Jess ran her hands through her long, black hair, thinking about tying
it up for a while to let her neck breathe. It was the time of year when
nights were brisk but the temperature rose quickly with the emergence of
the morning sun. Looked like it would be another hot one today.
She stepped through thick foliage to the edge of the wide pool and
knelt on the grass, dipping a rag into the clear water and applying it
efficiently to her face, torso, and limbs. After her bath, she lay back,
positioning herself where she would receive the sun's rays through
branches of the trees that would conceal her from prying eyes.
Motion registered from the corner of her eye and Jess tensed,
relaxing again when she saw that the moving object was a young woman,
slight of stature, reddish blonde hair resting carelessly on her
shoulders. Jess eyed the woman as she picked her way through the large
boulders, using one hand to balance herself, clutching a basket in the
Only mildly curious about this non-threat, Jess watched through
half-closed eyes as the woman settled herself on one of the flatter
boulders. Her interest level rose sharply a moment later when the woman
reached for the buttons on her frilly blouse. Jess's eyebrow arched, a
habit so natural to her that it almost seemed inborn, and the blue of
her eyes warmed as the woman peeled off the white cloth to reveal
smooth, light skin.
A corner of Jess's mouth turned up as she took in the pleasant
surprise unknowingly being conferred upon on her by the young woman. The
smile broadened as the blonde's long skirt was carefully folded and laid
atop her blouse.
Jess adjusted the angle of her head slightly to obtain the full
benefit of the show. The woman stood still for a moment on the rock, and
with the sun reflecting off her fair hair and skin, she reminded Jess of
the painting of an angel Jess had seen once in church a long time ago. A
very long time ago.
Suddenly, the woman uttered a shrill, joyous shout, and leapt
energetically into the depths of the pool. Jess grinned, teeth bared, as
the blonde beauty frolicked in the water, strong, confident strokes
intermixed with occasional playful bounces and flips.
It was too much. Jess heard the warning voice -- No trouble --
but a woman couldn't be blamed for wanting a closer look. No harm in
Jess drew a corner of the ground cover over her six-shooter, and
slipped into the water. With easy strokes, she meandered in the
direction of the splashing, relying on her hearing to tell her when she
was drawing near. She pressed her lips together, concealing a smile,
when she heard a high-pitched gasp. Jess brought herself upright, and
turned to face the startled swimmer.
"Sorry. Did I scare you?" she purred.
Mattie blinked, her heart pounding wildly. Just a woman, she told
herself, but still a shock. She had been coming to this swimming hole
for years without ever encountering another soul.
Finally, she remembered her manners. "No. Well, yes," she
admitted. "I didn't know anyone else was here."
"Neither did I," Jess said. Her gaze drifted slowly down
the woman's face, to the alabaster swells of skin below. Hands off,
she reminded herself.
Mattie felt herself blushing, for no accountable reason. Why was she
so nervous? "Um . . . I don't believe I know you," she said.
"I'm passing through." The stranger looked at her with
shockingly clear blue eyes. "I'll be staying around Myersville for
Mattie's face lit up. "Really? I teach school here. What brings
you to our town?"
"My horse took a bad fall," Jess said. "She needs to
Mattie's eyes swept across the banks. "Are you by
yourself?" At Jess's nod, the teacher's eyes widened. "Really?
On the road by yourself? Don't you worry?"
Jess smiled. "No."
Not much of a talker, Mattie decided. "I'm Mattie. Mattie
Brunson." She edged forward in the water and awkwardly extended a
Jess answered with her own, smiling slightly at the quaint gesture. Sheltered,
she decided, noting the young woman's careful efforts to keep her eyes
from straying anywhere inappropriate. Jess straightened, bringing more
of her torso into view, and bit back a laugh when the woman
involuntarily lowered her gaze for an instant, her face flushing red.
"Mattie, huh? Is that short for something?"
The schoolteacher nodded, grateful for the distraction. "Martha
America Gabrielle Brunson."
"Quite a mouthful."
Mattie laughed. "Martha for my grandmother, America for-- well,
I guess that's obvious, isn't it?" She rolled her eyes. "And
Gabrielle for too many people to name. There's always been a Gabrielle
in my mother's line, as long as anyone can remember." Mattie
blushed. This woman couldn't possibly care about her family history. Why
was she blathering on like this?
Jess regarded the little schoolteacher with amusement. Candy from
a baby, she thought wistfully. Damn her timing. "I'd better
go," she said, turning away.
"Hey -- what's your name?" Mattie called. But the woman had
ducked under the water, swimming efficiently toward the far bank, and
* * * * *
"We don't want your kind here." Winston's angry voice
carried across the hotel dining room to where the young schoolteacher
and her dinner companion were seated.
Mattie frowned, and tried to concentrate on the greens on her plate.
She hated public confrontations, but she was only human, and after
holding out as long as she could, she joined the other patrons in
turning to gawk at the object of their mayor's wrath.
She froze, her breath catching in her throat, then quickly jerked her
head back around, hoping against hope that the woman hadn't seen her.
It was her. Not the strange but friendly woman she had met at the
pool, but a gunfighter, decked out in a plaid shirt tucked into dark
breeches, belt and holster resting on her right hip. The woman was
leaning back in her chair, her dark boots crossed at the ankles on the
table in front of her, not seeming to care whether her kind was wanted
in Myersville or not.
She stared, unseeing, at the partially uncovered floral design on her
plate, her muscles paralyzed.
She drew her head up to meet Mr. Thacker's concerned gaze. Absently,
she tried to focus on his expensive spectacles and short brown hair,
slicked back where he had removed his hat upon greeting her.
"Mattie, are you all right? You've gone white."
She swallowed, still finding it difficult to breathe. "I'm . . .
I'm just concerned about . . . that." She gestured toward the
"Don't worry. With all of us here, she can't hurt you."
Mattie wasn't worried about that. The woman would not hurt her. No,
Mattie was more worried about her kinsmen's reaction if they learned
that she had conversed with a gunslinger, had been in an intimate
setting with her. Mattie's face went from ashen to maroon, and she
closed her eyes.
She smiled weakly. "All this excitement," she said.
"We know what you did at Medicine Lodge, Chambers,"
Winston's angry discourse resumed.
Chambers? Mattie jumped to her feet, knocking her plate off the
table, all eyes drawn to the sound of shattering porcelain. She swung
her arm back around and caught a drinking glass, sending it too into a
Involuntarily, she glanced toward the corner, and saw the woman's
amused gaze on her. Mattie put a hand over her heart, trying to calm the
pounding in her chest. The hotelkeeper approached their table, and
Mattie reached out a hand apologetically. "I'm sorry, Henry. I
don't know what happened."
He smiled and patted her shoulder. "It's no problem, Miss
Mattie. I'll bring you another setting."
Mattie dropped back into her seat, head bent, as the proprietor went
to retrieve a new dinner service. All eyes were still on her, and she
felt the heat rising to her cheeks. A thought suddenly occurred to her.
She could just leave now. Everyone would think it was from embarrassment
at breaking the dishes. No one would think--
"I wasn't at Medicine Lodge," a calm voice said, steering
the other customers' attention away from the mortified schoolmistress.
The mayor's head swung back around to the dark-haired woman.
"You can't lie your way out of it, Hellrider," he spat.
"Since you seem to know who I am, I would advise you to choose
your words more carefully. The last man who called me a liar has a third
Mattie tensed. The hair on the back of her neck was standing on end.
"I wasn't at Medicine Lodge," the outlaw repeated calmly,
"and if you'll ask your sheriff--" She looked around with
exaggerated curiosity. "Hmm. Where is the sheriff?"
Mattie pressed her lips together. The woman obviously knew the town
did not have its own lawman.
"Marshal Evans is just over at La Junta," Winston replied
angrily. "It's only a day's ride."
"Ask him, then. You'll find no outstanding charges against
me." Jess's lips quirked.
