Standard Legal Stuff: So far, although the main protagonists bear an odd resemblance to a certain warrior and bard, these characters are all mine.

Violence: Well, yes, there be violence here. Nothing too graphic, but if you’re really squeamish, read something else.

Sex: Well, yes, that too. This is mostly about two women who fall very much in love, and Goddess willing, people who are in love do occasionally have sex. You might also find some additional sexual activity between other partners of random genders -- I make no promises, nor any apologies. If that’s not what you want to read or you’re under 18, there’s lots of other wonderful fanfic out there, so stop reading now. Of course, if that is what you want to read, please enjoy yourself.

Bad Language: Sorry, but there's a bit of that here and there too -- I confess, some of these characters can curse a blue streak.

Other: Although I’ve generally tried to be historically accurate, I didn’t really beat myself up over it either. If some odd detail (or, more likely, a major assumption I’ve made) really bugs you, drop me a line and I’ll change it. Or I won’t. It’s my story, so it’s my call.

This is my first Uber, so let me know what you think. Avoid bending, exposure to magnetic fields, or immersion in benzene. Comments and criticism can be sent to bracer99@mindspring.com.

 

Straight Through The Heart
By Bracer


Prolog

Fort Adams, Rhode Island, November 2, 1889

 

"These women did completely dangerous, ridiculous stunts that really proved nothing … and yet because they got your attention these women did them, and it was a way for them to enter journalism." -- Catherine Robe




This is stupid this is stupid this is stupid…

You’re really going to die this time, Jackie thought as she looked across the courtyard, trying to see into the army sergeant’s eyes as he carefully adjusted his rifle for the umpteenth time. As hideously frightened as she was, Jackie couldn’t help feeling a bit impatient. And when Jackie Revere got frightened, or worse, impatient, she invariably got angry.

Buck up, Jackie, she snarled at herself. Taking a half step away from the wall, she held her arms out from her sides and arched her back, throwing her bosom forward to make herself an even easier target. Ah, that caught his attention, she fumed as their eyes finally met. She glared at him from across the twenty or so yards that separated them. "Just shoot me already you dumb bastard!" she growled under her breath. For just a moment she fancied that, considering his change of expression, he might have somehow heard her as well.

Whatever the reason, Jackie saw his eyes grow hard. Then, in all honesty, she remembered nothing further.




Chapter One

 

"If one would become great, two things are absolutely necessary. The first is to know yourself. The second is not to let the world know you." -- Elizabeth Jane Cochran, known to the world as "Nellie Bly"




Matthew Salmon was a bear of a man with a barrel chest and deep, thundering voice that threatened to shatter nearby windows if he raised it. Unfortunately, he was also horribly nearsighted, and his intimidating presence was ultimately compromised by the nearly quarter inch thick -- though little more than an inch in diameter -- perfectly round lensed glasses perched on his nose.

The effect of the silver framed pince-nez was, in Jackie’s mind anyway, to make him seem rather like the glass-eyed, oversized, toy variety of bear one might see in a store window around Christmas time, rather than an untamed grizzly in the woods. And in the year and a half since they’d first met, when he’d moved up from New York to take over as managing editor, Jackie had gone from refusing to be intimidated by him, to simply realizing she didn’t need to be.

His office, however, was a study in chaos and intimidating in its own way: File cabinets bulged and papers littered every available surface. Yet he insisted there was a "system" to it, and Jackie had seen him pull exactly the right document out of the piles often enough that she had, at last, grudgingly come to believe it.

"Anyway," he was saying, "it seems you bumped us up another thousand or so with that last one, so I suppose it was worthwhile. The public is eating it up." He tossed the latest Boston Dispatch to her across his mammoth oak desk.

Jackie caught the thick newsweekly, then smoothed it down over her lap, studying the artist’s rendition that accompanied the story and the attention-grabbing, two-inch high headline, "Straight Through the Heart! Jackie Revere feels what it’s like to be shot!" Jackie smiled. I doubt I looked nearly that brave. She almost chuckled. Must thank Henry for drawing me that way. Her hand strayed unconsciously to her sternum, where an angry bruise as big as her fist was hidden under the bodice of her dress. Yet the cloth and iron contraption the military was testing as a "bullet proof vest" had indeed proven impenetrable to rifle fire after all. Not the worst injury I’ve ever gotten in this job either, she mused. Still, it beats being a seamstress… Or worse, married off.

