To Hold Forever
By Carrie Carr
Disclaimers – See Part One.
AFTER THE BREAK of dawn, Lex and Charlie had begun to walk in front of their horses, because the footprints of the criminals were getting harder to spot. The previous night's rain had washed away much of the trail. They were crossing a clearing, when he stopped and pointed at the sky. A plume of dark smoke trailed into the air.
"Do you see that? It looks like it's about half a mile away." Charlie reached for his radio and checked on the others, to find their positions. "We're about two miles north of the creek, where it turns away from the eastern fence," he related over the air. "Everyone find a high spot, and look for dark smoke. It's less than a mile from our position." Garbled voices answered him. "Okay. Let's set up a perimeter around the area. I want no one closer than two hundred yards, clear?" More jumbled noises came from his radio. "Roger that. Lex and I will be going ahead to scout the area. Again, we'll be coming in from the south."
Lex raised her eyebrows at his last comment. She waited until he placed the radio back on his belt. "Should we leave our horses here?"
"Good idea. No sense in giving ourselves away." Charlie walked his horse back to the trees they had vacated earlier. He tied the reins to a low branch, took his rifle from the scabbard, and waited for Lex to do the same. "Are you sure you want to come with me? I don't know what we're going to find once we get there."
"I've come this far. Besides, Martha would kill me if I let you go on alone." Lex reached into her saddlebag and brought out a box of shells. She tucked them into a pocket on the duster and hefted her rifle onto her shoulder. "Well? Are you going to lead, or do I have to?"
He shook his head. "Smartass kid." After filling his own pockets with extra ammunition, he started off toward the smoke.
"WHAT IN THE hell are you doing?" Ed walked over to the fire that Gary had built and began to kick at the smoking branches. He returned from his "trip to the woods" to find Mack missing, and Gary tossing green wood onto sputtering flames.
Gary scooted away from the crackling embers. "I was cold, and I thought I'd surprise you guys." He waved his hand in front of his face to dispel the heavy smoke. "Why are you putting the fire out? It took me forever to get it lit."
"Because, dumbass, if they're out looking for us, you just gave away our position. Where'd Mack go?"
Mack came in from the opposite direction. "Same place you did. Where'd all that smoke come from?"
Ed jerked Gary to his feet. "This idiot thought a fire would be a good idea." He used his grip on Gary's shirt to shake him. "Not such a good idea now, is it?"
"Stop it. I didn't know." Gary struggled to break free.
"Maybe we should leave him here. He's not doing us much good." Mack walked over and slapped Gary across the face. "Were you born this stupid, or do you have to work at it?"
Gary fell to the ground as Ed let him go. He wiped the blood from the side of his mouth and scrambled to his feet. "I'm not stupid. It was my idea to take the motorcycles, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, but you didn't think to check the gas tanks now, did you?" Ed reached for him again, only to be stopped by Mack.
"Forget it. Let's make sure this fire doesn't relight, so we can get moving again." Mack glared at Gary. "You get to bury it in the mud, smart guy."
Grumbling, Gary used a sharp stick to shovel mud onto the smoking mess. "Jerks." He was beginning to think getting captured would be better than staying on the run with the other two. "At least I'd be warm," he muttered.
CHARLIE STOPPED TO peer over a thick mass of brush. He waved his hand to signal for Lex to join him. He kept his voice low. "There they are."
He held his finger up to his lips and pulled his radio from his belt. After a few quiet sentences, he replaced the radio. "We're going to wait ten minutes, until everyone gets into position. Then we'll—"
"I don't think we have ten minutes." Lex pointed to where the men were. "It looks like they're ready to move on."
"Damn." Charlie pointed to his right and hoisted his rifle onto his shoulder. "I want you to go over there about fifty feet, and wait for my signal. If they look like they're going to open fire, get behind that tree."
Lex nodded and followed his instructions. She leaned against the tree and held her rifle in a ready position. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she aimed the gun at the men's camp. So much for my nerves of steel. More like nerves of silly putty. She tried to still her shaking hands.
"This is the Sheriff's department," Charlie yelled. "Step away from your weapons and lie face down on the ground."
The campsite turned to chaos. Each man grabbed his guns and found a safe position behind the log at the campsite. One of them shot in the direction of Charlie's voice.
