THE RENEGADE LADY SHERIFF by bsoiree C-SRE 2005 Sequel to “Fetchin' Cousin Minnie” and “Willy's Present.”
Disclaimer: This story is fictional though some of the places are real. Physical descriptions of the characters may vaguely remind you of two others, but they aren't them. Certainly any similarity between anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental. All characters are the sole possession of the author and the story may not be reproduced, posted or sold without the author's consent.
Subtext: This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If you are underage or this type story is illegal where you live, don't read it.
Violence: It's a western--those were times of customary wildness and, all too often, violence.
For the Lady who gave me her heart oh those many years ago. A lifetime is not enough..
Section II ~ Trouble at Wild Horse Creek
Chapter 9 ~ Home at Last
Barden's Corner, foothills, California
A few days past Christmas, 1875
News spread rapidly around the ranch that Gaine was on her way and was bringing the pack peddler with her as he drove the strange team and wagon onto the dirt road leading into the ranch, Prince trailing behind. Katie heard the dogs setting up a joyous clamor. Gaine is home! Thank the heavens! Kate quickly wiped her hands on her apron.
Having any peddler visit was always a wonderful treat. Not only did one get to trade for brand new needed goods, but they also got to hear all the news of what was going on wherever the peddler had been.
What do we have left to trade? Kate worried, quickly looking around the kitchen. We used all our extras for Christmas. And the chickens aren't laying worth bogs this time of year. Even if they didn't have much to trade, the prospect of hearing about the outside world was more than exciting. But it was the arrival of Gaine that hurried her to the porch with the others. That wagon looks familiar. Whose is it? It's not the peddler's. He usually walks.
They stood in an anxious group. The dogs were called back and before long they could hear the jangle of the harness, the clomp of the hooves and the creak of leather as the unfamiliar team pulled into the yard.
Kate's eyes lit on Gaine and an automatic smile brightened her face. As always her heart began to race at the sight of her tall beauty. Home. Safe. She paused in alarm, however, when she saw the pallor of the tall woman's features and noted how slowly Gaine was moving off the seat of the buckboard after the peddler handed her the reins and she had turned them over to Garcia.
Everyone else had swarmed around the peddler, who smiled as he gingerly pulled his bulging pack from the back of the wagon. He was already laughing and beginning his wondrous tales while near everyone marveled at what treasures might be hidden inside the bulging bag.
Kate rushed to Gaine's side, “Gaine, what's wrong?” she whispered.
“T'ain't nuthin',” Gaine tried to smile, but her shoulder throbbed and she felt unbelievably weary.
Gaine would have shrugged had it not hurt so much. “Done got winged. T'ain't nuthin, Katie.”
Kate's hand flew to her mouth. “Where?” She and Garcia exchanged a quickly hidden surprised glance. Kate's eyes scoured Gaine's body. She saw the sewing on the pant leg. Large green eyes lifted in question.
“Here n' thar.” Obviously the tall woman wasn't going to talk about it in front of everyone, even if everyone else's attention had been captured by the visitor.
Here and there? More than one place? “Gaine...”
“Ahs fine, Katie.” Her voice was softer. “Now thut Ah bees ta home.”
Kate's brow wrinkled. She kept her words low. “Who was it? Those two men from town?”
“Did they....get away?” Kate hoped not. She hoped Gaine had killed them dead. She didn't want to worry about them laying in wait for this woman she loved. Her eyes swept back over the road Gaine's wagon had just traveled but there were no followers.
“No. Theys t'ain't a'hurtin' no un ne'er agin.” The tall woman's eyes glazed slightly and she sighed, ”Theys both cashed in.”
“Thank the heavens!” Kate knew how seriously Gaine took having to kill another person, even monsters that had no scruples about harming others. “I need to see, Gaine. No delays.” Kate kept her back to the others so they wouldn't hear. Her serious emerald eyes allowed no bargaining.
There was a pause but Gaine did not look Kate's way. She heard the determination in the smaller woman's voice. “Raht.” Gaine's words came so softly Kate almost didn't hear it.
Kate and Garcia exchanged another concerned look. Gaine wasn't arguing as usual. The tall woman moved her eyes to Garcia, purposely keeping from meeting Kate's eyes. “Don Carlos aroun'?”
“Uh, no, Gaine,” the older man replied, holding the young team in check. “He took two men yesterday. A mountain lion...it attacked the herd. Killed a calf. Wounded a cow. They're trackin' it.”
Gaine stiffened in anger, “He left ya unpertected? After Ah done warned him?” Everyone looked in Gaine's direction.
“Uh, no, no,” Garcia's voice was lowered and his brow creased. His hand went to the sidearm he was wearing. “Don Carlos placed a guard, night ‘n day.”
The Sheriff's unhappy about something here at the ranch. I'll keep my ears open , the peddler thought before turning his attention back to the others, who listened to the tale the man began about things happening in the big valley.
“Who bees a'watching now?” Gaine's voice lowered as her blue eyes swept the barn and outbuildings then landed back on Kate. Had Don Carlos left everyone in Kate's or Garcia's or Alabam's protection? Kate could fire the rifle, but she had no real experience. That was totally unacceptable. Those gunslingers were far more dangerous than Kate and either of the two old men could have handled!