Two years before, Nellie Bly at the New York World had taken the reading public by storm with her combination of gutsy hard news pieces, sensational stunts, and flirtatious sex appeal. In response to her overwhelming popularity, by now nearly every major metropolitan newspaper in the country had its own competing "stunt girl," and Jackie had seized on the opportunity. Though perhaps a trifle short, her blonde-haired, green eyed good looks, fiery sense of right and wrong, and frank sincerity had made her a natural for the mold, and it got her foot in the door to pursue her dream of becoming a "real" journalist. Of course, it had scandalized her parents -- the Reveres were as old money Boston blueblood as anyone could be. Yet by the time Jackie had been twenty years old and gotten the job, she’d already scandalized her parents in so many ways that Jackie’s great success and popularity at the Dispatch had finally reduced their constant -- if somewhat empty -- threats of disowning her to a mere grumbling.

However, over the last two years the genuinely worthwhile stories of injustice and corruption had been steadily giving way to the ultimately meaningless, if ever more dangerous and sensational stunt pieces. Though such adventures were always exciting, Jackie had begun seriously wondering how much longer she could keep it up. She had increasingly come to believe that something in her life that should have been there, simply wasn’t.

"I have to admit though," Salmon continued on through her musings, "it’s a good piece. The way you wrote it, I mean."

She looked up, realizing that Matthew Salmon had gifted her with one of his infrequent compliments. "Thank you, Mr. Salmon," she began, her heavy Boston Brahmin accent making her sound almost like an Englishwoman. Then, once again, she tried turning him back to the story she really wanted to do. "I have my next story lined up. It seems that some gang of policemen are beating women they happen across over on the East Side. Then these women are arrested, for no reason at all, I gather. There are perhaps as many as a half-dozen policemen involved, and several poor, but otherwise law-abiding women are willing to come forward. So, I’d like…"

Salmon sighed. "No," he said.

"But…"

"No," Salmon said, with a note of finality. "If I let you do this, you’re going to go to the East Side, dressed as an immigrant or some other low-class sort, and wait around to be beaten, just for a story. I’ve had enough of you putting your life on the line." He grunted, crossing to the large window that dominated the far wall of his office and staring out over the street below, one hand clutching his other wrist behind his back. It was a stance and a habit Jackie had come to associate with Salmon doling out bad news. In reflex she braced herself.

Yet she had no idea how bad the news would be.

He paused for a moment, then continued without actually looking at her. "Besides, something’s happened and having you out on the streets isn’t exactly safe right now."

Jackie furrowed her brows. "How so?"

"William Vanes slipped the noose this morning," he said simply. "He’s out on bail."

Jackie blinked, suddenly feeling all the blood in her veins turn to ice. "I thought that wasn’t possible."

He grunted again. "God Jackie, he’s the second wealthiest man in Boston. Anything’s possible. It’s something of a miracle he stayed in as long as he did." Salmon abruptly turned and resumed his place behind his desk, though he remained standing. He took a breath, obviously not liking what he had to say next. "Those two dock workers who were set to testify turned up dead last night -- fell in the river. Drunk they say. Which only leaves…"

"Me," Jackie finished for him. Though she tried to suppress it, she couldn’t help shuddering, seized by the memory of a pair of black eyes above a cruel smile.

Vanes towered over her, examining her half-naked body with the clear hunger of a predator. "Oh, yes," he sneered in undisguised lust, watching her struggle against her bonds and the two heavily muscled sailors who painfully gripped her arms. "She has fire. I’ll enjoy breaking this one -- maybe she’ll even last a while."

Salmon’s voice found its way through the momentary fog of Jackie’s mind. "You’re the only living person willing or able to testify he was in the warehouse that night."

