THE RENEGADE LADY SHERIFF by bsoiree
C-SRE 2005 Sequel to “Fetchin’ Cousin Minnie” and “Willy’s Present.”
Disclaimer: This story is fictional though some of the places are real. Physical descriptions of the characters may vaguely remind you of two others, but they aren’t them. Certainly any similarity between anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental. All characters are the sole possession of the author and the story may not be reproduced, posted or sold without the author’s consent.

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

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

For the Lady of my heart who’s always by my side.

bsoiree@comcast.net

~***~

The Renegade Lady Sheriff
by bsoiree

Section II ~
Trouble at Wild Horse Creek

Chapter 6 ~ Dead Wrong
Jumping Antelope Valley
At Wild Horse Creek
After Christmas, 1875


“Ya smell that?” Gaine asked, her eyes busily scanning the rapidly brightening skies as night gave way to dawn. The morning star was lost in a light smoky haze. She took a crunching step in the frost-covered dust.

“From the chimney?” Alonzo asked.

They’d both gotten out to the corral before Mary Jane had the rest of the family up. A faint hint of smoke was settled throughout the valley above the frost covered land, and it caused Gaine to look to the cabin’s chimney. It was not smoking more than usual nor did there seem to be a downdraft. She followed the line of the slowly rising chimney smoke then looked to the horses to check their reaction. They seemed calm.

“No.” Her eyes moved on to sweep the shaded, rock-strewn valley wall to the top of the rim, but saw no indications of wildfire. The sky did have a reddish tint but there were no thunder clouds in view. Still, lightning in the hills could be a threat worth watching. Fairly unusual, it killed cattle and workers alike, but more than that, it started fires. A roaring fire could outrun the fastest horse, but there was nothing that gave that indication.

“Ya hear eny thunder last naht?” She hadn’t, but maybe lightning had struck somewhere during the time she’d slept. She took a couple quick sniffs. It was smoke all right.

“No,” he replied.

As she studied the sky, a brisk morning wind picked up and the breezes quickly dispensed the chimney’s grey stream and blew away the faint scent and haze around them as well. Alonzo shrugged.

Gaine stood motionless, making sure the scent was gone, then turned over in her mind what the young wife had told her about her husband’s guns. Alonzo knew her mind was elsewhere as she did not speak either to him or to the horses as they stood at the mustang corral. Instead her attention was drawn to the surrounding areas.

Finally she put a hand on the corral rail and looked at him seriously. “Go ahead ‘n work ‘em a tech. Do some hoss talk. Ah gotta wait. Tahm ain’t raht fer me ta think on them mustangs jest now.”

She glanced at the wild horses, then flicked her eyes again to the hills before bringing searing blue eyes back to the young man. “It doan feel raht, Alonzo. Be vera alert fer them fellers Ah done tole ya ‘bout yesterday. More Ah think on’t, tha more Ahm a’ponderin’ if’n theys mahtta had sumpin’ ta do with’n Ernie’s disappearance. Er e’en rustlers mebee.”

His eyes went to the surrounding area as well. “Ya think someone’s out there? Rustlers?”

“Mebee. Ah knows ya doan lahk ta, but wear yer holster ‘n keep yer rafle ta hand.” Many of the Spanish speaking riders thought it was less manly to wear a gun than to use brains or bluff. Barring that, their weapons of choice often were knives, lariats or whips, something more up close and personal. “Doan fergit yer guns. ‘N trah ta work whar nobody kin draw ‘n easy bead ta ya. Tienes que quedar escondido.”

“Hidden? I need to stay hidden?” His eyes swept the surrounding hills.

“Both a us, Ah reckon. Much uz we’s kin.” She used her glass to carefully scour the valley sides, missing nothing, brush, trees, rocks, searching for what was making her so uneasy. There was no dust, no sounds, no movement, not even wild animals, and that made her even more nervous.

Gaine checked completely around the house and outbuildings. There were no new tracks or signs of anything amiss. Then she helped Alonzo with all the early morning chores. She went over what jobs had to be done in the week to come regardless of what they found. They checked the wood pile and noted again the need for kindling. She stepped behind the cover of the woodpile to correct that and put her back into chopping while Alonzo fed the livestock and began to dung out the stalls.

She was rearing up to sink the ax blade into another round of wood when Mary Jane’s voice called from the small porch. “Wash up, now. Breakfast is ready. Uh, you do wash up, don’t you?”

Gaine grinned widely, a grin so dazzling that it took the young woman aback. “Yes, ma’am, Ah shorely does. Ah’l git Alonzo. He’ll be a’warshin’ up, too. He’s a dungin’ out tha stables fer ya.”

“Appreciate it.” Mary Jane studied Gaine as the tall woman strode in long strides toward the barn, her rifle in hand, brilliant blue eyes shifting to the outlying areas as she moved. This Sheriff was ever watchful.

Gaine would have called out to Alonzo, but she wanted to give further instructions privately that she’d thought of. More things that needed doing. And she didn’t particularly want Mary Jane to know that she was already considering her husband’s return as highly unlikely, though she certainly was.

Her husband, Mary Jane had told Gaine, had a new Springfield rifle like General Custer used. Gaine read every paper she came across and knew Custer had a number of guns. But his section of the Army used the new trapdoor Springfields. She’d had a chance to examine one on her way to Sacramento the summer before. Mary Jane said Ernie had been much in awe of the ‘dashing boy General’ as Custer was called and tried to emulate him. She showed Gaine the extra ammunition in the pantry. They were .45 caliber cartridges.

