DISCLAIMER: Any characters that are ©copyright MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures are definitely similar on purpose, but hey, I don't intend to profit one little bit! All original characters that appear here: Devlin, Sarah, etc. are ©copyright Devlin@xenafan.com. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies may be made for private use only and I'd appreciate if you included all copyright notices and this disclaimer. If you have a fanfic site, please drop me an email if you put this on your site (I just like to keep track).

VIOLENCE WARNING: There is some violence (come on, it's the old west & Uber Warrior Princess), but nothing more than PG13.

SEX: Nope, not this time. (I don't know, is "taking matters into your own hands" considered sex?) There is a lot of heartache, longing, fantasies, pretty intense looks, and one massively incredible kiss, but I'm doin' this one acappella! If the thought of two women in love bothers you…well, as Xena said, "Bite me!"

UNDERAGE WARNING: Hey, the Supreme Court said in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) that laws against making available, online, certain "indecent" materials for those under 18 was unconstitutional…look it up! Besides, this is perfectly "decent." J

OTHER DISCLAIMERS: 1) Okay I have to admit right off I adapted (liberally I might add) the tumbleweed bit for this story from a movie called, "Connagher." It's a great western and I happen to love Katherine Ross and think Sam Elliot is cool! I've used this idea without permission or intent to profit. 2) The term rider, is not necessarily a term you'll find in the dictionary. I've coined the phrase for this story simply because I detest the distinction between the sexes with the terms cowboy & cowgirl.

I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think about it, or what you might like to see in the future…homophobes need not apply, however. I'm at: Devlin@xenafan.com

Winner of the Swollen Bud Award for excellence in Fan Fiction writing


The snow swirled around the rider, biting into any exposed flesh. The golden mare trudged on at its owner's insistence, the mere shadow of a large stable ahead of them now. The rider came to a stop in front of the barn, dismounting with weary effort. Pulling off rabbit skin mittens, the rider blew warm breath onto nearly frostbitten fingers to coax them into movement. Soon the digits could feel again, and the rider firmly grasped the latch and pulled the swinging door open.

Once inside, the door was latched shut again, the howling, bitter winds beating on the walls of the shelter causing them to shake and creak in answer. Leading the mare to an empty stall, the rider began to feel better as the heat from buckets of hot coals someone had been tending to keep the animals warm through the night, rose up and warmed the air. The rider pulled off saddle and blanket, hanging both over the stall rail to dry. The saddlebags, carrying the few personal possessions the rider owned, including the precious notes, were laid on the ground.

"There ya go girl…bet that feels better, huh, Alto?" The rider said aloud as warm, dry pieces of burlap began to massage the cold, tired muscles of the horse. After long minutes of a brush and currycomb, the horse was nickering softly. At last, two large scoops of oats were placed in a feed bin in front of the horse, and fresh hay tossed into the stall. Picking up the saddlebags, the rider pulled up the collar of the worn leather duster, pulling open the barn door, the rider prepared to enter the bitter cold.

It was like being engulfed in a world of white. It did no good to look for landmarks. Even if it hadn't been the dead of night, there would be nothing else to see but the driving snow. The rider backed up against the barn doors and carefully slid a tall, muscular body along the length of the building. Nearing the corner of the barn, the rider held out an arm and wrapped a strong hand around the length of rope tied to the side of the stable.

Hand over hand the rider followed the length of rope that led away from the barn. The snow bit into the rider's face that tilted into the wind, letting a weathered Stetson fight off the full force of the blast. The snowdrifts were now up to the rider's waist and limbs that were quickly becoming numb plodded on. The rider never gave in to the temptation to wipe the snow from frozen eyelashes; to let go of the rope was certain death. The rider had seen the bodies of men who had frozen to death not five feet from the door of their cabin because they became lost in the all-encompassing whiteness.

Never losing touch with the lifeline that would lead to safety, the rider felt the wood of the bunkhouse, and pushed hard against the door, releasing the latch inside. Stepping inside the large wooden structure, the snow immediately began to melt off the rider leaving a growing puddle on the floor.

The bunkhouse was the largest out-building on the ranch. Able to sleep forty men, it was nearly full as the rider pulled off dripping wet outer clothes. Two pot-bellied stoves burned warmly, one in the middle of the room held a coffeepot and an oversized pot that bubbled with some kind of stew. The second stove was near the door where the rider now stood removing a soaking wet duster, jacket, scarf, and mittens. Chairs were scattered around the smoking stove, draped with coats and blankets, to which the rider added a few more articles of clothing.

A hearty laugh came from the back of the bunkhouse and a giant of a man with long brown hair and soft brown eyes, made his way toward the rider, stopping just in front of a grizzled looking cowboy. The standing man held out his hand and the seated one slapped a few coins grudgingly into the waiting palm. Turning toward the rider the grizzled cowboy sneered.

"You got more lives than a cat!" He spit out.

Another deep, rumbling laugh came from the large man, his long strides quickly covering the rest of the distance between himself and the rider.

"Knew you'd make it Dev…can ya believe that iron-headed mutt bet against ya?" He said.

The rider answered with a silent grin, words would take more effort than the rider felt physically capable of at the moment. The rider walked to the back of the room, toward a bunk set apart from the others. The rider stopped short as another cowboy lay sprawled across the bunk that had always been set apart for Devlin.

"You're in my bunk," The rider growled in a low ominous voice.

"Go to hell," the cowboy returned, not bothering to open his eyes.

"You show me the way," Devlin hissed and grabbed the boy by his throat, nearly lifting him with one arm and flinging him to the floor.

The boy looked up at the rider and at the double set of six guns on Devlin's hips, and a mere tick of his eye telegraphed his intentions to the rider.

While the thought to move toward his holster was still only a notion in his brain, the rider's arm shot out and the boy swallowed hard. The movement was so fast it was a blur and suddenly the boy was staring down the barrel of an ivory handled pistol.

"If you're gonna think about it, you damn well better do it!" The rider hissed menacingly.

The boy lowered his eyes and muttered, "Sorry…didn't see nobody's name on it…"

The rider reached down and pulled a large bladed knife from a sheath wrapped around a lower leg. With a lightning fast movement the blade of the Bowie knife was embedded into the wood at the top of the bunk. Hands reached up and pulled the weathered Stetson from the rider's head.

As soon as the hat was lifted from the rider's head, a long mane of raven hair tumbled down the rider's back. She tossed off her short, inner leather jacket and threw it on top of the thin mattress. With the jacket removed, it was easy to see that the leather vest that fit tightly against an old cotton shirt and the pants that clung to sleek curves, definitely belonged to a woman. Hanging her hat over the handle of the still quivering knife, Devlin fixed an ice blue gaze down at the kneeling figure of the boy, his mouth hanging open at the sight above him.

"Devlin Brown! You see it now, boy?"

He had heard all the stories, who hadn't? He knew immediately he was lucky to still be alive.

"Yes, ma'am," he answered in a trembling voice, rising and quickly gathering his belongings before moving to the other end of the bunkhouse.

Devlin watched the retreating figure of the young rider, more boy than man. She had no intention of shooting him. The days when she would put a bullet through a man's heart just for looking at her funny were behind her. Not by much, though.

Hank's voice made the woman aware that she was still standing there, motionless. Devlin moved to the table in the center of the room and sank into the offered chair feeling her frozen fingers wrap around a steaming mug of coffee. Hank placed a plate of stew and some cornbread in front of her and Devlin proceeded to devour the piping hot food.

"Slow down or you won't be able to taste it," Hank chuckled.

"Don't matter what it tastes like," Dev answered, still shoveling the food in.

She was right too. It never mattered. She'd eaten things to stay alive that would have made a billy goat puke, but she did as her friend suggested and slowed her pace. It had been three days since she'd had a hot meal and the food began to comfortingly warm her belly. Once she took the time, she realized the meat was rabbit, her favorite. She found it hard to believe herself, but you could get damn sick of eating beef everyday, but on a cattle ranch what else was there?

Hank reached over and placed half of the coins he had won on the table, at the rider's elbow. It seemed only right to share, it was because of the dark-haired woman that he'd won anyway. She merely grunted and slid them into her pocket. Two dollars in gold would buy a lot of whiskey or maybe just a few shots of the really good stuff…God; she loved the good stuff, maybe even a night at Ellen's. The rider felt herself smile slightly at the thought of a hot bath and a few hours in a soft bed and the even softer skin of one of the girls at Ellen's place. The smile quickly turned into a frown, however when she remembered her last visit. The young girl had been pretty enough and eager to please, but the rider just couldn't get the vision of the woman who had written the notes out of her mind. She finally ended up just paying Ellen for a hot bath and a good night's sleep in a soft bed before heading back to the ranch.

Hank watched his friend as she ate, seemingly deep in thought. It had only been six months since Hank had decided to make it his mission to help reform the former outlaw. Has it only been six months? Six months ago he'd joined up with a posse to help track down Devlin Brown's gang when they'd killed the husband and wife of a ranch up in Pawnee then brutally raped and murdered their young daughter. When the gang left they'd ridden off with fifty head of cattle so they weren't too hard to track down.

Long before they'd caught up with the gang, the posse stopped to water their horses at a spring in some rock caverns. Hank saw the trail of blood and followed it up into the cliffs. Pretty stupid he said to himself considering he figured it was a wounded mountain lion. What he found tucked into a crevice of rock was sure as scary as a wounded cat. Devlin had a couple of bullets in her shoulder and was covered in blood and bruises from head to toe. She acted just like a wounded animal, backing herself up against the rock and practically hissing at the brown-haired man, her hand shaking weakly as she made a feeble attempt to lift her gun up.

Hank knew, no matter what a person's past held they could change if they really wanted to. He told her all it took was to take that first step. He stayed with the wounded woman and much to her surprise, not only helped get her on her feet again, but also never asked for anything in return. This seemed to surprise the woman more than anything else did, she had grown accustomed to using her body to repay and cajole the men in her gang. So, little by little, a bond of friendship began to form between the two. It was only later that Hank found out Devlin had been beaten, shot, and left for dead by her own gang when she tried to stop the rape of the young woman. She had already taken the hardest step forward.

Devlin slept till the clock inside her told her body it was near dawn. She rolled out of her bunk and rubbed her hands down her arms to get some warmth back in them. She stopped in front of the stove, opening the hinged door and feeding some wood into its belly to bring it to life again, then sat the same pot of coffee over the metal plate on top of the stove.

She made her way easily in the dark, the light from the moon shining in through the gaps in the wood shutters and falling across the floor in little slices. She peered out the window as she pulled the shutter open, feeling the wind escape through the glass and push its way against her face. The snow had finally quit falling, but now they had the bitter wind to contend with. As far as the eye could see the plain was covered in a blanket of bluish white, its surface sparkling like diamonds. The temperature was falling fast and the wind swirled the snow into drifts taller than the rider stood.

Devlin sighed and dreamed once again of a winter that didn't mean spending days holed up in a cave or under an ice soaked blanket on the open plain. She dreamed of a home where a fire and a good meal waited every night when you came in from the range. And always there was her. There was never a face, only a voice, and a feeling that this was the one. The rider had always felt this way, even though she would never confess it to another living soul, maybe Hank, but he would never laugh, just tell her to go looking for her vision. The dreams hadn't started in earnest till she'd started finding those notes. Small squares of parchment tucked into a tight roll and tied with cotton twine to a tumbleweed, set loose on the prairie.

