Well, well, well, this is good. A nice simple transformation. No swap, no futa, just a sexy transformation. https://tgcomics.com/tgc/vignettes/visit-to-the-pool/
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
Friday, August 5, 2016
Jessie and Paul travel to Dawson, Arizona, so Jessie can sing at her friend, Hanna Tyler's, wedding. But the cameo that Jessie gave Hanna as an engagement present makes Jessie prime suspect in a murder investigation. On the run, they encounter Apache, venomous scorpions, road agents, and the U.S. Cavalry.
Part 1: On the Trail to Trouble Chapter 1 -- "Prolog: September 1871" Tuesday, September 12, 1871 A chunky, sandy-haired man walked into the Prescott, Arizona Wells Fargo depot and looked around for the clerk. In his mid-thirties, Eugene Barlow was dressed in a brown woolen suit, with a budge in one of his pockets. He stepped over to the counter at the far end of the room and called out, "Hello, anybody here?" "Just me." A slender man in jeans and a starched white shirt came out of the back room. He was wiping his hands on a napkin that he quickly stuffed in his pants pocket. "I'm Gully Finch. I was in the back, having some supper. What can I do for you?" Barlow pulled a package about the size of a man's clenched fist from his jacket. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a bluish-green string. "I want to send this back east to my wife in Atlanta. It's a birthday present for her." He set the parcel on the counter. "It'll take about ten days to get there. Will that be enough time?" "I think so. How much?" Finch put the package on a small brass scale. "Twenty-one ounces; that'll be a dollar and a half." He handed the other man a label, a white paper rectangle with a narrow yellow and black striped border. "Just fill this out, so we know who gets it and where you want it to go." Barlow tossed Finch a five dollar half-eagle. While the Wells Fargo man made change, Barlow wrote the information on the label. He finished just as the other man put his change down on the counter. "Okay," Finch said, taking the tag. He licked the gummed back of the label and pressed it down hard onto the top of the package. "This'll go out on the 8:35 stage to Tucson tomorrow morning. That should help get it t'your wife in time." The other man nodded and gathered up his change. "Thanks; I'll let you get back to your meal." He checked his pocket watch. "Hmmm; almost 6 PM." He said. "I'd better head back to the boarding house before Mrs. Rossini stops serving supper." He paused a beat before adding, "Good night, Mr. Finch." With that, he returned the watch to his pocket and walked briskly out of the depot. * * * * * Wednesday, September 13, 1871 The Prescott offices of Hall and Hall Investment Bankers took up most of the second floor of the Gurley Street office building. The clerks and bookkeepers worked at three rows of desks in a large open room, next to the Hall Brothers' private office. Gray steel file cabinets lined three walls broken up by large wall maps of portions of the Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada Territories. A second, locked door in the north wall of the room led to the steel-lined room where the firm kept its most confidential financial and legal documents and records. Eugene Barlow set down his pen in the crease of the ledger he was working on. He leaned back and checked the large clock ticking away atop a row of file cabinets. '10:50,' he thought, 'time to go.' He stood up and began to put on his suit jacket. "And just where do you think you're going?" Supervising clerk Jonas Lee asked. Lee was a short, heavy-set man whose desk faced the dozen men he supervised. Aquilla "Quill" Jenson's desk was next to Barlow's. "Maybe Gene's off to meet with some young lady, to try to trade her virtue for that cameo he was showing everybody a couple of days ago." "What I do - or don't do - with the cameo is my concern, Quill," Barlow answered. "But I wouldn't say 'No', not right off, anyway, if some pretty young gal suggested such a trade." He chuckled, and then added, "Perhaps your sister might be..." "Hey, now." Quill jumped up, his hands curled into fists. "You can't say that about my sister." Lee glared at the pair. "We'll have no fighting here. You teased him, Jenson, and he got you back. You're even, so let it go." He paused for a moment. "And shake hands." "I will if he will." Gene Barlow offered his hand. The other man shook his head. "I want an apology first." "So do I," Lee replied. "The two of you have been going back and forth for days, and it's disrupting the whole damned office." Barlow pointed at Jenson. "He started it!" "And I'm finishing it," Lee told them both. "Now _shake_ _hands_." He waited, and when neither man moved, he added, "_Now!_" in an angry voice. Barlow grimaced, but he offered his hand. Jenson gave a low growl, but he took the hand and shook it. "Satisfied?" "I am," the supervisor answered. "Barely... and I hope that this is the end of it." He turned to Barlow. "You can go now, Eugene, but you never did say where you were off to." "Just some personal business; I'll be back by the end of lunch." Lee glanced up at the clock. "Fine; I'll see you at 12:30 then." "Thanks, boss." Barlow nodded at Lee and walked away. * * * * * Ignatz "Iggy" Kent ran down Prescott's Cortez Street, his feet pumping as fast as he could. After all, there was a whole two bits hanging on whether he or his kid brother, Silas, was the faster. So far, the eleven-year old Iggy was in the lead, but he could hear Silas catching up, his footsteps on the wooden sidewalk getting louder. The older boy made a quick turn and hurried down Union Street, a narrow alley in the business district. As he ran, he saw a man lying on the ground, blocking his way. "Dang," he spat. "By the time I go around this drunk, Silas'll - _Ho-oly_ _shit!_" He stopped in his track and stared at the man. Specifically, he stared at the red stains being made by the two bullet holes in his chest. * * * * * Jessie Hanks saw a stagecoach, coming out of a cloud of its own dust as the road curved sharply about a half-mile away. She scrambled down the hill, crouching low to keep hidden. All the time she was studying the coach as it came closer. There was a driver and a guard up front. The guard wasn't holding his rifle. Sloppy. There was almost no luggage on top, just a few boxes. When the road curved again, she could see that there wasn't any sort of a bulge in the rear boot either, where luggage and mail might be stored at the back of the coach. There wasn't likely to be much on that coach, but there was _something_ on it. She was going to find out just what that something was, and, if it was valuable, she was going to use it to pay her way in Mexico. By the time she reached the side of the road, the coach only about a hundred yards off. She stepped out and began waving her arms. "Stop the coach," she yelled, lowering her voice to a more masculine range. Her hat was pushed down over her head, partly covering her face. The driver pulled at the reins. The horses slowed, stopping a few feet from Jessie, kicking up a cloud of dust around her. "What you want, boy?" the driver called down. He was an older man, brown from years in the sun and wearing what looked like an old cavalry jacket. The guard, a chunky-looking man in a brown work shirt and a gray, fringed vest, just sat there, his arms crossed in amusement. "Whatever you got up there that's valuable." She pulled the pistol from her pocket and pointed it at the pair. They didn't move. The guard began to chuckle. "You think you gonna scare is with that there popgun, sonny?" Jessie tried to fire, but her arm shifted as she did, so that she shot into the air. "Now!" she shouted, recovering quickly. But the damage was done. The pistol's recoil had made her head jerk. Her hat flew off, and her long, blonde hair tumbled down about her shoulders. While the jacket she wore concealed her figure, her face was feminine, heart- shaped, with cornflower blue eyes and full, inviting lips. "A girl!" The guard sat up. "Well, I sure as hell ain't gonna give up no mail sack to no pretty little slip like you. " He reached forward, under the seat, probably for his rifle. Desperate, Jessie aimed for his chest and fired again. And again her hand shifted of its own will. The bullet hit the seat just inches from his hand. He pulled it back quickly. The driver raised his hands into the air. The guard scowled and did the same. Jessie silently cursed Shamus O'Toole. When he'd used his potion to transform her into a woman, he'd ordered that she couldn't hurt anyone, an order the potion was still enforcing. Aloud she said, "Next time I won't aim for nuthin' you weren't born with. Now, _real_ slow, you take out that rifle you was going for, and hold it up so I can see it." Her teeth were set, as she fought to keep her hand from shaking. This was turning into the worst stage robbery she had ever committed. The guard muttered something under his breath, as he carefully lifted the rifle, a Winchester, out from under the seat. "Toss it..." She pointed with her pistol towards the other side of the road. "...over there." The guard muttered again and threw the rifle to the ground. Jessie pointed her pistol back at the driver. "He got anything else on him?" "Don't say a word," the guard growled. Jessie fired into the air, deliberately this time. "Tell me." "He-he's got a derringer in a vest pocket -- please don't shoot me -- and... and a b-bowie knife in his right boot." The man's yellow streak was showing, and that gave Jessie confidence. "Take 'em, mister, out and toss 'em by the rifle," she told the guard, pointing her Colt right at his head. The guard glared at her, but he did as she said. She turned her attention to the other man. "Now you, driver, what're you carrying?" The driver stood up slowly, his hands raised. "Just this, ma'am." He was wearing a gun belt. He reached down with his left arm and loosened it. Then he grabbed one end and tossed it in the same direction as the guard's weapons. "Thank you, gentlemen. Now if you'd be so kind to show me that mail sack you mentioned. You... driver, you do it. I wouldn't want to be responsible for making your friend here lose his job for giving up a mail sack to 'no pretty little slip' like me." After a rough start, she was definitely enjoying this. "Not a big, _brave_ man like him." The driver reached back on the roof of the stage. He fiddled with something Jessie couldn't see. When he turned back, he was holding a pale gray bag about the size of a sack of flour. The words "U.S. Mail" were printed on it in big black letters. It looked full, and he needed both hands to hold the thing. "Fine," Jessie said. "You just toss that thing over here by me." She pointed to the ground in front of her with the pistol. The man twisted his body and, with a loud grunt, tossed the sack into the air. It landed with a sizeable thud in the grass at the edge of the road about five feet from where Jessie was standing. "All right," Jessie said firmly, stepping off the road. "Now get outta here." "Y-yes, ma'am," the driver said. He jerked at the reins and the team started off at nearly a full gallop. Jessie stood for a moment, laughing at the fright she'd put into the two men. She picked up her hat and tucked her hair back up under it. Then she hurried over to examine her prize. The sack was heavy burlap interwoven with some sort of a metal mesh with a lock sewn into the top, as well. She didn't try to lift the thing after she'd seen how the driver had struggled with it. Much as she hated to admit it, she knew how much weaker her woman's body was. From the look of the mesh, she likely couldn't cut it open. "The hell with it!" She held her pistol next to the lock and fired. The bullet tore through the mechanism, and the sack popped open. She lifted it as best she could and dumped the contents on the ground. "Letters!" She cursed thoroughly - in English _and_ Spanish. "What the hell am I supposed to do with letters? I'm can't very well carry 'em all away, and I sure as hell can't sit _here_ going through 'em looking for cash." And there had been nothing in the sack but letters. No, that wasn't quite true. She recognized a few things as legal documents, a will and a couple deeds that fell out of some envelop full of papers with the name of a lawyer printed on the side. There were a few newspapers and a bound stack of flyers advertising a new settlement up in the Oregon Territory, all of it just worthless so far as she was concerned. Finally, down near the bottom of the pile, she found a small package all tied up with string. It was only about the size of a man's fist, but it was something that, at least, looked like it might be valuable. "Well, that was pretty much of a waste," she said in disgust, holding up the package. "First, I can't shoot straight, then, all I get for my trouble is this, whatever the hell it is." She thought about just leaving it there, but there was a principle involved. When you robbed somebody, you took some of their stuff with you. It was the principle of the thing. She shoved the box down into the empty left pocket of her jacket. The pistol was in the right pocket. She was about to go hunting for the weapons that the driver and guard had left behind, when she heard a noise, way, way off in the distance. Jessie turned and looked down the road in that direction. "Riders," she spat. Had the men on the stage sent them? No, they were coming from the north. The stage was headed south. Still, she didn't need to be seen. There might be questions, questions that she'd just as soon not have to answer. "No time t'look for anything, dammit!" She ran into the brush and up the hill towards where her horse was hidden. * * * * * Jonas Lee dabbed at his forehead with a red polka-dot kerchief, as the deputy sheriff led him into the back room of the town mortuary. "I'm not sure about this. I-I really don't think I'll know this man - whoever he is." "That may be," the deputy said. "But he had a Hall and Hall business card in his pocket. In fact, that was all he had; no wallet, no engraved watch, or any other identification. No jewelry or other valuables neither, not even change in his pockets. We're pretty sure it was a robbery, but it'll help to know who the man was. Mr. Hall... Primo Hall, that is, said you knew the staff and clients best." Lee sighed. "I suppose I do. Where'd you find this body, anyway?" "A couple of boys found him on Union Street, between Cortez and Marina, that's only about three blocks from your office." "Maybe he is a client - or somebody from the office. Most of our people are at lunch now. I was about to leave myself when you..." "I know, sir, and I'm sorry. I hope the sight of him won't ruin your appetite." The chief clerk shook his head and made a sour face. "I'll be all right. I saw enough death up close during the War to last me a lifetime." "Amen t'that," the deputy replied. He glanced over to Phileas Moss, the mortician, who was standing next to the table where the corpse lay. It was covered with a dingy, graying sheet. "Ok, Phil, show the man what we got here." Moss carefully lifted the sheet, revealing from the dead man's head. "Oh, my good Lord," Lee gasped. "That's Gene Barlow." "You sure, Mr. Lee?" The chief clerk nodded grimly. "The man's desk faces mine. I've looked straight at him every day since he started working for us a couple o'months ago. I'm... I'm sure." He took a breath and wiped his forehead again as the mortician replaced the sheet. "Do you have any idea who might want to kill him?" The man shook his head. "No, it was probably a robbery like you said." He had a sudden thought. "In fact, that might help you. Gene bought a necklace, a blue cameo, a couple days ago - a birthday gift for his wife, I think. He was showing it to everybody in the office - and probably anybody else he knew. As far as I know, he had it with him this morning. You look for that cameo. Whoever has it, he had to take it from Gene, and he's probably your murderer." * * * * * Jessie Hanks took another sip of coffee and gathered Toby Hess's jacket around her. The tiny blonde had taken the jacket when she'd fled his cabin. Toby was dead; killed by accident when she'd fought his attempt to rape her. It was self-defense, but Jessie feared that she'd hang for it anyway. She'd been a notorious _male_ outlaw -- "Mad Dog" Jesse Hanks, they'd called him -- before Shamus O'Toole's potion had transformed her into her current form. All she'd done was kill a few good-for-nothings and brag about killing even more of them than she really had - and that she'd _enjoyed_ doing it. It was usually a good idea for an outlaw to have a deadly rep. "Even so, I never did time for anything I _had_ done," she told herself, "and I sure as hell don't wanna die for something I _didn't_ do. I had every right in the world t'keep that bastard from raping me, but folks're likely t'hang me anyways 'cause of who I was." The wind had shifted just after sunset, and, as the flames of her campfire danced in the cooling breeze, she was glad that she'd taken the jacket when she'd bolted. In the setting sun, she could see storm clouds beginning to gather to the south, and she gathered the jacket around her. "Oh, yeah," she muttered, feeling a weight in one pocket. "I almost forgot about that package, whatever it is." She took the parcel from her pocket. It was the sole piece of loot from her not very successful attempt at robbing a stage that very afternoon. Her knife quickly cut through the string and she threw both the string and the torn wrapper into the fire. 