Toward the Sunset by Della Street

Part 2

Most of the residents of Myersville heard the steadily growing rumble, but neither the mayor, nor the hotelkeeper, nor the puzzled schoolteacher recognized the sound in time to do anything about it. An hour before the sun would be directly overhead, horses carrying two dozen armed men descended on the town.

Mattie stepped over to the doorway of the schoolhouse. Even in the midst of men and horses, she spotted Jess instantly, and a smile spread across her face.

"Over there!" Jess pointed toward the building. "Take the school!"

Mattie froze. What . . .? Moments later, she struggled with a rough bearded man who had pinned her arms behind her back, helpless to comfort the frightened children herded into the corner by two others.

Her head jerked up at the sound of a shot, and she heard Jess's voice ring out. "Listen up, people. I've got your children. Carter!"

Suddenly Mattie was being dragged toward the doorway. "No! I'm not leaving them," she said. "No!" Mattie screamed her frustration, and managed to twist free from her captor's hold for an instant. "No!"

Everyone in the street heard the schoolteacher's screams. Jess stared at the entrance to the building, waiting for the pair to appear, the knuckles of her fingers straining against her skin as she gripped the reins.

Mattie kicked backward with her leg, simultaneously clawing at the doorway. She caught hold of a beam and wrapped her fingers around it.

"Damn it, girl! I'll bust your fingers," Carter growled. He finally loosened her hold, and, hauling her up against his chest, dragged the resistant woman outside and into the street, forcing her to her knees in front of the riders.

"Tell them what we've got in there," Jess instructed her mildly.

Mattie stared up at her, and Carter slapped his palm against the side of her head.

"I'll decide how to run this," Jess hissed at him, then turned her attention back to the pale woman kneeling before her. "Tell them who we've got, and how we've got them," she said.

Hatred was a new experience for Mattie, and it was overpowering. Bile rose in her throat, and she was afraid she was going to be sick.

"Tell them who we've got, schoolteacher, or I'll find another way of conveying that information."

Mattie coughed. "They've got all of them," she said hoarsely.

"I said who," Jess ordered. "And louder."

Mattie swallowed, and raised her head. "Ben," she said, looking at the boy's father. "Harvey . . . Alice . . . Jeb . . ." With each name, she met the eyes of a mother, or a father, feeling their pain cut through her.

Jess watched as the teacher recited the names of their hostages, and felt an odd sense of pride. There would be no blubbering, no begging for mercy from this one. Even these louts she rode with would be able to see the strength and quality of Myersville's schoolmistress.

Silence fell as she continued to stare at Mattie, who had finished her painful monologue.

"You told us you'd leave us be, Hellrider." Winston's words barely registered with Mattie, who was fighting another onslaught of nausea.

"Yeah, I said a fortnight. And I left you alone for a fortnight."

"No, you didn't." Mattie shook her head, dazed. "You didn't," she said again.

Jess dismounted and walked over to her, leaning down so that only Mattie could hear her next words. "You wanted to know what the outside world is like. Now you know."

Tear-filled eyes looked up at her. "Please don't do this," Mattie said. "I trusted you."

"That was your mistake," Jess said harshly. "Be grateful this is all I took from you."

Mattie stared out ahead of her, struggling for each intake of air into her lungs.

Jess cast her eyes across the assembled crowd, checking her men's progress as they emerged from the hotel, the cloth shop, the hardware store, various items of value stuffed into thick-hide satchels. A broad-shouldered man approached her. "We searched the rooms. You sure it's here?"

Mattie looked up and saw the bruised features of one of the men who had attacked her on the road. From the repulsive grin on his face, it was clear that he recognized her, too.

"Oh, yeah," Jess replied. "It's Tuesday." She jerked her thumb toward Mattie's house. "Check in there. Under the couch in the parlor."

Mattie watched dully as the man strolled over to her home and inside. After a few minutes, Jess's eyes narrowed and she marched over to the house, heading first for the parlor, then in the direction of indistinct noises coming from down the hall.

She crossed into Mattie's bedroom to see him rifling through dresser drawers, tossing undergarments and other clothing carelessly to the floor in his search. The banker's black suitcase lay on the teacher's bed, along with a gold candlestick Jess had noticed in the parlor on her second visit, and a few other items that would likely fetch some coin.

Jess crossed the room and grabbed his shoulder. "I told you to get the suitcase. Now get it and get out."

"You kiddin', Jess? That candlestick's worth something, and--"

"Did you hear me?" Her eyes narrowed. "Get the suitcase and clear out. Now."

Irwin had ridden with Jess Chambers long enough to know when she was angry, although he couldn't for the life of him figure out what had brought it on this time. Picking up the heavy suitcase, he made fast tracks out the door.

Jess swept her gaze over the clothing strewn about the floor. After a long moment, she bent down and picked up a pair of underwear. Carefully folding it to match those that had not been disturbed, she replaced it in the drawer, and reached down for another pair.

Townspeople and gunmen alike waited restlessly for the woman in charge to emerge from the schoolteacher's house. Sympathetic residents glanced sadly at Mattie; the Lord only knew what Hellrider was doing in there.

Finally, Jess stepped over the threshold, shouting to her men without breaking stride. "Let's go." In a quick motion, she mounted her horse and took the reins in hand. A flash of white caught her eye, and Jess turned in the saddle to see her lead man hauling the schoolteacher up in front of him.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

"What are you talking about, Jess?" Tyson was confused. This was standard procedure: Take someone the cowards wouldn't want to see hurt, someone who wouldn't be much trouble.

Jess hesitated. To a man, her subordinates were staring at her expectantly, wondering what the problem was. She nodded, then turned to the disheartened witnesses to her latest success. "You all stay here for a couple of days, and little Teach will be fine," she announced, and with a final caution -- "My men will be watching" -- Jess turned her sorrel and led her men out of town.

* * *

The sun beat down on rider and horse alike, and after a few hours they pulled up under a cluster of shade trees. Jess tipped a canteen to her lips and wiped her mouth. That hit the spot. She started to raise the canteen again, but jerked it down abruptly. Tyson was pressing their hostage entirely too close to him, his hand wandering across her waist.