“You said they were dead,” worry leapt from Kate's eyes, but softened completely at Gaine's pained, recalcitrant returned look.
“They t'is. But theys war hahred killers, Katie,” the tiredness in Gaine's voice alarmed the blonde. “Pow'rful good shots ‘n fast.”
“An armed rider is stationed in the barn,” Garcia interrupted.
“Curly, with his rifle and shootin' iron. Alabam and me er watchin', too.”
Gaine frowned until her eyes caught the glint of metal from the barn. The barrel of a rifle. Curly was there, his rifle at the ready. Then she noted Garcia and Alabam were both wearing sidearms. She reined back her temper. She'd still talk to Don Carlos so he knew beyond any doubt that the people at the ranch were always more dear than the herd, he was to take no chances with them. Ever. Katie was at the house. And Nell and the children. They had to be protected above all else.
The tiredness in her voice was obvious as she said, “See ta them rascal hosses, if'n ya would, Garcia. Prince kin be let out ta pasture. He'll roll once't ya take his saddle off. Ahl be a'returnin' this here team ‘n wagon ta town n' tha mornin'. Mah wagon ‘n team'll need ta be ready first laht too. Alabam'll be a'goin'. Tell him please.”
“I don't think so,” Kate said softly, but Gaine ignored it.
“You're going back tamarra?” Garcia asked, holding back his surprise as best he could. He knew this woman. He knew she wasn't in any shape to be going back into town tomorrow, no matter how she tried to hide her injuries or how stubborn she was. He could tell her wounds were not nicks. He'd known her since she was a child.
“Yep. Tell Don Carlos Ah wants ta jaw with'n him soons he done gits back.”
“Si,” he replied “I'll make sure.” The older man jiggled the reins, and the young horses lurched toward the stable. Garcia called to Curly, who set aside his rife, left the barn and came instantly.
The wily young flaxon-haired fellow with a thick head of curls was from the Arizona territory. He came from a large family of brothers whose parents and younger siblings had been killed by Indians on their remote homestead while the older boys were out rounding up their herd. The four older boys, Curly included, had ended up burying their family and driving their family's herd to California where the cattle were sold. They split the money and went their separate ways to make their fortunes.
Curly had worked several places then had ended up at the Circle S Ranch. Now at nineteen he was an old hand at ranching. Occasionally he got letters from one brother or another that he had someone read to him. He was a good worker but not nearly as good with a rope as the vaqueros that toiled alongside him.
Most of Gaine's hands were native Californians, Spanish vaqueros and vaqueros from Mexico. She hired a few Anglo hands like Curly as well but preferred the skills and horsemanship of the vaqueros. Like all her hands, Curly not only knew how to work with cattle but how to treat horses. She fired anyone who didn't.
“Come inside,” Kate encouraged, leaving Garcia and Curly to the horses. The others had already headed inside.
“Yep.” It alarmed Kate that Gaine didn't look at her. She was sure if it were a minor injury Gaine would have fought having her injuries looked at right away. Especially with their visitor accompanying her. No, she'd been injured seriously. Kate noticed Gaine protecting her shoulder. The tall woman was very skilled at dealing with pain and hiding it, so her willingness to have Kate tend to her was completely unnatural.
“Does that team belong to....?”
“..tha Lorences'.” Now Gaine sent a pained look her way. “Ernie war kilt bah them two. Ah brung Mary Jane an' the childerns ta town. She wants ta bury him tamorra.”
“Oh, Gaine,” tears sprung to Kate's eyes. Fear gripped her heart. It could have been Gaine. They'd killed Ernie. But Gaine had always been too fast on the draw, too fast almost to be wounded. Only she was wounded this time. Could she be killed next time? Was she getting slower? Or were these gunmen just that much better than most?
Gaine entered the house holding to the door frame while Curly took over the team and Garcia opened the gate to the pasture, pulled the saddle and bridle off Prince and watched him nose the ground for a likable rolling spot. The horse switched his tail in anticipation.
The thought of Gaine being killed was unbearable. Kate pushed the thoughts away. She could not stand to think this way, and she knew she dare not concentrate on it. It would drive her crazy to do so. Life and death were a painful enough reality on the frontier. “Is Mary Jane all right?”
“She's a'holdin' up, Ah reckon. Done got her childerns ta think on.”
“Yes,” Kate whispered then took a deep breath. It wasn't Gaine that died. Not yet, and not that injuries couldn't claim her. She looked to the tall brunette but could see Gaine wasn't going to let her help her walk. If it killed her, she'd get there on her own. “Get undressed, and I'll get hot water and some clean rags.” Kate's voice brooked no argument.
She got none. “Yes'm,” Gaine nodded her assent then hobbled quietly down the hall to the bedroom while the rest of the house members bounced happily into the big room, surrounding the peddler to listen to his exotic tales of other places while he slowly knelt on the rug before the fireplace and began to unpack his wondrous items, bringing them out one by one to the rapt attention of his audience.