At first the rider didn't know what to make of the note that blew past her and stuck to her blanket on the ground. It was hard not to miss the message and something told Devlin a woman had written it before she even opened it. It just seemed like something a woman might do. When she looked at the delicate, precise handwriting she could only read about half the words. The rider had only gone to a proper school till she was eight, after that she just tried to get along as best she could. She may not have been able to recognize all the words, but she felt the sentiment. A woman who said she was tired of being alone, afraid of what the future would bring wrote them, and the woman wept for her aching heart, that couldn't find true love.

Devlin turned from the window and went to pour two cups of coffee. Carrying them both she walked to a bunk to the right of hers and set the tin cups down on the floor. She flicked a wooden match with her thumbnail and it sparked to life. She inserted the match inside the kerosene lantern hung on the wall by the bunk and turned the wick down low.

"Hank," she nudged the huge body that sprawled under the covers, his feet hanging over the end of the mattress. "You up?" she asked.

"I reckon I am now." He answered sleepily.

Devlin brought the lantern closer as Hank sat up and scratched his chest, leaning back his head to yawn. She handed her drowsy friend a cup of coffee and he mumbled his thanks.

"What's this word, Hank?" Devlin asked as she unceremoniously shoved a piece of paper under his nose, the dark-haired rider never having been known for her good manners.

"Compromise," Hank sounded the word out slowly for the rider. "It means, like you settle for something."

"How 'bout this one?" Dev asked pointing to another word on the paper.

"Solitary…means alone."

Devlin pulled perhaps a dozen sheets of the paper from her vest pocket pointing to words she couldn't sound out or had never learned the meaning. She never let Hank read the writing, almost as if she were afraid to let anyone else touch the scraps of paper, as if that would make the dream disappear. He smiled at her when she wasn't looking, her brow furrowed in concentration as she wrote the meaning next to the word with a little bit of writing lead she'd gotten from the general store.

Devlin squeezed her friends shoulder in thanks and blew out the lantern. There was maybe an hour of dark left, everything was snowed in anyway, no sense in going out yet. The rider sat down on her bunk, removing a bundle of the notes from her saddlebag and adding the new ones. She carefully looked around before she untied the ribbon that held the notes parceled together. She knew it was a strange thing for a rider like her to carry around, and she didn't intend to take any grief over it.

She remembered seeing a woman tie up a bundle of letters from an old lover in a ribbon and it seemed fitting for these notes. She remembered also her embarrassment at having to go into the general store and plunk down a penny on the counter and ask for a length of ribbon. The worst part wasn't the way the shop girls looked at her and hoped she'd go away. Funny thing, though…at Ellen's the girls fight to wait on me, in a store they fight to get away from me…guess that's what respectable means.

The worst part was having a young girl look up at the tall woman and ask her what color she wanted. That really threw the rider. She hadn't thought about that part. Before she could think very long she found herself saying 'green'. She didn't know why, but it seemed right somehow. When the young girl held up the piece of cloth for the rider's inspection, Devlin smiled; that put the shop girl at ease. The rider didn't do it often, but when she did, the grin made her blue eyes sparkle. The deep green ribbon was wrapped in a piece of paper and the rider carefully tucked it inside her shirt. Now, every time she fingered the silky ribbon she thought of the woman in her dreams.

Devlin shook her head to remove the picture from her mind. It seemed she always saw the woman now, it didn't matter whether she was sleeping or awake. She could never see the face though. She had kissed the lips a thousand times in her dreams, but had never been able to put a face to the vision. It got a little bit tougher every day, to trudge through the mud, the rain, the snow, and the heat, all without a home to call her own.

She lay in her bunk, turning to face the wall. Hot tears stung her eyes and she pushed them back quickly. No sense whimpering over what'll never be. God, it's gonna be a long winter.

Sarah leaned over and let more of the hot wax drip along the seam of the pine box. Peter had prepared her for this well, and she followed his instructions intently. He had built his own casket with what little strength he had, but he was a carpenter, not a rancher, and it had been his last labor of love. He warned Sarah that he would probably die in the harshest part of the winter, explaining how to seal the pine box that held his body until the spring thaw would make the ground warm enough to dig.

Her tears slid down her face as she finished the tedious task. Peter, please forgive me. Sarah muttered to herself for the hundredth time in the last two months. The young woman cared for her husband until it seemed the inevitable was close at hand. Sarah could no longer hold back the anguish that she had hidden for so many years. Peter would not rest until his wife told him the truth.

Sarah sobbed as she asked Peter to forgive her. She had never meant to hurt him, but the truth was, this was her dream to come West, her dream to be a rancher, not his. He was a carpenter with a gentle soul and a giving nature. He just didn't have the toughness and grit it took to live life in the Oklahoma Territory. And, as illness ravaged his body, Sarah confessed that although she would always hold a place in her heart for the father of their two children, she had never loved Peter the way he should have been loved by his wife. She cared for him and stood by him, but the passion and the love had never developed for a man who would always be more friend than lover.



"Sarah…Sarah," Peter whispered. "Little one, don't you think I know this?" He responded to her confession. "There was nothing more important to you than leaving Kentucky and being independent, I know that. I married you knowing that I would probably always be second best in your heart."

Peter put on a weak smile, and stroked the face surrounded by hair the color of amber honey, looking into eyes that were a deep emerald green.

"Sarah, this has always been enough for me and I've never regretted my life with you once. You gave me a strong son and a beautiful daughter. You've been my strength through all our years together. Please don't cry, little one," he whispered as he brushed her tears aside.

Peter pulled Sarah toward him and kissed her forehead gently. You could never have loved me that way, even I know that your heart has always been meant for someone else. Sarah…" her husband said sharply until the young woman looked into his soft gray eyes. "You're still a young woman. Please don't make the same mistake again."

Peter squeezed Sarah's hand tightly, knowing the words he spoke now would be his last.

"Sarah…next time…don't settle for less than your heart's desire."



The snow was deep and the wind bitter when the sun rose the next morning, but with the help of a litter, her son, and Atlas, a large black gelding, Sarah placed Peter's casket in the root cellar, sealed with wax and wrapped in burlap sacks. Before she had taken his body from the barn, she and the children stood by the pine box and said their good-byes. She watched her children as they gently touched the box where their father lay 'sleeping'. Matthew at eleven was trying very hard not to cry, taking his new role as man of the house seriously. Hannah was only six and with strawberry blonde hair and green eyes the color of her mother's, she looked like an angel. Sarah read a poem that had always been one of Peter's favorites, then she settled Hannah back inside the cabin before moving Peter's remains.

Once back inside the warmth of the cabin Sarah looked around and began thinking of all the things that were now her responsibility. Peter may have not fancied himself much of a cattleman, but they had one of the most prosperous ranches around for its size, aside from Sarah's uncle. Sarah learned two things from her father before he was killed at Gettysburg, horses and cattle. She realized her knowledge of both would soon be put to the test.

Sarah began to pull out pieces of Matthew's clothing from a chest next to the ladder to the loft. Holding up the pants, she realized her son was as tall as she was.

"Mom, what are you doing?" the young boy asked.

"Matt, we need to get some feed out to the cattle up on the north ridge. Actually, I think we should bring them down to the pasture and fence them in. We have plenty of hay and grain to last till the snow thaws, but we need to take care of this place, you can't do it alone, and I certainly can't do it in a dress." Sarah finished.

The wind was bitter, but Sarah brought a large log onto the porch and sat it on its end. Then bundling little Hannah up she showed the girl how to climb onto the log and clang the metal alarm should there be an emergency while Sarah and Matt were outside.

The sun was sinking behind the white crested mountains in the distance before Mother and son returned from their work. Sarah stripped off her freezing wet clothes and wrapped a blanket around her before starting a fire in the stone fireplace. The price she had to pay for a room that was private from the rest of the large cabin was the fact that it was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. She warmed herself and pulled on dry clothes, going into the main part of the cabin and checking on the stew she'd put over a low part of the fire earlier in the day.

After their supper, Hannah fell asleep quickly, while Matthew watched the flames in the fire. Sarah pulled out pen and paper and began to make longs lists of chores to do that were now new to her, along with future to-do items.

"What are ya doin' mom?" Matthew asked.

"Mostly trying to organize my thoughts. It's going to be quite a job keeping everything going until spring, Matt. Once the thaw comes we can get some advice from my uncle. With the size of the herd we may have to hire riders come the warm weather."

Sarah didn't want to frighten the young boy, but winter was a time when the only thing that took your herd was death, once spring arrived that would change. Rustlers and thieves would soon hear that her ranch was without a man's protection and her herd would begin to disappear, maybe just a little at a time, but it would happen. She would be lucky indeed if they stopped at her cattle, and a shiver ran through her body. She wasn't much with a pistol, although her father had taught her to shoot a rifle, her skill with a Winchester eventually besting his. Yes, riders and guns meant power and, unfortunately, in the Oklahoma Territory, you needed both to survive.

"Go on to bed, Matt, it's late." She said still lost in thought.

Once Sarah was alone, she pulled her small journal open and began to write her thoughts onto a small square of parchment. It had been almost a year since she started putting her innermost thoughts and desires down on paper. This made it easier somehow, easier to face each day with the realization that she would never have what she dreamed of. Sarah hadn't been naïve enough to think a lover would solve all her problems, but she felt as if she were searching for someone to complete her; the other half of her soul.

Tucking the tightly rolled parchment into her apron pocket, she carefully banked the fire and went to bed. Lying in the large bed alone only served to increase her feelings of loneliness. She closed her eyes and let the vision of her soulmate wash over her. She didn't know what the other half of her soul would look like, but she didn't really care either. It was a sensation, an emotion that stirred her more than a physical body. Strong arms that would hold her through the night and make her feel loved and protected. Someone who, deep down would understand who she was and what she wanted out of life just by knowing her.

Turning to lie on her side, she let the tears slide across her cheeks. She cried silently for what she realized would never be. So why do I keep hoping? God, it's going to be a long winter.

Arthur Winston looked at the small group in front of him. Good trail bosses, but a motley group to be taking to a barbecue. Out of the whole group he figured the only one who would be able to handle themselves in a social situation would be Hank. Then again, the only woman there would be his niece, and any man here would be a fool to try anything with their employer's niece. Well, the only woman if you didn't count Dev, and Art didn't. Besides, this barbecue wasn't exactly a social call.

Four other cattlemen would be there, each having their trail bosses in tow. The riders became a sort of status symbol in the Territory. The more riders you could afford to hire, the wealthier you were as a rancher; simple concept. Art didn't have as many as some, but he still ran the biggest ranch this side of the Mississippi. He didn't need as many riders; he hired the best there was…he didn't need more. They were good cowpunchers; full of grit and determination, most of them just this side of the law, but when a man paid them good wages, they rode for the brand.

"I know it isn't Saturday, but take a bath anyway…we got a barbecue to go to tomorrow," was all he said, knowing they would follow his orders without question.

When the riders turned to go, grumbling a little, Art turned toward Devlin.

"Dev, got a minute?" He asked indicating she should follow him into the house.

Devlin nodded and followed. She liked this old man who was tough as nails, but as fair as the day was long. He was a true cattleman. He never put up barbwire fences, just let his steers share pasture with the few buffalo that were left, leaving it up to his riders to keep a rein on the herds. Dev had a problem with men putting up fences to show they owned it. The Choctaw taught her that it was impossible to own something as great as the earth under your feet. White men just didn't get that.

"Sit down, Dev," Art said, motioning to a chair across from a large wooden desk in the study.

Devlin sat back into the leather-covered chair, the softness of the cushions felt good on her stiff back. Her shoulders started giving her problems more and more lately, probably from the old bullet wounds. Art had offered her a smoke, which she refused and a glass of whiskey, which she hurriedly accepted. Feeling the smooth liquor slide down her throat, she smiled. Ahh… the good stuff.