Jess nudged her horse over to them and angrily hauled the woman onto her own saddle. "Do you want some water?" Jess held up the canteen, but Mattie turned her head away. "Look, you'll need this," Jess said. "You can hate me all you want, but there's no sense in killing yourself."

No reply.

"Suit yourself." Jess turned to the assortment of men under her command. "OK, fellas, time to split up. You know where to meet." They nodded, and two-thirds of the group headed off in different directions. "Just you and me now, boys," Jess said to the remaining men, "and our little songbird here." They laughed, and Jess nodded toward the road ahead. "Let's go."

* * *

The sun set over a lively campsite that resounded with the general rumble of men enjoying themselves after a successful haul. More than one would have liked to share their good mood with their juicy little hostage, but Jess had been sitting near her most of the evening, warning off adventurous souls with a glare.

Mattie had never seen anything like it. Most of the activities in which these barbarians engaged seemed to involve competition of some sort, she noted, everything from arm wrestling to knife-throwing to grossly exaggerated tales of their own bravery. Jess had joined in a number of these events (although not, to Mattie's relief, in any of the bodily function contests), and appeared to excel at everything.

The schoolteacher sat quietly and absorbed this new world. As the evening wore on, she realized to her dismay that the men had moved on in their braggadocio to matters of a more personal nature. Thoroughly disgusted, Mattie nonetheless found herself listening to a few of the more torrid tales, her eyes growing wider with each anecdote. After a rather more vivid description than was necessary of one miscreant's adventures at a brothel in Park City, Mattie realized her concentration had lapsed.

"Hell, I had to," he was saying. "We'd been on a job for damn near two months, and Jess's rule just about killed me." The others laughed, and Mattie glanced over at Jess.

"I figured your own bullshit could keep you going for at least that long," Jess said good- naturedly.

The ruffian grinned back at her. "Yeah, well, what I want to know is, how come I don't get the Fort Douglas jobs?"

A number of the men laughed again, and Jess looked over at him with apparent amusement. "I didn't know you had that particular skill, Anders," she said, setting off another roar.

One of the newer members spoke up. "What happened at Fort Douglas?"

Tyson chuckled. He liked this story. "We heard there was a gold shipment being guarded at the fort, but they had practically the whole damned Army stationed there. Not that a little thing like that would bother Jess, of course."

He paused in his tale to take another swig of . . . whatever he was drinking, and Mattie glared at him. Why didn't he just get on with it?

"So Jess goes in there as Sister Mary Margaret or somethin'." He grinned at her. "One more thing she's goin' to Hell for . . . ."

Jess laughed.

". . . and ends up bedding both the commander's kids. The time comes to haul the stuff out, and they're pulling each other's hair out over which one gets to hand over the keys."

Mattie pursed her lips. It figured, Jess Chambers using her body to dupe innocent young men into trusting her. Disgusting.

"Don't remember which one got the honor, do you, Jess?"

Jess shook her head.

"I think it was the girl," Tyson recalled, chuckling. "She had a mean right hook."

Mattie stared at him, then shifted her gaze to Jess. The girl? Had Jess actually . . . 'bedded' . . . a woman? Her eyes widened. All those jokes Jess had made to her, those comments . . . . Had Jess ever thought of . . . ? Mattie shuddered. It didn't matter anyway. She'd rather die than have that woman's hands on her.

"What was her name, anyway?" Tyson asked.

Jess shrugged. She had forgotten it the next day.

Mattie's attention was diverted by one of the drones, who had climbed to his feet and appeared to be stumbling in her general direction. "Did she look as good as this little piece?" he asked. He reached a hand out to Mattie's hair but it never got there, halted in mid-air by Jess's painful grip on his wrist.

"Hands off," she snarled.

Tyson watched the confrontation with interest. Stewart had the misfortune of being very good at arm wrestling, which had earned him the liquor ration of more than one of his colleagues during the evening. This, combined with his other misfortune of being a few cards short of a deck to begin with, left the young man's judgment a little wanting. Every man here -- except Stewart, apparently -- could see that the boss had declared the blonde woman off limits, for whatever reason.


Uh oh. A low murmur spread throughout the camp, and most of the others decided it was a good time to lay out their bedrolls on the other side of the clearing.

"What did you say?" Icy blue eyes burned into him.

"I said why should we keep our hands off the little piece," Stewart repeated. "The job's over, so it can't mess it up. Why's it different with her?"

"Because I said so," Jess replied, her voice low. Tyson exchanged glances with a couple of other veterans of the Chambers gang. They were about to lose one of their number. The lead man eyed Stewart's boots from a distance. They looked about his size.

"You keeping her for yourself?"

Jess's fingers constricted, and Stewart sank to his knees with a gasp as the bones in his wrist snapped.

"I don't answer to you," Jess said coldly. "You got that?" She had already tolerated more disrespect than she should, and she drew a knife from her boot. A soft gasp reached her ears, and she glanced down to see a look of horror on the schoolteacher's face. Jess hesitated, then gave Stewart's wrist a final, painful twist and shoved him away with her boot. "Go sleep it off," she growled, "and be thankful I'm in a good mood."

Tyson blinked. That was a first.

Returning to her seat on the log, Jess reached for some pheasant. She held a piece out to Mattie, but the stubborn woman refused to look at it, or at her. Jess tore into the flesh with her teeth, making exaggerated noises of culinary pleasure for her hungry hostage's benefit.

"You'll get to go home tomorrow, if you're a good girl," she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. "And if your people behave themselves."

No response.

"In the meantime, I can't have you running off," Jess continued. "So, here's your choice: We tie you to that tree, or you go over there with me." She pointed at a dark blanket laid out apart from the rest.

Mattie rose and sat in front of the tree.

Hours later, Jess glanced over at the young woman whose entire body shivered with the cold. Sliding out from beneath her blanket, Jess walked quietly over to the tree and reached down to cut through the ropes binding Mattie's body, then circled her waist with her arm and led her, unresisting, to her blanket. Jess tucked it carefully over the both of them, and pressed her warm body against Mattie's back.

* * *

"Damn, is she ever going to get up?"

The gang leader and her second in command gazed down at the young woman still huddled under Jess's blanket. "She's hard to wake up when she doesn't get enough sleep," Jess said.