Jackie abruptly stood herself. "But that doesn’t make sense," she began, pacing. "I did three major stories! I reported details! What? Do they think I just made up a white slavery ring?"

"Actually, yes," Salmon replied calmly. "His attorneys are claiming it’s pure fabrication -- not the fact that such a thing was operating in this city, there’s too much hard evidence for that -- but the fact he was running it. They’re saying you were hysterical, not in your right mind, pointing out you were the one who set the fire…"

"Because there was no other way to escape!" Jackie was practically shouting now, her characteristic anger taking over after her initial fear. "If I hadn’t, those poor women would be on their way to the Orient by now! I was thinking with perfect clarity! It worked didn’t it?"

"What I believe doesn’t matter," Salmon said, sighing as he finally resumed his seat. "All that matters is what a judge can be convinced of. They’re saying you’re obsessed with him, possibly hallucinated that Vanes was there. It didn’t help you’ve been a thorn in his side for almost two years, accusing him of all kinds of outrageous crimes."

Jackie spun to face him. "Why? Because his shipping companies are a sham? Because his ships are so ill kept every third one sinks? Because all his money actually comes from opium dens and any other kind of smuggling you can name?"

"You can’t prove that," Salmon said, lifting his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He mused that she wasn’t any worse, really, than any of the male muckrakers he’d dealt with over the years -- this kind of passion was just part of the breed -- but since he prided himself on being the sort of man who’d never hit a woman, he couldn’t simply shove Jackie back in her chair like he frequently did with his other reporters when their tirades began to annoy him. Not that even that would’ve worked in her case, he knew deep down.

"Oh I can," Jackie replied crossing her arms. "Just give me a couple of weeks and…"

Salmon stood quickly, leaning across his desk with his fists planted on the surface, catching her eyes. "You’ll be dead in a couple of weeks, Jackie," he said, calmly but with a firm seriousness. "In fact, you’ll be lucky to last a couple of days. We have to get you out of Boston and as far away as possible immediately. Or don’t you want to live until Vanes’ trial?"

Jackie’s eyes narrowed, but she went silent and stopped pacing. "So what will I do for the next three months?" she asked, with the hint of a sneer. "Won’t the Dispatch readers miss their ‘stunt girl?’"

Salmon shook his head, resumed his seat. "Well, we’ve caught a bit of a break there." He began rummaging through the folders that littered his desk. "Keep this to yourself, but I’ve a friend at the New York World who tells me that Nellie Bly is going to try and break Phineas Fogg’s record for an around the world trip -- never mind he’s a fictional character, she’s going to try. For the next eighty days, no other stunt is even going to matter. In fact, we’re already negotiating to re-print her stories."

A number of emotions flashed through Jackie in rapid succession: Anger at being pre-empted for another reporter’s story, frustration at not having thought of the idea herself, then finally a quiet admiration for what Bly was attempting. Ah Nellie, she thought, smiling slightly, there’s good reason you’re the one we all look up to. You’ll show the world now, woman!

She broke herself out of her thoughts, suddenly feeling much calmer, then decided to resume her seat, her crinolined skirt rustling loudly as she crossed her legs and settled back. "That still doesn’t answer the question," she said. "What shall I do for the next three months? I don’t intend to sit on my backside somewhere."

Salmon rolled his eyes. "Wouldn’t dream of it," he sighed. This kind of never-quite-crude directness was Jackie’s trademark. She could play the demure, high-bred woman until it suited her to pounce, then she’d let fly with either vague profanities or strange intimacies, whichever the situation called for. It worked, invariably throwing off whoever she interviewed and giving her the perfect opening.

It used to work on him too, but by now he’d known her too long. He began sifting through the papers that were piled haphazardly across nearly every inch of his desk. "And actually, I’ve got a story you can chase -- and chase far away from here. It’s just your kind of story too, I’m willing to bet." Finding the right folder, he opened it up and lay it down facing her. "Farrell Parker. Know the name?"

Jackie glanced at the meager contents of the folder, seemingly unimpressed, then leaned forward and picked it up. "No, I don’t. Should I?"

