Tumbleweed Fever, Part 2 by LJ Maas

Sarah was beginning to get more than worried. By now she was downright afraid, but she tried not to show it in front of Hannah and Matthew. Devlin had not come back to the ranch last night. That happened when riders were out on the range, but when it had started to turn dark this evening, her concern for the dark-haired woman turned into fear. She stood in the middle of the cabin dressed in a shirt and pants, pulling on a heavy jacket. Matthew was saddling Telemachus, the black racing stallion Sarah had raised.

"Mom!" Matthew yelled from the corral.

Sarah ran to where her son stood and followed his eyes out into the dark. It looked like a horse, but she couldn't tell from this distance. The young boy held Telemachus' reins as his mother swiftly pulled herself into the saddle.

Sarah pulled the black horse up abruptly in front of the large mare. Devlin was barely hanging on to Alto's saddlehorn, and when the horse jerked to a stop; the rider began to slip from the mare's back. Jumping from her own mount Sarah half caught, half felt the rider fall on her.

Devlin's face was pale, dark circles hung under her eyes, and she moaned in pain as she felt her side press up against Sarah's body. The young woman looked down at the rider's side, covered in blood.

"Matt!" Sarah screamed, "Bring the wagon…now!"

"Oh, god, Devlin…what happened to you?" Sarah cradled the rider in her arms, impatiently waiting for the sound of the buckboard's wheels.

Devlin had regained consciousness as Sarah and Matthew nearly dragged the tall woman's limp body into the cabin. Sarah threw a blanket over the long kitchen table and they eased the wounded rider back until the long length of her body lay on top of the table.

Unceremoniously, Sarah began ripping Devlin's shirt open, pulling up the cotton undergarment. She soaked a cloth in a bucket of water Matt brought in, wiping away the worst of the bleeding so she could get a decent look at the wound. Devlin's breathing was labored and she clenched her teeth together and grunted when Sarah pressed down on her side.

"Matthew," Sarah turned and pulled open the top drawer from a large bureau. She lifted off the lid to a weathered oak box and pulled out half a dozen sharp bladed instruments. "Take the small cooking pot outside and scrub it with lye soap, put clean water in it and start it to boiling. Put these instruments in the water and let them boil for five minutes." Sarah moved to the mantel and pulled down her father's pocket watch.

"Use grandfather's watch and you'll be able to time five minutes. After that much time, take them out and bring them in to me. Be careful, don't touch them with your hands once they're clean, and don't burn yourself. Then, put fresh water on to boil, take this cloth and tear it into strips about this wide," she motioned with her hands, "and boil them for a few minutes. Then come in and put the strips to dry on the rack by the fireplace. Can you do all that Matthew?"

"Yes ma'am…is she going to be allright, mother?" Matt asked.

"If I have anything to say about it, she will." Sarah told her son confidently, placing a gentle hand on his cheek.

Hannah peeked around the stairs that led up to the loft where she and Matthew slept. Sarah went back into her bedroom to get one last necessary item.

Devlin spied the girl when she turned her head toward the child's gasp of surprise.

"Are you hurt?" The child asked.

"Yea, " Dev whispered, "but I'll be allright, Princess."

When Sarah returned Hannah was holding the rider's hand, as Devlin whispered small assurances that she would indeed be around in the morning. Her mother quickly scooped the child up to carry her upstairs.

"But, I want to kiss Devlin goodnight," the youngster wailed.

Devlin looked up at the young girl with a lopsided grin and crooked her finger to Sarah, motioning her closer. Hannah leaned down from her mother's arms and placed a very gentle kiss on the rider's dirty cheek. Sarah deposited the youngster at the foot of the stairs.

"Hannah, I want you to be a big girl and go upstairs and get into bed. I don't want you coming down here again tonight, no matter what you hear. Is that understood?"

The young girl nodded her head.

"And, Hannah…you've never disobeyed me and you won't now either, will you?"

"No, mother," the young girl said seriously, walking up the stairs.

Devlin was still breathing hard against the pain, her eyes closed. Sarah brushed the dark-haired woman's damp bangs off her forehead. The wounded woman opened her eyes and looked into the face of an angel, green eyes staring intently into her own.

"Guess I got shot…" she smirked.

"I guess you did," Sarah said with concern. "What happened?"

"Rustlers…you ought to see the other guys, though." She answered, with as near as a smile as she could get, considering the circumstances.

"What happened to them?" Sarah asked, rather afraid of the answer.

"Dead," Devlin closed her eyes once more. "Sarah…you need to be careful. The rustlers were riders from your uncle's ranch. Keep your eyes open and those Winchester's loaded. Send the boy to Mr. Winston's place in the morning…tell 'em what happened. Sarah, if anything happens to me--"

"Nothing like that is going to happen!" Sarah steeled herself to gather focus for what she had to do now.

"Dev, that bullet's still in your side…what's worse, you've already started to develop an infection. Your skin feels like it's on fire right here," she placed her cool hand on the heated skin just above Devlin's hip. "That means you've got an abscess already starting under the skin. My father taught me a lot…he was very good at what he did for a living. We need to get that bullet out of you, Dev."

The rider's eyes opened at that.

"Sarah…just what did your father do for a living?" Devlin asked.

Matthew brought in the boiled instruments wrapped in a towel and Sarah scrubbed her hands with soap before taking them, and placing them on the table next to the prone woman.

"He was a doctor." Sarah replied.

Dev took one look at the instruments, their blades gleaming brightly, then looked back up at Sarah, then down to the instruments again.

"Nooooo, no, no, no!" Devlin tried to lift herself off the table, but in her weakened condition, Sarah was able to easily hold her down.

"Look," the panicked rider began, "I've ridden worse things than this out before…I can do it again."

"Devlin…you will die of infection, period." Sarah took hold of the riders chin, willing the blue eyes to her own, "Wanta knoya et too may!" She said angrily, losing her temper.

The rider's eyes narrowed as Sarah spoke the words Devlin had used on the injured brave. Your pride will kill you one day.

Sarah leaned over the injured woman and gently stroked her cheek and forehead, tears filling her eyes.

"I don't want to lose you, Dev…I need you to trust me." Sarah whispered.

Devlin slowly closed her eyes and nodded her head to the young woman who had come to mean so much in her life.

Sarah pulled the cork on the bottle she'd gotten from her bedroom, and after helping the rider to lean up on one elbow, she handed it to her.

"Drink," she ordered.

"What is it…it smells like kerosene?"

"It tastes like it too. Just drink it." Sarah commanded as she finally pulled off her jacket and rolled up the sleeves to her shirt.

"Good God, woman! What is this stuff?" Devlin bellowed, feeling her first swallow burn all the way down her throat.

"Where I come from it's called 'shine. Folks outside of Kentucky call it, moonshine. It'll get you drunk in a hurry or clean rust off your tools. Three swallows and it'll knock you on your butt, so keep drinking." Sarah said as she began to remove the rider's garments. It's a good thing I'm so damn scared right now, because I don't even want to know why the sight of Devlin, naked from the waist up, is affecting my body this way.

Devlin had no inhibitions about her own body and continued to drink the powerful liquor, as Sarah removed her clothes. Matthew lowered his head at the sight as he came in and placed the cleaned bandages by the fireplace to dry. Sarah walked over to her son and began to clean her hands with soap and water.

"Matt, I'm going to need your help, but I'll also need you to act like an adult and be a gentleman…do you understand?" The sight of the strong, beautiful woman was producing a powerful reaction from Sarah so she just knew what it must have been doing to her son. "I'll need you to try and hold her down when I take the bullet out…think you can handle this?"

"Yes ma'am." Matt swallowed as mother and son turned back to the injured rider, a half a bottle of the potent liquor inside her.

Matt positioned himself on Devlin's right side. True to his word, he stared straight ahead.

Devlin was feeling no pain by this time, the hard liquor having gone straight to her head. She turned her head to look at the small woman, staring over the table at Sarah's figure, the curves of her lower body hugged tightly by pants.

"You look different," Dev slurred, still holding onto the bottle of moonshine.

"Give me that," Sarah said, rolling her eyes at the now drunken rider.

The first incision went well, the rider barely flinching at the pain. Sarah probed the area gently with her fingers and the rider nearly leapt from the table. She was panting hard and Matthew was rubbing an eye that, minutes ago came into contact with the rider's fist. Sarah picked up a long set of tweezers and a thin needle-like probe. Her son saw what was coming and turned his head, nearly laying his whole body across the rider's right side.

"This is going to hurt like hell, Dev," Sarah tried to prepare her.

"Do it," Devlin groaned, steeling herself against the pain.

Sarah could feel the bullet about 2 inches deep and she tried to work quickly, but to the injured woman and the boy trying to hold down the six foot woman, the seconds became infinity. Sarah's hands were sure, even with the jerking and thrashing, she pulled the metal free from Devlin's body, just before the rider was convinced her jaw would snap from the tension of grinding her teeth so hard.

Devlin's chest heaved and she took in great gulps of air, desperately trying to fight down feelings of nausea. She felt a stinging sensation as Sarah cleaned the wound of the remaining infection, and by the time the young woman was sewing the wound close; Devlin barely felt anything at all.

Clean bandages were packed and wrapped around the wound. Sarah, along with her son, managed to get the rider onto Sarah's bed.

"Matt…heat up a couple buckets of water for me…then go to bed, allright?" Sarah said wearily. "Matt? You were a big help tonight, I couldn't have done that without you, son."

Matthew grinned tiredly at his mother and quickly went about supplying the hot water. After her son had left the requested water, Sarah sat alone with the unconscious rider. She gently removed the woman's clothes, using soap and water to cleanse the mud and blood from the rider's body. She washed the woman's hair as best she could, then changed the linen on the bed. Pulling the soft comforter up to Devlin's shoulders, Sarah tenderly ran her fingers through the still damp hair before turning away.

Sarah was bone tired, more so from fear and tension, rather than the actual need for rest. She removed her shirt, clad only in her cotton camisole, when she heard a moan from the bed.

Devlin moved and her eyes fluttered open but seemed not able to focus. Sarah came and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Devlin? Dev?" she asked.

The rider found her voice, taking in the exciting vision before her.

"You, look a lot different!" she leered.

"You, are drunk," Sarah laughed quietly.

"Oh, no," Devlin slurred her words badly. "If I was drunk, could I do this?"

Before Sarah had a chance to react, Dev's hand shot up to the small of her back, pressing Sarah down against the rider's chest, the injured woman's mouth quickly took possession of Sarah's before the young woman had a chance to protest.

At first Sarah was shocked and surprised. She felt the rider's lips on her own, strong hands moving up to caress her face, then Dev's tongue brushed lightly against the lips that began to involuntarily move in response to the rider's passion.

Dev's arms once again encircled the young woman. Sarah knew she had to stop what was happening, but when the warmth of the rider's tongue entered her mouth, she lost herself completely to the physical sensations. She not only allowed the kiss to happen, but had somehow become a willing participant.