Tyson smirked. "You bed her?"


"Come on, Jess."

Jess turned to face him. "I don't violate my own rules. What's your problem?"

"Hell, Jess, you just about killed Irwin when he had a go at her, and beat the shit out of the others. I figured--"

"They broke the rules, and almost blew the job," she snapped. "They're lucky I didn't kill them."

Mattie groaned in her sleep, and rolled over onto her back.

Tyson's eyes flashed. "Mm. If you don't want her, Jess, I got a few ideas."

"Keep 'em in your pants. There'll be plenty of that in Laramie."

Jess reached down and nudged the young woman. "Come on, Teach," she said quietly. "Up and at 'em."

Mattie stretched leisurely, uttering a noise that was a little too close to other sounds from the outlaw's imagination, and Jess grunted; she needed to get to Laramie herself pretty soon.

Sleepily opening her eyes, Mattie suddenly remembered where she was, and why, and a cold expression snapped into place across her face. She rose without a word, and stepped discreetly into the bushes.

With the last of their gear stowed, the outlaws prepared to part ways with their garrulous hostage. "Up you go." Jess's strong hands boosted Mattie up into the saddle of the bay horse they had stolen from the town's blacksmith.

"I don't like to ride," Mattie protested.

She speaks! Jess thought. "Tough. Hit the road."

Mattie glared at her. No warmth in those eyes any more, Jess noticed. She swatted the horse lightly, and it started down the path with its angry passenger. A moment later, Jess mounted her own horse and turned to face her companions. "You know where to meet me." They nodded, and spurred their mounts.

* * *

Mattie stood rigidly, arms at her sides, and tried to figure out where she was. This was a nightmare. She didn't know how to find her way back. She could be lost for days, not that Jess Chambers would care.

"Lying, manipulative witch!" she cursed, for the tenth time. She squeezed her eyes shut in frustration, then opened them again when her pony suddenly bolted, thundering down one of the three paths she thought she had detected leading into the brush.

"Hey! Wait!" Mattie chased after the animal.

* * *

"I trusted you!"

Jess's eyes flew open. Not again! she wanted to shout. Every night since she had rejoined her men, Jess's slumber had been interrupted by the increasingly annoying schoolteacher, red hair or green eyes or soft hands flashing into her consciousness without warning.

She dragged herself to her feet, eyes scanning the sleeping forms around her. She wondered if hauling one of the less repulsive ones into the trees with her would drive the image of tear-filled eyes from her fevered brain.

Jess had warned her--hell, had practically come out and told her what was going to happen, if the girl had just listened instead of being so ridiculously naive, unwilling to see the bad in anyone, even Jess Chambers, until she was slapped in the face with it.

Stupid girl.

Jess paced silently in the dark. Her eyes roamed the campsite again, inevitably landing on the half dozen satchels still stuffed with their profitable haul. "With the stolen hopes and dreams of faceless victims . . . ."

Above all people, the woman who wrote those words should have expected this.

"But that's not you. . . . I trusted you."

Why would she trust someone who lied, and cheated, and robbed, and killed indiscriminately? Jess had never denied her crimes to Mattie, had never pretended to be anything other than what she was. But the woman had blindly accepted her anyway, had shown her caring, affection . . . forgiveness . . . .

Jess halted mid-stride. Long minutes passed, but she remained motionless, staring at nothing in the darkness. Finally, Jess's eyes narrowed into an expression her men would have recognized, and she unfastened the cover of her holster.

* * *

Mattie rolled onto her back, her eyelids easing apart slightly. They began to drift shut again, but . . . something wasn't right. She opened her eyes cautiously, and gasped. There, standing beside her bed, stood a tall, unmistakable figure.


"What are you doing here?"

"I said quiet."

"What do you want?"

To Mattie's surprise, the other woman broke eye contact, and began pacing back and forth across the floor. Mattie's head was clear enough to wonder how this woman could traverse the wooden floor, right over the loose board, without making a sound.

The silence grew longer, but still Jess Chambers did not say anything. Mattie could sense that something was wrong, but she didn't care -- couldn't care after what Jess had done. Hellrider, she reminded herself.

Finally, Jess spoke. "I don't need the stuff from this place."

Mattie stared at her.

"I have plans that are going to keep me on the road a while, and it's not convenient to haul it around."

Mattie remained silent. What was going on here?

"Do you want your stuff back? Their stuff?" Jess waved a hand toward the wall, apparently indicating the town.

Mattie's heart sprang to her throat and she nodded, hoping her eyes weren't as big as they felt. "Oh, God. Yes, please."

Jess turned away again with a slight nod.

"What's going on, Jess?" The outlaw resumed her uneasy pacing. Maybe she would get a response to an easier question, Mattie thought. "Did you bring . . . the things with you?"

A small smile crossed Jess's face. Even now, the schoolteacher was trying to be delicate, to spare the criminal who robbed them any unnecessary awkwardness. She nodded. "It's outside of town. I didn't know . . . ."

Mattie's brow crinkled. Didn't know what? Didn't know if she'd want it back? That didn't make much sense. Jess absently ran her hand through her hair, a nervous gesture that seemed odd coming from the normally cool woman.

"What are you doing here, Jess?"

"Don't worry; I'm not staying."

"That wasn't my question," Mattie said, emboldened by the gunfighter's sudden vulnerability.

"It doesn't matter." Jess turned away. "The bags'll be here in the morning." She took a step toward the window, then turned back around. "I . . . ."

Mattie held her breath while Jess struggled with whatever she was trying to say.

"I'm sorry for what I did to you."

Mattie's eyes widened. My God--Jess Chambers was apologizing for . . . . Mattie frowned. What, exactly? She needed to know.

"Sorry for what?" she asked. "For using me? Or for robbing us?"

Jess closed her eyes. She knew she should have just let it be. This was too hard. "I don't know. Both, I guess."

Mattie didn't know what to say, and finally she asked the question that mattered more than anything. "Why are you doing this?"

"I told you. It's not convenient for me--"

"I know you think I'm stupid, Jess, but--"

"No! Not stupid! Just . . . innocent," Jess said. "You put your faith in someone who doesn't care about anybody but herself, and it could have gotten you killed."