Art smiled at the woman, her head tilted back slightly, eyes closed as she savored the first sip of the amber liquid. He'd never known a woman who enjoyed a good whiskey like this rider.

"Got a proposition for you, Dev." Art said interrupting the silence.

Devlin's eyebrow arched suddenly, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I want to offer you a deal to go over and work at my niece's ranch, the Double Deuce." He said quickly.

Dev smiled at the joke then realized the old man was serious. She downed the rest of her drink in one gulp and stood to leave.

"You want me to work for a woman? Forget it, end of discussion." The rider said loudly.

"Come on, Dev, at least let's talk about it. The money will be good, I can promise you that…"

"There isn't that much money in the whole world!" She countered, but she did sit back down.

Art poured them another shot and left the bottle in front of the rider.

"She's got a nice small ranch about twenty five miles south of here. Her husband died over the winter and she'll lose the place if she can't get a rider there to protect her interests. I can't find anybody I trust enough who would be willing to take the job. This barbecue we're going to tomorrow may just be the end unless I can hire somebody for her. All the big men will be there and John Montgomery is none too pleased that she decided to stay on and run the place after her husband died."

Dev just lifted her hat and ran her hands through her raven hair, looking extremely uncomfortable. John Montgomery…what a spineless bastard. Walks around in a dude's suit actin' like he owns the territory. Doesn't wear a gun either. To Dev that only meant one thing. He hired his killing out.

"Why don't ya just bring her here, you got a big place, she'll be safe and sound…no worries."

Art gave Devlin a slight smile.

"You haven't met my niece yet…she's not exactly the kind of woman who likes being taken care of. That damn ranch is her whole life." He wiped his face with a large, callused hand.

"Dev, I know about your past…hell, every kid that can read a dime novel knows about Devlin Brown, but I want you to know you're one of the few I'd trust my niece's care to. I wasn't just blowin' smoke when I said I'd make the offer worth it either. You don't want spend the rest of your life as a rider, do you?" Art asked.

Devlin thought about that. In the past she only thought about her day to day existence, now she could actually think about tomorrow and the day after that. Didn't she feel it herself, the feeling that just scratching out an existence wasn't enough anymore?

"You take the job over at the Double Deuce and I'll see it you get top wages. You stay for two years and I'll set you up with a starter herd myself. I'll let you cut out 25 head of my best stock…even throw in some acreage if you feel like settlin' down here." Art finished, waiting to see what the rider's answer would be.

Dev just couldn't make herself do it, work for a woman. Frankly, the more she thought about it, the worse it sounded, but that wasn't the real reason and Dev knew it. The rider said the words aloud to try and convince herself too, but she couldn't hide from her own thoughts. There was only one reason for turning down an offer like this. People like Devlin Brown didn't deserve chances like this. She had too much to make up for, too many past misdeeds to repay. Being a rider with no hope of a future, no chance at love and a family…that was Devlin Brown's penance, and she couldn't give in to the hope that there might be more waiting for her.

"Sorry, Mr. Winston, but I just can't do it…it just wouldn't work out," Devlin couldn't believe she had even considered such an insane venture. "Just move her here and tell her that's the way it's gonna be…best thing all around."

Art smiled sadly and shook the rider's hand, "Like I said…you've never met Sarah."

"How are you really doing, Sarah?" Arthur Winston walked alongside the corral with his niece, who in turn watched her son turn a spit that held the side of beef that would be the main course.

"Some days are better than others," she smiled warmly back at her uncle.

"Look, Sarah, I know you want to stay here and if an old man's opinion means anything at all, you're doing a great job, I'm proud of you. I have to tell you, though, playing the hostess and charming the pants off these men here today won't stop what they want." He needed to be honest with the young woman.

"I think deep down I know that too, Uncle Art, but I have to try everything." Sarah leaned on a rail and looked at the mounts moving around easily in the corral. "I won't give up…no matter what they decide," she finished, leaning her forehead on her arm wearily.

The sound of galloping horses drew their attention. Two riders came in and easily dismounted. A large man with smiling brown eyes and a female figure that caused Sarah's eyes to widen slightly.

Devlin was covered with dust and grime from the trail. She had meant to stay away from the gathering; that many people in one place made her nervous, but Mr. Winston was the boss. He sent Hank after the prodigal rider and Devlin's friend caught up with her trying to pull a spring calf out of a shallow cavern.

"Sarah, here's an example of two of the best," Her uncle said slipping a protective arm around his niece's waist. "Hank Sutton, this is my niece, Mrs. Sarah Tolliver."

Hank stepped forward and gently took the offered hand. "Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Tolliver…nice spread you got here, awful glad you invited us, thanks."

Sarah immediately liked the man who towered over her small frame. He had a kind face and she enjoyed the way his eyes smiled before he did. As she shook his hand, however she was watching the rider that stood next to him out of the corner of her eye. Sarah felt the intensity of the other woman's gaze and her body began to feel naked under the rider's careful scrutiny.

"This is Devlin Brown," her uncle introduced the dirty rider.

"Oh," Sarah commented.

The rider lifted her head; her eyes no longer hidden under the shadow of the brim. She fully expected to see fear in the young woman's eyes, especially after her startled comment. When the pools of deep blue looked into the emerald green of the younger woman, Dev didn't see fear. The rider thought it looked a lot like…amusement?

Devlin realized the woman held her hand out, the rider gazed at the dirty leather glove she wore. Pulling it off quickly with her teeth she wiped her sweaty hand on her pants, only making matters worse. Dev wasn't used to these kinds of situations, with a real lady, anyway. The only kind of women she had experience with, were the women you touched for a price. They never cared how dirty you were. Not knowing what else to do, Devlin shrugged as if to apologize and say she wouldn't be offended if the young woman didn't touch her.

Sarah took a step closer and firmly took the riders hand, gently squeezing the callused fingers. Devlin thought she had never felt anything as warm and reassuring as that young woman's handshake.

"There's a rain barrel around back by the wood pile, get yourself cleaned up, you two are sitting at the main table with me." Art said to the rider. Each of the cattlemen sat two of their best riders at the table with them.

Devlin turned and headed for the back of the house, as gentle green eyes followed her movements.

Sarah brought out a basin and a pitcher along with a bar of soap for the rider. Devlin stammered her thanks and sniffed at the soap, smiling to herself at the flowery scent. She removed a pale lilac bandanna from her neck along with her filthy shirt, exposing a woolen undershirt, once white but now gray and tattered. The rider soaked her hair and washed her face and neck in the cool water, all the while watching the tiny figure out of the corner of her eye. Dev flipped her hair back and stared down at the little girl, who stared back intently at her. Finally a shy smile appeared on the girl's face and Devlin couldn't resist.

Kneeling down on one knee she wiped the dripping water from her eyes and whispered at the girl, "Boo!"

Hannah squealed and the giggling girl ran right into her mother's legs, as Sarah came around the corner.

"Hannah," Sarah couldn't help smiling, "don't bother the rider."

Devlin thought her ears were playing tricks on her. Only in her dreams had she ever heard a woman's voice so captivating. It was smooth and slid slowly across the rider's senses like flowing honey.

"She's not a bother, ma'am," Devlin answered quietly for the girl, straightening up to tower over Sarah.

Sarah couldn't speak and momentarily forgot why she'd come back outside. The rider seemed to be able to say so much with only a look and the young woman didn't quite understand the heat that rose to her cheeks.

"I, um…I forgot to bring you a towel," Sarah said, holding out the soft cloth.

The silence lingered until Devlin fingered her woolen undergarment.

"Sorry, I don't have a clean shirt, I hope that doesn't bother you."

Sarah looked up from her daughter's tugging on her skirt, into the apologetic gaze of the rider.

"I think we can fix that…follow me," the young woman said after pausing to judge the width of the rider's shoulders.

Devlin watched the retreating figure and felt herself bristle at the command. She wasn't used to being ordered around by women, but she didn't want to offend her boss's niece. Looking around to see if anyone was watching Dev shrugged to a smiling Hannah who still stood by the woodpile, and trotted off to follow the young woman who had just entered the barn.

Sarah had opened a small storeroom and knelt in front of an open chest. She selected a dark gray shirt and as an afterthought pulled out a button up, cotton undershirt. She stood up, closing the chest and handed the neatly folded clothes to the rider.

Devlin fingered the cloth tentatively, not sure what she should do, the last thing she needed was charity. God, these must have belonged to the dead husband.

"Thanks, but I can't," she tried to hand them back.

Sarah could see the pride warring with the sensibility within the rider. Kindness seemed as if it was something foreign to her.

"Take them or not, Miss Brown, it's certainly your choice," she said as she turned to leave the barn. "My son is eleven, but the moths will have them long before he will be big enough to fit into them."

Her son! She barely looks old enough to have the girl out there, let alone a boy that old.

Sarah left the barn and Dev stood holding the clothes, unsure of what had just transpired. She knew one thing, however. She wanted to hear more of that woman's voice. Quickly stripping, she pulled on the crisp, clean clothes.

Devlin walked through the open door and made her way to the table where Hank and Mr. Winston were already seated. Hank's jaw almost hit the table. He'd never before seen Devlin look so…he hardly had words for it. Her face was scrubbed clean and her hair had been pulled back and wrapped in a single braid down her back. She wore a dark gray shirt under her usual black leather vest that was left open instead of buckled up the front. Sarah had just set down two large platters of biscuits and looked up as the rider slowly came inside. Devlin stood and met the young woman's eyes with a frank gaze.

Dev felt the brim of her hat and realized she was still wearing it. Quickly pulling it from her head, she noticed all the eyes in the room were on her.

"Ma'am," she had said in a low voice as she pulled the Stetson from her head.

Sarah smiled at the rider wearing the clean clothes. "Miss Brown," she acknowledged and sat down at the head of the table near her uncle.

Hank saw the brief, unspoken exchange between his friend and their beautiful young hostess. He grinned into his plate, wondering if either of them were aware of it yet, stunned at how hard and fast his friend had fallen.

The food was the best any man was likely to taste for a long time. Sarah had spared no expense, and attempted for the rest of the afternoon and evening to keep the men entertained and happy. After food was served to the tables of men outside, a keg of beer was tapped and the sound of laughing and loud talk filtered up to the cabin. Young Matthew's fiddle could be heard and Sarah secretly worried how her son was fairing with the riders.

Inside the cabin, Sarah and the cattlemen were getting to the reason for the party. The men and their riders had been taking a break to stretch their legs, they began to filter into the large room when Sarah's uncle pulled her aside. Waiting until he thought everyone had entered the cabin he spoke to his niece.

"Sarah, you can't come inside…not until they ask for you." He said, not able to look into the young woman's eyes.

"A meeting about me…how they're going to dispose of my life, and I can't come in. Because I'm a woman?" Sarah asked astonished and beginning to show the temper she'd inherited from her father.

"They're set in their ways…not much I can do about it, darlin'. Sarah…I couldn't find anyone willing to ride for your brand." The old man finished, knowing what it meant to the young woman.

"You don't have to go back east. You and the children will always have a home with me." Art continued on knowing his niece was only hearing half of what he said. "You'll be a wealthy young woman, they'll give you a fair price for the land and your stock. Maybe you could start thinking about looking for a man. I mean, if you had a husband, they wouldn't be able to drive you out this way."

Sarah felt tears threatening to fall. "I did that once, Uncle Art, I won't do it again. If I have to lose everything I have and die alone…the next time I marry it will only be for love."

Art wanted to hold his niece, but she turned her back to him and he recognized the proud body language as his own family trait. He went inside to quietly wait for the others to return and start the meeting.

Devlin stood in the shadows of the cabin as the young woman and her uncle spoke. The rider hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but by the time she realized they were carrying on a private conversation, it was too late to speak up without embarrassing someone.