"Shit!" Lex looked over to where Charlie was hidden behind his own tree. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Charlie jumped as his radio came to life. "Yes, that was a gunshot. No, no one is hit." He wiped the sweat from his face. "Is everyone in position?" At their affirmative answers, he keyed in again. "Good. Hold your fire unless they shoot at your first. I'm going to try and talk them out." He slipped the radio into its holder once again. "Lex? Did you hear that?"
"Yeah." She swallowed hard. "Don't shoot unless they do, right?"
"You got it." He raised his voice again. "Don't make us open fire. We outnumber you."
The only answer he got was another shot, this time closer. He brought his rifle to his shoulder and aimed. Making certain he didn't hit anyone, he made a well-placed shot in front of the fallen tree. They answered with several shots, determined not to be brought to justice.
Lex saw Charlie jerk back behind the tree. She squeezed off her own round, keeping it low. "Bastards." When they returned her fire, she dropped to the ground and hid behind the tree. "Charlie? Are you all right?"
"Just fine, kiddo. Nice shot." He was about to shoot again, when another volley came their way. "Stay down."
"No problem there." Lex propped her gun against her shoulder and wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans. Rustling leaves from her right caused Lex to point her gun in that direction.
Jeremy held up his hands. "Don't shoot, it's just me." He stopped about ten feet from Lex and dropped to his knees. "Jack's back with the horses. He told me he didn't think he could point a gun at another person, so I left him where he'd be safe."
More shots came their way. Charlie shot back, but turned in alarm when he heard a grunt of pain to his right. "Lex?" He panicked when he couldn't see her.
Lex crawled over to where Jeremy fell. She saw blood coming from a hole in his side. Setting her gun on the ground, she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him back further into the trees. Several shots rang over their heads. She tore off the bottom of her shirt and placed it over the wound. "Hang on, bud."
"Dammit, Lex, where are you?" Charlie yelled.
"We're over here. Jeremy's been hit." She grabbed Jeremy's hand and held it over the wound. "Stay back here. We'll get you out of here in a minute." Lex made her way back to her rifle, picked it up, and squeezed off several shots.
Charlie squatted next to Jeremy. "How bad is it?"
"I think it just grazed me. But it hurts like hell." Jeremy grimaced as he tried to sit up.
"Stay put." Charlie placed his hand on the other man's shoulder. "We'll take care of this." He heard a bullet ricochet off the tree beside Lex. "Dammit, Lex. Watch out!"
She ignored him and made several more shots. Hearing a man scream, she stopped. "Charlie, I think I hit one of them." Her voice shook.
"That's okay, Lex. Hold your fire for the moment, until I can find out where everyone else is." Charlie bit back a curse when he heard from the others. They were still out of range. One group was circling around behind their position, to help move Jeremy out of the line of fire.
Five minutes later, Oscar and Roy broke into the stand of trees they were taking shelter in. They dropped next to Charlie and Jeremy. Oscar took one look at his friend on the ground. "Damn, Jer. Why'd you get in the way like that?"
Jeremy chuckled and grabbed his side. "Don't make me laugh, man. It hurts." He allowed the two men to help him to his feet and escort him out of harm's way.
Charlie watched them leave. When he was certain they were safe, he went over to Lex. "How are you doing?"
"Been better." She ducked when another bullet came too close to her head. "These guys are crazy, Charlie. They won't give up."
"It looks that way. The worst part is, they've got a pretty defensible spot. The cover is too thick on three sides, so there's no way we can get to them from there."
She reloaded her rifle. "How long are we going to do this?"
"As long as it takes." He squeezed her shoulder. "We should be getting some backup anytime, now."
"Good." Lex gripped her gun tighter to keep her hands from shaking. "I'm not ashamed to admit that this scares the hell out of me."
Charlie gave her a tiny smile. "Me, too. I've never had to use my gun like this before, and I've been Sheriff for almost thirty years."
Lex felt better after his confession. She was about to say something else, when she realized it had gotten quiet. "I wonder if they've run out of ammo?"
"I don't know." He raised his head just high enough to see over the bushes. There wasn't any movement from the criminal's camp.
Suddenly, a voice rang out. "I want to give myself up." One of the men stood, holding his hands above his head. He started out in the open, walking slowly.
"Dammit, Gary, get back here," one of the other men yelled.
"No! I've had enough, Ed." Gary continued to walk forward.
Ed stood also, pointing his rifle at the other man's back. "I said, get back here!"
Gary ignored him. When a shot rang out, he crumpled to the ground. A circle of blood grew on his back as he lay still.
"Teach you to run out on us." Ed ducked back behind the fallen tree they used as cover.