Though saying nothing to the contrary, Gaine couldn’t help thinking, Ahm shore Ah read Custer done carries his own pravit Remin’ton .50 caliber sportin’ rahfle. One a them ones with’n them octagonal barrels. N’ them revolvers a his t’ain’t standard issue neither, Ah heared tell. Some fancy what-handled revolvers. Carries two a’ em, which bees kinda silly. Kin only shoot one ta a tahm with eny accuracy. She had surreptitiously looked for other ammunition in the pantry, but had found only cut up nails and lead for the shotgun. Mary Jane reaffirmed that the .45 rifle cartridges she’d given Gaine were all Ernie used.

Gaine knew the Springfield’s best effectiveness was within 300 yards, but a good shot could make significant hits at 600 yards about a third of the time. So Ernie could have hoped for success from the ledge she’d found.

The Springfield’s lower muzzle velocity meant you had to adjust your aim higher the greater the distance. But regardless of the rifle, she thought it was wise to always aim somewhat lower with your first shots. After all, if you were running, you’d have to remember to change your aim the closer you got or your shots would fly over your target’s head. If Ernie was trying to kill a robbing stallion while chasing on horseback, that was certainly possible, too. Particularly since either the Springfield rifle or carbine could be fired by a trained man 12 to 15 times per minute, though she doubted that Ernie was anywhere near that proficient.

However, they hadn’t found a dead horse, which carried its own relief. A sixshooter would stop a horse, probably not with one shot, but Ernie didn’t have one with him. And she didn’t think Ernie was trained well enough with one anyway if the horse was moving. Sixshooters were not nearly as easy to shoot accurately as one might suppose. Certainly enough frontier shoot outs ended with the principals missed and bystanders hit.

Ominously, the casing Gaine’d found did not come from Ernie’s model gun. That, above all, did not bode well for his survival. If HE didn’t leave the cartridge, who’s casing was it?

Someone had been there and fired. And not that long ago. A shiver ran her back when she noted to herself that one of the rifles the cartridge did fit was the Spencer repeater. Yankees made short work of the confederate side at the end of the war with them, and that .52 caliber was sought thereafter by both sides. What churned Gaine’s stomach and gave her greatest pause was that she’d seen just such a weapon in the sheath on the big gunslinger’s saddle in town.

Ernie’s six-gun had been left behind in his haste although his wife said he had been concerned about how well it was working...or didn’t work. Gaine had looked at it. It was an old Colt .45 conversion six-gun put out fifteen years earlier. It had a short barrel, much like her own and she found what she thought was way too much movement in the cylinder, front to back. She advised the young mother that it would need to have its barrel set back before it would work correctly, and she told Mary Jane who to take it to in town to get it fixed.

But Ernie’s wife had a shotgun for protection. A six-gun nearby would be a good choice, too, as long as she kept it out of the children’s reach. Course, with an overall effectiveness of about 60 yards, any six-shooter would only have served as protection for threats up close. But Ernie’s six-gun was unusable. And that meant Ernie had traveled without a handgun. If his rifle was unavailable to him, he’d had no backup.

At breakfast fervent blue eyes focused above the door. “Ya e’er fahred that thar shotgun?”

“Yes. Ernie insisted on it.”

“Good. Ah wants ya ta listen keerful fer anaone approachin’ taday. Thar war some fellers ta town yestaday thut Ah throwed out. Ah thinks they’s somewhar ta these here parts. So, if’n ya doan recognize eny visitor’s hosses, use the shotgun ta git ‘em ta go. If’n theys friendly ‘nuff, theys kin al’ays come back some t’uther tahm. Doan gie ‘em no choice. Send ‘em off.”

“Outlaws?” the young mother’s eyes widened.

“Uh, mebee. Wu’ll be back ‘bout sundown, so’s jest keep a keerful watch. We done brought in fahrwood. Stocks been seed ta. Ya done yer mornin’ milkin’ ‘n gotcher eggs. Stay ta the house, if’n ya kin. Shut tha door n’ pull in tha latch cord.”

“Oh, Gaine,” Mary Jane worried aloud. Her chin trembled. It had slipped out. She had not wanted to fret this woman again with her innermost feelings like this. Moving to the frontier had not been at all what she’d expected. Their home back east had been pleasant, comfortable, safe and was surrounded with family and friends. Here their home was lonely and dangerous. Constantly. And now outlaws.

Gaine reassured the woman, “Doan fret none, Mary Jane. If’n ya gits concerned, fahr ta the air. Wu’ll hear n’ head raht on back.”

Mary Jane firmed her chin and nodded. She’d been here long enough to know how self reliant one must be. She had to take things as they came.

In the barn Gaine looked for a small shovel. She sighed heavily when she found one.

Her thoughts centered on the young wife as they headed out again on Ernie’s trail. Mary Jane had served them a large meal, although the young wife had been careful not to go near Alonzo or touch him in any way. And the children had looked at him as though he’d dropped out of the sky. If it continued, Gaine reminded herself that she’d need to talk to Mary Jane about it. She hoped the family’s impression was improving regarding what kind of a man a vaquero could be.

Gaine had checked the pantry and saw they had supplies, although Mary Jane might need to be more careful of them if it was discovered that her husband wasn’t returning. If they knew for sure what had happened, this young wife would have to start making future plans immediately. Closure of one kind or another was needed.

Gaine used the glass to check their surroundings as they rode toward the creek, but saw nothing to cause any worry. Once again they removed their boots before crossing the flooded water, although she noted that the level was lower this day, had less debris, and they didn’t get near as wet.