"Because anyone who tries to testify against Jess Chambers ends
Jess shrugged, and took another draught of whiskey. "A mystery
to me." She was growing tired of this familiar dialogue, and her
eyes scanned the room for something to interest her, coming to rest on
the attractive schoolteacher's stiff back.
Mattie held her breath. They had all heard what Hellrider did to
honest citizens who tried to bring her to justice. Three years ago, she
recalled, the people of Locust Grove had refused to release one of Jess
Chambers' men from their jail. Mattie had been chilled to the bone to
hear a survivor describe how the improvised militia stood, shoulder to
shoulder, blocking access to the jail, until they realized with horror
that flames had erupted all around them. They scattered, fighting
through the fire to save their families and possessions, and Chambers
and her band had simply ridden in, killed the few townsmen who remained
at their posts, and reclaimed her man.
The welcoming committee currently standing before Jess Chambers
looked questioningly at each other. Plan A hadn't worked; did anyone
have a Plan B?
"I'll tell you what." Jess unexpectedly broke the silence.
She took another leisurely sip, keeping them in their misery a while
longer. "I'm a reasonable person. My horse needs to heal up, and
then I'll move on. You leave me alone for a fortnight, and I'll leave
Mattie shuddered. The woman's words were not unfriendly on their
face, but the tone of her voice conveyed a clear message: The
townspeople were getting the better end of the bargain.
The delegates conferred for a moment as if they had another option,
and Jess took the opportunity to return her gaze to her acquaintance of
this morning. Their eyes met briefly, and the teacher spun back around.
Jess smiled to herself.
"All right," Winston said. "Two weeks. You leave the
people of this town alone, and we leave you alone. Your word?"
Jess tipped her mug at the spokesman, then drained the rest of her
liquor. Suddenly she leaned forward, the legs of her chair landing on
the ground with a loud thud, and the men jumped back. Jess smirked again
-- did she find everything amusing? Mattie wondered -- and got to her
Mattie felt her heart pounding. This was it. The woman was
approaching the entrance now, and would pass directly by her. Please
don't say anything, she prayed. Please don't.
All heads turned to follow the notorious criminal as she strode
arrogantly toward the door. Against her better judgment, Mattie found
herself looking up and into those striking blue eyes again. In a motion
so quick that Mattie wondered if she had imagined it, the outlaw raised
an eyebrow at her, then passed on through the swinging doors without a
Mattie exhaled slowly, and then her eyes widened. Had Jess Chambers
just said 'hi' to her?
* * * * *
"Well, I'll be damned."
The blonde woman appeared on the rocks at dawn. This time, apparently
aware that she might have an audience, she undressed quickly and slipped
into the cool water without fanfare.
Jess wasn't in the mood for a swim, but she was in the mood for a
certain schoolteacher . . . . A frustrated growl emerged from her
throat. She had to keep her hands off. The last one of her men to break
that rule had paid the price at the end of her whip, and Jess had
learned long ago that a leader couldn't effectively discipline her men
if she didn't live up to the same standards she imposed on them.
She glanced out at the bobbing figure in the water. Still . . . no
harm in a little conversation with a view.
Jess stepped agilely across the rocky terrain until she reached the
boulder across which lay a thin green blanket. Moments later, a wet
blonde head popped out of the water near the bank, a small start the
only sign of surprise at her guest's arrival.
"I'm surprised you came back here," Jess drawled,
"what with a dangerous criminal in the vicinity."
"This is my spot," Mattie said, her words clipped.
"Oh. You were here first, is that it?"
There was no reply, but nervous defiance was written across the
"And I'm not welcome." Jess finished the thought.
The young woman blinked. Apparently she hadn't thought of it like
that. "I guess it's not for me to say," she said finally.
"You do have a gun."
"Yes, I do," Jess said. "Do you think I'd use it on
"I wouldn't know."
Jess propped a foot on the edge of the rock, and rested a hand on her
thigh. "Some would, you know. Some would see you there in the
water, naked, and decide to have their way with you."
Mattie's mouth fell open.
"They might even think you look so scrumptious, they'd go in
there after you."
The color was rising fast, making quick progress past Mattie's throat
to her face. She couldn't believe what this woman was saying to her.
"I don't believe this is a proper subject for ladies to be
discussing," she said.
"Oh, I'm no lady."
Mattie frowned, flustered. "Well, nonetheless, I would prefer to
change the subject."
"Fine," Jess said. "What would you rather talk
That wasn't what she meant. Mattie didn't want to talk about anything
with her. Although she was kind of curious . . . She shook her head.
"Nothing. I just want to bathe, and be on my way."
"Don't you have a bathtub?"
"Of course I do," Mattie said. "But I like to come out
here. It's usually private."
Jess laughed at the not-so-subtle reminder that she was a trespasser.
Neither woman spoke for a moment, and suddenly Mattie realized that she
was staring. Pursing her lips primly, she ducked under the water again
to put some distance between her and the stranger. Jess sat on the
boulder and leaned back, fingers laced around a bent knee, following the
moving figure with her eyes, taking in occasional glimpses of light skin
breaking through the surface.
After sufficient time to give the impression that she was not
interested in an outlaw's company, the swimmer surfaced again near the
bank. Treading water a few yards from the bank, she glanced uncertainly
at her clothing.
"Do you want me to turn around?" Jess asked.
Mattie studied the woman for signs that she was being mocked.
"Yes, thank you," she finally replied.
Jess swung away from her, and Mattie glanced at the other woman's
back as she climbed out of the water and reached down for a towel,
feeling a little guilty. "It's not that . . . I just don't know
you, that's all."
Mattie jerked her head around. She couldn't see the other woman's
face, but she could swear she was laughing at her.
"OK." Mattie was dressed now.
Jess swiveled around again. "You're a good swimmer."
Mattie's eyes narrowed, but there didn't appear to be any malice in
the woman's expression. "Thank you. I like to swim."
"Is that what you do for fun around here?"
"There are a lot of things to do for fun around here,"
Mattie said defensively.
Jess raised her hands. "Hey, just wondering what you like to do,
Mattie just knew she was being made fun of, but she couldn't prove
it. Finally, she said reluctantly, "I like to read."
"Oh." Jess nodded.
"Do you like to read?"
The gunfighter's lips quirked in that maddening expression that
Mattie was becoming all too familiar with. "Yeah," she
whispered, leaning toward Mattie with a serious expression. "Wanted
Mattie rose stiffly, her jaw set, and began gathering her things
Jess opened her mouth, then shut it again abruptly when she realized
she was about to apologize. She jumped to her feet, and before Mattie
had even finished folding her blanket, she was gone.
* * * * *
The tall stranger ambled down wide town roads, rolling her tongue
around the inside of her cheek. She was bored. Certifiably,
mind-numbingly bored. She had amused herself for a while menacing
assorted townfolk with her eyebrow, occasionally throwing in a curled
lip, but now she was restless again.
The town posed no challenge to her. Mild-mannered, terrorized by the
mere presence of a gunfighter in their midst, loose-tongued to a fault,
the citizens of Myersville offered very little entertainment value.
Personality had seemingly been sacrificed in the town's rather
impressive accumulation of wealth in recent years. This region had been
safely insulated during the late War, Jess knew, and its prosperity had
not suffered the ill effects which still lingered in other parts of the
A fortnight in Myersville was beginning to seem like a very long
time. From what Jess had seen, she suspected that she had already met
most of its less pathetic residents. Suddenly she halted her stride,
recognizing a voice through the window of a plain wooden structure.
Checking to make sure she would not be observed, Jess slipped behind the
"Ben? Can you read it for us?"
The light tone was followed by a hesitant male voice. "He . . .
handed . . . her . . . the . . . booket . . . ."
"It's bouquet." Jess listened to the schoolteacher's
soothing words. "It's a French word. Do you remember when we talked
Silence; Jess pictured eager little heads bobbing up and down.
"They don't pronounce the 't.' Sometimes words have letters in
them that we don't pronounce."
"How do we know if they're supposed to be pronounced or
Sounded like a fair question to Jess.
