya doan gotta stay. Thar be plenty ta do back ta the ranch. Jest ‘member she done be ta the grip a’ worry n’ grief ‘n judge ‘cordingly. Doan take nothin’ she done says ta personal.”

Inside or out would not be his choice, that was clear. But Gaine was not one to let her riders be treated poorly by anyone, if she could help it.

“Sure, boss.” They washed up, knocked lightly and entered the spotless cabin. It was unusual for a cabin in the wild to be as tidy and well-tended as was this one. Gaine doubted there was so much as a spider in any niche of the peeled logs. Everything had been washed down and there was nothing out of place.

Homes in town often were better tended simply because they were frame homes. Their furnishings tended to be more expensive and more civilized and their occupants had more free time to spend keeping them up. This degree of cleanliness in a cabin was very unusual.

Gaine’s thoughts went to home. Their large adobe house was very well tended now under Kate’s direction, particularly considering how many children resided there and how many people utilized the main rooms. Gaine actually considered Katie a bit of an extremist about cleanliness, considering it a part of the blonde’s father’s fanatical influence. Not that Gaine minded. But this small homestead log home was immaculate.

The rectangular room had hanging blankets dividing off one section. In the middle of the room the round belly of the stove pumped out heat to the plank table whose short end was pressed against the wall. A bench was on either side.

Two places of good China were set at the table. Nervously they sat to eat. Once their supper of beans and jerky stew was finished and they were drinking a final cup of coffee, Gaine and Alonzo stood before the stove as Mary Jane used the pan of water on a shelf to wash then carefully stored the dishes in a wooden crate under the shelf.

Gaine argued for having Alonzo spend the night in the house. It was already frosty outside and stood to get colder, and his britches were wet. Of course, such things were as nothing to most riders, as Gaine well knew. Still, she persisted.

Mary Jane was first shocked, then frightened by the prospect. Dalton and his son had slept on the plank floor inside while she and Dalton’s wife had shared her bed, but she held deep concerns and prejudices that Alonzo was not trustworthy. She tried to say so in such a roundabout way that Alonzo became confused and Gaine rolled her eyes.

The Sheriff put a hand on his arm, muttered, “No hay de que,” and further insisted to Mary Jane that he was a gentleman and was very trustworthy. He stood by the stove scowling. Gaine might think it was no problem, but he wanted no part of it. She was the boss, however.

Mary Jane excused herself to check on the children. Her thoughts went to Gaine. How many times had this woman been grist for the town’s gossip mill? She considered how she’d heard the ladies in town whisper disapprovingly of how Gaine had slept on the ground amidst all the town’s men of the posse all those nights they were scouring the countryside for outlaws. And the ladies in town were all too aware that their men folk appreciated what a beauty Gaine was.

Yet for all that, Gaine had seemed to keep her dealings with the town menfolk as strictly friendships. And town safety was the wives first consideration. So while none of the ladies had the right to vote Gaine in or out of office, none would try to convince their husbands that she should not be Sheriff. They were aware of the kind of job she was doing, and what it meant to them and their families. Still there were whispers regarding the indecency of it all.

Alonzo would sleep in the barn every night thereafter, as propriety directed of any man staying at the ranch while the master of the house was away, Gaine decreed. But tonight his britches were soaked and would only dry thoroughly by the stove. They had a hard day of tracking ahead of them. Their bedrolls would fit on the floor before the stove.

Seeing Mary Jane’s reluctance, Gaine sighed. “All raht. Ain’t no problem, ma’am. Wull both done sleep ta the barn, than. Doan fret none.” The tall Sheriff was also wet. Mary Jane wrung her hands as they gathered their bedrolls. This tall beauty and her cowhand had come all this way to help her. Dalton had raved about the woman and her tracking talent.

“No. It’s all right.” Mary Jane desperately needed their help. And she did not want to spend another long, worrisome night alone.

For his part Alonzo would gladly have endorsed staying in the barn. He’d certainly dealt with stream drenched clothing and bad weather before. Sleeping on the ground outside while wet was not uncommon on cattle drives. But obviously Gaine had a different agenda. And she was the boss.

Once inside his blankets, Gaine had him remove his britches and hand them out. She hung them on a hook behind the stove so that they would dry before morning. She knew he was wearing long johns. All her hands did this time of year.