She watched as the woman who thought she was alone, slumped her shoulders in defeat. She wouldn't let anyone see it, but once she was alone she became just a young woman trying to carry more of a burden that her shoulders had a right to. Dev had listened to the stories the other riders told about the winter the woman had to endure, how just about everything they looked around and saw, had been her doing. Now she was going to have it taken away just because she didn't wear pants and a set of six guns.

Devlin cleared her throat and pretended she was just walking up to the cabin. Sarah turned and caught a glimpse of the rider. The young woman stood there expectantly as if waiting for the rider to speak.

"Nice place you got here," Dev said weakly, unable to come up with any sort of small talk.

"Hurry into the meeting, you'll be able to buy it cheap." She said bitterly.

Seeing the shock on the rider's face Sarah hurried to apologize.

"God, I'm sorry! I have no right to take this out on you…I apologize for my rudeness."

The corners of Dev's mouth turned upward. "You're pissed off…don't apologize for tellin' the truth."

Sarah's head lowered at the rider's way of accepting her apology. She turned her face into the warm evening breeze and closed her eyes. Tears threatened to fill her eyes, but she swore she wouldn't cry. She told herself she wouldn't give these men the satisfaction of seeing her weep.

"I think I'll miss the cedar trees the most. The way they stand so strong, yet bend almost to the ground during a wind storm." The young woman said dreamily.

"To bend, but never break," Devlin found herself saying.

Sarah turned and looked at the rider, not quite understanding her body's overwhelming desire to be held in the strong arms of this mysterious woman. Devlin looked deep into the jade colored eyes, watching with slight amusement as a light flush colored the young woman's cheeks. She looked as if she were fighting off tears, the rider applauding the way she held herself in check. There was such sadness about her and Devlin thought about the reason why. What if everything she had worked her whole life for was about to be stolen by John Montgomery and his idiot friends?

"Well, here I go…bending, but not about to let them see me break," Sarah said as she walked into the cabin followed by the thoughtful rider.

Sarah bustled around the table like a good little hostess. She caught Devlin's eye and the rider grinned conspiratorially at her 'southern belle' routine. She opened a large wooden box and offered each man a cigar, even stopping to light her uncle's with a brand from the fire.

Art looked at his niece and wondered if the strain had finally driven her loco. She was acting like the southern belle she wasn't anymore, jumping up to bring cigars and coffee to the seated guests. He eyed her suspiciously, nearly afraid to drink the coffee she'd brought him after she leaned over and gave him a flame for his cigar.

Sarah pulled a bottle of liquor from a cabinet and poured each of them, including herself to Devlin's amusement, a shot from the bottle. She held her cup aloft and tipped it slightly to the group.

"Gentlemen…Miss Brown…to the future."

A couple of them nearly spit their drink back out, in surprise, most of them just looked damned uncomfortable. Sarah, not missing a beat, swallowed the amber liquid in one gulp, a satisfied smirk on her face.

None of the woman's actions were lost to Dev, even as she was enjoying the drink herself. Good God, she's got the face of an angel and the temper of a whore…it musta killed her old man just trying to keep up with her!

The rider had experienced the top of the line in a number of establishments, but this had to be the finest whiskey that had ever slid across her tongue. Her satisfaction must have showed in her face.

"You enjoy a good Kentucky Bourbon, Miss Brown?" Sarah asked the rider.

Devlin answered with a large toothy grin that she rarely used. "Never before, ma'am, but I gotta say, it's my drink of choice from here on in."

Sarah leaned back her head and laughed. It was genuine and it felt good to be able to regain a small piece of her sense of humor, if only for a moment.

"Well, I'll leave you to your discussions then," the young woman said. She squeezed her uncle's hand and looked up at deep pools of blue taking her in. She smiled into the azure depths and left the cabin with as much grace and dignity as a queen.

Dev was thunderstruck. She had been from the moment the woman's lilting laugh filled up her senses. God, this woman is good! She's about to lose it all and she walks outta here like the Queen of Sheba.

Then she smiled at the rider.

Dev's legs involuntarily parted a little wider under the table, as she felt an incredible heat radiate up her body from her aching center. The rider knew right then, she would do anything to see that smile…hear that laughter, directed at her, including ride for the brand of the Double Deuce; ride for a woman.

No, no, no…what the hell are you thinking, woman?!? Damn, you're letting what's between your legs do your thinking for you! Okay, she's beautiful, that's a given, and she may be a spitfire, but she is a lady, not a whore. There is no way on this earth that woman is ever gonna let you touch her, so what the hell are you dreaming about?

"That little girl sets a mighty fine table," Montgomery said.

Little girl? You yahoo, that little girl has been runnin' this whole ranch for almost 5 months now, ya see that new corral…ya think that little boy built that thing? Ya see those horses in that new corral…think they got broke all by themselves do ya? My god, she got through the worst winter in fifty years without losing half her stock like you did!

By this time Dev's blood was boiling. She wanted to hit somebody real bad and it was taking every meditative technique she'd learned from her time with the Indians, not to follow through with that feeling. She ran a hand over her face and took a deep breath.

"Mr. Winston," the rider whispered, leaning toward the man on her right, "I changed my mind."

Sarah watched as the door to her cabin opened and a line of men with grim faces walked out, grim until she saw her uncle and the rider called Hank. They had ear to ear grins.

"Thank you for the wonderful day, Mrs.Tolliver. It was…um," the ten-gallon hat cast an uneasy eye on Devlin, "It was…educational."

One by one the men shook Sarah's hand.

"You've been reprieved, darlin," her uncle said to her. "Meet your new rider."

Sarah looked into Hank's face, the sly grin still in place. Art pushed Devlin in the back to nudge her forward a step or two, and the rider finally raised her head. The tall rider appeared to be blushing as she touched the brim of her hat.

"Ma'am," were the only words Devlin said.

The look of surprise on Sarah's face was evident, but her happiness soon overpowered it. She smiled again at Dev, causing the blush on the rider's face to deepen.

"Thank you, Miss Brown," Sarah said.

"Yes, ma'am," Dev returned.

Sarah spent a few moments talking alone to her uncle and watched him ride off. The other riders, some having let the beer get to them a little, milled around and mounted up while Dev moved her saddle into the barn. She returned to where the other riders stood, arms folded, making sure they all got on their way, already taking her job seriously. She had promised Mr. Winston to not only ride, but to keep an eye out for his niece.

Sarah said goodnight and easily fought off each of the rider's unwelcome advances. When she turned toward the cabin, the young woman heard the slurred voice of the rider she had just turned down.

"Dev? out here? Kind of like puttin' the fox in charge of the henhouse!"

From out of the shadows Devlin tapped the big man on his shoulder. When he turned, she already had her arm cocked and ready. Her right arm shot forward, her fist landing smack in the middle of the drunken rider's face. He looked stunned for a second until his knees finally got the message from his alcohol-clouded brain and crumpled under him.

The other riders laughed out loud at their fallen comrade. Devlin walked past Sarah who had witnessed the exchange with some amusement. Dev scooped up a bucket of water from the trough and unceremoniously dumped it on the unconscious rider.

Shaking their heads and laughing, the other men threw their saddle mate over his horse and rode off.

Sarah looked up at the tall rider, catching the dark haired woman's gaze and she suddenly felt awkward around the quiet rider.

"Did you need to get your things…I mean, did you want to start tomorrow?" Sarah questioned.

"Have all I need with me, Mrs. Tolliver. I'll just bed down in the barn and--"

"Oh, no. I mean, we have a room around back. It's not as big as a bunkhouse, "she smiled, "but then again I never thought I'd be hiring a rider."

"I think we ought to get something straight right off, Mrs. Tolliver. I work for your uncle. I'd really prefer it if you weren't to tell folks, you hired me." Dev looked the young woman straight in the eye, her blue gaze narrowing.

Sarah opened her mouth to speak and promptly closed it again. Allright, calm down girl…you need this woman. "I guess I'm a little surprised at that remark. You have trouble working for a woman…who do you think is paying your wage, Miss Brown? You may get it from my uncle's hand, but by god it will come from my bank account! I thought you felt differently…you are a woman, are you not?"

That last bit was probably pushing it, but Sarah had quite a temper once she got going. Problem was she had a hard time reining it in once she let go. She realized she crossed a line when the rider's gaze lifted, her eyebrow arching in a combination of intimidation and seduction. Then the rider took a step forward and closed the distance until there were only inches between them, Devlin's height advantage over the young woman making her even more imposing.

Devlin's blue gaze turned pale as ice, her voice lowering, until the words came out as a growl. "I am a woman Mrs. Tolliver. A woman who doesn't think twice about killin' a man in a fair fight nor takin' a grown woman that's actin' like a child, over my knee. So if you want me as a rider on this spread let's just pretend and say I work for your uncle, shall we?"

If Dev hadn't been so mad she would have laughed out loud at the expression the young woman was rewarding her with. Sarah seemed like she didn't know if she should be terrified, slap the rider's face, or spit in her eye. She chose none of the above and abruptly turned on her heel and into the house.

Before Dev could move, the young woman was back and threw a bundle of blankets at the rider's chest. She held a lantern and moved toward the back of the house.

"Follow me," she said curtly. Stopping and taking a deep breath, Sarah continued, "…please."

Dev smirked at the woman's back, enjoying the return of her customary control in situations with women. She had been feeling like a fish out of water, stammering and stuttering like a lovesick schoolboy. This woman with the emerald eyes was a prize, no doubt, but it was about time that she saw the real Devlin and found out quickly that the rider wasn't one to be ordered around like a field hand.

The rider looked around at the room she had been shown to. It could have slept four men easily. She hadn't had a room to call her own since she was an outlaw. Then she'd stayed in fancy hotels and put her men up in the local brothels. She'd seen Cantinas, in old Mexico, smaller than this.

In the meantime, Sarah's small temper tantrum began to cool off some. She quickly realized she wasn't going to be able to run roughshod over this rider. Devlin couldn't be intimidated by the young woman's sharp tongue or charmed into coercion by a few batting eyelashes. Sarah had spent so much time dealing with men, that she'd nearly forgotten you didn't have to deal with another woman; honesty brought about better results.

"Miss Brown?" Sarah asked.

Yes, Mrs. Tolliver?" Devlin replied.

"Why did you hit that rider…was it because of what he said?" Sarah continued.

"I don't care much about what people say about me…I've heard it all. It just riled me when I figured…well, you know there's such a thing as a lady's honor…" she weakly trailed off. Damn! How is it that this gal can make me trip over my tongue just by looking at me?

Devlin ran an appraising look up and down the woman's small frame. "Don't tell me you never had anybody fight over ya before?" The rider asked with a slight grin.

Sarah looked straight into the rider's electric blue gaze. "Over me, yes…for me…never."

It seemed to the two women that a long time passed as they stood toe to toe looking at one another, but in reality, only seconds had passed. Dev was the first to break away, moving to open the door to her room.

"I better go do a ride-through to check up on the herd." The rider said. "You wanna give me the lay of the land?"

"I'll go with you," the young woman said, turning to leave the small room.

"That's why you have me, ma'am…it's my job now."

"But, in the dark? Won't that be dangerous if you don't know where you're going?" Sarah questioned.

Devlin raised an eyebrow and fixed a perturbed glance at the woman until Sarah gave her the necessary information.

Once Alto was again saddled, Sarah came out to talk with the rider.

"Are you sure I shouldn't draw you a map or something…how will you be able to get around?" The young woman asked.

"I have many skills, Mrs. Tolliver" The rider answered, lowering her voice an octave, and pulling her hat down snugly preparing to leave the corral, heading toward the north ridge.