Hastily pulling on her boots on the other side, she joined Alonzo in looking for any areas off the main path that might be a likely place to bury a body in range from the high spot where she’d found the casing. She knew it was apt to be close if killing shots had been fired from that ledge. Might as well eliminate that possibility first.

She glanced at the sky then at the trees. There had been no circling vultures and no signs of mountain lions dragging a body anywhere, even though there’d been indications of such cats in the area. No, if Ernie had been shot, he’d been buried to hide the deed.

Their initial ride found nothing. Dismounting and hobbling their horses, they began to check everywhere in range on foot, poking sticks into the ground and making preliminary digs in any soft areas. They almost missed it. It was late morning when they found the burial spot near the stream under a large cottonwood. The land had been stamped down, brushed and carefully strewn with dead, dried brush. The grave proved fairly shallow. Ernie had been buried hastily but well, and from the looks of it, he had been robbed first.

“T’ain’t no more stiffness. Dead ta long,” Though covered with dirt, Gaine could see where two bullet wounds had entered his back and exited his chest in front. It was easy to tell the direction of the shots. “Shot ta tha back,” she said distastefully. “Reckon he war carried off’n his saddle bah the caliber a that thar bullet.”

The first shot had likely killed him instantly. The second would have been fired instantaneously as insurance. Some gunmen were noted for their pistol precision, but they weren’t necessarily noted for their rifle accuracy. This killer, however, was a skilled rifleman. Perhaps he was the kind of man who preferred to do his killing at a distance, reverting to a pistol only when necessary. Or maybe he was good at both.

Ernie’s rifle was not there nor were any personal items other than his clothes. And there was no sign of his horse and tack.

“Done stole his hoss, saddle, bridle, rafle, everthang,” Gaine muttered with a jutting of her jaw. Horse thieves were hung in this country, much less downright murderers. This had been done by the worst of the worst. “Reckon theys coulda swatted the hoss figurin’ he’d run with’n them mustangs, hopin’ folks’d think Ernie’d falled off somewheres, ne’er ta be found agin.”

The only way to know for sure would be to have someone track the wild herd for his horse. Gaine sighed heavily again. That was a job someone else would have to do, someone Sheriff Wilson sent out. She didn’t have the time. Neither did Alonzo.

“How did you know?” Alonzo asked in puzzlement as he watched her scrutinize the body. “How did you know he was buried out here?”

“Had ta be,” Gaine replied, unhobbling her horse and drawing him further under the sheltering branches of the bare leafed cottonwood. She put her rifle in the scabbard and moved to the dead body. “Here, hep me get ‘im ta mah hoss.” They both lifted the dirt covered dead weight, placing Ernie carefully across the pommel of her saddle, tying him in place.

“Cartridge Ah foun’ din’t match nothin’ he owned, sa it come frum someun else’t. Ta new ta be long ‘go. New cigarette butt war thar, onlys Ernie done smoked a pahp. ‘N the area war swept. Folks doan do that lest they’s hahdin’ somethin’. No sahns from circlin’ buzzards er nuthin’. Lotsa searchers fahndin’ no sahn a nothin’. Had ta be a buried body.”

“I guess that makes sense. But couldn’t Ernie have ridden off?”

“Yep. If’n the shots done missed ‘im ta that thar closed area. But all them tracks done disappeared afta the capstone. Who’d a spent tha tahm clearin’ that thar much territory? T’ain’t nobody ta the raht sahd ta the law, Ah reckon.”

Gaine led her horse out from under the tree and lifted the reins over the horse’s head. She lifted her foot, prepared to mount, when the first shot sounded and a fiery pain streaked in her shoulder, on the left side, exiting by her armpit, causing her to spin and drop to the ground instantly.

The second shot immediately thereafter whizzed on the ground beside her rapidly moving gun hand. Both hits startled Prince who rose whinnying on his hind legs. As the large horse screamed in fright, momentarily giving them cover before he wheeled away on the run, she scrambled on her hands and knees under him for the cover of the closest rocks, shoving Alonzo ahead of her.

The pain was a scorching ache. It caught her far on the left side of her shoulder muscle then passed down to under her arm, cracking two ribs as it skimmed on the way, the bullet exiting just inside her shirt. She could feel the hot metal there against her skin. Leastwhas ut din’t tore thru mah body un not e-merge t’uther sahd. It wouldn’t need to be dug out. She was glad of that. Instantly she clamped her left arm to her side to crush out the pain.

One of Gaine’s greater strengths was in being able to push pain out of the forefront of her mind. Thinking instead of the velocity of this shot, she determined it meant the shooters were far enough away not to be able to puncture her body and leather clothing completely but still closer than she’d thought or the bullet would have ended up lodged inside her.

She took a deep breath, finding it painful, but her breathing itself was unimpaired. Her lung hadn’t collapsed. It was not an immediately mortal wound as far as she was concerned, and she pushed the idea of it away.

Flat on the ground among the weeds and brush behind short rocks offering scant protection from above, she held her Peacemaker and peeked up the hillside, seeing no one. There were two shooters, she was sure of that. The shots had come from different directions. She knew they were far more than sixty yards, enough away that her six-gun would be useless. These men knew and counted on such things. Undoubtedly they’d planned every advantage. She needed a rifle. And hers was in the sheath on her saddle. How had she become so careless?

Her heart was pounding as she lay still awaiting the shooters next move. Nothing came. She heard Prince begin to edge back towards her. Another shot beside him sent him galloping back where he’d been.

