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Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Identity Death of Evan Michael Turner by Laisy Faire

MOD NOTE:  Another one by my old friend:)  Hope all enjoy!
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Something was creeping up Evan's leg, something insectile, something with horrid little legs that made his skin crawl. He wasn't sure what it could be, but the micro-movements of his leg hair confirmed that it was there. He knew something like this would happen; nothing good ever came from spending the day outside, but he was not about to miss the chance to see his little sister's track meet, not when he saw so little of her. Work kept him busy and made the hour drive back to his home town a tricky prospect on most days, so he was making the best of the opportunity while he had it, even if it meant braving a slightly chilly spring day. The bug was persistent, he had to give it that. Its six spindly legs tickled their way up his shin at a glacial speed, inch by inch, step by step, making him squirm in his seat. He brushed at his pant leg, hoping the pest would give up on its trek, but his relief only lasted a moment. All he managed to do was embolden his tormentor. It made Evan begin to worry about what exactly was pestering him. The cool air and lack of standing water probably ruled out a mosquito, which would otherwise be the most likely suspect. An ant also seemed likely—hopefully a black one—the red ones bite after all. The idea of something biting him made him worry even more. What if the intruder had eight legs instead of six? Oh god, it was probably a spider searching for warmth. His arachnophobia spiked. The world became dark. There was nothing but Evan and the arachnid on his leg. His pulse quickened. Nausea gripped his stomach, threatening to rip it right out of his torso. He was going to die right here, right now, and all because he was trying to be a good brother. This might seem an irrational thought to a rational person, but Evan's preternatural paranoia made it clear that the spider on his leg could only be one species—the brown recluse. Of all the spiders he could imagine attacking him, it was the one he feared the most. Black widows advertise themselves with the bright red hourglass on their bodies, but a brown recluse, well, how was he supposed to get close enough to see the fiddle on their backs? Thus all brown spiders were brown recluses to him and since many spiders were brown, that meant that the fiddle-backed monstrosities were lurking everywhere, waiting to kill him. He was so stricken by this thought, that it took him a moment to notice when the tickling sensation from his right leg moved to his left as well. There was more than one. There was an entire horde of spiders out to get him. The hair on his legs wiggled and itched as if a wave of spiders was crawling up his calves. And then he felt them on his arms, and between his legs, and all across his chest. Everywhere that Evan had body hair, the spiders took up residence.

“Oh! Oh god! Get them off! Get them off!”

Higher, Better, Faster, Stronger by Laisy Faire

ADMIN NOTE:  This is a story written by a good friend of mine.  She is a very good writer and I hope you enjoy:)
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Smoking can be a way of life. It brings people together in the most amazing ways. Friendships are formed, commonalities are discovered—anywhere in the world, one can light up and be sure that they will find someone with whom they can share a powerful experience. Marijuana, pot, weed—it has many names, and many uses. It can alter one's mind, calm the nerves, and relax the soul. It can cure and inspire, but most of all it just feels good. Simon's love affair with the green began when he was a teenager, struggling to deal with the embarrassment of losing his hair thanks to a skin condition. The smoke delayed some of his hair loss, but more importantly it connected him to friends that didn't care that he was going to look like Professor Xavier by the time he was twenty. Since then, it had become a ritual, something that he could do every Saturday night during his gaming sessions. Whether he was with a group of friends around the kitchen table playing tabletops, or playing some online game with complete strangers, the ritual remained the same.

It was another typical Saturday night and the sickly sweet aroma of pot permeated into every nook and cranny of Simon's one-bedroom apartment. His stoner friends had left for the evening, but he was still enjoying his buzz and there was Rocket League to be played.

Nice shot! Nice shot! Nice shot!

The canned comments plastered the upper portion of his screen as he scored a goal thanks to a perfectly timed pass from his friend, Casey.

Great pass! Thanks! Simon sent back.

Revving motors, the thundering cheering of fans, and the explosion caused by another ball in the net followed. The blue aura of his computer screen lit the room as Simon racked up goal after goal. It might have been a team sport, but leading the team in goals always felt good even if it did lead to Casey complaining about him being a little bit selfish with the ball. His friend's complaints were only a mild annoyance though. In the end, if the team won they both had a good time.

What a save! What a save! What a save! What a save! What a save! Simon spammed the chat as a member of the opposing team narrowly missed stopping a last second goal that would have tied the score.

“Great sportsmanship there, buddy.” Casey's voice echoed in Simon's headset as the game shifted back to the lobby screen.

“It's not like I told them to get cancer or something. It's part of the game.” Simon said indignantly.

“Whatever you say, man. I just thought that someone that's high all the time would be a little more mellow in the way he plays.”

“I'm not high all the time,” Simon shot back, “just whenever I'm stressed out, having trouble sleeping, and every Saturday night. Oh, and when I want to watch a really trippy movie. It's pretty much required then.”

“Can't argue with that. You're practically sober,” Casey chortled. “I don't care what you do as long as you're awake in time to hit the fair tomorrow. You know it's sweater weather and there's going to be some real cuties there. I don't want to miss my chance to find a Mrs. James because I couldn't get you out of bed.”

Simon harrumphed. He needed a best friend more supportive of his extra-curricular activities. He had plenty of friends that he smoked with and considering Casey's penchant for giving him shit about it, they all seemed like better choices. What made it worse was the entire reason for Casey's antipathy towards marijuana was that he did not smoke, thus logically it was a stupid activity.

Simon's increased irritation with his friend was a good sign that his buzz was wearing off. This was not how the evening was supposed to go. His little habit was supposed to help him forget about the fact that he was in his twenties and could not grow hair in more than little patches atop his head, or that he was of average height at best and certainly far shorter than most of his friends, or at the very least that his job was far more stressful than it needed to be. Would it kill the world to give him his one night a week that he could truly unwind?

“Simon, are you still there?” Casey broke up the self-pity party.

“Yeah, I'm still here, and don't worry about tomorrow. You damn well know that I'm not that kind of friend.”

“I know, but I still like to give you shit. Want to go another round?”

“Yeah, I have a few more in me, but not until I take one more trip down the Ganges.” Simon smirked and lit up, inhaling the stress-reducing smoke before queuing up for another game.

* * *

Another grey sky morning met Simon as they stepped out of Casey's late 90s model Range Rover and into the gravel parking lot outside the fairgrounds. The air still had that Northern chill—the kind of crisp air that would snap the senses awake and just cold enough to make Simon want to retreat further into his black hoodie. Grey seemed an all-too-familiar color lately. It was the color of his eyes and the color of his overcast disposition as of late. Sunday mornings were for sleeping in, not for spending the day hitting on out-of-town college girls. He was not opposed to girls, of course, but he just thought he had very little to offer them with his short stature and bald head that he kept hidden underneath the hood of his sweatshirt.

Casey slapped him on the back.

“Cheer up! We have a big day ahead of us. Just think about all the cuties that are going to be here.” Simon's taller friend smirked. “I'll even give you the chance now to call dibs. Who do you want first crack at—blondes, brunettes, maybe a redhead?”

“I want to go back to bed. The fair is going to be here all day long. Couldn't we come later in the afternoon?” Simon pleaded. “There's hardly anybody here yet.”

Casey gave Simon an incredulous stare.

“Do I really need to explain this again? We get first pick if we're the first ones here. Besides, how many girls are going to feel like being hit on after they're all bloated from stuffing funnel cake in their mouths?”

Simon slumped, mentally defeated. There was no arguing with Casey. His logic was so baffling at times that it defied argument. Then again, it was easy being Casey. He had everything going for him that Simon did not. He was tall with a sort of athletic look about him and had a thick mane of dark scraggly hair. Most of all, he was confident. Confidence was the one thing that Simon lacked above all else. He might have been a little frail, but there were other men that could take what he had and get a lot more out of it than he did. There was no Napoleon complex here. Simon felt about as big as he looked.

The morning hours went about as good as could be expected. Simon followed Casey around the fairgrounds like a zombie. The rides seemed even more of a blur than they normally were. Simon was barely coherent on the tilt-a-whirl, nearly sliding off his seat onto the floor more than once. He nearly fell asleep on the Ferris wheel, especially when they were stopped at the top to let on another pair of passengers. By the time they reached the bumper cars and Casey had yet to hit on a single girl, he was ready to go home. It was just his luck then that there was a fairly cute redhead in a purple skirt waiting in line and watching them as they stepped into their respective cars. 

From the start, Simon's plan was to keep moving. If he drove around the floor like it was a race track, it would be fairly difficult for someone to pin him down. Not long into their time, however, Simon noticed that Casey was getting rather competitive, crashing into any other adult male riding the track at full speed, doing his best to emasculate them. That's when he saw the redhead waving to someone on the floor. Seconds later Casey's car had t-boned him right into the wall and as he jostled about his friend backed up and then smashed into him several more times. The grogginess that had held him prisoner all morning faded away with each crash of rubber and metal. When the buzzer finally sounded, he was left frustrated and ready to get in a fight.

“What's your problem?!” Simon shouted at his would-be friend.

“Huh? Oh, sorry, no hard feelings man.” Casey seemed a bit distracted, scanning the crowd as they made their way to the exit. “Didn't you see that girl? She was totally waving at—”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jessie Hanks Outlaw Queen: The Cameo Murder, Part 2

 
 
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. 
 
              Jessie Hanks Outlaw Queen: The Cameo Murder
                          By Nicholas Varrick
         As Told by Ellie Dauber and Christopher Leeson © 2016   
 
Part 2: Finding Their Way 
  
Street and Smith's _New_ _York_ _Weekly_ is proud to present the latest
addition to the amazing legend of Eerie, Arizona.


Chapter 6 - "Crossing Arizona"

Friday, June 7, 1872

Jessie slowly - regretfully - opened her eyes.  "Uhh," she moaned,
putting her hand to her head.  "Why the hell is it so damn bright in
here?"  She thought about sitting up, but decided against doing so.  In
her condition, her head just might fall off, and she wasn't sure that
she'd be able to get it back on.  She managed to raise her arm, and
then let it drape down over her face to shield her eyes.

As she lay there, she felt her sleeping furs against her skin and
realized something.  "I'm... I'm _nekkid!_"  She raised her head - a
serious tactical error - and, groaning from the pain, looked down at
her body.

Her left breast was uncovered, her nipple erect.  At the same time,
most of her left leg poked out from the tangle of furs.  "Shi-it," she
said in a voice that was much too loud.  "Where's my clothes?"  Her
voice quickly lowered to a bearable near-whisper.

"Good morning, Jess," Paul said softly, entering the wickiup.  "I heard
you yell just now, so I figured you were finally awake."

She turned her head... slowly, to squint at him.  "Finally; what time
is it?"

"Almost noon.  After all you drank last night, I thought it'd be better
to let you sleep in.  How're you feeling?"

"Like I got a hive of bees - big ones -- buzzing 'round in my head."

"Here."  He handed her a cup of what smelled like a meat broth.
"This'll help."

She took a deep gulp.  It was meat, sheep probably, but there was a
slight medicinal aftertaste.  Her head seemed to be throbbing a bit
less, and she could bear the light easier.  "What is this?"  She held
the cup close to her face.  Even breathing in the fumes seemed to help.

"Hair of the dog..."  He saw her expression sour.  They both knew what
some Indians used the packs of dogs in their camps for.  "Bad choice of
words; it _is_ mutton, I swear, with some special herbs that Ih-tedda
put in to help your, umm... hangover."  He gingerly touched his own
forehead.  "It worked for me; give it a little time."

She took another swallow.  "Lordy, I hope so."  She paused a moment,
feeling the warmth in her belly.  "In the meantime, lemme ask you a
question."  She gestured down at her body.  "How come I woke up like
this, with no clothes, I mean."

"You shucked them off as soon as we got inside the wickiup.  You said
they were... bothering you."

"_Bothering_ me; what the hell does that mean?"

He sighed, knowing that trouble was ahead no matter how he answered.
"Okay... _tickling_ you.  And you said that I was - Jess, between that
_tiswin_ and the mescal you went on one hell of a spree last night."

"And from the look of things," she gestured at her nude body.  "You did
pretty good last night, yourself.  You told me more'n once that you had
'rules' against taking advantage of a gal who was too drunk t'know what
she was doing.  You don't seem to've held on to 'em much last night."

"I tried to, Jess, but when the gal is bare-ass naked, shouting about
how much she wants me, while she's got her hand in my pants, it, well,
it gets hard --"

She giggled in spite of herself, but then glared at him.  "I bet it
does."

"Dammit, Jess, I was - to tell the truth - kind of drunk myself, and
those rule sort of got... lost in the shuffle."  He took a breath and
gave her the saddest look he could manage.  "I'm sorry."

"You should be, but... I guess some of it _was_ my fault.  I _think_ it
was, anyway.  T'tell the truth I don't remember a whole lot about last
night."

"Probably just as well."  There had been some _very_ memorable goings-
on the night before, but Paul knew better than to mention them in any
detail.  Instead, he decided to change the subject.  "How's your head
now?"

She took a long, slow sip of the liquid, savoring the warm, settling
sensation in her belly.  "Tolerable; it don't hurt near as much, and I
think I can move around some, without worrying about it coming loose."

"In that case, Jess, it's time you got up and got dressed.  We've got
things to do if we're gonna leave today."  Now that the moccasin
ceremony was over, they had no reason to stay - or for the Apache to
keep them.

"Okay."  She started to throw back the sleeping furs, but stopped.
She'd almost forgotten what she _wasn't_ wearing.  "Why don't you go
wait outside?"  She managed a smile.  "Wouldn't want t'temp you t'break
any of them rules of yours again."

* * * * *

Paul finished tying the Tylers' picnic basket, now filled with foods
supplied by the Apache, to the back of his horse, Ash's, saddle, while
Jessie said her farewells.  "Where's the Sheriff?" Jessie asked Ih-
tedda in Spanish.  "I might as well say goodbye t'him, too."

"The man left not long after the sunrise," she replied.

Paul finished and walked over to stand next to Jessie.  "Do you know
which way he went?"

"That way," Laziyah, one of the warriors, pointed south.  "Back the way
he came."  He had been the one to capture Sheriff Whyte.

Jessie smiled, feeling relieved.  "Guess he gave up on me."

"I hope so," Paul said.  "It still might be a good idea to be
watchful."

Just then, Dasodaha walked over and stood up in front of Paul.  His
face was grim, and he muttered something in Apache.

"He said that he still doesn't understand how he lost the fight," Ih-
tedda translated, "but it was a worthy battle."

The man smiled and stuck out his hand.  Paul did the same.  Each man
grasped the other's forearm, and they shook hands in the Apache manner.
Dasodaha said something else and looked over at Jessie, his gaze going
from head to toe, but lingering at her breasts and her wide hips.

"And for a worthy prize," the maiden translated again.  "He asked about
a rematch."

Jessie shook her head and grabbed for Paul's arm.  "Tell him thanks,
but no thanks."

The brave chuckled deep in his throat and motioned with one arm.
Nascha came over.  She walked slowly, leading Bimisi, who walked beside
her.  She picked up her infant son and held him up for Jessie to see.

"And goodbye to you, little one."  Jessie gently shook hands with the
boy.  "And to your Momma."

Ih-tedda translated and the mother smiled.  Then Ih-tedda led Taklishim
over for a formal goodbye.

"May the Spirits smile on you," he said, with his granddaughter
translating.  "And may your lives together be times of joy."

Paul glanced over at Jessie, who glared back at him.  "Tell him thanks,
but we'd better be going."  He took Jessie's hand.  She continued to
glare, but she walked with him over to their horses.  "We'll talk about
_that_ later," she whispered, as they mounted their horses.

Then, with a final wave, they rode east, out of the Apache camp.

* * * * *

After some two hours of riding, Paul signaled for Jessie to stop.
"There's a creek up ahead.  Let's stop and water the horses."

"Sounds good," she replied.  "I could use a drink m'self."  She paused
a beat.  "Gimme a chance to see if our shadow's still there."

"Shadow - then you see him, too."

"Yep, he found us about an hour ago.  He ain't always there, but when
he is, he's always riding steady, 'bout a half mile behind us, too far
back t'see who he is, but I'm pretty sure  it's always the same man."

"Apache, do you think?"

She shook her head.  "Nope, that ain't their kinda trick.  But, whoever
it is, we're gonna find out real soon."

"I think so, too.  Let's just see if we can't make sure that we meet up
with him on _our_ terms. "  They tugged at their reins, guiding their
horses away from the stream.

They had been riding past a long grove of pinyon trees.  The path
curved, so that they would occasionally be out of sight of their
"shadow" for a short time.  Paul suddenly turned his horse and dashed
in between two trunks.

"Come on," he ordered Jessie.  "Quick, before he sees us."

"What the hell?" Jessie said, but she followed.

Paul rode a few yards into the wood, and then quickly dismounted.  "I
figure that it's time to see just who's been trailing us."  He led his
horse farther back from the path they'd been on.  Jessie got off her
own horse and walked just behind him.

"We'll leave the horses here."  Paul tied his reins around a pinyon
tree.  Jessie glanced back.  She could barely see the light beyond the
woods.  She tied her own horse, pulling once at the reins to make sure
that the knot held.