'Don't need to see who the thing's going to,' she told herself, 'cause they ain't never gonna get it.' She opened the box. There was a folded piece of paper inside, above a mass of cotton padding. Out of curiosity, she set it down beside her. Then she pushed away the fluffed cotton that had been under it. "A damned cameo and necklace!" The necklace itself was silver wire worked into a slender chain. The small cameo dangling from the chain looked like a ten dollar silver eagle coin. The disk was blue with the silhouette of a woman's head wearing a coronet and the year, 1868, done in ivory or mother of pearl. "Might be worth a few bucks," she said unhappily, "but I'd have a helluva time explaining how I got ahold of it." Still she _might_ find a use for it, and, with that chance in mind, she put the box and all back in her pocket. She was about to toss the paper into the fire, but, on a whim, she decided to read it. ' September 12, 1871 ' "Dearest, Sweet Martha," ' "I hope that this reached you in time for your birthday. ' I only wish that I could be there to give it to you myself." ' "Words can't express how much I miss you, my beloved wife, ' and you are always in my thoughts. The moment my work ' out here for Mr. Hall is done, I will be on the first stage- ' coach back to you." ' "Until then, know that I will always be ' Your Loving Husband, ' Eugene" "Now ain't that sweet," Jessie said, sarcastically. "It's almost a shame that she ain't never gonna get that necklace... or the letter." She crumbled up the paper and tossed it into the fire. "Some men are just downright fools about their wives. Like ole Shamus. He don't show it very much, but I'll bet that he'd do just about anything for _his_ wife, Molly." Jessie stopped as a wicked smile curled her pretty lips. "...for _his_ wife, Molly." She suddenly brightened with an idea, a way to force Shamus O'Toole to change her back into a man. She had a couple of other ideas, notions of what she'd do to Shamus after she was a man again; nasty ideas all of them, and, to her, those were the best kind. * * * * * Saturday, September 16, 1871 The door to the stage depot opened, ringing a small brass bell on a wire just above it. There were about a half dozen men inside, waiting out the "monsoon" rains that had blown up from the Baja. A few turned toward the door to see a tall man no one recognized, wearing a brown hat and rain slicker. "Do I smell coffee," he said by way of a greeting. "You do." A short balding man sat behind a counter with a sign above it saying "Station Master." "Have some n'warm up yer insides," the man added. He pointed to a large coffeepot resting on a stove in the corner of the room. There were cups and a bowl of sugar on a shelf next to it. "Thanks." The newcomer headed straight for the pot. He filled a cup, drank, and sighed. "Damn, that feels good." "'Spect it would in this rain," the man behind the counter said. "I'm Coleman Hoyle; m'friends call me Cole. I run this place for Wells Fargo." "Paul... Paul Grant," the new man said. He was a tall, wiry-looking man with chestnut-colored hair. He took another sip of coffee, pausing to feel its warmth in his stomach. "I'm deputy sheriff over in Eerie, Arizona." He pulled back his slicker on one side just long enough to show Hoyle the badge on his light brown leather vest. Cole scratched his head. "Don't think I ever heard of it." "You're not likely to have," Paul said. "It's a little place a few hours east of Phoenix. The stage only comes through twice a week, almost never stops." "Then what brings you over t'these parts?" "I'm looking for somebody." He raised his voice, knowing that the men in the room were listening, even if they pretended that they weren't. "Her trail led on this direction -- at least it did before that damned rain..." "_Her_ trail," somebody said, a chunky man in a brown work shirt. He sounded angry. "That wouldn't be a pretty, little gal with long, blonde hair and a big mouth, would it?" "Sounds like her," Paul said with a wry smile. "Especially the part about the mouth. You see her?" Another man laughed. "See her. She almost cost Devon there his job." "Shut up, Sol," the chunky man -- Devon -- said. "Why you looking for her anyway, Mister?" Paul sensed more than normal curiosity here. "A man died, and she's the only witness." "She probably did it," Devon said. "I had a bad run-in with her three days back." He gave Paul a nasty grin. "Say, is there a reward for her?" "Sure is. The thanks of the good citizens of Eerie and the satisfaction of seeing justice done." Paul wanted directions, if he could get them, but he didn't need a trigger-happy mob trailing after him. Sol made a face. "Yeah, sure; that 'n' two bits'll get me a beer." "I don't care," Devon said. "I might just ride along with the man. Be nice to see a little justice fall on her head." "The hell you will." Cole slammed his fist on the counter. "The company hired you t'ride guard on their stages. They'll be another one along soon as this rain stops, and the roads ain't flooded no more. You was begging me not t'report you after what happened. You better by G-d be here when that stage comes through, or you can just keep on riding, 'cause you won't be working for us no more." Paul poured himself another cup of coffee and took a seat at the table Devon was sitting at. "What exactly did happen to put that burr under your saddle?" "Story like that, a man needs something stronger than coffee t'tell it right." Devon looked expectantly at Cole. "Fifty cents a shot, same as always," Cole told him. Paul tossed Cole a silver dollar. "Give the man his drink. I'll just take mine later." Cole leaned forward. There was the sound behind the counter of a key in a lock. A moment later, Cole brought out a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. He poured one drink before putting the bottle back. "Here, y'go, Devon." Devon took the glass and downed it in one quick gulp. He closed his eyes and shuddered for a moment. "Ah, that there's the real stuff." He sat down opposite Paul and started talking. "Three days ago, me'n Noah Ward was bringing the stage down from Prescott t' Tucson. He was driving, and I was the guard..." Paul listened closely as the man related his version of the robbery. 'Sounds like something Jessie'd pull,' he thought. 'She's probably wearing Toby's old clothes. He tore her stuff up pretty good.' The station agent - Hoyle - was totally put out at the way Jessie had caught Devon and the driver off guard. To hear him tell it, Devon wasn't too happy about it, either. He was even less happy about the other men in the room were teasing him about what had happened. "Damn all you bastards t'hell!" Devon stood up and spun around, his pistol in his hand. "Put that away," Paul said quietly. His own pistol was drawn and pointed directly at Devon. "I mean it." Devon looked at Paul. He looked into Paul's eyes and trembled with rage. "They... they called me a coward -- n'worse. You heard them." Paul looked at the others in the room. "I heard them. Some men talk real big when it's somebody else in danger and not them. But you can't shoot a man for talking stupid." He glared at them and shook his head. "No matter how much he might deserve it." "We... we was just funning you, Devon," a man at another table said. He was an older man, bald but for a few tufts of gray hair at each ear. There were murmurs of agreement from every other man in the room, followed by a round of _very_ hasty apologies. Devon brightened. "Then you all will help me go find that gal after this rain stops?" He sounded hopeful. "No they won't, Devon," Hoyle answered in a stern voice. "First off, I already told you that you're staying here t'wait for the next stage. Second, I won't stand for no lynch mob pretending t'act in the company's name." "Lynch mob?" Devon pointed at Paul. "We... we was gonna bring her in so this here man can... arrest her for robbing the stage." "He can arrest her for whatever _he_ come to arrest her for," Cole said, "but there's no point bringing her in for robbing the stage. The company _ain't_ pressing charges." "What are you saying, Cole?" "If she got anything, we'd press charges," Cole looked uncomfortable with what he was saying. "We can't have people thinking that they can just take valuables that Wells Fargo has promised t'protect and t'deliver to their rightful destinations. " "She took nothing at all?" Paul asked. Cole shook his head. "They found that mail sack right where Noah tossed it, and, as far as anybody could tell, nothing got taken. We press charges, we got to tell people how some little bit of a gal scared two Wells Fargo men into giving her that sack. You think the company wants t'say something like that, you're crazy as that gal must be." Devon gritted his teeth. "So she gets off scot free?" "No she doesn't," Paul said. "I'd lost her trail in this rain. Thanks t'you, I found it again. I just have to figure out which way she went after she... umm, ran into you and Noah." "That's easy," the angry man said. "She went t'Mexico." Most of the other men in the room made noises like they agreed. "Why do you say that?" Paul asked. "I been giving it some thought in case I could get this _company_ _man_ t'let me go after her." He looked at Cole, who just shrugged. To him, it was a compliment. "Anyways," Devon continued. "She tried to rob the stage -- I'll be damned if I know why she didn't take that sack -- so she must figger that there's a posse chasing her." Paul put on his best poker face. 'Jessie's not the strongest of gals,' he reminded himself. 'Most likely, she couldn't lift that heavy bag, and I bet that _really_ pissed her off.' "You don't have t'be too smart to know that the easiest way t'shake a posse is t'head south," the other man continued. "Once you get across that border, ain't nobody gonna help them bring you back. Law don't say they has to. There's nothing that a posse _can_ do short of kidnapping you -- and then _they's_ the criminals." "Give him my drink," Paul said to Cole. He'd wait here till the rain stopped and head south after her. No need to get wet now that he was pretty sure he knew where Jessie was headed -- out of the frying pan and into the fire. The border was a bad place, with the meanest kind of owl hoots scuttling back and forth across it. It would be especially bad for any gal as pretty as Jessie Hanks. * * * * *
Monday, September 25, 1871 Deputy Sheriff Paul Grant and his prisoner, Jessie Hanks, were ready to ride back to Eerie to stand trial for the murder of Toby Hess. Paul knew how Toby Hess had died, that it had probably been an accident, as she tried to defend herself, but a jury still had to settle the matter, to set her free on the grounds of self-defense. Their horses were saddled, and Paul was going over a map with Ephrem Tyler one last time. Jessie and Ephrem's daughter, Hanna, stood near the horses, saying their goodbyes. Jessie had saved Hanna and her mother from Commancheros, Mexican raiders, and she and the girl had become close friends. Hanna was tall for a girl of fifteen. Her butternut-colored cotton dress modestly displayed her slender, blossoming figure. Her brown hair hung down over her shoulder. "I wish you didn't have to go, Jessie," she said, her voice full of regret. "I'll miss you." "You're gonna be too busy to miss anybody, getting ready for that wedding of yours, Hanna," Jessie told her, with just a bit of a smile. "June's a lot closer than it looks by the calendar. " "And you'll be back for it, won't you? It wouldn't be... I... Gil and I -- we _really_ want you to be here. Please... oh, please say you will." Gil Parker was the girl's fiancé. They were to be married in the spring, a few weeks after her sixteenth birthday. "I don't know, Hanna." Jessie hesitated. She thought - wrongly, she would later discover -- that she knew how to be restored to her male self. 'You wouldn't like ole _male_ Jesse Hanks at your wedding, Hanna, flirting with the ladies and scaring the men half t'death.' The thought bothered her. 'Damn, why do I keep badmouthing myself like that? I liked being Jesse Hanks... didn't I?' Hanna wouldn't give up. "Please, please say you'll be here. I heard the way you sang to Gil's little sister. You have such a beautiful voice... like an angel's, and I... I'd love for you sing at my wedding." "I can't promise you anything, Hanna," Jessie admitted reluctantly. She was standing next to Useless, the horse she'd taken from Toby Hess's barn. She reached deep into one of her saddlebags. "Just in case I _can't_ be there -- and I ain't saying I won't -- let me just give you a present now." The girl's eyes glistened. "You aren't going to come, are you?" She sounded almost ready to cry. "No, no, Hanna. It's just that I don't know how my trial will come out. Call this..." She dug out the box with the blue cameo necklace, her sole gain from the stage robbery, from her saddlebag. "...Call it an _engagement_ present." She pressed it into Hanna's hand. The girl opened the box and examined the gift, carefully running her finger across the cream colored silhouette. "Oh, it's... it's lovely. I couldn't." "Sure, you could, Hanna. I got it from... well, you never mind where I got it from. I just want you t'have it. Besides, ain't there something about old and blue that a bride's supposed t'have for luck?" She curled Hanna's fingers around the cameo. Hanna refused to take the hint. "There is, and the rest of it says, 'something borrowed.' That's what this is, as far as _I'm_ concerned. And you're gonna _have_ _to_ come to my wedding, so I can give it back." She threw her arms around Jessie, hugging her fiercely. In spite of herself, Jessie hugged her back. It felt like she was saying goodbye to kinfolk, not to somebody she'd met less than a week before. "We'll see," she said, reluctantly letting go of Hanna. She turned and quickly mounted Useless. Paul already sat in the saddle of his cow pony, Ash, and he had to smile as he watched the two females say their farewells. Jessie was acting just as "girlie" as Hanna. If she stayed that way, the long ride back to Eerie might be a lot more... interesting. When Jessie was finally in the saddle, he nodded to her, and the pair rode off. "You better be here for my wedding, Jessie Hanks," Hanna yelled, waving after them until they were out of sight. "You'd just _better_ be here." * * * * * Chapter 2 -- "Heading to the Wedding" Monday, May 27, 1872 Paul Grant yanked at the leather cord, tightening the strap holding his bedroll tightly behind his saddle. "Done," he said, satisfied that it was secure. He glanced over at his lady love, Jessie Hanks, who was fixing her own rig on her horse, Useless. She seemed to be as far along in her preparations as he was. There was plenty to pack. It was a four- or five-day ride to the Tyler farm. Jessie was going to keep the promise that she'd made all those months ago to Hanna Tyler. She was going to sing at the girl's wedding. Paul was going... well, he was going because Jessie was going, and, no matter how good she was with a gun or a knife, a woman as beautiful as she was shouldn't be riding alone through open country. Or _sleeping_ alone those four or five nights. He spent a minute - time definitely _not_ wasted - looking at her strawberry blonde hair and full red lips before his eyes trailed down to her delightful curves so well displayed in a forest green dress that hugged her breasts and emphasized her narrow waist and wide hips. No, she certainly would _not_ be sleeping alone. "Glad t'see you two ain't gone yet," a cheery voice said, coming up behind them, scrambling his lecherous thoughts. Jessie turned to greet her older sister. "Hey, Wilma, you come over t'see me and Paul head out?" "I did," Wilma replied. She was taller than Jessie, a voluptuously curved, dark- haired product of O'Toole's potion. "In fact, I even brought you - you 'n' Paul - a going-away present." She tossed Jessie a small drawstring bag. Jessie caught the bag one-handed. "Thanks." She loosened the cord that held it closed and looked inside. "Wilma!" she hissed indignantly, as a blush spread across her face. "What's the matter?" Wilma asked innocently, stepping in close to her sister. "I figured that you'd pack yourself _some_ riding coats" she replied in a soft voice, almost a whisper. "I just wanted t'make sure that you had _enough_." The transformed woman worked in a local brothel, and sex was both a business _and_ a hobby for her. Teasing her younger sibling was a longtime habit that went all the way back to when they were boys growing up in Texas. Jessie quickly stashed the condoms in a saddlebag. "More'n enough, I'd say, but thanks." "Just trying t'take care of my little sister; Lord knows I want you to enjoy your... trip." The demimonde chuckled. "I'm sure you 'n' Paul'll put 'em to good use." "We will." Jessie gave her sister a nervous giggle. "And thanks again." Before Wilma could reply, Shamus and Molly O'Toole walked over. "Hello t'ye, Wilma," Shamus said cheerfully. "Jessie, I brought ye that bottle I promised, some fine Kentucky sipping whiskey t'be toasting the bride 'n' groom with." "Thanks, Shamus." Jessie took the brown glass bottle from him and stuffed it carefully in the same saddlebag that she'd just placed the condoms in. She arranged a pocket for it in the folded clothes already in the bag. "I just come out t'be saying goodbye," Molly told her. "The two of ye have a good trip and come back to us as soon as ye can." She leaned over and kissed Jessie on the cheek. Paul put his foot in a stirrup and rose up into the saddle of Ash, his cowpony. "You ready, Jess?" "Just about." She closed her saddlebag, putting the strap through the metal hitch that held it tight. She'd been practicing riding in a skirt, and she scrambled quickly onto Useless. "See y'all real soon," she called, as the pair started off. Molly waved. "Good bye, and... be careful." "Don't worry," Paul answered. "I'll take care of her." Wilma smiled. "Mmm, I'll just bet you will. Have fun, little sister." "We will." Jessie turned Useless to face west and rode down the street. Paul rode a short distance back, enjoying the view of her rump bouncing from her horse's movement for a time before he caught up with her. * * * * * Ivar "Chip" Woods glanced up at the jangle of the bell above the door of his general store. "And how can I help you today, Miss Tyler?" "Good morning, sir," Hanna Tyler said. "That sigh in your window says that you repair watches. Can you repair jewelry as well?" He shrugged and ran his fingers through his thinning gray hair. "That depends on what sort of repairs are needed." "The clasp." She set her purse down on the counter and carefully took out a silver chain. A small, blue cameo dangled from the chain. "I can't get it opened, and it's too small to just slip over my head." He held out his hand. "May I see it?" "Of course." She handed it to him, and stood quietly, a nervous smile curling her lips, as she watched him examine the item. "I think I can fix it. How soon do you need it?" "As soon as possible." Her face reddened. "I want to wear it on Sunday. I-I'm getting married." "So I've heard, and congratulations." He thought for a moment. "Tell you what; I'll get right to it. You come back here, and it'll be done - polished, too, my wedding present to you." "Oh, thank you... thank you _so_ much." "My pleasure." He set the necklace down and watched her walk - skip almost - out of his shop. Then he opened the drawer where he kept his watch and jewelry repair kit. A folded up sheet of paper had been placed in there, next to the kit. He remembered what the paper was about, and he took it from the drawer and began to read. He frowned as his eyes moved from the paper to the necklace lying on his counter. * * * * * Paul Grant poured himself a cup of coffee, while he checked on the campfire. It was safe within the crude circle of rocks, and it was well on its way to becoming a mass of