Devlin's mouth found it's way to her earlobe, sucking on the tender flesh.

"Oh, god, woman…I want you," the rider groaned.

It had been so long since she'd experienced physical intimacy with anyone, that Sarah's body betrayed her with a torrent of physical needs and desires, all of them, being met by the woman who now held Sarah in her arms.

The rider's hand pressed firmly against Sarah's breast, her thumb gently stroking the nipple into a hardened point. Devlin took the young woman in another dizzying kiss, removing her hand from Sarah's chest. The rider pulled the blanket down, just to the top of the dark curls between her legs. Grasping Sarah's small hand in her own, the rider placed the young woman's hand over her own breast, running it along her torso until Sarah's fingers brushed the light down of hair below the rider's abdomen, then she pulled the hand back to her breast. She kneaded the hand under her own, pressing Sarah's fingers against a nipple already hardened and erect with desire.

Suddenly the rider's movements stopped as quickly as they had begun. Her arm hit the bed just as the inebriated woman passed out completely, leaving Sarah's panting form somewhat relieved and highly frustrated all at once.

The young woman slipped from the bed to the floor, holding her head in her hands.

"Good, God!" she moaned aloud.

Devlin couldn't remember when her head had felt this bad. It was pounding like she'd been on a three day drunk. She couldn't suppress the groan that escaped from her throat when she opened her eyes, the sunlight bathing the entire room in a white light.

Sarah was on her feet at once as soon as she heard the rider's voice. She hastily pulled the shirt back on that she had worn the previous evening. Every muscle in her back was sore after spending the night in the wooden rocking chair; she had pulled into the bedroom.

Kneeling beside the rider, Sarah's cool hand brushed away the dark locks from the rider's face, the young woman's hand still felt the fever within the rider. Devlin's eyes opened and her soft blue gaze fixed on the smiling face of the woman above her.

"Hi," Sarah smiled.

"Why is it so damn bright in here?" was the surly rider's only answer.

Sarah laughed and stood, moving to the window and pulling the heavy curtains across the opening. Devlin's body seemed to relax a little; the darkness hadn't done a thing for the pain in her head, however.

"Wasn't I shot in the gut?" The rider whispered hoarsely.

"Pretty much," Sarah answered.

"Then why does my head feel like it just got stomped by a bull?"

"Oh," Sarah looked a little guilty. "I guess that was the moonshine."

"The moon--what?" The rider asked.

"Let me get you something for that head first," Sarah walked out of the bedroom and returned with a cup, a pitcher of water, and a small bottle of colorless liquid. She poured a cup of water, then placed a few drops of the clear liquid into the cup.

"This tastes bitter, but it's just a pain killer…it will make you sleepy, though." Sarah instructed.

"No…I need to get up," Devlin said, using all her strength just to get in a sitting position. The pain in the rider's side was like someone had just jabbed a hot poker into her middle. The groan of agony she let out then made her reach for her head, to stop the throbbing there. Finally, she knew she'd been beat, when Sarah put both hands on her shoulders and very effectively held her down.



Just like that they had escalated their friendship to a first name basis. There were no momentous decisions about propriety, no heartfelt discussion. Just two women staring daggers at one another, wondering who would break first.

The rider tried to intimidate the young woman with one of her famous stares, but it never seems to work if the person isn't afraid of you in the first place.

"Oh, give it to me," the rider held her hand out for the cup, downing it all in two long swallows.

"Why is it, medicine is supposed to be so good for you, but it always tastes so bad." Devlin groaned, making a face at the bitter tasting liquid.

Sarah pushed the rider further into the covers, pulling them around her shoulders.

"Well, the next time I'll put some honey in it just like I do for Hannah," Sarah returned. "Would that make you feel better?" she asked with mock sweetness.

"Yes," Devlin answered with as close to a pout as six feet of former outlaw can get.

"You're enjoying this…being in control, aren't you?" Dev asked.

"Relishing every moment of it!" Sarah replied with a wide grin.

Devlin seemed to realize at that moment that she was completely naked under the covers.

"Where are my clothes?" The dark-haired woman asked.

"Oh…I had to take them off to…well, I was going to wash…" Sarah began to stammer.

Sarah looked down into the rider's electric blue eyes, which seemed to be filled with amusement at the stammering woman. Sarah became a little perturbed at herself for her reaction, she didn't like losing her composure when she had been in full control only seconds before. Stopping to give the rider a look of superiority, she turned her back.

"I thought if you were naked I stood a better chance of keeping you in bed!" Sarah winced; not sure she liked the way that came out, but proceeded to ignore Devlin's amused reaction.

"Sarah…" the rider drawled out the young woman's name.

Sarah had turned her back to pull clean clothes for herself from a large chest of drawers. A definite shiver ran through her upon hearing her name roll of the rider's tongue that way. She slowly turned, afraid she might see the rider standing, naked, behind her. Of course, from somewhere unknown, very deep inside her, from a place that wouldn't even admit she felt that way, she was also desperately afraid she wouldn't.

The medicine had begun to work it's magic as Devlin leaned painlessly up on one elbow, the blanket slipping off her shoulder slightly, one eyebrow arching under ebony bangs in that familiar combination of intimidation and seduction.

"Sarah, do you really think if I wanted to get up out of this bed, being naked would stop me?" Devlin said, lowering her voice an octave.

Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but no sounds came out. Her face began to turn red as she turned back away from the rider. Devlin lay back down, a smug smile of satisfaction on her lips, as she realized the effect the visual image that was assaulting Sarah's brain, was having on the smaller woman.

A knock on the door saved both women from having to continue the conversation any further.

"Come in," Sarah called out.

"Got your water mom," Matthew came through the door with a bucket in each hand.

"Son, you are a complete godsend! Every muscle in my body needs this!" his mother replied.

Sarah walked to the far end of the large bedroom and pulled back the heavy curtains that led to a small alcove. From where she lay, Devlin took in the site of a large porcelain and brass tub. Matthew began pouring the buckets of water into the tub, as Sarah poured a small amount of liquid into the steaming water. Instantly the room was filled with the fresh scent of sandalwood.

Dev let out a low whistle at the sight of the tub.

"I haven't seen a tub like that since--" she faltered, halting in mid sentence.

Sarah had her back to the rider and smiled. She knew the only other place within a hundred miles of them, that had a tub like this, was in town at Ellen's place. She didn't smile from the knowledge that the beautiful rider had visited Ellen's establishment, but more so because Devlin had stopped herself, embarrassed at Sarah's reaction. Oh, Dev…if you only knew. Then Sarah's smile seemed to disappear at the thought of the dark-haired woman experiencing the favors of the girls at Ellen's. Did Devlin kiss them…touch them as she had Sarah last night? The young woman didn't quite understand what she was experiencing, but it felt a lot like…jealousy.

Matt poured the last bucket in and turned, shaking Sarah from her thoughts. He grinned at the rider as he left to get more water.

Devlin took in the large bruise Matthew was sporting over his right eye.

"How'd he get that shiner?" Dev asked Sarah.

Sarah didn't want to make the rider feel any worse, but she didn't want to lie to her either.

"He held you down last night while I took the bullet out of you." Was Sarah's only reply.

A look of pain settled on Devlin's face and she quietly watched as the boy made half a dozen more trips before he had filled the large tub. He started to leave the room, but Dev called him back.

"Matt…" she had never used his name before and it sounded rather strange to the young boy's ears.

"Pull up a seat," she said, as he turned over the bucket in his hand and sat next to the bed. She stared at the boy for a long minute, unsure of how to begin.

"I got a kick like a mule, don't I?" she gave him a lopsided grin and the boy smiled back, gingerly rubbing the area of the bruise.

"Sure do…never knew a woman could be that strong. You gonna be okay?" he asked.

"Yep…takes more'n one bullet to stop me." Devlin sat with the boy for a few more minutes giving him instructions on which herd to pull in where. She also asked him to ride to his uncle's ranch, giving him explicit orders on what to tell Mr. Winston and to get Hank's help in bringing in the lost herd.

Once Matthew had gone Devlin's eyes felt like lead and she could barely keep them open. Sarah came into the room with fresh bandages and the rider knew this wasn't going to be good news.

"Dev, I want to take a look at your wound and change the bandages," Sarah said as she sat down on the edge of the bed, next to the rider.

"It's okay, I can do it," Devlin said trying to stifle a yawn.

Sarah didn't want to embarrass either of them further so she lifted the blanket at the middle of the rider's body, leaving her body covered, except for the spot of her injury.

Devlin tried to grasp Sarah's hand to stop the young woman's progress, but the rider's muscles had gone weak as she fought against the medicine.

"You waited till now because you knew I'd be too tired to fight you, didn't you?" Devlin asked.

"Yep," Sarah answered.

"Sarah…you are a sneaky, devilish woman…you remind me of me." Devlin's eyes closed wearily, but a broad smile stretched across her face.

Sarah removed the old bandages, examining the wound. The area was still red and swollen, but she couldn't tell if it was because of the trauma of the surgery or an infection. Just when Sarah thought Devlin had fallen asleep; she heard a sharp intake of breath by the rider.

"I'm sorry if this hurts, Dev" Sarah said.

Devlin was suddenly having trouble with the proximity of the young woman's hands. Sarah changed the cloth bandages, resting her hand lightly on the flat hollow of skin where the rider's leg met her abdomen.

"You still have a slight fever," Sarah remarked. "Your skin still feels pretty warm."

You're telling me! Devlin thought inside her sleep-fogged brain, hoping she hadn't said that aloud. The rider closed her eyes tighter, fighting against the feel of Sarah's hands attending to her just inches away from where the rider desperately wanted the young woman's hands to be attending to her. Dev simply bit her lip until Sarah pulled the blanket back over her.

Sarah gave the woman a sip of water and gently brushed the hair off her face.

"Sarah…you saved my life last night, thank you," Dev said. She took Sarah's free hand in her own and held it as the young woman continued to stroke the rider's forehead.

"I guess that makes us even, then." Sarah replied in a whisper.

"Hhmmm?" Dev asked, her eyes closed, enjoying the young woman's gentle touch.

"You saved my life the day you rode onto this ranch," Sarah said softly. "Get some sleep, now," she finished as she attempted to move away.

Devlin's fingers tightened around the ones in her hand, pulling Sarah back.

The young woman smiled at the rider.

"Want me to stay till you fall asleep?" Sarah asked, renewing her gentle caresses on the rider's face and brow.

Devlin felt herself slipping away as she nodded her head, once again feeling the gentling touch of the young woman's hands. She knew she didn't deserve this sort of kindness, but the medicine had lowered her reserve enough for her to ask for the soothing contact. She couldn't remember if it was reality or a dream, when she felt cool lips press softly against her forehead and murmur sweet words of comfort.

Devlin ran a fever on and off for the next three days, causing her body's delay in the healing process. Sarah cared for the dark-haired woman during that time, feeding, bathing, and offering strong arms to hold the woman. Sarah knew that if the rider had been completely aware of what was going on around her, she would have never let the young woman hold her as she did. As it turned out, during the times when Devlin thrashed about in a fever, the only thing to calm the beautiful woman had been for Sarah to open her arms, the rider snuggling into the caring embrace.