The pair of them walked slowly back towards the road.  There was some
low brush near the trail.  They hid behind it, crouching low, making
them even harder to sight.

After about five minutes, someone _did_ ride by.  "Sheriff Whyte!"
Jessie hissed in surprise.  "What the hell is he doing _here_?"  Her
voice was barely a whisper, and the Sheriff gave no sign that he had
heard, as he passed by them.

"Probably looking for us," Paul guessed.  "And I think we'd better find
out why."

"Are you crazy?" Jessie said.  "Weren't we trying to _get_ _away_ from
him?"

"Jess, we're a day - maybe less - away from the Prescott to Phoenix
road.  That's where the Wells Fargo depot is, the one with the men we
need to help us.  I'd rather have things settled with the Sheriff now,
than have him pop up while we're talking to those men. Wouldn't you?"

Her expression soured.  "I'd rather not meet up with him at all.  He
tried t'shoot me."

"I remember.  And if he showed up at that stage depot and pulled a gun
on you _there_, he'd likely ruin any chance we have of those Wells
Fargo men backing up your story."

She sighed in resignation.  "You're right about that.  I'm gonna have a
hard enough time getting them to admit what I done."

"True enough, but let's deal with the immediate problem, Sheriff
Whyte."

Jessie hesitated for a moment before she nodded in agreement.  They
retrieved their horses and led them back through the trees and back
onto the trail.

* * * * *

It turned out that they didn't have a choice.

The sun was hanging low in the sky, when Paul and Jessie came around a
turn in the trail and found Sheriff Whyte facing them.  He was astride
his horse, his pistols drawn, and facing them.  "Hello, Miss Hanks....
Mr. Grant," he greeted them in a not quite friendly manner.

"Sheriff," Paul said with a nod of his head.  "What can we do for you?"

"You two got something I want back, them weapons you took from my
jail."  He shook his head.  "I can't very well go home without 'em; can
I?"

Jessie tensed.  "Is that _all_ you want?"

"Well," the lawman replied, his lips curling in a grin, "There is the
little matter of you and that cameo... and Barlow's murder."  He
holstered his revolvers and glanced up at the western sun.  "But it's
getting late.  Why don't I ride along with the two of you, and we can
talk about that when we hunker down for the night."

Paul looked over at Jessie, who gave him a nervous smile.  "I suppose
we can do that," he said.

* * * * *

Jessie sat near the fire, drinking the last of her coffee, while Paul
and Sheriff Whyte stashed the rifle he and Jessie had taken from the
jailhouse, alongside of the Sheriff's saddlebag.  The pistol and shells
that they'd also "borrowed" were inside the saddlebag.

They were camped in a clearing about one hundred feet back from the
trail.  It was close enough to get moving easily the next morning, but
far enough not to be bothered by any nighttime travelers.

"That's it then, Sheriff," Paul said walked over to sit next to Jessie.
"You can head back to Dawson in the morning, and Jessie and I --"

"Are coming with me," Whyte interrupted.  "I'm sorry, but that's how
it's gonna be."  He had a pistol in each hand, the pair of them pointed
at Jessie and Paul.

Jessie glared up at him and reached for her own weapon, still in its
holster on her gun belt.  "You dirty --"

"Don't even think about it."  The lawman fired once.  The bullet kicked
up dirt just a few inches from her hand, and she quickly pulled it
back.

Whyte smiled.  "Good.  Stand up... slow; the both of you."  He gestured
with his Colt, and Paul and Jessie clambered to their feet, watching
the lawman as they did.

"Now, just as slow, toss your weapons over to me.  Use your left
hands."  He took a step back and used the weapon in his own left hand
to point to the ground at his feet.  "Do it."

Paul reached across his body to use the middle two fingers of his left
hand to pull his pistol from its holster.  ""Don't do this, Whyte," he
said, tossing the weapon to the ground.

"You're a lawman, Grant, or you claim t'be.  You'd know this was right
if you weren't thinking with your Johnson."  At that moment, Jessie
tossed her own gun, so that it landed at the Sheriff's feet.

Whyte knelt carefully, never taking his eyes off Paul and Jessie, and
picked up their six-shooters.  "Grant, you go stand by that tree."  He
pointed to a pine tree growing a few feet away from the Deputy.  "Stand
with your back to it and put your arms out."  When Paul did as he had
been ordered, Whyte fished a pair of handcuffs from a pocket in his
jacket and tossed them to Jessie.

"Cuff his wrists," he ordered Jessie.  "Behind him, so his arms're
stuck 'round that tree."  He followed her over to the tree, watching
from a distance, as she did as he had directed.  When he heard the
click of the handcuffs closing on Paul's wrists, he smiled.  "Good
girl."

Jessie glared at him.  "Thanks.  Which tree to I get stand next to?"

"None; I wouldn't make a woman stand up all night, handcuffed to a
tree."  He paused a beat.  "No matter _how_ _much_ she might deserve
it.  I'll just tie your hands and feet and leave you on a blanket
t'think about what's gonna happen to you."

Still keeping his eyes on her, the man slowly knelt down.  "Lemme just
get my knife, so I can cut a couple lengths of -- _Ye-ow!_."  He stood
up at once, clutching his right hand in his left.  "G-d damned bug!"

"What happened," Jessie asked.

He rubbed his hand.  "Damn scorpion stung me.  It hurts like a son-of-
a-bitch."  He shook his hand briskly, trying to shake off the pain.
"Damned bug," he muttered again as he used the knife to slice off a
length of rope.

"Put your hands behind your back."  He shoved his knife back into it
belt sheath and drew his pistol.  "Do it... _now_."  He hurried over to
where she stood.  Jessie did as he ordered, and he came behind her and
wound the cord around her wrists, binding them together.  It seemed to
Jessie that he was taking a _very_ long time tying the knot.  The ropes
felt lose, but she wasn't about to test them while he was standing
there.

Finally, the Sheriff finished and came around to face her.  "Now, sit
d-d-down."  He pointed at the blanket with his pistol, as if to rush
her.  He seemed to be having trouble speaking.  Drool was leaking from
one side of his mouth, and he looked like he was in pain.

"Are you all right, Sheriff?" she asked, surprising herself with the
question.

"I'm... uh... I'm f-uh-fine.  Don't you be... be getting any -- Sit d-
down!"  He pointed the pistol at her.  His hand was shaking, but he
looked serious, and Jessie quickly settled herself on the blanket.

Whyte grabbed up the canteens and shambled a distance away.  He took a
final step forward, stumbled, and fell to the ground.  He lay there,
trembling and rubbing his right arm.  While he rubbed, he moaned, as if
in great pain.

It seemed to Jessie that he was dazed, uncertain where he was.  She
tugged at the ropes binding her, twisting her arms as best she could,
watching for any reaction from him.  There was none.  She felt them
loosen, and in a few moments, her right hand was free.  She pulled the
coil from her left wrist and hurried over to Sheriff Whyte.  "My arm,"
he groaned.  "My arm's on fire."  He kept rubbing it, both hand
shaking, as he spoke.

"Jess," Paul said, "check the ground _real_ careful for scorpions.
Then see if you can find the key to these handcuffs of his."

"Scorpions?"  She took time to look closely, but saw no signs of any.
"Never seen a little scorpion sting to all this to a grown person."
She shifted her head to indicate the injured man.

"It's like bee-stings.  Most people get stung, they say, 'Ow!' and go
on with their business, but with a few folks, a couple of bee stings
can kill them.  It's the same with scorpions."

"The hell you say."

"Nope.  Blackie Easton, out at the Triple A, is like that.  He got
stung once, about a year ago.  He was laid up in bed, out of his head
for a day or so.  Doc Upshaw couldn't do much for him, kept him still
in bed; put a cold, wet cloth on his forehead and another where he was
stung; and gave him lots of water to drink.  The aches and pains were
gone in a day, but it was another whole day before he could get back to
work."

"How come you know 'bout all this?"

"Mr. Slocum had three or four of us hands watching Blackie, changing
those cloths and such.  And he made sure we all knew what to do in case
it happened again while we were on the trail."  He took a breath, "You
never know when somebody else might get sick from a scorpion's sting
the way Blackie - or the Sheriff here - did."

"Found it!"  Jessie had been searching Whyte's pockets while they
talked.  He did nothing to stop her.  She held up the key for Paul to
see, and then walked over and opened his handcuffs.

Paul stepped away from the tree.  "Thanks, Jess."  He smiled.  "And now
that I can use my arms again..."  He grabbed her by the arm and pulled
her to him.  His arms circled her waist, and their lips met in a kiss.

"That was _nice_," she said, when they separated.  She gave him a
mischievous smile and added, "You gonna kiss the Sheriff now?"

"I don't want to kiss him, but I don't want to kill him, either."  He
scowled.  "And that's what we'd be doing if we left him here like
that."

She sighed, her expression changing to a frown.  "Much as I hate t'say
it, you're right, Paul.  He's one damned stubborn cuss, t'think he
coulda held us in the shape he was in, but there's no telling what - or
_who_ might find him out here, and him not able t'defend himself."  She
thought for a bit.  "Maybe he'll be better in the morning."

"Maybe, but I wouldn't bet good money on it."

* * * * *

Saturday, June 8, 1872

"Riders coming," Jessie yelled, looking down the trail.

Paul was kneeling next to Sheriff Whyte.  He was holding the man's head
up, helping him take small sips of water from a canteen.  "Any idea how
many and who they are?"

"Soldiers... I think; it looks like one of 'em's carrying one of them
military pennants."  Jessie shielded her eyes from the midday sun.
"About ten men, I'd say."

"See if you can stop them.  Maybe they've got something that can help
Whyte."

"Okay."  Jessie ran down the gentle slope to the trail.  'Wish I had
time t'change into a dress,' she thought, unbuttoning the top button of
her blouse.  "But if they can't tell I'm a female..."  She tucked her
blouse in tightly and stood just off the roadway.  When the riders were
close, she began waving her arms, and yelling.

The lead man, now clearly a cavalry officer, raised his arm, signaling
for the unit to stop.  They maintained formation, while he rode over to
where Jessie stood.  "Can I help you ma'am?"  He was a tall, husky man
with dark brown hair.  "I'm Lieutenant Orville Heffler, and my men and
I are out of Fort Whipple."  His eyes roamed up and down her form,
lingering for a time on her pillowy breasts and narrow waist.

"I hope so, lieutenant, sir."  She recognized his interest and gave him
her best "damsel in distress" smile.  "I'm Jessie Hanks, and that's..."
She pointed towards Paul.  "...my, uh, friend, Paul Grant.  We've got
another man with us.  He got stung by a scorpion, and he's in a _real_
bad way.  You think you can help him?"

"I'm afraid not.  There's not much that can be done for a bad scorpion
sting except to keep the victim still, clean the site where he was
stung, and give him all the water he can drink."

"May you could... take him back to your fort," she asked hopefully.
"I'm _sure_ you could take care of him better than us."

The officer shook his head.  "I regret not, Miss Hanks."

"Please... call me Jessie."  She pouted prettily.  "And why can't you
take him?"

Heffler tried to smile.  "Miss Hanks... Jessie, my men and I are on
patrol.  A band of Apache, led by a renegade named Delsay, stole -
believe it or not -- over a thousand sheep from a range just a couple
miles from the fort."

"They-They ain't headed this way, are they?" Jessie asked nervously.

Heffler shook his head.  "No, Miss Jessie.  They drove that herd off to
the northwest, but they killed more than a dozen men.  My Colonel was
fit to be tied.  He sent most of the company after them, but he sent us
- and a couple other patrols out to warn ranchers and travelers and - I
don't mean to alarm you, Jessie, but I also have orders to hunt down
any other Apache savages that might be lurking about."

"Oh... oh, my goodness," she said, putting a bit of a tremble into her
voice.  "We-We saw some Indians a few days ago - we were too far away,
and they didn't see us, thank the Lord."

"Where were they - and which way were they heading?"

"Uh... It was south... yes, south of here, and they were heading east -
- I think.  We came this far north to avoid meeting up with them."

"That was very wise of you."  He gave her a broad smile.  "You are a
lady of brains as well as beauty."

"Why... _Orville_, how sweet if you to say that."  She looked away for
a moment, and, when she looked back, she gave him a shy smile.

"I wish that I could offer you an escort back to the fort, but --"

"I'm sure that Paul and I can manage our way to the Prescott to Phoenix
road, but Elijah, the man who was stung, couldn't you take him back to
your fort?"

"Much as I'd like to, there's no way I can detail men to transport your
friend back to Fort Whipple."

"Then what can we do?"

"How long ago was your friend stung?"

"Last night."

"Then he'll probably heal faster here than if we were to move him.  My
advice is to be careful.  Keep a watch for trouble, and be ready to run
at the first sign of it."  He glanced at the road.  "This trail joins
up with the Prescott to Phoenix road in about ten miles.  When you get
to it, head for a Wells Fargo station and hole up there for a while."

"Thanks, I guess, Orville."  She sighed dramatically.

The soldier smiled as he watched her bosom rise and fall.  "I wish I
could do more, Miss Jessie, I truly do."  The tone of his voice made it
clear that he meant more than helping Elijah Whyte.  "But I'm afraid
that my hands are tied."  He tapped the brim of his hat, as if in
salute.  "Please... be careful."  He turned his horse and rode over to
rejoin his men.

"Let's move," he shouted, pointing his arm forward.  He gave her one
last, regretful look as he rode past.  So did his men.  A couple of
them gave her low whistles of appreciation.

Jessie sighed, and then chuckled.  "Men!" she whispered in amusement,
as she walked back to where Paul was still holding his canteen for the
Sheriff.

 "How'd it go?" Paul asked.

"Not too good," she replied.  "There was a big Apache raid near their
fort - Fort Whipple - a couple days ago, and they're out warning
people... and looking for more 'savage' Apache."

"You didn't tell them about Taklishim and his people, did you?"

Jessie gave Paul an angry look.  "What kind of a... Of course not; I
sent them off in another direction.  But first, I asked if they could
help us with the Sheriff here.  They didn't have no medicine that could
help, and they was too damn busy hunting Injuns t'take him back t'their
fort."

"That could've been dangerous.  He'll be up and about in a day or so,
and he could've sent them after us."

"I know, but it was worth asking... for his sake."  She looked down at
Whyte, who seemed to be sleeping.

Paul sighed.  "You're probably right, but it was risky."

"Life's a risk, Paul."  She shrugged then smiled.  "At least I got you
t'share the risk with."

* * * * *

Sunday, June 9, 1872

"You up t'some stew, Sheriff?" Jessie asked, as she doled some onto
Paul's plate.

Elijah Whyte shook his head.  "I don't think my stomach can handle it."
He paused a beat.  "Some broth, maybe?"

"Done."  She carefully filled a cup with broth from the stew, stopping
twice to fish out an errant bit of meat or vegetable.  When she
finished, she walked over to where the man was sitting, his back
propped up by a bedroll.  She knelt down and held the cup while he took
a cautious sip.

He sighed softly, as he felt the warm broth settle in his belly.  They
both waited a bit - just in case.  Finally, he smiled.  "I think I'd
like some more."

"Think you can hold this cup by yourself?"

He held up both hands.  They were still a bit shaky, but he managed to
take the cup from her.  "Now _that_ hit the spot," he said, after
finishing the drink.  "Thanks."  He handed her the cup.

"You want some more?"

He shook his head.  "Maybe later; I want to make sure that can keep
down what I already had."

"In that case, can we talk for a little bit?"

"I suppose.  What do you want to talk to me about?"

* * * * *

Elijah Whyte snickered.  "That has _got_ to be the dumbest excuse for
an alibi I ever heard."  He gave a quick laugh.  "You're telling me
that Jessie here couldn't have killed Eugene Barlow 'cause she was off
someplace robbing a stagecoach at the time."

"It's the truth," Jessie argued, "every last word of it."

Paul glanced at Ephrem Tyler's map, now laid out on the ground, with
rocks piled at each corner to hold it down.  "Here," he said, pointing
to a spot along the Prescott to Phoenix Road.  "Jessie stopped the
stage here... near the Black Rock Canyon stage depot around mid-
afternoon on the day Barlow was shot.  Now..." He looked squarely at
Whyte.  "...about how long do you think it'd take a stage to get here
from Prescott?"

"Mmm... six hours," the man answered after studying the map, "more or
less."

Jessie nodded.  "You think I could leave Prescott after 11 o'clock, and
get to there by, say... three?"

"There ain't a horse in the world fast enough to do that," Whyte told
her.  "O'course, considering this here 'fairy story' you're trying to
sell, maybe you had one of them _flying_ horses."

Jessie smiled.  "Nope; just a regular ole horse, the same one I'm
riding now, in fact.  Them papers Paul took from your office said
Barlow got killed after 11 in the morning.  By your own words, I
_couldn't_ have been there t'kill him."

"Yeah, but that's _if_ you robbed that stage where and when you said
you did.  You still gotta prove it, to me, at least."

"Are you going to give her the _chance_ to prove it?" Paul asked.