glowing coals that would last until morning. He turned to where Jessie Hanks was sitting, her back against a boulder. "You want some more coffee, Jess?" "Yeah... please." She smiled at him for a moment, and then returned to plucking at the strings of her guitar. Paul came over to where she sat. He carefully placed two steaming cups on the ground before sitting down beside her. "What're you working on?" "A new song for my act; I gotta add songs every now 'n' then - especially now that the folks got the Cactus Blossom's dancing t'distract 'em." "I don't think you have to worry about that, not as pretty as you... sing." He leaned over and gently kissed her cheek. She smiled. "Speaking of distractions, I think you're trying one on me." "Who... me?" He asked in an innocent tone that was spoiled by the leer on his face. "Ain't nobody else around here; not that I really mind a little... distraction now 'n' again." She chuckled. "Things is sure a lot different than the last time we was on the trail." "Yeah, this time, I don't have t'put you over my knee to get you to behave how I want." Jessie put down her guitar. "And just how d'you want me t'behave?" She shifted slightly and kissed him gently on his lips. "Something like that?" "More like this." He took her head in his hands and leaned in until their lips met again. Jessie sighed and pressed herself against him. Her arm rose to encircle him. Finally, they broke the kiss. "One other thing that'll be different," she said, smiling shyly. "You ain't gonna have no problem getting me outta these clothes." As she spoke, she began unbuttoning her blouse. "Getting you out of your clothes isn't a problem," he replied, working on his own shirt. "It will be my pleasure." * * * * * Tuesday, May 28, 1872 The bell over the door to Woods' General Store jangled as Hanna Tyler walked in, followed closely by her mother. "Morning, Mr. Woods," Hanna greeted him. "Is my necklace ready?" She asked eagerly, almost running to the counter. "Well... umm, that is." Chip Woods glanced over to a young boy who was arranging cans on a shelf. "Marcus, would you run and tell the Sheriff that Hanna Tyler is here?" The boy nodded. "Sure, Dad; I'll be right back." He ran for the door. "May I ask why the Sheriff needs to know about my daughter's presence?" Piety asked stiffly. Woods looked nervous. "It ain't her; so much as that cameo she brought in. The... Uhh, the Sheriff can explain it better'n me." "Explain what? " Hanna said. "Why does he have to explain anything? Je --." She cut off her words as her mother gave her a stern look and shook her head. "We'll wait," she added with a sigh. Woods cocked a curious eyebrow, wondering what she'd been about to say. "In the meantime, why don't you ladies look around?" he suggested, trying to distract them. "See if there's anything you need... for your wedding or... whatever." * * * * * The two women were still looking at blouses, considering a last minute addition to Hanna's trousseau when Sheriff Whyte arrived. Elijah Whyte was a burly man in his forties, with curly, dark brown hair and a bushy mustache. "There they are, Sheriff." Marcus Woods pointed eagerly at the pair. "You gonna arrest 'em now?" "No, Marcus." Whyte tousled the boy's hair with his hand. "I just want to talk to them - for now, anyway." He walked over to the pair, while the boy hurried behind the counter and settled in to watch. "I _can_ talk to you, ladies, can't I?" "Yes, Sheriff," Piety replied. "What is all this about?" "That cameo your daughter has, Miz Tyler. It matches the description of one I got in this flyer from Prescott last fall." He took a folded paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to Piety. "I gave a copy to Mr. Woods 'cause he's the only one in town who deals with jewelry." She opened the paper and read, holding it low enough so that Hanna could read it as well. "Murder!" the girl gasped. "You don't think I did it - do you?" "I don't think you - or your mama - had much of anything to do with this Barlow fellah's death, but that cameo of yours - or one just like it - belonged to Barlow." Piety glanced back down at the paper. "This says that Mr. Barlow was killed last fall. Surely they've found the one who did it by now." "Shirley's my wife, ma'am." The man smiled at his own joke, hoping to put the two women at ease. "And, no, they haven't found the killer yet. I got another telegram about a month ago. They've still got no leads, and they wanted folks to keep watching for that cameo." He took a breath, fixing his gaze at the girl. "Now... speaking of cameos, where did you get _yours_, Miss Hanna?" "Do-Do I _have_ to tell?" The girl asked nervously. Piety put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "I'm afraid that you do, dear." "I-I found - No! It was part of the loot that the Comman -" "Stop that, Hanna," Piety interrupted angrily. "It does you no good to be lying to Mr. Whyte; no good to you -- _or_ to Jessie." "Jesse? " The Sheriff raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Who _exactly_ is this Jesse, and what does he have to do with the cameo?" "He's a she," Hanna said, her face reddening with embarrassment. "I- I'm sorry about lying to you like that, Sheriff, but Jessie... uhh, she protected us when Mama and me was taken by those Commancheros. She kept 'em from... from doing... things to us, and... and then... when Gil and those others came to rescue us, Mama got caught in a cross fire. She might've been shot if Jessie hadn't knocked her down - and Jessie _did_ get wounded while she done it." The man frowned. "I can see why you'd want to protect her, Hanna, but you know it _was_ wrong to say those other things." "I-I do, and I'm sorry. I just _had_ to try." She looked down, not wanting to meet his gaze. "She gave me the cameo. She said it was a sorta wedding present." "Do you know where she got it?" Piety spoke first. "Neither of us know anything about that, Sheriff. She gave it to Hanna just before she and her friend, Mr. Grant, left our farm last fall." "Do you know where she might be now?" The older woman nodded. "She - and Mr. Grant, I believe - live in a town called 'Eerie', somewhere east of Phoenix, but I do understand that they are both coming back to Dawson for Hanna's wedding this weekend." She didn't seem happy to be giving the Sheriff this information, but after the way she had scolded Hanna for lying, she felt that she had to tell him the truth. "Any idea when they'll be getting here?" Hanna shook her head. "Jessie just said they was coming. I think they figured to get here on Friday or Saturday." "You tell her that I want to talk to her. If she isn't in to see me before the wedding, I'll ride out with Brother Douglas when he heads out to marry you and Gil Parker and talk to her then. You understand?" Piety answered for both herself and Hanna. "Y-Yes, Sheriff," "In the meantime, though, I'll be holding onto the cameo." He picked up the piece of jewelry and jammed it into his pocket. Hanna's eyes went wide. "That's mine. Please... it's for my wedding." "And I'll make sure that you have it. I'll give it to your friend, Hanks, when she comes to see me." He frowned. "And if she _doesn't_ come in, I'll bring it back to you myself." Then, to himself, he added, 'unless I need it for evidence.' Before Hanna could say anything else, Piety put her hand on her daughter's arm. "Very well, Sheriff. Whatever happens, we _will_ expect to get the cameo back. I'm certain, though, that Jessie won't have anything useful to you." "Perhaps, but I won't know that until I talk to her. Till then, I'll let you ladies get on with your errands." He nodded and touched the rim of his hat with his index finger, as if saluting. "Good day." Without waiting for any response, Sheriff Whyte left the store. * * * * * Chip Woods positioned the rolled up rental tent in the back of the Tyler farm wagon. He moved his hands carefully. The canvas was heavy enough and the wooden poles wrapped inside it just added to the problem. "You sure you can manage this?" He asked. "It's heavy _and_ awkward." "My husband and sons should be able to unload and set up the tent by themselves well before the wedding," Piety answered. "If not, there will be others there to help." He stepped back onto the wooden sidewalk in front of his store. "In that case, you're ready to go. And again, congratulations and good luck, Hanna." "Thank you, Mr. Woods," the girl answered. She didn't sound nearly as happy as a bride should be just a few days before her wedding. Her mother flicked the reins, and the wagon moved out onto the street. "You seem upset, dear," Piety said. "Mama, did you have to make me tell Sheriff Whyte so much about Jessie? You _know_ that she couldn't have murdered anyone." "I know nothing of the sort. I saw Jessie win a knife fight against a man half-again her size, and I saw how well she could shoot a pistol. She's perfectly capable of killing a man if she had to." "Mother, how can you say that about Jessie?" "I said that Jessie _could_ kill someone, but I don't think that she did. A killer wouldn't have put herself between us and those evil men. She certainly wouldn't have risked her own life to save mine." "Then why did you say all those things?" "Because I feel that it's better to tell the truth than to have to worry about getting caught in whatever lie I could have said. And I'm _sure_ that Jessie can explain where she got that cameo." "What if she can't? What if the Sheriff doesn't believe her? What... What if her puts her in... in jail? It would be all _my_ fault. I-I wish I hadn't insisted she come to my wedding. If she gets arrested, I-I'll just die." Hanna sniffled, her eyes stinging as she held back her tears. Piety stopped the wagon. "Well, we can't have that." She put her arm around her daughter, trying to comfort the girl. "But I don't believe that Gil would want a tearful bride, either." "Can't we do anything?" "Perhaps we can warn her not to come - if she hasn't already left." Piety flicked the reins again. "Mr. Lawler's telegraphy office is just around the corner." * * * * * Tommy Carson stepped nervously through the swinging doors and into the Eerie Saloon. Eleven year old boys usually didn't go into such places. "T-Telegram for Miss Jessie Hanks," he called out. "Telegram f-for Miss J-Jessie Hanks." "She's outta town for a few days," Molly O'Toole said, walking over to the boy. "I'll just be taking it for her." The boy looked uncertain. "I-I don't know ma'am..." His voice trailed off. "It's all right, Tommy," Nancy Osbourne told the boy, joining Molly. "M-Miz Osbourne?" he asked. Tommy knew that his former teacher was working in the Saloon. His father, the town's chief telegrapher, had warned him not to speak to the so-called "fallen woman." Nancy nodded, trying to make her former student feel more comfortable. "One and the same. How are you doing with your spelling words?" "I'm getting better, I guess. Mrs. Stone, she's been quizzing me on the words, just like you done." "Like I _did_," she corrected him. "How are your other grades?" "I... Miz Osbourne, my PA told me that I ain't supposed t'talk to you." He sounded embarrassed as he said it. Nancy frowned; she had heard things like that too many times already. "I-I'm sorry, Tommy. I don't want to get you in trouble." "Why don't ye be giving me that thuir telegram?" Molly asked the boy sourly. "And ye can be getting the he - getting outta here?" The boy all but shoved the telegram into Molly's hands and hurried towards the door. At the last moment, he stopped and yelled back. "Goodbye, Miz Osbourne. I'm sorry, but please don't tell nobody that we talked." Then he was gone. "G-Goodbye, Tommy." Nancy whispered, her face furrowed in anger - and disappointment. Molly placed a reassuring hand on the younger woman's arm. "Are ye all right, Nancy? Do ye want t'be sitting down for a wee bit?" "No, I-I'm -- no, I'm _not_ fine, but I will be. Right now, I think some hard work'll do me more good than anything else I might do." Molly gave what she devoutly prayed was her best reassuring smile. "Hard work, is it? Well, _that_ we got plenty of." "Don't I know it? By the way, what's in that telegram for Jessie?" Nancy asked, hoping to change the subject. "If you don't mind my asking." "T'be telling the truth, I'm a wee bit curious about that meself. Well..." She tore open the envelope. "...thuir's only one way t'be finding out." She took out the folded paper, unfolded it, and began to read. ' "Miss Jessie Hanks ' Eerie Saloon ' Eerie, Arizona" ' "Jessie. Urgent reasons you not - repeat - not come to Hanna's ' wedding. Will explain later." ' "Love, Piety and Hanna Tyler." Molly's eyebrows furrowed. "Something's wrong; very, _very_ wrong." "You think Jessie's in trouble?" Nancy asked. The older woman nodded. "I do, and thuir's no earthly way t'be warning her about it. They're traveling cross-country, and I can't be asking a man t'ride hard after 'em, just 'cause I don't like the wording of this here telegram." She sadly shook her head. "Paul 'n' her are riding into an unholy mess of trouble, I'm thinking, and all we can be doing about it is t'be praying that it ain't half as bad as it sounds." * * * * * Thursday, May 30, 1872 "Shit!" Jessie spat. Paul glanced in the direction of her voice. He saw her reach for a large piece of wood, but then, in the same smooth motion, toss the branch some distance away from her. "What's the matter, Jess?" he asked. He'd been arranging rocks for a fire pit, while she gathered the wood for that fire. "Scorpion; there was a damned bark scorpion on that thing. I didn't see it till I was picking up the stick." "It didn't sting you, did it?" "Nope, I saw it in time and threw it away as quick as I could." He stood and walked over to where their horses were tethered and began searching through his saddlebags. "I guess we'd better both start wearing work gloves when we're setting up camp." There could easily have been a scorpion or three hiding the rocks he was arranging. "Those things have enough venom to kill." "I didn't know as they'd kill a grown man." She joined him and began rooting through her own saddlebags for gloves. "But their sting'd hurt like hell and make him awful sick, b'sides." He found his gloves and began pulling them on. "And we certainly don't want anything like that to happen. It'd ruin the whole trip." * * * * * Friday, May 31, 1872 "Mmm, that was _good _," Jessie said, snuggling even close to Paul under the blanket. They were both relaxed, enjoying the afterglow of early morning sex. Paul shifted so he could take in the beauty of her profile. "It surely was." "I gotta admit," Jessie said, rubbing her hand across his bare chest. "I do like these sleeping arrangements a whole lot more than anything I had the last time I was out in these parts." The Deputy shook his head. "Maybe you were being too selective back then." The girl grinned. "Yeah, I've lowered my standards considerably since those days." Paul smiled and gently stroked her cheek with a finger. He glanced up at the sun, now well above the horizon. "But we'd best get dressed and on our way. With a little luck we can make the Tyler farm by early afternoon." "Be really good t'see Hanna again - and Piety, too, I guess." Her lips curled in a mischievous smile. "Be nice t'sleep - or _not_ sleep -- with you in a real... soft... bed." "That it would, but I'm afraid it ain't gonna happen. The 'with me' part, I mean." When she looked puzzled, he continued. "The Tylers're respectable people; they're not about to let an unmarried man and woman share the same bed." "Dang it; you're right. It'll probably be like they done it last time. I'll wind up sleeping with Hanna, and you'll bunk in with one of her brothers." "Maybe not. Didn't Piety Tyler tell you in one of her letters that her father was coming west for the wedding? He'd be the one to get a bed in the boy's room. I'll most likely be out in their barn. Or what was left of their barn after that Commanchero raid." "I'll have t'sneak out 'n' visit you, to... see how you're doing now and again." "You know, if we were... married, you wouldn't have to sneak. We could even have a double ceremony with Hanna and Gil." He grinned. "You know Hanna'd love that." Jessie looked away, a frown on her face. "Marriage is too danged important t'be joking about, Paul." "Who says I was joking?" The grin came back, but then he saw the expression on her face. "Okay... I _was_ joking, but let's just say that the offer's there, if you ever want to take me up on it." She gave him a wan smile and put her hand on his. "Maybe. Like I was saying, I've lowered my standards." * * * * * Jessie and Paul rode down the low hill towards the Tyler farmhouse. "Looks like they got the barn rebuilt," Paul said. "I forgot how bad the Commancheros burned it." "Looks like that Brother Douglas made good on that barn building he was gonna get organized. I guess you'll have a place t'sleep, after all," Jessie teased. The same outdoor cooking area that had been set up for the people helping with last fall's harvest was now set up for the wedding guests. Not too far away, Paul and Jessie could see men putting up the poles for a large tent. When they were close enough, they recognized them as Hanna's father, Ephram Tyler, and her brothers, Amos and Malachai. Gil Parker, her fiancé, was also working on the tent. Hanna stood nearby with her mother, Piety, watching the men's efforts. "Mother, look!" Hanna pointed at the two riders. "It's Jessie... Jessie and her Mr. Grant." She ran towards the pair. Piety followed, moving slower, an odd expression on her face. Jessie quickly dismounted. "Hey, Hanna... Piety; how're you two doing.?" "All right... I guess," Hanna said nervously. "I... We was just hoping you wouldn't come." "Now why wouldn't you want Jessie and me to come, Hanna?" Paul asked, climbing off his cow pony, Ash. "You were the one who invited us in the first place." Piety reached the spot where the others were standing. "It would seem that you didn't get out telegram warning you not to come." "What telegram? There wasn't nothing when Paul 'n' I left on Monday." Hanna sighed. "We didn't send it till Tuesday. That's when we found out." "Found out what?" Jessie asked cautiously. Piety sighed and looked down towards the ground where Jessie and Paul were standing. "Found out that the Sheriff wants to talk to you about a murder." "I think he thinks you done it, Jessie," Hanna added grimly. * * * * * Chapter 3 - "Sheriff Trouble" Saturday, June 1, 1872 Ephrem Tyler cut another piece from his short stack of pancakes. "So, Jessie, when are you leaving for town?" "Right after breakfast," Paul answered for her. "I'm going along to keep her company... and _maybe_ I can help her straighten things out with Sheriff Whyte." Hanna sighed and shook her