"Well, we'll learn some rules that will help. But sometimes you
can't, and you just have to learn them. You'll start to recognize some
of them." The instructor's voice was sweetly reassuring. "Go
"He handed her the . . . bouquet . . . of . . . flowers."
"That's very good."
Jess peered around the window frame.
"Alice, why don't you--" Startled green eyes met hers.
After a moment, the schoolteacher continued haltingly, "work on
writing out the words. I'll be right back."
Jess retreated from the window and leaned back against the wall.
Quick footsteps crunched toward her, and a hot-tempered blonde soon
rounded the corner, hands at her sides.
"What are you doing here?"
"I thought I might learn something," Jess replied.
"You agreed to leave the people of this town alone. I heard
A mask fell over the dark woman's features. "What's your
"Stay away from my children."
"Don't worry," Jess said coldly, "I'm not interested
in hanging around with children." She strode purposefully away.
* * * * *
Mattie put her clothing back on and looked around, then picked up her
basket and headed into the thicket to the east of her swimming hole. She
tramped through the dense undergrowth, her head moving from side to
After a few minutes, she heard a noise, and whirled around to see
Jess Chambers standing behind her.
"Are you lost?"
"No. I . . . ." Mattie hesitated. "I wanted to say
that I'm sorry."
"Save it. I couldn't care less what you think of me."
"Well, I care."
"Don't bother. You know my reputation."
"Yes, I do," Mattie said. "I also know that it's not
"Most of it is."
"Well, it doesn't matter." Mattie reached into the basket
and pulled out a small cake, thrusting it at Jess. "I brought you
this," she said, then turned and made her way back to the rocks and
up the worn path that led to town.
Jess stared after her, glancing curiously at the soft pastry in her
hand. She brought it to her lips and took a generous bite, her eyes
returning to the teacher's retreating back.
Tasty indeed, she mused.
* * * * *
Mattie ran her hands through her damp hair, wringing out the excess
water. Her gaze swept casually to her left, then her right, then-- There
she was, off a ways, dark hair periodically emerging from beneath the
surface of the water. Too far away to speak to, but that was fine.
Mattie didn't want to talk to her or anything; she had only vaguely
wondered if she was around.
She watched for a few more minutes, but the outlaw stayed off in the
distance. Finally, Mattie glanced up at the sun with a frown; she needed
to get going or she'd be late. She cast one more indifferent glance
toward the other woman, who didn't seem to have noticed her, and crawled
out of the water.
* * * * *
"And now, the first prize." Henry held up his hands.
"Donated by yours truly." He grinned, waiting until the
friendly jeers died down, and announced the trophy: "A private
dinner with our own Miss Mattie Brunson."
An excited masculine buzz passed through the crowd. Tradition had
told them it would be an eligible female in town, but not the
"So, Alice, let's see who our lucky bidder is." The master
of ceremonies and his helper fished through the secret bids box.
"Here's a five dollar," he said, waving a bid. Suddenly, the
girl squeaked, and handed something up to her father. "Good
lord," Henry boomed. "We have a bid here for twenty
Mattie's mouth fell open, and she gaped at the bid. Well, not really
a bid - just a twenty dollar gold piece taped to the slip of paper. It
had to be Mr. Thacker. She smiled uncertainly. Twenty dollars. He would
be expecting more personal attention from her now.
"For God's sake," Henry muttered. "The nerve . . .
"What's wrong?" Mattie whispered.
"Nevermind. The bid is invalid," he said.
Mattie grabbed his arm. "Wait! That's twenty dollars!"
"Blood money," he growled, handing her the piece of paper.
She peered down at it, and her eyes widened. Something that arguably
read "Chambers" was scrawled across the back.
The teacher lowered her gaze, her thoughts scrambled. The school
needed that money, but . . . .
"We'll not take blood money," Henry reiterated.
Mattie's eyes roamed distractedly through the crowd, unexpectedly
landing on the source of their dilemma, who seemed to have appeared from
nowhere near the back of the room, her eyes meeting the teacher's in a
"I'll tell her," Mattie said impulsively. She grabbed the
bid from the startled hotelkeeper, and made her way through the
assembly. "I'm sorry. We can't accept this," she said,
tendering the paper to the infamous bidder.
"And why is that?" Jess paused to direct a general glare at
nearby onlookers, who hastily backed out of listening range, then turned
her attention back to the schoolteacher.
"It's . . . ." Mattie licked her lips. "You're . . . .
Didn't you steal this?"
Jess laughed. "Yeah." She tapped a finger thoughtfully
against her chin. "I don't remember if it was from the convent or
the orphanage, though."
Mattie clamped her lips together. "I'm glad you find it so
amusing." She pivoted and started away.
Mattie turned back around. "Excuse me?"
"I didn't steal it," Jess said. "I sold some
"Really?" Jess arched an eyebrow, and Mattie grimaced.
"Sorry. I just assumed . . . ."
"I know what you assumed." Jess leaned toward her.
"And you'd usually be right."
Torn, Mattie chewed on her lip for a moment, then turned and headed
back up to the platform.
* * * * *
Jess hid a smile. Quite a romantic dinner: Just the luscious young
schoolmistress, Hellrider, and a dozen hostile locals lined up along the
bar, not bothering to stare anywhere but at the twosome seated in the
center of the room. Miss Mattie's royal guard.
"The damage from the storm was quite extensive," the
teacher was saying. Mattie glanced up, but it was apparent that the
dark-haired woman wasn't listening. Mattie stared down at her plate. And
why should she? Mattie had nothing to say that would be of interest to
this woman. She began to rearrange the noodles on her plate into the
shape of the American flag.
"Practically took the roof off, I hear."
Mattie looked up at her.
"And the head of the little schoolmarm who went out in it to
look for her student's dog."
"How do you know about that?"
"You hear a lot of things if you're in the right place at the
right time," Jess said, ". . . . like what the secret prize in
the school raffle is." She smirked at the blonde woman's surprised
expression. Had she really thought that Jess Chambers gave a damn about
a new roof for the school? "And why it was considered such a
prize," she continued.
Mattie shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her instincts telling her
she should change the subject, but she was temporarily at a loss for
words again. It only happened to her around this woman, she had noticed.
"Seems the pretty schoolteacher doesn't get out much. She's
friendly enough, and everyone loves her, but she keeps to herself of an
evening." Jess could sense the heat rising in the young woman's
cheeks, but whether from anger or embarrassment she wasn't sure.
"Miss Mattie won't come out and play."
"You don't know me," Mattie said through her teeth, staring
down at her plate.
Jess drew back, surprised at the vehement response to a little
teasing. A sore spot, huh? Well, she never could resist one of those.
"Oh, I think I do." She waited until the other woman raised
her eyes. "You've lived here most of your life, but you want
something more, something exciting. You read books about other people,
and other places, and you wonder if you'll ever--"
"That's enough," Mattie interrupted, outrage overriding her
fear. "You are--" She couldn't articulate her thoughts.
"If you were a man, I'd slap your face."
"If I were a man, my boots would be under your bed
Mattie stared at her in disbelief, then rose and threw down her
napkin. A couple of men lowered themselves from their barstools.
Something was happening.
"I will not be subjected to that kind of language," she
"No." Mattie started from the table, but a strong hand
reached out and grabbed her forearm.
From the corner of her eye, Jess could see that all of the men were
on their feet now, but she wasn't concerned about them at the moment.
She may have gone too far in tormenting the young schoolteacher. "I
haven't gotten my twenty dollars' worth," she said.
Mattie glared silently down at the offending hand, and Jess loosened
"I'd think a double eagle should buy me an entire meal."
Still no reply, and Jess released her arm. "All right; I'm
Mattie blinked, then slowly lowered herself back into her seat,
staring at the woman across the table. "What do you want with
me?" she asked quietly.
"The same thing you want: A break from the boredom until I clear
out of here. Nothing more." The women continued to stare at each
other until the standoff was interrupted by the sudden appearance of
Henry, ostensibly to take their dessert order.