Whyte looked like he'd swallowed something bitter.  "To tell the truth,
I shouldn't.  A day ago, I was more than ready to haul your both your
asses right back to Dawson and let you tell your crazy story to some
judge.  But now...  Hell, you could've left me out here to die, and you
_didn't_.  I figure that I owe you - and then some."  He had another
thought.  "And I'll give you a couple points more for steering those
troopers away from little Bimisi and his folks.  Give me one more day
t'get over that damned scorpion sting, and I'll go with you to find
your alibi. "

"Th-Thank you."  Jessie impulsively hugged the still-ailing man.  "We
can leave in the morning.  If you're up to it, that is."

He laughed.  "I should be.  And you better be right, 'cause I _will_
arrest the two of you if you ain't."

"Speaking of arrest," Jessie said, "I hope you ain't gonna say anything
about that cameo.  They don't know I took anything, and they wouldn't
be happy t'find out they was wrong."

"Tell you what; I won't mention it if they don't."

* * * * *

Chapter 7 - "Black Canyon Station"

Monday, June 10, 1872

"How you coming, Jess?" Paul asked.

A rope was stretched between two trees, with a blanket hanging down
from it.  Jessie stood behind the blanket, changing her clothes.  "Well
enough, I suppose.  Having t'put on a petticoat 'n' dress for a ten
mile ride is a royal pain."

"So you've said," Paul teased.

"And more than once," the Sheriff added.  The two men were packing up
the last of the camp, while Jessie changed.  Whyte had mostly recovered
from the scorpion sting, but he was still moving a little gingerly.

Paul smiled.  "I could always come back there and help."

"No, thanks; we both know that you're a lot better at getting me outta
my clothes than getting me into 'em."

The older man chuckled.  "I'm heading over to finish packing my horse.
I'll leave the two of you to work this out between you."  He picked up
his saddlebag and started to walk away.  "Just don't take _too_ long."

"I think you're stalling, Jess," Paul told her.  "And you're
embarrassing Elijah."

"Does that mean you ain't coming back here behind this blanket?"

"I'd like to; you know that, but I'm not about to put on a show for
Sheriff Whyte.  And you know _that_, too."

She lowered the blanket enough so that he could see her face and pouted
prettily.  "I know, but it's still a pain t'have t'get dressed up so
fancy."

"Yeah, but it'll help our chances to get a straight answer out of the
men at that stage depot if they get asked by a beautiful woman in a
pretty dress."

She beamed.  "You think I'm beautiful?"

"Always have, always will."  He frowned and crossed his arms over his
chest.  "Now get that beautiful ass of yours dressed and get out here."
He took a breath.  "We both know that I'm also willing to spank it if
you keep on stalling."

She winked back, but warned, "You try, and it'll be the _only_ way you
get to touch it."

* * * * *

The bell hanging above the door to the stage depot jangled as Jessie
walked in.  Paul and Whyte followed just behind her.  Both men wore
their badges... just in case.

Coleman Hoyle, the station manage stood behind the counter about ten
feet inside.  "Howdy, folks; what can I do you for?"  He was the only
one in the room.

"I'm Paul Grant.  I was in here last September looking for somebody."

Hoyle scratched his balding head for a moment.  "Oh, yeah; I remember.
You was looking for a lady."  He gave Jessie an appreciative glance.
"And from the look o'things you found her."  He smiled at Jessie.
"Don't blame you for looking, neither.  She's a pretty little thing."

"Thank you, Mr. ..." Jessie gave him a quick, flirtatious wink.

"Hoyle, Missie, Coleman Hoyle, but you can call me Cole."

"And I'm Jessie... Jessie Hanks."  She smiled back at the man.  "Paul
found me all right, but now we're - him, 'n' me, and Sheriff Whyte here
- we're looking for somebody else.  The men that I... ah, I _met_ the
last time I was in these parts, the driver 'n' guard of that stage."

Hoyle chuckled.  "The one you tried t'rob, you mean.  Too bad you
didn't get nothing for your trouble."  He took a breath.  "I don't
suppose you come back t'apologize, did you?"

"Let's say I did.  Are them two men around here anywhere?"

"I couldn't tell you where Noah Ward - he was the driver - headed off
to.  Word got out how he caved when you pointed that gun o'yours at
him.  Nobody wanted t'ride with him.  He quit about six weeks after you
stopped his stage.  He's homesteading up in Oregon State, I hear."

Paul gave the depot man a sour look.  "What about the guard... Devon, I
think his name was."

"Yeah, Devon Fisher is who you want.  He's still working for us.  In
fact, he's on a run right now.  He should be back this way..."  Hoyle
glanced at a paper, a printed Wells Fargo schedule posted on the wall
next to him.  "...about two, tomorrow afternoon."

"If you don't mind asking," Hoyle continued, "what d'you need that pair
for?  You come t'rub some salt in their wounds?"

Whyte stepped forward.  "It's kind of complicated.  I'm working on a
case, and I need to know 'bout this robbery you mentioned, when and
where it happened."

"It wasn't really a robbery - nothing got taken.  I got a log book, Dev
and Noah wrote up what happened that day."  He paused a beat.  "You're
welcome to look, but I don't know how much good it'll do."

"Why do you say that?"

"'Cause Dev Fisher wrote the entry himself, and he ain't the most wordy
of men."  He pulled a thick leather bound book out from under the
counter.  "Here, look for yourselves."  He set the book down on the
counter and opened it.  "Do you remember the date?"

Sheriff Whyte and Jessie answered at the same time.  "September 13,
1871."

"Well, that settles that," Hoyle said with a laugh.  He turned pages,
lined paper like a ledger book filled with writing - dates and facts -
in several different hands, until... "Here we is, September 13."  He
turned the book around so that Paul, Jessie, and the Sheriff could read
it.

"September 13, 1871, about 2:45 PM."  The writing was in a crimped,
angry hand.  "Stage stopped; driver - Noah Ward - gave in too easy to
gun threat.  Dropped weapons and mailbag and rode on." And it was
signed by both Devon Fisher and Noah Ward at 3:27 on the same date.

Paul gave a sour sort of chuckle.  "Well that doesn't give us much."

"I didn't 'spect it would," Hoyle told him.  "Dev's a proud man.  He
wouldn't want to put it in writing that this pretty lady..." He gave a
quick nod to Jessie.  "...was the one who stopped that stage,
'specially when she got him to give up his gun."

Jessie looked down at the page again.  "There's another note here,
dated about an hour after the first one."  She read the text.  "Mailbag
and weapons recovered, nothing missing.  No need to report what
happened."

"I wrote that," Hoyle said.  "I think that just got Dev madder.  It was
bad enough that the stage was stopped.  The notion that I wasn't gonna
call down all the avenging angels of Heaven to punish the gal who done
it was something he couldn't swallow."  He took a breath.  "I don't
think he got over it yet.  You can ask him yourself if you stay here
till tomorrow."

Jessie shrugged.  "What choice do I - do _we_ have?  We'll wait."

* * * * *

"What sorta sleeping rooms do you have here?" Jessie asked Coleman
Hoyle.  "After three days on the trail, I'd kind of like to spend a
night in a real bed."

He shook his head.  "Ain't much chance of that, Miss Hanks.  The only
bed in the place is mine, back behind that curtain there."  He pointed
to a doorway off to his right.  An old wool blanket, mostly a faded
brown in color, hung across the doorway.  "I'd offer t'share it with
you," he said with a wink, "but I don't think your Mr. Grant there
would appreciate the offer."

"Right in one," Paul answered.  "Where do other folks sleep?"

"Sol, he's my hostler, he sleeps on some hay in the stable.
Passengers, when any stay overnight, sleep on the floor; I rent out two
blankets and a pillow for a dollar."

"How much t'rent that bed," Paul asked.  "Seems to me a lady should
have some privacy."

Hoyle thought for a moment.  "Seeing as I'd have t'sleep on the floor
out here m'self... ten dollars."

"Ten dollars?!  That's robbery!" exclaimed Jessie.

"Look whose calling other people robbers," the station master replied
with a grin.

"That's about all the money I've got," Paul said regretfully.  "How
about you, Jess?"

"Not even half that, but..."  Her lips curled in a smile.  "How 'bout I
do something t'earn that bed, Mr. Hoyle, something I think you'll like;
you and them other fellows, too."

Hoyle glanced around the room.  Since he sold drinks here at the depot,
it doubled as a gathering place in the evenings.  Four other men, two
prospectors, a farmer, and Sol, the man Hoyle hired to care for the
depots horses, were in the chairs set about the room.  "What _exactly_
do you got in mind?"  His smile was more of a hopeful leer, and his
eyes never looked higher than her breasts while he spoke.

"Singing; I'm a singer back in Eerie - where me 'n' Paul live - and a
pretty good one.  How 'bout I trade some songs for the use of that
room?"

Sol Carlin, Hoyle's stableman, a lanky man of forty or so, heard the
offer.  "Give 'er a chance, boss.  She's got t'be better'n you or me
wailing."

"Thanks."  Jessie looked at the man.  He was wearing a faded butternut
brown shirt with two inverted black chevrons on his sleeve, part of the
uniform of a corporal in the Confederate army.  "And here's a song, I
think you may know."

She made herself as comfortable as she could on one of the wooden
chairs.  "This'd work better if I had my guitar, but here goes."

`    "The years creep slowly by, my darling,
`      The snow is on the grass again."

"That's a Reb song - 'Lorena', ain't it?," Hoyle whispered.

Sol raised a finger to his lips.  "It is.  Now shut up, boss, and lemme
hear it."

Jessie smiled and kept singing.

`    "The sun's low down the sky, my darling,
`      The frost gleams where the flow'rs have been.
`      But the heart throbs on as warmly now,
`      As when the summer days were nigh.
`      Oh, the sun can never dip so low
`      A-down affection's cloudless sky."

The song continued on, telling how the singer, usually a man, but not
here, lamented over separation from his - in this case, _her_ -- lost
love.  At the end, he -- or she - takes a sort of consolation in the
knowledge that they will be reunited after death.  It was a popular
song during the Civil War, first heard in the Confederate ranks, but
learned quickly enough by Union soldiers who missed their homes and
their loved ones just as much.

The men in the room all applauded loudly when Jessie sang the last
lines.

`    "It matters little now, my darling,
`      The past is in the eternal past;
`      Our heads will soon lie low, my darling,
`      Life's tide is ebbing out so fast.
`      There is a Future! O, thank God!
`      Of life this is so small a part!
`      'Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
`      But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart."

As she finished, she raised her left arm, as if in supplication, and
looked sadly up to heaven.  Then, as the applause erupted, she shifted
her head to gaze at Hoyle.  "Well?" she asked.

"You know any _happier_ tunes?" he replied sourly.

"_You_ want happy; you gotta make _me_ happy."  She waited a beat.
"What about that room o'yours?"

"You sing a couple more songs -- _happy_ ones, mind you, and the room's
yours - the bed, too - even trade."

"Deal," she said and began singing "Camptown Races", an old favorite of
hers.

It turned out that the bed wasn't as comfortable as she'd expected, and
she missed sharing it with Paul, but it surely beat bedding down on a
bit of open floor with him.  And the Sheriff and Sol.

* * * * *

Tuesday, June 11, 1872

A Prescott-Tucson Line stagecoach pulled up in front of the adobe depot
building.

"Black Canyon, folks," the driver, Rolf Messinger, yelled in a thick
German accent.  "Dhere'll be a ten minute stop here for changing the
horses."  He saw Sol Carlin coming towards the coach, leading a team of
six fresh horses, and he jumped down to help.  Devon Fisher, the
shotgun rider, leaned back in his seat to watch.

"Cole wants t'see you, Dev," Sol called up to him.

"Any idea what he wants?"

"Yeah, but it'll take me too long t'tell it."  The hostler began
unfastening the lines that connected the current team of horses to the
coach.  "Best you just go inside 'n' talk t'him."

Devon took a quick, cautious look around - just in case of trouble -
and climbed down from the vehicle and started for the building.

"Excuse me...sir," an older man in a derby hat stuck his head out the
window of the coach.  "Is it possible to buy something to eat while
we're stopped here?"

Devon shrugged.  "Sorry, mister; this is a switch station, not a home
station.  They may have some food for sale inside, but I wouldn't count
on more'n a cup of coffee - or a shot of whiskey - 'n' maybe... -
_maybe_ a sandwich."

"Thank you, but no thank you."  The man frowned and sat back down
inside the stage.

"Suit yourself, mister, but it's a good five hours t'the next home
station in Phoenix."

The man muttered a curse under his breath and stepped down from the
stage.  He squinted at the sunlight -- it was dark in the stage with
the curtain drawn to keep out the dust of the trail - and followed the
shotgun rider into the station.

* * * * *

"Okay, Cole," Devon said, as he walked through the door, "what'd you
wanna see me..."  His voice trailed off when he saw Jessie standing
next to Cole Hoyle.  "What the living hell..."  He pointed an accusing
finger at her.  "...is _she_ doing here?"

Paul stepped in next to Jessie.  "She's with me," he said in a firm
voice.

"And they're _both_ with me," Sheriff Whyte added, just as firmly.

Fisher saw the badges both men wore and gave Jessie an evil smile.
"So, you finally caught her."  His eyes roamed up and down her body.
"And now that I get a good look at her, I can see why you chased after
her for so long."

"We ain't arresting Jessie," the Sheriff said, "at least, not right
now, we ain't.  She's... a part of another case I'm working on."

"Another case; what _else_ d'you think she done?"

"That'll take some time t'explain," Jessie said.

Hoyle looked at his pocket watch.  "More time than I think you got,
Miss Jessie.  The stage's supposed t'leave in six minutes."

* * * * *

At that moment, the passenger from the stage interrupted.  "I don't
know what you gentlemen - and lady -- are all talking about, but could
one of you _please¬_ sell me something to eat?"

"That'd be me," Hoyle replied.  "Let's us go over here and talk about
it."  He gave Whyte, Fisher, and the others a quick nod.  "'Scuse me
folks."  And led the man away from the others.  "They did tell you that
this ain't a home station; we ain't set up t'feed passengers."

"They did, but they also told me that it's a very long ride to the next
station that _does_ serve meals."

"It is.  It's five... six hours to Phoenix. That's the next home
station on this route."

"Can you help me then?  Sell me some food?"

"Lemme see what I've got."  Hoyle walked over to a door with the words
"Store Room" crudely painted on it.  He opened the door and went inside
for a moment.  When he came out, he was carrying a crusty brown roll
and something wrapped in a white cloth.  "I got this."

He set the two items down on the counter and pulled back the corners of
the cloth to reveal a lump of yellow cheese.  There was green mold
growing on it in one or two spots.  "A dime for the bread and twenty-
five cents for half the cheese; you interested?"

"That's all you have?" the man asked in a resigned voice.  When Hoyle
nodded, he reached into his pocket and took out a paisley change purse.
"Very well; just the cheese, though."  He opened the purse and handed
the station man an Indian head gold dollar.

Hoyle fished out a cashbox from under the counter.  He dropped in the
coin and shifted through the box until he found what he needed.  "Here
you go, sir; six bits change."  He replaced the cashbox and used a
knife to slice the cheese in half.  "And here's your food."

"Umm... thank you." the passenger spent a moment scraping off the mold
before he bit into the cheese.  "Not _quite_ as bad as I expected," he
muttered to himself and started back to the stagecoach.

* * * * *

"Settle anything?" Cole asked as he rejoined the others.

Dev shook his head.  "I still want her arrested for stopping my stage."
He chuckled.  "That'd sort of be what you want, Missy.  It'd prove you
couldn't've killed that other guy."

"Can't arrest her if nobody's gonna bring charges," Sheriff Whyte
replied.  "Your company willing t'press charges, Mr. Hoyle?"

The depot master shook his head.  "Nope; don't wanna make the company
look bad."

"_I'll_ press charges, then," Fisher said stubbornly.

He looked past the man to see his driver standing in the doorway,
anxious to leave and nodding in agreement.

"Not till this is settled.  Rolf can go on without me."

"The hell he can - and you know it.  Company rules; no coach goes out
without a shotgun.  'Specially with all them angry Apache on the
loose."

Paul had a thought.  "How about if _I_ take his place as shotgun?  He
can stay here and work this out with Jess."

"That might just work." Hoyle considered the notion.  He glanced over
at Jessie.

Whyte grinned.  "Go ahead.  I think it's a safe bet that you'll come
back for her."

"Lemme just make it official." Cole said.  He went behind the counter
and began to write in a pad, reading aloud as he did.

"I, Coleman Hoyle, station master of the Black Canyon Depot, am letting
Deputy Sheriff - What's your name again, deputy?"

"Grant... Paul Grant."

"Deputy Sheriff Paul Grant ride shotgun on today's southbound run of
the Prescott to Tucson Stage Line.  The regular shotgun rider, Devon,
Fisher, is stuck here at Black Canyon on some personal business.  Grant
can sleep at the Phoenix station tonight and deadhead back here on
tomorrow's run.  That okay with you?"

When Paul nodded in agreement, the agent added, "Lemme sign it then...
Coleman... Hoyle, June 11, 1872."  He tore off the paper and handed it
to Paul.  "There y'go; now get moving.  Don't want t'make that stage
late, do you?"