Mattie stared at her. A week ago, she would have agreed with every word. She wasn't so sure any more. "Maybe," she said. "But you're here now, aren't you?"

Jess didn't reply. What was she doing here? Jess knew the answer, even as she tried to deny it. She desperately wanted to see this woman smile at her just one more time. She had never known someone who looked beyond what she was now and saw what she could have been. How long had it been since someone's eyes had lit up when they saw her? But Jess had seen those eyes filled with tears, clouded with fear and betrayal. It was too late.

"I'm here now," she agreed quietly.

"What are you thinking, Jess?"

Jess laughed. What had she been thinking about every minute since she left this damned town? "I find it best not to think sometimes," she said, and stepped toward the window.

"Wait!" Mattie was out of bed with surprising quickness, grasping her arm. "Don't go." Jess looked at her, baffled, and Mattie stammered, "I mean, where are you going? It's cold outside. I know you've got a blanket, but . . . it's . . . warmer in here," she finished, shyly gesturing toward the bed.

Jess paused. She felt exhausted, emotionally and physically, and a warm bed seemed almost irresistible at the moment. The constant assaults in her head had driven away any temptation she might ordinarily have felt in the young woman's bed. She could just lie there, near this woman who was offering her temporary comfort even though she could only despise her, and sink into welcome oblivion.

"You sure you want an outlaw in your bed?" she asked, half-joking.

Mattie nodded.

The beginning of a smile crossed Jess's face. "What about that stellar reputation of yours?" she teased.

"I don't care," Mattie replied seriously.

I think you would, Jess thought, but kept her thoughts to herself. This woman could not be as forgiving as she seemed. "Thanks. I could use the rest. I'll be out before the sun comes up."

Mattie slid back under the covers and watched as an amazingly well-defined body emerged from beneath plaid shirt and jeans. Jess left on her undershirt, and got in the other side of the bed.

Mattie's mind raced. She wanted . . . she wasn't sure what she wanted. The woman lying next to her was not the woman who had stolen from them. This was the Jess Chambers she had known all along. The real Jess Chambers. Mattie gazed at her, barely inches away.


The other woman turned onto her side to face Mattie. "Hm?"

A pause, and then, "Nothing."

Jess regarded her for a moment, then tucked an arm under her head and closed her eyes. Realizing that Jess was preparing to go to sleep, Mattie's thoughts became more frantic. This would be her only chance. For the rest of her life, long after she was married, long after her teaching days were behind her, she would wonder what it would have been like. She couldn't take it.

What was the worst that could happen? Jess wouldn't be interested, might even laugh at her, but that would be the end of it. No one would know, except the two of them, and then she'd never see Jess Chambers again.

Never again.

She reached out to touch a soft shoulder. Jess's eyelids opened instantly, and she found herself gazing into warm green eyes.

"Jess . . . " Mattie whispered.

Jess's senses were suddenly very much alive. She willed herself to remain still until she knew exactly what it was that Mattie wanted.

"Jess . . ." Mattie repeated, but she couldn't form the words to follow. Her hand moved over to Jess's undershirt, and Mattie ran a tentative finger over the thin material. The other woman hadn't moved, hadn't turned away yet, and Mattie became a little bolder. She slid her index finger down Jess's shirt until it approached the swell of a firm breast, pausing. Still no rejection. Heart pounding, Mattie trailed her finger over Jess's breast, eliciting a soft moan.

She wasn't sure what to do next, but the question was answered when Jess grasped her hand and pressed it against her breast, both of them groaning from the contact. Mattie could feel the flesh harden against her palm, and she squeezed it instinctively, her excitement growing at the feel of Jess arching into her hand. Mattie blindly lowered her head and pressed her lips against the thin shirt, then urgently helped Jess tug the garment up.

Mattie felt as if she were going to faint. She took Jess's breast into her small hand and brought her lips to it, desperate to know what that flesh felt like inside her mouth.

Jess growled as Mattie sucked hungrily at her breast. Jesus, it hadn't been that long, but she felt barely able to restrain herself. Mattie moaned against her breast, and Jess gave up the struggle. She grabbed Mattie's shoulders and flipped her onto her back, covering the smaller body with her own, and pressed her thigh between Mattie's legs, vaguely aware of her disappointment that the schoolteacher was wearing underwear.

She leaned back and drew off her undershirt, her breath catching as desire washed over the younger woman's face. Mattie stared, wide-eyed, as Jess knelt over her, the intensity of her gaze causing Mattie's heart to pound wildly.

Jess hesitated, trying to rein herself in. She didn't want to frighten her inexperienced lover. Gently, she took Mattie's breasts into her hands, fondling the soft mounds through her nightshirt. Mattie whimpered, and Jess lost the last of her reserve. Mattie Brunson had chosen an outlaw as her first lover; she would soon learn the consequences.

Rough hands reached down and tore the nightshirt off, the sound of rent cloth nearly causing Mattie to pass out. Her underwear soon met the same fate, and then she was naked, the renegade's heated gaze raking over every inch of her body.

Jess threw herself onto the smaller woman, groping and molding every inch of skin as her tongue explored the depths of Mattie's mouth, exhilarating at petite hands clutching at her back, the teacher's thighs pressing against her waist. She lowered her head and took a breast into her mouth.

"Oh, my God!" Mattie cried, arching her back and burying her hand in Jess's hair. Jess grinned. Blaspheming already.

"Nnnn . . . ." Jess groaned and moved her stomach against Mattie's warmth, confirming what the teacher's labored breathing already told her, that her new lover was more than ready to be taken to the next level.

Jess raised herself and took possession of Mattie's mouth again, her hands continuing their assault on the young woman's smooth skin. She broke the kiss and began a controlled descent of Mattie's body, lavishing attention on Mattie's breasts, stomach, and soft golden curls, smiling at the sudden gasp as she immersed herself between Mattie's thighs.

A steady stream of inarticulate sounds emerged from the young woman's throat, her hands roaming erratically from Jess's head to the sheet beside her to her own raised thighs.

Suddenly, Mattie's noises trailed off, and Jess felt a trembling beneath her hands. "Oh, yes . . . yes . . . keep going," Mattie breathed, not really aware of what she was saying, and then the waves overtook her, and she clutched at Jess's hair through a long, delirious release, finally sinking slowly back onto the bed.