“Ya doan wanna kill ‘im, does ya?” she grumbled softly at the shooters. “Er ya’d a done ut a’ready. Ya know he’ll bring a good price.” Although the shot had not hit the large buckskin, it had startled him. But it had also given her an approximate position of one gunmen. She hesitated then decided against taking a shot. They were out of range. It would be a waste of ammunition. She needed her rifle.

She looked at the young man beside her. His eyes were huge but his jaw was clenched and his six-shooter was drawn. She glanced to the left to see his Henry rifle leaning against the trunk of the tree by the grave site where they’d been. Unfortunately she saw no way to get to it across the short, clear opening. She’d be dead the minute she moved out from behind what little rock cover they had.

One of the men above was a dang good shot. Still, they were far enough away for their accuracy to be less sure, or they’d have hit her gun hand, which she now decided might be their first priority.

The day was sunny but with a winter chill in the warmth. The frost had disappeared from the ground and foliage. She knew if they were patient enough, the shooters would try to close in and would eventually move into pistol range. But she and Alonzo had no fallen log or large boulders to hide behind where they could wait them out, just the small bunch of rocks they were flattened behind. And the shooters knew exactly where they were. Their position provided too little cover. They had to move.

Beside them to the right the brush was higher and could hide them from view if they crawled. But it provided no substantial cover. A blind shot through the brush stood a good chance of hitting home. Still it was their only doable exit. She pointed and pushed Alonzo toward the tall weeds, and he took off crawling immediately.

A shot rang out next to her very close to where he’d just been, followed by a crazed laugh. It came from above and to the right. A puff of smoke still was in the air near the shooter. Suddenly a flash of bright reflected light told her one shooter was using a glass trying to locate them exactly, most likely trying to determine which target was her. She started to move and another blast pinged next to her from the opposite direction, close enough to make her pause.

This bees strange. Er is ut? she contemplated. These hadn’t been killer shots, nor did she think they were wild shots. These were shots designed to flush them out, shots meant to taunt, trying to get the two of them in the open. Not meant to kill her. Not yet. She’d almost bet on it. Whal, she grimaced, that thar bees yer big mistake.

She had to stay near Alonzo so they didn’t know which target was which. Otherwise, they’d kill him immediately. Completely ignoring any pain from her wound, she hastily crawled next to him. Staying down, the shooters only had the moving grass and brush to indicate their location.

“Gotcha now, little girl,” a voice mocked. “Lesson number one comin’ up!” A brutal laugh echoed in the air.

Gaine and Alonzo both scrambled on their bellies from where they were, following the lie of the stream, staying under the brush, moving as quickly as they dared. Two more ‘spangs’ rang out, one kicking dirt into her face.

Before they got to the next outcropping of rocks, ropes of fire belched from two different angles above and the whine of more shots droned around them. Gaine signaled Alonzo to move then dove behind the rock cover herself and began moving her lips.

“Ya say something?” he asked.

A barrage of shots hit around them again, pinging in ricochet from their rock cover. “Ahm countin’,” Gaine mouthed. When there was a pause in the shooting, Gaine whispered, “They’s reloadin’. We gots ta split up. Ahm headin back fer yer rafle. Head ahind these here rocks. Theys runs along tha stream down ta them large boulders o’er thar. Crawl inta the stream, stay to this edge, keep yer head down ‘n git ta them boulders. They’s raht able shots. Doan figure they t’ain’t. Raht now theys missin’ ta purpose--me anaways.”

He tilted his head. Why would they miss on purpose? Like the majority of cowboys, he was not really that good at marksmanship. Men had been known to have six-shooters emptied in their direction at close range and still walk away from the encounter unscathed. Alonzo was one of many who was better and more comfortable with a rifle.

The men above were using rifles and they were very proficient with them.

“They’s gonna trah ‘n come ta usn’s from differn’t d’rections. Ah kin hear ‘em a’movin’ raht now. Watch keerful fer ‘em. Doan let ‘em git ahind ya. N’ member ya got n’ empty chamber a’ready. Raht now, fill ut.”

They always rode with the hammer of their six-guns on empty chambers and they both thumbed a bullet into their empty chamber to remedy that. More bullets began to raise dust around them. Gaine silently counted then saucily remarked, “Merskeeters a’gittin’ thick.”

He nodded, staring at her. “Boss?” he said.

Her left arm pressed tight against her side, she was ready to crawl but looked back at him expectantly.

“You’re bleeding.”

She strained to glance over her shoulder. That first bullet had gone through her leather jacket, leather vest, shirt and undershirt. “Ah know.” Blood was slowly oozing down her back, pressing out the hole in her jacket and she could feel a warm moisture by the front of her armpit as well. She pulled her scarf off and jammed it inside her jacket, over the back wound letting the tightness of her jacket keep it in place. Her eyes moved up to meet his. “Katie’s gonna kill me outraht,” she said half seriously. “T’ain’t easy gittin’ blood outta leather.”

“Least they didn’t kill ya,” he whispered.

Her face became very solemn. “Theys ain’t aimin’ ta kill me, Alonzo...not yet. Theys toyin’ with’n me. They’s a’thankin’ ta stop me, ta hew-miliate me furst. They’s ‘spectin’ ta half a good ole tahm with’n me once’t Ah t’ain’t no threat.”

“You mean...?”

“Rape n sech, t’war mah guess.” She paused, “They’s wants me conscious ta feel ever’thang, Ah reckon. But they’s aimin’ ta kill youse. So’s git ta them thar boulders ‘n doan show yer head none cause they’s ta good ta thar shots.” He blinked and she was gone, crawling back the direction they’d come, slithering like a snake through the brush, dragging her left arm against her side.