Dear heavens, Kate worried, how badly is she hurt that she won't even argue? The blonde directed her thoughts to the powers that be. Thank you for bringing her back to me. Thank you for sparing her. Please help me get her past these injuries. And keep her safe from all future harm. Please.
When Kate entered the bedroom carrying a pan of hot water from the reservoir on the stove, a wooden spoon partially submerged in the water, clean rags thrown over her shoulder and the bottle of whiskey tucked in her apron pocket, Gaine sat on the bed wrapped in the dark wool blanket from atop their bed. Her body glistened in sweat from the supreme effort of peeling off her clothes. Seeing Kate, she sat up taller.
Kate's glance fell on the blanket. “I'll need to see, honey.” She put the pan on the trunk at the end of the bed and held the wooden spoon and whiskey.
Gaine's troubled blue eyes looked at the floor. “Ah wants ya ta wrahte Michael ‘n git papers showin' yer deevorse from him. ‘N Ah wants yer name put ta everthang raht away. No more dalay.”
Kate's eyes widened. That struck further terror in her mind. Gaine was contemplating her own demise. It was not something she was ever prone to do.
The blonde licked her lips, forcing herself not to show any fear as she put her held items on the top of their new chest of drawers. Without thought she let her hand run tenderly across the sanded and lacquered wood top as she always did. It was her handmade Christmas gift from Gaine. “I'm sure there's no hurry, but I will write him if it makes you feel better.” Her eyes held on pained azure eyes lifting before her. “Now, let's get these injuries tended so they can heal.”
“Wraht Michael,” Gaine replied. There was a pause. Gaine spread her blanket covered legs and motioned for the blonde to move in close to her. Silently Kate stepped forward into the cradle of Gaine's blanket-wrapped legs, afraid to touch the woman, not knowing where all the wounds might be. Gaine put her good arm around the small blonde's waist and pressed her face to Kate's bosom. “Ahm home, darlin. Ah made ut home.” She closed her eyes and inhaled the comforting scent that was Kate.
“Thank the heavens,” Kate whispered, gently stroking Gaine's long, black hair, concerned at the heat she felt from Gaine's forehead. She was feverish. That was not good.
Ya gots no idee how Ah longed ta hold ya ‘n mah arms, Gaine thought with relief, but found herself unable to say it aloud.
Kate remembered Gaine's reaction on her return after spending months trailing outlaws before Christmas. The brunette'd ended up killing some, and that act had seemed to damage Gaine's very soul. Not that she'd allow anyone to know as much.
Except that she had. She had allowed one person, Kate, to hold her then, had even asked and taken comfort in the sharing. It was something Kate knew her proud warrior would never allow other than to honor the one to whom she had pledged her troth. And Kate was deeply honored. It was sacred, private, and it bound them...forever. Kate realized what it took for Gaine to offer such a gift.
Carefully the blonde wrapped her arms around the tall woman, heedful of unseen wounds. For the moment the world righted under her feet.
“I love you, Gaine,” Kate said softly into Gaine's ear, “And I'm very glad that you shot those terrible men. I'm sure every innocent man, woman and child that were ever harmed by them is rejoicing that you were able to finally stop them from inflicting their agony on others.”
“Ah reckon.” Gaine mulled some thoughts over quickly, “Does ya think Ah shoulda trahd ta bring em back alahve?”
Kate was indignant, “Did they try to surrender?”
“Did they fire at you first?”
“Then no. Make no mistake, Gaine Sargos, you must aim to kill, and kill quickly any time your life is at stake. Do not even stop to wonder about that. I'm sure there isn't anyone in town that isn't grateful for what you've done.” She kissed the top of Gaine's warm head.
“Thar do be thems ta town ain't sa pleased, Ah reckon,” Gaine grinned, “Westminster n' tha Mayor warn't dancin' no jig. Er Hornbar neither. Theys war a'jawin' bout ar town needin' ta stop all tha killin'.”
Kate stood quietly a minute. “Good idea. I suggest they pat themselves on the back for hiring you as Sheriff then. There's no one who's brought more peace to this town than you. Killings aren't happening in the saloons or on the streets. This town is much better off.”
Gaine grinned tiredly, “Ah think theys spee-cifically meant mah killin's outta stop. Ah outta capture them crim'nals in-stead.”
“Any time outlaws want to surrender, fine. Capture them. But if they don't, kill them. After all, no one wants to have to kill someone. But when it happens, it needs to happen for the right reasons. And honey, you always know when that is. It's instinctive for you. You mustn't stop and think about it and increase the risk. You must never put your life or anyone else's at unnecessary risk.”
“Jest what Ah war a'thinkin', Katie.” She released the blonde and Kate stepped back. “But Ah wanted yor ‘pinion. Theys gonna make hay o'er it, Ah fears.” She sighed. “Try‘n stir up tha town.”
“Have they nothing more to do with their time than cause trouble?” Kate scowled. “Blasted......” Gaine could almost hear her searching for a strong enough word that she was willing to use, “scalawags!”