Jess drew herself up and rolled onto her back, reaching out to Mattie's waist. "Come here." She positioned the smaller woman above her, grasping Mattie's hand and placing it between her legs. "I want you to--"

She closed her eyes as Mattie moved her fingers, exploring on her own. Mattie leaned forward, her breasts pressing into Jess's own, and prepared to do what she hoped Jess would like.

Her fingers slid inside easily, and Mattie closed her eyes at the incredible sensation. Jess groaned, her hips rising of their own accord, and she reached down to show her the motion that she wanted. Within moments, she surged against Mattie's hand, long hair hanging down as her head rose off the pillow.

When the outlaw had calmed again, Mattie planted soft kisses on her neck, then withdrew her fingers and drew a sensuous trail of moisture up Jess's thigh. "I want you to do that to me," she uttered. She raised herself off Jess and lay on her back, grasping Jess's hand to slide it between her legs.

Rolling over, Jess nibbled her ear. "You'll want your first time to be with your husband," she whispered.

"You're already my first time. I want it all now."

Jess groaned at the command and the warmth enveloping her fingers. She shifted her body, gently urging Mattie's thighs further apart, and positioned herself to give Mattie what she wanted. Mattie slid her arms across her lover's strong back, their mouths together, and then Jess was inside her, taking her to another world where no one but the two of them existed. Alone together, inside each other's minds and bodies.

Mattie moaned into Jess's throat, close now, clawing mindlessly at her back, and then Jess felt the contractions of strong muscles around her fingers. She lay on her lover while the other woman recovered, both of them struggling for breath, and then need overtook her and she straddled Mattie's thigh, every movement of the outlaw's body sending new sensations coursing through Mattie's veins.

The women clung to each other throughout the night as if it were their last on earth. Jess caressed Mattie's body lovingly with her hands and mouth, moving on top of her, sliding fingers into receptive warmth, robbing Mattie of conscious thought with her tongue, favors which Mattie eagerly returned. Jess did not stop to rest, and Mattie needed none. She couldn't get enough of Jess Chambers' lips, and tongue, and breasts, and hands, and taste, and warmth.

Finally, shortly before dawn, the women relaxed into each other under sweaty sheets. Jess pressed her lips against Mattie's shoulder. "I've got to go."

"No," Mattie mumbled into her neck, her hands running absently across Jess's back.

"It's almost morning. I've got to head out."

"No," Mattie repeated stubbornly, and Jess grinned.

"Not that I'll be able to ride," she said, and felt Mattie smile against her skin. "Or walk," she added, and felt the smile widen into a grin.

"Good," Mattie said.

"'Jess Chambers, captured in Myersville by a woman who rendered her completely disabled,'" Jess said, quoting from an imaginary wire. "'The woman refused to reveal her methods, but says she has experience in a variety of positions."

Mattie was laughing now, and Jess took advantage of the lapse in concentration to extricate herself from her lover's grasp. Her knee slid across a damp area on the sheet, and she ground her teeth together to suppress the rush of desire. She would be content to spend the rest of the day, the rest of her life, in bed with the lively schoolteacher, but she could imagine what the good people of Myersville would do if they saw her sneaking out of Mattie's house.

Jess slipped out from under the sheet and reached for her undershirt. Glancing down at the bed, she noticed that the teacher's breasts had been exposed by her movements. She'd never get out of here with that kind of distraction. Reaching down, she flipped the sheet up to Mattie's neck.

Mattie caught her gaze and slowly drew the sheet down again, baring her enticing breasts, then lower, over the flatness of her stomach, then slowly to the edge of curly golden hair, granting Jess only a hint of what lay hidden beneath.

Jesus. Jess tossed the undershirt on the floor and leapt onto the temptress. The interfering sheet joined discarded clothing on the floor, and Jess arched her body over her lover's for a final time.

* * *

Mattie dusted a spot off her pristine white shoes, then straightened to fasten the ties on her Sunday blouse, looking absently into the mirror above her dresser. She paused, sliding her fingers down her neck, reliving every touch.

It wouldn't be easy, sitting still for three hours in the cramped confines of the church, trying to keep her mind on the typically dull sermon, after the incredible night she had just shared with Jess. Mattie smiled. Church might have more meaning for her today, though; she had experienced heaven firsthand.

* * *

The first of the worshipers stepped outside and propped open the door for the others as they began to pour out of the building. The look on their faces was the same, the lay preacher's words providing little comfort in the face of their recent adversity.

Mattie stepped across the threshold, and bumped into a large man who had stopped abruptly in front of her. "Oops. What's the holdup, Frank?"

"Stay inside, Miss Mattie," he said, trying to usher her back into the safe confines of the church.

Mattie peered around him, and immediately identified the problem: Jess Chambers, dressed in the clothes she had shrugged into only a few hours before, leaning confidently against the gate. Mattie edged around her would-be protector for a better view.

Jess spotted her bed partner of last night immediately, but cast a disinterested gaze over the entire group. She didn't expect the schoolteacher to acknowledge her in public.

From the corner of her eye, she detected familiar motion, and before any of the others knew what had happened, a bullet from Jess's Colt had cleanly blown dark metal from a fool's hand.

"WAIT!" Mattie held her hands up. "Wait! Calm down! Let's see what she wants."

Jess concealed her surprise when Mattie broke out of the crowd and walked toward her, re- holstering her weapon as the woman drew near. "There's a wagon behind the hotel," she said, deciding not to mention where she had obtained it.

Mattie smiled. "Thank you. I'll tell them."

"How do you feel this morning?" Jess asked.

"High as a kite. How do you feel?" Mattie held up a hand, laughing at herself. "Nevermind. Don't answer that. I know there's a big difference between us." She looked up at Jess. "I know I'm one of many for you, but I want you to know that I'll always remember you and what you've done for me. Not just last night, but ever since you came here."

Mattie turned and started back toward the others, and was surprised when strong fingers grabbed her arm and spun her back around. A dozen townsmen began to converge on the pair, and Jess released her grip, raising both hands to show that she would not hurt their schoolteacher.

"That's not true."

Mattie shook her head, confused. "What's not true?"