The gunfire commenced again from new, closer positions, focused mostly around her. Lead whistled around her ears again. Momentarily she pressed her face into the dirt, protecting her face as much as possible. Then she felt the heated pain as a shot glazed a long painful path of fire in her leg to emerge into the dirt below her.

Adrenaline got her past the spot into thicker brush cover before she looked at her new bleeding wound. The bullet had ploughed a furrow in her right thigh, missing the bottom of her holster but tearing a path through her clothes and the top of her skin and muscle. Blood was flowing quite freely. Theys knows we done split up. Buzzards be aiming ta keep ut in’trastin’ but theys still t’ain’t trahin’ ta kill me outraht. Her eyes narrowed. Ah gotta make shore thut bees ‘theys deadly miscalkeelation.’

She found a long stick, slid it along the ground and wiggled some brush farther to the side. The gunfire centered there. She stretched as far as she could back and to the side, moving brush with the stick as though she were heading that direction.

When that gunfire opened up, she let go of the stick and hurried back the rest of the way she’d come, leaving a trail of blood behind her. She saw a flash of light again and knew they were using the glass. “Looks like you’re leavin’ a pretty good trail of blood, little girl,” the big man laughed. “Just signal when you’re ready to give up, and we’ll treat ya right. But don’t take too long. We don’t want you to bleed too much--yet.” Both men laughed at that.

She found herself once again in the brush across the small clearing from the grave site but not able to cross it to get to the rifle.

Gunfire commenced from behind the boulders, and she knew that Alonzo had made it that far. Them shooters done moved closer but yer still a’wastin’ amminition, Alonzo,” she thought, they’s ta far. Then she realized that both men above were returning fire his direction. He was drawing them off, shooting blindly in their direction, though his shots were dropping short. She heard a pause and knew the man on the left would need to reload. It wouldn’t take him long. He was a first-rate gun handler and shot. This was her best chance.

She bunched into a crouch behind the greasewood, ignoring the fiery pain in her leg, then instantly sprang across the clearing for the rifle. Firing wildly with her sixshooter, she grasped the Henry as she rolled, jumping upright behind the cottonwood and pressed tight against the tree.

Her heart beat like a trip-hammer. Gunfire erupted around her from both positions, thudding into the dirt and pinging into and past the tree on both sides, sending deadly missiles of wood chips flying as well as burying bullets into the bark. She squeezed her eyes shut tight and kept up her count. She had seen their new positions on her way across.

Alonzo fired again, drawing their attention. Thumbing cartridges into her revolver, she holstered it. Then she calmed her breathing, steadying herself. Slowly, slowly she eased out the barrel of his Henry from behind the tree with deliberate care, nestling the stock against her good right shoulder. She made sure her right hand, her firing hand was only on partial display to the man on the right and totally shielded by the tree from the one on the left, who was by far the better shot.

In lining up her shot she had moved her foot for better balance, unknowingly allowing one toe of her boot to be extended beyond the trunk. Suddenly a shot came from the right, hitting the dirt at her foot. She yanked it back.

“Ha! I got her dancin’. Did ya see that, John? I got her doin’ a fandango.” He cupped his hand by his mouth to shout, “That’s just the beginning, girlie! Let’s see ya do a little dancin’ before we get down to the real entertainment.”

She waited till she saw the telltale dome of his hat from behind the boulder. Feeling little threat, he was boldly doing his own little dance of celebration, laughter distorting his face. From experience she aimed high enough for correction, tightened her finger and the rifle leapt in her hands as it sprayed fire from the barrel and rifled a bullet into his position.

She saw his hat rise from the spot, the head under it splashed with blood where his face had been. The rifle fell from his hands as the figure toppled over and down the steep hill, stopping part way. Yer dance, Weasel, she grimaced. Last un. She licked her thumb and pumped the lever action on the rifle, ready to fire again.

This enraged the remaining man. Her rifle snaked out from behind the tree again, knowing she had to be extremely careful with this shot since the big man was a specialist with his firearm. But he was up and running, steadily firing his rifle at her position, still out of Alonzo’s range, though Alonzo was still firing his gun blindly from behind the rocks. “I’m comin for my due, little girl,” he growled. She kept up her count as he fired. “I been waitin’ fer ya, plannin’ all kinds of enjoyment. Don’t worry, I’m as good as any two men at teachin’ women lessons.”

The man slid and slipped down the steep slopes, keeping up his firing without losing his balance, now pinning Alonzo down with rapid fire then firing at her, running when he hit sloping ground. Neither she nor Alonzo dared show their faces. Alonzo was now unable to return fire at all since the man’s shots had hit so true to his aim.

As the gunman drew closer, a well-placed shot hit what little of the Henry she’d allowed to show with enough force to fling it to the side out of her hands and out of her reach. She heard him laugh with wicked delight, “Lesson One: recognize your master. That’s me, little girl. You’ll learn that lesson well by the time I’m done with you!”

Tarnation! He be’s one damn shore shot! She stood up taller behind the trunk, took a deep breath...calm down, calm down...she forced her breathing into a calming rhythm as she drew her six-gun. Another quick flurry of shots. Would he pull for his six-shooters instead of reloading his rifle? He’d be close enough to make them count. Or was he more comfortable with his rifle? He was very good at reloading quickly.