Hannah stomped into the bedroom; the rider opened one eye to look down at the tiny creature. The little girl was clad only in her cotton slip and had a major pout going, her small arms folded against her chest.

Dev couldn't help the smile that found it's way to her face.

"What's this all about, Princess?" The rider asked.

"I hate naps!"

"Me too," the rider agreed just as Sarah entered the room.

"Hannah Marie, what are you doing in here?" Sarah exclaimed.

Children can be some of the best liars and the fastest thinkers around. Without batting an eye, Hannah jumped onto the covers with Devlin, curling herself in a ball into the crook of the rider's arm.

"Devlin wanted me to take a nap with her," she said convincingly.

"Oh, she did, did she?" Sarah looked at her daughter and then at the rider, who gestured to let the young girl stay.

Sarah laid a gentle hand on the rider's forehead, happy about the fact that she was cool to the touch, and that her eyes no longer held their fever induced haze.

"Am I all better, mom?" Devlin's sarcasm was not lost on the young woman.

"Very funny," she replied.

"Do me a favor and load my guns," Devlin indicated the pistols that Sarah kept on the bedside table, close to the rider.

"What for?" Sarah asked, perplexed.

"Because if you don't let me up soon, to at least go to the outhouse by myself, instead of using that thing" she indicated the chamber pot that sat on the floor, then she covered Hannah's ears with both of her hands, "I'm going to shoot myself!"

Sarah simply laughed at the rider.

"Allright then ladies…get some sleep," Sarah said quietly, pulling the curtains to darken the room.

"Good to see you again, Mrs. Tolliver." Hank said, extending his hand.

"You too, Mr. Sutton," Sarah returned the handshake. "Thank you for helping Matt bring that herd in."

"Well, Mrs. Tolliver, I figured out pretty quick that Matt here could have done it by himself, but I was glad to oblige. I figure he must have had a good teacher."

They both knew the huge man was referring to Devlin.

"How's Dev doing?" He said seriously.

"She had a pretty rough time for a while fighting off an infection, but I think all she has to do now is let her body heal. That is, of course, provided I can force her to rest any longer." Sarah laughed.

Hank joined in the woman's laughter, realizing she had an uphill battle caring for his friend.

"Keepin' her down's kinda like climbin' a greased pole, huh?" He grinned.

"Why don't we take a peek and see if she's awake…I know she wants to talk to you about what happened." Sarah said, moving toward the bedroom, Hank following behind.

Sarah quietly opened the bedroom door and the sight that met her, touched her heart like no other. Devlin was lying on her back, her long body stretched across the large bed, sound asleep. Curled into a little ball, her head on the rider's shoulder, was Hannah, Devlin's arm wrapped protectively around the tiny figure.

Sarah and Hank both backed out of the room without a sound. Neither of them spoke until they were outside of the house again.

"Well, guess if I didn't see that with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it." Smiled the rider. "Probably best if you don't tell Dev I saw her that way, if ya know what I mean."

Sarah smiled back at the rider. "I agree…it seems that allowing others see her when she's vulnerable, isn't one of those many skills she raves about."

Hank pulled the reins over his horse's neck and prepared to mount before reaching out to shake Sarah's hand.

"You're a special woman, Mrs. Tolliver. Don't bother arguing with me," he added when Sarah opened her mouth to speak, " 'cause we both know that Devlin wouldn't let herself be taken care of by just anybody. This is only the third time in her life I've ever known her to accept help from somebody else. That kind of trust don't come easy to her."

"She's told me about her time with the Choctaw, and of course there's now…when was the third?" Sarah asked.

"That's when she and I met," Hank replied, then proceeded to tell Sarah the story of how he met and cared for the wounded outlaw. He left out the part about why Devlin had been attacked by her own men. He didn't feel completely comfortable talking about his friend without her knowledge. He did tell her how much he had come to care for the woman after that.

"You two became…lovers, then?" Sarah asked, not really understanding why she felt such trepidation in hearing the answer.

Hank watched the young woman's face, and in that instant he knew. Perhaps it was the way her head lowered as she waited for the answer, or the way her green eyes turned just a little greener. Envy, little one? You don't even know it yourself yet, do you? Boy, when you two figure it out, there's gonna be a whole mess of fireworks!

"No, ma'am," Hank answered. Then he decided to put his trust in this special woman. "Dev's not exactly my type."

"Not your type? A beautiful, strong woman…not your type?" Sarah said with astonishment.

"Well, you see…the key word there is woman," Hank said, hoping she would understand without him having to elaborate any further.

"Oh," Sarah said, not understanding. She and the rider just stared at each other for a long moment.

"Ohhhhh!" Sarah said as full realization hit her.

Then the young woman smiled at the rider. She wanted to put him at ease, but she was also feeling something else, something that actually made her happy to hear that Devlin and Hank weren't involved that way.

"Course, I'd be real obliged if you weren't to pass that on, Mrs. Tolliver…especially to your uncle."

Sarah grasped the large man's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"I understand, please don't worry about that."

They warmly shook hands and Hank promised he would ride back at the end of the week to check up on their patient. Sarah watched as the man rode away, then she walked past the house toward the vegetable garden. Bending down to pull some errant weeds out of the soft earth, Sarah thought about what Hank had told her about himself. It didn't matter to her one way or another how others lived their lives, as long as they afforded her the same consideration. She mulled over the way she felt when she thought Devlin and Hank had been involved. Wasn't it the same feeling that tugged at her this morning, as her mind visualized Devlin at Ellen's place? Am I jealous?

She stopped and looked up from her task as she pondered the words. No, no, no…this isn't happening. Then Sarah remembered Devlin's hand pressing her own against the wounded woman's breast, the way the small area of hardened flesh felt under her fingertips. The memory was enough to cause a heat within her body that made itself known right between her legs.

Then there was the necklace. Ever since the evening she put the stone on she had indeed had the most vivid dreams. Hadn't Devlin said that the Choctaw believed if you were given a Teklia stone as a gift, you would dream of your heart's desire? Every night since then, Sarah had dreamed of the beautiful, dark-haired rider. Some of the dreams were quite innocent, but most of them ended just before Devlin would touch Sarah the way the young woman wanted the rider to touch her. Actually I don't even know if that's possible!

Then there were the words Devlin had whispered in her ear… Oh, god, woman…I want you…evidently the rider thought enjoying that kind of pleasure with another woman was very possible!

Then there was the kiss.

By this time Sarah was washing her face and hands outside the back of the house. She wiped them dry on the coarse towel she had set there earlier. Sarah, come to your senses. This is another woman we're talking about here…your friend! A wild, beautiful woman trying just as hard as you to ride away from her past. Oh God, am I thinking with my body here? Yes, she obviously enjoys women in her bed, but you don't…do you?

This is ridiculous! She doesn't want you that way, Sarah! Even if she DID like women, and she DID kiss you, it was only because she was dead drunk. She didn't even remember doing it the next morning. Let's face it…a widow with two children is hardly the type for a six-foot, dark haired, blue eyed rider.

Tears filled Sarah's eyes, spilling onto her cheeks. She rushed away from the house and stood alone on the prairie as the sobs shook her small frame, leaving her spent and shaking.

Might as well face it…if you're waiting for an ex-outlaw to give you her heart, you're going to be alone for a very long time.

When she returned to the house, she silently made her way into the bedroom. Hannah and the rider still lay sleeping on the bed, Devlin having successfully kicked most of the blankets off her legs. Sarah splashed cool water on her face, then turned to replace the covers onto the 2 sleeping forms.

Devlin slept in a pale blue shirt Sarah had provided from the chest of clothes given to the rider. Sarah couldn't help but take in the long legs and muscular thighs before she re-covered them with a blanket. The young woman tried to fight against more tears that were just beneath the surface. Suddenly a hand gripped her own.

Sarah looked up in surprise to the sleepy eyes of the rider.

"Are you playing mom again?" Devlin teased, whispering so as not to wake Hannah.

"Yes," Sarah smiled back.

That was when Devlin noticed Sarah's red, puffy eyes. It was obvious the woman had been crying, but Devlin had no idea why. It absolutely broke her heart to see the young woman unhappy.

"Sarah, are you allright?" She asked, pulling the young woman closer, until she sat on the bed.

"Yes," she replied softly. "I guess I just get like this sometimes…I'm allright."

Sarah gently caressed her sleeping daughter's face, the youngster turning and snuggling into her mother's warm embrace. Sarah gently rocked the child until she was certain she had drifted off again.

Devlin watched the woman and thought she'd never seen anything as loving as the way Sarah held her child. You hold Hannah…you held me when I had a fever, didn't you? But, who holds you, Sarah?

As with most things in life, the things you don't think about, the impulses you just act on without thinking of the consequences usually turn out to be the best. It was the same with Devlin's next action. Acting on her heart's desire alone, the rider wrapped two strong arms around Sarah and tenderly pulled the young woman against her chest. She never felt any hesitation as the young woman let herself be enveloped by the heartfelt embrace.

The rider's shoulder under her head felt so good to Sarah, she could literally feel the nerves that had been wrung taut by the day's emotions, start to let go and relax. Hannah wriggled herself until she was lying in the laps of both women, a child's soft snore coming from her parted lips. Sarah and Devlin looked at one another and had to stifle their laughter.

"This girl could sleep through a twister! And, if you even think about saying she takes after her mother, I'll shoot you myself, Devlin Brown!" Sarah whispered.

Sarah let herself relax in Devlin's arms. The rider's hand stroking her hair had a calming effect, until she too slept as soundly as her daughter did.

Dev hated the fact that it took Sarah's sadness to be able to hold the young woman in her arms this way. God, she feels so good. The rider thought to herself, burrowing her face into the sweet smell of Sarah's soft hair. I've never been in love like this Sarah. I never wanted to give anything to anyone…I only knew how to take, but with you it's so different. I feel guilty taking, when all I want to do is give to you, my love. Happiness, pleasure, love…only for you, Sarah.

Sarah slept deeply and the tiny snore that sounded just like Hannah's, caused the rider to smile against the young woman's hair. Looking down into the beautiful face Devlin felt herself losing the battle to kiss the lips of the very desirable woman in her arms. She carefully leaned in and brushed her lips against the soft, full ones of the young woman. A tear escaped from the rider's eye as she realized Sarah only considered her a friend, and the stolen kiss would be the only one to be shared between the two of them.

Might as well face it…if you're waiting for a lady like this to give you her heart, you're going to be alone for a very long time.

Dev fidgeted in the chair as she tried to find a comfortable position. The combination of the bullet in her side and fighting off the infection for a week had left her sore and physically drained. Today, Sarah had Matthew fill the brass tub and Devlin was able to have her first real bath in she didn't remember how long. It felt good to the rider to be clean and put on fresh clothes, but she hated to admit she needed Sarah's help to get her boots on. She relented, even leaning heavily on the young woman as she took her first steps out into the next room.