Mary Jane had offered to share her bed with Gaine. Gaine, however, would have been quite happy to throw her own bedroll on the floor, but Mary Jane insisted. Hanging blankets separated the children’s and the couple’s tiny bedrooms from the main part of the log-walled cabin.

Though usually removing it last, Gaine removed her hat and looked around before nervously putting it on the floor by the bed.

“You can put it on the bed while you undress,” Mary Jane suggested.

Gaine’s face went pale. “Oh, no, ma’am,” she replied. “Tis bad luck.”

“Really?” Mary Jane exclaimed.

“Yes, ma’am,” Gaine shrugged, “Cowpokes done gots lotsa ‘stitions.”

“What else?” Mary Jane asked.

Gaine paused. She was reluctant to mention any of the death, dying or burying superstitions. “Uh, wall, tis said if’n ya drink from tha waters a the Rio Grande, doan matter whar ya roam. Yu’ll al’ays wanna come back.” She looked down then lifted her eyes with a coy smile. “Ah al’ays drinks from the stream runnin’ through ar ranch. ‘N Ah al’ays wants ta raturn home.”

Mary Jane nodded and turned her back to get into her nightgown.

Gaine ransacked her war-sack from inside her hotroll and withdrew her handmade tooth brush. She poured a half cup of water from her canteen into her tin cup and scrubbed her teeth without benefit of tooth powder, which she’d left at home. She drank the half cup of water, sloshing it in her teeth with each drink. Her hairbrush was also there. She gave a few licks then placed her items back in her war-sack and stuffed it back into the center of her bedroll, which she left on the floor.

She removed her boots with spurs attached and put them on the rim of her hat, used to doing so when outside to keep her hat from blowing away, but this time it was more to keep them from further marking the clean floor. She hung her loosely-knit, boldly striped wool socks over the rim of each boot.

“Colorful stockings,” Mary Jane commented, wondering if the tall Sheriff had knit them herself. They were amateurish and out of the ordinary.

“Yes’m,” Gaine smiled. “Willy done knit ‘em fer me fer Christmas.”


“Yes, ma’am. Nell’s oldest, uh, Wilhemina.”

“Oh, one of those little street urchins.”

“No, ma’am. They ain’t. Theys well-mannered, hard-workin’ youngsters. Ain’t no wahld street urchins lahk some folks thank. That war jest rumor.”

“That’s right, you took their family out to your ranch to stay. You killed their father, though, didn’t you?” Mary Jane asked quite boldly. Her eyes went to the almost gentle blue eyes glancing back. There was a woman who killed people and seemed to find no emotion in it yet her eyes showed such tenderness. What a contradiction she was!

“No, ma’am. But Ah shore woulda kilt ‘im. He done cleared leather whan Ah war a’walkin’ ‘way frum ‘im. Grazed mah arm. But fave a mah posse done opened up ta him a’fore Ah had mah say.”

“Oh. This happened in the saloon, correct?” There was distinct disapproval of that in her voice. Gaine could hear the unspoken question “What was a decent woman doing in a saloon, even if she was the sheriff?”

“That’s raht. Tha two posses war celebratin’ ar capture a them outlaws.”

“You killed some of the outlaws, isn’t that right?” she asked even more brazenly. She remembered all the stories about this woman and was not in the least afraid to ask her questions.

“Yes, ma’am. Ah did.” Gaine looked away with a sigh. She didn’t like to be reminded. It was hard enough pushing killings out of her mind. Mary Jane noticed how Gaine’s eyes had the look of someone who had seen far too much in so short a life.

She changed the topic slightly, “What’s it know, going into the saloon. Those...those painted...women...that are there and all.”

“T’is mah job ta make shore thangs ain’t ta wahld. Tha ladies ta the saloon ain’t all that differnt frum me ‘n you..” She noted Mary Jane’s shock and added, “Whal, theys jest trahin’ ta git bah best theys kin. Ah reckon ya ain’t gonna run inta ‘em ta eny prayer meetin’s, howsomever.”

“I would hope not!” Mary Jane exclaimed.

“Whal, tis mah ‘sperience that thar’s folks bees spiritual and thar’s folks bees church goin’.” Gaine smiled a beautifully innocent smile, “N’ theys tain’t al’ays tha same folks.” Mary Jane stared for a minute in disbelief. Had she heard that correctly? What exactly had this woman just said?

Gaine continued undressing without looking back, adding, “’N as fer tha fellers visitin sech soiled doves, whal, lotsa tahms morality bees local, ain’t ut?.”