She could hear him. He was very close now. One more shot and he had to choose. What would he do, reload or toss the rifle and draw his sixshooters? Either would take a fraction of time. There it was. The shot hit beside the tree. She could tell from the pause that he’d chosen to reload on the run. Now!

She stepped around the tree in full view before him, looked into his startled eyes with blue orbs as hard as enamel and without a pause pulled the trigger. John Hardy Cookerson jerked, a look of incredulousness on his face, then crashed to the ground in the direction he was running, his rifle in his hand, a bullet flying from the chamber as her bullet blazed a hole between his eyes. She watched him fall less than ten yards from her as her revolver was blown from her hand by his last shot.

“Mercy!” Gaine said, shaking out her hand. She brought her hand before her face and gazed in surprise. It was not injured. The bullet had hit her gun but not her hand. She gazed at the fallen man. “Ya un’erestimated me ‘gin, ’n Judge Colt done passed sentence ta ya. Shoulda gone ta yer shootin’ ahrons stead’a reloadin’. Woulda gived me less tahm. Yer mistake.” But she actually thought she’d still have had enough time no matter what he’d chosen. She stepped to retrieve her pistol.

Alonzo came flying out from behind the rocks, uninjured. Then he paused, “You’ve been hit again,” his eyes took in the new wound dripping blood on her thigh. It was shocking to him. She almost never got hit. Shorty’s graze was the only time he could remember, and that had been nothing. These wounds were worse than anything he’d ever seen her get. Ever.

She examined her damaged gun then lifted her face to him. “Yep, Ah gots a bit uv a parch lahn ta mah lag but Ah t’ain’t a’cashin’ so doan be a’holdin’ yer breath.” She grinned and he smiled in relief and moved forward to help her tie his bandana around her thigh to stop the bleeding, though her other wound was also still oozing.

She thrust the damaged gun into her holster, whistled and Prince came running. Alonzo lifted Cookerson’s body onto the big horse across the saddle next to Ernie’s. Gaine held the reins. The large buckskin humped his back and tried to dance away. “Hold,” Gaine commanded, then said it louder when the horse sidled a bit more before rolling large eyes her way in complaint. Alonzo continued tying the body down.

Gaine grinned at the large horse. Truth was, she liked a little spirit in her horses. A horse without spunk, just like a person, might let you down when things got tough. The spunky ones always came through.

While Gaine waited, Alonzo walked up the rise and hefted the smaller body of Weasel onto his shoulder and wrestled him down the steep hill. He moved near Gaine’s horse.

“Hold thar, ole pal,” Gaine said quietly when the horse looked as though he was going to sidle again. He looked at her and again stopped. “That’s mah good ole fella,” she muttered.

Alonzo lashed the last body in place, using his piggin strings to tie on their weapons. Carefully pulling Gaine up behind him on his horse, they crossed the stream, getting muddy water over their boots and legs, muddying her leg wound on the way across. The loaded buckskin trailed behind.

“Thank ye, Alonzo,” she said quietly as they rode back to the ranch.

“Por que?” he asked. “You’re the one stopped ‘em. You killed ‘em dead, before they could kill us. I didn’t come close to hitting them.”

“Ya drawed ‘em out, mah frien’. They done had me pinned. Ah warn’t a’holdin’ no hah cards, un that done bees fer sartin.”

“No, Boss. I couldn’t even fire one shot at the end. He was too good. I didn’t dare look out.”

“Ya warn’t barkin’ ta no knot,” she said, “Ya let me git a’hind tha tree. That’s a nation saht better’n bein’ pinned ta the groun’ lahks theys done had me.”

“With my wild shots in the beginning?”

“Yep.”

“Good. That tall feller was a lightnin’ shot, si?”

“Yep. He t’war the best Ahv ever done been upped aginst,” she agreed. But he shore ‘nuff war o’ertaken bah genyine surprahs lahk a calf ta a new gate whan Ah stepped out a’fore ‘im. He warn’t ‘spectin’ that. They rode in silence back toward the cabin.

At one point Gaine withdrew her weapon and examined it carefully. It was ruined. Damn that feller, she thought angrily, Ah loved that thar gun. She thrust it back in its holster. Damn him all ta hell!

When they reached the cabin, Gaine was afraid the young wife would be hysterical, but Mary Jane did not lose her composure. The only hint of her feelings was in the trembling of her hands. She asked Alonzo to please carry her husband’s body to the barn and leave it in a cleared area. She got him a blanket to spread. Then she rushed Gaine into the house to tend to her wounds. Gaine had an extra shirt in her bag, but no extra britches.

Mary Jane had Gaine strip to her longjohns, then had them peeled down far enough to clean the shoulder wounds. They were the most serious. She handed Gaine her husband’s store-bought whiskey bottle and the tall Sheriff pulled the cork and took a few healthy swigs, noting that it was a better quality than most frontier whiskey. It had little bite for its potency.

“I may need to cauterize this,” Mary Jane worried, examining the shoulder wound.

“Ah see,” Gaine scowled then drank more heavily. Was that the right thing to do? She didn’t put great store in cauterization. At home she used poltices. But Mary Jane seemed so sure of herself. “Ernie taught me how,” Mary Jane assured her.

“All raht.” Quietly Mary Jane washed the entrance and exit areas with soap and water, then had Gaine take another swallow before she used a hot poker to sear the wound to get it to stop bleeding. Gaine clenched her teeth the whole time, thinking after the pass with the poker that she might pass out. Then the young widow put on some goose grease salve and wrapped the wounds. Gaine put on her clean shirt over her bloody longjohn top.