Hannah was sitting on the floor, a slate and a piece of chalk in her hand. She smiled brightly up at the rider. Dev never seemed able to keep a smile off of her face when this small bundle of energy was around. Matthew sat at the kitchen table, a similar slate filled with sums in front of him.

"Are you going to school too, Dev?" Hannah asked. "I'm learning to read."

Sarah noticed a strange look pass across the rider's face, a look bordering on panic. She dismissed it as a look of pain, noting the way the tall woman fidgeted in her chair.

"Hannah, pay attention to what you're doing and let Dev rest." Sarah urged her daughter.

"I thought maybe Dev wants to learn to read too," the little girl looked up at her mother.

"Don't be silly," Matthew said to his sister, "grown ups already know how to read."

"Matthew, please don't call your sister, silly…now, both of you get back to work."

Sarah was going to roll her eyes in a 'why me' gesture at Devlin, but the rider had her head bowed staring directly at her boots. Her knuckles where white as they gripped the arms of the chair. At first Sarah thought the woman was experiencing a wave of pain, but Devlin ran her hands through her dark mane and looked up into Sarah's eyes. The rider gave a small smile, but it wasn't the smile the rider usually reserved for the young woman. Sarah thought it looked like a smile filled with apology, and she saw a definite touch of pain in those blue eyes. When the truth dawned on Sarah, she only wished she could do something to make the rider feel more at ease. The only thing to do would be to create the kind of environment where Dev would feel comfortable asking for help.

Nearly a candlemark later and Matthew was still having problems with the sums he was attempting.

"No, honey…look, this number is multiplied by this number," Sarah indicated the problem on a large slate of her own.

"I can't do it," Matt said in frustration. "There's too many numbers! Who knows what five hundred multiplied by three hundred twenty five is anyway."

"One hundred sixty-two thousand, five hundred," Dev answered quickly.

Everyone looked up at the rider and she sunk a little lower in her chair

"Hey, do that again, Dev." Matt asked.

Sarah gave the rider some more problems and she solved them all in her head in heartbeats. Sarah could barely write the whole figure on the slate before Devlin had the answer. The rider would be tapping her thumb against her fingers and suddenly come up with the answer.

"Dev, that is absolutely amazing…is it a trick?" Sarah questioned.

"Kind of," Dev replied, appearing to be flattered and embarrassed at the same time. "A ways back I traveled with a guy who ran a traveling medicine show. He taught me how to do it."

"Can you teach me, Dev?" Matthew asked. "Can she mom?"

"It's not really learnin' when you do it that way, Matt." Devlin replied.

"Nonsense. Of course it is." Sarah interjected. "I'd rather you learn to do it Devlin's way and get it right than spend day after day doing it my way, and never grasping it. That is, provided Dev wants to teach us." Sarah smiled as she included herself in the group.

Dev smiled her usual smile again, amazed that she would know something about schooling that she could teach them.

Devlin couldn't remember being this tired and worn out in a long time. Guess every year older I get, makes it a little harder to come back from this kind of stuff, she thought as Sarah came over to help her out of her chair. The rider had dozed off at sometime during the day; the next thing she knew Sarah was waking her up for dinner. It was a testament to how safe and relaxed the rider felt here, that she was able to sleep without one ear open. She could only pray to the Spirits above that no trouble would pass their way until she was physically able to protect Sarah and the children.

Dev smiled wryly to herself at how Sarah would glare at her if she knew the rider thought about her as something to protect. How independent you are, Sarah…maybe that's why I love you so much.

The rider had to lean on the small woman so as not to put too much weight on her injured side. Earlier, when she'd tried to stand by herself, she nearly dropped to one knee from the pain.

"Sarah, I can go out to the bunkhouse, I don't want you to have to sleep with Hannah anymore."

"Dev, you can barely walk by yourself. What if something happened and you needed help in the middle of the night? I'd never even know…besides, I wouldn't get a wink of sleep all night, even in this big bed, because I'd be worrying about you." Sarah replied with a slight smile.

Devlin let herself be led to the young woman's bedroom, allowing Sarah to assist in lowering her body with a slight groan onto the edge of the bed. To Sarah's eyes, Dev still looked like she was going to get up and bolt, the minute the young woman's back was turned.

"Devlin you're such a no nonsense, sensible woman…please, be sensible now, not noble. Please, for me?" Sarah pleaded.

It was the last two words of the woman's plea that snared the rider. For me? Sarah, I would do anything for you. So, the rider nodded her head and Sarah left her with a few moments of privacy to undress.

When Sarah returned, Dev had changed into the shirt she slept in, and slipped under the covers of the large four poster bed. The young woman had pulled on a nightgown and wore a simple cotton robe over it, tied at the waist. She sat down at the small vanity and began to pull the braids from her hair. The young woman usually kept the front of her long hair braided and pulled back to keep it off her face, letting the mane at the back of her head fall free.

Dev thought that there must be no more beautiful sight on this earth, as the one she was watching right now. Sarah slowly ran a brush through long locks the color of harvest wheat. When she got up she walked over and sat on the edge of the bed, tucking her slim legs underneath her.

"Did you want me to read tonight?" She asked, reaching for a book she kept on the bed table. While the rider had been confined to her bed, Sarah had made a habit of reading to the injured woman from The Count of Monte Cristo. The rider seemed to enjoy the story immensely, but tonight she nodded her head sadly.

"You don't have to read to me, Sarah" Dev said.

"I'm sorry, you should have said something sooner…I thought you were enjoying the story." Sarah replied.

"No, it's not that, it's…just…" Dev took the book from the smaller woman's grasp and returned it to the bedside table. "You don't have to read to me." The rider finished, closing her eyes.

"You'll finish it yourself, then?" Sarah asked sadly.

Dev opened her eyes, eyes that were suddenly filled with tears. When the tears began to spill onto her cheek, she raised her eyes to the ceiling, willing them to stop altogether.

"I think we both know that's not going to happen," Dev answered, realizing that Sarah already knew her secret.

"Dev, I could he--" Sarah was abruptly cut off.

"No. Sarah, please…don't." Dev said, cursing herself because now the tears were falling in earnest and it seemed she could do nothing to stop them. She couldn't even run.

"I don't want pity…or charity, especially from you," Dev whispered.

"Is that why you think I want to help you…out of pity?" Sarah asked as she reached up to brush the tears from the rider's beautiful face.

Dev brusquely turned her head away from the young woman's touch, unable to control her own feelings of frustration.

"I didn't offer to help you because I felt sorry for you, Dev. I did it because that's what you do for someone when you care about them, when they're as close to you as your own sister…when you love them just as much as your own family. I know it must be embarrassing, not to mention frustrating for you. I just wanted to be able to help…not make you feel worse." Sarah finished, tears in her own eyes.

"I'm sorry…I just get…I haven't cried since I was seven," The dark-haired woman admitted. The admission brought back a memory that Devlin had not visited in many years. The last time she ever cried was the day they brought her father's body home.

His six foot six inch frame lay across a door as they carried him into the parlor. One bullet to his chest had been enough to take the lawman down. Dev remembered one of her father's deputies lifting the small girl up in his arms and telling her what a hero the sheriff had been. That day she cried for her father, the man she adored. It was also the last day that she ever remembered crying.

Devlin could barely hold back the sobs that she desperately tried to catch in her throat. Sarah leaned back against the headboard of the bed and didn't have to ask twice before the rider fell into the smaller woman's embrace. Sarah's heart broke for the woman who found herself unable to cry all these years.

"Please, Dev…you don't have to be afraid of being yourself in front of me. When you care about someone, you love all of them…the good, the bad, and everything in between." Sarah whispered against the rider's temple.

The feel of Sarah's lips against her skin and the strong, loving embrace of this woman with such an open heart, finally tore through what small defenses the rider had left. Her heart-breaking sobs were let loose as Sarah cradled and held the woman, all the while whispering tender words of friendship and comfort to the distressed woman.

Nearly an hour went by before Devlin had no tears left in her to cry. Still she lay in the smaller woman's embrace, simply enjoying the closeness and Sarah's tender caress. The young woman reached into the bedside table and produced a handkerchief that she handed to the rider.

"Thanks," Dev said, sitting up against the headboard. "I don't know what came over me."

"I bet you feel better." Sarah answered as she stood and wet a cloth from the pitcher on the vanity.

"Actually…I do," Dev admitted with a sheepish grin, to the young woman.

Sarah handed the cool fabric to the rider and Dev wiped her face and eyes with it. Once Sarah sat down on the bed again, the rider reached past her to pick up the book that still lay on the bed. She handed it to the young woman seated next to her.

"Teach me. I mean, I know a enough to get me by, but…Sarah, can you teach me to read the kind of words that are in this book?" Devlin was afraid to look the young woman in the eye, but mustering her courage, she raised her head and looked into warm green eyes.

Sarah smiled and nodded at her friend.

"Can we start now?" Dev asked hesitantly.

Sarah was so tired and she knew the rider must only be going on adrenaline right now, but she didn't want to take the chance that Dev might re-think the whole thing by morning. Again, she nodded her head.

"Your feet must be freezing. Here." Dev said as she pulled the comforter back and wrapped it around Sarah.

Sparks of desire snapped around each woman's libido, but throughout all of the powerful emotions, Devlin and Sarah knew they had each found a lifelong friend. So, the stronger feelings were pushed down and they snuggled under the covers like schoolgirls as they began an interesting journey.

Sarah woke with a start as Hannah jumped onto her stomach.

"Mama, I'm hungry," the youngster whispered.

Sarah still had her eyes closed. "Hannah why are you whispering?" she found herself whispering back.

When she opened her eyes, Hannah had her pudgy fingers held up to pursed lips as she motioned for her mother to be quiet, then pointed next to them. Devlin's still sleeping figure was curled up against Sarah's side. Sarah was afraid to move. Her daughter smiled down at the rider like it was the most natural thing in the world for her mother to be sharing her bed with the dark-haired woman.

"Hannah--" Sarah whispered, starting to move her body off the bed.

The six-year-old couldn't resist poking out her index finger and touching the sleeping rider's lips. Just as she neared Devlin's mouth, the rider's white teeth gleamed in a huge crocodile-like grin, and with her eyes still closed, she snapped her teeth loudly at the offending finger.

Dev knew exactly how far away Hannah's finger was and she had no intention of really biting the girl, but the youngster certainly didn't know that. Hannah jumped back with a scream and lots of giggles…right into her mother, who was trying to ease herself out of bed without waking the rider.

Thirty pounds of squealing, laughing child came at Sarah. The force of the impact caused her to lose her balance and she was thrown off the bed. Devlin reached out and caught Hannah, keeping the girl from landing on top of her mother.

Sarah leaned up on both elbows at the same time as two heads peeked over the edge of the bed. Devlin and Hannah looked at each other.

"See what you made me do," they said in unison.

Sarah picked herself up off the floor and glared at both her bedmates as they tried to hide their smiles at her predicament.