Salmon briefly shrugged. "I guess not. She’s a bit of a mystery woman, the daughter of Captain Blake Parker, a…"

"Texas Ranger," Jackie finished for him. "Yes, I believe I’ve heard of him. Go on."

Salmon almost smiled, but caught himself. "Well, word has it she may have even been a Ranger herself, although no one will confirm it."

Jackie’s eyes went wide for a moment, then she snorted. "Typical."

Salmon let it pass. "What is known is that after her father died, she was with the Pinkertons for about seven years. Although like everything about the Pinkertons, information is a little sketchy, her arrest record was apparently second to none."

Jackie was by now intently scanning the slim folder. It consisted almost entirely of newspaper clippings from out west. "Black McGreggor Brought to Justice," read one. "Pinkerton Detective Ends Rustling Scourge," read another. The one that caught her eye was the most recent, dated almost two years ago: "Strike Ends when Leaders Die in Riot: Pinkerton Detectives Instrumental in Quelling Disturbance at Balfour Mine." Her eyebrow raised at that one. She’s a strikebreaker?

"The point is," Salmon continued, "about a year and a half ago, she disappeared, probably somewhere in the Dakota territories…"

"States," Jackie said absently without looking up.

"Huh?" Salmon stumbled.

"States," she repeated, raising her eyes briefly. "North and South Dakota. They aren’t territories anymore. As of yesterday, in fact."

He blinked himself, thinking she wouldn’t catch him behind his thick lenses. Then, realizing that she had, he decided not to be annoyed. He sighed to buy time. "Right. Page two."

Regaining his train of thought, he continued. "Anyway, so that’s the most likely place to start. In addition to being an … interesting subject in her own right, I’m curious why one of the Pinkerton’s best and brightest would just up and quit." He gave a barely perceptible smile, knowing by the way Jackie was poring over the handful of clippings she was hooked, then couldn’t help goading her anyway. "Although she’s a woman, so who knows? I’ll bet she finally just found herself a proper husband and had a couple of kids by now."

Looking up from the folder, Jackie shot him a glare and contemplated not taking the bait, then decided for the millionth time that such comments couldn’t be let go, even if said in jest. "You know perfectly well, Mr. Salmon, that women are more than capable on their own. A husband is not a necessary part of the equation."

Salmon smiled slightly, shaking his head. "Yes, yes -- marching for suffrage and all that. Thank goodness my wife doesn’t agree with you." He waved her down from launching into a speech he’d heard too many times. "Let’s let it drop for now, eh? We need to figure how to get you out of Boston as soon as possible."

Jackie stood, gathering up her bag and gloves. "I’ll be gone by tonight. No time like the present."

Salmon stood as well. "Now hang on -- I’ve got two men coming tomorrow. They’ll go with you, and…"

"No," Jackie replied simply, if somewhat forcefully.

"Jackie, you need…"

"No," she repeated. "The best protection I can have is for no one to know where I’m going or how I’m going to get there -- Vanes has eyes and ears everywhere, as I’m sure you’re well aware. In fact," she paused, looking away, thinking, "there’s been a lorry parked across from my building for the last week. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s already watching." She looked back at her editor. "You haven’t discussed this assignment with anyone else have you?"

He sat down, rubbing his temples. "No, of course not."

"Good. Then you and I are the only ones who’ll know where I’ll be. I’ll send you a message once every couple of weeks or so."

"Once every week," he replied.

She sighed, then said with mock exasperation, "Oh very well -- once every week. I’ll send them to the post around the corner, general delivery in care of…" She paused, then smiled. "David Hume. Can you remember that?"

He jotted the name down. "Sure. You need anything else? Money?"

"Money is the one thing I’ve never lacked for. I’ll be back in time for the trial," she said over her shoulder as she gathered her coat from the rack in the corner before turning back. "And Matthew?"

"Yes?" He looked up, the warm, vaguely indulgent smile on her face causing a nearly identical one to break out on his own.

"In spite of our differences, you’ve always been a good friend. I’ll be just fine. Thank you."

Salmon found he couldn’t lose the smile, even as he waved her off. "Get going Jackie, and for God’s sake, stay safe -- I want Vanes put away as much as you do."