It was almost amusing, Jess thought; the hotelkeeper's creative use
of facial muscles, alternating between an affectionate smile for the
town's beloved schoolmistress and something just shy of a snarl for the
Lucifer reincarnate whose every breath tarnished the saint.
"Thank you, Henry." Mattie handed the unread menu back to
him with a smile. "I'll have the usual." A bright smile from
"What's your usual?" Snarl.
"Rhubarb pie." Another smile.
Well, since old Henry was going to have to come up with another snarl
anyway . . . . "What the hell is that?"
Mattie gawked at her. "You're kidding."
"No, I'm not," Jess said. "It sounds disgusting."
Mattie reached out excitedly to Jess's hand. "You've got to try
it. It's a little tangy, but . . . ." She stuck out her tongue at
the gunfighter. "That shouldn't bother you."
Neither Henry nor Jess could quite believe what they had just seen.
Jess lowered her gaze to the menu, then quickly slapped it into Henry's
hand. "Give me some cherry pie."
"We don't serve that. You mean apple pie?"
Mattie rolled her eyes -- "Boring!" -- and Jess gaped at
her. Somehow she had lost control of this encounter.
Henry was back with amazing speed, tendering the desserts to his
customers with varying degrees of pleasure. Mattie dug in
enthusiastically, closing her eyes as her tongue licked stray filling
from her lips. Watching the young woman enjoy her dessert, Jess felt her
temperature rising, and hurriedly took a bite of her own pie. Suddenly
she felt a hand on her arm, and looked up to see a fork floating through
the air toward her, a bit of . . . stuff . . . on the end of it.
"Try just one bite." For God's sake; she wasn't going to be
fed like a baby in front of half the town. Jess started to shake her
head, but found herself looking into sparkling green eyes. It was
amazing; this woman had simply put their argument behind her, no
resentments, no conditions. Unthinkingly, Jess opened her mouth and
accepted the offering.
"Whoa!" She chuckled. "That's got a bite to it."
Mattie grinned. "Told you." She sank the fork back into her
pie, and had another nibble. "That's why I like it."
* * * * *
Smooth waves were sliced into the water's surface as a long, muscular
body swam toward her.
"Hi!" Mattie waved as Jess drew near.
Mattie lowered her head; why couldn't she get this stupid grin off
her face? After a minute, she looked up again. "I'm glad
you--" But the other woman had disappeared, only to emerge a few
seconds later, water dripping down the side of her face. Jess ran a hand
through her hair, molding the wet mass back against her scalp.
Mattie smiled again. My God, this woman was beautiful. She wished--
"Do you have any sisters?" she blurted.
Mattie studied her, trying to determine if it was a "No, and I
don't really want to talk," or a "No, and I'm not very good at
making conversation." It was the latter, she decided.
"Do you have any brothers?"
Another pause, then, "Do you have parents? Alive, I mean."
"And . . .?"
Jess raised her eyebrows.
"Annnd . . .?" Mattie repeated. Good grief.
"What's her name? Where does she live? Do you ever see her?"
Jess glanced at the far bank, calculating how fast she could swim
over there. Oh, hell; after last night, she probably owed the kid
something. "Her name's Emma, and she lives in Texas," she
said. "I don't see her very often. She's not exactly bursting with
motherly pride these days."
"Oh." Mattie winced. "So, what does your brother
"He's a U. S. Marshal. I believe he spends a lot of time trying
to hang me."
"Uhh . . . ." Mattie caught her lower lip between her
teeth. This wasn't going very well.
Jess ran her tongue around the inside of her cheek. She really ought
to lighten up, but this was too much fun.
"My, uh, parents moved to Lamar to live with my sister and her
family," Mattie stammered, as if Jess Chambers had one iota of
interest in Brunson family doings, but she couldn't seem to find any
"Why didn't you go with them?"
"My duties were here."
"Lamar's a good sized town. You could have found a position
there," Jess persisted, sensing she was on the verge of something
"Well, um, I couldn't be sure."
"And you wanted to be on your own," Jess said offhandedly.
Mattie nodded, then froze.
Jess kept her face carefully expressionless. Thought so. She
raised herself onto the rocky bank and offered Mattie a hand, and for
the next while the two women lay quietly on the blanket while the sun
dried their skin.
"I had a good time at dinner last night," Mattie said.
A moment later, Mattie chuckled, and Jess moved her head lazily.
"What's so funny?"
"Well . . . ." Mattie laughed again. "When I saw that
twenty dollars, I thought it was from Mr. Thacker."
Mattie grinned. "I was really almost . . . well, almost kind of
glad it was you." She blushed. Even with her eyes closed, she could
sense the other woman waiting for elaboration. "Mr. Thacker has
been very generous with the school," she said, "and when he's
in town, I . . . he often asks me for dinner."
"And how often is that?" Jess asked.
"He comes in from Syracuse every Tuesday."
"Every Tuesday, huh? Wonder what brings him here so often."
"Um . . . well, this is just his first stop. He catches the
stage here for Elkhart, and makes stops at the towns in between. So it's
not like he's just coming here or anything."
"Not like he's coming here to get his hands on his sweetheart or
"I'm not his sweetheart!" Mattie exclaimed. "And he
doesn't get his hands on me. Mr. Thacker is a gentleman." She
paused, then added softly, "for the most part."
Jess rolled over onto her side. "Has he done anything . .
"No, no, not really." Mattie scrunched up her face.
"Let's just say that a twenty dollar donation would have been
awkward for me."
Jess inhaled slowly, surprised at the irritation she was
experiencing. What did she care if someone was trying to exploit the
little teacher's dedication in order to get into her bed? Jess had more
important things to concern herself with. She took another deep breath.
"You weren't worried that I'd try to get my hands on you?"
she asked, taking advantage of Mattie's closed eyes to conduct a
lingering study of the young woman's body.
Mattie laughed, then sighed contentedly. She couldn't remember the
last time she had enjoyed herself so much.
* * * * *
Jess glanced up again from her gun, but it was just some furry
creature scuttling down the path. "You're lucky," she told it.
She had just spent the past hour perched on the flat boulder, cleaning
the weapon until it glistened as though it had never been fired. Jess
grinned at that notion, then glided the rag over the barrel again, in
case any stray residue had landed on it in the last few seconds.
She was glad the little teacher hadn't shown up today. She had
started to become a distraction, a waste of Jess's time and energy. Last
night, Jess had dreamed of reddish gold hair spread out on a soft
blanket, a fiery body writhing under hers . . . .
Jess ran a hand through her dark mane, feeling the sun's rays deep
within it. Where was she, anyway? Decided she'd spent enough time with
the criminal element, probably.
Suddenly she heard the loud chime of a bell, followed by another, and
Jess smiled as the echoes faded. Of course. Church. Miss Mattie Brunson
was sitting on a pew somewhere, trussed up in some frilly white smock to
reflect the purity of her soul. And body, Jess speculated.
She sat a while longer, tapping her fingers absently on her thigh,
idly scanning the wooded area. Floor-length or knee-length? she
wondered, picturing the fair-skinned teacher in an assortment of prissy
frocks. Jess could always sneak up behind the church for a look, if she
cared enough. Which she didn't.
Jess ran the rag over the gun handle again. A few minutes later, she
got to her feet, replacing the weapon in its holster, and wandered
* * * * *
"Tell me you're joking." The schoolmistress's distressed
voice rose to an unusually high pitch. "Louise . . . ."
"I'm sorry, honey." A pleasingly plump woman, her
shoulder-length dark hair peppered with gray, pointed at the cast
covering the lower half of her leg. "I can't even walk on it."
Mattie ground her teeth. Things had gone from bad to worse today. She
took a deep breath, well aware that she was feeling a bit testy, had
been ever since the Johnsons had brought over their children for tending
last night. Of course, Mattie didn't mind helping out, especially with
Rachel Johnson under the weather, but she had found it rather annoying
that she couldn't go for her bath the second morning in a row.
"Well, we'll just have to reschedule," she said calmly.
"You can take us, Miss Mattie," a little voice squeaked.
"You know what to do, don't you?"
"You said everyone should know how."