“Ya knows. Most fellers thut creates problems ‘n that regard bees frum out a town, blowin in ta raise ole Ned. Cause local fellers doan always partake ta home. Un if’n he do, tis done quiet lahk. But let a feller git away from home...” She shrugged. “Local morality.”

Mary Jane’s mouth hung open. What an unusual woman!

Gaine’s holster was hung on the headboard near at hand. Her butternut trousers, wet from the crotch down, were put over the end bed rail which was closest to the stove hidden behind the hanging blanket. Then she removed her vest and shirt, and neckerchief, all of which were folded neatly and placed on the floor by her hat.

Nervous in her longjohns, she sat to lovingly clean her six-shooter. Her union suit served as a tidemark of the hard work she had done, and the legs were stained by the mud soaking through from the creek.

“Uh, maybe I could quickly wash out your longjohns for you. You got pretty wet crossing that muddy water. I have another nightie you could wear,” Mary Jane smiled pleasantly, not wanting to actually offend this most fascinating woman who had ridden out to help her and her children. She was amazed at how skillfully the woman cleaned her six-shooter and how affectionately the tall brunette seemed to handle it before she began working on her rifle.

Mary Jane had often wondered what sort of woman did the kind of things this Sheriff did. For the most part the townsfolk spoke highly of their unusual Sheriff, but she and her husband had both questioned what manner of woman would ever act in the course and brazen way a Sheriff needed to. It certainly wasn’t feminine, yet there was a distinct tenderness in this woman Mary Jane hadn’t expected.

Still, gender did dictate the tasks of society and Gaine was breaking all the rules. Her saving grace in Mary Jane’s mind was that she did not yet have a husband “to submit herself unto,” a man whose rules she definitely would have been breaking. No, she’d have to learn to become the right sort of woman when she married.

“Cain’t let ya warsh mah longjohns, ma’am,” Gaine finished with her rifle, leaning it against the wall in easy reach and lifted the covers, the light from the lantern dancing off her as she did so. She obviously had a firmly muscled but feminine, curvaceous figure. “Thank ye an’aways.”

Gaine reached a hand to feel the dampness of the material covering her thigh and scowled. It was moist and discolored from the seeping mud in the river. She considered the sheets. After all, these weren’t flour sack sheets like Nell at home had stitched together for them. These were of exceptional quality and could easily be stained. This family had obviously come from comfortable circumstances to homestead here in the west.

She dropped the covers and looked over at the young wife. “Maht be Ah should sleep ta the floor, ma’am. Ah’m a’feared fer yer sheets. Er Ah could throw mah bedroll ta the top a’ them covers.”

“No, no.” Mary Jane opened a chest and withdrew a nightie. “It’s no problem. Just strip out of your underwear. It’s all right. Really. You can pull up the covers and hand the union suit out to me. Or, uh, you could wear Ernie’s night shirt. I’ll rinse your longjohns out quickly and hang them behind the stove. They’ll be dry by morning. I don’t mind, really.”

“Ya doan un’erstan’,” Gaine smiled nervously, standing on one foot and then the other on the cold floor. “Ya doan change yer, uh, unmentionables when ya start a’workin’ mustangs. Yer top clothes, neither, but mostly yer, uh, unmentionables. Ah reckoned maht be we’d git usn’s a chance ta work them mustangs a little afore we head out trackin’ tamorra mornin’. Ahm raht good with’n mustangs ‘n they be’s, uh, more val’able ta ya if’n they’s be gentled. Uh, Ahm shore, uh, Ernie’d ‘preciate‘t.”

“I’m sure he will, but...” Mrs. Lorence was obviously shocked. “why in the world can’t you change clothes? What do mustangs have to do with not washing your longjohns?”

“Ah, well now, mustangs’ got theyselfs a raht keen sense a’ smell. Thems ya got n’ yor corral out thar done, uh, knows yer husband’s scent, Ahd grant. They t’ain’t confident a me er Alonzo yet. Taday we both done gived ‘em a chance ta git ar scent. Once’t we done got thar confidence, then sech matters uv warshing unmentionables kin be considered, if’n absolutenly necessary.”

“My heavens, you’re saying you just wear the same longjohns even when you’ve crossed muddy streams or heaven knows what? You wear them till you’ve gentled the horses? That could take a long time!”