"You're not one of many."

Mattie stared at her.

"Yes, I've been with a lot of people, but not like this." The young woman's beautiful face looked up at her expectantly, and Jess mentally cursed herself. Why couldn't she explain what she meant?

Mattie waited, but Jess didn't say anything more. She chewed on her lip for a moment, then seemed to reach some sort of decision. "Wait here," she instructed. "I'm going to get you safe passage out of town."

"Oh, you are, are you?" Jess pursed her lips playfully. "And just how are you going to do that?"

Mattie cocked her head, and Jess laughed. She had forgotten who she was talking to.

* * *

"Won't they be wondering why you're talking to me?"

"Probably." Mattie opened her closet door and selected a dress to change into. "I said I wanted to find out why you came back."

"They figure it's a trick," guessed the outlaw.

Mattie didn't reply, and Jess smirked.

"Well, I said that we should give you the benefit of the doubt until we knew otherwise."

Jess shook her head, imagining the consternation of Myersville's citizenry at their schoolteacher's unceasing naivete. "You must have given quite a performance," she said.

"It wasn't a performance," Mattie replied. "I know you. You're gentle and kind."

"No, I'm not."

Mattie unhooked the last button on her blouse, and Jess lowered her gaze to catch tantalizing glimpses of skin beneath the cloth.

"You almost learned that when I first saw you at the pool. I wanted to take you right then," Jess said, noting the sharp intake of Mattie's breath.

Her pulse rising, Mattie turned and leaned over to pick up her dress from the bedspread. Jess's eyes narrowed and she was up in a flash, an arm around Mattie's waist, throwing her face down on the bed. "Is that what you want, Mattie?" She reached a hand under the white skirt and drew off the matching undergarment, shoving the skirt up to Mattie's waist. "Do you want to be taken?"

Mattie turned her head to the side, her breathing nearly out of control, and waited to see what would happen next. A moment later, she heard a faint metallic sound, and whimpered at the image of the outlaw's hands at her belt.

Jess lowered her jeans, then lowered herself onto Mattie.

The schoolteacher felt Jess's rough thatch against the delicate skin of her hips, and groaned. She had been in a state of constant arousal all morning, increasingly vivid daydreams causing her to shift frequently in her seat. She needed this. The weight of the woman above her was pressing down on a sensitive area, and when Jess began to thrust against her, Mattie thought she would pass out at the friction from above and below.

Jess's hands covered the back of hers, clamped against the top edge of the mattress, and the bed moved in a steadily increasing rhythm. Jess's lips rested near her ear, and the sound of her passionate grunts drove Mattie to the edge. Finally, she reached her limit and cried out, bucking wildly against the woman on top of her. Jess heard it, and felt it, and drove against her lover in a sharp release.

Jess rested for a moment, hot breath warming the back of Mattie's neck, and then with a light groan, she raised herself from the bed.

Mattie rolled over and draped an arm across her forehead, watching Jess fasten her pants. "God . . .," she moaned.

"Miss Mattie?"

The schoolteacher jumped up from the bed, smoothing her skirt and hastily buttoning her blouse. She glanced down at the bed and spread the quilt over the signs of last night's and today's passion, then moved to the door and cracked it open a couple of inches. A small delegation stood uncertainly at the far end of the hallway.

"Yes, Frank?"

"Miss Mattie, are you all right? We've been waitin' . . . ."

"I'm fine, Frank."

"You're better than fine," Jess whispered in her ear, earning a swat from the harried schoolmistress.

"I'm just having a talk with Miss Chambers," Mattie called out. "I'll be right out." She closed the door and leaned back against it.

"Miss Chambers? Why, Miss Brunson, I wish you'd call me by my first name." Jess arched an eyebrow. "You did last night, as I recall."

Mattie smiled. "So, what are your plans?"

"I've split from my men," Jess said casually. "So I've got to take care of a few things, and then--"

"Wait." The gunfighter's first words were still sinking in. "You've split from your men?"

Jess shrugged, but Mattie wasn't fooled--something was going on here. Calm. She needed to keep calm. "What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm going to get my stash, and then . . . I don't know, do something different. I was getting bored with it."

"Take me with you."

The words hung thickly in the air, and Mattie's heart leapt. The fact that Jess hadn't immediately rejected it meant she had a chance, and she had to take it. Her life depended on it.

"Don't be ridiculous," Jess said.

"I'm not."

Jess tucked in her shirt. She needed to get out of here. "Yes, you are. You're better off here."

"No, I'm not." Mattie took a deep breath, preparing herself for a verbal battle. "I want to go with you."

"It's a hard life," Jess said.

"I know that. It's not that easy here, either, when you want to be somewhere else."

Jess frowned. How could she convince the woman of what should already have been obvious? "There's no shelter on the road," she said. "It's damned hot during the day and damned cold at night."

"I can handle the heat, and we can keep each other warm at night."

Jess averted her gaze. An image of keeping warm at night with the beautiful blonde flashed into her head, the words having their intended effect.

"I can rub your shoulders when you're tired," Mattie said, edging closer. "And do your washing . . . and teach you to read . . . and be there for you . . . ."

Jess listened to the hypnotic words, then shook her head slightly to clear her thoughts. "You have to kill your own food," she said. "Have you ever killed anything?"

Mattie considered it. "You can kill it; I'll cook it."

"We wouldn't travel well together. We don't have anything in common."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." Mattie arched an eyebrow.

Jess couldn't deny that they were extraordinarily compatible in bed. She could only imagine what it would be like as they became more familiar with each others' bodies. "Maybe I could stop by Myersville once in a while," she said tentatively, cringing as the smile disappeared from Mattie's face.

If that was all she could get of Jess Chambers, Mattie would take it. But she wasn't ready to concede the war yet. "That's it?" she said. "I get to roll around with you a couple of times a year? Your 'Myersville stop'?"

Jess reached out a hand to her shoulder. "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."

"You need me," Mattie said. She waved her hand dismissively. "Not for that. I know you can get that anywhere."

Jess blinked, suddenly realizing that she didn't want to get 'that' anywhere else. She started to speak, but closed her mouth again. She wasn't thinking straight.

"I mean, to help you." She gazed earnestly at Jess. "We could visit your mother."