"Yes, I did." A pause. "Of course I know what to do.
It's just that Louise here is better at it. We can wait a couple of
Louise shook her head.
She nodded, and Mattie's shoulders sagged.
"It'll be winter by then, Miss Mattie. We want to go!"
Mattie closed her eyes. "OK." She grabbed her friend and
started to pull her away from the children, but the other woman lost her
balance, nearly taking them both to the ground. "OK, get into your
groups," Mattie instructed over her shoulder. "Let's see who
can write out today's spelling words the fastest." Enthusiastic
students poured over to the blackboard, and the teacher leaned into her
friend. "Louise, by Thursday night, you're going to teach me
everything you know about surviving in the woods."
"Sure, honey. I'll try to stop by tomorrow evening."
"Good. You--Oh, wait, I can't tomorrow," Mattie said.
"Why not? Oh!" Louise laid a hand on her cheek. "My
word, how could I forget?"
"It's not funny, Louise."
"No, it's not, Mattie. An opportunity of a lifetime is
presenting itself to you, and you're just letting it blow by."
"Louise." Mattie was in teacher-mode now, trying to explain
something for the fifth time to an uncomprehending pupil. "If this
were the opportunity of a lifetime, I would jump at it. But it's
"Then what the hell is?"
"Louise!" Mattie peeked over at the busily scribbling
children to see if they had overheard the epithet. "I don't know.
But I know this isn't it." She held up a hand to forestall whatever
her friend was going to say next. "I don't want to talk about it
any more. Just tell me you'll be over to show me some stuff by
"You know, if you had just come along with Abijah and me one of
those times we asked, you wouldn't--"
Mattie's eyes narrowed.
Outside the building, a tall figure leaned against the wall, braced
on one knee. Jess smiled, then moved quietly away as she heard the words
which signalled an end to the school day.
* * * * *
Mattie poured another cup of tea for her guests. "No, no, I'm
always glad for the company. I'd probably just be reading or something
if you hadn't stopped by." She started to sit down, then snapped
her fingers. "Oh, Henrietta, I forgot. You wanted to see that cross
stitching. Just a minute."
She walked down the hallway and opened her bedroom door, then slammed
it shut again.
"You know, I just remembered I'm exhausted. Can't keep my eyes
open." She urged her guests to their feet and ushered them toward
the door. "Goodnight."
Waggling her fingers at the befuddled visitors, Mattie shut the door
firmly behind them and leaned against it for a moment. Steeling herself,
she returned to the bedroom door and yanked it open. Yes, there she was,
lying on the bed as if she owned the place, her legs crossed at the
"Excuse me," Mattie said calmly. "May I ask what
you're doing here?"
In a languid motion, Jess raised herself off the bed and reached for
a stuffed saddle bag. "Have you ever built a fire?"
"Have you ever built a fire?"
Mattie squirmed. "Well, not personally."
"I can show you how."
Jess shrugged. "Just thought you might want to know."
"Well, actually--" Mattie's brow furrowed. "How did--
Have you been spying on me?"
The smile left Jess's face. "You think a lot of yourself,"
she said. "Why would I waste my time spying on a small town nothing
Mattie turned her head, feeling as though she had been struck.
Jess frowned. "Look, you didn't come for your bath yesterday or
today. I just came to see if--" Oh, hell, that sounded even worse
than the truth, which was that she was spying on her. Jess closed
the drawstring on the bag and turned toward the window. "Forget it.
I'm just bored out of my skull in this one-horse town."
"Wait!" Mattie reached out to her. "I'm sorry. It's
just that I've never met anyone like you." She ran a hand through
her hair. "I mean, after years of people telling you not to trust
"Don't," Jess interrupted.
"Don't trust me, Mattie. You'll get hurt. I'm not who you think
Mattie studied her. Jess didn't mean it. She wouldn't have come to
check on her if she didn't care at least a little. "OK. I won't
trust you," she said. "But I've got a big problem on Friday if
I don't learn some things about surviving in the woods." She smiled
hopefully. "I'd really appreciate it."
Jess reached for her saddle bag, and glanced at her pupil. "It
would make more sense to go outside."
Mattie marched to her dresser and bent to pull out a drawer.
"Fine by me." She drew out a thick blanket and started to
close the drawer, but a quick hand darted in and plucked something out.
Oh, God. Mattie swallowed. "Nothing."
Jess reached further back into the drawer and pulled out a stack of
thick booklets. "Wellll, Miss Mattie Brunson."
This would be a good time to take me, God.
"I do believe I'm holding a fine collection of what a fancy
schoolteacher would call dime store rags."
The blonde woman plopped down on the bed, three fingers pressed to
her heated forehead.
"You know, some of these drawings don't do us justice."
Jess grinned at her joke, peering at the cover of a booklet in her hand.
"Is that supposed to be blood?"
Mattie had never fainted before, but she was pretty sure this was it.
"Don't recognize him . . .," Jess remarked absently,
tossing a booklet over her shoulder, not entirely oblivious to the
effect she was having on the young schoolteacher. "I think I killed
him . . .," she continued. "Hey!" She held out a
pamphlet. "Is this about me?"
Mattie looked up at it, and closed her eyes in resignation.
"Well, what does it say?" She shifted her gaze in time to
catch the other woman's expression as Jess threw the pamphlet onto the
bedspread with the others. Mattie's eyes widened. "Oh. I'm sorry,
Jess; I didn't realize."
"Forget it." Jess lay her body across the bed, crossing her
ankles. "I can tell a silver dollar from a double eagle, and I can
sign my name to a ransom note. That's all I need to know."
Mattie reached over and picked up the book. "It is about you.
It's called Hellrider at Harper's Town." She flipped through the
pages, then threw the book disgustedly on the floor. "But this
"It probably is. Let me guess: I killed twenty men for getting
dust on my boot." Jess stretched her muscles, the extension of her
arms and legs making the rangy body seem impossibly longer. "And
probably did it without reloading my six-shooter."
Mattie frowned. "No, you robbed the bank and took the teller
Jess rolled her eyes. "Never happened." She winked at
Mattie. "Not at Harper's Town, anyway."
Mattie pursed her lips, torn between giving a disapproving look and
smiling at the joke.
"So, did I kill him?"
"Oh. Actually, it's not a him," Mattie said. "It's a
her. And no, you didn't. You did kill a man who sought to force his
attentions on her, though."
"Why? He wouldn't pay?"
Mattie stared at her. "No . . . ."
"Or did I have evil plans for the maiden myself?" Jess
leered exaggeratedly at the woman sitting beside her on the bed.
Mattie blushed. "Well, no, I mean, there's nothing like that
"Oh. Left out the part where I had my way with her in the barn,
Mattie's mouth opened.
Jess leaned toward her. "Twice," she whispered.
The teacher's jaw was working, but no sounds were emerging. Jess
finally took pity on her, and picked up one of the books. "This
stuff is pure garbage, Mattie. Most of it's made up, and the parts that
aren't are so distorted that I probably wouldn't even recognize things I
"Well, it's just supposed to be entertainment," Mattie
replied defensively, stacking the books up to redeposit them in their
"Oh, yeah. It's real entertaining when every lowlife from here
to the Mississippi wants to blow your head off because they've read
about your itchy trigger finger in one of these rags."
"It's not because of these," Mattie said. "You were a
. . . famous person before these were written."
Jess nodded. "Yeah, but I wouldn't have someone calling me out
every other day if these things hadn't built me up into some kind of
superhuman." She sat up. "Come on. Let's go build a
* * * * *
"Is this what it's like for you? I mean, is this how you
Jess shrugged. "Sometimes."
"It's kind of fun," Mattie said.
"Is there someone you travel with?"
Once again, Mattie found herself in the familiar position of waiting
for elaboration that wasn't forthcoming. "Um . . . anyone in
"Do you ever get lonely?"
Mattie grunted. "Gee, let me get a word in, will you?"
Mattie met her companion's eyes, looking for insult, but finding a
warm gaze instead. She grinned at Jess, who looked a lot more like a
woman tonight than a cold-blooded killer.