The look the rider gave her, as she reined the horse's neck to turn the animal, sent a thunderbolt like jolt right through Sarah's body, the heat of that impact focusing itself right between her legs. I'll bet you do, Miss Brown…I'll just bet you do!

Devlin pushed the door open to the room near the back of the house and lit the lamp on a small wooden table by the bed. She looked down on the floor at the end of the bunk to see a small chest. It was the same container Sarah had gone through in the barn. Kneeling down and lifting the lid, Devlin saw shirts and assorted pieces of clothing. On the top of the clothing lay an unopened bottle of Kentucky Bourbon. The rider didn't know whether she wanted to throw the stuff back in the woman's face or take her in her arms and never let go.

She picked up the bottle, tossing her hat on the chair, as she pulled two notes from her pocket. She opened the bottle and took a long swallow, letting the smooth liquid slide down her throat, infusing her belly with its warmth. Leaning her long frame back upon the bunk, she held the paper up to the light. She'd been surprised that she found two of the notes this far south. Doing her best, she slowly read the words aloud.

There is only the night sky to talk to…no one else to share my smiles and my tears.

I wish there were someone…some nights I wish there was anyone.

My head is filled with thoughts of a dark warrior riding a pale horse.

One day the warrior rides over the ridge and carries me off, and I am safe in strong arms.

I will wait for forever…waiting for the dark warrior…

Dev reached out and gently brushed her fingers across the worn and dirty parchment, her hand crossing a spot that looked as if the ink had been blurred from a single teardrop. She unrolled the next note and began to read, even though she couldn't really understand why her hands shook slightly as they held the parchment.

No one has ever held my heart; not the way that I dream of…

Is it wrong to wish for a lover that can captivate my heart as well as my body?

Too long have I waited for the warrior of my soul…I am thinking that I will always be alone,

Staring at the stars and listening to the wind whisper through the trees…

All that my heart desires is right here; I hold it in the palm of my hand,

Still it means so little without someone to share it.

Dev pulled off her spurs and kicked off her boots, rolling over to let a warm puff of breath blow out the lamp. Her body was tired and her eyes ached for sleep, yet it was a long time in coming. When the rider finally slept, the woman haunted her dreams, only this time she had long hair the color of wheat and smiling emerald eyes.

Dawn was another hour away when Sarah pulled herself from her warm bed. Days like these, she wished she had no chores or obligations, no one to fend for but herself. On these days, she swore she would pull the covers over her head and stay in bed until the sun was high in the sky. But this wasn't one of those days, and she had mouths to feed and a ranch to run.

"That is, if Devlin Brown lets me." She said aloud.

She washed her face and brushed her hair, pulling it back into a braid. She knew that she'd been acting like a petulant child last night and hoped the bottle of her father's best had been accepted as a peace offering between herself and the rider.

She sat up into the night, reading, until she heard the rider's horse enter the corral. She surprised herself at how quickly she fell asleep after that, knowing that someone was indeed watching out for her. At first, she bristled at the thought, that she might need "looking after." Then for some reason she remembered the blue fire in the rider's angry eyes as she stepped in close to the young woman and the possessive look in her eye, right before she laid the drunken rider out with one punch. She didn't want to admit it, not even to herself, but deep down, she rather liked the feeling.

Devlin paused with her saddle thrown over her shoulder and Alto's blanket in hand as the door to the cabin opened. The sun was just peaking over the ridge, the valley still in the throes of night. Sarah walked toward the rider, wiping her hands on a small towel. It seemed as if neither woman knew what to say to the other.

"You'll at least eat meals with us, Miss Brown?" Sarah asked awkwardly.

Dev smelled the tempting aroma coming from the kitchen and her stomach rumbled. She raised her head and grinned slightly. "Yes, ma'am."

As the rider walked through the door to the cabin, both women breathed a silent sigh of relief at the truce that had been formed between them.

The rider hadn't eaten this good since she stayed at a hotel in Kansas City. Steak, eggs, and biscuits and gravy, if she ate one more bite she wouldn't fit through the door. Dev sat and sipped her coffee while sneaking small looks at the woman who talked and good-naturedly teased her children.

Dev wasn't much for small talk and at first, the young woman's chatter made her nervous, but now, sitting there watching the family's interaction, Sarah's voice and easy laughter acted as a balm to the rider's heart.

"What will you do today, Miss Brown?" Sarah looked across the table at the rider.

"You got cows ready to calf. I put 'em in the pastureland at the bottom of the hill. Need to make sure no wolves or big cats show up. They'll stay away if they see humans around 'em, though." Dev took another swallow of her coffee, "Might need some help…you up for it boy?" Dev nodded in Matthew's direction.

Matt's eyes lit up and he tuned to his mother. "Can I mom?" He asked excitedly.

"Of course you can as long as you do everything Miss Brown tells you." Sarah answered looking at Devlin. "You will watch out for him, won't you?"

Dev swallowed down the rest of her coffee, reaching over to tousle the boy's hair. "More 'n likely he'll watch out for me," she said, standing to leave. "Ma'am." She said in Sarah's direction, tucking her hair up into her hat.

"You comin', boy?" Devlin said as Matthew jumped up to follow the tall rider.

Sarah looped a sack of food around the saddlehorn of her son's mount. "You do everything Miss Brown tells you, is that clear Matthew?"

"Yes, ma'am." The boy answered, spurring his horse in line with the rider's.

"She givin' ya last minute instructions, was she, boy?" Dev smirked.

"She told me I should do everything you tell me, Miss Brown," Matt answered.

"Smart woman…only don't call me Miss Brown, makes me feel like a school teacher, which I ain't." Dev raised an eyebrow at the boy.

"But, mom calls you Miss Brown," Matt said, somewhat confused.

"Well…" Dev searched her brain for an answer, "guess that's 'cause she's a lady," Dev said in answer to the boy's confusion.

"You're a lady too," now Matt seemed more confused than ever.

Dev threw her head back and laughed loudly. Looking over at the boy's face turn even redder, she laughed again. Slapping his arm in a friendly gesture, she gave him a Cheshire cat-like grin.

"Trust me, son…I ain't no lady!"

It was midday by the time the rider and her new companion stopped for a break. Devlin had to admit the boy had the makings of a good cattleman. He worked hard and never complained. The tall rider appreciated the boy's silence, so different from his mother, in that respect.

"Your mom always cook like this?" The rider asked the boy as they leaned against the rough bark of an oak tree.

"Yup," Matthew answered with his mouth full, "good, huh?"

"Damn good," the rider answered. Looking up suddenly from her meal she grinned at the boy.

"Don't you start using language like that, boy, or your mom will take after me with one of those Winchester's she's got over the mantle."

Matthew laughed at the dark-haired woman. He drank from his canteen and silently watched the rider. His body was already sore, but he wasn't about to admit it to the woman. He liked being with her almost as much as he had enjoyed going out with his father. There was something about this tall woman that put him at ease. He knew she'd work him until he dropped, but he also felt safe and protected around her.

Dev had her eyes closed slightly, but she could still feel the weight of the boy's stare. This boy was a hard worker that was for sure. Still, he had an uphill battle, his father already gone at his age.

A crack echoed through the air and the rider bolted upright waiting for the last reverberation to fade. The young boy looked at her questioningly as Devlin jumped to her feet.

"Get on your horse, now." She said.

She didn't have to say it twice as the two jumped into their saddles and quickly rode back toward the cabin. Alto galloped along at full speed and quickly outpaced the boy's black gelding. It was if the horse felt the waves of concern that flowed from the rider. Devlin knew the sound of a Winchester rifle when she heard one.

Dev pulled Alto up hard in front of the large barn, throwing dirt and rock into the air. The rider, along with her young companion hadn't been too far away from the cabin, but it was long enough for Sarah to have already replaced the prized Winchester back over the mantle.

Devlin threw her right leg over the saddlehorn and effortlessly slid from the mare's saddle, while Sarah and Hannah looked somewhat surprised at the two riders. The dark-haired woman followed Sarah's eyes and finally saw the culprit lying on his side near the chicken coop. Dev walked over and nudged a large fox with the toe of her boot. Bending down, she sat back on her heels and whistled through her teeth.

"Good God, woman…you got him right between the eyes," Devlin said in a mixture of surprise and appreciation.

The rider lifted the fox up by the scruff of the neck as Hannah shyly scooted closer to get a better look.

Sarah smiled a small knowing smile. The rider had surprised her by galloping into the ranch, but Sarah didn't say a word. She felt surprisingly safe around this rider that made most grown men nervous. Sarah also felt something she couldn't quite understand at the rider's praise. She felt flattered.

Sarah felt an unexplainable heat creep into her cheeks and she turned away, but not before Devlin saw the blush on her face.

"Contrary to popular belief, Miss Brown, I'm not completely helpless," Sarah remarked as she stepped inside the cabin.

Dev just stood there taking in the young woman's words, still holding the unfortunate chicken thief by the neck.

"Boy, you remember why I told you not to swear in front of your mother?" She asked.

"Yep," Matthew grinned, "so she wouldn't take after ya with her Winchester."

The rider took a long look at the cabin, then the fox, a bullet hole placed perfectly between the creature's eyes.

"Boy, don't ever tell that woman I taught you to swear!" Dev looked up at Matthew with a lopsided grin and winked, just before she walked off to skin the animal, letting another low whistle of appreciation slip through her lips.

It was already late in the day, Devlin and Matt took turns riding over to the herd that was calving. The rider had skinned the fox and was showing the young boy how to cure the pelt when Sarah's voice came up behind them, a tinge of concern in her tone.

"Miss Brown…I think we have visitors." Sarah said looking out across the plain.

Dev never looked up from the animal skin she was working on.

"Yea…they've been out there for a while now. Probably trying to figure out if it's safe to ride in." The rider looked up at Sarah with a hint of mischief in her eye, "no doubt they've heard about you fine marksmanship skills, too." She finished, returning to her chore.

Sarah gave her a little smirk. "Then you're not worried?"

"No ma'am…they're Choctaw. They probably want to trade…maybe need some beef."

"We have plenty," Sarah started, "if they're hungry we could cut out a side of beef for them."

"No." Devlin said, more harshly than she intended. She stood and in a softer voice explained.

"They wouldn't accept it anyway…it would be like charity to them. Choctaw always trade. If you give them something, they have to give you something of equal value in return. If you give a Choctaw something he can't possibly return in value it would be a great insult. They'd go hungry rather than accept charity."

"That doesn't make much sense," Sarah replied without thinking.

Devlin looked at the smaller woman before replying.

"It does to them. What doesn't make sense to them is why the white man would come into their world and kill off all the buffalo, a creature that was wild, free, and plentiful, only to replace it with a smaller, dumber version that we have to take care of. It doesn't make sense to them that we put fences around land that's meant for everyone. What doesn't make sense to them is why we want to try to make nature better."

Dev finished as the two women stared hard at one another. Sarah saw the blue fire rage in the rider's eyes as she realized how stupid her statement actually was.

The smaller woman brushed a lock of hair from her eye and looked absolutely contrite as she glanced up at the dark-haired woman.

"I'm sorry…it was a pretty arrogant thing to say, I spoke without thinking." Sarah finished.

Before the young woman had the words out of her mouth, Devlin's gaze softened. The tall rider looked into the face of an angel and felt her own heart miss a beat. Her icy stare melted into azure pools and she curled the corner of her mouth upward into a half-smile. She couldn't resist teasing the sweet creature that stood before her, so solemnly.

"Guess it's hard to keep track of your words when you say so many of them." She teased, lifting her Stetson and running her hand through her hair, replacing it with a jaunty air.