head. "Oh, Jessie, I'm so sorry I got you in so much trouble." "It wasn't your fault, Hanna. I got outta a lot worse spots - and don't you go asking me what they was." She winked at the girl. "I can get outta this one; especially with Paul t'help, him being a lawman himself." "Oh, I hope so," "And are you coming right back?" Piety asked. Jessie shrugged. "I guess. I don't know as there's much t'do in - what was it? - Dawson." A thought struck her. "You need me t'pick up anything?" "No, I just thought... there're some lovely stretches between here and town. Rather than you having to hurry back here for lunch, I thought I might fix you a picnic basket. You could find a nice place to stop - Ephrem has a good map of the area, if you'd like - and you could have a quiet, relaxed... meal off the trail somewhere." Piety's face flushed just a bit. "Somewhere... private." Jessie and Paul glanced at each other and smiled. "A... picnic sounds like a fine idea - if it's not too much trouble," Paul said. "Thanks, Mrs. Tyler." "I told you yesterday to please call me Piety, and it'll be no trouble at all. Why don't you go pack an extra blanket -- to sit on... or whatever?" * * * * * Paul maneuvered his mount, so that he was riding close - very, very close - to Jessie. "We're getting near to town, Jess; time to change clothes." "I suppose so," she replied reluctantly. They both dismounted and led their horses off the trail and over a low hill, tying their reins to the branches of an ironwood tree. "This is silly," Jessie said, as she took her green dress and her petticoat from a saddlebag. "Even Piety don't mind - not _too_ _much_, anyway - if I go 'round some of the time in pants." "It's not Piety Tyler we're worried about," Paul reminded her, "it's that sheriff. He's a lot more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a lady in a dress than a female saddle tramp in a pair of jeans." "What d'you mean 'saddle tramp', Paul?" she asked indignantly, but then she sighed and added, "I suppose you're right, but that don't mean I gotta like it." Paul waited, keeping watch, until Jessie was in her petticoat. "We need to talk, Jess," he finally said. "Can't it wait till we get to town?" she asked. Her arms were in the dress, and she was letting it slide down onto her body. "I think it'd be better to talk out here, where there's nobody else around to listen." He took a breath. "Jess... where _did_ you get that cameo, anyway? I didn't want to ask at the Tylers', but I... I really need to know the truth _before_ we get to town - and go see that sheriff." She was silent for a short bit, gathering her thoughts, while she smoothed out the frock over the petticoat. When she finally spoke, her voice low and hesitant. "You... You remember how I-I... robbed that stage coach, back when I was... on the run?" "I do. That Wells Fargo agent told me that he wasn't going to do anything about it because..." His voice trailed off, as he realized what she was saying. "Jessie, you _did_ get something from that robbery, didn't you?" "Yep; I did." She sighed, fastening the buttons on her garment. "They didn't have no cargo, just a mailbag, 'n' when I managed t'get the damned thing open, it was pretty much all just letters." "And one package," he added. "And one package," she repeated in a voice that was little more than a whisper. "I grabbed it and ran off 'cause I saw some riders coming." "And is that _all_ you took?" She raised her right hand, palm forward, and used her left index finger to make an "X" over her heart. "That's all, I _swear_ it is. I opened it that night and found the cameo and necklace. I burnt the wrapping in my campfire. There was a note in the box, 'n' it went into the fire, too." "It's a good thing that it wasn't reported missing, or they would've come after you." "Yeah, only now Sheriff Whyte _is_ after me. I don't know if the cameo I stole - I _gave_ t'Hanna -- is the one they're looking for, but if it is..." Jessie's expression changed. "But they're looking for a murderer, not a stage robber. I just don't see how them two things work together." She sighed again. Paul gazed off into the distance. "I don't know either, but something tells me _we've_ got _big_ trouble." The blonde beside him was quiet for a moment. "Well," she finally said, "in my experience, the best way to head off trouble is to have a good lie ready." "Let's hope we can figure one out before we get to town." * * * * * Jessie and Paul rode up to the hitching post in front of a brown adobe building in the center of town. A wooden sign hung on the wall well above the door read, "Sheriff." A strongly built, curly haired man was leaning back in a chair on the wooden sidewalk in front of the office. He was carefully whittling a block of wood. "You folks looking for the Sheriff?" he asked. "We are," Paul answered. The man stood up. "Well, you just found him. I'm Sheriff Whyte. What can I do for you?" Paul glanced over at Jessie, who shook her head nervously. "Can we talk inside?" "In... In private," she added. The Sheriff shrugged, his mustache twitching slightly. "Don't see why not." He stood, waiting while the pair dismounted, tying the reins of their horses to the post. "Follow me." He turned and entered the building. Jessie stood as if she'd sprouted roots into the wooden sidewalk staring at the jailhouse door. "Don't be afraid, Jess," Paul told her. "I'm right here with you." "I sure hope you're right about this." She took a breath and walked in, with Paul following her. Once he was inside, he shut the door behind him. "Now, like I said, how can I help you?" Sheriff Elijah Whyte asked. As he spoke, took a seat behind his desk. A rifle and cleaning rag were on the desk right in front of him, but he pushed them aside. Hanna's cameo rested atop a pile of papers in a corner of his desk Jessie _almost_ managed a smile. "T'tell the truth, I'm here t'help you, Sheriff. I'm Jessie Hanks, and the Tylers said you wanted t'talk to me." "And I'm Paul Grant, sir. I'm a... a friend of Jessie's." The Sheriff looked at the pair, his eyes drawn to the deputy's badge pinned to Paul's shirt. "And a lawman, too, I see. Are you here as her friend, or is it... official?" "What do you mean, 'official', Sheriff?" Paul asked cautiously. "Official... helping me make the arrest." Whyte rose, pulling out his pistol. "Jessie Hanks, you're under arrest for the murder of Eugene Barlow." Jessie's jaw dropped. "A-A-Arrest... murder? But I didn't kill _nobody_." "That cameo says you did." He pointed towards the cameo. "It's a dead ringer for the one Barlow had, and the _only_ way you coulda got it was to take it when you shot him." "I never ran into the varmint. Where was I supposed to have murdered him?" "Prescott," replied the Sheriff. "That's daft!" said Jessie. "I ain't never been there!" "Tell it to the judge. I've got to return you to Prescott to sort this thing out." Paul frowned. "You're putting an awful lot of weight on some pretty flimsy evidence, Sheriff." "There's a perfectly logical reason that Jessie had the cameo..." He started to tell the story they had worked out. "Maybe there is, maybe there isn't," the Sheriff interrupted, "but you and me can talk about it _after_ I get this pretty little lady into a cell." Jessie shook her head. "N-No, I ain't going t'jail for something I didn't do." She took a step back, moving towards the door. "Hold it right there, or I'll shoot." Whyte's finger moved, pulling back the hammer of the weapon. Paul stepped in his line of fire. "You scare the hell out of Jessie, threatening her with jail, and then you want to shoot her for _being_ scared. What kind of a man are you?" "A man who knows his duty. Now, get out of my way." He motioned with the firearm for Paul to move. "Like hell." Paul swung suddenly, hitting the older man square in the stomach. When Whyte staggered back in surprise, Paul connected again, this time with a right cross to the jaw. The Sheriff groaned once and collapsed, unconscious in his chair. Jessie let out a low whistle. "He has got to be the most unreasonable man I ever crossed paths with, and he won't be any more ready to listen to what we have to say, once he wakes up. What'll we do?" "First things first." Paul put his arms under the Sheriff's shoulders, lifting him, and pulled the unconscious man over to an empty cell. He settled the unconscious man on the floor and walked out. The key, one of four on a small steel keyring, was in the cell door's heavy steel lock. Paul carefully took the key out and shut the door, listening for the lock to click. He tugged at the door once - just to be certain on the lock. Then he knelt and positioned the keyring about a foot and a half away from the bars. "That should keep him for a while. Now we can go." "Lemme get a couple souvenirs," Jessie said. She scooped up both the rifle and the pistol. There was a box of shells near the rifle, and she grabbed those as well. Paul pocketed the cameo necklace. The top sheet of the papers beneath it showed a picture of the cameo. "And a little light reading, too." "Too bad he didn't let you finish talking, before you had to start throwing punches," Jessie suggested, wryly. "It's a shame when a good lie goes to waste." "Too late to cry over spilled milk. When he threatened to shoot you, I just went crazy." They hurried for the door. There was a small window in the door, with a sign hanging down from a nail so that it could be read through the window. Paul turned the sign so that the words "Sheriff on Patrol" faced towards the street. "That'll give us some more time before they come after us." "Then we'd best make the most of it," Jessie replied, smiling, as she untied the reins and scrambled up onto her horse. Paul nodded in agreement, as he stuffed the papers and the cameo into his jacket pocket. He climbed up onto his own mount, the reins in his hands. A moment later, they were both galloping out of Dawson. * * * * * They stopped about a mile out of town, turning their horses to see if anyone was following them. There was no cloud of dust, no sight of horsemen. "Nothing yet," Paul said, "but they'll be coming soon enough." "Which way do we go?" Jessie asked. Paul pointed. "That way; northeast, towards the river." "Back to the Tylers? That's the first place they'll look." "That's why we'll let them think that's where we're going." Jessie grinned. "Only we ain't; are we?" "Nope," Paul grinned back. "Once we get to the river, we'll use a little trick a... friend of mine showed me a few months back." He glanced back towards the town again. "Now, let's put some more miles between us and whoever the sheriff sends after us." Jessie frowned. "Can I change outta this damned dress before we go into the river." "No time... unless you want to risk a posse catching you in your unmentionables." She gave him a wry smile. "The only one I want t'catch me in just my drawers is you, and we surely ain't got time for that right now." "Maybe later -- _definitely_ later, but right now, we'd better ride." * * * * * "Oooh..." Elijah Whyte groaned and slowly opened his eyes. He was laid down on a cot in one of his own jail cells. He shifted his feet and stood up. Too quickly; he sat back down while the cell stopped spinning around him. After a minute or so, it wasn't moving any more. He rubbed the ache in his jaw and _very_ _slowly_ rose to his feet. Still moving slowly, he walked over and tried the cell door. "Locked... dammit!" he swore, angry at letting himself get sucker-punched by Paul. "And him a lawman," he muttered. He sat back down and looked around, expecting to be in the cell for some time. But then he spotted the keys on the floor not too far away. He positioned himself on the floor, his body pressed against the cell walls. He reached for the keys, but his arm was painful inches too short. "G-d dammit to all Hell!" He pulled his arm back and sat up. He took off his left boot and lay back down. Using the boot as a hook of sorts, he was able to snag the keys and bring them within reach. He paused only long enough to slip the footwear back on before he let himself out of the cell. Whyte cursed again when he saw that his rifle, pistol, and a box of shot were gone, but these were not the only firearms. He unlocked the case on the wall, holding two other rifles - both loaded - a pistol and another box of shells. The weapons were fastened by a chain that he also needed to unlock. He replaced the pistols in the holsters on his belt and gathered up the rifle and ammunition. A moment later, he was out the front door. A black iron ring hung by a rope from a hook on the underside of the roof above the wooden sidewalk; a large steel hammer was attached to it by a second rope. The Sheriff took down the ring and began to strike it loudly with the hammer. Within minutes, a crowd of men had rushed to gather in front of him. "I just had two suspects escape," he shouted, "a tall man on a gray cow-pony and a short, blonde gal in a green dress, riding a brown nag. Anybody see which way they went?" A short man in dark brown overalls pointed down the street. "They headed that way, Sheriff, riding like the Devil hisself was chasing him." "You're all deputies, boys, all them that want to help, anyway," Whyte said. "Mount up. And if we catch up to them, watch yourself; they both might be partners in murder." Almost a dozen men ran for their own horses. In less than five minutes, the Sheriff was leading them out of town heading after Paul and Jessie. * * * * * The Gila River was almost one hundred feet wide where it cut across the trail. Paul and Jessie rode into the slow-moving river at an angle, as if still headed east, towards the Tyler farm. By the time they reached the halfway point, the water was just reaching the underside of their horses. "Damned dress," Jessie muttered, watching the hem of her garment floating about her. "It'll dry quick enough," Paul reassured her. They stayed in place. He looked down and was unable to see the river bottom in the muddy water. "Let's head west now." They turned their horses and started at a different angle for the far bank. They stopped a few feet from shore and rode on for several miles. Every so often, one or the other glanced back, but there was no sign of any pursuers behind them. * * * * * Sheriff Whyte reined his horse, as the posse reached the Gila River. "Damn," he muttered under his breath. "What's the matter?" Cal Bucher asked. Cal was a farmer, in town for supplies, when he'd joined the posse. "The damned river," the Sheriff replied. "There ain't much in the way of tracks. They could've just crossed, or they could've stayed in the river... gone east or west." "So what do we do?" Duke Moran, another member of the posse, glanced down at the ground. "The trail's rocky, no real sign of tracks to follow." "And the river's muddy," Bucher added. "Same problem." The Sheriff made a sour face. "We guess. Mizz Tyler told me that Grant and Hanks said they'd never been to anywhere 'round here. Most likely, they'd head back to someplace they _did_ know, the Tylers' farm." "Sounds right t'me," Bucher said. Moran and the rest of the posse agreed. Whyte pointed towards the far side of the river. "Let's get wet, then." He flicked his reins and started across. * * * * * Paul pulled back on his reins with one hand, even as he raised the other. "Hold up, Jess. I think it's safe to leave the river now. That's a wide piece of stony ground, and anyone looking for tracks might not spot them as they go by." "Bout time," she said, reining up her own horse. "We must've gone a good five miles downstream by now." "At least. Let's get out and see if anybody's still following us." He rode over to the shore and out onto the brush and rocks alongside the river. Jessie followed. Once they were both on dry land, they rode up and around a low ridge that overlooked the Gila River. Near the top, they dismounted, tying their mounts to a nearby tree. Paul bent low as he walked to the top of the ridge. "Let me take a look." He stayed down, looking down through the brush. From this height, he could see at least a mile back along the river. "No sign of anybody coming," he called to Jessie. "There's also the danger is that some local saw us riding in the water. He'd remember that." Jessie frowned. "Yeah, but would he still be there t'tell the Sheriff?" She glanced down at her damp clothing. "Can we stay here for a few minutes?" "I suppose. Why?" "So I can get outta this dress. It's dry enough - so's the petticoat - that I can put 'em away and get into a pair of pants." "You do that. I'll keep watch - just in case." He gave her a comic leer. "Be less distracting that way, too, for me to watch the river instead of watching you taking off your clothes." He turned back towards the river. She chuckled. "Distracting... why, Mr. Grant, you've seen me get undressed lotsa times." "Yeah, but right now, I can't do anything about it." He shrugged. "Maybe later." Jessie was back by the horses, wriggling out of her dress. "_Count_ _on_ _it_." She draped the dress over her saddle. "Just now, I got a question 'bout something else. How come you put them keys where that sheriff could get hold of 'em?" "Because I didn't want to embarrass the man. Catching him by surprise with a lucky punch, that's one thing. Leaving him stuckin a cell, so he needed to call for help to get out; that's something else. We're gonna have to talk to him sometime about that cameo, and I'd just as soon that he ain't too angry to be willing to listen to what we have to say." "He tried to shoot me, Paul. How much worse could he get?" "I don't know, but I'd just as soon _not_ find out. A _really_ angry sheriff might just shoot first and ask questions later - if at all." "I suppose you're right, but you're the only lawman I ever was willing t'trust." "And why do you suppose that is?" He took one last look down at the river. There was still no sign of any pursuers. With a smile, he turned to face Jessie. She was just buttoning her blouse. "You just got a winning way about you, I guess." She gave him a smile that was hardly shy. "And we can talk about _that_ later, too." He walked over, giving her a quick kiss before he untangled his reins from the tree. "For now, let's put some distance between us and the river." Jessie winked. "For now." She untied her own mount, and the pair of them began riding towards the mountains some miles to the north. * * * * * Piety and Hanna were hanging clothes on a line near the farmhouse when they saw the sheriff and his posse riding towards them. Piety draped the tablecloth she'd been hanging over the line and ran towards the men, waving her arms furiously. "What's the matter, Miz Tyler?" Sheriff Whyte reined his horse with one hand, while he quickly signaled the others to stop. Piety gave him an exasperated look. "We've just hung up a basket of just washed tablecloths and clothes over there." She pointed. "And you and your men come riding in, raising a cloud of dust. How am I supposed to keep them clean?" "Can't be helped. We're chasing that gal you told me about, Jessie Hanks; her and her man, Paul Grant." "Chase? They went looking for _you_ this morning." "They found me, all right, but when I started t'talk to them about that murder, they spooked. They grabbed for their guns and ran off." He looked around. "I figured that they might've come back here." "I can't imagine why they would have run. I'm quite sure that Jessie isn't involved in anything as sordid as what you suggested." "I can't say as I agree. Innocent folk don't run when you ask them questions. Anyway, you seen any sign of 'em since this morning?" By now, Hanna had pinned up the tablecloth and come over to join her mother. "No, but they're gonna come back here, I think." She glanced quickly at her mother, giving the woman a wink that the Sheriff couldn't see. "Their clothes and all are here." She paused a half beat before going on. "Besides, she promised to sing at my wedding tomorrow." "Perhaps, they decided to circle around to the farm," Piety added. "In case anyone was following them." The sheriff dismounted, as did his men. "Maybe we'll just wait for 'em then; kinda give _them_ a surprise." He turned to the posse. "You men put your horses in the corral over there by the barn. Leave 'em saddled though. Then take cover so you can watch for anybody riding in." He watched with satisfaction as the posse members obeyed. 