“Not till theys gentled, ‘xactly. See, when yer a’workin’ with’n new mustangs, ya gotta be keerful...till theys knows ya raht good, leastwahs. Ernie done keeps ta the same unmentionables, uh, Ah’d warrant.”

“’s so hard to do the laundry out here. We all wear our work clothes much longer than we would at home...uh, in the states. I’ve noticed a lot of people wear the same clothes for extended periods of time here.” She wrinkled her nose. “Sometimes the men in town wear clothes that would all but walk off a person by themselves.” And some of the women, too. But I’ve never noticed that about you.

“Uh, yes ma’am, theys plenty a fellers bees water shah.”

“Well, I do keep Ernie in clean clothes...” then she softened her words, “as much as I’m able to, at least.” Her lip quivered thinking of her missing husband and she bit down. “He was having trouble with them...the horses,” she whispered.

Gaine was at a loss for what to say about Ernie. If he didn’t return, his wife would get more income if the mustangs were gentled. Hopefully she and Alonzo could find a minute to work with them some. Every cent more this woman might earn would count in such desperate circumstances.

“Well, ma’am, Ah al’ays warshes up. But not a’changin yer, uh, duds, done makes the job easy uz lickin’ butter off’n a knaf. Lahk Ah said, till theys knows yer scent.” Seeing the disbelief on the woman’s face, Gaine bunched her brows, “If’n ya change, ya gots ta start o’er ‘gin. Ah al’ays has mah punchers ta foot circlin’ them pens once’t we got usn’s some fresh-caught mustangs so’s them hosses has lotsa opportunities ta pick up tha fellers’ scents. Ah doan let no feller e’en trah to loop a rope o’er thar neck till they’s accustomed ta the scent a humans, and them tis gonna work ‘em ‘n partic’ilar.”

Everyone had told Mary Jane and Ernie that Gaine was the best at training horses and had suggested they talk with her about getting started. They, however, had not done so.

“I just find that amazing,” Mary Jane’s lashed fluttered. “You don’t even change for muddy water?”

Gaine’s blue eyes gentled. “No, ma’am. But Ah does warsh up.” She held up the rag she’d used to wash herself with and thought of Katie. The blonde had not yet been at the ranch when they’d caught new herds of mustangs. But Katie’d understand about the clothing. However Gaine was pretty sure the blonde would make her strip out of her longjohns before getting into bed, putting them back on the next morning. And she wouldn’t mind that at all. Not with Katie.

“Ya shore ya doan wan me ta sleep ta the floor, ma’am? Ain’t no hardship fer me. Ah shore wun’t take no offense ta doin’ it. Katie says we maht jest s’well save usn’s some tahm n’ money n’ jest toss ar beddin’ ta the floor ta home. She done swears Ah sleeps sa easy ta the floor as ta the fahnest feather mattress.”

Mary Jane’s brows rose at that. She read the expectation on the tall, beautiful woman’s face and added hurriedly, “No. Please. I....I don’t want to sleep alone tonight. Please. Climb in.” She got in bed herself.

Gaine shivered and hastily climbed in bed. “Shore. Ah jest din’t want mah, uh, unmentionables ta upset ya none.”

“I’ll get by, notwithstanding your underwear.” The young mother had a nightcap on her head and her flannel nightshirt looked warm. She pulled the blanket up to her neck. “I believe you’re a little taller than Ernie,” she said shyly, glancing at where Gaine’s feet most likely would hit the end of the bed when she scooted down. Gaine slid down, bent her knees and turned to face the blanket wall. Mary Jane guttered down the lamp and lowered herself into the bed again.

“Naht, ma’am,” Gaine said softly.

“Good night, Gaine,” Mary Jane replied. “Thank you for...helping us.”


She heard the woman muttering softly and determined it was a prayer for her husband’s safety. Other night sounds consisted of the children turning in their sleep, the quavering, whistle-like hunting call of the squinch owl outside, the yelping bark of far-off coyotes and before long the sonorous sounds of Alonzo’s heavy breathing out by the stove. His wasn’t really a snore, but it came close.

Gaine shut her eyes and Katie’s face was called up, everlastingly sweet and loving. Sleep well, mah darlin’, she thought. Ah miss ya, sweet love.

She contemplated what needed to be done the next day. They would both move again around the corral, still letting the horses get their scent, then touch or maybe rope a few to get them used to the rope. When the sun was up enough to see, they’d catch their own steeds, mount and ride out back on the trail.