"What made you start killing?" The words were out before
Mattie even realized it. It was too late now; it would be even more
awkward to try to withdraw them.
Jess pointed toward the fire.
"What? Oh. Got it." Mattie scooted over and moved a
containment rock back into place, then leaned back on her calves and
"You want the whole story?" Jess asked.
Mattie nodded. Was she kidding?
"We lived on a farm, and one day we went into town for
supplies." Jess inspected the cylinder of her gun. "Wilburn
Johnson's gang rode into town to rob it. He killed my father and some of
the others who were stupid enough to resist." She examined each
chamber closely, her inflection as flat as if she were exchanging a
recipe. "One of Johnson's men found us in the livery and attacked
my mother. I pulled his gun out of his holster and blew his head
Mattie stared at her. "And then . . .?"
"And then I went after Johnson." Jess smiled humorlessly.
"My brother and I didn't see eye to eye on how to handle the
situation. My way was a lot faster."
"And then . . .?"
Jess glanced at her, warning the teacher not to push too far. But she
wasn't there yet, Mattie sensed, and she waited.
"And then, after I'd put a barrel in Johnson's ear --" Jess
looked pointedly at the younger woman -- "I found myself on the
wrong side of his men, and I used the money to hide out for a
while." She shrugged. "And then I needed a little more . .
." She grinned. "I finally convinced his men they'd be better
off working for me than competing with me."
"You don't need any more money now, do you?"
"No. Now I do it because I like it."
"It gets my juices going."
The frown deepened.
"You don't like to hear the truth, Mattie, but that's it."
"I'm sorry; I just don't think you're . . . ."
"What, evil? Yes, I am, Mattie. Remember that."
"Why would you be here" -- Mattie swept her hands across
the campsite -- "with me, helping me, if you're such a rotten
"Because I'm bored, and I find you amusing." Jess held out
her palm. "Interesting," she amended.
"Oh, right," Mattie said. "Is it because of the
fascinating life I've led, or the constant danger and excitement I face?
I mean, one day I did stub my toe *twice*."
Jess laughed. "I'm not sure which," she said. "So, you
don't come out in the woods much?" she asked, changing the subject.
Mattie shook her head, and picked up a small stick to pitch into the
fire. "No. Most nights I prefer to read, or write."
Another twig landed on the flames. "Oh, stories, poems, songs. I
wrote a hymn once."
"Let's hear it."
Mattie looked up. "Hear what?"
"The hymn," Jess replied. "Or a story, poem, song,
whatever. You choose."
"I'd rather not."
"Come on." Jess raised an eyebrow in encouragement.
"Look, you said not to trust you. I don't trust you not to make
fun of something that's important to me, all right?"
Jess turned her attention to her gun again, but there was really
nothing more she could do with it. She reached into her boot and drew
out a knife, examining it in the firelight. "I said not to trust
me," she said quietly, "and I meant it, but I'm not making fun
of you. I'd like to hear something you wrote."
Mattie swallowed, and wiped her hands on her cotton skirt. After a
moment, she nervously recited a short poem she had written a few weeks
ago about the changing of summer to autumn.
"I liked that," Jess said. "Tell me another one."
Mattie smiled, and the fire burned low to the sound of her soothing
* * * * *
Mattie rolled over and stretched luxuriously, then opened her eyes.
"Oh, Lord!" The sun was a quarter of its way up the sky.
She jumped up, still half asleep, and reached for her blanket.
"Damn! What's the matter with this!" The blanket wouldn't
Jess jerked awake, even more surprised than the teacher at the
lateness of the hour. She looked over to see her panicked campmate
standing on her blanket, trying unsuccessfully to pull it out from under
her own feet. She climbed out of her bedroll and circled Mattie's waist
with her arm, lifting her off the ground and yanking the blanket up at
the same time.
"Oh. Thanks." Mattie leaned against Jess's shoulder for a
moment, until she realized what she was doing. "I overslept,"
"Yeah, me too. Sorry."
"Hey, it's not your fault. I knew better than to stay up so
late. I'm not always the easiest person to wake in the morning."
Mattie rolled up her blanket and smoothed her skirt. "How does my
"Like you spent the night in the woods with a wanton
"I was afraid of that." Mattie rose up on her tiptoes and
kissed the taller woman on the cheek. "Thanks. I'll see you
Jess stared after her, her fingers absently touching the side of her
* * * * *
Mattie crept silently toward her house. Only a few more steps . . . .
Oh, yes, great. The mayor. Three kids, second and third rows.
"Mattie--" Winston stopped short. "Well, good Lord,
girl, you look a fright. Where've you been?"
"I spent the night in the woods with a wanton criminal."
He chuckled. "Right, darlin'. Gettin' a little practice in for
your big campout, I take it."
"Yes, as a matter of fact." That big-mouthed Louise . . . .
"Well, you oughta tell someone before you run off in the woods
by yourself, girl. We were pretty worried when you didn't show up for
school this morning."
Mattie reached out to touch his arm. "I'm sorry, Winston. I
"Well, that's all right. The kids don't mind a day off once in a
while." He winked broadly at her. "And it'll give you more
time to get ready for the big event."
"The big event?"
"A certain gentleman who, rumor has it, might be arriving this
afternoon with a certain item from a jeweler in New York City."
Mattie gritted her teeth. Louise . . . .
An hour later, the schoolteacher selected a volume from one of the
stacked shelves in her parlor and lay back on the comfortable couch. An
unexpected day off. This wasn't so bad. It reminded her of lying in the
sun with Jess a few days ago, and she smiled.
Mattie opened the book and looked at the illustration inside the
What did Jess do all day, anyway?
She shrugged, and returned her attention to the book in her hands. A
new romance, ordered from a dealer in Chicago with some of the money she
had made from selling her story last spring. Mattie frowned, and crisply
flipped over the title page, bringing her eyes down to the opening
Would Jess be out at the pool today?
She turned her attention back to the page. After a few minutes, she
set the book down and slipped into her walking shoes.
* * * * *
Mattie glanced into the trees to her right. They had been following
her since she left the town limits. She had noticed them almost
immediately, which had kept her on the main road instead of the short
cut to the swimming hole where she had hoped to run into her new friend.
She heard a slight rustle and glanced over again, a corner of her
mouth turned up. She jerked her head around, her hands at her sides.
"Is someone out there?" she shouted.
Delighted giggles from the surrounding woods conveniently failed to
reach the schoolteacher's ears, and she resumed her leisurely jaunt.
Through the fork of a tree, a pair of bright blue eyes tracked
Mattie's progress. Jess grinned. The schoolmistress had apparently gone
for a stroll, and was being 'stalked' by three young boys. Jess caught
another brief flash of red, brown, and, further over to the left, rather
bright yellow. Great camouflage.
Jess smiled again at the schoolteacher, who was making a great show
of demanding to know the source of the noise, affecting a sufficiently
perplexed expression to keep the boys snickering happily.
Mattie rounded a bend in the road, walking backward so that she could
peer conspicuously into the trees, and suddenly bumped into something.
Startled, she turned around to discover three decidedly more
intimidating males in the road ahead of her.
"I'm sorry." She started to walk around them, only to find
her path blocked. "Excuse me," she tried again, her mind alert
enough to pray that the boys would remain still.
"What are you doing out here on your own, sweet thing?"
"I went for a walk, but I'm late for a town meeting now,"
Mattie said. "My brother will be looking for me."
"Uh huh." The oldest of the men, not much taller than Mr.
Thacker but possessing an amazingly thick neck, ran his eyes down her
body. "Well, if you're already late, another little while won't
matter, will it?"
Mattie stepped back. "My brother will be . . . ." She gave
it up; it was obvious they didn't believe her. "Please let me
pass," she said quietly.
"Now, that wouldn't be much fun, would it?" The dark
sideburns trailing nearly the length of the man's face shifted with his
Would the boys know to run for town? Mattie hoped so. She took a deep
breath, then suddenly hitched up her skirt and bolted, running as fast
as she could the other way.