"You two wear me out…you definitely wear me out." She said as she picked up her pillow and sailed it at the two heads that ducked the object easily. Sarah turned to leave the room and make breakfast, still shaking her head in exasperation. She stopped to watch Devlin tickle Hannah's ears, and the girl resumed her peals of laughter. The moment would live forever in her memory, she couldn't ever remember being this happy.

Devlin watched as Sarah left the room, resuming her attack on the precious bundle in her arms. Finally Hannah tired herself out and fell silent in the rider's embrace. Devlin rocked the small girl and began to hum a tune that she remembered from her own childhood.

Her memory took her to last night as both women fell asleep while reading. The book had been pushed aside as the two women snuggled together in sleep. Dev remembered waking in the middle of the night, feeling Sarah's warm body and deep, even breathing comfort her. She slipped her arm around the smaller woman's waist and felt Sarah unconsciously press her back against the taller woman's chest.

Then Dev's eye caught the book that Sarah had replaced on the bedside table. She remembered the young woman's words. She told me she loved me…that I was family. And, on some levels, it was more than the dark-haired rider could have hoped for.

"I guess that means you're my family now, too, Princess." Dev said as she kissed the top of the sleeping girl's head

By the time the cool winds of fall swept across the Oklahoma prairie, Devlin had finished The Count of Monte Cristo. Except this time, Devlin read to Sarah every evening.

"Your Aunt Mattie is going to be here for a month, Matthew, I'm sure there will be plenty of time for you to visit with your cousins in that time." Sarah said, looking in the back of the wagon at her son. Matthew and Hannah rode in the back as Devlin held the reins to the old wagon, Sarah sitting next to the rider. They were on their way to town, setting out just after the sun rose to prepare for the long ride. The sun was shining, but the cool October breeze blew up, adding a touch of color to Sarah's cheeks. The cold never seemed to affect the rider, but she threw her leather jacket over the front bench of the wagon just in case.

Devlin held the reins comfortably in gloved hands. She had recuperated fully from her bullet wound, once again riding herd for the Double Deuce. Her injury and the time she spent with Sarah and the children had changed her somewhat. She was no longer the mysterious stranger they were in awe over. Now the dark-haired woman was a part of their family. She came in from the range at night and enjoyed dinner with the family, always taking the time to give Matt a math lesson and tell Hannah a bedtime story. The tall rider always finished the story by lifting the youngster high into her arms and placing a kiss on the top of her head.

After the children went to sleep Devlin and Sarah spent their evenings either talking in low voices long into the night, sitting by the fireplace, or Devlin read aloud from their latest literary choice. They were in the middle of Treasure Island, Devlin admitting that she loved the pirates in the story. Occasionally, Sarah fell asleep by the fire as Devlin read. The young woman enjoyed listening to the rich, low tone of her friend's voice, sometimes becoming so relaxed; she drifted off into a heavy sleep. These were the times when the tall rider would lift the woman, gently in her arms and carry her into the bedroom and tuck her under the covers. Then the rider would go around the back of the house to her own large room, usually to spend the rest of the night thinking about the woman on the other side of the wall.

Dev listened while Sarah answered her children's questions about their Aunt and the cousins they hadn't seen in years. Sarah entertained the children with stories about herself and her sister Madeline and all the trouble they managed to get into on their Kentucky farm.

Sarah looked over at the dark-haired woman next to her.

"What are you smiling about today?" Sarah asked. She had noticed the grin on her friend's face at breakfast, and saw it come and go all morning; usually it reappeared when the rider thought no one was watching.

"Can't I be in a good mood every once in a while?" Dev asked, not taking her eyes off the road.

"Sure," Sarah replied, "And, that would make this…what, the second time in how many years?"

Dev looked at the younger woman, arching an eyebrow, and growled under her breath.

Sarah was neither intimidated nor frightened of the ex outlaw's famous look. She simply laughed and pulled the brim of the rider's hat down over her eyes. Both women enjoyed their playful exchanges, but each, secretly longed for so much more. Neither was willing to take any measures to elevate their relationship any further, both of them feared losing the precious friendship that had developed between them over the last six months.

Once Sarah had begun talking again to the children, Dev's secretive smile returned. The rider's heart was lighter today than it had been since she admitted to herself; she really was in love with Sarah. Last night a lot of the rider's last fears regarding her unrequited passion for Sarah, were put to rest. She felt like a woman who had suffered from a fever for the last six months, only to have the sickness break, her body still weak, but well on the way to recovery.

Devlin's newfound reading skills came in handy when she started finding the tumbleweed notes again. The rider was now experiencing conflicting emotions surrounding the woman who wrote the notes, however. For so long, Devlin had pined away for the mysterious, heartbroken woman. Now, she had fallen hard for Sarah, but she couldn't explain why she still felt herself drawn to the emotional outpourings of a stranger. It had begun to concern the rider, wondering if she was truly in love with her young employer. It had been so long since she'd felt anything remotely similar to love for a woman; she now began to doubt her own heart. Last night had sealed not only her love for the woman who now sat next to her, but also her destiny. Yesterday started out innocently enough.


Hank had an evening off and rode out to the Double Deuce to see if Dev wanted to make the trek into town for the evening, Hank had an itch to play cards. Of course, Hank had a feeling his friend would turn him down. Devlin made up an excuse about being too tired to chase skirts and having to get up at dawn to make a trip to town, but Hank understood. It seemed as if other women suddenly lost their appeal to the dark-haired rider, and when Sarah came outside to invite him to stay for dinner, he could certainly understand why his friend felt the way she did.

"You look happy and kinda sick at the same time, Dev…what's up?" Hank asked, as if he didn't know the answer to the question.

"I got something burnin' me up inside." Dev answered, her eyes looking back to the large cabin.

"You got tumbleweed fever is all," her friend laughed, slapping her on the back.

"What…" Dev turned to face the man who stood next to her. She couldn't believe he knew.

"Close your mouth and don't look so surprised. Dev, half the cowhands in the Territory are passin' around those little pieces of parchment. Some gal got it into her mind to torment the rider's and she's doin' a good job too. If you went to Ellen's anymore you'd know they got a huge pool goin' about what the gal looks like…thin and tall, short and fat. Hell, chances are she's married and has a screamin' brat on each hip."

Devlin just continued to stare at her tall friend. He looked the woman right in the eye and decided to push matters a little.

"Look, Dev…you got a good thing here, someone special in that girl," he motioned with his head toward the cabin. "Don't mess it up by dreamin' you could ever find better 'n her."

Dev looked away and ran her fingers through her hair, replacing her hat and pulling it firmly onto her head. She felt an ache in her gut as she prepared to say the words aloud for the first time.

"She doesn't belong to me…she'll never belong to me that way."

Hank shook his head and grinned. "Then you two are the only ones who don't know it." He smiled.

Dev found her friend's humor infectious, even if it was at her expense. She punched the large rider in the arm and pulled him toward the house.

"If you think she's special now, just wait till you taste her cooking!" She smirked.

Hank watched the way Dev interacted with the young woman and her children. He could hardly believe this was the same woman he had known for the past year. She smiled and let Sarah tease her, retaliating with some of her own good-natured jibes. It was as if they were their own little family. Then again, he also enjoyed watching the two women watch each other, when they thought no one was looking. It made his heart glad to see his usually quiet friend happy and content. The only female he couldn't get to take to him was Hannah.

The youngster stayed as far away from the huge man as possible. She clung to her mother's skirts through most of the evening or sat in Sarah's lap, eyeing the stranger warily. When Sarah got up to serve dessert, Hank and Dev stood as the young woman left the table. When Hank looked down at the tiny child she sped right past her mother and, much to everyone's surprise, leapt into Devlin's lap. No amount of coaxing could talk the child into leaving the safety of the rider's lap, as she buried her head into the rider's shoulder, and Hank was absolutely amazed at how comfortable the tall woman appeared, for the rest of the night, with her arms wrapped around the youngster.

Later, Devlin and Sarah sat outside even though the night air had a chill to it. The rider surprised the young woman by bringing out two steaming cups of coffee. Then, the tall woman wrapped her own leather coat around the smaller woman's shoulder.

"I'm surprised you didn't want something with more of a bite to it than this," Sarah said with a smile.

"Oh, this will keep you plenty warm," the rider grinned back.

Sarah swallowed a sip of the hot liquid and exhaled a warm puff of air from her mouth. The rider took her by surprise with this one, as she felt the whiskey already begin to warm her through.

"Yea, you're right." She laughed at the woman next to her who simply rolled her eyes and whistled, feigning innocence.

The two talked as they always did, openly and honestly about anything that came to mind. Occasionally, snippets of their pasts would enter their conversations, but they usually kept their thoughts to the here and now. Devlin's mind wandered off as she watched Sarah talk, but she was jerked back quickly at something she heard the young woman say.

"What did you say?" Dev asked, not sure she's heard the woman correctly.

"I said I love being able to just sit here, staring at the stars and listening to the wind whisper through the trees…I love this place, Dev…this land. All that my heart desires is right here; I hold it in the palm of my hand, I'm glad I finally have someone to share it with."

Sarah watched as the rider's eyes went wide, her pupils dilating until there was only a thin ring of clear blue left. Oh God…why did I say that!

"I mean…I'm glad I have someone to share a beautiful night like this with." Sarah quickly tried to recover.

Dev composed herself, but she wasn't the same the rest of the night. She listened and talked with Sarah, but her mind was a million miles away from the conversation at hand. When the tall rider finally excused herself, Sarah cursed herself for revealing too much of her heart, sure that's what had driven the rider to her silent behavior.

Dev, in the meantime, couldn't get back to her room fast enough. She rifled through her meager belongings for the packet of tumbleweed notes. She quickly pulled the ribbon away and began rifling through the collection of paper for something in particular. Something that froze her in place as Sarah spoke to her. She had gone back on occasion to re-read the notes, her elevated reading skills bringing many of the notes into a new light for her. But, tonight she had heard something from Sarah that she couldn't believe. Here's the one, she thought to herself, pulling the note from the bundle.

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.

Shaking hands held the note out in front of her. The last three lines held the exact same words Sarah spoke to her tonight. She sat down on the floor, her back resting against the bed, pulling notes from the packet at random. Every dozen or so she would recognize the phrase as something Sarah had said… her Sarah.

Scenes and snatches of conversation rushed by the eyes of Devlin's conscious mind. The rider pulled her hat from her head and ran her fingers through her ebony mane, her cerulean gaze staring straight ahead. Dev sat there as the notes, scattered in front of her, took life and she visualized Sarah speaking every word…her melodic voice whispering the secret desires of her heart. The scenes swirled around her mind like a whirlpool, spinning faster and faster, until they all converged at one point.

Sarah wrote the tumbleweed notes.

Dev remembered Kontonalah's visit with the Indian trading party. Her grandfather told her they named Sarah into the Thunderbird Clan because Keeho had a vision…he spoke of a small Salmon always trying to swim upstream, moving against the current. The healer said Sarah sent messages to the Spirit's on the wings of the wind. She laughed out loud as the old man's words came back to her. They saw her tying a note to a piece of dried up sagebrush!