'I'll be ready for them this time,' he thought. * * * * * "Hey, Paul," Jessie yelled, "can we stop for a minute." Paul slowed the pace of his cowpony, Ash, down to a gentle walk. "What's up, Jess?" "We been riding for an hour at least since we got outta the river. There ain't no sign of a posse behind us, and I'm getting hungry. How 'bout we find someplace t'eat?" He turned Ash so that he was facing back along the way they had come. It was clear, open range. "No sign of any posse." "Or even the dust they'd raise." Jessie rode her own horse, Useless, over to a stand of brush and dismounted. He rode over and joined her on foot. "True enough. Let me get that; it's a pretty big basket." He was almost a foot taller than Jessie and more easily reached the large wicker basket tied fast behind her saddle. When it was free, it carefully set it down. "Let's see what sort of lunch Piety Tyler packed for us." Jessie thought for a moment. "Better not eat it all, though. We _really_ don't know where our next meal's coming from." Jessie opened the latch and lifted the basket lid. "There's a note." She unfolded the paper and began to read. "'Dear, Jessie, it says' - it's from Hanna. 'I don't trust Mr. Whyte, so I'm packing some extra stuff I hope you don't need. Please take care of yourself - and Paul - and come back for my wedding _if_ _you_ _can_. Love, Hanna.'" Jessie put the note down next to the basket. "What all did she pack?" Paul asked. She held up two folded sheets of paper. "Looks like a couple of maps - can't eat them, but here's something wrapped in waxed paper - fried chicken and biscuits." She handed the food to him and continued unpacking. "There's two tins of canned beef... and a can opener in here; a couple of cans o'beans, too. And she packed us a bag of ground coffee... and a pot 'n' a couple o'cups; and matches in a glass bottle." Jessie put the items on the grass as she spoke. "Hmm, she _really_ don't trust the man." She took out two boxes of... "Bullets." Paul had worn his gun belt into town. Jessie had hers, as well, but she'd hidden her weapons in her saddlebag when she'd changed clothes. They both had knives - again, hers was in a saddlebag - and a flint and steel fire starter kit. Finally, at the bottom of the basket, Jessie found... "Hanna tossed in a couple o'shirts, too, flannel ones." She glanced up towards the mountains that loomed miles ahead of them. "I hope they're enough." "They'll have to be." Paul told her. "Let's re-pack the rest, and see what we can do with that chicken." * * * * * Sheriff Whyte glanced off to the west. "Still no sign of 'em," he told Ephrem Tyler, "and it's an hour or so till sundown. Do you mind if we camp out here tonight; in your barn, maybe?" "I suppose not, since you and your men are going to stay anyway." "Thanks... say, didn't your daughter say that Hanks and Grant left a lot of their stuff here with you?" "She did; why?" "Where'd they stay - in the barn? Maybe we can go through their things; see if there's anything that might give us a clue to where they are?" Piety had come outside to join her husband. "Mr. Grant slept in the barn. Jessie shared my daughter's room. You and your men can examine his belongings. In fact, I'll have... _Malachi_!" She shouted the name of her older son. When he ran over to her, she continued. "You go with the Sheriff. After he and his men go through Mr. Grant's clothes, please pack them in his carpetbag. Then, you bring that and anything else of his into the house." She took a breath, and then added, "Solely to make more room for you and your men, Sheriff." "Fine," Whyte said, trying not to sound upset at her apparent attitude. "After we've looked at Grant's stuff, we'll see what we can find in Jessie Hank's gear." Piety scowled. "No, sir, you will not." "And why not?" "Because I will _not_ have you - or _any_ _man_ pawing through Jessie's clothing as if she were some kind of low criminal - which she is not." He gave her his best smile. "Ma'am, we _are_ looking for her, and there _may_ be something in her garments or other possessions. What do you suggest we do?" "Well..." she thought for a moment. "How about this; my daughter and I will pack away Jessie's belongings? You may watch. If you see anything that you need to examine more closely, we shall do that for you, at your direction, of course." Now Ephrem smiled. "I'd advise you to go along with her. My Piety can be a very stubborn woman, and she feels _very_ protective about Jessie Hanks." "I guess I don't really have a choice in the matter, do I?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Alright, Miz Tyler, we'll do it your way." * * * * * "Hey, Jess," Paul said, "you want another cup of coffee?" Jessie was on a blanket spread out on the grass. She was leaning back against the saddle from her horse, carefully reading the papers she had taken from the sheriff's desk. The sun was setting, but she still had more than enough light. "Huhn... what'd you say, Paul?" "I asked if you wanted some coffee. Do you?" She sighed and set down the sheet she'd been reading. "N-No, thanks," she answered in an uncertain voice. "You okay?" "Yeah... no... no, I'm not okay." She sighed. "It just... it's ain't fair. This is the second time I'm being chased for... for killing somebody that I _didn't_ kill." Paul set the coffee pot down on the ground just outside the ring of rocks that surrounded their campfire. "You seem to have a define talent for that happening." He gave her a smile of encouragement. "That... That ain't funny." She shook her head and then looked down at the papers. "It ain't funny at all." He could see a glistening, tear forming in her eyes, and he hurried over and sat down next to her. "Jess..." He took her hand in his, while his other arm reached around her waist. "I-I thought I was _done_ with riding the owlhoot trail, done with always looking over my back for somebody sneaking up on me, always..." She sniffled, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "...with always being ready for the... the bullet that'd take me outta my misery." She turned abruptly to stare at him. "I thought I - me, me and you - we m-might've had some kinda... life together." "We still can." It was the first time Jessie had ever spoken of a future with him. He shifted slightly and kissed her forehead. She clutched his vest. "I started t'think that I might have some time ahead of me. Now I ain't so sure. _Nobody_ can be sure. So what's a man gonna do? Does he give up, or does he try to grab as much of life as he can, as _fast_ as he can?" "I don't have advice for any sort of man, but I'd sure hope that a pretty gal who happens to be around here would take the second choice." He gently kissed her cheek. She sobbed and buried her face in his chest. "How... How can I, when they're hunting me for a murder I-I didn't do?" "It'll be all right, Jess. I-I promise it will." He let go of her hand and began to stroke her head, trying to comfort her. She didn't speak. He could hear her weeping; feel her tears wetting his shirt. He just held her, letting her give rein to her fears, until the girl's breathing became more even and she fell asleep in his arms. He lay back, still holding her. 'I wanted you in my arms tonight, Jess,' he thought wryly, 'but sure as hell not like this.' He freed one arm just long enough to pull the blanket over them both and drifted into sleep. * * * * * It was already dark outside, when the Sheriff and Piety came downstairs from Hanna's room. "Thank you for your... cooperation, Miz Tyler," he grumbled as he started for the barn. Ephrem waited until he was sure that Whyte was out of earshot. "How'd it go, and where's Hanna?" "She stayed in her room to pack her trousseau - for the _fifth_ time." She sighed. "It won't be a very fancy honeymoon; spending two days in that old shack on the Parker farm." "Two people in love don't need much." He took his wife's hand. "We didn't." "That was so many, many years ago. Now, look at me. I'm an old woman... old enough to have a _daughter_ about to get married." "All I see is that pretty, young girl I was lucky enough to marry." She sat down next to him and kissed his cheek. "You, sir, are a liar of the first water - and I love you for it." "Every word's the honest truth, Pie, every word." He paused a beat. "So tell me, did he - did you - find anything in Jessie's stuff?" "Hanna found the words to that song she so wanted Jessie to perform at her wedding. I hope _that_ works out for her." "We can certainly hope. Anything else?" "Yes, there was a small, drawstring bag in the drawer where Jessie put her underthings." She giggled. "It was full of British riding coats. I don't know who was the more embarrassed, Hanna or the Sheriff." "But not you." He chuckled. "Not my sweet, sweet Pie." "Well... I _pretended_ to be." He frowned. "I'm kind of sorry that Hanna had to see them." "She knows about such things - in a way. But knowing about them and seeing one for the first time are two entirely different experiences." "And the experiences she'll be having tomorrow night won't involve such a thing, I'm sure." He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "In the meantime, let's us go to bed." "But it's early," she protested, "and I'm not really tired." He kissed her again. "Good, because neither am I." * * * * *
Chapter 4 - "Into the Mountains" Sunday, June 2, 1872 The morning sun, just rising over the crest of a hill, shone in Jessie's face, waking her up. She shifted her body and slowly opened her eyes, shading them from the bright light. As she did, she found Paul awake and looking at her. "Morning, Jess," he greeted her. "You sleep well?" They were both under a blanket, fully dressed but snuggled close together. He could feel his arm around her waist. "I-I guess. How 'bout you?" "Not bad. I dozed off not too long after you did." His words reminded her of how she'd acted the night before, and she could feel her face flush with embarrassment. "Sorry about last night; I-I don't know why I acted the way I done." "Don't worry about it. You had every right to be upset after that sheriff pulled a pistol and tried to arrest you for a murder you didn't commit." "The old Jesse Hanks wouldn't've gone all soft and cried like that. _He'd_ have laughed at what happened - or tried to kill that sheriff for doing what he done." "Yes, but you aren't him. You're... you." "Yeah, a no-account crybaby of a gal." "That's not what I mean." He spoke softly, choosing his words so as not to rile her. "You've had almost a year of _not_ being a hunted outlaw. You've settled down. You've got a good job, one you enjoy doing, and you've got friends who care about you." He gently ran a finger down her cheek. "And you've got me." "I ain't gonna complain about my life now, and I sure as hell ain't gonna complain about having you around t'help me live it. But I still feel dumb, crying like that." "You gonna cry some more, now?" "Nope." She gave him a wry smile. "I think I'm cried out for now." "You see; that was just something you needed to do. You're done now, and I'll bet you feel a whole lot better for it." She thought for a moment. "Yeah, I... guess I do. Thanks, Paul." "Speaking of things to make you feel better." His other hand slowly moved across her stomach. She put her hand on his. "It surely would, but I think we got a problem in that department." "What's that?" Then his eyes widened as he realized their situation. "Protection; we left all those condoms back at the Tylers' place. Didn't we?" She shook her head. "Nope, I brought one... for that picnic Piety suggested. But that's _all_ we got, and, much as I hate t'say it, we better save that one for a _special_ occasion." "We could do without." "Much as I _want_ to, Paul, I'm scared. I keep thinking of Laura, belly the size of a watermelon and stuck in bed 'cause she's too weak t'get around." She shook her head. "No, I-I just ain't... ain't gonna risk it. I'm sorry, so, very, very, _very_ sorry, but I-I just couldn't." He kissed her cheek. "Jess, if you're that scared, I certainly won't force you, but I reserve the right..." He kissed her again. "...to hope that you change your mind." "You know," Jess said, sitting up and trying to smile. "This kinda reminds me of the last time me and you was on the trail." He nodded and sat up, too. "Last fall, you mean; on our way back to Eerie from the Tylers' place." "Uh huhn; that was the first time you 'n' me... kissed." She managed the smile at the happy memory. "We did more than just kiss." "Yeah, but not as much as you - or me, t'tell the honest truth of it -- wanted." She blushed as she spoke. "Well, I guess I'll have to settle for what we did back then." He leaned over and kissed her. Jessie sighed as her arm reached up to encircle his neck. She felt a tingle run through her body as her breasts were pressed against him. The fear and mortification she'd felt was replaced by feelings of being cherished and protected. Her lips parted to let his tongue invade her mouth to tangle with her own. "That was _so_ nice," she whispered, almost breathless, when they finally parted. He leaned in and began to unbutton her shirt. "Let's make things even nicer." When he had finished, he slide it down off her shoulders. She shrugged, and the sleeves dropped down to her wrists. She had it completely off a moment later. "Now you." She grinned mischievously and started working on his shirt. "Dang... you don't never wear undershirts, do you?" She rubbed the palm of her hand across his thick chest hairs. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you." He grinned back at her. "I'm not complaining either." His fingers went to the hooks of her corset, undoing them one by one in quick, _practiced_ order. Once it was undone, it fell of its own accord onto their blanket. He could see her nipples, erect and pushing out the soft muslin of her camisole, her breasts eager to be touched. "Better stop right there," she told him, the regret clear in her voice. "I figure I've taken off as much as I should... dang it!" "I'm afraid I have to agree. You know, undressing you is like eating peanuts." When she stared at him, confused by his words, he continued. "I like it so much, it's damned hard to stop." Her hand snaked down to cup the bulge in his crotch. "That ain't all that's hard. It's too bad we --" He cut her words off by pulling her to him and kissing her again; a kiss full of passion and longing. She moaned as the feelings he was stirring flowed through her. Her breasts warmed, her nipples tight and eager to be touched. There was a warmth down between her legs and an eagerness to be touched there, as well. Paul took advantage of that moan. His tongue slipped in between her parted lips to play with hers. His hands roamed her delicious curves, finally settling on her breasts. These he gently fondled. Her own arms encircled him drawing him closer. "Oh, that was so _dammed_ good," she said when they finally broke the kiss. Even lovers need to breath once in a while. "I wish..." her voice trailed off. He smiled. "So do I, but we don't have any more condoms than we had a few minutes again." "It ain't that - well, it _is_ that, too. But look at the sun; it's getting awful high in the sky." "You're right." He glanced over to check. The sun was almost half way towards zenith. "Much as I hate to say it, we'd better get mov - ah, riding." * * * * * Ephrem Tyler walked towards his barn. The sheriff and his posse had camped there overnight, and, now, he saw that almost all of the men were packing their gear back onto their horses. "Aren't you and your men staying for the wedding?" he asked, trying not to let the sarcasm into his voice. Sheriff Whyte shook his head. "Most of them are leaving - I am, too, as a matter of fact. Cal Bucher and Lafe Olmsted were invited, so they're staying. Mick Walsh went home t'get Katie and that baby girl of theirs, but he'll be back here, too. The three o'them'll be keeping watch for the Hanks gal, but I don't really expect her and that Grant fellah to show up for your daughter's wedding." "Where do you think them two _will_ show up?" "To tell the truth, I think they may've rode on past your place, heading back to... umm, Eerie." He paused a beat. "I just may do something about that when I get back to town." "But before I do," he continued, "I want to check the river again. I'm gonna send some men to ride along the banks - going east _and_ west for a few miles - just to see if they find any signs of where the pair of 'em might've gone. It ain't likely, but if you run into anybody, ask him if he saw Grant and Hanks pass by, yesterday. A pretty gal in a green dress, that's something a man would remember." Ephrem frowned. "You'll excuse me if I don't wish you good luck. Jessie's a good friend of my daughter, and she saved my wife's life. I find it very hard to believe that she did anything wrong." "Then why'd she run?" "From what you told me, I think you scared her. As soon as she has a chance to calm down, she'll be back - and with a good explanation about that cameo." "And _I_ think she ran 'cause she was guilty, and she knew that she was caught, but I'll give her a chance to tell her story _if_ she shows up again." The other man gave him a wry smile. "What more could anyone ask?" * * * * * The posse slowed as it reached the Gila River from the north. There was no need to gallop back across it, and a slower fording meant that the men would stay dry. They were about ten yards into the water, when Sheriff Whyte suddenly stopped. "Hold up, men," he yelled. "What's the matter, Elijah?" Tom Finney asked. Finney was a beefy man in green overalls and a plaid shirt. The Sheriff frowned. "I'm having me some second thoughts, Tom." "You wanna ride back to the Tyler place?" "No, I ain't sure that they headed there _or_ rode on towards that town they come from." He looked left and right. "I think, maybe, I was wrong about them riding straight on through this river." Hugh Jones was close enough to hear the two men. "You think they mighta stayed in the river for a while to make it harder for us to be tracking 'em?" "I do - maybe." Whyte said. "Tom, why don't you and Beau ride a few miles downstream? One of you take the north bank, and the other, the south. See if you can't find somewhere they might've come out of the river. If you do, the one who found it'll stay there t'mark it, and the other'll come back here t'us." He turned his head. "Ollie, you and Rich do the same thing heading upstream." "How far should we go?" Finney asked. Whyte shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know... five miles or so, that oughta be enough. Either of you see anything, come back t'town 'n'tell me." "Okay, Sheriff," Beau van Zandt nodded. He started back towards the riverbank. He stopped a yard or so from the land and turned left, downstream. Tom Finney did the same, but he headed to the opposite bank. Ollie Croft and Rich Potter copied them, but riding upstream. The Sheriff and the rest of the posse stayed in the water, watching the others for a short time. Then they continued on across. 