Jess stiffened. "I don't think she'd be thrilled to see me."

"I could tell her that you've changed."

The gunfighter looked skeptical, but Mattie sensed an opening and plunged in. "If it doesn't work out, you can put me on a stage back home. I won't resist."

Jess ran her tongue across her lips. Maybe it wouldn't hurt for a while . . . . Oh, hell, what was she thinking? "Forget it," she said, turning away from entreating eyes. "It's not safe."

"If I wanted safe, I'd stay here. I've only been attacked once in my whole life, and it was by three of your men." Jess looked at her, and Mattie nodded. "I saw them." She cocked her head curiously. "They were on their way to meet you, weren't they?" Jess nodded, and Mattie chuckled. "It's funny; when you stopped them, I thought . . . ." She laughed again. "But it was because they broke your 'rule.'"

Jess shook her head. "No, it wasn't. I wanted to kill them because they hurt you. If they hadn't been my own men, I would have."

Mattie flashed back to Jess's face as her strong hand squeezed the life from the man who had attacked her. She had no doubt that Jess was capable of it. "Besides," she said, returning to the subject at hand, "Nothing'll happen to me. I'll be with you." It was a mistake, she realized instantly.

"That's why something will happen to you," Jess said angrily. "They won't care if you're in the way; you'll be just an inconvenience to swat aside." Or use against me, Jess added mentally. "You have no idea what's out there," she said. "There are a lot of people who'll be gunning for me."

"I understand that. But the longer you go without . . . you know . . . maybe people will stop trying to challenge you."

"I'm not talking about those people, Mattie, although some day one of them may get lucky."

"What are you talking about?"

Jess marched over to Mattie's dresser, yanking open the bottom drawer and pulling out the stack of booklets. From the sketches on their covers, she selected several and lay them side by side on the bed. Finally, she took one with an image of her and placed it above the others. "This is how it works."

Mattie stared at the rough diagram, then looked up at Jess with comprehension in her eyes. "These are all your men?"

Steely blue eyes bore into her. "Yes. And everyone who rides with them. And not just these; a lot more. Everyone they've killed, everything they've taken, has been under my hand," Jess said. "Now do you understand what I was saying about not being a nice person?"

Mattie gaped down at the images, unable to meet Jess's angry gaze.

"I'm going to go get our stash, the extra money and gold we've stowed away over the years. It was supposed to set us up in Mexico when the time came, and they're going to want it back." Jess softened her tone. "Now do you see?"

The schoolteacher's ashen face gave Jess her answer. "Why not just let them have it?" Mattie asked.

"What? No way. I earned that money."

"But . . . ." Mattie held her hands out. "It's . . . ."

"Stolen? I don't give a damn. It's mine now."

"You don't need it," Mattie persisted.

"Do you just expect us to live in the woods? You don't ever want a new dress? Or a bath in a real tub? Or a new book? That's no life."

Us. Mattie heard her words, and wanted to cry out. Jess was thinking about it. She was almost there. "You could earn money some other way," she said.

Jess raised an eyebrow, inviting the schoolmistress to enlighten her.

"You could help with the harvest."

Jess pursed her lips.

"Well, you have a lot of skills, don't you? You could do something else." Mattie scrunched up her face. "Umm . . . ."

Jess held her hand up. "I'm going for the stash." She looked down at the teacher's disappointed face, and sighed. "Look, maybe we can give some of it back."

Mattie brightened, visions of new schools and churches throughout the region materializing in her brain.

Jess's eyes narrowed. "Some of it," she repeated.

Mattie nodded, suppressing a smile. We'll see, she thought. "OK. When are you going to get it?"

"That's where I'm headed now," Jess said. "They'll be right behind me."

"Are you sure they'll figure out what you're doing?" Mattie asked. "They might--"

Jess placed her hands on the smaller woman's shoulders, forcing her to meet her hard gaze. "Mattie, they know it already. Do you think they just gave me the stuff to bring back here?"

Mattie's brow furrowed. "You . . .?"

"The ones who are still alive will be heading out right now to meet Ellis--" Jess pointed down at one of the books -- "and the others. There is honor among thieves, Mattie, and the punishment for betraying it is severe. I've carried it out myself." She picked up a booklet whose cover bore the image of a man with a scar on his chin, and pitched it meaningfully over her shoulder.

"You killed him?"

"Without thinking twice. And a hundred more, Mattie. Bad ones, good ones, it didn't matter to me."

"It matters to you now."

"You think so?" Jess said scornfully.

"Yes. You could have killed Jared when he drew on you in front of the church. You didn't."

"I wasn't going to--." Jess stopped. Kill an innocent in front of you, she had been going to say, but she wasn't ready to give that kind of power to this woman. "Think what you like," she said.

"I will," Mattie replied quietly. She knew the truth. Suddenly her eyes lit up, and she reached out a hand. "Hey! That's it!"

Jess eyed her suspiciously. "What's it?"

"These men are going to try to kill you, right?"

"Yeah . . . ."

"And some of them are wanted by the law?"

"Yeah . . . ." Jess wasn't sure she wanted to know where this was going.

"And you're better than they are."

Jess opened her mouth, but the excited woman bubbled on before she had a chance to respond.

"So--when they come after you, you conk them on the head, and we'll collect the reward money." Mattie smiled brightly at her.

Conk them on the head? Jess gaped at her. Mattie didn't seem to have a full grasp of how these things worked.

"Uh huh," she said. "And when I get to the sheriff's office for my reward, I'll just tell him to add one on for myself."

"For you? There aren't any charges pending against you."

A corner of Jess's mouth turned up. "Yeah, right."

"But . . . you told Winston--" Mattie cut short her sentence at the amused look on Jess's face. Suddenly she laughed, happy that she wasn't the only one in town who had blindly accepted Jess Chambers' word for something. "All right," she said, "I'll collect the money then."

Jess clamped her lips together, picturing the tiny schoolmistress hauling Snake Ellis's 300- pound carcass into a sheriff's office and demanding her reward. "Mattie, I don't think--"

"Miss Mattie? You comin' out?"

Mattie turned her head toward the sound, then looked back at Jess for the answer. "I'm willing to risk anything to be with you, Jess, even if it's only a short while," she said. "I won't survive otherwise."