Dev laughed until she cried. Oh, Sarah…no wonder I fell in love with you at first sight, I've been dreaming of you for so long now. Such a beautiful woman…who is your dark warrior, Sarah? Open up your eyes and turn around, my love…I'm right here.

Dev pulled on the familiar blue shirt she became accustomed to wearing to bed, her boots and clothes piled neatly next to the bed, her guns under her pillow. She blew out the lamp and crossed her hands behind her head, a sly smile playing on her lips.

Tumbleweed fever…I'll be damned, she thought to herself before rolling over to dream of her heart's desire.


The unconventional family pulled their wagon up in front of the General Store. Sarah had quite a bit of supplies to lay in before the cold winds of winter hit, this way the young men in the store could load their supplies directly into the large buckboard. Dev jumped down and moved to help Sarah from the front of the wagon. The rider's hands around Sarah's slim hips caused the return of the reticent smile, it also brought a slight blush to the young woman's cheeks.

After easily lifting Hannah from the back of the wagon, the rider silently followed the group into the store. She hadn't been here in over a year, when she bought the length of green ribbon, and she felt slightly uncomfortable at the memory. The memories of this store weren't about to get any better.

"Dev, lift me up." Hannah requested of the tall rider.

"Lift you up, what?" Dev asked.

"Pleeeaase," Hannah smiled up at the woman.

"That's better," she answered, lifting the girl up to look at the jars of candy on the counter.

"Which one, Princess?" Devlin asked.

Hannah pointed to a jar of cherry hard candies. Dev smiled… her favorite too.

After the rider purchased a small sack of the candies, she split them up between the two children and popped one into her own mouth.

"I don't care if you got the money…we don't serve your kind. Go on, git!" A young man behind the dry goods counter was raising his voice to a young Indian brave.

It must have been the brave's family that waited in a far corner of the store. A pretty young woman and a small girl about Hannah's age stood nervously in the shadows. Sarah smiled and walked over to the young woman, mother and child smiled back.

"Kantakiya," Sarah said softly when she recognized the mark of the Thunderbird Clan on the young woman's leather and bead belt.

"Kantakiya…oya whyay no," the young woman returned the greeting.

Hannah had Devlin by the hand, pulling the tall rider over to where her mother stood. Hannah half-hid behind the dark-haired woman's legs and smiled shyly at the tiny Indian girl. The youngster reached into the sack of candy Devlin had bought and pulled one out. Holding her hand out to the child, Hannah waited for the other girl to take the offered candy from her palm. The Indian girl looked afraid, but Devlin kneeled down until she was more along the height of the two youngsters and spoke to the frightened girl.

"Tay oh noa…koah say ohna," she said as the young girl's face brightened and she plucked the candy from Hannah's palm. Both girls smiled and giggled at one another.

Sarah had gotten quite good at the language Devlin taught her. She conversed briefly with the young girl's mother until the brave stood before her, eyeing her with suspicion. He quickly motioned with his hand for his wife to leave. Dev stood up to her full height and glared at the brave for his bad manners. Looking a little chagrined, the brave held out his arm to the rider, who accepted it.

"Kaya, Redhawk," he said.

After a few moments, the Choctaw family left, leaving Sarah to wonder what had happened to make the brave so angry. When she questioned Devlin, the rider whispered so she wouldn't be overheard by anyone in the store.

"They wanted to buy 10 blankets…they had the money, but the clerk wouldn't sell him any." Dev explained.

"Because they were Indians," Sarah asked, shocked at the clerk's behavior.

The rider nodded her head. Sarah's old friend owned this store and she was surprised that anyone that worked for Mr. Grayson would act that way. With all Devlin had told her about the Choctaw people, Sarah knew she couldn't talk the Indians into accepting the blankets from her, but she did begin to formulate a plan in her head.

Sarah walked up to the dry goods counter to the smiles of a number of the clerks. She did not live in town, but they all knew her. They also knew of the dark rider that stood slightly behind her, watching everything Sarah did through protective eyes. Most of them realized the young woman owned a prosperous ranch and when it came to the laying in of winter supplies she could make or break the store with a year's worth of purchases. Most of them except the unfortunate young man who was also about to see the young woman's temper firsthand.

"The wagon is right out front, please load this list of supplies, won't you…Mr. Alexander?" Sarah asked sweetly, leaning in slightly to read the name sewn onto the young man's jacket.

"Oh, and would you add 10 wool blankets to that list, Mr. Alexander?" Sarah added.

The young man frowned and looked at her warily. "Who are ya buying them for?" He snapped.

Sarah's eyebrow raised and her smile froze in place. She took a step closer and placed her hands on the top of the counter.

Dev was beginning to enjoy herself now. Oh, man…somebody should have warned the kid, the rider thought to herself, upon seeing the green fire in Sarah's eyes.

"I beg your pardon, young man?" Sarah said, the smile frozen in place, but a touch of ice was added to the sweet voice.

One of the girls behind the counter had slipped away and returned in an instant with a man in his fifties, who was as large around the middle as he was tall. Smart girl, Dev complimented the clerk as she recognized the owner of the store rushing out to intercept the loss of one of his best customers.

"Sarah!" He rushed to her and swept the small woman in his arms.

Sarah couldn't help laughing at the older man, his smile was contagious and the young woman could feel her foul temper dissipating slightly.

"Franklin…it's been too long, how is Marie?" Sarah asked.

"Mean as ever!" He laughed.

"I heard that, old man!" A woman as tiny as Sarah rushed from the backroom and threw her arms around Sarah. "You're as pretty as ever," the older woman complimented. "And, is this little Hannah…why she was just a little bit of nothin' last time you were here, and Matthew…my what a strong young man you are."

Introductions went around, and then Sarah did something that Dev wasn't expecting.

"I'd like you to meet a friend of mine," Sarah looked behind her at Devlin, the rider suddenly realized she was actually introducing her.

"Dev…this is Frank and Marie Grayson…this is Devlin Brown." Sarah made the introductions and watched as Frank grabbed Dev's hand immediately. The rider looked a little shocked, but remembered to remove her hat when she greeted the portly man's wife.

"Were you finding everything you need, Devlin?" Frank Grayson said in an attempt to begin casual conversation.

"Actually," Dev paused to look at Sarah, "Sarah seems to be having a little trouble."

Sarah looked into the blue gaze. Oh, we do make a good team, Dev. Then she placed a sweet smile on her face and laughed.

"Actually, Frank…I didn't realize I had to justify all my purchases now. Is that a new policy?" She asked.

The shop owner looked at the clerk behind the counter.

"Donald, are you having a problem in filling Mrs. Tolliver's order?" Frank asked in a severe tone.

Dev thought the young clerk should have known to leave well enough alone. You would have thought after seeing what close friends the Grayson's were with the small blonde and her family, he would have simply apologized and went about his business. Some men never learn and at the rate young Donald was progressing, he wouldn't make it far into his manhood before he would piss off someone with a set of guns around their waist.

"She was trying to buy blankets for those Indians I threw out of here earlier." Donald sneered.

Franks eyes narrowed at the young man.

"Do you mean to tell me you turned away paying customers?" Frank asked.

"But, they were Indians--" he whined.

"Donald…" The older man said, his face losing its natural cordial look, "Get out of my store…you're fired."

The young clerk looked shocked, but made no attempt to leave, until Devlin raised her eyes and shot the boy a withering glance that just about buckled his knees. He scooped up his belongings and quickly left.

"Evie, do you think you can get Mrs. Tolliver's order together for her?" Frank asked the young girl that had quickly thought to call the store owner in the first place.

"Yes, Mr. Grayson," she smiled at Sarah.

"There you go, little one," Frank said to Sarah with a smile, using the term of endearment that had become familiar to the young woman. "My new head clerk, Evie Sinclair will take care of everything for you."

Evie gasped and thanked the older man before he returned to his back room, but not before he and his wife extracted a promise of dinner with Sarah and her family. Sarah smiled at the young girl.

"Congratulations on your promotion, Miss Sinclair." The two women flashed conspiratorial smiles and Sarah took Hannah from Devlin's arms, leading the youngster back toward the bolts of fabric.

It's funny how actually getting to know a person does a world of good. The last time Dev was in the store, the clerks scattered like the rider was going to call them out for a gunfight at high noon. Now, she was here with Sarah, holding Hannah in her arms, and they got to see what the woman was really like. Up until that point, Dev was just a legendary outlaw, the kind of person you only read about in penny novels, not someone who could actually be nice to you. Suddenly one or two of the girls in the store realized how charming the rider's smile really was, and how sparkling her eyes were. They could have saved themselves some trouble if they had only bothered to see that the charming smile and sparkling eyes were only meant for one woman.

Evie watched the rider as she checked items from Sarah's list, assigning them to the young men to load the wagon.

"I saw you in here once before, you know," she told Dev. The rider suddenly noticed it was getting warmer in the store as the young girl began to flirt, Sarah standing not five feet away, an amused look on her face.

"You bought a piece of ribbon…was it for your girlfriend?" Evie asked, looking curiously at Sarah.

Dev shook her head. Sarah, in the meantime, seemed to be enjoying the rider's predicament. She glanced over to look at Dev and noticed the poor rider's ears had nearly turned scarlet, the tall woman nervously looking over to where Sarah stood. She liked how absolutely cute Dev looked, trying to fend off the advances of the young girl.

"If you're interested…I get off work soon," Evie whispered, but not quiet enough for Sarah to miss.

A small stab of pain cut through Sarah as she eavesdropped, waiting to hear the rider's answer.

"Sorry, darlin'," the rider grinned, suddenly completely aware that Sarah was straining to listen to the conversation. "But, I'm spoken for."

Sarah was glad she had her back to the dark-haired rider because she couldn't stop the enormous smile that spread across her face.

They walked down the wood plank sidewalk in front of the shops, Hannah skipping ahead playfully.

"How about we go into the hotel for lunch?" Sarah asked. When she received an agreement from the other three members of the group, Matthew and Hannah ran ahead.

Sarah had begun to feel extremely guilty, not only for eavesdropping on Dev's conversation with the shop girl, but also the fact that the rider probably turned her down because of Sarah and the children. It didn't take much for her to realize she was absolutely and positively in love with this strong woman. The comprehension didn't bother her near as much as wondering why she harbored no adverse reactions to the idea of being in love with another woman. She realized, too that she was probably the last thing on this earth Devlin had in mind for a lover.

"Dev…" Sarah began, "I don't want you to think you have to baby-sit us all day. I heard that girl…I mean, if you want to go out with her…" Sarah just couldn't bring herself to finish the thought.

Devlin watched Sarah out of the corner of her eye as the young woman struggled to find the right words. Are you just embarrassed, Sarah, or is it something more? Dev stopped walking and turned to look down at the young woman.

"Sarah, look at me," the rider commanded, but not harshly.