“Yep.” Gaine let the blanket slip from her shoulder and Kate forced herself not to gasp at the sight of the swollen, blackened skin around the area just under her left arm. Angry swollen red skin surrounded the blackened area and a liquidy yellow oozed, mixed with a bloody discharge.
“What did you do to this? Why is it burned?”
“Mary Jane done cauterized it fer me ta keep it from a'goin' bad n' ta stop the bleedin'. Ah reckon Ah used ut more'n Ah shoulda, ‘n ruint all her good work.”
Kate wasn't sure cauterization was “good work” and what horrible pain it must have caused in that delicate area! But it was beyond that choice now. A combination of blood and pus and blackened skin awaited attention. “We need to send for the doctor,” she said calmly.
“No,” Gaine raised weary eyes to Kate's. “Last fellers with'n gunshot wounds Doc treated done passed on ‘n theys warn't but grazed. He kin fill his own bone yard.”
Kate stared steadily at the tall woman. “Gaine, I don't know if I can...”
“Ya kin. We kin. Ahl help ya.”
Kate paused. Gaine was going to help her deal with this? She grit her teeth, knowing there was no way to avoid what was to follow. “All right. I'll do my best. It's going to hurt horribly when I clean it. I'm sorry, love.”
She raked her eyes over the exit wound. The hit was far enough from the rest of the chest that it seemed to involve mostly skin and muscle. That was lucky, although Gaine's armpit was swollen. She knew it must be almost impossible to use that arm. The small blonde pressed her fingers very lightly near the wound, away from the reddened skin and ooze, but Gaine jerked in pain. That was more reaction than she'd ever seen the tall woman show.
Kate's hands began to tremble. How could she do this? Heaven only knew if there was bone involvement. It had to be cleaned and the poison drawn out. How could she inflict the pain on the woman she adored that she knew had to occur? But if she didn't...that thought was unthinkable. She had to draw courage from deep inside herself to accomplish the necessary goal. She had to delve to the iron center she'd developed when dealing with her father's continual brutality. What had to be done, had to be done. And it had to be done to Gaine.
Gaine's hand covered her own. “Do whut ya gotta, Katie,” she said between clenched teeth. “Doan fret none. Ahl git bah.”
Kate removed her hand. “Was the bone hit? Can you tell? Can you feel it?”
“Cracked mebee. Doan think nothin' war broke apart. He warn't trahin' ta kill me, jest figured ta torment me ‘nuff ta dis-able me. N' that war his big mis-take...he din't wound me bad ‘nuff. He shore had tha fahr power. Coulda blowed a big ole hole thru me ceptin' he war sa far ‘way. War a clean shot, in ‘n out. Woulda been a'healin' a'ready if'n Ah hadn't a used ut none.” Now her ribs were frightfully sore and everything hurt.
“This looks bad enough.” Kate leaned across the seated woman to view the back entrance wound, careful not to touch it. “The lead's not lodged inside, then?”
Kate felt relief that she didn't have to dig out a bullet at least. “That's good. You can breathe all right? No problems?”
“Ah kin breathe good.” But every breath hurt.
So it was a shoulder wound more than a chest wound. Thank heavens. But infection was a dire threat. “That's good, then.” Kate tried to sound cheery. She tried to make it seem like it could have been far worse. And it could have been. Gaine could be dead. But this was bad enough. “We have no laudanum,” she apologized. “I wish we did. I wish...”
“'S all raht,” Gaine's white teeth remained gripped together as she spoke. “Whiskey'll do.”
Infection was as deadly as a gunshot. More maybe. Everyone knew that. Gaine could easily die from this. Kate knew she would have to clean well then use a poultice to draw out any remaining poison from inside. If there were broken bones, they'd have to be dealt with. Gaine'd have to try to keep the area from moving. Kate steeled herself at what she had to accomplish.
“Ah doan want them ta know, Katie. Partic'ilar that thar peddler. Names Archibald. He done tells ever'un what he done knows. His yarn-spinnin' propensities al'ays done starts with'n truth a'fore he done colors ‘em up redder'n a rooster's topknot.”
What does it matter if anyone knows? Kate wondered as she prepared the clean rags she'd need. What does that have to do with anything? “I don't think you need to worry about the peddler right now.” Her hands continued to tremble.
“No, Katie,” Gaine's face held resolve, “When yer Sheriff, t'is best ta ne'er show no weakness. T'is im-portant. Archie'll done make ut seem worser, if'n he knows. Makes fer a better windy. Ah cain't have that. Tha more stalwart tha Sheriff done bees, tha less ana sot wants ta confront ya.”
Kate's lashes fluttered. “They would think a gunshot wound was a weakness?”
“T'is, ain't it? Best ta let them think t'is nuthin'.” And, in fact, to her this original wound had been of a lessor significance. Getting poisoned like it had, however, increased its severity tenfold. But regardless of what the Coronor's Jury had heard, she would keep telling people it was nothing, and acting like it until they believed her. Half of a Sheriff's job was stopping lawlessness through reputation.
Kate shook her head. This was much more than nothing. “Very well, if that's what you want.”