'That takes care o'one possibility,' Whyte thought, as they reached the southern bank. 'In case they did head back home, I think I'll send something there, so the Sheriff in... Eerie - yeah, that's where Ephrem Tyler said they were from - send a telegram t'whoever the sheriff is there, so he can be on the lookout for them.' Whyte usually carried a pencil and a small notebook in his vest pocket. He took them out and began to write. He was a "belt _and_ suspenders" man. Whatever happened he'd make sure that telegram got sent. Come hell or high water, he was gonna catch them two. '_Nobody_', he thought, as he began to write, 'makes a fool out of Sheriff Elijah Whyte.' * * * * * "Sheriff... Sheriff, we found something!" Whyte turned downriver at the sound of his name. Beau van Zandt was galloping toward him, shouting and waving his arm. "What'd you find, Beau?" Van Zandt took a moment to catch his breath. "Tom found it, t'tell the truth. About four miles down, it looks like somebody came outta the river 'n' headed north. Tom stayed where he found it, and I rode back here t'get you 'n' the others. " The Sheriff grinned, glad that his hunch had paid off. He clambered onto his horse. "Hugh, you head upstream for Ollie and Rich. Duke and me'll be downstream t' see just what Tom found. " * * * * * "What d'you think. Lige?" Tom Finney asked. Like most of the posse, he was on horseback. Elijah Whyte was crouched down, examining some scrub brush on the bank of the Gila River. "I think you found 'em." He stood up. "There's enough broken brush that it was more'n one horse that came outta the river. And the breaks in the wood are fresh enough that it couldn't have been more'n a day since they happened." "So what happens now?" Ollie Croft asked. The Sheriff mounted up. "We go after 'em, of course." He thought for a moment. "We might wanna send somebody into town for supplies. This may take a day or three." "Not for me," Croft shook his head. "I got a job I gotta be at tomorrow." The other men agreed. They had jobs to get to, businesses or a farm to run. A few had families, a wife, kids maybe, that they couldn't just up and leave for who knew how long. "You're gonna let them two get away?" the Sheriff said with disgust. "Hell, then; I'll just go after them by myself." "No, you don't," Beau van Zandt said. "You're hired on to be the town sheriff. You can't just go off on some damned squirrel hunt." Whyte thought quickly. "How's about if I... if I leave a deputy to stay in town while I chase down Grant and Hanks? 'Cept for them, Dawson's been pretty quiet lately." "Who?" It had to be one of them, the men with him now, but who _was_ qualified? "Hugh... Hugh Jones. Didn't you tell me you used to be a sergeant in the English Army?" "I was," Jones answered, speaking in a thick Welsh accent. He was a tall, muscular man with steel-gray hair. "The Coldstream Guards, it was, afore Gwenlyn and I come to America. Now, I've got me a saddle and harness shop to be running." The Sheriff shrugged. "So run it. Put a sign on the jailhouse door telling folks t'come to your shop if they need the sheriff. Besides that, once or twice a day, say in late afternoon and about 8 at night you walk around town checking up on things. There shouldn't be no trouble. Like I said, it's been kinda quiet lately." "I suppose - just don't you be gone _too_ long." A thought came to him. "Say, if things are so quiet, can I be taking me son, Henry, with me when I go on them walks?" Ollie Craft raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Why; does he wanna be a sheriff some day?" "No..." Hugh's expression soured. "He wants to be a _knight_; always reading books about somebody named Charlemagne and King Arthur and such he is; talking about going on quests, looking for magic treasure and rescuing princesses." Tom Finney chuckled. "Don't worry, Hugh. Your boy's what... nine or ten? It ain't like he's gonna be thinking about crazy stuff like that his whole life. You just wait till he's grown and has a job and a wife 'n' kids of his own. He'll settle down quick enough." "Lord, I hope so." He looked over at Whyte. "I'll do it, but I ain't gonna do it forever. You got... two weeks, a week to find them two and a week, at most, to bring 'em back, or I'm done." The Sheriff extended his hand. "Fair enough." He shook Jones' hand, and then reached into his vest pocket. "Here's a telegram. Do me a favor and send it to the sheriff in Eerie - whoever he is - in case they do head back there." "Done and done." Hugh put the paper into his shirt pocket. "And happy hunting." The men watched Sheriff Whyte head out of the river and up a low hill to the north before they turned their own horses and started back for town. * * * * * Dan Talbot, Sheriff of Eerie, Arizona, read the telegram for a second time. ' Wanted for Resisting Arrest, for Flight to Avoid Prosecution, ' Jessie Hanks and Paul Grant and a Possible Murder Suspect (Hanks). Talbot shook his head. "Oh, Jessie, what did you get yourself - and Paul - into now?" He continued reading. ' Hanks is female, about 20 year old; five feet tall; slender; blonde ' hair, blue eyes. She is riding a swayback brown gelding. ' Grant is male, in late 20s; just under six feet tall; slender; dark ' brown hair, brown eyes. He is riding a light gray cow pony. ' Both are armed and dangerous. If seen, contact Sheriff Elijah Whyte, ' Dawson, Arizona. "I'll just have to trust Paul to get them both out of it." Talbot folded the telegram and set it in the top drawer of his office desk. "And the _last_ thing I need to do is to let Molly O'Toole find out. There's nothing she can do about it except fret - and, probably, make my life - and Shamus' -- absolute misery." As he closed the drawer, he had another thought. "This telegram sounds awfully formal. I wonder who else that Sheriff Whyte might've sent it to." * * * * * Paul looked up from the papers he'd been studying, the ones he'd grabbed from that sheriff's office. "Say, Jess, do you remember what day you, ah... stopped that stage?" "_Robbed_, you mean." Jessie gave him a sly wink. "The twelfth, I think - no...." She began mumbling to herself as she counted days off on her fingers. "The thirteenth - yeah, I'm pretty sure it was September 13." She thought for a moment. "Why?" "Because - according to these papers - Barlow was killed on the thirteenth and... here, come look at this map." He unfolded the map Ephrem Tyler had given them and set it carefully on the ground. A few small rocks set in the corners held it down. While he was positioning the rocks, Jessie moved in close -- _very_ close -- to him. "What d'you got?" "Now here's... here's Prescott." He cleared his throat, a distraction as much as anything else, and pointed to the representation of the town on the map. "And over here..." He shifted his body and pointed to a place on the map that was some distance away from Prescott. "...just north of Black Canyon is where you robbed the stage." "How d'you know that?" "When I was... tracking you, I stopped at the Wells Fargo depot in Black Canyon to get my bearings and - I'll admit it - to get out of that rain for a while. One of the men there - still pissed as all hell - was talking about how _somebody_, somebody who sounded a lot like you had robbed the stage he'd been the guard on. He said it happened a couple days before and just a few miles north of where we were." "Yeah," she admitted, "it was me. I didn't get much, though." "You got enough to get accused of murder, Jessie, but the good news is that what you did get - that cameo - might just say that you _didn't kill Barlow." He took a breath. "That is, _if_ we can just get people to listen to what it _does_ have to say." "What the hell are you going on about; how does that cameo prove I'm innocent?" "About how long do you think it'd take a stage to go from here - Prescott - to here - where you robbed it?" She studied the map for a few minutes, running her finger along the route. "I dunno, six hours, maybe a bit more... seven on the outside." "You think that you could catch up with stage - if it had a head start, I mean." Jessie raised a suspicious eyebrow. "How much of a head start?" "Let's say... a half hour; could you catch up with it?" "Maybe... if I had a real good horse." "How about an hour head start?" "Mmm, that's be harder; maybe." "How about an hour and a half... or two hours?" "There's an outside chance - if they took their time at the stops, changing horses and folks getting on and off, I _might_ get past an hour 'n' a half lead, and that's saying a lot, and it'd take a damn sight better horse than Useless. Two hours, though." She shook her head. "There's no way in hell, I could catch up with it by the time it got to Black Canyon." "That's what I figured." He held up sheet of paper. "According to these notes, Barlow was killed sometime after 11 AM. " "So..." "You robbed that stage about mid-afternoon, right?" "Yeah, I waited a couple hours for something worth robbing t'come along. If that stage hadn't shown up, I'd left before too long. I wanted time t'find a place t'camp before it got dark." "That's what I thought. Let's say you robbed the stage at 3 o'clock." "Okay. That's as good a guess as any. I didn't have no watch with me." "Figure six hours drive time, it would've left Prescott about 9 AM, maybe even before 9." "So the stage left at 9. What does _that_ prove?" "Everything; Barlow was killed around 11 AM, maybe later. There's no way that you could have been in Prescott and killed him at 11 and caught up with the stage and robbed it at 3, like you did. It would've had too much of a lead." She moved even _closer_. "You're right; I couln't've done 'em both." She threw her arms around him and leaned in for a kiss. For a time - much too short a time - their worries about the murder charge were lost in their shared passion. "We still have to get a copy of the schedule to prove when the stage left Prescott," he said, a little breathless, when they finally separated. "_And_ we have to get Wells Fargo to admit that they were robbed." Jessie gave him a sly smile. "We can do _that_ easy. You're smart, and I'm... sneaky. We just put our heads together and -" "Like this?" Paul moved in, putting his head - his lips, at any rate - together with hers. Talk of murder and alibi was over for the evening. They kept their drawers on, still concerned about the lack of protection, but they certainly enjoyed themselves - and each other - before they both drifted off to sleep. * * * * * Monday, June 3, 1872 "I don't know 'bout this," Jessie whispered. "Them's awful big sheep." Paul tried to reassure her. "They call them 'big _horn_' sheep... for obvious reasons, but they shouldn't bother us if we don't bother them." "You got that right. The horns on somma them rams must weigh twenty- five... thirty pounds." The pair was walking slowly towards the pond where the sheep were drinking. Their horses were tied to a tree some twenty yards away. They made no sudden moves that might startle flock, especially the large rams which were watching them _very_ closely, ready to attack any threat. "I still don't like the look of them sheep," she repeated. "Maybe not, but we need water." He held up the canteen he was carrying. "These things're half empty, and who knows when we'll see another watering hole." "We got enough t'get back t'the Tyler farm..." She let her voice trail off. Paul gave her a look of surprise. "You know we can't go back, Jess, not for a while anyway. That sheriff probably still has men waiting there for us." "I know," she said with a sigh. "It's just that... hell, the only reason we come out here was for Hanna's wedding." She glanced up at the afternoon sun. "A wedding that's probably going on right now, and one that I - hell - I _promised_ t'be there for it." "I know, but it can't be helped. Once we get this business with the cameo settled we'll --" He was interrupted by a loud bleat. They glanced over at the herd of bighorns. One of the rams that had been watching them collapsed to the ground, two arrows in its side. The other sheep were hurrying away from where he stood. Paul and Jessie turned towards where the arrows had probably come from. Five Indians - Apaches! - were walking slowly down the rise. Two, with bows in their hands and satisfied expressions on their faces, headed for the game they had just killed. The others, one with a bow and two with rifles, and all three looking grim, came straight for Paul and Jessie. * * * * * Chapter 5 - "Among the Apaches" Tuesday, June 4, 1872 A train of five Apache warriors slowly headed east along a narrow mountain trail. Paul and Jessie, hands tied behind their backs, were on Jessie's horse, Useless, who was being led by a line from the second Apache. A travois, a triangular sled, was attached by ropes to either side of Useless's saddle. The carcass of a bighorn ram was carefully placed on the sled and held in place by leather straps. The fifth Apache was leading Paul's horse, Ash. A second travois, this one also bearing a dead sheep, was attached to the cowpony. "Paul," Jessie whispered, "what d'you thinks gonna happen to us?" "I don't know, Jesse," he answered in an equally low voice. "The Apache aren't too happy with white folk right about now." "When was they _ever_ happy with white folk?" "When we left them alone." Paul's expression soured. "After what happened at Camp Grant - all those Apache women and kids killed for no good reason - a lot of them scattered to the hills. And some of them - like Cochise - are out for blood." "They come in to the reservation when General Crook told 'em to." "That came in because it was easier to spend winter in a camp, getting food and blankets, than it was to stay in the mountains. A lot of them ran for it when spring came." He looked around at their captors. "I think that's who these men are, Apaches who didn't want to stay where General Crook or General Howard wanted them." He add that some of those warriors who had escaped had taken to killing whites. He didn't need to. "You think they's gonna kill us," she asked nervously. "I hope not." He thought for a moment. "They could've killed us outright when they found us. It'd be nice if we could ask them what they _do_ have in mind. You don't happen to speak Apache, do you?" "Not a word; how 'bout you?" "The same, I'm sorry to say." _Very_ sorry; it would be hard to try to reason with men who couldn't understand what he was saying to them. Just then, one if the warriors rode over to them. "Cerrar sus bocas malditos [Shut your damned mouths]," he ordered in surprisingly good Spanish. 'Well,' Paul thought wryly, 'that's _one_ problem solved.' * * * * * The Apache warriors - still leading Useless and Ash - rode into a small encampment, a semi-circle of seven wickiups. These were shelters about twelve feet across and about nine feet high, formed by poles tied together to form a cone. It was summer, and the poles were covered with an array of rushes and leafy branches. Several women were working by a communal cook pot surrounded by the huts. Others were seated in front of huts sewing or doing some other sort of close-up work. Children of various ages ran through the camp, playing some sort of chase game. A few older children were laboring in what looked like a small field of crops beyond the camp itself. Everyone stopped when the horsemen came into the camp. A woman cupped her hand, turned towards one of the wickiups, and shouted something in Apache. The riders halted near the crowd of women. Two of the men climbed off their horses and walked over to Useless. The first grabbed Paul by the waist and yanked him off the horse, letting him fall to the ground. Paul grunted when he landed. He scrambled, his hands still tied behind his back, and tried to get to his feet. The second Apache grasped Jessie by her waist and lifted her more slowly off the horse. Grinning, he pulled her close, as he lowered her to the ground. She felt her body move against his, as she moved down. "Hey!" she shouted in protest. He continued holding her close once she was on the ground, laughing and making what she suspected were rude comments in his native tongue. Some of the other riders laughed at whatever he was saying. "Leggo o'me, you son of a bitch!" she ordered and kicked him as hard as she could in his left shin. The man grunted and released her. The men were still laughing, but now they were laughing _at_ him, not with him. He scowled and pulled his knife, pointing it at Jessie. "Uhh-ohh," Jessie whispered. Paul was on his feet now, and he quickly moved to position himself between Jessie and the man with the knife. "Ahora seamos razonables, amigo, [Now let's be reasonable, friend,]" he said in Spanish, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible. "I don't think it helps our case to get them mad, Jess," he added in English. "He should be happy it was his _shin_ I kicked." As she spoke, she struggled, shifting her arms inside the ropes, trying to get free. "Kree-gah!" A deep voice called out. Everyone, Apache _and_ white, turned in the direction of the speaker. An elderly man clad in a white buckskin tunic decorated with red, blue, and green beads was walking towards the group. A young girl, perhaps fifteen, held his arm, leading him. She wore a longer tunic, also white buckskin, which was decorated in much the same pattern as the man. The old man walked slowly, shuffling his feet as he walked. When he reached Jessie, he stopped and looked angrily at the younger man. The brave mumbled something and replaced the knife in a sheath hanging from his belt. He stepped back, yielding his place to the elder. The man stared into Jessie's eyes. 