Sarah stared into the blue depths, waiting to hear something she knew was going to break her heart. Meanwhile the dark-haired rider thought she saw the misty glint of a tear in the jade colored eyes. Devlin leaned in and gave her a lopsided grin.

"Sarah…I think my saddle is older than that girl. She's not exactly what I'm looking for." The rider finished.

I don't suppose I could make myself be what you're looking for, Sarah thought. Instead of voicing the sentiment she smiled as Dev took her arm and they moved to catch up with the children.

Entering the small hotel's restaurant, they heard the sound of laughing male voices and Sarah noticed that her old friends from the barbecue were all gathered around a large round table. A number of the men looked up and caught sight of Sarah and the tall rider and turned back to their table, raucous laughter filling the restaurant.

"Matthew, Hannah…come here," Sarah ordered softly. "I've changed my mind…wouldn't some of Margie's chocolate cake be better than vegetables?" She smiled.

Both children nodded their heads enthusiastically.

"You go on to the café and tell Margie I said for you to have a big piece of chocolate cake and a glass of milk…Dev and I will be there shortly, allright?" She said, pressing two coins into Matt's hand.

She watched the children leave and made her way over to the table of cattlemen, followed closely by the quiet rider. The silence was deafening once she reached their table.

"Gentlemen, don't stop laughing on my account…that is," she smiled like a tiger toying with its dinner, "unless you're laughing on my account."

At least a number of the men had the good graces to look embarrassed, but John Montgomery just puffed on his cigar, staring daggers at the rider, and openly leering at Sarah.

"Well, Mrs. Tolliver, you might as well know it now…what people think you're doing on that ranch with a woman, and I use that term loosely, like her." He finished by motioning toward Dev.

The rider had already moved closer to Sarah. She would have loved to take this clown out, but didn't dare start a fight where Sarah might possibly get hurt.

"Come on, Sarah," Dev urged the young woman to leave.

"No!" Sarah turned and turned to face Devlin.

The rider realized that Sarah's temper was a force to be reckoned with, and the calmer she acted on the outside, the more she was losing it on the inside. Right now, she was so calm it was scaring the hell out of Devlin, and the dark-haired woman wanted to be nowhere near the receiving end of this one.

"Sit," Sarah ordered Devlin.

Seeing the look in the young woman's eye, feeling the heat radiating from her body and the slow, feral smile that spread across her lips, Devlin did what any other self-respecting man or woman would have done in her place.

She immediately sat.

"Now, Mr. Montgomery…about what I do on my ranch." She stood behind the man and bent close to his ear. "Would you like to know what goes on?" Without waiting for an answer, she began whispering in the man's ear.

The evil little grin that Sarah had on her face and the sudden change in the pallor of Montgomery's complexion made Devlin groan to herself. Oh, god…by the smile on her face and the way he looks, you just know what that spitfire is telling him!

Sarah stood straight up, walking to a spot at the head of the table, her hands resting on the backs of two separate chairs.

"You may not like me very much, gentlemen…trust me, I'm not too terribly taken with any of you either, but we are all cattle ranchers. I'm not going anywhere, I'm here to stay…so get over it."

"You could always sell…I'd be happy to offer you a fair price." Montgomery said with an insincere smile.

"For the final time…you'll never get my land, John Montgomery!" Sarah said vehemently.

"Well, maybe your uncle will feel differently," he sneered.

Sarah laughed in the man's face. "My uncle would die before he gave it up to someone like you," she replied.

That can certainly be arranged, little miss high and mighty, Montgomery thought to himself.

Sarah walked toward Devlin, her hands beginning to shake slightly in anger.

"Now, we're ready to leave," she said moving to the door, not bothering to see if the rider followed her. She knew she had to get out of there before the tears that burned the back of her eyes fell.

Dev jumped up and was in front of the angry young woman, pulling open the door ahead of her. The beautiful rider tipped her hat as Sarah passed by, and through the open door.

"Yes, ma'am," Dev said in wonderment at the woman whose size most certainly did not reflect the strength she held within.

"Oooh, those…men!" Sarah said between clenched teeth, as she and Devlin walked toward the café. The young woman took notice of the rider's silence and it unnerved her.

"Are you going to say anything at all?" She asked.

"Not on your life," Dev replied, her white teeth gleaming in a broad smile.

That's when Sarah had to laugh. She and Dev nearly fell into one another's arms, they were laughing so hard, and it felt so good after the last few moments of tension. There were too many people and wagons bustling around on the busy dirt road to take notice of the two women, as Dev reached in to give a comforting hug to the smaller woman.

"Well, hello there, Stretch." A female voice came from behind Sarah.

Dev's heart sunk. Oh, great…I'm on a train and it's going straight to hell!

Sarah released herself from the rider's light embrace to find the source of the familiar voice.

"Ellen!" Sarah said with delight.

"Sarah?" The Madame looked thoroughly surprised.

Dev stared, open-mouthed, at the two women, the one she loved and the Madame of the local brothel…obvious friends. Train's stopped…all out, it's official…I'm in hell!

The two women threw their arms around one another and Dev tried to blend into the scenery. While she'd never actually enjoyed the pleasure of the Madame's bed, she had flirted with her enough to be sufficiently embarrassed right about now.

Ellen was a good fifteen years older than her petite blonde friend was, but she still had the body of a working girl half her age. She now owned a prosperous business with ten girls in her house. Ellen no longer made her living on her back, but she did entertain certain men and women when the mood struck her.

"You look absolutely wonderful," the older woman told Sarah. "I was so sorry to hear about Peter."

"Thank you," Sarah squeezed her friend's hand. "You're looking pretty relaxed yourself these days. The life of high finance must agree with you!" She smiled.

Hannah and Matt came running up to the women, the young girl had chocolate still smeared across her mouth and cheeks.

"Dev, lift me up." Hannah hopped up and down, begging the tall rider.

"Lift you up, what?" Dev asked.

"Pleeeaase," Hannah gave her a chocolate smile.

"That's better," she answered, lifting the girl up as the youngster giggled at their recurring joke.

Sarah pulled out a hankie and wiped the mess from her daughter's face.

"Is this Hannah…and Matthew?" She looked at the boy as Dev flipped a slender finger at the brim of the boy's hat. Matt quickly pulled the hat from his head and shook hands with the woman.

"You're almost a grown man!" Ellen remarked.

"Oh, please, El…I've got enough trouble as it is." Sarah rolled her eyes.

"And, precious, Hannah. I think you were taking a nap in a crib the last time I saw you," she smiled at the youngster who beamed back.

"I don't have ta sleep in a crib anymore. I sleep in my own bed, all by myself…except when I sleep with mama and Dev."

Three pairs of adult eyes widened at the girl's words. Ellen could barely believe what she'd heard, and was thinking she didn't know her friend half as well as she thought. Sarah had lost her voice completely, but her eyes were on Devlin, watching the stunned expression on the rider's face. The youngster was apparently just picking up steam in her conversation, when Devlin quickly slipped a hand over the girl's mouth.

"Didn't you say you wanted chocolate cake?" She released her hand.

"But, Dev…I already had some."

"Let's go get some more…come on, Matt." Dev walked quickly back toward the café, the little chatterbox still in her arms.

"You could certainly do worse," Ellen remarked as she and Sarah watched the rapidly retreating figure of the rider.

Sarah looked into her friend's amused face and she felt the last few moments come crashing in on her. Tears formed in her eyes.

"Come on, girl…you definitely look like you need a drink." Ellen pulled an arm around the smaller woman's shoulder and guided her in the direction of her establishment.

Sitting in a curtained off room away from the front parlor, Ellen poured each of them a generous portion of Kentucky Bourbon and left the bottle on the table. She sat and looked at her young friend, waiting for her to speak.

"What you heard Hannah say…that's not exactly what happened." She quickly explained how Dev had gotten shot and her recuperation. "We're not together like that," she finished, wiping an errant tear from her cheek.

"But, you want to be, don't you?" Ellen asked gently, recognizing the pain in the young girl's face.

"I don't know how something like this could happen to me!" Sarah blurted out. "I'm a widow…I've been married…to a man. I have two children…this isn't exactly what I had planned. El, I don't understand any of the feelings I'm having for this woman. How could my heart…my body, just go and switch all the rules around like this?"

Ellen had heard the sentiment before, and she understood completely.

"Sarah…it's like this…most every day of your life you have boiled potatoes with your dinner…day in day out, those potatoes are always boiled. Then one day, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, you have your potatoes fried. Some people will eventually go back to their boiled potatoes…some folks like to have them both ways, and some people end up realizing that this is the way they really wanted them all along. Remember one thing, kiddo," the older woman lifted Sarah's chin in a gentle grip, "the very best thing in this world is when you find someone who loves them, just the way that you do.

Sarah smiled at her friend and raised her glass to the woman. They touched glasses and Sarah began to confide in Ellen all that had transpired in the last six months.

Dev walked along the sidewalk with Hannah and Matthew. The rider watched Ellen and Sarah from the café window, her eyes registering complete surprise as she watched the two women walk into Ellen's Place.

"Matt, you stay here and watch your sister…I'm going to get your mother. We won't be too long." Dev said.

"But, I want to go in too," the boy pleaded. Pulling himself up to his full height, he tried to make his voice deeper, to the amusement of the rider.

"I'm old enough to go in there and not get in trouble." Matt finished.

Dev let out a laugh and slapped the boy on the back in a friendly manner.

"Boy, I ain't even old enough to go in there and not get in trouble!" Dev continued to laugh. "Stay here."

When Dev walked into the front parlor, she knew this wasn't going to be easy. She casually fought off the advances of two young girls and went in search of the brothel's owner. Finally, she found Ellen handling a scuffle that broke out between two of the working girls.

"Where's Sarah?" she asked the older woman.

"Come on, Stretch…in the back."

Ellen pulled the curtain aside for Dev to step through and the dark-haired woman was met with the site of Sarah moving backward toward the rider, an amorous young man advancing on the young woman.

"Look, I really don't work here," Sarah was explaining as she continued to back toward the door.

The young man registered the newcomers before Sarah did, but she realized it herself when she ran out of room and backed into a wall of warm body. She knew in an instant that it was her rider; the comforting scent of leather and wood-smoke assailing her nostrils. That's when she felt the vibration against her back.

Devlin felt Sarah's body press against her chest, and all rational thought left her. The rider looked at the man, her blue gaze turning pale, and as cold as ice. He didn't seem to be getting the message, taking one step closer to the small woman standing between the two riders. Dev's involuntary response was the low growl that started deep in her chest.

Sarah had heard that sound before. When she was a little girl she stuck her hand too close to one of the family dogs, while he was enjoying a bone. The threatening growl coming from the tall rider behind her, sounded just like that dog's snarl. Sarah knew in her heart that it meant the same thing now as it did back the…back off because I don't understand the concept of sharing!

The young man was evidently a lot less stubborn than Sarah was. Whereas she teased the dog until she got bit, the man threw up his hands and took two steps back from Sarah.