Lex started breathing hard. "Did you see that, Charlie? He shot his own man."
"Yeah." Charlie was relieved to see when several of their party joined them. "You guys fan out the best you can."
Daniel, one of his newer deputies, came up to him. "Oscar and Jack are taking Jeremy to the main road. There's an ambulance on the way to meet them."
"Good, thanks." The return of gunfire from the convicts stopped their conversation. "Stay down."
With adrenaline racing through her body, Lex no longer felt nervous. She continued to take careful aim before pulling the trigger on the rifle, but returned the felon's fire bullet for bullet. Another scream caused her to pause, but only for a moment. She didn't know if it was her shot, or one of the other deputies that hit. Remembering Jeremy's pain-filled face, she decided she didn't care. "Bastards."
"Hold your fire," Charlie commanded to his group. He waited, but no more shots came from the escapees.
Lex held her rifle against her chest. "Should we go check on them?"
"Not yet. I don't want to risk anyone."
Wayne, another one of Charlie's men, came up and squatted next to the sheriff. "I think I can get closer to them and see what's up."
"Okay, but don't take any chances." Charlie used his radio to communicate with the others. "Wayne's moving in. Cover him." After receiving the acknowledgements, he nodded to Wayne. The deputy took off, using different trees and brush to conceal his whereabouts.
Holding her rifle at the ready, Lex blinked the sweat from her eyes. She watched as Wayne moved closer and closer. He stood and waved. "They're both down." More men followed. They handcuffed the criminals and dragged them out of their hiding place.
Charlie stepped out of the trees and went to kneel next to the man who had been shot in the back. He looked up as Lex joined him. "He's dead."
"Damn." Lex looked down at the man, who appeared years younger than herself. "Why would they shoot one of their own guys?"
"I don't know. We may never find out. The other two aren't in very good shape." He stood and put a hand around her shoulders. "How are you doing?"
She shook her head at the senselessness of it all. "Tired." Watching the deputies take the injured men out of the area, she sighed. "Are you going to need any help with them?"
"I think we can handle it from here. Why don't you take your guys back to the house? We'll do the cleanup."
"Sounds good." Lex gave him a weary smile. "I've got a date in town, anyway."
Charlie pushed her in the direction of where they left their horses. "Give Amanda and Lorrie a kiss from me. And tell Martha I'll pick her up, later."
Lex turned and waved. "You got it, Charlie."
ANNA LEIGH AND Martha stood in the doorway to the living room. Seeing Amanda and Lorrie asleep on the sofa, they decided not to intrude. "Poor thing. Mandy looks completely exhausted." Anna Leigh could feel a chill in the air, so she tiptoed into the room and covered the two with a quilt.
Martha waited until she was out of the room, and they were in the kitchen. "I'm just glad they're finally taking a nap. They were both getting a little cranky."
"I hope Mandy isn't coming down with anything. I can't remember the last time she took a nap in the middle of the day." Anna Leigh walked over to the counter and raised the coffee pot. When Martha nodded, she took out two mugs, filled them, and brought them to the table. "I just wish we'd hear from Lexington. That would do her a world of good."
"Thank you." Martha took a sip. "I put a call into the dispatcher at the sheriff's department. Carla's a sweet girl, and she promised she'd let me know as soon as she heard anything."
A knock on the front door brought Anna Leigh out of her chair. Martha followed her and stood by the staircase. As the door opened, she covered her mouth with one hand and gasped. "Lexie?" She rushed over and enveloped the exhausted woman in a hug. "Oh, baby. Just look at you."
Lex was covered in dry mud. Her hat was still damp from the earlier rain, and her face was drawn and shadowed. "Sorry for the mess, but I came straight here." She forgot who had taken her horse to the barn for her, and barely remembered the drive into town. "Charlie said to tell you he'd be by later to pick you up."
"That's fine, honey." Martha could feel the clammy skin underneath the moist clothes. "You need to get out of these wet things."
Lex acted as if she hadn't heard her. "Where's Amanda?"
Martha took her by the arm and led her to the living room. "She's napping, but I think she'd rather see you." She exchanged glances with Anna Leigh, and the two of them left Lex alone.
Kneeling next to the sleeping woman, Lex watched her for a moment. Unable to help herself, she reached out with a trembling hand and brushed the hair away from Amanda's face. "Sweetheart?"
At the sound of her lover's voice, Amanda's eyes popped open. She sat up quickly, waking Lorrie. "Are you really here?"