'Feels like he's trying t'read my mind,' she thought. Then he stepped back, and his gaze ran slowly down the length of her body. Her lush figure was well-displayed in a pea- green blouse with Kelly green trim and a pair of men's dark blue work pants that was tied tight at her waist and clung to her wide hips and buttocks. He suddenly put his hands on her hips and looked down at her stomach. His hands gripped her firmly, so that her body shifted, as he moved them forward and backward. After a few moments of this, his eyes moved upwards, stopping at Jessie's ample bosom. "What goes on here?" she demanded in Spanish, as the man's fingers moved towards the buttons of her blouse. The old man startled and took a quick step back. The young woman spoke a few words in Apache before she answered Jessie in Spanish. "I am Ih-tedda. I speak to you for my grandfather, Taklishim, His eyes have grown dim, but, as his sight left him, Usen, the Life Giver, gave him the power to see Magic." The old man spoke again, and the woman translated. "Grandfather says that you have been touched, your life altered by the great Magic of Esdzanadehe, the Changing Woman." "You got that right," Paul said with a laugh. Jessie gave him a sharp look and turned back to the young Apache. "Who's this 'Changing Woman' and what sorta 'magic' does she have?" "The Changing Woman is a being of the Spirit, born at the Creation of the World; she is a Spirit of Life and Healing, the mother and the guide to all Tindé... all _Apache_ women. She hears our songs, lends us her power of healing, and strengthens us against death." The old man spoke again, this time in a low, hesitant voice. As he spoke he tilted his head back and forth, still seeming to be examining Jessie. "Grandfather says that the Magic of the Changing Woman is mixed together with another Magic." The girl translated. "It is just as strong, but it is of a sort that he has never seen before." Jessie and Paul looked at each other in surprise. 'How the hell does he know that?' they both thought. "The man who done this to me comes from a land far t'the east - towards the rising sun," she began slowly. "And they got their own kinda 'magic.' When he come here, to this place, he lived with some other Injuns, the Cheyenne, and they taught him the 'magic' they knew. When he mixed 'em together, he got the 'magic' that he used on me." The girl translated Jessie's words for her grandfather. They spoke back and forth for a time. "Grandfather says that both Magics are strong," she finally said in Spanish, "wherever they come from. In two days, at the coming of the New Moon, we will hold the celebration for Bimisi, his grandson, taking his first steps. Is this white man under your protection, Magic One?" "Uh, he surely is." The girl nodded. "That is good. I - we - ask you to stay and be a part of the fiesta, to join your Magic to ours as we sing to the Spirits, asking for them to grant good luck, a good life, to the child. Paul raised a suspicious eyebrow. "_Ask_ us to stay; does that mean that we have a choice?" "No," the Apache maiden said with a wry smile. "But grandfather thinks that the Spirits will look on us with more favor if we do ask." Jessie chuckled, glad that no one was talking about Indian torture. "In that case - since you asked so nice - we'll be glad to stay." * * * * *
Wednesday, June 5, 1872 Jessie sat on a low rock covered with a tanned hide. She was watching Paul who was playing some sort of game with a few of the older boys. A boy stood on one foot next to a line scratched in the dirt. He balanced a stick on the toes of the raised foot, while the other boys counted.... "gots'idi... tsebíí... ngóst'áí... goneznán." When they reached goneznán [ten], the boy kicked, tossing the stick high into the air. All the boys noted how high the stick went. When it landed, they used a twig to mark how close to the line it came. A couple of them clapped the boy, who had tossed the stick, on his shoulder. Jessie smiled, remembering back to when she had played similar games with her brother, Will, back when they were boys growing up in west Texas. The Apache camp was a few yards away from a small pond, and she wondered if the boys knew how to skip stones. "Maybe I'll teach 'em," she mused softly. "Sunset Woman." Jessie turned and saw Ih-tedda, the young girl who acted as her grandfather's guide and translator, coming over to where she was sitting. The Apache had given Jessie the name "Sunset Woman" because of her strawberry blonde hair, "the color of the sky when the sun goes down." She was still trying to learn to pronounce it in Apache. "Yes, Ih-tedda," Jessie answered with a friendly smile. "What can I do for you?" "My grandfather needs to speak to you. You must come... please." Jessie rose to her feet. "Hey, Paul," she called out, "the old man wants t'talk to us." "No... No," the girl said nervously. "It is just Sunset Woman that he must see." Paul was close enough to hear. "Maybe so, but I think _I'd_ better come along, too." He smiled, but his tone made it clear that Jessie wasn't going anywhere without him. "It was..." The girl looked at Paul and Jessie, who here now holding hands. "So be it... come with me." * * * * * Taklishim, the tribal elder, was sitting on a raised stool in front of his wickiup, a warrior standing on each side. A few feet away, a woman sat on a log covered with a gray wolf skin. A large woven basket was leaning against the rock. A baby wrapped in a brown fur was inside the basket, held in place by strips of buckskin. The baby made a sort of a gurgling noise, and the woman reached down and pushed a dried-up piece of what looked like leather that hung from the top of the basket. The thing began to swing back and forth, and the baby smiled and watched it move. Ih-tedda ran over and took a seat at her grandfather's feet. The man closest to the seated woman pointed at Paul and said something in Apache. He was the one who had tried to fondle Jessie when he took her down from her horse, the one she had kicked. He sounded angry as he continued to speak. "I don't know what that guy just said," Paul said to Jessie, "but I don't think he likes me." The Apache scowled, and then he replied in an excellent Spanish. "I said that you have no reason to be here, white man, and you should leave - or be _made_ to leave." "Listen here; you got something important t'say to me," Jessie said, returning the scowl, "you say it t'him, too. You got that?" "You are... together?" the man asked. "Married?" Jessie took Paul's hand in hers own. "Yes, t'your first question, but no t'your second one." She cocked a curious eyebrow. "Why're you asking?" "I am Dasodaha. When the sun goes away behind those hills, tomorrow," he pointed to the west, "we hold the moccasin ceremony for my son, Bimisi. You..." Now he pointed at Jessie. "You promised that you would lend your Magic to our ceremony." Jessie frowned. "I said I would, didn't I? You think I'm gonna go back on my word?" "No," the man told her, "but you are a stranger to us. The Magic that Taklishim sees within you may not bind with the Magic of the Tindé, the People." "You may be right," Paul said, "but what can she - what can _anyone_ do about it?" "To bind the Magic, _you_ must bind with us." Dasodaha's lips curled into a nasty smirk. "You must become my isdzán - my woman." Jessie's jaw dropped. "What? The hell I will!" "Seems to me you already _got_ a wife," Paul added, gesturing towards the woman. Ih-tedda had been translating the conversation for her grandfather. The old man spoke a few words, which she repeated in Spanish. "Grandfather says that our laws say that a man can have more than one wife. It is also our custom for warriors to take captive women for their own." "Don't I get a say in this?" Jessie asked, anger beginning to creep into her voice. The girl shook her head. "No, it is decided. You are to be Dasodaha's woman." "I say it isn't decided," Paul said suddenly. "I challenge for the right to marry Jessie." "You are a captive," the warrior sneered, "the same as Sunset Woman. You cannot challenge me." Taklishim had followed the argument, and now he said a few words in Apache to Ih-tedda. She answered, and the pair spoke quickly to each other. The old man chuckled and pointed first to Dasodaha and then to Paul. "Dasodaha," the girl said in Spanish, "grandfather has taken the white man's challenge for you. You will grapple with him, and the winner will take Sunset Woman as his wife." "What!" the warrior exclaimed. "Why should this be?" "Grandfather says that forced Magic will not work as we wish it to. It may even anger the Spirits and work against us. The Spirits will guide the two of you, and will give strength to the one who _should_ win, the one who will best guide Sunset Woman so that her Magic can be strong in his grandson, Bimisi." The warrior shouted at Taklishim in Apache. The old man answered, calmly but very firmly. Dasodaha scowled. He spat out one last word and stormed off. "What just happened?" Paul asked. Ih-tedda smiled. "Dasodaha did not want to grapple with you. Grandfather told him that if he refused, Grandfather would tell everyone that Dasodaha could not be troubled to help with his own son's moccasin ceremony. He would be shamed. Dasodaha would not have that said about him. He will meet you when the sun has tracked halfway to the hills in the west." "Terrific," Paul answered. He turned to Jessie. "Now what so we do?" Jessie shrugged. "I guess you'll fight him... and I'll cheer for you." She paused, but then added, with a laugh, "and you'd better win -- for both our sakes." * * * * * Jessie and Paul stood at the edge of the common area in front of the Apache camp. Taklishim was making some sort of announcement to those gathered around him. "What's he saying?" Jessie asked Ih-tedda. "Grandfather is telling everyone that Dasodaha claimed you for himself, but your... Paul, is it?" Paul nodded, and she continued. "Your Paul has challenged him. The two men will grapple, and you, Sunset Woman, you will be the prize," Jessie looked at some of the men who were standing, listening to Taklishim. "They ain't gonna fight with knives or anything, are they?" "No, a killing would sour the Magic you will bring to the Moccasin Ceremony. They will grapple with no weapon, only their bare hands. " Paul smiled. "Sounds good to me." "And bare chests," Ih-tedda added. She giggled, hiding her mouth with her left hand. Paul shrugged and began unbuttoning his shirt. When he finished, he slipped it off and handed it to Jessie. She smiled at the sight of his broad, muscular chest, remembering nights together. 'Mmm,' she thought, but then she realized that he was smiling back at her, and that he knew _exactly_ what she'd been thinking. "Ooops," she said, turning away as she felt a blush run across her face. Dasodaha picked that moment to come out of his hut. He wore only his brown loincloth and a pair of knee-length moccasins. Jessie studied the warrior as he stood, waiting. He was a good six inches shorter than Paul's six foot one, but he was stocky and, while not muscle-bound by any means, he looked _very_ strong. "Be careful now, Paul," she said, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice. "He looks pretty tough." Paul took her hand in his. "I can take him - I think." He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "But, just to make sure, how about a kiss for luck?" "For luck." She threw her arms around him, feeling the hard muscles of his body. Her breasts were pushed up against his chest. She looked up at Paul's broad smile, and she felt her whole body tingling from the warmth of that smile. Whatever fears she had seemed _so_ unimportant, as their lips met. As they kissed, Jessie heard angry shouting. When she and Paul _finally_ broke the kiss, they saw Dasodaha gesturing furiously towards her. "What's he going on about?" "He says that, to be fair, you must kiss him as well," Ih-tedda explained, a wry smile curling her lips. Jessie chuckled. "The hell I will." She pointed at the man. "You tell him that." Ih-tedda translated Jessie's refusal, and Dasodaha's expression grew even madder. "Let's get this thing over with before he starts foaming at the mouth," Paul said. He walked forward, his arm out in an offered handshake. "Tell him I just want this to be a fair fight." But the warrior just snarled and crouched down, his arms out, ready to fight. "Well, I tried," Paul said with a shrug before he assumed the same position. "Whenever you're ready, Taklishim." The old man grunted and raised his right arm. Then he shouted something, a quick guttural word, and quickly lowered his arm. The match had begun. The two men circled, backs bent, arms extended, and finger arched out like claws. They were each ready to attack - or to defend against the other's attack. Dasodaha suddenly grabbed for Paul's right arm. Paul dodged and made a grab for Dasodaha's arm, but the man pulled it back. They continued to circle, each trying to take the measure of the other, to judge what the other's strategy might be. Dasodaha stopped in place and began motioning with his arms, inviting Paul to come for him. Paul grinned and shook his head. "No, thank you." The Apache lowered his head and charged Paul, who tried to dodge. Dasodaha grabbed him around the waist and lifted him into the air. Then he shifted and threw Paul to the ground. As soon as Paul landed, the warrior tried to jump onto him. Paul rolled quickly out of the way and leaped to his feet. His opponent sprang to his knees and then stood erect. The two men began circling again, each looking for an opening. Paul suddenly grabbed Dasodaha's wrist and yanked. As the Apache stumbled forward, Paul tripped him. He fell to the ground, but he rolled quickly onto his back, as Paul jumped atop him. The two men grappled. Dasodaha rolled, and, now, he was atop Paul. Paul rolled and managed to tuck his legs up, under him. He used hands and feet to push the warrior off him. The man jumped up, but before he could attack again, Paul was standing, too, braced and ready. The Apache grabbed Paul again. This time he pulled the man off- balance. His arms encircled Paul's waist, and he lifted him up and into a bear hug. Paul squirmed, trying to escape, but his opponent just squeezed him tighter. Paul reached out and clapped the man _hard_ on both ears with his open palms. Dasodaha shook his head from the pain. His ears were ringing, and he was having trouble keeping his balance. He staggered back a step and dropped Paul. Paul grabbed his forearm and yanked. The man lurched forward, past Paul, who threw his left arm around Dasodaha's neck. He balled his left hand into a fist and grabbed it with his right. The Apache fell back against Paul, tugging at his arm. Paul tightened his hold. Dasodaha's grasping grew weaker, less organized. He gave a final gasp and his arms fell to his sides. "I think you got him," Jessie yelled. Paul held on for a few moments longer. Then he released his hold. The man fell to the ground. He was still breathing, but he didn't move. Paul stood over him, a bit unsteady on his feet. "I hope so," he whispered and wiped his brow with his bare arm. "Ye-yahoo!" Jessie yelled. She ran over and took Paul's arm, lifting it up over her head. "The winner and still - and _my_ champion - Paul Grant!" She put her arm around his waist and kissed his cheek. Paul took her hand in his and turned to Ih-tedda. "Okay, I beat your man. Now what happens?" "There must be a joining," she replied, "for Sunset Woman's Magic to be at its most strong." Jessie gave her a curious look. "What kind of a 'joining', and when's it gonna happen?" "The best kind," the Apache maiden said, "and we will have it now." She said something, and her grandfather walked over to where they were standing. Taklishim took Jessie's left hand in his right hand. Then he stared down at Paul's hand. Paul nodded and allowed the old man to take his left hand in his own left hand. Ih-tedda hurried to stand next to her grandfather. "You are to become Taklishim's daughter," she explained. "Daughter?" Jessie said, the doubt clear in her voice. Ih-tedda nodded. "This is the _gotah_... the camp of Taklishim, his daughters, and their husbands and children." "All the men in the camp are married to his daughters?" Jessie said incredulously. "Yes, all but old... Uncle Juh, his brother, and the two youngest men, Chalipun and Nitis. They are Taklishim's unmarried sons. When they are old enough, they will take wives and then they will go to live in the camps of their _wives'_ fathers." Jessie shrugged. "I guess that makes sense. Okay, let's do it." "Very well." Ih-tedda nodded to her grandfather. He moved his hands so that Jessie and Paul's hands, the ones he was holding, touched. Then he began to speak, more to recite some ancient prayer. He spoke each line and waited for his granddaughter to translate before continuing.. "Now you will feel no rain; for each of you will be shelter to the other." "Now you will feel no cold; for each of you will be warmth to the other." "Now there is no more loneliness; for each of you will be companion to the other." Jessie suddenly interrupted. "Wait a minute. This doesn't sound something t'bind my so-called magic. It sounds like -" "Let him finish, Jess," Paul said, cutting her off. "We can't be sure till he finishes." Jessie frowned. "But..." "Please," Ih-tedda said, "let grandfather finish." Taklishim had stopped when Jessie had spoken. Now he continued, with Ih-tedda translating. "Now you are two bodies, but there is only one life before you." "Go now to your dwelling place; to enter into the days of your togetherness," "And may your days be good and long upon the earth." As Ih-tedda spoke the last line, Taklishim moved his hands together. He had been holding Jessie and Paul's hands in his own. When his two hands touched, he jerked them away, so that Jessie and Paul were now holding each other's hands. The old man smiled and put his hands atop theirs. He said a last few words and gave them a _very_ definite nod. "Now you are bound