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