Rain Delay

By: Lelani

            The rain was pounding so heavily on the windshield that Walker was having trouble seeing the road. The rains had been bad and seemed to be getting worse. He wasn’t sure if he would hug Alex or strangle her when he finally saw her. She’d gone out to take a witnesses’ statement earlier that afternoon and had called him a little over an hour ago. Her car had refused to start and she was stuck in a little town over two hours outside of Dallas. Walker hunched his shoulders forward and peered through the windshield with all of his concentration. With this amount of rain, a flash flood or washed out road were both real possibilities.

Alex sat in the Sheriff’s office and looked outside at the weather. She’d tried just about everything she could think of before breaking down and calling Walker. No self-respecting tow truck driver was about to come rescue someone from the Sheriff’s station for a stalled car when there were cars in gully’s all up and down the interstate. Alex was fairly certain that the wet weather was the problem anyway. She’d gone through a few deep potholes when she’d driven out to meet with Anne Cummins.

Anne had been brutally attacked and raped nearly a year ago when she’d been living in Dallas. A suspect in a similar rape had been recently arrested and Alex was trying to tie the two cases together. In fact, she had five cases total that she was fairly confident she could pin on this guy. Anne’s testimony would be crucial and more than getting her statement, Alex had been out at her place applying a little arm-twisting to get her to agree to testify. Anne was reluctant, but Alex felt confident that if she could get the other women to testify, Anne would as well. She just didn’t want to have to face the guy alone and Alex really couldn’t blame her.

Anyway, that was neither here nor there. She’d gone against Walker’s advice and driven down despite the weather warnings. She thought she could get in to see Anne, talk with her and get out. That hadn’t happened. She’d stopped at the Sheriff’s station for directions after driving around in the rain for over an hour lost. Then she’d found Anne and their discussion had dragged out for several hours. Anne had simply bolted when she’d gotten out of the hospital. She ran back to the small town she’d come from, back to her parents’ ranch, and buried herself in the physical work required there. She’d never had counseling or confronted her fears and so she’d never worked through the trauma she’d gone through. Alex had a great deal of experience in dealing with women in similar circumstances, so she did what she could, but that took time.

When she’d left the ranch, she wasn’t certain she was going to make it to the main road. She’d finally gotten to the town, but thought it wise to stop at the Sheriff’s station to check on the roads home. The deputy on duty had advised her to just put herself up in the local motel, but she was determined to give it a try if there wasn’t any flooding. He didn’t have reports of any in the direction she was heading, so she went on back out to her car… and it wouldn’t start. She’d waited an hour and tried again and then tried to get a tow truck, but that proved fruitless. Finally conceding defeat, she’d tried the local motel, but it was full. Travelers on the road had been less stubborn and perhaps wiser than she was and had pulled off for the night. Her choices were to sit in the Sheriff’s station all night, sit in her car all night, or call Walker. It had been a difficult decision. Not that Walker was the kind of guy who would say, “I told you so,” still; he didn’t really need to say it now, did he?

Walker saw signs telling him that he was nearing the town where Alex was stranded. There wasn’t much traffic on the road, most people having the sense to pull off. Winding his way down the middle of the street, trying to avoid the sides that were flooding, Walker saw the Sheriff’s station and Alex’s car parked in front of it. He pulled in next to it and ran through the rain to inside the station.

Alex had been watching for Walker, but he still managed to surprise her when he just appeared suddenly. She had been looking in her purse for the fifth time for a comb, which wasn’t there, and when she looked up, he was standing there… all wet and big and hero-like.

“I know, I know, I’m an idiot and I was wrong and you were right,” Alex said before he had a chance to utter a syllable.

“Damn, I wish I had a tape recorder with me,” Walker said with a grin.

Alex glared at him, but had no defense. She was the idiot in this particular farce and she knew it. “I’m ready whenever you are; I’ve seen more of this station than I ever wanted to.”

Walker looked at her and saw that she’d been wet and dried more than once. Her suit was wrinkled and it was permanent press. Her hair was dry, but had curled all around her face, as it was want to do when it was allowed to dry naturally. Her face was washed nearly clean of makeup and she looked tired and more than just a little irritated with herself. “Give me just a minute and I’ll be ready,” he answered as he headed back to the men’s room.

Alex poured him a cup of coffee and fixed it the way he liked it. When he came back out, Walker chatted briefly with the deputy who was in charge of dispatch for the night. It was clearly a busy night for the guy, so Walker kept it short. He rejoined Alex and smiled gratefully at her when she handed him the coffee.

“I’ve made arrangements for my car to be towed to the local garage as soon as the weather lets up. It’s just not going to start,” Alex informed him.

“Even if it does, there’s no way you can drive it home in this. I had enough trouble in my truck.”

“Are the roads really that bad?”

“Yeah, they really are. Let’s head on out and see how far we can get. If it gets too bad, we’ll have to pull off for the night.”