Lorrie began to cry, until she noticed who was beside them. "Wes!" Her arms reached out and she latched onto Lex's neck, knocking the hat off her head.
"Whoa!" Lex tumbled backward as she was greeted similarly by Amanda.
Amanda ran her hands all over Lex's body. "I can't believe you're finally here." She moved until she sat across her partner's hips. It was then she noticed bloodstains on Lex's shirt. "Oh, my god. What—"
"It's not mine." Lex caught Amanda's hands and held them. "Jeremy got nicked, but he's okay." She grinned as Lorrie patted her face.
The child giggled as Lex caught one of her hands in her mouth. She pulled it back and placed it on Lex's lips, chortling as she was captured again.
Now that she was looking, Amanda could tell how worn out Lex was, by the dark circles under her eyes. "I think we need to get you upstairs and into a nice, hot bath."
"Bath!" Lorrie squealed and hopped up and down on Lex's chest. "Me bath."
Lex closed her eyes and enjoyed the love of her family. There would be time to clean up, later.
AMANDA RAISED HER head from Lex's shoulder. They had both gone to bed after Lex's quick shower, and she was surprised to see hints of the morning sun coming through the window. Once again, Lorrie was missing from the room. Her grandmother had obviously taken her downstairs for breakfast. The little girl refused to let Lex out of her sight the day before, so they had brought her to bed with them while they took their "nap". Which turned into about fifteen hours of sleep, not that it hurt any of us. She looked down into Lex's face. "What happened to you out there, love?" The dark circles were still prevalent under her eyes, and there were lines between her eyebrows and around her mouth as she frowned in her sleep. Lex had cried out several times during the night, and only Amanda's comforting words settled her. Amanda was about to lay her head back down, when her bladder made itself known. Grumbling, she hurried to the adjoining bathroom.
The movement of the bed awakened Lex, and she looked around the room in confusion. It took her a moment to be lucid enough to realize where she was. She didn't remember anything after her shower, and was surprised to see that she was wearing a pair of Jacob's pajamas. Her body ached all over from sleeping in one position for so long. Seeing the sunshine streaming through the blinds, she rubbed her eyes. A heavy weariness weighed on her shoulders as she remembered the events from the previous two days.
Amanda left the bathroom to find her partner sitting up on the bed, with her arms wrapped around her legs. "Good morning, sleepyhead."
Lex raised her head. "Who are you calling sleepyhead? I see you're still wearing your jammies." When Amanda sat beside her, Lex leaned into her body. Fingers massaging her scalp caused her to moan in appreciation. "I'll give you twenty years to stop doing that."
"Only twenty? I was thinking more along the lines of eighty, or so."
"Mommy!" Lorrie raced into the room and tried to climb onto Amanda's lap.
Amanda saw movement in the doorway. "Hi, Gramma."
"Good morning, you two. Someone got up around eight last night for dinner, and you were sleeping so well that we kept her with us for the night." Anna Leigh joined them and sat on the edge of the bed. "How are you feeling, Lexington?"
"Not too bad. Although I don't know why I'm tired, after all that sleep." Lex brushed her fingers through Lorrie's hair. "Wait a minute. Did she just call you mommy?" she asked Amanda. "When did that start?"
Lorrie tapped Amanda on the chest. "Mommy, pway."
"Sure, honey, in a little while." Amanda turned to Lex. "She called me that yesterday morning, and hasn't stopped. I have a feeling I'll be hearing it a lot."
Lex took the little girl from Amanda and hugged her. "She's a good mommy, isn't she, lil' bit?"
Anna Leigh laughed. "I wonder where that came from?"
"I'm pleading the fifth." Lex ducked behind Lorrie, much to the child's delight. She felt her hair grasped in two small fists when Lorrie turned around. "Ouch!"
Amanda untangled Lorrie's fingers from Lex's head. "Lorrie, be nice to Momma Lex."
Lorrie put her hands on Lex's cheeks and gave her a kiss. "Momma, good."
Lex felt tears trickle down her face. She had never heard a sweeter sound. "Momma loves you, Lorrie."
Anna Leigh, feeling as if she were intruding, slipped quietly from the room. She decided they could wait breakfast for a while.
LEX WATCHED QUIETLY as Lorrie sat in the floor with Jacob, playing with a wooden toy train he had built for her. They pushed it back and forth, and she would clap in delight when he made puffing sounds along with the action. At Amanda's urging, they had decided to spend another day at the Cauble's home. A large part of her was glad, because she didn't feel like doing anything more than watching their daughter play.