"I’ll be just fine," she repeated. "See you in three months." With that, she opened the heavy oak door of the office, stepped through, and closed it behind her.

Women, he mentally snorted. I hope she knows what she’s doing.

Matthew Salmon had no way of knowing that this was the last glimpse he would ever have of Jackie Revere.




Jackie kept it together until she was safely locked inside the first floor restroom. It smelled heavily of cigars and urine, but the fact barely registered as she leaned back hard against the door and clutched her arms tightly around herself. "Buck up, buck up, buck up…" she repeated, willing her trembling limbs to stop.

Finally, wrestling herself under some measure of control, she stepped over to the sink and gazed at herself in the cracked mirror that hung from the wall. "All right Jackie, first order of business is to get away from Boston. No doubt the train stations will be watched, so you’ll have to figure some way to slip out quietly and catch one in Cambridge … no, Providence would be even better. It’s the opposite way. Pack lightly but pack warm -- it’ll be cold out west, especially as far north as the Dakotas. Woolen underwear, and pants will be a must. In fact…" She smiled. "If you dress as a man now … well, all right, a young man, that would probably be enough to throw them off while you get away…"

She turned the tap and ran some freezing cold water over her hands and wrists before daubing a bit over her face. "No sense in even heading back to the flat if it’s likely being watched -- you can telegram Mrs. Quimby and have her shut off the gas. Go to the bank, draw some cash, buy what you need, and make your way from there."

Looking up, she caught her own gaze. Well, I wanted a change. Perhaps a trek through some wild north country is just what I need…

I just hope I know what I’m doing.




It was a bright, crisp morning as the dark haired woman gazed out over the rolling plain below. Though cold, the early winter skies hadn’t seen fit to dump much snow yet over this part of the Dakotas, for which she was grateful, and not only for herself. The wagonload of blankets she brought to the village the week before had been welcomed by Sitting Bull and his people, as had the extra food she’d packed under the blankets to shore up their meager supplies. Between that and the uncharacteristically mild weather up until now, most of them on the reservation might just make it through another winter. The Hunkapa Sioux were allowed to hunt, of course, but the paltry stretch of land they’d been forced onto had little game. The buffalo they traditionally depended on had long since been decimated to near extinction for their fur, sent back east to line the coats of wealthy men and women who’d never once laid eyes on the majestic beasts that as little as ten years ago had darkened the plains with their numbers.

She glanced at the sky, noting the clouds coming in from the north, and knew the first heavy snows of winter would be arriving before tomorrow. Hope them spirits you pray to keep you and yours warm Sitting Bull … you’re gonna need it about now.

A small flock of ducks caught her eye overhead, late starters, heading south, fleeing the coming storm. She counted them idly. Twelve. "Number twelve," she said quietly, thinking. "Mexican Federale. Bar in Taos. He moved first. Blew his teeth out the back of his head…"

She closed her eyes, then stood, settling the heavy drover coat more comfortably across her shoulders before turning to the task of breaking down her spare camp, with thoughts of her equally spare cabin in her head. I’ll push it today. Get me there a little after nightfall, but not by much, she mused. Then it’s just settle in, hole up for winter.

She sighed, glancing over at Churro, her draft horse, and the small wagon of additional supplies she’d put together for herself, which included the dozen or so books and a scattering of magazines and papers she’d managed to buy here and there. Yeah, and what an excitin’ winter it’ll be. Still, could be worse -- could be spendin’ it somewhere other than my own place.

In the twenty months since Blaze Parker had decided she’d had more than enough of the world, she’d never really once regretted the decision to leave it mostly behind. Her self-imposed exile was, she supposed, doing her all the good she expected. The brief, necessary periods she spent in civilization were manageable, but still irksome enough to make her glad when she could be on her own again, and this last sojourn had been especially trying. Every town she stopped in was celebrating the Dakotas’ entry into the Union, which meant everywhere she went was full of drunks regaling her with earnest homilies about "taming" the west.