Jessie came over to where the two men were standing.  "Just a minute
here.  _I_ wanna make sure he comes back."  She wrapped her arms around
Paul and pulled herself close to him.  They smiled at each other for a
moment before their lips met.

Then the world just sort of went away for a time while they enjoyed one
another's touch.

Paul was grinning when he finally - out of a need to breathe - broke
the kiss.  "You promise me another kiss like that, Jessie Hanks, and
I'll _run_ all the way back here from Phoenix if I have to."

"I'll promise that 'n' more."  Jessie's lips curled in a sly smile.
"If you promise t'bring me... _something_ when you come back from
Phoenix."

"Something..."  Paul looked puzzled for a moment, but then he smiled in
realization.  "I will; something we'll both like."  He winked and
headed out the door.

Devon Fish chuckled.  "You kiss me like that, Missy,' he said as they
heard the stage drive off, "and I might just admit t'what you done."

"Sorry," Jessie answered, "but no."  In her mind, she added.  'I'd
almost rather rot in jail, you stubborn, horny son-of-a-bitch.'

* * * * *

"So vhere ist you and der sheriff from, dep'ty?" Rolf Messinger asked
Paul. Rolf was a hefty man with short, red hair turning to gray.  These
were the first words the driver had spoken since their stage had left
Black Canyon station about a half hour before.

Paul shrugged.  "I'm from Eerie, about two hours ride east of Phoenix -
-"

"Ja, I know der town.  Ve go dere... tvice a veek."

"Well, _I'm_ from Eerie.  Elijah Whyte... the Sheriff, he's from a town
called Dawson, down along the Gila River, over near Yuma."

"Dem ist a _long_ vay apart.  Vhat is you doing together?"

Paul thought for a moment.  It might be better _not_ to admit the
truth.  "I was tracking an escaped prisoner from Eerie.  I followed h-
him up into the mountains north of town, then across the territory and
down towards the border near Dawson."

"You catch him?"

"Ahh... no.  He made it across the border, and Mexican law says I
couldn't go after him."  That last was a lie, but Rolf wouldn't know.
"I met Sheriff Whyte," he continued.  "He... um, he was working on
another case and asked me to help track down the man _he_ was after."

"Gott, you must be one damned gut tracker."

"I manage."

"Did you git dat one?"

"Ah, not yet.  He came up along this way.  That's why the sheriff and
me are hereabouts."

Rolf frowned, apparently unimpressed.

Paul felt irked.  "I helped track down that gang that took the
strongbox at Stagecoach Gap last December."

Rolf only shrugged.

Paul leaned back in his seat, letting the driver think what he wanted
to think.

* * * * *

"Dang it, Dev Fisher," Jessie said, glaring at the man, "why're you
being so damned stubborn?  Why don't you just sign the Sheriff's
paper?"

Dev shook his head.  "And admit that I let the stage I was guarding get
stopped by a little bit of fluff like you?  There's ain't no way...
unless I know you're gonna go t'jail for it."

"She ain't going t'jail," Cole Hoyle said, "because the company ain't
gonna press charges."  He looked at Fisher for a moment and added -
again, "but the company _will_ fire your ass if _you_ try t'press
charges."

Jessie sighed, half in anger, half in disgust.  "We've been back 'n'
forth over this a dozen times.  What do I gotta do t'get you to admit
that I stopped that coach?"

"You tried to _rob_ that coach, Missy, even if you didn't get nothing
for your efforts.  And Cole, here..."  He pointed with a nod of his
head towards the Station Master.  "...he's gonna let you get away with
it.  Why should I help you?"

Sheriff Whyte raised an eyebrow.  "You'd rather let her stand trial for
something you know she couldn't have done.  What kind of a man are
you?"

"A pissed off man, an angry man, a man who got shown up by some little
slip of a gal, and a man who ain't gonna help her."  He stopped his
rant as his eyes roamed up and down the length of Jessie's body.  "Not
unless she... she makes it worth my while."  His lips curled in a leer.

Jessie stormed to her feet.  "Why you dirty son-of-a--"

"Just as well she objects," Hoyle interrupted.  Jessie and Dev both
turned quickly to look at him.  "Word got out that she... went along,
_people_ might say that you two was in cahoots; that the reason you let
her stop that coach was 'cause you 'n' her was... together."  He
chuckled wryly and shook his head.  "A driver... working with a lady
road agent, now _that_ is something the company might press charges
about.  I bet it'd be in all the papers, too, once people find out how
pretty she is.  Are you ready t'have everybody and his cousin reading
all about 'Outlaw Dev Fisher'?"

The guard glowered at Hoyle.  "You wouldn't dare."

"Don't be too sure what I would or wouldn't do, Dev.  I been listening
to you two go at it all day, and now you talk like the only reason you
ain't given in was so you could get into the lady's drawers."

"That... I was just... dammit, Cole Hoyle, you got no cause to say
something like that."

Jessie scowled.  "And you got no cause t'say what you done about me."

"It's getting late," Elijah Whyte said, cutting in.  "Why don't we all
bed down for the night, and Dev can think about what his motives
_really_are."

Jessie nodded.  "That sounds like a plan."  She walked over to the
curtain that covered the doorway to the Station Master's quarters.
"I'll be in here thinking 'bout... whatever."  She walked through the
doorway and slid the curtain back to fully block the view from the
other room.   "And all you gentlemen can do your thinking out there."

* * * * *

Chapter 8 - "On the Trail of Dandy Jim"

Wednesday, July 12, 1872

Paul Grant was having breakfast with the staff of the Phoenix Station,
when a skinny, brown-haired boy walked into the alcove of the station
that served as a dining room.  He stood there a moment looking around
before he crossed over to Aubrey Jenner, the station master.  "Telegram
for you, Mr. Jenner.  From Prescott."

He handed Jenner an envelope.  The man set it down on the table and
fished in his pocket for change.  "Here y'go, Joey," he said, handing
the boy a silver half-dime.  The lad mumbled a quick "Thanks" and ran
out the station's front door.

"Let's see what this is about," Aubrey said, tearing open the envelope
and removing the sheet inside.  His eyes quickly scanned the message.
"Shit!" he muttered, crumpling the telegram.  "Dandy Jim just got
another stage."

Paul raised a curious eyebrow.  "Who's Dandy Jim?"

"A road agent; him and his men have robbed four - make it _five_ now --
stages up 'round Spring Valley."

"Is he really a dandy?"

Aubrey shrugged.  "People say he wears a black frock coat, a boiled
white shirt, and a bowler hat, with a flour sack with eye holes t'hide
his face.  He never cusses and he has this courtly way with women
passengers, like something right out of the penny dreadfuls."

"Now that you mention it, I did see a wanted circular for him back in
Eerie," said Paul.

"They lie in wait for a coach.  Dandy Jim jumps out, waving his hands
for the coach to stop.  When it does, he points to his men, hidden,
three on each side of the road.  Nobody sees 'em, just their rifles
pointed at you, and..." the station master gave a shrug, "...who's
gonna fight that?"

"Not me; those six rifles are one hell of an edge.  But... hasn't
anybody been able to chase after them?  Seven men on horseback should
leave an easy trail to follow."

"That's the problem.  The sheriff from Prescott and his men've never
been able to find a trail. They're gonna be at the robbery site in a
few hours - it's that long a ride from Prescott, but it's a waste of
time."

Rolf had been sitting with the others.  "Maybe Mr. Grant here can find
somet'ing.  He vas telling me on der vay here vhat a good tracker he
is."

"Is that true?" Jenner asked hopefully.

"Well, for almost three years, I rode line for Mr. Charles Goodnight,
tracking down strays from his herds up in Colorado."

"That's a start, but cows are dumb.  How good are you tracking somebody
who _don't _want_ to be caught?"

"This Dandy Jim guy may be smarter than a lost steer, but the
principles of following tracks are the same for the both of them."

Rolf tried to help.  "He told me he tracked a man halfvay across der
Arizona Territory."

"You catch him?"  Jenner sounded skeptical.  Rolf was making the deputy
sound _too_ good.

Paul shook his head.  "I'm afraid not.  She --_He_ hooked up with some
Commancheros and made it across the border.  I couldn't follow him
there."

"Damn shame, but a little humility is a good thing.  You sound like
you're just the man we need."  He waited a moment and then added.
"Will you help us?"

"I... umm, I'm working on another case right now."

"You ain't working too hard on it, not if you could take a day to ride
shotgun down here to Phoenix."

"That was just one day."

"So just take one _more_ day.  I ain't asking you to sign on long term
with the company.  Give us _one_ _day_.  You're gonna be deadheading up
to Black Canyon.  You can get your horse and follow the stage up to
Cordes Lakes, where the robbery happened."

"Ja," Rolf added.  "Maybe dat sheriff, der vun dat vas mit you, he vill
come, too. "

Paul sighed and gave in to the inevitable.  "All right, and I'll ask
Sheriff Whyte if he wants to tag along as well."  He just hoped Jessie
would understand.  'Hell,' he thought, 'she might want to come along,
too.'  And that thought had its good side _and_ its bad side.

* * * * *

Jessie was sitting outside on a bench when the northbound stage came to
a halt in the yard of Black Canyon Station.  She started to rise, to
greet the returning Paul Grant, but she froze when she saw that it was
Vince Glidden, a man who sometimes rode as shotgun on the stage in
Eerie, rather than Paul, who was seated next to the driver.

"Hey, there Jess," Paul suddenly called, as he climbed out of the stage
and ran over to where she was standing.  He had just time enough to
ask, "Miss me?" before she answered by pulling his head down to hers.
She moaned softly as their lips met.

He felt her body pressed against him, felt himself harden in
anticipation, and he was glad that he'd had time to buy that package of
condoms, British riding coats, while he'd been in Phoenix.

"So how was your trip?" Jessie asked when they finally, but much too
soon, broke the kiss.

"Not bad; it would've been better if you were with me, though."  He
sighed.  "And I'm afraid that the trip's not over.  Some guy named
Dandy Jim robbed the stage up north of here, and they asked me for
help.  Seems they haven't been able to track the man and his gang after
the robberies."

"Well, you're certainly one for tracking folks.  I know that better
than --"  She grinned.  "Maybe I should come along with you.  I may not
know much about tracking anybody, but I got a lot of experience being
tracked."

Sheriff Whyte had come out of the building in time to hear her.  "I'm
not letting the two of you outta my sight.  If she goes, I do, too.
Besides, I managed to follow the both of you pretty good.  It just may
be that I can help."

"I'm sure you can," Paul told him.  "In fact, I was planning to ask you
to come along."

"The more eyes the better," Vince Glidden added.  "Jack 'n' me..." He
pointed to the driver who was helping Sol switch the teams of horses.
"...We know where the robbery was.  You folks just hitch your horses
behind the stage.  You can ride inside, and we'll stop 'n' let you
three off when we get there."

Jessie nodded and ran off.  "I'll go get the horses," she called back
to the others.  Paul and Elijah Whyte followed.  Paul gave the pocket
of his jacket that held the condoms a pat, as if to say, "Soon."   It
was a happy thought that pushed back against his concerns about Dev
Fisher... and Dandy Jim.

* * * * *

Jessie hurried into the station.  She ran through the doorway into the
station agent's room.  "I'm going with Paul," she called out, as she
closed the curtain.  "Tell 'em t'wait while I change outta this danged
dress."

"Is Sheriff Whyte going, too?" Cole Hoyle asked.

"Yep," Jessie yelled from the other room.

Cole Hoyle came out from behind the counter.  "I'll tell them to wait
for you."  He stopped at the table where Devon Fisher was sitting.
"And you're going with 'em, Dev," he said, as he started for the door
again.  "I'll tell Sol t'get you a horse, while I help change teams."

Dev's features soured.  "Why the hell do I have to go up to Cordes
Lakes?  I wasn't shotgun on that coach that got held up?"

"Look, Dev, I ain't got time to argue.  They're going to investigate
the robbery of a company stage coach.  There oughta be somebody
_company_ there with 'em."  The station agent took a breath.  "And
_you're_ it.  You got that?"

"All right, all right, I'll go, but I sure as hell, don't see as I'm
gonna be any help."

* * * * *

A stagecoach pulled to a stop near a stand of trees.  "We're here,"
Vince Glidden yelled, as he knocked on the roof of the coach.

"You sure?" came a voice from inside the vehicle.  A moment later,
Sheriff Whyte climbed out of the curtained coach, blinking his eyes in
the bright afternoon sun.

Jessie, Paul, and Dev Fisher followed the Sheriff out onto the shoulder
of the road.  "Yeah," Jessie added, shielding her eyes with her hand
against the sunlight.  "How d'you know this is where Dandy Jim and his
gang hit that coach?"

"'Cause of this."  Glidden took a folded sheet of paper from his vest
pocket.  "Prescott sent us this telegram."  He opened it and read.
"Dandy Jim and men struck about 100 yards north of 'the Elephant.'  See
what your friend - that's you, Grant, can find out."

Paul gave the guard an odd look.  "What the hell is the elephant?"

"There."  Glidden pointed to a nearby hill.  A rock formation on the
side of the hill _did_ look like an elephant's body, with a narrow,
variegated vein of rocks hinting at the beast's upraised trunk.
"There's your elephant."

Paul shrugged.  "I suppose it is."  He walked over to the back of the
stage.  "Okay, let's get our horses, so these folks can leave."  The
reins of Ash, his cowpony, Jessie's nag, Useless, the Sheriff's horse
and a mount for Dev Fisher were all affixed to the bottom of the boot,
the storage space at the back of the stage.

"You can go," Jessie told the driver a few minutes later.  He waved and
gave a whip of his reins.  The coach, complete with its shotgun rider
and three other passengers, headed off for Prescott, disappearing over
the crest of a hill several hundred yards from where she stood.

Fisher turned to face Paul.  "Now what do we do, _Mr._ _Master_
Tracker_?"

"First," Paul said, sloughing off the insult, "we need to find out
_exactly_ where Dandy Jim stopped that stage."

"And how're we gonna do that?  A stage coach leaves the same tracks
whether it stopped along the way or drove on through."

"There is _one_ difference, Mr. Fisher.  When Dandy Jim robs a stage,
he has the passengers get out and stand by the side of the road.  It's
only been a day; there should be some signs in the grass by the road of
where those people stood."

Sheriff Whyte nodded in agreement. "Let's split up into two teams, one
goes north along the road and the other goes south.  Look for that
patch o'trampled grass by the road, and whoever finds it, give a shout.
"

"Who goes with who?" Jessie asked, sneaking a glance at Paul. "And who
goes where?"

The Sheriff noticed.  "If it's all the same t'the rest o'you, I'll go
north with you, Miss Jessie, and Paul and Dev Fisher can go south."

"Still don't trust Paul 'n' me, do you, Sheriff?" Jessie said
sarcastically.

"Just being cautious," Whyte told her.  "Your man's supposed t'be the
best tracker here.  I'm pretty good at tracking folks, too, and you
know all about _being_ tracked; so why not split the difference?"

Jessie had to laugh.  "You know; that almost makes sense."  She took
the Sheriff's arm.  "Let's get going."

"Be better if we each took one side of the road.  Stages have two doors
on 'em; you know."  He slid his arm free of her and walked to the
opposite side of the narrow road.  He smiled at her for a moment before
he started walking.  "C'mon, we've got some foot-trampled grass to
find."

* * * * *

In the end, it was Sheriff Whyte who found the robbery site, on the
right side of the road and about sixty paces from where they started.

"Got something," he yelled cheerfully.

Jessie hurried across the road to look at what he'd found, while Paul
and Dev raced towards them. "Stand away," Paul yelled, as he ran.
"Don't foul the tracks.'

"Why," Dev asked.  "What's the matter?"

"For one thing, we have to be sure that it's the right spot."  Paul
stopped a couple feet from where the Sheriff was standing.  "For
another, we need to see what those tracks can tell us."

Whyte looked down.  "I see three... no, four separate sets of
footprints.  That last one heads off into the brush."

"That'd be Dandy Jim," Dev said.  "The others are passengers.  They
milled around while he took their money, and then they got back on the
stage and ran like rabbits."

Paul turned to Jessie.  "Jess, if you were going to stop a stage right
here, where would you station men to cover your play?"

"_Paul_," Jessie said indignantly, "you _know_ I don't do stuff like
that."

He smiled.  "Not anymore, you don't, but you have..."  His voice
trailed off.

"Yeah, but that was before I gave up my wicked, wicked ways."  She gave
him a seductive smile.  "Some of 'em anyway."  She spoke the last in a
low, breathy voice.

"Yeah, too bad, teasing me was one of the habits you kept."  He winked
when she stuck out her tongue at him.  "For now, how about answering my
question?  Where would you hide your men?"

Jessie studied their surroundings, a very serious expression on her
face, while she considered Paul's question.  "I'd split 'em up," she
finally said, "Just like Dandy Jim did.  Put half of 'em up on that
ridge where them tracks..."  She pointed at the one set of footprints
that moved away from the road.  "...lead to.  And I'd put the other
half over there."  She pointed again, this time to a high spot on the
opposite side of the trail.