With help Gaine removed her britches. Mary Jane further cut Gaine’s torn longjohn leg to get to the long thigh wound, which was basically a deep flesh wound that had bled rather freely. The long furrow on her thigh was cleaned with soap and water.

“Stitch ut tagather,” Gaine insisted. “Ain’t gonna stop bleedin’ t’utherwahs.”

Mary Jane’s eyes widened. Nervously she stitched a few spots with needle and thread, cringing each time as she brought the needle through the skin. Gaine clenched her teeth and looked away. Mary Jane followed the stitches with a whiskey rinse that literally took Gaine’s breath away. The pressure of the torn wrapped cloth bandage she wound around the wound easily stopped the bleeding. Mary Jane used her needle and thread to mend the cut in the blood-soaked material of Gaine’s britches and rinsed the spot leaving only a soft stain before the Sheriff pulled on her pants.

That done, Mary Jane settled the children, gathered the tin wash pan, a towel and her husband’s clean clothes and quietly left the cabin, headed to the barn, leaving the children behind.

Meanwhile Alonzo cast the outlaws under the wagon, carelessly jamming one against the other as they fell. The bed of the wagon was to be saved for the blanket shrouded figure of Ernie. Mary Jane had decided that she wanted him buried in the cemetery in Barden’s Corner. Gaine agreed to take the family into town the next day, leaving Alonzo to watch over the ranch.

Gaine sent Alonzo back to try to find where the men had tied their horses. She knew it would be getting dark by the time he returned but it was the thought of their horses being tied or hobbled heaven knew where at the mercy of four-legged predators that clenched her decision.

In the cleared area in the barn, Mary Jane worked much of the afternoon and evening at her grim pursuit. It was grizzly work removing dirt and insects as best she could. Then she lovingly bathed her husband’s body before changing his dirty clothes and replacing them with clean items that she’d prepared for him to wear to the dance later in the week on New Year’s Eve.

Gaine felt she needed to watch over the three children but her head swam and it took all her will power to pull herself awake. When she did, she didn’t know how long she’d been out. It was getting dark outside. The oldest boy viewed her suspiciously, was quite protective of his younger sister, keeping her busy with some toys at the table and the toddler was in the cradle.

The older boy and his younger sister watched her wide eyed for a while, their thumbs in their mouths, while the toddler slept. “Ya gittin’ hongrey?” she asked.

The boy finally nodded.

Gaine hobbled about, mixing some bread in bowls with what was left of the milk. The children ate without comment and she got them into bed early, then found herself thoroughly exhausted.

Mary Jane was surprised they were in bed when she came in wearing a wooden expression. She scalded the bucket and went back to milk the cow. She returned, strained the milk through cheesecloth then skimmed the cream once it set and rewashed the bucket before putting things into their places. She headed back to the barn, first placing the milk can, normally kept cold in the clear stream, on the porch instead. The stream was not running clear now and the milk would stay cold on the porch in any case.

Gaine, normally uncomfortable when she wasn’t active, found herself needing to sit in a chair by the stove. She felt unusually weak and a little woozy. Yet her leg felt the need to be lifted. She pulled the bench nearby and propped her foot on that.

It was dark when Alonzo came riding in trailing the dun and Weasel’s horse behind his own. “They musta come from the valley closer to Big Creek,” he said as he and Gaine talked outside the front door. “Had ‘em tied near the top of the ridge to the east.” His eyes met hers as Mary Jane stepped out of the barn. The young widow had heard him arrive. “There’s a Springfield tied on one and some things in their saddlebags,” Alonzo added quietly.

Musta had Ernie’s rafle stashed whan theys come ta town. Gaine nodded. “Mary Jane,” she called as softly as she could to the woman standing outside the entrance to the barn. As the solemn woman moved up to them Gaine asked, “That be Ernie’s rafle?”

“He’d scratched his initials in the wood,” the young widow said tiredly. Alonzo untied it and handed it to her. She turned it in her hands, finding his initials in the stock. Gently she ran her fingertips over them. Her eyes filled with tears as she shook her head affirmatively, turned and silently walked with it back to the barn.

“Put them saddles ta the wood shed fer now, Alonzo. Doan bother Missus Lorence none ta tha barn. Bring in the saddle bags ‘n the blankets if’n they bees wet. Then sees ta the hosses, if’n ya will, ‘n come in ta eat.”

“Si,” he replied. After supper he insisted the night seemed warm enough to him, though Gaine knew it would frost up again. He chose to sleep outside and make sure the outlaw’s bodies weren’t disturbed by varmints. He had a warm bedroll and he’d make a small fire. He moved to the lee of the house, away from the wind but within view of the wagon.

Gaine collapsed on the bed in her clothes minus her vest, boots and jacket that she’d removed earlier. She instantly fell asleep. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but she awoke to soft hands on her. She mumbled, “Katie?” before opening her eyes. It was Mary Jane.

“I’m checking your wounds,” the woman said softly. “I just want to make sure they’re not bleeding.”

“All raht,” Gaine said sleepily, sitting up. “What tahm tis ut?”

“After midnight.”

The bandage had stuck to her shoulder wound and required some work to get it unattached. When both wounds had been washed again, greased and rebandaged, the young woman scanned Gaine’s blue eyes.

“Why, Gaine? I don’t understand. Why did they shoot Ernie? Did they want the horses? Was that what this was all about, some stupid horses?”

“Ah dunno, Mary Jane. Ah shorely doan.”

The woman’s eyes filled with tears, “I wish I knew. It just doesn’t make sense.” Her back stiffened. “You’d tell me everything you knew, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t try to keep things from me thinking I wouldn’t be able to handle.... “ She looked down at her hands. “I don’t want that. I want to know why. I have to know!”