But she knew too well the ugly side of taming something that was never meant to be tamed. Her time spent with the backhand side of the "Manifest Destiny" -- with the Sioux -- was a comfort of sorts. They never judged, and were always happy to see her, even in those times when she couldn’t bring them anything more than another pair of hands to pitch in.

Yet the sheer desperation that permeated everything about the Standing Rock reservation, and her own inability to do anything about it other than in the most trivial of ways, made her want to flee it as badly as the unearned brashness of white settlements.

No two ways about it, she thought again as she saddled Skybolt, her mare, the world is too damn screwed up to live in. It don’t want no part of me, and I sure as hell don’t want no part of it. Reckon that makes us even.

She double checked her twin Colt Dragoon pistols and slipped them into the holsters at her sides. Although almost thirty-five years old -- in fact, they were even older than she was -- they’d always served her well, and her father before. They weren’t the only guns she carried but they were the most visible, and that was deliberate. Just the sight alone of the massive, .44-caliber long barrels was often enough to ward off trouble. And if that didn’t do it, the godawful blast they made going off could knock a man from his horse at twenty paces, even if she weren’t aiming in his particular direction.

The cap and ball Colt revolvers took forever to reload, however, so she also carried half a dozen fully loaded additional cylinders in snapped leather cases along the back of her belt. The Dragoons’ four-pound weight also meant they were less than ideal in a quick draw, so a smaller, lighter, almost brand-new Smith & Wesson double action hung at an angle across her belly in easy reach, while its twin hung in a shoulder holster, hidden beneath her coat under her left arm. A Spencer long rifle was strapped along the saddle, while a derringer in one boot and a Bowie knife in the other completed the walking armory. She’d always been loaded for bear, ever since she was old enough to hold a weapon. Her Pa’s dictum, "No one never died from carrying too many guns, but plenty have died from carryin’ too few," was so ingrained in her since practically the day she was born, she never even gave it a thought.

Still, she didn’t need them that day, which passed in uneventful, blessed silence, broken only by the steady thumping of the horses’ hooves, the rattling of the wagon, and the growing wind in the trees. She stopped briefly only once, to water and feed the horses at a stream and dig out some jerky for herself. There were, she counted, twenty-three strips of jerky left in the pouch when she was done.

Twenty-three, she thought, then frowned. "Bad one. Drunk, pig mean cowboy who cut up one of Meg’s girls. Shot him six times ‘fore he got it he was dead. Awful mess. Course, I was drunk too." She sighed. An’ the girl died anyway. Jasmine, wasn’t it?

The wind kept picking up as she rode, and she upgraded her estimate of the storm to a full-on blizzard, but the thought didn’t especially concern her -- the pace she was setting would easily get her back before it hit. And true enough, perhaps an hour after dark, her small cabin came into view.

Trouble was, it shouldn’t have. In the dark and with the clouds, she’d have to be almost on top of it before the cabin was really visible. But the flickering light of a low fire through the windows was unmistakable from over a hundred yards off.

"Damn," she muttered, dropping from her horse and drawing one of the Colts. She looped Churro’s lead around the saddle horn and patted Skybolt on the nose. "Stay here girl. Watch out for your buddy, OK?"

She knew every possible avenue of stealthy approach to her own cabin, and had taken some pains to eliminate or booby-trap most of them. Still, with the now howling northern wind, she wouldn’t have to be too quiet.

Eyes picking through the dim light, she made a careful, if quick circle around the cabin, but found no sign of anyone hiding out or waiting in ambush. A quick glance inside the oversize shed that doubled for both storage and as a barn only served to puzzle her, as there was a small, light brown palomino inside, apparently brushed down, with a small saddle hung near the door.

OK then. Prob’ly safe to say there ain’t more than one, an’ they made themselves right comfortable. Now, why?

Creeping along the ground to the cabin, she chanced a peek into one of the shuttered windows, but found no one immediately visible. There weren’t a whole lot of places to hide inside. It was only one room, plus a pantry for storage, with little furniture besides a couple of chairs and a small table, plus a large bed against the far wall that was her one concession to comfort.