Alex nodded her head in agreement. She wasn’t willing to risk their lives to get back to Dallas. It was Thursday and she had a pretrial scheduled in the morning, but if she didn’t get back, the DA would undoubtedly find someone to cover for her, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Walker grabbed her elbow and they ran out to the truck together. By the time they were in and the doors were closed, they were both completely soaked. Walker turned on the heat as soon as he got the engine running. “Buckle up tight,” he told Alex and waited while she did. Then he handed her his half drunk coffee and pulled out onto the road.

Things were going along fairly well until they saw a car that had gone off the road and into the gully. The water was raging so fast that the people in the car were trapped. It was clearly a life and death situation. Walker reached behind his seat and grabbed a rope. “Slide over to the driver’s side. I’ll tie myself to the bumper. If you see my hand go up in the air, that’s your cue to put it in reverse and back me out of the water.” Alex looked over at the rushing water and gulped and then nodded.

Walker got to the front of the truck and tied one end of the rope around himself and one end around the bumper. He plunged into the water and managed to catch onto the door of the car. The water was rushing against the door and there was no way to open it. The man inside realized this and rolled the window down and handed out a young child to Walker. Grabbing the boy under the arms, Walker backed himself out of the current and pulled with one hand along the rope until he was at the bumper of the car.

Alex watched all of this with her heart racing and then rushed out of the truck and grabbed the boy from Walker, pulling him back into the cab with her. There was a blanket in the back and she quickly wrapped the boy up in it and then focused once again on the scene in front of her. “My daddy, my daddy,” the boy cried as he shivered next to her. Alex pulled the scrawny body of the child against her side and tried to comfort him, all the while, saying a silent prayer for the child’s father and for Walker.

Walker plunged back into the current and barely managed to catch the car door. The man hoisted himself out of the window and grabbed onto Walker, both fighting not to be swept downstream. Walker’s strength just wasn’t enough to drag the larger man to safety and he raised his hand to signal Alex.

Pushing the young boy away from her, Alex put the truck into reverse and slowly backed up. She felt the rope pull tight and then she continued at a steady pace as inch by inch, she pulled the two men out of the current. Walker untied himself and detached the rope from the bumper while the man and his son made their way into the back seat of the Ram.

Walker climbed up into the cab and was going to insist that Alex let him drive, but before he could catch his breath, she had the truck in gear and was heading on down the road. Realizing the futility of arguing with her, Walker turned to check out his unexpected passengers. “Are you two all right?”

“Yes, thanks to you and your Mrs. I can’t tell you… I didn’t think we were going to…” The young man was overcome by emotion as he hugged his son close to his chest and cried in relief. Minutes later, he had composed himself enough to speak and he tried again. “I’m Paul Reese and this is my son, Scott.”

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Ranger Walker and this is ADA Alex Cahill.” Walker replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I just assumed…” the man began, embarrassed that he’d assumed the two were married.

“No harm done,” Walker reassured him.

“Man, that water sure is strong. Wind gusts blew me to the side of the road and the water grabbed my tire and pulled us on in. I couldn’t get that door open and I was afraid to roll the window down. The water was coming in anyway though…”

“It’s a tough spot to be in. Do you know the area?”

“No, we’re from Georgia, we were heading to California. I just got a job out there.”

“Well, we’re not far from a town. How about if we take you to the motel?”

“Thanks a lot. I’d sure appreciate it.”

An hour later, Paul Reese and his son Scott were safely ensconced in the motel and Walker and Alex were back on the road. The motel was full and had only been able to offer the Reese’s a couch in the lounge, so Walker decided they should try on up at the next town.

The rain was coming down in sheets and the truck was being buffeted by the wind so that Walker had to fight with the wheel just to keep it on the road. Once again they happened on a car in a ditch and Walker went through the same process of tying the rope to himself and the bumper. This time though, it was to discover that the car was empty. The people inside had already been rescued.

Once again, soaked to the bone, Walker got back into the Ram and headed on down the road. “We’d better find a place to pull off soon, this is getting ugly,” he told Alex.

Alex nodded her agreement and then realized that Walker couldn’t see her, his eyes were fixed to the road. “How mad are you going to be at me when we finally get to a safe dry place?” she asked.

“Oh, you’re in for a nice long lecture and I may just paddle you as well,” he told her as the steering wheel was wrenched from his hand.

“Well, at least that’s something to look forward to,” Alex said to herself as a thrill ran down her body.

Walker glanced over at her briefly, having heard her whispered response. “You’re too much. First you go out, against my advice, and get yourself stranded. Then you call me to rescue you and then you have the audacity to flirt with me.”

“You weren’t supposed to hear that,” Alex defended herself.

They hadn’t been lovers for long, or rather; they hadn’t been lovers again for long. After the Whitewater encounter, they’d had a series of miscommunications that had created a rift between them. It wasn’t until they had gone searching for that plane in Utah that they’d finally put all the misunderstandings behind them and become a true couple. Now, only a few months later, they continued to keep their relationship private, but it was extremely passionate.