Sarah opened her mouth for a sharp retort, but immediately closed it again. She looked over at Devlin and saw a smile on the rider's face. It was the first time she had seen the rider display such a sparkling smile and she felt her heart flutter. She's absolutely beautiful when she smiles like that. Where in the world did that come from?

Sarah pushed the silent thought from her mind and slapped the rider on the arm.

"Very funny…you won't be smiling when you have to make your own breakfast in the morning!" she laughed and walked toward the corral fence.

Good, God…did she just hit me? It took Dev a heartbeat to register the interaction, but she heard her own voice laughing as she followed the young woman.

"What are they waiting for?" Sarah asked, as leaned against the fence rail, feeling the rider's presence next to her.

"An invitation. They won't come in if they aren't welcome." Dev looked down at the young woman and continued. "The Choctaw are an amiable people. If I'm not around that's one way you'll know it's them…they'll never ride up to the cabin unless they already know you."

"How will I know the friendly Indians from the hostile ones?" Sarah asked.

Again Dev looked down at the young woman, this time the rider's brow furrowed in concern.

"You'll know," the rider said soberly.

"So, do you want to meet your neighbors?" Devlin asked.

"Yes, please," Sarah said excitedly.

Devlin afforded herself the luxury of smiling at Sarah's youthful exuberance while the smaller woman's head was turned. The rider felt a swell of appreciation developing for such a kind-spirited woman. Grabbing her hat by the brim Devlin waved the party closer.

"Kantakiya," Devlin said to an older man that led the party.

"Kantakiya, Redhawk," the old man returned.

Sarah just stared open mouthed at the rider as she carried on a conversation with the eldest of the group. She felt this woman beside her knew just about everything and everyone in the Oklahoma Territory, but now she was certain of it.

"Ko ah tay, Sarah Tolliver," Dev introduced the young woman.

"Close your mouth and say hello," Devlin chastised teasingly.

"H-Hello…" Sarah stammered.

"It's…Kantakiya," Dev said the word slowly.

Sarah repeated the word up to the old man, smiling sweetly.

"Redhawk, kia tay no see ah squa." The old man said to Devlin with a smile, prompting laughter from among the other braves.

Devlin's eyes darted back and forth from Sarah to the band of Indians, a hot flush rising up to the rider's face.

"What did he say?" Sarah asked, noticing the flush of color on the rider's bronze skin.

"He's just trying to be funny," Dev answered shortly.

Sarah heard a sound behind her and turned to find Matthew and Hannah standing in the door of the cabin, their mouths as far open as their mother's had been. Sarah called them to her and Devlin introduced Matthew, but seemingly ignored Hannah, who clung to her mother's skirt.

A young Indian not much older than Matthew spurred his horse closer and looked down at Matt. The Indian boy's eyes were on the knife that Matthew had strapped through his belt. He wore the knife on his hip, just as Devlin had showed him to do earlier that day.

Dev watched the exchange between the two young men.

"Come here, boy," she called, positioning Matthew in front of her. The rider rested her hands on the boy's shoulders, lifting her head to speak to the brave on horseback.

"Ko es risa too a may," Devlin said, motioning toward the boy's knife.

The brave was young, and tried to hide his excitement.

"Ato," he nodded to the dark rider.

"He wants to trade you for your knife, boy" Devlin said to Matt.

"For what?" Matt asked.

"That's your call. You've got to see if he's got something you want as bad as he wants your knife."

Devlin kept her voice, as well as her face, impassive while giving the boy instruction. This way it would look as if she were only translating between languages. It was very important to these people that a boy Matthew's age already be able to bargain effectively. It seemed important to the rider that these people take the boy seriously.

"He's got a swell belt on," Matt finally said.

"You think you like it well enough to give away a knife for?" Dev questioned.

"Well, I don't think I could ever make one like it." Matt answered.

Dev liked the way the boy had thought the trade out. A good trade was not always for something you needed, but something you couldn't get any other way. It would take many years for Matt to learn to weave a beaded belt like the one this young brave's mother or sister probably gave him. Likewise, the metal bladed knife was a coveted item among Indians because there wasn't any way they could walk into a white man's store and buy one, even if they did have the money.

"Pull out the knife and say the word, ato…that means yes," Dev said, watching as the boy did as he was instructed.

The young brave smiled and slid from his horse, holding both his empty hands out, palms facing upward.

"He wants to know what he has that you want." Dev said to Matthew.

Matt pointed to the intricately beaded leather belt the other boy wore around his waist.

The young brave smiled broadly, " Te on oh atay," he said pointing to his own belt. "Ki ah mena…risa too a may," he finished pointing to the knife.

"He wants to know why he should trade such a wonderful gift from his cousin for your knife." Dev repeated the brave's words.

Matthew didn't know what to say, but he didn't want to look at the rider for help. He had a feeling that might look like he didn't know what he was doing to the Indians.

"You need to show him that it's a good knife…show him how sharp it is," the rider explained. Hold your hand palm down and run the blade lightly across the top of your hand…he wants to see how it cuts."

As soon as the words were out of the rider's mouth Sarah attempted to take a step forward to stop the boy's actions. Dev's hand shot out and grasped the woman's arm above the wrist and held her firmly in place. Sarah stared at the rider, but Dev didn't return the look. She gave the young woman's arm a gentle squeeze, not removing her hand, but letting her fingers rest lightly around Sarah's forearm. Dev was trying to stay focused on what was going on around her, when all she wanted to do was close her eyes and give in to the temptation to caress the soft skin beneath her fingertips. Instead she held the woman's arm against the outside of her thigh and tried to concentrate on the outside world around her.

Sarah had been terrified at what the dark-haired rider was asking her son to do. She was about to put a stop to the whole thing when Devlin's hand reached out and stopped her. Sarah's first reaction was to pull away from the woman's grasp, but when the rider tenderly squeezed her arm, Sarah's breath caught in her throat, trying to ignore the tingling sensation where the taller woman was touching her. Devlin hadn't yet let go of Sarah's arm and when the young woman's son sliced a light cut across the top of his hand, Sarah reached up and wrapped her fingers into the strong ones of the rider.

Even as the older men were nodding their approval of Matthew's trade technique; the tall rider was merely trying to focus on gathering air into her lungs. All involuntary movement in her body halted the moment Sarah entwined her soft fingers into the rough callused hand of the rider. And, when the two boys exchanged their goods, the rider felt the small hand within her own relax, but make no move to pull away.

Devlin shook her head to get back to the reality of the situation.

"Now, hold out your hand and shake hands by grabbing onto his forearm." Devlin instructed.

Once this action had been performed, the deal had been made and both boys were congratulated on a good trade. Again, the older Indian watched the interaction between Sarah and Devlin and took notice of the small woman's hand held firmly in the grip of the tall rider.

"Redhawk, kia tay no see ah squa…no tay ahna?" The older Indian said to Devlin, again to smiles from the other braves.

Dev stood her ground this time, and neither turned red nor released the gentle grasp she had on Sarah's hand. She straightened up to her full height and looked straight into the old man's eyes.

"No ata wa," she said tapping her own chest with a slender finger, her lips pulled back into a feral smile "squa kiso oma a tay." Devlin finished by pointing to all the young braves in the party," Too ah komatay, squa…te ah Redhawk."

Sarah watched the exchange and knew the conversation had something to do with her, but she couldn't grasp any of the language. She knew the rider had taken control of a situation that involved Sarah. Suddenly, the young woman's eyes lit up with understanding. She saw the hungry stares some of the young men were directing towards her, she watched the taller woman's body language, and heard the tone of possessiveness in Devlin's voice. There was no language barrier when it came to emotions and Sarah didn't need a translator to tell her that the rider had effectively warned the men that Sarah was a woman that already belonged to someone.

The young braves laughed out loud and a tall, muscular young man, who had been staring at Sarah the whole time, was slapped on the back by an older man next to him.

"Redhawk, oma a tay!" He laughed again at the embarrassed younger rider, who winced when the older man bumped up against his left arm.

When her eyes were drawn to the muscular youth that was being taunted by his companions, Sarah gasped with a loud intake of breath.

Dev's hand tensed around the woman's as she followed Sarah's eyes. The sleeve of the young brave's buckskin was colored in blood, which now began to drip from the soaked leather.

"You're hurt," Sarah said with some measure of concern to the young man on the horse.

Then, before Dev could hold the woman back, she slipped from the rider's hand clasp, and moved to the injured brave, reaching her hand out to tenderly examine the young man's wounded arm.

Sarah had the brave's hand in her own before Dev could reach the young woman, and the young man had a look that was nothing short of terror placed on his face, not daring to insult the forward woman by pulling away. The brave's eyes pleaded with Dev, however, as the rider gently pulled Sarah's hand away from the young man's,

"But…" Sarah looked up at the Indian and then back to Devlin, "he needs help."

Sarah stared at the rider who made no move to explain.

"Oh, I know…let me guess. I can't touch him because I'm a woman!" Sarah exclaimed, a flash of temper showing as her eyes sparked green fire.

Devlin wanted to laugh out loud at the priceless expression of righteous indignation on the woman's face. Good, God, Sarah Tolliver…what you can do to me with just a look.

"Yes, but it's not for the reasons you're thinking," the rider slowly explained. You're an unmarried woman. In his eyes, it's beneath you to tend to his wounds."

Devlin realized, by the confusion written on Sarah's face that her message wasn't getting through to the young woman. She looked down at her boots and swallowed hard when she realized, once again, she still held the woman's smaller hand within her own.

"Mrs. Tolliver…Sarah, these people hold women in very high esteem, especially unmarried women." She didn't know any better way to explain it than that.

Sarah felt trapped in a whirlpool of blue, staring into the rider's clear blue gaze, processing the information she had been given, and feeling a little embarrassed at having lost her temper so quickly. The rider's eyes narrowed and suddenly Sarah felt the taller woman's pulse quicken under the fingers that lay across the rider's wrist. When she looked down, Sarah realized she had begun to stroke the outside of the dark-haired woman's hand absently with her thumb.

Immediately and without warning all the air in the rider's lungs simply disappeared. She became completely unaware of the people standing around her as she lost herself to the pleasurable sensation of Sarah's skin stroking her own. Devlin attempted to open her mouth to speak, but was quickly halted when she realized that Sarah was looking at their hands, completely cognizant of the fact that she had been caressing the rider's. Oh, God, the rider groaned to herself. She knows…but, she's not stopping.

Devlin knew if she didn't stop this now, she'd quickly do something that would humiliate her, Sarah, or the both of them. With agonizing slowness, she unwillingly extricated her hands from the smaller ones that continued their feather light touches.

The reality was that a mere few seconds had ticked by during this exchange, but to Devlin and Sarah, each caught in their own emotions, time seemed to have gone on forever. One of the horses shook his head, the bridle jingling against his neck. The sound pulled the two women back into the present world, remembering the injured young man.

"I am a widow…doesn't it count if I was married once?" Sarah asked the rider.

It took Dev a second to get back to the place in the conversation they had been.

"You have no mate now…that's all they see." Dev answered.

Sarah smirked up at the tall woman, arching an eyebrow as she did. It was frustration over the situation that led her to what she said next.

"I would have thought you handled that when you told them I belonged to you." She finished smugly.

The rider froze. "I…uh…but, I…" She was completely at a loss. How could she have known? Did she understand when I told them she belonged to me, could she tell what I was doing when I warned each of the braves that I never share what belongs to me? Does she even understand why I did it?

"It's all right…and I understand why. Otherwise I'd have a brave knocking on my door everyday, right?"

Dev gave a small smile filled with relief.

"Yea," she nearly whispered, barely able to admit to herself how satisfying it felt to lay claim to the beautiful young woman who stood beside her.