But the bed had drawers built into the frame below the mattress, so no one could have slipped underneath. The pantry door was wide open, and the only place left was the hidden bolt hole under the floorboards, but the trap door was still covered by the cedar chest.

Puzzled, she rose up a bit higher. Aha…

There, almost directly under her nose, stretched out on the floor next to the fireplace was a bedroll, with a shock of blonde hair peeking out from under the thick blanket. Blaze turned and sat on the ground, her back to the wall as she let out a breath.

While she stared out over the sloping hill that passed for her front yard, considering the best way to roust the stranger and send him on his way, just then the first flakes of snow began to fall, moving almost horizontal with the now frigid wind. "Perfect," she muttered. Well, Andre’s tradin’ post is only about ten miles down the hills. A body could make that by mornin’ easy…

In the dark.

In a blizzard.

"Ah hell," she muttered again, then just shook her head. She considered her options, then decided she was too tired to think about it. A day in the saddle was bad enough, but the adrenaline rush of discovering her cabin wasn’t empty was fading now too, leaving her worn out and irritable. You’re just gonna have to take your chances stranger. I ain’t in no mood for company. The decision made, she stood and readied her Colt. Direct approach. All there is for it…

She strode up the two steps and crossed the porch, throwing open the door. Two more fast steps brought her to one knee beside the bedroll while she held the Colt briefly to one side and drew the hammer back, the sharp clicking as it locked sounding every bit as loud and lethal as she intended. At the same time she used her left hand to yank away the blanket and press down hard on the stranger’s chest while her right brought the huge barrel of the Colt to within inches of his face…

Wide, frightened green eyes stared straight up into her own, blonde hair askew around smooth, hairless cheeks. For a brief half second, Blaze just stared back. A quick glance at the rest of the stranger’s body, clad in woolen long johns, confirmed it. A girl? Aw shit…

Keeping the Colt right where it was, she let out a breath. "OK," she began slowly, practically growling, never losing eye contact, "I’m gonna make a couple of guesses here, an’ you ain’t gonna say nothin’ -- you’re just gonna nod, OK?" The girl took a moment, blinking, then nodded back.

"OK. You got lost, or separated from your party -- go ahead, nod."

Eyes still wide, the girl did so.

"You saw my cabin was empty, an’ figured you’d shelter from the storm. Nod again."

Once again, the head bobbed up and down.

"An’ so you’ll be leavin’ soon as I can point you the right way, first light tomorrow. Nod one more time."

More bobbing, eager this time.

Blaze narrowed her eyes but let through a dark smile. "Good. Then you can stay the night. Now, get back to sleep."

The girl tried to rise, but Blaze pushed her back down. "Uh-uh. Don’t move. Don’t say nothin’. Sleep. You’ll need it since you’re leavin’ in the mornin’ an’ all. Got it?"

Another nod.

Lifting the Colt away, Blaze carefully let the hammer back down, then stood and holstered it before backing away to grab hold of the still open door. Oddly, neither she nor the girl broke eye contact.

The stranger began to raise herself up on her elbows, but Blaze held up a finger and gave a warning grunt. "Uh-uh. Sleep," she commanded quietly.

And to her complete surprise, the girl just smiled, nodded a final time, then pulled the blanket back up and proceeded to roll over and do just that -- sleep.

Blaze shook her own head, then stepped outside, closing the door behind her as she left.

Then it hit her. Most folks when you stick a gun in their face, they stare at the gun. But nah, she stared me straight in the eye.




Inside the cabin, Jackie rolled onto her back, threw an arm behind her head and stared at the ceiling in silent contemplation. So that’s Farrell Parker. She smiled. Well, the woman certainly knows how to make a first impression!

Jackie had been prepared for a somewhat … problematic introduction. Everything in the clippings she’d memorized and the information she’d gathered in tracking the woman down had led her to believe that Parker -- No, Blaze, she calls herself Blaze -- would be a "tough customer." And yet, nothing had prepared her for the dark woman’s surprising, intense beauty. And those eyes -- like fire burning in ice …oh my…

Jackie sighed, then smiled again. This is going to make an incredible story.




Chapter Two

Unfinished Stories Bracer's Realm