She handed Gaine the bottle of whiskey. “Drink, darlin'.” The tall brunette tilted her head back to take some healthy gulps as directed. She was tired, she felt sweaty, and her whole body throbbed, but she'd do what she had to do. She hoped she'd feel the effects of the liquor very soon.
“More,” Kate urged. Gaine took another large swig and looked at the serious face Kate was wearing. Katie would take care of this. There was an unfamiliar relief in that thought. She was home. Katie would watch over her now. She could relax a bit. Being ministered to in this manner was not something she was accustomed to. But she found it more comforting than she ever thought she would.
Kate waited in silence, not wanting to start until she knew Gaine was under the influence of the whiskey. “More, Gaine, please, honey.”
Gaine smiled and took another series of long drinks, nearly draining the bottle. “Ahm a'goin' ta the funeral tamorra, darlin'. Clean ut good ‘n wrap ut taht.”
“Tomorrow? I don't think so,” Kate scoffed quietly. She busied herself around the room, getting things ready.
The walls of the adobe house were very thick, whitewashed yearly inside and out. They reflected light well. The windows were set in with wide sills, wide enough for a person to sit comfortably on the inside sill. The windows swung outward on hinges. Kate considered opening the window in hopes of getting even more light inside but decided it might bring on a chill for Gaine.
The late afternoon sunlight gently shone in the room, still Kate lit the lantern and brought it close. She needed all the light she could get. She had to remove the poisons that were oozing outside the wounds, and had to think what to do with the inside.
Gaine began to sway a little where she sat and hummed cheerfully, “Ahm a'goin' ta town ta..morra.”
“If this wound's no better,” Kate replied. “no matter what happened with his last patients, we'll be sending for Doc.”
“Ah seed ole Sawbones ta town,” Gaine grinned a cavalier, half drunken smile. “He'd jest bleed me, if'n ya called fer him. Ya clean ut off ‘n doan worry none. Ahm a'goin' tamorra. T'will be fahn. Ah heals fast. Allays has. Ask mah fellers.”
“Not that fast,” Kate muttered under her breath. Gaine would not be going anywhere for the next few weeks much less tomorrow. “No one lets Doc bleed them anymore.”
“He bees good with ague'n settin' bones'n sech. But he ain't good with'n gunshot wounds er knife wounds neither.”
Kate watched Gaine's rakish grin, undoubtedly influenced by the vast amount of powerful firewater she'd just consumed. The blonde's eyes went to where she needed to start, “Why didn't Doc clean it off? No wonder his gunshot patients die.”
A snort of a laugh left Gaine's lips and Kate knew the tall woman was feeling the influence of the spirits. The brunette wrinkled her eyes in a bit of merriment, “Ah din't let him know Ah t'war hurt. Ah jest jawed with'n him. N' after tha Coroner's Jury, Ah left a'fore he could ketch up ta me. Ah din't wanna be one'a them patients a his ends up ta a pine box.”
“They had a Coroner's Jury?”
“Yep. Mayor thunk Ah shouldn't a killed them fellers outta Barden County. But Ah done jest that.”
“That's not what a Coroner's Jury is for.”
“Ah know.” Gaine laughed. “Ya shoulda seed tha Mayor aftaward. Ya know that ole fat, bad tempered black'n whaht tomcat we done got ta the barn?”
“The one with the two white paws and white face markings?”
“Yep. The one alays a'slappin' his tail ta the floor when tha t'uther cats done comes ‘round.”
“Bootsie. The children are afraid of him. He slaps his tail at them, too. They call him Bootsie to make him seem more friendly. Only he never is. Good mouser, though.”
“Ahm a'gonna start a'callin' him “Mayor”. Gaine laughed again. “The Mayor war standin' thar aftaward a'sportin' his fancy black suit'n ya coulda almost seed his tail a'slappin' tha groun'.” She laughed again then became serious when she looked up at Kate's worried face. “Doan worry none, darlin. We kin do this here thang.”
Kate felt some degree of relief. Under the influence her tall beauty was more like her usual self. If only Kate had that much faith. She did not like the looks of this wound and the fever Gaine was running because of it.
“Think a them Lorences, Katie. Everthang ever after gonna date frum this here fun'ral in Mary Jane's fam'ly. Tis Ernie's last journey. Ah gotta be thar. Town ‘spects ut. Sides, Ah doan want nobody a'thinkin' tha town done be unpertected cause Ah bees a'spendin tahm with'n mah feets up ridin' herd ta the pillas in some ole bed wagon.”
“I know it's important, Gaine. But I don't want to have to have a funeral on your behalf because you weren't cautious enough to remain home when conditions warranted.” Besides, from the looks of this you won't be able to get up much less go to town in the morning.
“Ahl be fahn.” Gaine drained the rest of the bottle, grabbed wads of blanket to hold on to, and Kate handed Gaine the wooden spoon. The tall woman slipped the handle between her teeth and tried not to flinch when Kate barely touched the area. The blonde waited another few minutes until there was less reaction.