"It does look like he's hurt pretty badly. Isn't there any way we can help him?" Sarah asked the rider.

Devlin knew she wasn't going to win this one, and she was rather getting used to being worn down by the pretty blonde's words. She turned back to where the Indian sat astride his horse.

"Konoa wat asay…to may satah neah oh?" Devlin asked the young man, indicating he should pull up his sleeve.

The brave began to speak to the rider as Sarah stood on her tiptoes to look over the dark-haired woman's shoulder.

Dev felt Sarah's warm breath on her neck and a shiver ran the length of her body.

"He said a bear attacked their hunting party in the woods yesterday. Said the animal's claws did this. He's just pretty proud of the fact he was the hunter who killed it." Dev said surprising Sarah by knowing she had quietly crept up behind the rider.

"Bear claws could cause quite an infection…besides two of those cuts need sewn up." Sarah said knowledgeably.

"I'm good with herbs, but I'm not much with a needle and thread." Dev said.

"I am." Sarah answered. "I've done it a lot over the years…" She smiled.

"Okay…let's see if we can get him to go for it." Dev said, knowing they had their work cut out for them.

Devlin talked to the brave until she was blue in the face. She cajoled and even pleaded, but the steadfast young man refused to have Sarah treat him. Dev even rolled up her own shirtsleeve, exposing a long thin scar that ran from her elbow to her wrist.

"What did you say to him?" Sarah asked.

I told him you sewed this one up for me and I lived." Devlin said with exasperation.

"But, I didn't." Sarah responded.

Arching an eyebrow Dev rolled her eyes.

"Work with me here, okay?"

"Oh," Sarah said with sudden realization.

Still the brave refused and Devlin, never having been known for her patience, threw her hands up in the air.

"Wanta knoya et too may!" She spat at the foolish young man.

"And, do I want to know what that means?" Sarah asked the rider tentatively.

"I told him his pride would kill him someday." Devlin said shortly.

A thought occurred to the smaller woman. She had learned how to play the game with men because if there was one thing a man valued over all else, it was his pride.

"Tell him I don't think he's much of a man," Sarah said to the rider.

Devlin just looked at Sarah like she'd lost her mind.

"See that bow slung across his back, Mrs. Tolliver? It ain't there for decoration. You want to be pullin' an arrow out of my chest?"

"That won't happen if I say it and you simply translate for me. Or are you more worried about how it will look to the men who think I belong to you?" Sarah folded her arms across her chest and stared at the rider.

"Okay, maybe I am…it'll look like I can't control you!" Dev hissed through clenched teeth. Good God, how can she have me wanting to ravish her one minute and so mad I want to throw her in the river the next?

Again Dev knew she was fighting a losing battle.

"Oh, allright! What was it again?" She turned to the brave and translated the words as Sarah spoke.

"I don't think you're much of a man…I had heard that Choctaw men were brave and proud. I see I must have misunderstood…seeing as how you're afraid to let a woman touch you."

Devlin nearly choked on the words as she repeated them. She knew Sarah was getting to the young man. He looked at his comrades who began to wonder if it wasn't respect he felt for an unmarried woman or if he was just plain scared of her.

Sarah continued on with her carefully planned humiliation until the other men in the party were teasing and laughing at the young man. Suddenly the brave jumped down from his horse and pulled his buckskin shirt over his head. Standing in front of Sarah he pointed to his arm.

"meeho tay!" He demanded.

Devlin gave a look to the young man that told him to back off and treat Sarah with respect. The brave took a step backward and lowered his head toward Sarah.

"Enteah," he finished.

Devlin smiled at Sarah, "He says to fix it…please."

By the time Sarah was wrapping a bandage around the young man's arm Devlin was walking her way with an armload of goods she had traded for.

"Do you have any sugar and flour to spare?" Dev asked.

"Of course…how much?" Sarah asked.

"Just a small sack of each. How about some smoked or salted beef?"

By the time Sarah gathered all the requested items, the sun was setting on the Indian party as they rode away.

It had been a good day of trading for Kontonalah and his party. The old man had enjoyed himself, he rarely went on trading parties anymore, but he had been as curious about the small woman they had been watching, as any of the other members of the Thunderbird clan had been. She had impressed the clan elders, when reports of her standing in the darkness, speaking aloud to the Spirits of the night sky came to them. Women rarely talked to the Spirits…white women never did. Keeho, the clan healer, said she made strong medicine. Late one night after they had offered prayers and the sacred tobacco smoke went up to the Great Spirit, Keeho told of seeing the white woman marking messages down onto parchment and tying them to dried clumps of sagebrush, then using the wind to send them on to the Spirits. Keeho said that was why she had not suffered the ravages of winter as the white men around her did.

Kontonalah chuckled to himself. He believed in the Spirits, of course, but he wasn't sure it was all Spirit doing that saved this young woman's stock. He had left the warmth of his own fire on occasion to watch her, dressed in the clothes of a brave, doing a brave's work. He had watched her trudge through snow that nearly swallowed her up, breathe on frozen fingers to keep them working, and wrestle with the small buffalo like beasts to keep them alive. He had a feeling that her hard work had been most of the reason she had fared well. He wouldn't insult Keeho or the Spirits by saying this aloud, however.

It was always a treat to see Redhawk. Now, what was the name the white man had given her? Ah, yes…Devlin. Redhawk suited her much better. She was more at peace than Kontonalah had ever seen her, and he smiled to himself, thinking much of it had to do with the young woman called Sarah. What had Keeho's vision named her? Ahhh…Salmon…it was hard remembering things these days. It seemed as if he could remember events from long ago as if they had just happened, but had a harder time with what had happened only moments ago. Now where was he in his ramblings?

Ahh, little Salmon. It was unprecedented to name someone who wasn't a member of the Thunderbird Clan, but Keeho had the gift of vision and no one could argue with that. The healer said he saw the young woman's totem as a fish that was always trying to swim upstream. Again he chuckled, as the vision fit with the reality of the young woman he had just met. He had seen fire in her eyes and had witnessed more than Redhawk thought he had, watching the two women interact. Yes, this one would be good for Redhawk.

Kontonalah allowed his smile to reach his face this time. It was about time that his adopted granddaughter found a heart that could ease her pain. The old man smiled because he knew that the Redhawk and the Salmon always made a good match.

Devlin watched the trading party, until dusk and the misty horizon swallowed them up. She scooped up the additional items she had traded the dry goods and beef for, and walked toward the cabin. The rider was hesitant to simply walk through the open door; so she stopped at the threshold, then seeing Sarah's smile; Devlin entered with her arms loaded with goods.

Sarah leaned over the fireplace as she stirred some type of stew in a large cast iron pot.

"Looks like you had a good day of shopping," Sarah remarked as Dev laid her bundle on the table.

"Two horse blankets, 2 horse-hair halters, and a lead rope. Boy, take this stuff and put it in the barn…got something I want to show you when you get back." Devlin ordered.

Sarah was a little surprised when her son picked up the goods and proceeded to carry out the rider's request, without question. Not much like his mother, that's for sure!

Sarah replaced the lid on the cast iron pot after dropping in some dumplings to steam on top of the stew, her hand lightly brushing Hannah's cheek as she stood up. The small girl sat on a stool with her head down, staring into the fire. Her legs swung back and forth, her feet kicking against the stone fireplace.

"Someone feels a little neglected today," Sarah said under her breath to the rider.

"Wondered if that would happen," Dev looked up with a half-smile, "actually, I'm kind of surprised you didn't bring it up at the time."

"I guess so many other things were happening at the same time that I sort of lost track," Sarah replied. "So, is there a reason?"

"I told you that the Choctaw hold unmarried women in high esteem…that goes tenfold for girls under the age of puberty. They're not allowed to talk to boys or men unless they're related to them. Consequently, men aren't allowed to speak to girls until they reach an age of maturity. It keeps…" a small look of pain passed across the rider's face. "…It keeps unfortunate things from happening to young girls." Devlin finished.

"We could learn a few things from these people," Sarah said, not taking her eyes off her young daughter. "I like these friends of yours, Miss Brown."

Devlin smiled. It was a slow, easy smile; the kind she was becoming used to displaying, being around this woman and her family. Wonder what she'd say if she knew I haven't said this many words, all strung together, in I don't know how long? I wonder if she knows how different I am around her?

"And, they like you, Mrs. Tolliver… now they're your friends too. Excuse me for just a minute."

The rider stood and lowered herself to sit cross-legged on the floor next to Hannah.

"Hey, girl," the rider bent her head to try and make eye contact with the tiny figure. "Our friends gave me a present to give to you…ya wanna see it?"

"For me?" Hannah said, lifting her head.

"Uh huh," the tall woman replied. She reached into her vest pocket and pulled a small thin necklace comprised of tiny blue beads. Devlin held the necklace up in front of the girl's face and watched her large green eyes go wide.

"Oooh…pretty." Hannah exclaimed.

Devlin slipped the beads over the girl's head and leaned back to take in the girl's delight. Without warning, the tiny figure leapt from the stool into the rider's lap. Wrapping her delicate arms around Dev's neck she kissed the stunned rider's cheek, settling herself comfortably in the woman's lap.

Sarah was just about to rescue the shocked rider when Hannah turned in Devlin's lap and rested her back against the tall woman's chest. Dev lifted the necklace so the girl could make a closer inspection of her gift, the rider's voice launching into a story about how a tiny girl about Hannah's age made the water in the lake turn blue with her pretty blue beads.

"I thought you said the Choctaw never gave gifts?" Sarah said, smiling to the rider after she had finished the story.

"There are two exceptions to that rule," she said, gently rocking the young girl in her lap. "First exception…little girls," she said kissing the top of Hannah's head, causing the young girl to snuggle further into the rider's embrace. "Since the men can't pay much attention to them, they make them gifts. That way young girls grow up to feel special and well loved.

Second exception…when the gift is left by a Spirit. Actually, someone leaves you the gift, but you have to be good enough not to let them see you. It would be an insult not to accept a gift from the Spirits. Uhm, speaking of gifts," Devlin continued, sliding Hannah gently off her lap.

"I thought you deserved something for the way you handled yourself today. Not a lot of women would have helped that young man the way you did." Dev's sentence trailed off as she pulled a small square of cloth from her shirt pocket. Opening the cloth, she lifted up a necklace, holding it out to Sarah.

"I don't deserve a gift simply for being kind," Sarah said, a slow blush creeping up her neck. "Besides," she said tilting her head up to the taller woman, arching her eyebrow slightly, "couldn't I be insulted by you trying to give me a gift?" She finished by smiling at the rider.

"You, are not Choctaw…doesn't apply here," Dev returned with her own smile, as she grasped the young woman's hand, placing the decorative necklace in her palm.

Sarah held the necklace up to the light to examine it. Tiny shells were strung with a pale bead in-between, a small greenish-blue stone hanging from its center.

"It's beautiful," Sarah said breathlessly. "She turned her back slightly to the rider. "Would you tie it for me?" She asked Devlin.

Dev reached over the smaller woman and took the necklace in her own hands, each of her arms around Sarah's shoulder. Sarah reached up and swept her hair across one shoulder and Devlin's trembling fingers tied the ends of the necklace closed.

Sarah turned to the mirror, the tall rider's reflection behind her own.

"I don't think I've ever owned anything quite as beautiful before." She commented, feeling the smooth texture of the stone beneath her fingers.

"What kind of stone is this?" she asked the rider, glancing up at Dev's image in the mirror.

"The Indians call it Teklia," Devlin answered. "The Choctaw believe that if you receive a Teklia stone as a gift, your dreams will be filled with visions of your heart's desire."