"She ain't worth fightin' over, friend." He drawled.

That's where you're wrong, Dev thought to herself.

"Are you allright?" The rider asked, once Ellen had taken the young man and introduced him to a more willing companion.

"I'm fine, thank you…again. You're timing is impeccable." She smiled brightly and Dev felt her knees go weak at the sight.

The two sat at the table, waiting for Ellen to reappear. Sarah poured the rider a drink and her blue eyes sparkled as the liquid slid down her throat. Grabbing the bottle she looked at the label, then back at Sarah, one eyebrow nearly vanishing under ebony bangs.

"Well, I have to get it from somewhere," Sarah explained with a wry smile.

Dev couldn't hold it in any longer. "Sarah…how in the world do you know Ellen?"

"She's just an old friend," Sarah answered.

"Don't let that pretty face fool ya, Stretch," Ellen walked into the room again. "This one's as shrewd a business woman as they come. When I didn't have a dime left to keep this place going five years ago, do ya think those nice, respectable cattlemen would help me out. They used the place plenty, but didn't want their wives to know it." Ellen sat and poured herself another drink. She watched Devlin, who in turn, gazed at Sarah, the young woman's eyes staring into her glass.

"Frankly it scared the hell out of me, this little slip of a girl waltzes into my place in broad daylight and plunks five hundred dollars in my lap. At first I thought she wanted to bed me, and I just knew I was going to have to pull all the tricks out of the bag to earn that kind of money!" Ellen laughed out loud.

Dev discovered Sarah's face was turning a nice shade of pink.

Sarah was remembering the incident too. She mostly remembered how badly her knees were shaking when she walked in and asked to speak to the owner. Then, when she began to comprehend what the older woman thought she was going to have to do for the money, Sarah nearly fainted dead away. She hadn't ever told Peter, but she expected he heard it from some of the men, if he did he never brought it up to her. It was her money and Peter always knew the young woman moved to the beat of an unconventional drummer. She would be damned if she would let those cattlemen run this woman out of town. So, she withdrew the money and handed it over to the stranger.

"She just gives me the money and says she don't care what kind of business I'm in, but she'll die before she gives in to Montgomery and his cronies. She told me I could pay it back when I could, if I wanted. Only trouble was…I never wanted to. Kind of liked havin' this headstrong gal as my business partner." Ellen smiled and reached over to place a hand on top of Sarah's, receiving a sweet smile from her young friend.

"And, deep down…I don't think Sarah wants me to, either. I think she kinda likes spittin' in those fellas eyes this way. A respectable lady like her, ownin' a whorehouse."

Dev hadn't said a word through the whole story. On the surface she seemed to be handling the news rather well, but underneath her world had just been rocked. It's not bad news…definitely not a bad thing. God, the last thing I ever needed was a pristine virgin. This one may be a lady, but she's got quite a set of jewels on her. The rider found that she liked that…she liked that a lot.

Sarah and Devlin said their good-byes to Ellen and made their way outside. As Hannah leapt into her mother's arms, Ellen discreetly pulled the rider aside.

"You take good care of her, Stretch. You'll never find anyone who could love you more." Ellen said quickly to a surprised rider.

After securing the supplies and making everyone comfortable, Dev lead the wagon homeward. She liked the sound of that…home.

After an hour of silence, Sarah whispered to the rider. "Me, silent partner in a brothel… Is that the one you never saw coming?"

Without missing a beat, the rider replied. "Completely blind-sided me."

Another few moments of silence ticked by before Sarah spoke again.

"Dev, does it bother you?" She asked.

Devlin smiled at the worried frown on Sarah's face. Reaching over she placed a warm hand on the smaller one of her friend.

"No, Sarah…not one little bit." Her smile grew larger. "It's the kind of thing…" she lowered her voice to barely a whisper, "…I guess it's the kind of thing only you would do for somebody. It makes me glad I'm--"

She wanted to say the words. It makes me glad that I'm in love with a woman like you. She couldn't muster the courage for the action.

"…It makes me glad I'm your friend." Dev finally said.

Sarah felt sure by the look in the azure eyes that Dev had wanted to say more, but the rider turned her eyes back toward the road, her smile returning when she felt Sarah's arm slip through her own.

"Oh, I almost forgot, Dev. Do you think you can make it look like ten blankets were a gift from the Spirits to the young couple we met today?" Sarah asked.

"I'm sure I can," the rider answered with a smile.

"I don't like this idea, Sarah…not one bit," the rider flashed electric blue eyes at the young woman.

Sarah was dressed in her customary riding outfit, which meant her son's clothes. Devlin had saddled Telemachus, but had been arguing for the last half-hour with the stubborn blonde about taking the stallion out.

It's not like I haven't done this before, Dev. It's only twenty-five miles to Uncle Art's place. I'll spend the day with the kids and Mattie and be home before the sun even sets.

Matthew and Hannah were spending the next three weeks at her Uncle's ranch, playing and visiting with their cousins. Mattie had offered to come out to the Double Deuce, but Sarah missed her children desperately after a few days. The ride into her Uncle's place was a pleasant one and she didn't mind having the time alone, even though it would have been nice to have the beautiful rider along for company.

"I'll come along with you," Dev said nearing the end of her patience.

Sarah stopped and folded her arms across her chest. God, I love you woman, but don't treat me like a child!

"And, just who would be running herd over this fine ranch of ours while you're babysitting me?" Sarah asked.

Dev searched her brain, only to be unable to formulate a response to the young woman's question. She opened her mouth a couple of times, but couldn't get her tongue out of the way.

"Aaaarrrrgggh!" She groaned. Turning and stomping back into the house, the rider came out with one of the Winchester rifles from over the mantel.

"Allright, don't shoot, I won't go," Sarah teased with her hands in the air.

Devlin just glared at the young woman and her sense of humor. The rider double checked the load of the rifle and slid it into its leather holster on the left side of the saddle, stuffing an extra box of cartridges into the saddlebag. She pulled one of her own six-guns from it's holster and pulled the chamber open to assure herself there were indeed six bullets in the cartridge. Then she held the pistol out for Sarah to take.

"Dev--" Sarah started.

"Look, you should be honored at how much I trust you…I've never let anyone use one of my guns before."


"It's just a little added protection…keep it in your belt while you're riding, like this…"

"Dev," Sarah said in a raised voice, her small hand stopping to wrap around the rider's large, slender one.

"I don't know how to shoot one of these." Sarah said calmly.


"I said--"

"I heard you the first time, I just can't believe it! You mean to tell me you can shoot the wings off a gnat at fifty yards with a rifle, but you've never fired a pistol before?" Dev asked, astonished.

Sarah gave a little lopsided grin and shrugged her shoulders.

"Okay," Dev said half dragging the young woman out onto the open prairie, away from the house. "All you have to do is raise it, pull back the hammer, and shoot." She demonstrated by slowly raising the gun, cocking the hammer with her thumb, and shooting a small branch off a nearby tree. Then she handed the pistol to Sarah.

Sarah did exactly as the rider instructed, Devlin was happy to see the young woman's hand strong enough to pull back the hammer easily enough. Sarah fired the gun and an old tin can flew off a nearby post. She beamed up at the rider.

"Not bad, huh?"

"Sarah," Devlin drawled, "did you mean to hit that can?"

"Um…no, actually I was shooting for the same tree you hit." She grinned sheepishly, indicating the tree ten feet left of the post.

Dev shook her head and ran her hand across her face. Grasping the gun from the young woman's hand, she reloaded it and stuck it in Sarah's belt. Then the two walked back to where Telemachus was saddled.

"Let's just hope that anyone that means to give you trouble will take one look at it and think you know how to use it." Devlin said.

Sarah buttoned her jacket closed, turning toward the taller woman.

"If you expect me to kill anyone with this, he's going to have to start trouble about ten feet to my left." She joked.

A look of pain passed in front of the rider's blue eyes. "Sarah," she said, slowly reaching over and pulling open the young woman's jacket, gently slipping the gun from her waist. "I don't want you to have to kill anyone…ever."

"Why?" Sarah asked, confused at the rider's sudden change of heart.

"Because taking another person's life changes things…it changes everything." She replied, her eyes unable to meet Sarah's.

Sarah tenderly squeezed the dark-haired woman's forearm. "It's allright, Dev…I'll be fine, you'll see."

Devlin wanted to put her arms around this young woman and kiss her for all she was worth, but she just stood there, as Sarah turned to mount the large black horse. After Dev gave her a foot up, Sarah reached her hand down to grasp the rider's.

"I'm not used to anyone riding herd over me either…guess I'm not used to someone worrying about me."

"Get used to it," Dev couldn't help saying at the woman smiling down at her.

"Don't forget to eat something…" Sarah called back before she was out of sight.

Dev paced back and forth outside the door to the large cabin. Massive black thunderheads were gathering over the north ridge, the sun had long since hidden behind the approaching storm, and lightning flashes were beginning to light up the sky in the distance.

Before the sun sets, she said…before the sun sets…she promised me. Did she leave her Uncle's or is she still there? Dammit, Sarah! The rider continued to argue with herself. She didn't want Sarah to think she was treating her like a helpless child, but she was beginning to get worried. The temperature had dropped considerably, the rider thought it was probably already snowing in the mountains. A chill that even had her warm blooded body shivering made up her mind. Screw your feelings about independence this time, Sarah!

The rider hastily threw a few supplies in her saddlebag and looped a lantern's handle around the saddlehorn. She pulled her own heavy leather coat on and took off, hopefully to meet up with the prodigal ranch owner.

"Easy, boy," Sarah said in gentle tones to the skittish stallion.

Another flash of lightning, closer than the last, had Sarah tossed around in the saddle, using all the upper body strength she could to keep the reins pulled tight and down from the horses head. The well-trained stallion did his best to follow his mistress' commands, but the flashes of light were soon accompanied by ear splitting cracks of thunder. Telemachus reared once and Sarah fought him back down, jerking the bit roughly in a downward motion, struggling to keep her seat. The reins bit into the young woman's frozen fingers as she cursed herself for not even bringing along her riding gloves.

Sarah fought the large horse for control and was still winning the battle, when a burst of lightning struck a tree to the right of the precariously rocky path they were on. Once again, Telemachus reared his front legs, Sarah snapping the reins around his neck down sharply. When the large horse's front hooves came down, they landed on the edge of the path. Without the solid ground under his hooves, the stallion panicked and both of his front feet began sliding down the wall of crushed rock over the edge of the path. Sarah tried to desperately maneuver the horse's head straight down the hill, but the panic-stricken animal kept trying to turn his body uphill, until the loosened gravel swept all four of his feet out from under him.

Sarah's right foot became trapped in the stirrup, between the horse and the loose shards of rock. She couldn't tell if the screams she heard belonged to her or the large horse, as the crushed gravel carried them down the hill, biting and tearing the flesh of both horse and rider. They finally skidded to a stop, chunks of dirt and rock still falling after them, beating into the unconscious woman's body.

Part 3

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