The quickest of her attackers tackled her a dozen yards down the dirt
road. He turned her over onto her back and clamped his hand around her
neck, waiting for his colleagues to close in on them.
"Let's get her off the road. Keep her quiet."
Mattie didn't know who had said it; she was busy kicking and
scratching and biting with every ounce of energy she possessed.
Suddenly, the hand left her throat as the first man's weight was lifted
from her, and Mattie saw his head jerk back sharply, Jess's fist
connecting solidly with his jaw. With such amazing speed that it seemed
almost a single motion, Jess backhanded another of her attackers and
swung an elbow viciously into the forehead of the third, then turned her
attention back to the man who had thrown Mattie to the ground and mauled
She yanked him to his feet by the front of his shirt, his mouth open
in obvious terror but unable to form any words. Without warning, Jess
backhanded him across the face, blood spurting from a cut lip, and
brought her knee up hard between his legs. As he started to fall, Jess
reached out and caught his throat, squeezing her fingers together, her
face an inch from his. "I ought to cut your heart out," she
Mattie stared, entranced, at the scene. The man appeared to be losing
consciousness, but Jess was still choking him. Finally, Jess closed her
eyes, and took a deep breath. Her lip curled with the effort to bring
herself under control, and she reluctantly released her captive. He slid
to his knees, a hand to his throat, gasping for air.
"Get out of here," Jess said, watching the men scramble
onto their mounts and take off down the road. As they passed from sight,
Jess knelt and laid a hand gently on Mattie's shoulder. "Are you
Mattie ran her palms across her forehead. "Yeah. I guess. That
was . . . ."
Jess helped her to her feet, and Mattie looked down, still dazed, at
her filthy and torn dress.
"Miss Mattie!" Winston and a half dozen other rescuers were
barreling down the road toward the women, Mattie's three little stalkers
doing their best to keep up with much shorter legs.
At the sight of Jess Chambers, hands bloodied, standing beside their
disheveled schoolmistress, the two men who were armed pulled their guns.
Mattie stepped in front of Jess, and reached a hand out behind her. She
wasn't sure what part of Jess's body she was touching, but she needed to
still what she imagined the fighter's instinctive reaction would be to
"Miss Chambers came to my assistance," she said. "She
drove the men off."
Winston looked begrudgingly at the tall woman, wrestling with
himself. "Thanks," he finally said. "You can move on now;
we'll take care of her from here."
Mattie stiffened at the insult to this woman who had just saved her
from a dreadful experience. "Winston,--"
"That's fine," Jess interrupted. She stepped off the road
toward the woods.
"Wait!" Mattie could barely resist reaching out to touch
her. "Um . . . Thank you. I . . . ." Damn Winston and the
others for standing so near, she thought. "I think I need a bath
now," she finally said, meeting her protector's gaze.
"Yeah, looks like you do," Jess said, then disappeared into
* * * * *
Mattie had had more than enough fussing for now. She looked at the
solicitous matrons seated around her parlor who were determined to
console her in spite of her repeated assurances that she was all right,
and tried not to fidget. She didn't have time for this.
Long minutes later, Mattie laced her fingers together to keep them
from drumming holes in the arms of her chair. She could tell them she
needed a rest. Hmm. The schoolteacher considered the option. Yes,
they would certainly understand that. But then if she got caught
sneaking off . . . .
Mattie stifled another sigh.
* * * * *
"Well, it's about time."
Jess stripped off her shirt and pants and dove into the pool,
confident strokes taking her nearly all the way to the other bank before
she turned around and headed back in. Mattie laughed, swiftly removing
her own clothing, and slipped into the water. She wondered for a moment
why Jess had kept her undergarments on, and then it occurred to her.
"You know, I could wash those for you," she offered.
Jess paddled over to her. "Nah, this works fine." As Jess
made her way back to the shallow area, the surface of the water receded
gradually so that Mattie could clearly see the undershirt clinging to
the other woman's breasts. Mattie's eyes travelled downward, and saw
that very little was left to the imagination there, either.
"You sure you're OK?" Jess asked, noticing the
schoolteacher's flushed face. She forced down her rising anger again.
She would take care of those three bastards later.
"I'm fine. I . . . ." Mattie glanced up again, and gulped.
"Thanks for . . . ." She shrugged, unable to meet Jess's gaze,
but finding it unwise to look anywhere else. Why was she feeling so
uncomfortable because of some stupid undergarments? After all, she had
seen Jess with no clothing on at all . . . .
The image flooded Mattie's already overworked brain, and her breath
caught. Suddenly feeling modest, she turned around and reached for her
camisole. "Maybe I'll wash this, too." She slipped it over her
head, then lowered herself back down to the water. Something tugged at
the cloth, and Mattie tried to look over her shoulder. What--?
"Don't move, or you'll tear it." To the schoolteacher's
dismay, Jess was heading straight for her in that adherent undershirt.
Mattie tried to keep her eyes on the trees lining the bank, or the
rippling water, but . . . .
She looked up and directly into two large breasts outlined by the
thin material, taut nipples jutting through the wet cloth. Mattie's eyes
widened, watching in horror as the woman leaned closer to untangle the
slip from whatever it was caught on. Mattie's mouth opened, and she
unconsciously ran her tongue across her upper lip.
"Just another second . . . ." Jess glanced down, and heat
rose within her body as she immediately took in the situation. She
paused. She could lean in just another inch, and she would feel the
schoolteacher's lips curl around her nipple, she was certain. She closed
her eyes. She could raise her shirt, and force her whole breast into the
woman's mouth, fingers tangled in blonde hair as she parted the woman's
thighs with her other hand . . . .
Mattie was having a hard time breathing. She bit down on her lower
lip and closed her eyes, but opened them again almost immediately,
unable to turn away from the incredible mounds that were just beyond her
reach. Unless she moved her head forward . . . .
"There you go." Jess let the white material slide from her
fingers and backed away. "I've got to be somewhere," she said
abruptly, and swam away with powerful strokes.
* * * * *
"I heard about what happened."
Mattie glanced up at the bespectacled young man sitting across her
dining room table. She didn't really want to discuss it with him.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here," he continued.
"I don't think you could have done anything about it,"
"Well, you wouldn't have been on your own then."
Mattie waved her fork around. "I wanted to be on my own. I was
on a walk."
"Those filthy ruffians, and then Jess Chambers." He shook
his head. "Hard to know which is worse."
"I'd say that being raped would have been worse," Mattie
Thacker blinked at the schoolteacher's directness. "Of course,
Mattie, I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I just meant that it must
have been quite a day for you."
An idea formed in Mattie's brain. "Yes, Mr. Thacker,--"
He reached a hand out to hers. "Please call me David. After all,
we have been seeing each other for some time, now."
Mattie smiled nervously. What did he mean by seeing each other?
"OK, David. Um, it has been quite a day, and I'm really
She looked down in alarm at his hand, which was petting the smooth
skin on the back of her own.
The bastard wasn't even listening to her, Jess fumed, hadn't been
since his arrival, worrying more about hiding his damned suitcase than
courting the woman he was about to propose to, if rumor had it
correctly. Reclining on the window well, Jess listened from the darkness
as the drama unfolded before her.
"I'm really rather--"
"Mattie, you know how I feel about you."
"David, I'd rather not--"
"Please, Mattie, just hear me out."
One more interruption and she would not be responsible for her
actions, Jess decided. She smirked. Hell, she wasn't responsible for her
"Mattie, I feel that we are well suited to each other."
Well suited to each other? What the hell does that mean? That
isn't what Mattie Brunson would want to hear, you idiot. She'd want to
hear something romantic.
"You're a very pleasant person."
Very pleasant person? Jesus, get off the saddle and let a woman
lead, Jess thought. Why don't you try telling her she's
"I think you're wonderful, Mattie."
Jess's lip curled.
"And I'd be honored if you would be my wife."
Yeah, *you'd* be honored.