"Let's follow those tracks," Sheriff Whyte said, starting up the hill,
"but watch where you walk. Like Paul says, we don't want nobody messing
up the trail Dandy Jim left for us."

The others followed behind him.  They moved slowly.  "Yes, we want to
take a good look at the man's tracks, as we walk," Paul explained.  "He
may've left some clue or something."

"What?" Dev's voice dripped with sarcasm.  "You figure he left his
calling card for us t'find?"

"Probably not, but _sometimes_ a man's footprints'll tell you a lot
more than which way he was walking."

They continued to the top of the low ridge.  "This oughta be the spot,"
Jessie said.

"What d'you mean 'oughta be'?" Whyte asked.  "Is it or ain't it?"

"I'm not sure.  It's a good spot for a hold up, especially with that
rise just across the road from here.  The trouble is, there's no sign
of anybody being here."

"What d'you mean, Jessie?  Those tracks we followed led right --"

"Them tracks just show that one man walked up here.  What about them
three men that was supposed t'be here, backing up Dandy Jim's play?"
She pointed at the grass atop the ridge.  "There oughta be a whole
_mess_ of crushed down grass where them three men was hiding."

"There's some grass that's been pushed down," Paul said, "but it looks
like just one man walking around; just one set of footprints, and
_they_ go back down towards the road."

"Then where the hell did those three guys go?"  Dev asked angrily.
"That telegram from Prescott said there was three men on this ridge."

Jessie thought for a minute.  "Did anybody - the driver or shotgun or
the passengers - did any of 'em _see_ them three men standing here up
on this ridge... or did they just see three rifles pointed down at
'em?"

"What're you saying, Jess?" Paul asked.

"Maybe there wasn't three other men here.  Maybe there wasn't _nobody_
here, 'cept Dandy Jim himself."

Dev shook his head.  "That's crazy; of course there was men up here."

"Then where the hell is any sign - _anything_ - t'show it?"

The Sheriff shrugged.  "I don't know.  Let's look around up here some
more before we follow those other tracks back down to the road."  Then
he added, "But watch out for scorpions."  He rubbed his hand where he'd
been stung.  "I had some trouble with one not too long ago."

"Okay," Paul directed.  "Everybody take a different position and walk
out about ten paces along the ridge here.  Shout out if you see
anything."

They turned their backs to the road and began to move forward, slowly,
into the low brush.  "I think I found something," Jessie called out a
short while later.

"What is it?" Paul asked, as the others gathered about her.

"That branch."  She pointed to a straight piece of green-gray wood
about four feet long sticking out from the thick tangle of branches of
rounded budsage bush that was, maybe, two feet high.  "Looks like
somebody shoved that thing in there in a hurry."

The Sheriff examined the brush.  "Maybe so, but what does that prove?"

"Maybe nothing... or _maybe_..."  She yanked the branch loose.  She
held one end and pointed the other at the man.  "It's been smoothed,
like with a whittling knife.  If you saw the front two feet 'this
thing, sticking outta some tall grass, and pointing at you from, say,
twenty feet away, what'd you figure it was?"

Whyte thought for a minute, following her logic, until a wicked smile
began to curl his lips.  "I think I'd think it was a rifle, with a man
there in the tall grass ready t'shoot me."

"Yeah, one of Dandy Jim's men - if they _was_ there.  Only they
_wasn't_ there. Dandy Jim tossed them branches into the brush so folks
wouldn't see 'em sticking out in ambush and guess the truth.  This one
must've got stuck in that bush.  The five others're probably laying on
the ground somewhere 'round here.  A robber probably would scatter
them, but not trouble himself to carry away six long sticks on
horseback."

"You wanna go look for the rest of 'em?"

She reached over and yanked the stick free.  "This one'll do.  Let's
follow them footprints back to the road and go up to the rise on the
other side - just t'see what's over there."  She began striding down
from the ridge, using the branch as a walking stick.

* * * * *

"Same as on the other side," Dev Fisher said, when they reached the top
of the hill directly across the stage road from the ridge.  "Only one
set of footprints, no difference."  Then he added, "'Cept for that."  A
few feet from where they all stood, an opened strongbox, dark wood and
reinforced metal, lay overturned on the ground.  The busted padlock was
next to it.  "Dang, them road agents is smart," he added in an almost
admiring tone.

Paul shook his head.  "Not all of them. I know of one time where
bandits took the box, but hadn't thought to bring any tools to open it
with.  They ended up hiding it near the robbery site, hoping to come
back for it later.  Only things didn't work out quite the way they
wanted."

"Looks t'me like Dandy Jim got whatever was in _this_ box," Jessie
said, bringing the talk back to the present.  "Easier t'take the stuff
than carry that box; nobody's gonna wonder 'bout why you was carrying a
strongbox, neither."  She glanced around.  "His horse was probably tied
up t'that tree over there.  It's far enough back t'be outta sight of
the road."

Dev looked down at the trampled ground by the tree.  "Any chance you
could follow that horse, Deputy?"

"Hard to say."  Paul studied the hoof prints in the dry soil.  "There's
nothing special about those hoof prints."

"What could be 'special' about hoof prints?"

"A shoe could be loose, or not put on right, anything to make that
horse's tracks stand out from any other tracks on the road."

Jessie chuckled, remembering something.  "The smith in Eerie - where
Paul 'n' me is from -- his first 'n' last names both got seven letters
in 'em, so he uses seven nails t'shoe a horse instead six or eight
nails like most smiths do.  That's how Paul tracked me down last year."

"Why was he tracking you?" Sheriff Whyte asked, his eyebrow raised in
interest - no, maybe, suspicion.

Paul gave him a wry smile.  "That, Elijah, is a story for another day.
Right now, we're hunting Dandy Jim.  Let's see where _his_ horse's
trail goes."

" 'Back to the road from the look of it," Jessie said.  "Clever; there
ain't no way to follow one set of tracks with all the traffic on that
road."

The Sheriff frowned.  "And who'd stop _one_ man, when everybody thought
it was a gang of _seven_ men that pulled off that robbery?"

"That man would probably have had tools in his saddlebags good for
breaking a heavy lock, a sign that he'd been up to something," Paul
speculated.

"Yes, but if it's only one lone rider, a posse wouldn't likely stop him
in the first place, let alone go through his gear."  He paused a beat.
"And if they did, what wrong with a man carrying some tools in his
pack?"

Paul shrugged.  "When the truth gets out, someone might remember
running into a man with all those tools and say something." 

"So what happens now?" Jessie asked.

Dev gave a shrug.  "Now we get my horse back to Cole Hoyle and spend
the night at his station.  Tomorrow, we all deadhead t'Prescott t'tell
the head office what we figured out."

"Do we have to?"  Jess asked.  "Prescott's a long way off.  Ain't we
spent enough time chasing after Dandy Jim?"

Whyte nodded and looked at her and Paul.  "I got my own case to settle,
and I'd just as soon start back to Dawson."

* * * * *

Paul moved the blankets and opened the stall door.  A lantern set
against the far wall lit the stall.  The hay they'd found there was now
spread out in a low mound that was covered with a large, green and gray
horse blanket.  Jessie was next to it, sitting back on her heels and
wearing...

 "What's all that you've got on, Jess?"

"There is no one here called 'Jess.'  I am Sunset Woman, adopted
daughter of Taklishim, Apache war chief, and the, uh... prize..."  She
stumbled, just a little over the word.  "...of you, the warrior Raging
Lion, who won me by right of combat."  She raised her hand towards him.
"Come, Raging Lion, come and _take_ your prize."

He took her hand.  "Very well," he said firmly, trying to get into
whatever this game of hers was.  "Let me see what I have 'won.'  Stand
up."  He helped her to her feet and began to walk around her, as if
conducting an inspection of some_thing_.  The game seemed to be that
she was some sort of slave, to be treated however he wanted.  It was
hardly the independent, spirited Jessie that he knew so well, but he
was willing to go along.  For a while, at least.

She bowed her head, seeming to be shy and held her hands at her sides.
She was dressed in the clothes she'd worn the night of the moccasin
ceremony back in the Apache village, a light brown blouse, a brown
belt, and a long, pale yellow skirt.  All were soft buckskin and all
decorated with matching patterns of beads.  The collar of the blouse
was closed by a brown thong interlaced with the garment, and the bottom
of her skirt was fringed.

"You seem like a worthy enough prize."  He saw that she'd forced her
long, strawberry blonde hair into a bun with an hourglass-shaped metal
ornament holding it in place.  "A maiden's hair is bound, as it should
be."  He pulled the thing loose.  "But the hair of a _prize_ should
_not_ be bound."  He watched, smiling, as her hair fell free about her
shoulders.

He grabbed her suddenly, moved in close and brushed his lips against
hers.  But as she started to respond, he stepped back, the stern
master, not the gentle lover.  "That was good - for start.  Let me see
more of my prize.  Remove your blouse."

"But..."  Her voice was uncertain.

He gave her a way out.  "Do not argue.  You are only a prize, are you
not?  Something won in fair combat, not a woman to be wooed."  All she
had to do was say, "No", and the game was over.  And they _both_ knew
it.  Instead, she said...

"I am only a prize, Raging Lion; your prize."  Her voice sounded sad,
resigned to an unhappy fate, but she gave him a quick wink and a smile
before she began to unlace the cord that held the two halves of her
collar so tightly.  As soon as it was undone, she reached down to yank
her blouse loose from the belt at her waist.  In one quick motion, she
pulled the blouse up, over her head and tossed it to the floor behind
her.

Paul took a surprised, delighted breath.  She'd dressed "Injun" from
the skin out.  All she wore above her waist was a band of yellow
doeskin that supported - and concealed - her breasts.  Only the very
tops of them could be seen above the material.

"But a most _worthy_ prize, indeed."  He kissed her again, harder.  As
he did, his hands reached down to cup her breasts through the doeskin
halter.  His fingers caressed her breasts, rubbing the soft leather
against her sensitive nipples.

She gasped, and he felt her body tremble.  Her eyes were slits, her
mouth opened, as she arched her back to press her breasts against his
hands.  Her arms moved up to embrace him.

"Hands at your sides," he ordered.  "No, remove your skirt first."

She looked surprised, but she obeyed.  Her hands trembled as she
loosened the brown leather belt.  She let it go and gave a quick jerk
to her hips.  The skirt slid down of its own weight to pool at her
feet.  A thin cord tied around her waist held a long, thin strip of
doeskin - the same yellow as the wrap around her breasts.  The doeskin
was draped over the front of the cord.  It ran back, between her legs
at her crotch, and was draped again over the cord at her back; a
loincloth.  And, except for the breast wrap and her calf-high
moccasins, it was all she now wore.

"Hands at your sides," he ordered, "and you will _keep_ them there
until I say that you can move them."

Jessie did as he had told her.  She looked down, unwilling - unable? -
to meet his gaze.  "Paul --"

"I am your master, the warrior Raging Lion.  Do not speak."  His voice
was firm, almost angry.

He stepped in close to her.  His hand reached down and ran a finger
against the doeskin, pressing it against her sensitive flesh.

"O-ooh!"  Jessie's breath caught in her throat.  She shivered,
overwhelmed by what he was doing to her.

Paul balled his hand into a fist, the middle finger bowed out.  He
pressed it against the doeskin directly covering her nether lips.
Pressed and twisted his finger, so that the soft material forced those
lips apart and caressed the velvety flesh within.

"O-ooh... uh... uh... oooh."  Jessie couldn't speak.  A wave of carnal
delight crashed through her.  She felt lightheaded.  Her fingers
twitched eager to grasp hold of him, and her knees... she could hardly
stand.

Then the hand went away, taking all of that sexual joy with it.  "Now -
before we go any further, _Jessie_ _Hanks_ - how about you tell me what
_the_ _hell_ sort of a game you're playing?"

"Game... what d'you mean?"

"I mean, what're you doing playing like you're some kind of slave that
has to do whatever I tell her?"

"I, uh... I got curious.  I was wondering - kinda - what woulda
happened if Dasodaha had won that wrestling match, if I had to _go_
with him.  I wouldn't be his wife.  He had one already.  I woulda just
been a prize, and he coulda done whatever he wanted with me -- _to_ me.
" She took a breath.  "That scared me, scared me a whole lot.  But a
part o'me got to wondering what it woulda been like.  He coulda hurt
me, probably woulda hurt me; he was a big, rough man.  But you, I...I
knew that you... you _wouldn't hurt me."

He smiled, the smile of a cat about to play with a mouse it had caught.
"Even if I did something like this?"  He finger rubbed a furrow across
the doeskin covering her nether lips.  They parted and his fur-covered
finger slipped inside her again, wriggling against her.

"Y-Yessss."  She hissed the word as a tremor of ecstasy ran through
her.  "Ooh, ooh, yesss."

He managed a smirk.  "Undress me, then, _woman_, so I can _enjoy_ you."

She nodded, uncertain of what to say.  Her hands trembled as she
unbuttoned his shirt.  When that was done, she moved close to push it
back off his shoulders.  His arm shot behind her, forcing her against
him.  As was his custom, he hadn't worn an undershirt, and his curly
chest hair tickled her extended, oh, so sensitive nipples.  He kissed
her.  Very hard.  She moaned, rubbing her body against him.

He ignored her, releasing her and stepping back.  "Keep going."

Her fingers fumbled as she worked at his belt buckle.  It opened -
finally - and she popped open the top of the buttons on the front of
his pants; then the next and the next.  His pants were tight in front
from his erection, and she felt her body warm as that erection came
into view inside his drawers. His pants were loose, and they began to
slide down his hips.  He spread his legs slightly and let them fall.

"What did you stop for?" he demanded.

She reached down and yanked at the knotted the cord which held his
drawers tight at his waist.  The knot came free, but the drawers only
slipped down a few inches

"Well?"  His voice was more of an order than a question.

Jessie felt another flush run across her face.  She knelt down, grabbed
at his garment, and gave a slight tug.  It dropped down almost to his
knees.  She released it, and it fell atop his pants.  His erection
sprang up, pointing up at her, and she shivered in anticipation of what
might come next.

"If you were _just_ my prize, kneeling there, I'd probably order you to
use your mouth on me."  He cupped her chin in his hand, raising her
head, so that their eyes met.  He was grinning mischievously, as he
spoke. "Do you want me to do that?"

Jessie startled.  She'd pleasure him that way before, but always on
_her_ terms, because _she_ wanted to.  Even in a game, the thought of
being forced to do it was... unthinkable.  "I, uhh... I want..."  She
shrugged, admitting her reluctance to Paul - and to herself.  "I guess
_that_ game's over."  She gave him a wan smile.

"That's okay." He smiled back at her, this time, a gentle smile.  "I
know a _better_ one."  He helped her to her feet and kissed her softly
on the lips.  She moaned again, and his tongue moved into her mouth to
play with hers.  Her right arm rose up slowly to encircle his neck.  At
the same time, his own right arm reached behind her and yanked at the
knot that held her doeskin halter in place.  He tossed the fur over her
shoulder and broke the kiss.

She sighed.  "Mmm, that _is_ better."  She pressed her bared breasts
against him.  "You got any other ideas?"

"A few."  He leaned down to take her engorged nipple into his mouth.

She shivered at the feel of his lips on her breast, of his rough tongue
brushing against her tight, inflamed nipple.  "Ooh... ooh, yes...
yesss!"  Her hands twitched as they moved down to fumble at the knotted
cord that held her loincloth in place.

"Let me get that, Jess."

"O-Okay, but... _hurry_!"

The doeskin was damp to his touch, and the air filled with the sweet
fragrance of her arousal.  He undid the knot, and the cord came free.
The strip of doeskin fell to the floor.  He used a finger to tease her
nether lips, sending sparks of sexual lightning racing through her.

"You _better_ have them riding coats," she said breathlessly.

Paul had stepped out of his pants.  He picked up the garment and
retrieved one of the condoms from a pocket.  "Right here," he told her,
holding it up for her to see.  "I bought a bunch of them when I was
down in Phoenix."

"Then lie down, and lemme put it on you."

Without another word, he stretched out on the blanket that she'd spread
over the loose pile of hay.  His member sprang to attention, pointing
straight at her.  It was red and ready and - to Jessie - it seemed to
be at least five times its normal size.

She took a breath to steady herself and quickly -- carefully but
_quickly_ - slid it onto him, using the attached green ribbons to fix
it in place.

"Okay, Jess."  He patted a spot on the blanket next to him.  "Time to
get yourself down here."

Jessie leered at him.  "Don't wanna."  She straddled him before he
could react, and bent her knees, lowering herself down atop him.  Her
left hand grasped his manhood and guided it into herself.  "Oh... oh,
yeah!"  She leaned in towards him and began to move her body forward
and back, grinding herself against his body.  "Uhh... o-ooh... oh...
yesss!"

Paul braced himself on the blanket.  She was tight inside, like a third
hand stroking his maleness.  He raised his head and kissed her.  She
kept moving her body, but her lips stayed with his, their tongues
dancing together to the rhythm she was setting.  His hands found her
breasts and began to massage them.  At the same time, his hips matched
her own movements.