together as one." Ih-tedda translated. Jessie pulled her hand free of Paul's. "What!" Then she saw the smug look on his face. "You dirty son of a bitch, you knew this was gonna happen didn't you?" "Not till the old man started the ceremony. Then I figured, why the hell not?" He reached for her hand again. "Can I kiss the bride now?" Jessie's entire body tensed. "Kiss," she hissed. "I'll give you a _kiss_, Mr. Grant." She cocked her arm and punched him in the stomach as hard as she could. Then she turned and stormed off. Paul staggered backwards and, tripped over his own feet. As he fell to the ground, he could hear the entire Apache camp laughing at him. "That's what I get for rescuing her," he said as he climbed back onto his feet. He chuckled and added, "Ain't love grand?" * * * * * Jessie sat on a low, fur-covered stool, staring into the fire. She'd been there since she'd gut-punched Paul, and she had no interest in speaking to anyone. _Especially_ Paul. "Sunset Woman." Jessie glanced up to see Ih-tedda standing before her. "What d'you want now, gal?" The young maiden offered her hand to Jessie. "You must come with me now." When Jessie grumbled and turned back to the fire, she added, "Please... Jessie." "Well... since you asked so nice." Jessie raised an eyebrow, bemused at being called by her "White" name. She rose to her feet and made a gesture with her arm. "Lead on, Ih-tedda." Ih-tedda took Jessie's hand and walked with her to the edge of the encampment. A new wickiup had just been erected. She could see one of her saddlebags was lying on the low mound of earth that encircled the structure. Apaches dug out a few inches of earth from the inside of a wickiup and then used that material to brace the outside of the hut. The saddlebag was by the break in the mound that was made for the entrance flap. "This is home for you and your... man." The girl giggled, covering her fingers with her hand. "Is somebody out there?" The flap was pushed aside, and Paul looked out. "Hi, Jess. They... uh, they gave us this place for our, um... honeymoon." He gave her a wan smile and tried to sound cheerful. "I got most of our stuff inside already." She frowned. "Well, you can just haul it all back to where it was. I'll sleep with Ih-tedda and her sisters, and you can camp out under the stars, the way we _been_ doing." "Jess, before you say _anything_ more, you need to come in here and talk to me _in_ _private_." He glanced over at Ih-tedda. "I don't think so. Whatever you got t'say, you can say out here to the both of us." He came over to stand next to her. _Very_ close. "Inside, Jessie. Now." "Make me!" "All right, then." He grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of wheat. "Put me down, you bastard!" She squirmed, but he held her tightly with his one arm around her waist. He shook his head. "When we're inside." "Like hell!" She started to kick, and he grabbed her legs and held them in place with his other arm. "Ih-tedda," he ordered, "open the flap." The girl did as she was told. Paul walked in, still carrying Jessie. Once they were inside, he yelled, "Shut the flap and go." Paul waited until he heard the sound of the flap close behind him. He lifted Jessie off his shoulder and set her, so that she was sitting on a pile of blankets. "Now sit there and listen to me, Jessie," he ordered, and when she began to get up, he pushed her back down. "If you tried to get out of our... out of what Taklishim did, I'd've probably wound up sleeping back by the fire like I was, but you wouldn't be back with the girls." "And where would I be, _Mr._ _Grant_?" "You'd be sleeping with Dasodaha, only I don't think he'd let you get much sleep; not till he was done with you, anyway." "The hell I would." "Jess, he claimed you. You said, 'No', and I fought for you. When I won, that made you my... prize. If you refused me, the Apache would think that you changed your mind, that you _wanted_ Dasodaha." "I don't want him," she said. "I don't want t'be _anybody's_... prize." She looked up at Paul. They'd been lovers for so long. She wanted more - she thought - but she hated the idea of being tied down to a man, to any man, the way Laura and Maggie were. "And you're not my _prize_," he answered. "_Or_ my wife. I just let them think you were." "What about all that rigmarole Taklishim said? We'll keep each other warm and share each others' problems. That sure sounds like a damned marriage ceremony t'me." "Well, I've been keeping you warm since the night I fished you out of that flood, and we've had more'n our share of problems, but nobody ever said we were married." "But the chief..." "Did you say, 'I do,' to him?" "No, but --" "Neither did I. Nobody said, 'I do', so we _didn't_. We'll just act like we are; okay?" Jessie sighed, and her whole body seemed to relax. "Okay, but not _too_ _much_ like we are. Remember, we only got that one riding coat." * * * * * Thursday, June 6, 1872 "Hey, Jess," Paul called from outside the wickiup, "we've got company." Jessie came out of the hut, buttoning the top button of her blouse. "Company... who?" "Well, not exactly a friend; take a look." He pointed to a group of five Apache horsemen riding into the camp. Dasodaha was leading a sixth horse. On that mount, his hands tied to the saddle horn was... "Oh, shit," Jessie spat. "That's Sheriff Whyte, ain't it?" "I'm afraid it is. I guess we didn't lose him, we just slowed him down." One of the other braves, Laziyah, untied the rope binding the prisoner's hands. With a single, strong yank, he pulled the man off the horse. Whyte scrambled to his feet. He reached for his pistol, but then remembered that his captors had taken it. He did still have a knife, hidden in his boot. He crouched low and drew it quickly. He stayed crouched, in fighter's stance, ready and waiting for _anyone_ to start something. "All right, you Apache bastards," he said, his voice an angry growl. "I'm ready for you now." Jessie chuckled. "Maybe you are, mister, but I don't think these Apache're ready for you." "Hanks..." He turned to face her. "So they got you, too." Then he saw how comfortable she - and that man of hers - how comfortable they both seemed. "Or are you _friends_ with these savages." "Friends," Paul said. "But you won't be, Sheriff; not if you keep calling them names." Jessie shook her head. "Put that knife away, you danged fool. It's five to one against you; you ain't got a chance in hell of beating 'em." She chuckled. "And if you're thinking about rescuing Paul 'n' me, forget it. We don't need rescuing." "These Apache are treating us more like guests than prisoners," Paul added. "And if you stop acting like such a damned fool and give them half a chance, they'll probably treat you the same way." The Sheriff snorted. "In a pig's eye; if you're _guests_, then why don't you up and leave?" "'Cause they asked us - asked _me_ t'stay," Jessie told him. "Stay and help with some ceremony they're gonna do t'night." "Yeah, right. What're they gonna do; bless a war party?" Jessie had to laugh at that. "Not hardly." "And why should I trust you, either you or Grant?" He made a motion with his head, as if to point at Paul. "Because we've no reason to lie," Paul replied. "Look, if these people meant you any harm, why would they keep you alive and bring you back to their camp? They could've killed you where they caught you." "Maybe... Maybe not. How do I know that they don't need my blood for some heathen sacrifice in this 'ceremony' you keep talking about?" "You speak any Spanish, Sheriff?" She asked. "In a town as close to the border as Dawson, with all the Mex living nearby; o'course, I do. Why?" Jessie looked around. Ih-tedda was standing not too far away, with some of the other women. "Hey, Ih-tedda," She yelled in Spanish. "What's this ceremony you got planned for tonight?" "Don't you remember, Sunset Woman; the moccasin ceremony." Whyte chuckled. "Sunset Woman; why do they call you that?" "On account of my red hair," Jessie replied, running a hand through her strawberry blonde locks. Then she prompted Ih-tedda. "What's this 'moccasin ceremony' for, anyway?" "My... cousin, Bimisi, is taking his first steps. The ceremony asks the Spirits to keep him healthy and help him to grow strong." She pointed to a woman holding a carrier in her arms. The baby inside was clearly visible. "There is Bimisi... with his mother, Nascha." The baby looked up at the sound of his name. He smiled and waved his arms at Ih-tedda. Jessie smiled at the baby. "Sure is a bloodthirsty-looking fellow, ain't he?" In spite of himself, Sheriff Whyte smiled and waved back at the infant. "Yeah, 'bout as bloodthirsty as my own grandson." The Sheriff shrugged. He lowered his arms and relaxed. "I may be wrong - and Heaven help me if I am - but I'll believe you." He slipped his knife back into its sheath in his boot. "For now." * * * * * "What's this?" Jessie asked, looking down at the steaming bowl that had just been set down before her. Ih-tedda was sitting a few places to the right. "Boiled meat," she replied, "served in its own broth." "What kinda meat? It ain't... dog, is it?" "Sheep; the animal that was shot today." Jessie used her wooden spoon to take a sip. "Not bad." She could taste pepper and chunks of onion in the soup. "Try it with some _chigustei_." The girl held up a round flatbread that was a bit thicker than one of the tortillas that Maggie served sometimes with her spicy Mexican stew. She tore the bread into pieces and tossed them into her own bowl. Jessie did the same. So did Paul who was sitting on Jessie's left. "Not bad at all," he said, after taking a sip with a bit of the bread in it. "First that roast rabbit, then the meat broth; this is a real feast." "Feasting is a part of the celebration," Ih-tedda said, "as is the exchange of gifts." She held up her arm to display the flannel shirt she wore, one of the two that Hanna had packed. "Thank you." Jessie shrugged slightly. "I guess. I ain't sure o'this outfit you gave me." She wore a light brown blouse, a brown belt, and a long, pale yellow skirt, all soft buckskin and all decorated with matching patterns of beads. The bottom of her skirt was fringed. Her hair had been forced into a bun. An hourglass-shaped metal ornament atop the bun held it in place. "It looks nice," Paul said. "Besides, if you're going to be a part of the moccasin ceremony, you might as well dress the part." She gave a wry laugh. "Oh, I'm dressed for it, all right." Her voice dropped down to a whisper. "Dressed from the skin out; Ih-tedda and the other women said that I'd spoil the magic if I wore my corset and drawers. All I got on under this skirt and blouse is a loincloth and some kinda wrap 'round my tits." "Must be a lovely sight," he said with a chuckle. "And I'll be glad to help you out of all that later." She shook her head. "Forget it, Paul. I still ain't over how you tricked me with that so-called wedding. I'll sleep in the same hut as you 'cause Taklishim expects me to, but that's as far as it goes. Understand?" "I understand," he said, the regret obvious in his voice. * * * * * Taklishim carefully poured yellowish powder - cattail pollen - onto the grass. He shook the woven basket holding the pollen to the rhythm of a wordless chant he was singing, and as he poured, he moved backwards, so that the pollen formed a narrow trail, perhaps ten feet long, facing east from the Apache camp. "Now we are ready," Ih-tedda told Jessie. The baby -- Bimisi's - mother, Nascha, set down the carrier he was in at the closer end of the path. She unstrapped the carrier and lifted the baby out. Dasodaha, Bimisi's father, brought over a pair of moccasins, and the two of them slipped the knee-high moccasins onto the infant's feet. Nascha sat on the ground, holding her child on her lap. Dasodaha walked to the far end of the trail of pollen. He squatted down, his arms outstretched. "You must stand behind Dasodaha," Ih-tedda instructed Jessie. "Put your hands on his shoulders to channel the magic within you." Jessie took her place by the man. She could hear the other members of the Apache band begin to chant. Drums and rattles picked up the beat of the chant. Jessie heard a high-pitched sound drift over the drumming. She glanced over to see that one of the warriors, a man named Eknath, running a bow across a string attached to a long wooden tube. Ih-tedda had called it a "tsii' edo'a'tl", singing wood. Taklishim, Dasodaha, and Nascha began a chant. The woman put Bimisi down on the path and gave a slight push. Dasodaha waved his hands and called the baby by name, encouraging him to walk forward. The words of the chant changed with each step the child took. Ih-tedda had taught Jessie what the chant meant. ' "May the sun bring you new energy by day. ' May the moon softly restore you by night. ' May the rain wash away your worries, ' And the breeze blow new strength into your being. ' All the days of your life, may you walk ' Gently through the world and know its beauty." Bimisi reached his father's arms just as the chanters finished. Dasodaha scooped his son up in his arms and stood erect. As he stood, he let loose a whoop that startled Jessie, and she stepped back. Nascha and Taklishim took up the whoop, and it spread from them to the others. Eventually, even Jessie, Paul, and the Sheriff joined in. * * * * * Elijah Whyte glanced at his pocket watch. "Don't these folks ever go to bed?" he muttered. "It's been more than two hours since that baby walked and his mama took him to bed, and they're still drumming and chanting." "I asked Ih-tedda before she went to bed," Jessie said. "She told me that they stay up all night, sometimes, celebrating and singing." Paul held up a bag made of tightly sewed hide. "And drinking, too. One of the men, Norroso, gave me this. He called it... _ tiswin_." He took a sip. "Tastes like corn squeezings; I wonder where they got hold of it." He handed Jessie the container. She took a drink and handed it to the Sheriff. "They may've made it themselves," Whyte said. "The Apache probably learned how to get alcohol out of corn before us white men came to Arizona. A friend of mine over at Fort Yuma, a sergeant, told me that the reservation agents give them mostly corn flour or corn meal 'cause they'd make liquor from kernel corn." They finished the first "jug" and started on a second one. "I'm turning in," the Sheriff said, shaking his head to try to clear it. He handed Paul the bag and walked _very_ carefully to his bedroll on the far side of the campfire. "Now 'bout you, Jess?" Paul asked. He was sitting on the ground, his back braced against a hide-covered bench. "You done for the night?" She shook her head. "Nope, I think I wanna stay up for just a mite longer." She shifted over, so that she was lying next to him. His arm went around her waist, and she smiled and snuggled in a bit closer. Neither spoke. They were just enjoying being in physical contact with each other. Juh, an older brave, limped over carrying another bag. Juh was Taklishim's brother, a cripple who used a crude crutch to get about. He handed the container to Paul and gestured as if taking a drink. "Why not?" Paul took a sip. "Different; here, Jess, you try it." She took the thing from him and took a drink. "Not bad; it tastes different from the other stuff, sharp, like whiskey." She held up the bag and looked at Juh. "_Tiswin_?" "_Mezcal_," the brave replied and motioned for her to have another drink. Paul cocked an eyebrow. "Better be careful, Jess. That stuff can really mess you up." "I ain't Bridget," she replied, taking another swallow. "I can hold my liquor." "This isn't liquor, Jess; it's mescal, and it's _dangerous_." She took one last, quick sip. "All right, here." She pouted and handed him the bag. "That's my girl," Paul said, kissing her cheek, then he added to himself, 'But just in case,' Paul thought. Jessie was on his right. He reached out with his left arm and set the container down as far from her as he could. A moment later, his right arm snaked around her waist, pulling her closer. This time the kiss, a longer one, was on her lips. She sighed and quickly returned it. After that, they sat quietly, snuggling together and staring into the fire. After a few minutes, though, she began to squirm in his arms. At the same time, she was giggling softly. "Jess, are you okay?" Paul turned to face her. She was smiling, but her eyes seemed glazed. "It's that danged loincloth Ih-tedda made me wear." She bent her knees and yanked at her skirt, pulling it as far up her shapely thighs as she could Then she grabbed his hand and shoved it under the skirt, so that his fingers could feel the soft hide that was touching her crotch. "Jess!" He wrenched his hand free. "What do you think you're doing - acting like that in public?" She slowly stood up, using his shoulders as support. "You're r-right. We gotta... do this in our wi-wicki-hic-up." She giggled again at her mispronunciation and stated walking - stumbling, rather - towards their wickiup. He _carefully_ got to his feet, feeling the effects of what he'd consumed. He took a breath while he steadied himself, then he made his way to the hut. "Wap!" Something hit him in the face as he entered. Jessie's blouse. "What the hell?" he spat. Jessie was standing by the fire. Her belt and skirt lay near her on the floor. As Paul watched, she unfastened the loincloth, letting it fall about her feet. "There," she said in a dazed voice, "now you don't gotta worry 'bout that thing tickling my pussy. You can tickle it yourself." She posed for him, naked except for her moccasins. "That's not you talking," Paul said, "it's the mescal, and I'm _not_ go-gonna..." He was beginning to feel the liquor in him. "...gonna take advantage." "You're right. It ain't just me talking. It's _me_, Jessie Hanks, _and_ Giselle..." She spoke that name in the terrible accent that she used when she and Paul played the sex game where she was a "Fronch" whore. "..._and_ Sunset Woman_..." She spoke the name in carefully learned Apache. "We _all_ want you, but, lucky me, _I_ get to have you first." She took a step forward, pressing her body against him, as her arms wrapped around him. He tried to break free. "Jessie," he said firmly, as his resolve stiffened. But his voice wasn't all that was firm, and his resolve wasn't all that was stiffening. A half-drunken man, his mind also numbed by mescal, is easy prey for a sexually aroused woman - the woman he loves - when she rubs her naked body against his, groping down into his pants for his member, and begging to be taken. In a matter of minutes, those pants - and his drawers - were off. He was lying on a carpet of sleeping furs, pumping into that incredible female body, and Jessie, Giselle, and Sunset Woman were all three groaning in carnal delight. * * * * * To Be Continued