She hadn’t liked what she’d found out there today. Tomorrow she feared they’d need to be on the watch for freshly dug ground. They’d need a shovel. Whoever had left the cartridge casing on the high ground she figured hadn’t meant to leave anything. They had likely worked carefully. She shut her eyes heaving a heavy sigh. If she and Alonzo did find a body, would it be a relief to this woman and her children or just unbelievable sorrow? Or both?

She felt the bed shake softly then heard the disguised sound of muffled sobbing.

“Oh, ma’am,” Gaine said tenderly. She turned over and put her arms around the sobbing woman. Mary Jane quickly turned and scooted into Gaine’s arms, her tears falling heavily against the tall brunette’s chest. “Shhh,” Gaine coaxed. “Shhh. Wu’ll do ever’thang we kin.”

She didn’t know what else to say. She couldn’t say it was all right. It wasn’t. She couldn’t say they’d get by, she wasn’t sure this young woman and her children would. She couldn’t give any hope of finding this woman’s husband alive, because her every instinct told Gaine he was likely dead.

“Shhh,” she rocked the smaller woman gently and stroked her hair.

“I love him so,” Mary Jane cried. Her sobbing had turned to less intense tears. “He’s a gentle, kind man. I...I was so honored...he chose me as the mother of his children.”

“Ah knows, ma’am. He bees a fahn feller.” Gaine held her close and continued gently rocking. The tall brunette pushed aside any thoughts that Ernie could be dead. Those thoughts would need to be dealt with soon enough if they were true.

“What will we do if.....” Mary Jane’s voice trailed off and her tears started anew.

“Shhh. Wu’ll think on that thar tamorra. Shhh. Jest sleep tanaht. Ya t’ain’t alone. Shhh.”

It was about three quarters of an hour before the exhausted woman fell asleep in Gaine’s arms. Gaine was loathe to move for fear of awakening her. She was sure this brave woman had not slept much since the first night her husband had turned up missing.

There would be precious little time for her to grieve, if he was dead. Living on the frontier as a woman with small children would take every last ounce of this young woman’s endurance. And Gaine felt quite sure Ernie’s death was a definite possibility. Everything pointed to it.

She was glad she’d brought Alonzo. If worse came to worse, he could serve as a rider and handle the jobs for the family requiring brawn, of which there were many. She’d miss his work back at the ranch, but this was winter and they’d get by.

Like all ranchers, Gaine couldn’t afford to pay her riders year round. So in winter she kept a skeleton crew. Some of those she’d laid off had headed across the big valley to the small Spanish towns they knew so well, hoping to find winter work there. But many of the others were now visiting her line camps toward the valley floor, sharing food with the hands she had kept. Often they would ride just for their grub. She could hire one of those fellows to take Alonzo’s place if it came to that. If she could find the funding. She couldn’t turn her back on the Lorences.

She thought of Katie as she held the woman in her arms. Fergive me, darlin. Ah t’ain’t a’violatin’ nuthin Ah done promised ya. Ahm jest givin comfort. Ahd want someuns ta do it fer ya, if’n anythin war ta happen ta me. She hoped Katie would see it that way when she related this to her upon arriving home. Then she pondered their finances. Ah doan know if’n hirin a t’uther hand ta raplace Alonzo kin be done er not. Ah reckon we kin git bah without, er hire someun ‘n tahten ar belts lahk we al’ays does.

A bright spot for their ranch was the word that had come in the form of a letter a few days prior saying two potential horse buyers were coming into town soon to see her stock. A return buyer might be bringing his wife and another cattleman. Gaine’d sold a good many remuda horses to him before. But his most expensive purchase had been her cutting horses. A good well-trained cutting horse wasn’t easy to find nor cheap to buy. Hopefully both ranchers would find her horses to their liking.

However, it was winter, the horses needed more training and didn’t look their best. They were still in their winter coats, and she was busy working with them during every free minute. However, she did have a few cutters that were passable. Enough to give a good show. The buyers probably wouldn’t want the stock till the spring when she was sure they’d be good and ready. Maybe both of the visitors would buy cutters as well as their remuda stock for the spring roundups. That would be a big boost. She mentally shrugged. No matter. The Circle S ranch would get by whatever her customers bought or didn’t buy. Always had before.


Continued in Section II, ~ Trouble at Wild Horse Creek, Chapter 6 ~ Dead Wrong

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