Toward The Sunset by Della Street--Part 1


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 other.

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 looking.

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 a while."

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 heal up."

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 hand.

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 didn't answer.

* * * * *

"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.

"Miss Mattie?"

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 corner.

"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.

"Miss Mattie?"

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 dozen pieces.

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 eye now."

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 up dead."

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 you alone."

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 feet.

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 word.

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 schoolteacher's face.

"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 you?"

"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 about?"

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."

"Of course."

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, that's all."

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 posters."

Mattie rose stiffly, her jaw set, and began gathering her things together.

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 country.

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 building.

"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 about France?"

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 not?"

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 ahead, Ben."

"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 you."

A mask fell over the dark woman's features. "What's your point?"

"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 side.

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 all true."

"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 eligible female.

"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 dollars!"

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 subtle challenge.

"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 skins."

"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 tonight."

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 said angrily.

"Sit down."

"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 her grip.

"I'd think a double eagle should buy me an entire meal." Still no reply, and Jess released her arm. "All right; I'm sorry."

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 the hotelkeeper.

"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?"

"Yeah. Whatever."

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."

"My mother."

"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 do?"

"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 safe ground.

"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 interesting.

"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."

"Mr. Thacker?"

"Our banker."


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 anything."

"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 toward town.

* * * * *

"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?"

"Ah. Well."

"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 weeks--"

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 not."

"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 Thursday."

"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 ankle.

"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 like you?"

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 someone--"

"Don't," Jess interrupted.


"Don't trust me, Mattie. You'll get hurt. I'm not who you think I am."

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.

"What's this?"

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 isn't you."

"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 hostage."

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?"


"The teller."

"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 either."

"Oh. Left out the part where I had my way with her in the barn, did they?"

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 actually did."

"Well, it's just supposed to be entertainment," Mattie replied defensively, stacking the books up to redeposit them in their hiding place.

"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 fire."

* * * * *

"Is this what it's like for you? I mean, is this how you live?"

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 particular?"


"Do you ever get lonely?"


Mattie grunted. "Gee, let me get a word in, will you?"

"You manage."

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 waited.

"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 off."

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."

Mattie frowned.

"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 person?"

"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."

"Write what?"

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 voice.


* * * * *

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 budge.

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," she mumbled.

"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 hair look?"

"Like you spent the night in the woods with a wanton criminal."

"I was afraid of that." Mattie rose up on her tiptoes and kissed the taller woman on the cheek. "Thanks. I'll see you later."

Jess stared after her, her fingers absently touching the side of her face.

* * * * *

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 overslept."

"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 cover.

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 paragraph.

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.

"Who's there?"

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 repulsive grin.

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 her.

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 snarled.

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 all right?"

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 drawn weapons.

"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 the trees.

* * * * *

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--?

"You're caught."


"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," Mattie said.

"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 said stiffly.

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 rather--"

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 actions anyway.

"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 wonderful? Moron.

"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 the school."

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 killer.

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.

"The dinner."

"The dinner?"

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.

"Then don't."

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 straight face.

"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 children."

Mattie nodded.

"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 before her.

"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 soul."

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 said.

"Hmm?" Mattie looked over at her. "Oh, the campout. I managed not to burn anything down, and no one ate anything poisonous."

"What more could you ask for?"

Mattie smiled.

"How'd you keep the little rats entertained?" Jess asked casually.

"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."

"Your book?"

"I write my stories in a journal." She gestured toward her nightstand.

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 on top."

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 evenly.

Mattie stared down at the page, the silence growing longer and more telling. She closed her eyes.

"Read it."

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.

* * * * *

Continue to Part 2

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