Slowly, those movements became more ragged.  "Yeah!... _Yeah!_...
_YEAH!_"  Jessie screamed as the exquisite joy of an orgasm exploded
within her.  Paul's arm pulled her head down to his own and silenced
her with a torrid kiss.  And through it all, the motions of her body
against his never stopped.

After a time, she collapsed, spent for the moment, onto his chest.  She
lay still, catching her breath.  He was still hard, and he gave a quick
thrust of his hips.  "Oh, Lord!" she exclaimed and resumed her own
rhythms.

Again her fervor grew.  And grew.  She delighted in the carnal fire
blazing within her.  His hands were at her breasts.  The light touch of
his fingertips, as they traced inward spirals towards her nipples
excited her even more.  She reached a peak and then _crashed_ over it
in another rapturous blast.

As she began to scream her joy, he grunted and shot forth what felt
like a gallon of his essence.  She collapsed, sprawling onto the
blanket beside him, totally exhausted.  They stared with sated smiles
at each other.  Fatigue overtook them, and they fell asleep, still
smiling blissfully.

* * * * *

Chapter 9 - "It's Tyler Time"

Thursday, June 13, 1872

Coleman Hoyle took a sip of his coffee.  "How soon do you folks figure
on heading out?"

"We're pretty much packed," Jessie answered.  "Right after breakfast, I
think."  She glanced across the table at Paul, who nodded in agreement
while he chewed on a strip of bacon.  "Yeah, me 'n' Paul'll be leaving
right after we eat."

Sheriff Whyte looked up from his own meal.  "The _three_ of us'll be
leaving."  He turned to face the pair.  "Unless you have some
objection, that is.  We're all going to the same place, more or less,
so I thought I'd ride with you."

"You gonna try 'n' arrest me again?" she asked suspiciously.

Paul chuckled.  "You know that hasn't exactly worked out for you the
last couple times you tried, don't you?"

"Only too well."  He gave Paul a rueful smile and self-consciously
rubbed the spot on his hand where the scorpion had stung him.  "Only
too well.  That's why we're out here in the first place."

Dev Fisher gave the Sheriff an odd look.  "What'd you wanna arrest her
for, Sheriff?  It didn't have anything t'do with the stage she rob -
she _stopped_ did it?"

"To tell the truth..."  Whyte's voice trailed off, and he glanced over
at Jessie.  She gave a quick, nervous shake of her head and silently
mouthed the word, "Please."

"No," he continued, "it _doesn't_ have anything to do with your
stagecoach and, beyond that..."  He gave her a reassuring wink.  "...I
don't see where it's any of your business."

Fisher frowned.  "You don't need t'get up on your high horse, Sheriff.
I owe Jessie for helping me figure out what Dandy Jim was doing, even
more so for letting me take all of the credit for it.  I was just
trying t'watch out for her."

"You been watching out for her since the day she '_stopped_' your
stage," Hoyle said with a laugh.  "Only now you're on _her_ side while
you're doing the watching."

The other man gave a quick laugh.  "Maybe so, but you got no reason
t'arrest her now, do you, Sheriff?"

Whyte shook his head. "No... and I'm not planning to try."

"Well," Paul said, "if you'll shake Jessie's hand on that, we'll be
glad for your company."

The older man offered his hand.  "Seems fair to me."

"Me, too."  Jessie shook his hand.  She held it for a minute, looking
at the man.

Paul put his hand on top of the other two.  "In that case, let's ride."

* * * * *

By mid-afternoon, they were climbing up into the highlands that marked
the transition from the mountains of central Arizona to the Sonora
desert.  The road, more of a trail for game, was steep.  Their pace was
kept slow, so as not to overtire the horses.  That let them move close
enough to each other to talk.

"I been wondering, Lige," Jessie began, "what're you gonna do about
that cameo necklace when we get back t'Dawson?"

Sheriff Whyte pursed his chin.  "Strictly speaking, it belongs to
Eugene Barlow - his family, now.  One of the papers they sent me from
Prescott said he had a wife somewhere back east."  He frowned.  "_If_
she wants it."

"Why wouldn't she want it?" Paul asked.

Whyte smirked.  "Why; 'cause it's all tied up with her husband being
killed.  It'd be a reminder of that every time she looked at it."

"Give it t'me then," Jessie said. "Or t'Hanna Tyler direct, 'cause I'd
give it t'her, anyway."

"Don't you think it'd remind her about Barlow's death, too?" Paul
asked.

Jessie shook her head.  "No, if anything, it'd remind her that it made
trouble for me.  I give it back t'her, that says it won't be a problem,
no more."

Paul frowned.  "What're you gonna tell Hanna?  For that matter, Lige,
what - if anything - are you gonna tell the authorities up in Prescott?
The cameo ain't a lead no more, it's a red herring."


The Sheriff looked thoughtful.  "You're right.  It's a waste of time,
but how do I tell them without... implicating Jessie while I'm at it?"

"Tell 'em the truth - sorta," Jessie answered.  "The lady..."  She gave
them a mincing smile.  "...who had the cameo was over near Black Canyon
Station 'bout the time Barlow was killed.  Oh, and tell 'em she bought
the cameo from him the night before... on her way outta town."

"Bought it from who?  The lie can be made simpler.  I think I _will_
tell them that I found the cameo out by Black Canyon Station, but I'll
also say that the 'lady' who had it had an alibi.  If I'm pressed, I'll
say that she won it in a poker game."

"What are you gonna tell the Tylers?"

"That I'm sorry that I bothered them - and you, and that when I finally
talked to you, you proved that you hadn't done anything worth worrying
about."

"Sounds good t'me," Jessie said.  "Thanks, Lige."

Paul held out his hand.  "Now that it's settled, can we have the
cameo?"

"Okay, but you'll have to wait till we stop someplace. I'll have to dig
down into my saddle bag to get it."

Jessie laughed.  "For something like that, I don't mind waiting."

* * * * *

Friday, June 14, 1872

This time, it was Sheriff Whyte who was the first to see... "Soldiers!"

"You think they're the same ones we ran into before?" Jessie asked,
riding up alongside him.

Paul joined them in time to hear her question.  "Probably not; we're a
lot farther south and farther west than where we met up with Heffler
and his men."

"Only one way t'find out."  Jessie gave a shrug and started riding
towards the troopers; Sheriff Whyte and Paul hurried after her.

The leader of the troop raised a hand, signaling for his men to stop.
They stayed in place, some watching Jessie and the others approaching.
The remaining men scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of trouble.

"Hello, there... lieutenant."  Jessie gave the man her best friendly
smile.  "I'm Jessie Hanks, and the men with me're Sheriff Elijah Whyte
and my friend, Paul Grant.  What're you 'n' your men doing out this
way?"

The officer looked nonplussed for a moment, hardly expecting such a
greeting.  He was on his late thirties, a tall, almost painfully thin
man, whose graying hair was in mid-retreat from his forehead.  "Miss
Hanks, I'm Lionel... _Lieutenant_ Lionel Staub.  I don't wish to alarm
you, but my men and I are out from Camp Verde, on patrol for renegade
Apaches."

"Apaches?" Paul asked, pulling his cowpony up next to Jessie.

 "Yes, sir; we have scattered sightings from across the Territory,
reports of war parties stealing cattle, setting fires..."  He waited a
beat. "...killing settlers.  My orders are to deal - and deal _harshly_
-- with any of these savages that my men and I encounter."

Paul, Jessie, and Whyte exchanged quick, concerned glances.  "You got
any notion of where they might be?" the Sheriff asked.

"If I knew where any of those devils were, I'd be there, myself,
fighting them.  For now, my orders are to patrol this area."  He
hesitated a moment.  "May I ask where you folks are headed?"

"Dawson; it's along the Gila River, about seventy miles east of Yuma."

"I've been down there, down to the Quartermaster Depot in Yuma a time
or two, that is - don't know Dawson, I'm afraid, and I'm not likely to
any time soon."  He took a breath.  "But I can offer you an escort to
the Gila Bend Mountains, that's about as far south as my orders allow."

Jessie hesitated.  "I don't know..."

"I'd really feel much better if you accepted my offer, ma'am.  I've
seen what Apaches do to white men - and women - they get their hands on
them, and it's, well, it's not at all pretty."

Jessie shivered.  It was hard to think of Taklishim or Ih-tedda or even
Dasodaha doing what the Lieutenant was describing, but she knew that
not all the Apache nation were friendly.  "I-I think we'll take you up
on that offer, Lieutenant Staub."  She glanced over, first at Paul and
then at Elijah Whyte, only to see both men nod in agreement.  "And
thanks."

* * * * *

Jessie and Paul picked up a couple of tin plates from the stack and
fell in at the end of the line for the soldier's evening meal.  The man
in front of her turned to see who had stepped up behind him.  "Hallo,
Miss Chessie," he said in a voice with a thick German accent.   His
eyes roamed quickly from Jessie's smile, down past her lush bosom to
her narrow waist before he spoke again.  "Vhy you don't get in der line
aheadt of me?"  He gestured broadly with his right arm.

"Und me."  The next man made the same gesture.  Soon most of the squad
was inviting her to move to the front of the line.

She took their invitation and walked slowly to the mess table, smiling
at each man, as she passed by them.  But then she spoiled it for them
by yelling, "Hey, Paul, you get here in front o'me."

"Sorry, gentlemen," Paul said, as he moved up to stand next to her.
"Fortunes of war, as they say."

A tall, mustachioed sergeant stood behind the table.  On the table was
a tray with slices of hardtack bread and a steaming pot of beef and
bean stew.  A large coffee pot at the end of the table was balanced on
a brass trivet and surrounded by a ring of empty mugs.  "Here ye go,
ma'am," the cook said in a brogue as thick as Shamus O'Toole's.  He
ladled a serving of the stew onto each of their plates, tossing a piece
of the bread into the midst of each portion.  "The only way t'be eating
that hardtack," he explained, "is t' soak it in the stew t'soften it."

"Thanks... I guess."  Jessie glanced down at her plate.  The beef - she
_hoped_ it was beef -- looked to be as much fat as meat, and there was
an oily look to the gravy.  She poured herself some coffee - which
smelled too much of chickory - and walked over to sit on a log a few
yards away from where most of the men were eating.

Paul joined her as soon as he'd gotten his own supper.  He took a
forkful of the stew, and made a face.  "Too much salt; I pity the men
who had to eat army food during four years of war."

"I know," she replied.  "Drink a little coffee.  It helps."

He did as she suggested.  "Helps some, but _Lord_ I miss Maggie's
cooking.  I'm thinking that if that lady were cooking for them, the
soldiers would have been glad to go on fighting for ten years."

"I don't think even she could do much with this stuff."  She dipped her
bread in the stew for a short time before she took a bite. "No, not
much at all."

Jessie took another forkful.  "At least it's filling; for soldiers,
that's all they really need."

"Ah, the glamorous life in the cavalry; risk your life fighting Indians
and all for thirteen dollars a month, and all the slop you can eat."

"You never say much about the war," Jessie remarked.  "You were too
young to join up, I suppose."

Paul winced, as if someone had just stepped on his toe.  It was a
moment before he could force out an answer.  "I didn't go to war, but
the war came along anyway."

He didn't say anything more, didn't want to say anything more, and
Jessie knew better than to push.

Paul finished the last of the stew and used his bread to soak up what
gravy remained on his plate.  He popped the bread into his mouth and
chewed, taking some coffee to soften it a bit more.

Jessie did the same.  She put down her cup after a final sip and set it
down.  "Don't look like there's much going on tonight."

Two of the men were cleaning up for the mess sergeant.  A few more were
playing cards, a cutthroat game of poker from the sound of it.  Another
was using what was left of the daylight to write a letter.  Lieutenant
Staub was talking to a second sergeant, a tall lanky man with a shock
of curly black hair.  'Prob'ly setting up the watch for tonight,' she
thought.  The rest of the squad was spreading their bedrolls.

"Staub's going to be getting his men up at dawn; that's pretty early
this time of year.  If they want a good night's sleep, they pretty much
_have_ to go to bed right away."

She stood up.  "In that case, let's us go find a place t'bed down."
She grinned - practically _leered_ -- at him.  "Someplace... private,
so's we can put another of them riding coats to good use."

"I'm afraid not, Jess," Paul said, a regretful tone in his voice.
"Staub's hardly going to let the two of us get out of sight of the rest
of the camp."  He sighed.  "And I don't think either of us wants to put
on a show for him and his men."

Jessie considered what he'd said.  "Dammit!" she replied after a while.
"I hate it when you're right 'bout stuff like that."  She playfully
kissed him on the cheek and went to get her own bedroll.

* * * * *

Saturday, June 15, 1872

It was still early in the day when Lieutenant Staub raised his arm,
signaling his men to halt their horses and rest for a few minutes.
"Miss Hanks," he called out. "Would you and your friends come over
here, please?"

"What's the problem?" Paul asked when they had ridden over to him.

"No problem," the officer answered.  "Not really, anyway.  Do you see
those peaks up yonder?"  He pointed to a range of mountains a few miles
ahead.  When they nodded, he continued.  "The tallest one, off to the
southeast of our line of march, is Woolsey Peak.  By my map, we're at
the southernmost point of the area I've been ordered to patrol, so I'm
afraid you're on your own again."

The Sheriff glanced at the mountains.  "Any idea how far we have to
go?"

"The day is young, yet.  Based on what you showed me on your map, I'd
guess that Miss Hanks and Mr. Grant can reach the Tyler farm around
supper-time.  It'll be a bit farther for you, of course, Sheriff, but
it _is_ mid-June.  You should be able to reach Dawson with time to
spare before dark."

"Good, 'cause I'm going to the Tyler ranch, too."

Jessie startled.  "How come?"

"I scared Mrs. Tyler and that daughter of hers the way I chased after
you, Jessie, and I figure that I owe them both an in-person apology."

"Seems like a good idea." Paul said.  He turned back to Staub.  "Thank
you for all your help, sir, and good luck to you and your men."

'Or _not_ good luck if you go chasing after Taklishim and his family,'
Jessie thought to herself.    Aloud she said, "Yeah, thanks a lot."

Staub offered a salute which all three returned.  Then, smiling, they
started south once again.

* * * * *

Malachi Tyler came running into his mother's kitchen.  "Ma, Ma, we got
company."

"Who is it, Malachi?"  Piety Tyler wiped her hands on her apron.

"Jessie Hanks and Mr. Grant and... and the Sheriff; they just rode up."

"My Heavens."  She pushed the stewpot she'd just put on the stove onto
a back burner and hurried toward the front of the house.

Paul and Jessie were tying the reins of their horses to the hitching
post when Piety and her son came out onto the porch.  Sheriff Whyte was
still on his mount.  "Good afternoon, Mrs. Tyler," he greeted her.

"Sheriff... what's going on?  Have you come here to gloat about finally
capturing Jessie?"

"No, Ma'am, and I'm sorry that you think that of me.  It turns out she
wasn't anywhere near Prescott when that man was killed.  She proved it,
and Paul and her are free to go wherever they want.  I just... well, I
figured I owed you a face-to-face apology for the high-handed way I
acted when I was trying to arrest her."  He took a breath.  "You and
your daughter, both; is she around?"

Piety shook her head.  "Hanna is with her new husband at their farm."

"I can ride out t'get 'em," Malachi offered.  "If it's okay with you,
Ma?"

Jessie's eyes moved from Whyte to Piety.  "He's a good man, Piety.  He
coulda rode straight home, but he wanted t'make it right with you and
Hanna.  Seems t'me if a man does that, he deserves t'be heard."

"I-I don't know," Piety said.  She stood still for a moment considering
Jessie's word.  "Still... I... Do _you_ vouch for him, Jessie?"

Jessie nodded.  "I do."  She glanced over at her companion, who mumbled
some words of agreement.  "Me and Paul both."

"In that case, Malachi, go get your sister."

* * * * *

A farm wagon sped into the yard in front of the Tyler house.  As it
came to a quick halt only a few feet away from her, Jessie heard a
familiar voice calling her name.

"Jessie... Jessie!"  Hanna Tyler - Hanna _Parker_ now, Jessie reminded
herself -- leapt from her seat almost before the wagon stopped and ran
to her friend.  She threw her arms around Jessie and began hugging her
fiercely.

She was still hugging Jessie while her new husband, Gil Parker, tied
his two-horse team to the hitching post and walked over to join her.
"Welcome back, Miss Jessie... Mr. Grant," he greeted them and shook
Paul's hand.  Then he saw who else was present.  "Uh... you, too,
Sheriff."

"Hello... Gil."  Whyte replied.  "Hanna."  She glowered back at him,
her arms crossed in front of her.

Just then, Malachi rode up.  "I told 'em you was here, Sheriff."

"You tell them _why_ I was here?"  Elijah Whyte was off his horse now,
sitting on the porch next to Jessie.

"N-No, sir."

"Then let's go inside, so I can apologize to everybody at once."  He
started to dismount.

As if on cue, Piety and Ephraim Tyler walked out onto the front porch.
"That won't be necessary, Sheriff," Ephraim said.  "You can say your
piece right here 'n' now.  And if the womenfolk forgive you..."  He
glanced quickly at his wife and daughter.  "...I reckon that you're
welcome t'stay for supper."