Once it seemed possible, Kate worked as quickly as she could removing the residue, but it was still a long, painfully slow job, particularly with burned skin worked in. Sweat rolled down and dripped off Gaine's face. Her fists were so tight, Kate wasn't sure she'd be able to pry the blanket away when she was done. Kate wished Gaine would pass out, but the tall brunette fought hard to remain conscious. Several times she gasped but did not pull away from the job Kate was doing.
They both heard the clammer raised by the dogs and knew Don Carlos and his men were back.
Kate paused. The Sheriff found even the energy she'd gotten from the bottle had totally floundered in a sea of semi-numbed pain, leaving her more than exhausted. They listened to the uproar outside and heard Garcia move onto the porch. Gaine sucked in a deep breath while Kate continued cleaning.
In a while there was a soft tap at the bedroom door. “One minute,” Kate put a cloth over each wound then pulled the blanket over Gaine's nudeness. “Don't move, honey.” The blonde went to the door.
Gaine was relieved at the break, dizzy with relief in fact. She removed the wooden spoon from her mouth. Too bad thar t'ain't no more whiskey. She shut her eyes and involuntarily her head slumped forward.
Outside the door stood the handsome figure of Don Carlos. His gloves and chaps were blood stained but his short embroidered jacket, white shirt, dark tie and hat were not. She could never get over the man's bearing. His family had been one of the old sangre azul, Gaine had said, the blue bloods, in the days when the Spanish reined over the pastoral California lands. A Californio, a ranchero, a caballero, a gentleman. In whispers Kate explained that Gaine had been wounded and what she was doing.
Don Carlos got wide-eyed. “Gaine's wounded? She was shot?”
“A shoulder wound. It's poisoned. Bad as a snake bite. I'm cleaning it up the best I can.”
“Right or left?”
“Left is good. She still can shoot. Is it bad, uh, deep inside?”
“Shot went clear through, but, yes, everything is so swollen. It's got to be poulticed the minute I'm done.”
“Si.” Don Carlos thought then muttered, “Tell Gaine the wild cat is caught. We went to the head of Fox Canyon beyond the precipico. We took possession of the catamount once we learned its tricks. Gaine'll want to see the skin. It was stout. Tell her no one was injured.”
“Don Carlos, you don't understand,” Kate's brows furrowed. “Gaine's shoulder wound is not good. It's poisoned. I'm cleaning it up then I'm going to poultice it, but she needs to sleep. I'm praying she survives, and you must do the same. Oh, and she doesn't want the others to know how bad her injury is. Especially the peddler.”
“Si. I saw the peddler was here.”
“Can you see that the others understand she's not to be disturbed? Nothing else matters right now.”
“Uh, si, si,” he replied, curiously. He tried to keep from peering into the room, but found himself moving closer a step. In the lamplight he saw Gaine's slumped figure sitting on the bed wrapped in a blanket. The straw tick mattress sagged under her weight, but she was in a sitting posture nonetheless. He'd seen her that exhausted before. His hand went to his chin and he rubbed. “Peddler has a cunning eye. We must be cautious. Gaine make a bargain with this peddler, do you know?”
Why wasn't Don Carlos understanding the seriousness of this? “I don't know, Don Carlos. I don't care about the peddler right now. Get him a place to sleep in the bunk house. And be sure he knows that he's welcome to join us for all meals. Mostly be sure Gaine's not interrupted. She must sleep.”
“Si,” Don Carlos' face became very serious, and he turned to leave. “I will see to it.”
“Uh, but she is very concerned...uh, she doesn't want the others to know how bad it is. It's bad, Don Carlos. Very bad.”
He paused and his eyes searched Kate's. “Si?” he replied questioningly.
“I need more whiskey, do you have any?”
“That bad?” His brows furrowed. Gaine never needed much whiskey.
“Yes. Worse even. She's finished the bottle from the kitchen.”
That raised his brows. “In my saddlebag. I will get.”
Kate stepped further into the hall and pulled the door mostly shut behind her to wait. In moments Don Carlos was back with a half-filled bottle he'd taken from his saddlebag. “In cases of the snakebite,” he said.
The small blonde didn't care where it was from or what it was for. “Thanks.”
Don Carlos frowned and rubbed his coal black short beard. He seemed to have a better understanding of the seriousness of Gaine's wounds. “Coyote Joe and Little Jim, they mix their poultices, puffball poultices sometimes. Secret medicine of the blessing way. It is having powerful, uh, what you say, getting well. Gaine uses it when the need is serious.”
“Si. Healing. Powerful healing.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Katie knew her mother's milk poultice was not that strong, but she had seen it work with lessor injuries over time.
“Boss used when Diego was bit bad with the snake. Joe and Little Jim's grandmother was a shaman. She taught them many cures. Draws out poison like the miracle.” And then he quickly crossed himself.
Kate didn't respond. She needed to think about that. “Gaine's rambling about how she's riding into town tomorrow for Ernie's funeral. Uh, Ernie Lorence was killed by the same men that attacked her. She killed both of them. Just so you know, you don't have to see that the team's made ready, if she should ask you. I've seen her wounds. She won't be in any shape to go to town for a long while.”