“I wudn keep nothin from ya, Mary Jane. ‘N, no, it doan make no sense. Theys coulda been hoss thieves, shore nuff, er theys mahta been t’uther thangs theys wanted.”

“Like what?”

“Ah dunno. Theys mahta jest been a’lookin’ fer trouble. Er theys mahta wanted yer land, mebee. Ya got a raht purty spread har. Ain’t shore.”

“Really? Do you think they were after our land? How?”

“Git ya ta leaf, Ah reckon. Make tha land ‘vailable. Tis a raht fahn spot but...Ah dunno, mebee not. Mebee t’ain’t got nuthin’ ta do with’n that. Mebee war jest plain evilness. Ah’ll trah mah best ta fine out.”

“Is that what you think? Do you think they did this for the land? They don’t....they don’t look like they’d want to be ranchers.”

“Theys gunslingers from back east, yer raht. They’s tha fellas Ah throwed outta Barden’s Corner yestaday. ‘N theys wouldn’ a done ut fer theyselfs. They’d a done ut fer hahr.”

Mary Jane gasped, “Someone could have hired them to kill Ernie?”

Gaine looked away. She had no proof of anything, just a gut feeling. “Ah ain’t got no proof a nuthin’, Mary Jane. Ah wish’t Ah did. If’n Ah kin fahnd out, Ah woan hesitate ta tell ya. Ah promise.”

“Thank you.” Mary Jane stared at the bed in sorrow then looked away in distress. “Maybe it would be better for you to sleep by the stove tonight, to keep warm? Would you mind terribly?” She brought pleading eyes to bear on the wounded woman.

Gaine knew what Mary Jane was thinking. By the stove was a warmer spot but more than that, the bed was theirs, Mary Jane’s and Ernie’s. She wanted to remember it that way one last time, in memory of her husband and what they’d shared. “Not t’all,” Gaine rose. “Tis raht comf’table bah the stove.”

“Yes. I’ll stoke it for you. Thank you.”

Gaine unrolled her bedroll, crawled in in what she was wearing and again fell instantly asleep. Her exhaustion was intense, and, unknown to Mary Jane, she was running a fever.

Frightful squawking of the chickens in the hen-house, a blood curdling scream followed by the echoing report of a nearby rifle awoke the tall brunette. She flew to her feet and was at the cabin door in a heartbeat, her rifle in hand. The horses were snorting and restlessly circling in the corral and Alonzo was standing by the men’s bodies, his smoking gun pointing out into the darkness.

As a silhouette before an inside lantern, Gaine made out Mary Jane in the doorway of the barn.

“Donde’ esta’...?” Gaine started to ask Alonzo.

He answered in English, “Gone.”

“Didja git ‘im?”

Alonzo shrugged.

“Mommy,” a child’s voice cried behind the tired brunette. Gaine turned. In only a moment Mary Jane was there, lifting the child into her arms.

“It’s all right, son. Let’s get you back to bed,” his mother said.

“I heard a bad noise, Mommy,” the small boy protested. “It was real loud. Like a lady screaming.”

“Don’t be afraid. You’ve heard it before. It’s gone now.”

“Was it after the chickens again? Daddy shot at it last time. Did Daddy hear it?”

“No. Not this time. It was the man that shot at it. Time for bed, little man.” She moved behind the hanging blanket to put her son back to bed.

Gaine noted that by jumping from her bedroll she’d started her leg bleeding again. She tied her neckerchief around her pantleg, carefully put her rifle on the floor nearby and crawled into her bedroll. It seemed like only moments later when she awoke again. It was early morning, the same time she normally arose. Her fever was down but her shoulder ached horribly and her leg was swollen so that her trousers were skin tight on that leg. She was glad she hadn’t taken them off to sleep in, because she would not have gotten them back on.

“Ah heals raht quick,” she muttered, encouraging herself. She found herself leaning heavily on items that would support her weight in order to get around.

She lit the lantern and looked but Mary Jane was not there. The children were still asleep. She looked inside the wall blanket to the woman’s bedroom but wasn’t sure their bed had been slept in at all. Gaine’s jacket and vest, however, had been thoroughly scrubbed of blood. They were hanging on the back of a chair, the bullet hole barely visible as a small puncture.

Ah reckon Mary Jane din’t sleep none t’all. Gaine lapsed into a heaviness of thought. There was really nothing anyone could do for the grieving woman. T’will be good ta git home, Gaine thought trying to throw off the mood, n put mah arms about ye, Katie. She rubbed her swollen leg. It had stopped bleeding, but she’d need to continue rubbing it all day today to keep the circulation going. The swelling would go down. As it was, it felt quite numb. But her shoulder throbbed and was very uncomfortable. It did not feel numb in the least.

She’d be taking the family along with Ernie’s body into town in the wagon this day. Ah feel lahk Ah done been ta the trail three months straight durin’ lightnin’ season a’fraht with‘n stampedes. Belief me, once’t Ah puts mah arms a’bout ya, Katie, darlin, Ah t’ain’t ne’er lettin’ ya go. Ne’er.

She hobbled to the door and looked outside. Alonzo was not in sight, but even from the doorway she could see the large tracks of the mountain lion near the hen house. This was a bad year for the big cats. They seemed to be everywhere.

~*~

Continued in Section II, ~ Trouble at Wild Horse Creek, Chapter 7 ~ Coronerís Jury ~ Dead Wrong
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