Out of the corner of her eye, Amanda took a surreptitious glance at her partner. Lex had barely spoken all day. Her listlessness was unusual, and Amanda was concerned. She squeezed the hand she was holding. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, I'm good, thanks." Lex turned her head when Martha and Charlie walked into the room. "Hey, there."
Martha sat on the edge of the sofa and placed her hand on Lex's shoulder. "How are you feeling? We were on our way back to the ranch, and thought we'd drop by."
Lex leaned into the touch. "I'm fine. A little tired, but okay."
"Can I talk to you in the kitchen, Lex?" Charlie ignored the pointed look from Amanda. "I just need to fill you in on a few things."
"Sure." Lex released Amanda's hand and followed him from the room.
Charlie put his hands in his pants pockets. He looked everywhere in the kitchen except at Lex, until she cleared her throat. "There's no easy way to tell you this."
"Tell me what?"
"Maybe you should sit down."
Lex crossed her arms over her chest, but didn't leave the spot where she stood. "Tell me."
Suddenly, the pattern on the tile floor was fascinating to Charlie. "That man you shot, Mack Wilkins?"
"That was his name?" Lex felt bad that she never asked.
"Yeah." Charlie rubbed the back of his neck before he looked into her eyes. "I'm sorry to be the one to break this to you, Lex. But he died last night on the operating table."
Lex paled and slid down the wall to the floor. "No. I couldn't have."
"It's not your fault, honey. He just lost too much blood on the way to the hospital." Charlie stepped forward and reached out to her.
"No!" Lex encircled her torso with her arms. "No." She choked back a sob.
Amanda had heard Lex yell, and she rushed into the kitchen. "What's going on?" She saw Lex huddled against the wall. "Charlie?"
"He was fine when I left. I couldn't have killed him." Lex closed her eyes and leaned forward.
Surrounding her grief-stricken lover with her arms, Amanda gave Charlie an accusing look. "What did you say to her?"
Lex raised her head. "I killed him, Amanda. I didn't mean to, but I did."
"I know you didn't, baby." Amanda had no idea what she was talking about. Feeling he was responsible for her lover's anguish, she glared at Charlie.
"Yesterday, when we caught up to the escapees, they began to shoot at us," he explained. "Did she not tell you any of this?"
"We haven't talked about it. What happened?"
"We had to return their fire, and one of Lex's rounds hit the leader of the group. We traded shots back and forth for a while, and he lost a lot of blood during that time. Once it was resolved, we took them into custody, and brought them to the hospital. He was too weak, and never made it out of the operating room." Charlie twisted his hat in his hands. "I didn't want her to hear about it on the news."
"Thank you." She pulled Lex closer. "I'm sorry I yelled at you. I know it was as hard for you to tell her, as it was to hear."
He touched Amanda's arm. "Let me know if I can do anything for her." Saddened by Lex's distress, Charlie left the room.
"Come on, love. Let's get you off this floor." Amanda helped Lex to her feet.
"I don't want to go back there."
Amanda rubbed her hand across Lex's back. "You don't have to. We'll just go home and try not to think about it."
"No, I'm not going."
"What do you mean?"
Lex shook her head. "I can't go back to the ranch. I killed him there."
In the doorway, Martha had heard what Lex said. "Bull. That man was shooting at you." She moved into the room and stood in front of Lex. "Don't you dare feel bad about defending yourself, and Charlie. He told me how brave you were."
"You most certainly did. Had you not been with Charlie, I could have lost him. Please don't let some lowlife scum ruin your life, or make you run away from the only home you've ever known."
Lex bit her lip and thought about what Martha had said. Coming to a decision, she straightened her posture. She knew when she was deputized that she might have to use her firearms. It was the criminal's own actions that killed him, not her. "I won't." She brought Martha close to her and kissed her cheek. "Thanks."
Martha blushed. "Don't thank me. I just told the truth." She nodded to Amanda and left the room.
"She's something else, isn't she?"
Lex gathered Amanda into her arms. "That, she is."
Amanda rested her cheek against Lex's shirt. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah. Can we go on home in the morning?"
"We could leave now, if you want." Although the last thing Amanda wanted to do was leave the warm cocoon of love she was enveloped in.
"Nah, tomorrow's soon enough. Lorrie can spend more time with her great-grandparents this way."
"Sounds good to me." Amanda closed her eyes and inhaled her lover's scent. "I could stay like this forever."
To be continued in part 5
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