Now a knowing grin swept his face. “Tomorrow? Si, that is Gaine.” A look of confidence struggled through his prior confusion. “Gaine and the mustang, they are, how do you say...like the same and cannot be explained?”
“Si. Alike and mysterious. Do not worry, senora.” He saw the doubt and fear on Katie's face. “Is a mystery, no? You ever see wild mustangs sick? No! Never! Wounds, even deep wounds to them, are healing overnight almost always. Visiting man of science here once said this was called...” he scratched his bearded chin in thought, ‘primative stamina.' That is Gaine--primative stamina, like the mustang. You will be surprised.”
“You don't know how bad this is.”
“She will surprise you. You will see.”
Kate wished it could be true. She nodded and turned to the bedroom door. She was glad she was almost finished with her horrible task of cleaning Gaine's wounds. She entered the room she normally shared with Gaine and the two little orphans, shutting the door quietly. Gaine's head was sunk to her chest and her eyes were closed. Kate knew her lover had to be glad for the reprieve she'd gotten from the painful cleaning. Katie did not look forward to finishing the job.
Gently she put a hand on Gaine's hand that held the blanket in place. “I'm back, love,” she cooed. “A little more whiskey might help, all right?”
“Yep.” Carefully the brunette took a few more big swallows. “Don Carlos?” she asked. “Ah needs ta see him when yer done.”
“No, Gaine. You need to get some rest when I'm done.”
“Katie,” Gaine's words were slurred now, “Ah gots a ranch ta run.”
Both fists went to Kate's hips. Her eyes flashed. “Now listen here, Gaine. You chose Don Carlos because you believed he could run this ranch in your absence. Don't you think he can?”
“Whal,” the tall brunette wavered from side to side as she sat, her drunken gaze now directed at the small blonde, “Ah gots things Ah needs ta dis-cuss with'n him,” she said in her most important sounding voice.
“Absolutely not. Not tonight. Let him do his job. Let's concentrate on getting you well. That's more important than anything.” She picked up her supplies.
“No, Gaine. Getting you well is the only thing I'm going to consider. Don Carlos will do fine on his own. Save your discussion till you're well.”
“Sometimes ya sounds like ya done been raised ta sour milk,” Gaine muttered, alcohol influencing her words.
“If you think this is mean, you haven't seen anything yet, my dear,” Kate warned, but there was a tenderness in her voice that belied her words. Was this their first argument? the small blonde wondered.
Gaine chuckled at herself. “Lordy, Ah warn't speakin' ta turn thar, Katie darlin'. Yer a wonder, ya shore do be. Ah e'er tole ya that? Ya shorely bees the fahnest woman anawhar ta the whole world.” Then another thought swirled into her consciousness, “Don Carlos git that thar mountain lahn?”
“Yes, my love. They got it.”
“Ah does need ta jaw with'n him, ya know, mah dulce,” she weedled sweetly. “Jest fer a poco tiempo.”
“Not tonight, darlin'. Are you ready for what I have to do?” Kate frowned at the cleanup remaining. Though somewhat numb, every touch at this point was still painful for Gaine.
The Sheriff lifted the less than half-filled bottle to her lips and downed another healthy amount. “Snake bite med'cine. Ahm ready now,” Gaine let loose of the blanket and it fell away. She tried to smile encouragingly at Kate, “Ahm fine, Katie. Strong,” she laughed drunkenly, “Ahm raht strong. Lotsa enemies. Yer enemies keeps ya strong, ya know.” The spoon handle was returned to her mouth while her gut warned her that the two she had killed were just surface problems she'd had to face. The fact that she didn't know exactly how many serious enemies she still had kept her more concerned than ever.
She looked at Kate. ‘N yer beloved done cuts yer healin' wolf loose. Howwwooo, she felt like howling, cause Katie was there doing what had to be done, and now nothing could stand in the way of her complete recovery.
Enemies? Yes, a Sheriff has many enemies, Katie agreed, Too many. “I love you,” Kate gently turned the tall brunette toward the guttering lamp. She adjusted the wick for a strong, steady light and looked at what was left to be done.
I love you. If words were medicine, those were the greatest healers for Gaine. They came in through her fog of reality. She felt her heart warm at the thought. Kate loved her. This wonderful Irish gal loved her. She shut her eyes in a momentary feeling of peace. “Uve oo too,” she muttered over the spoon handle. Her hands sunk into the blanket to get large handsful to squeeze, though her squeeze was no longer as tight, until the first renewed cleansing touch from Kate.
Once the wound was tended front and back, Kate decided she would first make a salt pork poultice and follow that with a simple bread and milk poultice her mother had always used to draw out poisons. She was afraid to chance an unknown poultice from Gaine's two riders.
By this time, Gaine was drunk, though too spent to be out of control in any way. There was a muffled ache in her jaw from clamping on the spoon and her whole body was wet with perspiration.