Suddenly Peter's words came back to the young woman…"Sarah…next time…don't settle for less than your heart's desire."

Devlin's blue gaze locked onto Sarah's emerald eyes and they stood in silence staring at the other's reflection. It was the sound of the coffeepot bubbling over that wrenched Sarah from her private thoughts.

The young woman pulled the coffee off the stove's cooking plate just as Matthew walked back into the cabin. By now Devlin had moved back to kneel by Hannah, teasing and tickling the girl's stomach causing peals of laughter from the youngster. Without pausing or lifting her head Devlin spoke to the boy.

"Did you make sure your mother has enough firewood split?" She asked over Hannah's squeals.

"Yes ma'am," Matt answered.

"Good man," the rider responded, standing up and throwing Hannah over one shoulder before settling the still giggling girl to the floor.

Sarah watched as her son's chest puffed out just slightly. She noted that it was the first time Devlin had called him anything but, boy.

Devlin lifted up her vest and pulled out a leather pouch that was tucked into her belt. She tossed it toward Matthew.

"This ought to keep ya from missing the other one too bad." She said.

Matt opened the pouch and a shrill whistle passed through his front teeth.

"What's it made from?" He asked.

"Deer antler…see how they sharpen this half into a blade, then they leave the other part untouched so it acts like a curved handle? It's every bit as sharp as your other knife, so don't go cuttin' your fingers off. It won't last as long as a metal blade, but let me know if you get a chip in it, and I'll show you how to carve it out."

"Dinner is ready…go wash up," Sarah said. Watching the three traipse outside in a row, Devlin stooping down to scoop Hannah into her arms, Sarah felt a twinge of unexplainable happiness. She couldn't spell out just why she had this comforting feeling around the dark-haired woman, nor could she explain away the heat that enveloped her body when the rider's fingers brushed softly against her neck when tying the piece of jewelry. Again, she fingered the smooth stone around her neck. For the time being, she decided not to question any of it, not wanting to spoil what they had at this moment.

Devlin was already seated outside in the darkness, her chair tilted back on two legs against the cabin, when Sarah walked out.

"I think we deserve this, don't you?" She asked rhetorically as she held out two cups to the rider, pouring from a bottle of good bourbon.

"Yes, ma'am," Dev sat up immediately.

Sarah sat down on a chair beside the rider's seat and took a sip of the smooth whiskey. Leaning her back against the cabin, she closed her eyes and let the warm night breeze wash over her.

Devlin enjoyed the sight immensely. She liked these moments when she could gaze at the woman openly; not having to sneak looks out of the corner of her eye.

Devlin was the first to break the silence.

"It meant a lot to those people today…the kindness you showed them. They'll never forget it." Devlin said, wondering how much of what Kontonalah told her, if anything, about what they believed regarding the young woman, she should tell Sarah. The old buzzard was holding back on me, though…I could feel him watching me today, God only knows what he thinks is really going on here.

"I hope they never forget me…I'll certainly never forget them. Do you know where they live…do you think I could ever meet any of the women?" Sarah asked with a touch of excitement.

"Yes, I do…and, perhaps." Devlin answered with a mysterious half-smile.

"Miss Brown…" Sarah started.

Devlin closed her eyes. She knew it was coming, she had only hoped it wouldn't be this soon. She would have to tell the truth, she owed no less to the woman that sat next to her. Great Spirit, the rider thought, I know I don't talk to you much, but please…have a heart…I've been trying, haven't I?

"How did you learn to speak the Choctaw language?" Sarah finished.

"I lived with them a very long time ago." She looked across at Sarah and knew she wasn't going to get away with any one-line answers with this woman.

Sarah simply turned in her seat, tucking her legs up under her, draping an arm across the back of her chair in preparation for the rest of the rider's story. She stared back into Devlin's face with an unwavering gaze, silently asking the rider to continue.

Dev cleared her throat, her eyes looking into the darkness, and began.

"It's been…maybe twenty years ago now. I was hurt pretty bad…doing the kind of things that usually get a reckless, wild kid killed. Oh, for God sakes, just tell her you were an outlaw! I was only thirteen, but I'd already joined up with a bad bunch. I was shot up and had more broken bones than I could count; thought I was dead for sure. I don't much remember how I even got there, but pretty soon I knew I was being cared for. They never asked for a thing…just saw a kid in need and helped her.

I stayed with them for a long time after I was healed…kind of grew up there. Part of me wanted to be like them…like the kind of people they were. Only problem was back then, there was a part of me that couldn't let go of all that hate. So, after ten years, I left."

"Ten years…no wonder you speak the language so well. Do you think you could teach me…so I could talk for myself?" Sarah asked.

"If you'd like," the rider answered. Come on, Sarah…is that all? Don't you want to ask the question…the one everyone asks…don't you want to know how many people I've killed…the things I've done? Don't you want to ask me if it's all true?

"I heard them use the name, Redhawk. Is that what they call you?"

"Yes." She answered, pausing before continuing. "Mrs. Tolliver…haven't you ever heard any of the stories about me?" She asked, holding her breath.

"Good, God," Sarah laughed, "I think I've heard all the stories about you!"

Dev looked at her with astonishment. "Aren't you afraid…afraid to have me near your children, sleeping right outside your house?"

Sarah rested her head on the palm of her hand. "I don't know the woman you seem to think I should be so afraid of." Sarah paused to take a sip of her drink. "Do you know what kind of a woman I've been, Miss Brown?"

Devlin silently shook her head back and forth.

"I was a spoiled brat that somebody should have taken in hand before I was allowed to hurt so many people. My mother died when I was a year old and I became a southern belle who ended up getting everything I asked for because my father couldn't say no to me. I cajoled my father into teaching me how to shoot, ride, and tend cattle, effectively ending any chance I ever had at finding a husband. I was so selfish I denied my father a chance at love and happiness because I didn't want to have to compete with any woman for his affections. He died in the war, never knowing how much I truly admired and loved him. I was intelligent, and I knew it. I had a sharp tongue and a sharper temper, and I used both every chance I got. I married a man who knew I never loved him. I used him just to fulfill my own dream of coming out west." Sarah stopped just as tears filled her eyes.

"You see, I don't think you would have liked the woman I was back then, and I expect I wouldn't have liked the woman you were very much. So, when we hear they're giving out new pasts…I'll let you know and we can both get in line." She finished with a sad smile.

Devlin couldn't bear to look at the unhappy woman; her tears broke the rider's heart. When Dev looked across at Sarah, she spied a tear rolling down the young woman's cheek and without thinking reached out to wipe it away. Sarah took the rider's hand and held it in her lap, as both women struggled to find the necessary air to continue.

"I don't know that other woman you used to be, but I like the woman you are now," Devlin whispered.

"And, I like the woman you are. I'd like to think of you as more than just someone who works here…I'd like to think of you as my friend." Sarah said as she squeezed the rider's hand.

Devlin offered her a lopsided grin. "I'd like that too," she replied. Oh, Sarah…I want you as my friend, but I want for so much more. I'll never betray your trust, though, Sarah. If friendship is all you're offering I'll treasure it for the rest of my life.

"Look, a shooting star," Sarah exclaimed. "Quick, make a wish," she said with childish enthusiasm and a sparkle in her eye.

Dev closed her eyes. It's already come true, my friend…it's already come true.

Dev had ridden further today on the Double Deuce than she had since she started working the ranch. There had been a cut in the herd they had pastured on this side of the ridge. Not everyone would have noticed, but to Devlin's trained eye, they were short by no less than 20 head of cattle.

Hellfire! Devlin cursed to herself, looking down into the valley below. A small herd of cows had been corralled, unattended. She removed her outer jacket and tucked it under the saddle, behind her. Pulling both pistols from her holster, she proceeded to check each, assuring herself of a full load.

Riding into the herd, she pushed one of the large cows in the rump, causing the animal to turn its branded hip toward the rider. The brand felt raised; an indication it was new. It was also the brand of a double letter Z. The brand Sarah used, two number 2's; closely overlapping, was obviously covered up by this newer brand.

Dev started to move the cows out when a voice came from behind her.

"Where the hell ya think yer goin' with that herd?"

Devlin turned her horse slowly to find herself about fifteen feet away from the grizzled rider that had lost five dollars in gold to Hank because he bet against Devlin's return from the snowstorm. Just to the old man's right was the young man she'd kicked out of her bunk that night, sitting astride his mare looking around nervously.

"These cows belong to the Double Deuce…that's where they're going, " she looked up at the two men, watching their eyes and their body language.

"It'd be best if you just minded yer own business…we don't want trouble with you, Brown." The younger man said, his voice cracking slightly.

"I ride for the Double Deuce, that makes rustlin' their cows my business. Boy, you actually thought about what you're doing here?"

I can take care of myself." The boy said fiercely.

"Look…I don't want to kill you and you don't want to be dead. Why don't we just chalk this one up to a mistake and we'll go our separate ways." Devlin reasoned.

Devlin's brim was pulled low. She could see the reactions in the eyes of the men across from her, but her blue eyes were covered by the hat's shadow. For a few seconds they stared at one another that way, but Dev knew they wouldn't be able to let it go. Men! They always thought if there was more than one of them, they'd be able to take you. It only meant one thing to Devlin…more dead bodies.

It was a small twitch, but Devlin saw it. The older man's eye twitched to look at something just over Dev's left shoulder. The rider heard it then, soft like a whisper; it was a horse hoof in the dirt. This time the rider didn't have the luxury of waiting for the men in front of her to make the first move. Carefully, and without drawing attention, the rider slipped her left foot out of the stirrup and pushed the stirrup forward that held the right one, until only the ball of her foot rested there.

Even over the sound of the cattle, she heard the faint click of metal from behind her.

With one swift movement, Devlin launched her body over the side of her horse. In mid-air she pulled both guns from their holster and loosed a blaze of gunfire on the two men in front of her. Tucking into a tight ball as soon as she hit the ground, she rolled twice, pulling herself up to crouch behind a cow. She looked up and saw the two men who had confronted her, dead on the ground. The third man's saddle was empty, but no body to account for his whereabouts.

Hellfire, she cursed again, reloading her gun. It was beginning to get plenty dark and she could barely see a thing, let alone a man coming at her. An explosion rang out and she could feel the air blow by her, a bullet narrowly missing her head. Devlin saw the puff of explosion in the darkness and tried to ease around toward it the long way. Cows and horses moved against her in the darkness, she saw the shadow too late. A loud exchange rang in her ears as the man fired his gun, and Dev felt a white hot bolt of pain sear through her abdomen. She was unable to keep her knees locked against the pain as they crumpled underneath her.

Devlin's brain kept telling her to get up, but her body wasn't able to cooperate. She lay face down in the dirt, trying to still her rapidly pounding heartbeat. She heard the man come up behind her, bending down to pull her fallen body over. She brought her knee up hard into the man's face as he rolled her over, screaming at the pain in her gut this action caused. Dragging her body up, she twisted around and pulled the trigger into the man's stomach.

The rider struggled to her feet, whistling for Alto. The horse came up next to the woman and stopped. Dev put her hand to her side, pulling it away to see it covered in her own blood.

"Shit!" She said aloud, trying to take a step forward and dropping to one knee.

Pulling herself up Alto by pulling on a stirrup, she found herself able to stand again. The man behind her came to just as she was making a supreme effort to mount the huge mare.

"I thought I killed you," he groaned.

"That was your second mistake," she winced in pain as she fell into the saddle.

"Mind tellin' me what the first mistake was?" He gasped.

"Fucking with me in the first place," she moaned, her head bent over the pale mare's neck.

Her sarcasm was lost on the fallen man. He was already dead.

Part 2

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