"That's a _big_ if," Piety said, frowning.  "Even if Jessie did say
that it was all right."

Jessie chuckled.  "For the record, Paul and I do forgive Elijah here
for what he done.  We've spent enough time together since then, and,
like I said, he's a good man, even if he can be a damned sight too hard
to convince sometimes.  He deserves another chance."  She nodded to
Whyte.  "Showtime, 'Lige.  Give it your best shot."

"I will."  He took a breath.  "It ain't easy t'say, Hanna... Miz Tyler,
but I was wrong."

She gave him a skeptical look.  "Wrong?"

"I'm afraid so.  Jessie and Paul _proved_ that she couldn't have killed
Gene Barlow 'cause she wasn't nowhere near Prescott when he was
murdered.  I was too busy thinking how I'd solved a big case, one that
had everybody stumped, t'listen to her story.  I scared her off - her
and Paul.  And when me and my posse came after 'em, I, well, I came
down on the two of you a lot harder than I had any right to."

Piety gave an emphatic nod.  "You most certainly did,"

"I know, ma'am, and like I said, I'm real sorry for it."  He took his
hat in his hands and began to nervously crimp the brim.  "I'm just
hoping that you'll have the Christian charity to forgive me for my
mistake."

Hanna had let go of Jessie.  She stood next to her, holding Gil's hand.
"What d'you say, Jessie?"

"I say, forgive him.  The man made a mistake - a big one - but I figure
he made up for it."  She shrugged.  "I was the one he was chasing -
and, well, Paul and me - 'n' _we_ forgive him."

The girl smiled.  "Then I guess I will, too."

"As will I, Sheriff."  Piety put out her hand.

Whyte gave her hand a gentle shake.  "Thanks, ladies, all _three_ of
you."  He released her hand walked over and mounted his horse.

"Won't you be staying for supper, Sheriff?" Piety asked.

The Sheriff shook his head.  "No, ma'am, but thank you for the offer.
There's another lady I got to apologize to, and I only hope that my
Thelma is as forgiving as you and Emma and Jessie for my being away
from her for so long a time."

"I'm sure that she will be."

He nodded and tapped his hat with a finger, as if in salute.  "From
your mouth t'G-d's ear."  He flicked the reins.  "G'bye, Jessie and
Paul... and all the rest of you."

Then he stopped.  "Almost forgot this."  He reached into his vest
pocket and pulled out something that he tossed to Hanna.  "It's yours
now, Hanna."

"The cameo!" she said in an excited voice, as she caught it one handed.
"Oh, I missed this at my wedding."

Gil stepped in next to her.  "You have it now."  He gently took it from
her.  "Let's put it where it belongs."

"O-Okay."  Hanna leaned her head forward.  Her hair was done up in a
bun, so there was no need to lift it out of the way.

Gil took one end of the chain in each hand and brought it up around her
neck, fastening it behind her.  "Done."  Then he leaned in and kissed
her gently on the lips.  She trembled slightly in surprise, but then
her arms slowly rose up, like ribbons, to drape around his own neck.

"Well, _that_ certainly settles the matter," Sheriff Whyte said with a
hearty laugh.  "G'bye again."  He waved once and rode towards the road
to Dawson.

Piety waited until the newlyweds broke their kiss.  "Supper should be
ready shortly," she told them - and everyone else.  "Will you two be
staying?"

Hanna nodded.  "Yes, Momma; I was fixing our own dinner when Malachi
showed up.  I brought it with me in the back of the wagon; chicken and
dumplings."

"That doesn't exactly fit with the pork stew I'm making," her mother
answered, "but... beggers and choosers; bring it in."

Hanna hesitated.  "I hope you don't mind, Momma, but Gil..."

"I knew how much Hanna'd want to stay and talk to Miss Jessie," her
husband continued.  "So I packed up some bedclothes, while she was
making supper."  He grinned shyly.  "I hope you don't mind, Mother
Tyler, but, well, Hanna and I thought we'd spend the night."  He
smiled, and Hanna blushed slightly and buried her face in his chest.

Piety chuckled.  "I suppose I should've expected that you'd want to
stay.  Very well, you two can sleep in Hanna's old room."  She gave her
daughter a sly smile.  "I'm sure that we can find a spot in the barn
for Jessie... _and_ Paul."

* * * * *

"Back in the straw again," Jessie said wryly.  She and Paul were in the
rafters of the Tyler barn, positioning a horse blanket over the
bedding.  "Just like at Black Canyon."

Paul smiled.  "I remember Black Canyon - and that bed - rather fondly,
thank you."

"Mmm, so do I."  She leered at him as they settled the blanket down
onto the straw.  "Maybe it'll happen again."

He leered back at her.  "I certainly hope so."  Piety had loaned them
two pillows.  He tossed them to Jessie, who set them down at her end of
the coverlet.  "To tell the truth," he continued, "I'm a little
surprised that the Tylers didn't seem to have any objection to our
sleeping together out here."

"They couldn't've said much, seeing as they were putting us both in the
barn tonight."

"I don't know.  They could have had you and Hanna in her bed, and Gil
and me sleeping here."

Jessie laughed.  "Are you loco?  Hanna woulda pitched a fit.  She's
still busy finding out how nice it is t'sleep - or t'_not_ sleep with
Gil.  Besides..."  She paused a beat.  "Piety and Ephrem knows what me
'n' you've been up to.  After supper, she got me alone for a minute and
told me how Hanna and the Sheriff searched through my stuff when he
came here chasing after me - after us."

"Hanna?"

"Piety wouldn't let him go rooting through my clothes, 'specially my
unmentionables.  She had Hanna go through 'em while he watched."  She
giggled.  "And tried not t'blush."

"He's a married man.  I'm sure he's seen such things before."

"Maybe... and maybe not; Hanna found that bag o'riding coats that Wilma
gave me.  Piety gave 'em back t'me."  Jessie held up the small
drawstring canvas bag.  "She told me she figured I... _we_ might be
wanting 'em tonight."

Paul walked over to where she was standing.  "I wouldn't be at all
surprised."  He took a delighted Jessie in his arms and kissed her
tenderly.  Her arm rose up over his shoulder.  She pressed her body
against him and returned the kiss with all the passion she could
muster.

"No," he said when they finally broke the kiss.  "Not surprised at
all."

* * * * *

Sunday, June 16, 1872

"Can you help me with this dress?" Jessie asked.  "It buttons up the
back."  She turned her back to Paul.  The dress was only buttoned about
halfway up her back.

Paul began to work the buttons.  "I'll help, but it won't be as much
fun as _un_buttoning one of your dresses."  He finished and leaned in
to kiss the side of her neck.

"You'll be undoing this one soon enough."  She turned to face him, her
arms raised slightly away from her sides.  "Right now, how do I look in
it?"

He smiled at what he saw.  The dress was sky blue.  It was cut tight
enough to flatter her figure, with a pattern of dark blue lace that
drew attention to her breasts.  But the collar was higher than most of
the dresses she wore when she performed in the Saloon, and the lace-
trimmed sleeves came down almost to her wrists.  "Nice, very nice; but
it's kind of... modest for you, though."

"Well, it sure ain't one of them scanty outfits Wilma wears.  You can
call it my 'going t'church' dress.  I bought it special t'wear at the
wedding."

"It won't be much of a wedding, I'd guess; just Ephrem walking Hanna
across the yard, while you sing that song for her."

"Maybe not; I heard Ephrem tell his boy, Amos, t'ride into Dawson and
ask that preacher, Brother Douglas, t'ride out here after church 'n'
say the words for real to Hanna and Gil."

"He'll probably do it if he can.  He's a good man, and he'll know that
it would make Hanna happy.  She was telling me - told everybody at the
wedding, too, I expect -- how much she missed having you there to sing
for her."  His face went serious.  "I know something else that would
make her happy."

"Yeah, what's that?"

Paul took her hand in his.  "You and me standing up there next to her
and Gil, while Brother Douglas says those words over us."  He took a
breath to brace himself.  "Jessie Hanks, will you marry me?  Please."

"Paul!" Jessie's eyes were wide as dinner plates in surprise.  "Much as
I do love you, I told you that I ain't ready t'settle down yet."

"But when we were on the trail running - hiding - from Lige Whyte and
his posse, you talked more than once about wanting to have a future
with me."

"I do, but... I ain't ready t'start in on _that_ part of our future,
yet."  She gently kissed his cheek.  "So lemme tell you two things,
Paul Grant.  No, I won't marry you - not today, anyway."

He sighed.  "All right, you won't marry me today, but what's the second
thing?"

She beamed at him.  "You keep on asking me, 'cause, one o'these
days..."  She gave him a quick kiss on the tip of his nose.  "...you're
gonna wear me down t'where I give you a _different_ answer."

* * * * *

Paul sat on the edge of the Tyler's back porch, watching Jessie slowly
pacing between the barn and the house.  "What're you doing, Jess?" he
asked when she came near him.

"Measuring the yard; I'm gonna be singing 'Here Comes the Bride', while
Hanna walks over t'where Brother Douglas'll be marrying her and Gil. "
She pointed to a spot near the barn, where Brother Douglas, a tall,
skinny man in a frock coat with the turned collar of a preacher was
talking to Hanna's husband, Gil Parker, and her father, Ephrem Tyler.
"I wanna know where t'start, so I finish just as she gets t'where
they'll be standing."

Paul considered her words.  "That makes sense, I guess.  Any idea how
soon it'll all be starting?"

"Soon as Hanna comes downstairs; Piety and Mrs. Parker are upstairs
helping her get ready."  She chuckled.  "She's so nervous, you'd think
this was her _real_ wedding, instead of a do-over."

"I guess it's that important to her that you sing for at her wedding.
You should be flattered."

"I am.  Hanna's a sweet girl, and I'm glad I met her."

"Lucky thing, too."  He said.  'We were _both_ lucky,' he added to
himself.  Getting captured along with Hanna and her mother had slowed
Jessie's escape, so that he'd caught her before she disappeared across
the Mexican border.  Even more important, by befriending Jessie, they'd
helped her accept her life as a woman and, in a way, to accept Paul's
affection for her.

He thought about proposing again.  'Nothing like a wedding to put a
woman in a marrying frame of mind,' he told himself.  But she might
think that it was too soon after his proposal that morning, so he
decided to wait.

"You know, it's kinda funny," Jessie said with a chuckle.  "We rode all
this way, got chased by a posse, lived with Injuns, 'n' solved the
Dandy Jim mystery, just so's I could sing a song for about half a
minute."

Paul shook his head.  "Not when you did it all for a girl that you
think of as your little sister."

"I never said I think of Hanna that way."

"You don't have to.  I can see it every time the two of you get
together, and I think that Hanna feels the same about you.  For family,
somebody you love, you'll do all that we went through and more."

"You make me sound like some sorta homebody."

"No, you're still my wild... beautiful mustang."  He took her hand in
his.  "You've just found some people that you can care for."  He rose
and put his other arm around her waist.  "And who care for you."

She raised a bemused eyebrow.  "You wouldn't happen t'be one of those
people, would you?"

Paul kissed her cheek.  "Maybe..."  He kissed her again, this time on
the mouth.  "Definitely."

"Mmm, _very_ definitely; we can talk about this later.  In the barn."

Before Paul could say anything else, Amos called, "Here she comes,"
from inside the house.  He rushed to the door, holding it while his
sister, Hanna, her mother, and her mother-in-law came through.  The
three women waited on the porch while Ephrem ran over to join them.

Hanna wore the simple white cotton dress she'd worn at her first
wedding.  It was cut to accent her figure, slender waist but broader
hips - Jessie noted -- than the girl had last fall, when they had first
met.  She was taller, too, almost her mother's height.  She wore a
crown covered with white orange blossoms that had just begun to brown
at the edges. A gauzy veil hung down from the crown, covering most of
her face.  And the cameo was where it should be, on its chain around
her neck.

"You sure you want to go through with this again?" Ephrem asked,
looking serious.  "You can always say 'No' this time."

Hanna giggled.  "Daddy!  Of course, I want to be married to Gil, now
and forever."

"Just checking."  Her father winked and offered her his arm.  "You
ladies better all get in place.  'Cause here we go again."

Piety and Elsie, Gil's mother, ran over to take seats on the bench that
had been set up near the barn.  Since they were only re-enacting the
wedding, no guests were invited.  In fact, the only reason that Brother
Douglas had been available was that he routinely rode out to minister
to congregants who weren't able to attend the morning service he held
in the field next to his small cabin on the outskirts of Dawson.

"Remember what I told you," Jessie told Hanna.  "Walk to the beat of
the music."  Hanna nodded, and Jessie hurried over to the bench, where
she'd left her guitar.  Hanna and Ephrem descended the porch steps.  He
took her arm and nodded for the music to start.  Jessie began to play,
singing along to her music, as father and daughter began a slow march
towards Brother Douglas and Gil.

`     "Here comes the bride dressed all in white,
`      Radiant and lovely she shines in his sight.
`      Gently she glides, sweet as a dove,
`      Meeting her bridegroom, her eyes full of love."

`     "Long have they waited; long have they planned.
`      Life goes before them opening her hand.
`      Asking G-d's blessing, as they begin
`      A life with new meaning, a life shared as one.
`      Entering God's union, bowed before His throne,
`      Promising each other to have and to hold."

`     "Gently she glides, sweet as a dove,
`      Meeting her bridegroom, her eyes full of love.
`      Here comes the bride dressed all in white,
`      Radiant and lovely in her true love's sight."

Hanna and Ephrem stumbled once or twice, trying to match their steps to
the music.  Still, they reached Gil and Brother Douglas just as Jessie
sang the last line.  "Hello, fair lady," Gil said, lifting her veil.

"Hello, my shining knight."  Hanna gave him a radiant smile, her eyes
glistening with tears.  She turned her head to Jessie for a mome nt and
added, "Thanks."

Jessie nodded and moved closer to the girl, still holding the guitar,
to act as maid of honor. "You're welcome," she said smiling, and then
added in a whisper.  "Little sister."

* * * * *

"I now - again - pronounce you man and wife," Brother Douglas said,
with a smile of satisfaction.  "You may kiss --" He stopped as Gil took
Hanna's head in his hands and pulled her to him.  Their lips met, as
her arms rose slowly to drape about his shoulders.  The preacher took a
step back, as the couple were pelted with grains of rice from the small
packets that Piety Tyler and Elsie Parker, mothers of the bride and
groom, had handed out earlier.  The couple broke their kiss and
scurried towards the porch to escape the rice that everyone, even
Brother Douglas, was throwing at them.

* * * * *

Jessie leaned back on a wide bench set against the back wall of the
house and looked at the scene around her.

Cyrus Parker was sitting with Ephrem Tyler on a pair of overstuffed
chairs that had been brought out onto the porch.  Gil was perched on a
stool next to his father.  A bottle of rum and three shot glasses
rested on a low table between them.  The men were talking about what
farmers always talked about: their crops and the weather.

Hanna sat with her mother and her mother-in-law on benches around a
trestle table, boards set across a pair of saw horses. Jessie couldn't
tell what they were talking about, but the older two women were
giggling.  So was Hanna, though her face was flushed, as if she had
been blushing at something one of the women had said.

"Jethie."  Two year-old Phoebe toddled over to Jessie, her arms
outstretched.  Her older sister, Lettie, was close behind her.  "Up?"
the toddler asked.  Jessie smiled and lifted her up, setting her on her
lap.  Lettie clambered up on the bench beside her.  She smiled up at
Jessie and snuggled against her.

Paul pulled over a chair and settled in a foot or so away.  "You
certainly look cozy there... natural."  It was hard to believe that
this sweet young woman, happily surrounded by children was his own
"Wild Mustang."  It was a side of Jessie that she almost never showed.

"I... I-I told you what it was like, growing up with Pa and Will."  Her
eyes glistened.  "We wasn't much of a family.  I didn't even understand
- back then -- how much Pa really... loved me.  This..."  She gently
brushed Phoebe's hair with her hand. "...This - all this..."  She
gestured with her arm to include all those on the porch.  "...is _so_
nice."

"I've got a feeling... If I were to ask you that question - you know
the one - I might get a better answer than I got the last time."

Jessie gave him a bemused smile.  "Ask.  T'tell the truth I ain't sure
_how_ I'll answer."

"In that case..."  He took her hand in his.  "Jessie Hanks, will you --
"

The shrill blast on a bugle caused everyone to turn.  Amos and Malachi
Tyler rode out of the barn at a healthy cantor.  Amos was the one
blasting away on his father's old bugle.  They circled their horses
around and around in the yard, shouting and blowing the bugle.

By the time, the pair finished their circling and rode over to the
porch, everyone was standing at the porch railing, watching them.
Lettie was holding her mother's hand, while Jessie cradled Phoebe with
her left arm.

Malachi had a pouch tied to his saddle.  He reached in and pulled out a
featureless cloth doll wearing a cowboy hat.  He tossed it to Gil, who
caught it one handed.  Amos blew the bugle again, and Malachi tossed a
second doll, this one in a bonnet, to his sister.  Hanna jumped back,
startled, and the doll landed at her feet.