Kate was little better. Strands of blonde hair were plastered to her face with nervous sweat. She left the exhausted woman, wrapped in her blanket, sitting with her eyes shut. The blonde fluffed then smoothed her own hair as best she could before quietly going past the group in the big room to the pantry. Few noticed her since the hands in for supper and all the children were around the rug, looking at the marvels the peddler had brought. Nell was busy at the stove while Garcia stood holding little Sarah as he watched and listened to the peddlar's spiel.
Don Carlos was next to Nell, stirring something on the stove. That struck Kate as strange, since the foreman didn't ever do any cooking at the ranchhouse. She hurried into the pantry, gathering her supplies. “Where are my flannel strips? Oh, there they are.” Her eye caught Don Carlos'.
The foreman was staring at her. “The brothers,” he whispered, “They said heat till smoke is coming,” he stepped to the pantry and handed her the pan half filled with a musky looking, sticky, astringent, smoking mixture. “Put on warm, not hot. Nell will bring food for Gaine.”
“I doubt she'll eat. What is this?” Kate asked, looking at the pan.
“Don't know. Coyote Joe stirred it up. Works good. You need to change often, keep warm, uh, all night.”
Kate lifted her eyes to Don Carlos. She hadn't wanted to imply that she didn't believe in this mixture. But Gaine's life was too precious. What if it made things worse? She saw him reading her thoughts.
Kate took the pan doubtfully and moved with a polite smile past the others back to the bedroom. Gaine was still sitting slumped, her eyes shut. She did not respond as Kate moved toward her.
“Don Carlos says this is Coyote Joe's poultice. He says I should ask you first. It smells kind of....musky, uh, mediciney.” She wrinkled her nose and moved the pan near Gaine's nose.
Without opening her eyes, the tall woman muttered, “Strong medicine. Good poultice.”
“Do you want me to use it?”
“All right.” Kate let it cool as she prepared to apply the warm poultice. Once it was applied, she carefully checked Gaine's leg wound as the tall woman softly snored sitting upright. The leg wound was more of a graze, was stitched, had crusted and already looked much better. Her leg's initial swelling had gone down completely. In a day or so she could remove the stitching. Kate washed the wound gently then wrapped it with clean rags. It had no look or smell of poisons.
She leaned a sleeping Gaine back onto the pillows and covered her blanket wrapped figure with another blanket from the trundle bed. A soft tap at the door and Nell was let into the room carrying a plate of dinner. She stopped near the large bed. “Is the Sheriff...” her hand went to her mouth. “Oh no!” Terrified eyes sprung to Kate.
“She's asleep,” Kate replied. “I'll leave the plate here for when she awakens.” She took the plate and put it on their chest of drawers.
“She's so pale,” Nell said worriedly. Her eyes moved back to Gaine's face.
“Yes, I know,” Kate replied. “I've cleaned the wound and put on a poultice. We'll know more by morning.”
Nell flashed a very troubled look at Kate. “Should I....do something? Should I put on some water?”
“Fill the reservoir. And watch our little ones for me, please? I'm going to be up all night with her, changing the poultices,” Kate sat on the trundle bed and wrung her hands in her lap. “I know it's hard, Nell, but don't let on that this is anything special. Gaine wants people to think it's nothing.”
“Nothing? Gracious!” Nell had never seen the Sheriff like this. She found it hard to draw her gaze from Gaine's pallid features, now peaceful in whiskey induced slumber. “All right, Kate. I'll take Sarah and Deena's sleep boxes to my room.” She wrung her hands. The Sheriff had to be all right. She had to be.
“I think the worst is over,” I hope, Kate tried to sound encouraging. But she knew the night held all kinds of potential...for better or for worse. And the worst might not be close to being over.
“What can I get you, Kate?” Nell asked. “Why don't you eat the supper? It doesn't look like the Sheriff...” her words tapered off.
“I'd like some tea, if that wouldn't be too much trouble,” Kate replied.
Nell nodded quickly and left the room as silently as she had entered, shutting the door without a sound. Within a very short time, she returned with a bowl of hot tea with milk added like Kate liked it.
“Thank you, Nell.” Kate took the bowl and sipped. It had a settling influence on her trembling insides.
The cook cast a last distressed look at the Sheriff. Nell's own ashy complexion had taken a more healthy, ruddy hue since moving to the ranch. Her ultra thin frame had even begun to add a light layer of flesh. But the Sheriff had never had such a pallor. Not in all the years she'd known her. Worriedly Nell slipped from the room.
Kate rose and moved to the big bed. As she leaned down to press a kiss on Gaine's forehead, Gaine reached a hand to Katie's, “Archie's tradin' usn's fer a good hoss. Git anathin ya wants, love. Tell Don Carlos. He'll say whan tha trade bees fair.” Then her grip went limp and a soft snore rose once more from her lips.
“Deal with the peddler?” Kate frowned. Not this day and night. She had no interest whatsoever in the peddler and his treasures on the living room rug. Her dearest treasure was on the bed before her. Gently she placed Gaine's hand under the covers. “Sleep now, my love,” she whispered. She sat on the trundle bed across from theirs, facing Gaine, her arms wrapped tightly around herself to hold in her fear and anxiety. Hers would be an all-night sentry.
Continued in Chapter 10
Return to the Academy