The gunfighter waited, then peered cautiously around the edge of the
window to see Mattie wrestling with her reply. Jesus, surely she wasn't
considering marrying this loser. Jess leaned her head against the wall.
From what she'd seen, though, there wasn't much else available in this
town. Nothing really suitable for this woman.
"That's a wonderful offer, David . . . ."
Jess's head jerked up.
". . . but I don't want to give up my responsibilities at the
school. And you know I could no longer teach if I were married."
"Now, Mattie, I thought you'd say something like that. We all
know how much you love your kids. And I want you to know that, if you
became my wife, you would be free to spend however much you desired on
So, he was upping the ante. To her dismay, Jess realized that she was
holding her breath, waiting to hear the response. Jesus, she
thought, disgusted with herself. What was she doing, sitting here,
eavesdropping on the jabbering of a schoolteacher and her lovesick beau?
She was losing her grip. Jess climbed down from the ledge and, both
hands balled into fists, headed for camp.
* * * * *
"This is good. Thanks." Jess bit into a drumstick. The
teacher had shown up this morning with a colorful picnic basket, packed
with well-cooked chicken and something Jess strongly suspected was
rhubarb pie. She shook her head slightly. It just didn't seem to occur
to this woman that she shouldn't be having a picnic with a ruthless
A smile lit up Mattie's face. "Thanks."
"Is this from your dinner last night?"
The smile faded. "Yeah."
"So how'd it go?" Jess asked between bites.
"How'd what go?"
Hmm. If Jess didn't know better, she'd say the schoolteacher was
trying to avoid the subject.
Jess pursed her lips. "I thought last night was your weekly
dinner with banker man."
"Oh. Yeah, it was."
Jess ran her tongue under her upper lip. So are you going to marry
him or not? she wondered, but it was none of her concern.
"He offered to, uh, make a sizable donation to the school."
"Annnd . . .?" Jess prompted, borrowing one of the
teacher's favorite forms of interrogation.
"I told him I'd think about it. I'd really rather not accept
it," Mattie said, more to herself than to her breakfast companion.
Mattie sighed. "It's not that easy. It may be the best offer
that I'll--that the school will get."
"Does the school need it?"
Mattie moved her shoulders up and down. "I don't know. Everyone
says we do." She stared, unseeing, at the picnic basket. "What
else is there?"
Jess remained silent, reminding herself that this was none of her
business. She would be gone in a few days, and the schoolteacher would
be glad to see the last of her. Just a break from the boredom,
Jess reminded herself, and that boredom would end in four days. She set
the thought aside.
"I won't be by tomorrow morning," Mattie said. Jess looked
up at her. "Campout tonight."
"Oh." Jess sucked in her cheeks, working at maintaining a
"You . . . ." Mattie examined her fingernails. ". . .
wouldn't want to come or anything, would you?"
Jess stared at her. "On an outing in the woods with the town's
"I didn't want to tell you this, Mattie, but there are a couple
of people in town who don't like me."
The teacher laughed.
"Not one of your better ideas," Jess said gently.
"Yeah, you're right. I don't know what I was thinking."
Mattie drew a vague pattern in the dirt. "It's not the kind of
thing you'd be interested in anyway."
Not interested in spending another evening around a fire with the
lovely blonde woman, sharing a small tent with her? Jess didn't reply.
* * * * *
The schoolmistress had done a pretty good job of bluffing her way
through the evening's activities, Jess had to admit. A decent fire
crackled, and happy little stomachs were full of makeshift stew and wild
berries. She had been less successful at convincing the little brats to
go to bed, but finally they had hit on a compromise: In exchange for a
story, the kids would voluntarily hit the sack.
Of course, that was four stories ago. Mattie seemed to have a knack
for it, and at the conclusion of one tale, her young audience would beg
her for just one more . . . .
The stories were kind of interesting, Jess conceded; not like any she
had ever heard before. Of course, it wasn't like she had heard that many
stories, at least not ones you could tell a bunch of kids.
" . . . and that's how Zeus got the lightning bolts."
Jess smiled; it had been a good choice. Adoring pupils chattered on
excitedly about the lightning storm of last year, about the tree in Mr.
DeGraffenreid's back yard that had been split and now grew in two
directions, and -- surprise -- insisted on another lightning story.
Mattie paused, then smiled sweetly. "OK. I only know one other
story, and then that's it for tonight." Reluctant nods; they knew
she meant it this time. The teacher closed her eyes. She had read the
story once at a bookseller's before they left St. Louis and begged her
parents to buy the book, but the trip west would be arduous and there
was no room for luxuries. Still, somehow the words had come back to her
many times over the years, as clearly as if she had the volume open
"Once a long time ago, all humans had four legs and two
heads," she began, gazing fondly at her young listeners as they
tried to picture it. "Then the gods threw down thunderbolts and
split everyone into two. Each half now had two legs and one head. But
the separation left both halves with a desperate yearning to be reunited
with each other because they still shared the same soul. Ever since
then, all people spend their lives searching for the other half of their
Hidden safely in the dark, Jess watched the rapt face of the
schoolteacher as she spoke, and wondered if she had written it. It was
obvious that the story meant something special to her. It meant nothing
to Jess; she didn't have a soul.
* * * * *
Reclining on the bed, Jess watched Mattie change from her Sabbath
dress to something plainer.
"I didn't hear any cries for help the other night," she
"Hmm?" Mattie looked over at her. "Oh, the campout. I
managed not to burn anything down, and no one ate anything
"What more could you ask for?"
"How'd you keep the little rats entertained?" Jess asked
"Just goofing around, telling stories."
Jess nodded. "Your own?"
"Were they stories you wrote?"
"Some of them," Mattie said. "But I didn't take my
book, so I could only tell the ones I remembered well enough."
"I write my stories in a journal." She gestured toward her
Jess reached over and opened the top drawer, drawing out a notebook.
She held it out toward Mattie. "Read me something."
Mattie looked down at the gunfighter's hands and blanched.
"That's the wrong one," she said. "It's the one sitting
Jess opened to the first page. "This isn't your writing?"
"It's my writing, but it's not--it's not the right one,"
she said again, reaching for it.
"Well, go ahead and read me something," Jess said, handing
her the book. "I don't care what it is."
"Then let me get the right one," Mattie insisted. "You
wouldn't want to hear anything in this." She started toward the
nightstand, but a strong hand clamped around her forearm.
Jess studied her for a moment. "Read it to me," she said
Mattie stared down at the page, the silence growing longer and more
telling. She closed her eyes.
Mattie opened her eyes, tears already forming in them, making it
difficult to focus on the writing. She began, haltingly, to speak the
words out loud.
"They called her Hellrider for a reason: When Jess Chambers
and her gang rode into a town, it was as if the Furies of Satan
had been loosed upon its defenseless citizens." Mattie
paused, wishing Jess would tell her to stop. "It is said that
Hellrider once had a heart, but if she still retained that
particular item in her possession, it was buried among the stolen
hopes and dreams of hundreds of her faceless victims."
Mattie lowered the notebook to her lap and closed her eyes, a painful
lump in her throat. "Jess . . . ."
Jess's eyes narrowed, and she raised herself off the bed and walked
to the dresser, yanking the bottom drawer open and pulling out the stack
of novellettes. Sorting through them until she came to one with a woman
on the cover, she held it up. "Who wrote this?"
Mattie didn't need to look. "Mark Bronson."
Their eyes locked, and Mattie reached out a hand. "Please, Jess,
listen to me. I wrote those a long time ago, before I met you."
Jess picked up her holster from the center table and fastened it to
her belt. "Well, you'll have some new material now," she said.
"Some first-hand knowledge." She laughed at some unexpressed
thought and shook her head, as if her mind were suddenly clearer.
"You've reminded me of who I am, and what I'm supposed to be doing.
Time for me to move on," she said, stepping toward the window. As
she started to lean over the window sill, she turned for a final look at
the dejected schoolteacher. "Remember what I said."
Mattie stared dully at the outlaw's back as it disappeared into
blinding sunlight, and buried her face in her pillow.
* * * * *
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