Jess closed her eyes. This was so wrong, her head screamed, but for once she would let her heart make the decision. And when Mattie Brunson lay dead at her feet, she would never make that mistake again. "All right. For a while."

"Oh, Jess!" Mattie hugged her ecstatically, and Jess smiled in spite of herself, wrapping her arms around her lover's back. Finally, Mattie released her, and moved over to check her hair and clothing in the mirror. "Come on," she said excitedly. "We'd better get this over with."

* * *

"You're mad, girl!"

"This woman is a--" The speaker glanced nervously at Jess.

Leaning casually against the bookcase in Mattie's parlor, the outlaw swept her hand generously across the outraged delegation. "Go ahead," she invited, watching in amusement as one of the town's elders struggled to contain his explosion. Finally, he couldn't take it any more.

"--a no-account, thieving, lying, murderin' criminal!"

"--a ruthless cutthroat--"

"--a blackhearted, lawless abomination to God--"

The schoolteacher peeked over at her lover, who shrugged. She couldn't deny any of that. Mattie frowned as four more citizens stepped into the room, whether drawn by the growing commotion or responding to the town's lightning rumor mill, she didn't know.

"Um . . . well, some of that may be true," Mattie said, quickly raising her hands to forestall additional opinions. "But she's changing her ways. I'm going to help her."

"She set us up before, Mattie."

Mattie couldn't tell who had said it, so she addressed the crowd in general. "Yes, I know. But she came back, didn't she? She brought our things back."

"You're fooling yourself, child." ". . . God-awful mistake . . . ." ". . . lost your senses . . . ." Mattie waited patiently while more dire warnings emanated from within the crowd.

"We can't let you do this, Miss Mattie."

The last remark caught Jess's attention, and she straightened. "No one is going to make her do anything, or keep her from doing anything," she warned in a low voice. "She's a grown woman, and if she wants to go, she'll go. If she wants to stay" -- she met Mattie's gaze -- "she can stay."

"I'm going," Mattie said.

The town's midwife, wringing her hands in distress, called out to her. "Think about your parents, girl."

"I'll stop by and see them when we leave." She glanced at Jess, silently asking if they could do that, and read her answer in a subtle change of expression. Mattie smiled her thanks. "They'll be all right, and I'll be well taken care of."

An hour later, Mattie trudged into her bedroom and frowned at her lazy lover reclining on the bed. "Well, that was fun. Nothing like forty people telling you that you're crazy."

"Forty, huh?"

"Oh, yeah. You missed the good part. After you abandoned me--"

Jess grinned. "You know they thought I was intimidating you out there."

"--even more helpful advisers showed up. After a while, some of them started arguing among themselves -- you know, whether I'm crazy or just stupid."

"Tough choice. Which do you think?"

Destiny, Mattie thought. We were meant to be together. She glanced down at the woman on the bed. "Both, probably. Guess I should get packed."

"Mm hmm."

Mattie brought a thumb to her lips, trying to decide what she should take. She could use some direction, but she hated to bother Sleeping Beauty over there. Clothing, she assumed, and personal hygiene items. What else might come in handy?

Jess opened her eyes as something heavy landed on the bed, and moved her head to take in the considerable pile of personal items the young woman had gathered together. Mattie looked down at it uncertainly. "Is it too much?"

Jess bit back a remark. "Just a little." She rolled over and picked up a book from the pile. "What's this?"

"Flora and Fauna of the New Territories," Mattie said. She held up another. "Friend and Foe in the Wilds, and--"

Jess placed a hand over hers. "Mattie, we don't really have room for all that," she said gently. "I've been surviving on my own for ten years."

"Oh." Mattie reddened. "Of course."

Jess got to her feet and reached into the pile again, chucking unnecessary items in the general direction of the headboard. "One outfit. No Sunday clothes." She glanced over at Mattie. "Do you have anything practical?"

Mattie bent down and picked up the casual dress she had begun to change into earlier, when Jess had . . . distracted her. She held it out hopefully.

"That's fine." Jess turned back to the pile and rolled her eyes. "One bar of soap. A comb." The stack at the head of the bed grew steadily, until there was very little left in Mattie's pile. "That's all that will fit, Mattie."

Mattie pressed her lips together, nodding, then walked over to her pack and drew something out. She opened the top drawer of her nightstand and started to place the notebooks inside, but Jess grabbed her arm. "There's room for those."

Mattie shook her head. "It's OK. I don't need them."

"If you're sure," Jess said, and Mattie nodded, a lump forming in her throat. "Do you have any medical supplies?" Jess asked.

"Some. Do you want them?"

"Yeah, we'll probably be needing them."

Mattie frowned affectionately at her. "Gee, you always know just what to say."

Jess grinned, and watched Mattie leave to get the supplies from her linen closet. The outlaw quietly opened the nightstand drawer and pulled out the notebooks, then stepped over to her own pack and peered inside. Drawing out an extra shirt, she shoved it into the drawer, then slid the notebooks inside the pack.

Glancing at the dresser, a smirk formed on Jess's face and she crossed the floor, grabbing the handles of the bottom drawer. Sorting through the booklets, she picked out the three with a woman on the cover and stuffed them into her pack. She had a feeling she'd get some mileage out of those. Light footsteps sounded in the hall, and Jess lay back on the bed, crossing her arms behind her head.

Mattie entered the room with a linen bag. "How much of this do you want?"

Her eyes closed, Jess said, "Just as much as we can carry on the horse."

"The horse." Mattie frowned. "You, know, I'm not really much for riding," she said cautiously.

Jess smiled. "I know."

"That horse you made me ride back here threw me twice."

"Well, if you'd spent more time paying attention to the road, and less time thinking of unladylike names to call me, you might have had better luck."

"I--" Mattie paused. "How did you know that?"

No reply.

"You followed me," she said.

"Are you about ready? I'd like to take off sometime today, if possible."

"You made sure I got home all right," Mattie persisted.

"You've been reading too many of your own books."

Silence followed, and Jess opened her eyes to see Mattie gazing warmly down at her. "Think what you like," she growled.

I will, Mattie thought, smiling. She picked up her bags, and the two women walked outside.


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