"I think that we had enough of a shivaree at the first wedding," Ephrem
said.  "More than enough."

Malachi tried to look remorseful.  "We was just having some fun, Pa;
wishing lots of healthy babies on Hanna and Gil."  He grinned
mischievously.  "Or whoever."  He tossed a boy doll at Jessie.

"Gyaah!" she yelped and batted it away with her free hand.  It landed
in the yard, a few feet away.  Jessie frowned and stared down at it.
Then she turned to face Paul.  "About that question you was asking."
She gave him a small, tight-lipped smile and shook her head.

He sighed, knowing that the mood was spoiled.   "Another time, maybe."

"Maybe."  She sounded as unhappy about it as he was, and both of them
were contemplating horrible fates for the two boys who couldn't keep
their damned dolls to themselves.

* * * * *

Chapter 10 - "The Long Road Home"

Monday, June 17, 1872

Piety Tyler came out of her house.  She was carrying something wrapped
in a red and white checkered napkin.  "This is for you, Jessie," she
said, handing her the package.

"Thanks, Piety."  Jessie looked down at the thing in her hands.  She
hefted it.  "What is it?"  It was very light.

"It's a piece of Hanna's wedding cake.  It's supposed to bring you
sweet dreams if you sleep with it under your pillow, dreams of your
future husband."  She couldn't help but glance over at Paul who was
busy packing his saddlebags.

Jessie saw where she was looking.  "Yep; he's already good at giving me
sweet dreams, but every little bit helps, I guess."  She carefully
added the cake to one of her own saddlebags.  The bags were already
loaded with her gear and tied to her horse's saddle.

"We're almost packed," Hanna said, walking over from her own farm
wagon.  "Gil is just tying down last of the boxes. So I guess we can go
as..." Her voice broke.  "...as soon as you do, Jessie."

Jessie gave her a sad smile.  "I know, Hanna.  I'm gonna miss you, too,
but you got that handsome new husband to take your mind offa things.
I'll write you when I can, and you do the same, okay?"

"Okay... I guess."  She threw her arms around Jessie and gave her a
tight hug.  "And I will miss you."

"Me, too."

Paul walked over, along with Ephrem Tyler.  "Looks like we're ready,"
Paul said.

"You sure that you've got enough ammo packed?" Ephrem asked.  "We've
been hearing stories - bad stories -- of Apaches on the loose."

Piety shook her head.  "Bloodthirsty savages; they should all be
killed, every last one, before they can kill us poor Christian people."

"Some of them just wanna to live in peace," Jessie said.  "I've..."
She stopped.  It might not be a good idea to tell the Tylers about
Taklishim and his band, not after what Piety had just said.  "I just
don't think that all of them are as bad as some folks say."

"Then you are sadly wrong," Ephrem said, "And I hope that you never
learn otherwise."

"Me, too."  Hanna hugged Jessie again.  "Oh, Jessie, please, _please_
be careful."

Jessie tousled Hanna's hair.  "I will, Hanna, and thank you for the
warning, Ephrem."

"Send us a line when you get home," Ephrem said.  "These womenfolk will
be spending all their time worrying about you, till they hear that you
got home safely."  He winked.  "So will I, truth to tell."

Jessie had to smile.  "I'll do that, Ephrem."

"It's time to go." Paul said, pointing to his pocket watch.  "And we
_will_ be careful, Ephrem... and Hanna.  And you, too, Piety."

Jessie sighed.  "All right then." She gave Hanna one last hug.  She
shook hands with Piety and Ephrem, and then mounted Useless.  "You all
be careful, too, okay," she asked by way of a farewell.  By this time,
Paul was on his cowpony, Ash.  They both waved goodbye and flicked
their reins.  The horses and their riders were out the yard and onto
the road almost at once.

Gil and Hanna said goodbye to her parents and headed out for their own
farm within the next few minutes.

* * * * *

Tuesday, June 19, 1872

Sheriff Dan Talbot walked into the Saloon, heading straight for where
Shamus was standing behind the bar.  "Welcome, Sheriff; what can I be
doing for ye this fine day?"

"You can tell me if you or Molly have heard anything from Paul or
Jessie."

The barman frowned.  "I'm truly sorry t'be saying it, but we ain't had
word one from either of them."

"And I, for one, am starting t'be worried about 'em."  Molly had come
over to join the two men.

Shamus put an arm around his wife's waist.  "I told ye, Molly love.
They're just enjoying a bit o'time together.  There ain't nothing t'be
scared about."

"I hope that's the case," Talbot said.  "I really do."

"What ain't ye telling us, Dan?" Shamus asked cautiously.

The man looked like he had drunk something sour.  "There's a lot of
things that a man and a woman - especially _that_ man and _that_ woman
- could find to occupy themselves out on the trail, but... well, I hate
to worry you two, but I've also been getting reports.  The Apaches...
something ticked them off."

"The order that they all go to the reservations," Shamus muttered.
"Getting told t'go living in a pen ain't something I'd be happy about
neither."

"I suppose not, but you probably wouldn't go out on a killing spree,
murdering settlers, stealing livestock, burning farms.  That, I'm very
sorry t'say, is what the Apaches have been doing since the order came
down from Washington."

Molly's face paled.  "Ye don't think they..."  Her voice faded, and
Shamus took her hand to try to comfort her.

"That's the problem, Molly," Dan replied.  "I don't know _what_ to
think.  I know that they both can take care of themselves pretty well,
but, well, they should have been back a week or more ago."  He sighed.
"Look, I'm sorry if I scared you, Molly.  I'm sure that they're okay,
but I surely would like to hear - to see - it for myself."

"You 'n' me both," Shamus said.  "You 'n' me both."

* * * * *

Wednesday, June 19, 1872

"Smoke!" Jessie said, pointing.  "You see it... off to the north up
ahead?"

Paul nodded.  "I see it; a mile or two away, maybe more."  He studied
the plume of smoke, using his left hand to shield his eyes from the
early afternoon sun.

"Smoke ain't moving; must be a building or something, not a grass fire.
Let's go see if they need help."

"They may be _beyond_ help, Jess," he said gently.  "It may be that
Apaches started that fire."

"Are you saying we shouldn't help; that we should turn tail and run?"

"No, I'm saying that we ride in _carefully_; keeping an eye out for...
folks that might not be too happy to see us... except, maybe as
targets."

"I get your point."  Jessie took a moment to check her pistol.  It was
loaded and ready for action in the holster on her gun belt.  Her rifle
was in a saddle holster, and she checked that as well.  She left the
strap on it undone, so she could grab it in a hurry, if need be.

Paul used the same time to make sure of his own weapons.  Satisfied, he
said, "Okay, Jess, let's go looking for trouble."  The irony in his
voice was clear.

* * * * *

Paul and Jessie followed the plume of smoke for almost half an hour.
The fire was very much out by the time they reached the smoldering
ruin, a building that might have been a farmhouse or a barn - or both -
about half-finished, the wood a charred black.

A man was sprawled out in the front yard, with two yard-long Apache
arrows in his body.  He was still holding the shovel he must have been
digging with - a well, it looked like, two or three feet deep -- when
the Apaches had attacked.

"Jess," Paul ordered, his pistol drawn, "stay put and keep watch."  She
nodded and drew her own pistol.  He jumped down from his horse and ran,
crouching low, over to the man with the shovel.  He put three fingers
on the man's throat.  "Dead," he told her, shaking his head.  "Dead...
and cold."

"I'm going in the house," Paul told her.  He moved quickly towards the
house, still staying low, in case anyone _unfriendly_ was waiting
inside.

"Be careful," Jessie called out him, just as he was about to walk
through the opened door.  He stopped for a moment to quickly turn and
smile at her.

The house was empty, a burnt-out shell.  He walked slowly, not certain
how strong the walls still were.  "Anybody here?" he called out, in
case anyone was hiding inside, but too scared to reveal themselves.  No
one answered. Then in the center of the room, he saw a body, a man's
body dead on the floor and badly burned by the fire.  He searched the
rest of the house, finding no sign of anyone else, living or dead.

He and Jessie were alone.

"I see you found somebody else," Jessie said when she saw Paul carrying
the body out of the house.  He set it down as carefully as he could
next to the first body.

The corral was knocked apart.  There was no sign of any livestock.  "If
the horses in the corral had any life in them, the Apaches took 'em as
mounts," Jessie said.

"If not, or if it were mules in the corral, they're headed for the
stewpot," Paul replied.  "Apache actually prefer mule to beef."  He
smiled.  "Lucky for us, Taklishim and his band liked sheep even more."

Paul had taken up the dead man's shovel.  He looked down at the ground
where the man had been working.  "We can't very well leave them out for
the buzzards."  He tossed a load of dirt from the hole.

"While you dig, I'll see 'bout a cross for 'em."

* * * * *

Paul used the iron blade of the shovel as a hammer to pound the crude
wooden cross Jessie had nailed together into the ground at the head of
the double grave.  He'd piled some rocks atop the mound to keep the
predators away from the men's remains.  Once it was in place, he took a
step back and lay the shovel across the grave.  He took his hat in his
hands and nodded for her to start.

"Lord," Jessie bowed her head and began.  "We don't know who these
fellas was, but we figure that You sure as he --... that _You_ do.  I
couldn't tell You what sorta men they was, but I guess You know that,
too.  All they wanted was a chance t'make a home out here.  Give 'em
the benefit of the doubt, please, and let 'em find a home up there with
You in Heaven."  She took a breath and added, "And, if you would, help
Paul 'n' me find our own way home, too, back t'Eerie.  Amen."

"Amen."  Paul put his hat back on and looked down at the grave,
examining Jessie's handiwork.

After she'd nailed the boards together to form the cross, she'd used
her hunting knife to carve on it.

`                       ? and ?
`                          RIP

"Let's get moving," he said, walking over to where his cowpony was tied
to a nearby tree.  "I know there're probably no Apache around, but I'd
just as soon put some distance between here and us.  But before we get
started..."  He reached into a saddlebag and took out a box of
cartridges.  "Jess, take one of these and put it in your shirt pocket."

"Why?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

He put a bullet in his own pocket and returned the box to his
saddlebag.  "These Apaches are _mean_, Jess.  they like to 'play' with
their victims before they kill them, and what they'd do to a woman like
you..."  His face was grim.  "I don't want to even think about it."

"You really think..."

He nodded, still _very_ serious.  "That second man we buried, I'm not
sure he was dead when the fire reached him.  If we get caught by those
Apaches, and it comes down to that last bullet..."  He hesitated for a
moment.  "Use it... use it on... yourself.  You'll save yourself a
whole lot of pain."  He climbed up onto his cowpony.

Jessie shivered, and then she joined him, mounting her own horse.  She
glanced up at the sun.  "How far you figure t'ride before we stop for
the night?"

"To tell the truth... I'm not sure that stopping _anywhere_ tonight
would be a good idea.  I'd rather use the time to get more miles under
us.  We can hold up somewhere and rest some tomorrow."

* * * * *

Thursday, June 20

They rode slowly past a stand of saguaro cacti, some of them almost
fifty feet tall, with multiple arms.  Jessie lagged a bit behind Paul,
staring at the two to three inch long, bright red fruit growing on most
of the plants.  "I wonder if you can eat those things," she said,
thoughtfully.

"I think so," Paul answered, "but I don't know how we'd get them down
off the trees."

"We could try shooting some of 'em loose."

Paul shook his head.  "We really don't have the ammo to spare.
Besides, the sound of gun shots can travel pretty far in open country
like this, and there may be people around that we don't want to tell
we're here."

"I see your point.  They do look good, though."

"We can stop in a while and get some food from Hanna's basket."

Suddenly Paul reined back his horse.  "Get back, Jess," he ordered,
pulling for the horse to move backwards towards the cacti.

"What's the matter?"

He pointed across the valley.  "Look over there; maybe 100 feet down
from the top of that hill."  A band of men on horseback was visible -
barely - against the rocks and tall grass.

"Injuns," she said in a half-whisper.  "Apaches."

"I think so, too.  And the way they're riding, well below the crest of
the hill means that they're trying hard not to be seen."

She gave him a wry smile.  "That sounds like a _real_ good idea.  Maybe
we should try it."

"It also might be a good idea not to stop long enough to _get_ found.
We're close enough to Eerie, I think, to ride straight on through.  No
camping, just staying in one place long enough to rest the horses and
get something to eat."

"It ain't gonna be easy, but it sounds a whole lot better than winding
up like them folks back at the cabin."

* * * * *

Saturday, June 22, 1872

"At last." Jessie muttered, sounding a little breathless, as she and
Paul approached the crude wooden sign that read "Eerie Arizona -
Welcome, Friend."

Paul nodded.  "We're not quite there yet, Jess.  C'mon."

The trail into town widened into a street with buildings on both sides.
The street itself was wide enough for a loaded wagon to turn around. It
was mid-afternoon on a busy Saturday, and the street was full of
people.  A man stepped out of Lyman's tobacco shop.  He leaned against
the building and lit up one of the cigars he must just have purchased.
People, men and women, were going in and coming of the Wells Fargo
bank.  Blackie Easton waved as he left O'Hanlan's Feed and Grain, a bag
of something thrown over his shoulder.

Jessie raised her hand in a vague sort of greeting.  After the long
ride she and Paul were just finishing, it was about all that she had
the strength for.

"Home, sweet home," Jessie sighed, when they reached the Saloon.  They
climbed down from their horses slowly, bracing themselves when their
feet touched the ground.

Paul took the reins from Jessie's hands.  "You go on in.  I'll tie up
the horses."

"Okay."  She stepped up onto the wooden sidewalk and pushed her way
through the Saloon's batwing doors.  "Anybody home?" she called out.

Molly ran out from behind the bar and hurried over to the doors where
the young woman was standing.  "Jessie!  What happened to ye?  I've -
Shamus 'n' I -- have been worried sick."

"Sorry if we worried you, Molly," Paul said, coming into the Saloon and
walking over to Jessie.  He, put his arm around the singer's waist,
pulled her close, and kissed her cheek.  "We were kinda busy."

Jessie giggled at the kiss.  They'd been far too hurried the last few
days for any such displays of affection.  "We surely was that."  Then,
not wanting to give Molly the wrong idea, she added, "And it wasn't all
fun 'n' games, neither."  Her voice grew serious.  "Some of was more
like... life 'n' death."

"Well, ye're back here, safe 'n'sound," Molly said, trying to sound
reassuring.  "And ye've plenty o'time t'be telling us all about what
happened to ye."

A small crowd, the curious patrons of the Saloon, was gathering around
Paul and Jessie.  They all wanted to hear where the pair of them had
been.  Jessie shook her head.  "Right now..."  She tried - and failed -
- to stifle a yawn.  "Right now, all I want t'do is t'crawl into a
_real_ bed and sleep for about twenty years."

"Don't ye want t'be eating something first?" Shamus asked, pushing his
way through the crowd.  "Maggie 'n' Jane're just about ready to open
the restaurant, but I'm sure they can be getting something ready for ye
quick enough."

Paul shook his head.   "Shamus, we've been riding for days and days,
and we are _bone_ tired.  All we want now is bed - and _sleep_."  He
yawned.  "We'll eat _and_ tell everybody what happened later.  Okay?"

"Ye'd better."  Molly could see how close to exhaustion they both were.
"Yuir room's waiting, all clean and ready.  Here's yuir key."  She held
out a large brass key, one that she'd been carrying for several days,
hoping for Jessie and Paul's return.

Jessie took the key and put it - temporarily -- into the pocket of her
jeans.  "Thanks, Molly."  She draped her arm around Paul's shoulders.
"Let's go."

"One last thing," Paul said.  "Shamus, our horses are out front, as
tired as we are.  Can you get somebody to take them over to Ritter's
Livery?  Ask them to brush the horses down and give them something -
something good - to eat."

Shamus nodded.  "Consider it done."  He paused.  "Now ye'd best be
getting upstairs whilst ye've the strength t'do it."

"See you later."  The two of them moved towards the steps.  "See you
all later," Paul called out to no one in particular, as they started up
to the second floor.

Molly watched them climb the steps.  They seemed to be leaning on each
other as they went, going one step at a time.  "Oh.  Lordy, I been
worried sick about them two, imagining all sorts o'terrible things
happening, and now I'm thinking that whatever _did_ happen may've been
even worse than what I was imagining."

"We'll be finding out soon enough, Molly, me Love," Shamus said.

He walked over to where Carl Osbourne was sitting, holding hands with
his new wife, Flora.  "I hate t'be interrupting ye two, but Paul asked
me t'be taking care o'their horses.  Carl, ye know more about such
things than I do, and Paul's horse probably knows ye from yuir working
with Paul out at Slocum's ranch.  Would ye mind doing that for me?"

"I suppose."  He kissed Flora, a short kiss but a meaningful one.  "You
gonna be here when I come back?" he asked in a teasing voice.

She smiled.  "I will if you kiss me like that when you _do_ come back."

"I think I can manage that."  He gave her a peck on the cheek and
started for the door.

* * * * *

The End