Alex was relaxing into a sensual fantasy, despite their current situation, when the road suddenly fell away and the front end of the Ram was swallowed. They had driven into a sink hole and the water was rushing in to fill it in such a current that the truck was slammed around violently. Alex grabbed onto the door and the back of the seat and screamed as she was tossed around inside the cab. If it weren’t for her seatbelt, she would have been really injured. As it was, the belt was leaving bruises on top of bruises.

After wrestling to steady the car, Walker finally managed to get it wedged against two slabs of cement. “We’ve got to get out!” he yelled at Alex. He grabbed for the rope and tied it around his waist. “Undo your seatbelt and tie this around yourself,” he yelled at her over the roar of the water.

Alex scrambled to do as he told her while he rolled down his window. Walker climbed out onto the hood of the cab and balanced himself as if he were riding a surfboard. He turned and helped Alex as she followed him up onto the roof of the cab and then he let go of her and leapt onto the road… or what was left of it. As soon as his feet hit the ground, Walker turned to coax Alex to join him. Trying to balance on the roof by holding onto the panel of lights, Alex made a leap to Walker just as the sinkhole widened and the car lurched. Alex was dumped off into the current and if it weren’t for the rope, Walker would have never been able to pull her out. As it was, her head went under the water and she struggled as hard as she could, swallowing gulps of water as she strained to reach the surface.

Walker hauled Alex up out of the hole and grabbed her to him, backing away as the hole widened. The Ram was slammed against the two concrete slabs over and over again until Walker realized that his precious truck was toast and he needed to get Alex and himself away from the area.

Alex coughed up water and scrambled to her feet as Walker dragged her back away from the sink hole. “Come on!” he shouted to her as he headed her down the road away from the increasing danger.

They struggled against the rain and gusting wind for twenty minutes before Walker saw what he hoped would prove to be shelter. It was a small diner, set just off the road and, although it was dark, Walker thought that he would be justified in breaking in on a night like this one. There was no time for lock picking, he merely used his boot as a battering ram and shattered the lock as he kicked the door in.

Alex clung to his side and fell into the diner as the door broke open. Walker hurriedly closed the door behind them and slid the register counter in front of it to keep it closed. He tried the lights and found, not surprisingly, that the electricity was out. He then tried the phone and again found that it wasn’t working either. The storm had knocked out all signs on modern technology.

Alex crawled on into the diner and then pulled herself up into a booth. She was as wet as a person could be without actually being submerged in water. Every part of her ached and she was struggling to catch her breath. “I think we should skip the ‘paddling’ tonight, I’ve got enough bruises.” Alex knew that Walker would never actually strike her and even if they joked about it, it wasn’t a part of their love play. She didn’t reckon on how mad he was though.

“I would suggest that you NOT talk to me just now,” he told her as he began stripping off his shirt and jeans.

Alex watched fascinated as his body was revealed, his briefs glued to his male form. “What’d I do?” she asked as she followed his lead and began to peel the clothes from herself. They were so wet that they felt as if they had been glued to her skin.

“My truck is gone!” he all but shouted at her.

“I know, but Walker… it’s just a truck. You can always get a new one.” Alex thought that it was probably a trick of the light, but it looked as if Walker had steam coming from his ears. She quickly realized that she couldn’t have said anything worse.

“That truck is to me like a horse was to a Ranger in the days of Hays Cooper! That truck saved your life!”

“I know, I’m sorry, you’re right…” Alex realized that she might as well save her breath, he wasn’t listening. Clad only in bra and underwear, Alex began to survey her surroundings. It was good to be out of the wind and rain, but now that they weren’t struggling against them, she was rapidly becoming cold. She found candles and matches behind the counter and she lit them and placed them on the countertop. She kept one in her hand and continued to hunt; looking for something to wear that would be warm.

Walker too was searching and found a flashlight that he used to navigate around the kitchen. He grabbed a beer and drank it down before tossing the bottle into the recycling bin. After a long satisfying belch, he hunted for some food. He hadn’t had a chance to eat since lunch. Alex’s call had come just as he was getting off duty and he’d driven straight out to meet her. He found the fixings for a ham sandwich and made himself a double-decker.

Alex found a small locker room and after going through the various lockers, she pulled on a pink waitress’ dress. She had slipped off her soggy undies and bra and looked for blankets, but came up empty-handed. It was going to be a long cold night.

Alex meandered back into the kitchen and saw Walker wolfing down a sandwich. She was rather hungry herself and went to check the refrigerator. Alex decided that she wanted something hot. She walked over to the stove and found, much to her delight, that it was a gas stove. She turned one of the burners on and set about heating up some soup she found in the refrigerator. Not bothering to ask, she made enough for two.

Alex continued to scavenge and boiled water for coffee. She made a cup for each of them and then set the soup and coffee near enough to Walker that he could reach it. She was truly starting to feel the cold and so turned the oven on and opened the door. She grabbed a stool and sat as close to it as she could while she ate the soup and sipped the hot coffee.

Walker continued his silent vigil, but he was grateful for the hot soup and coffee all the same. He too went hunting for some clothes in the back room, but could only find a large apron that would be worn by a short-order cook. Deciding it was better than nothing; he donned it over his wet briefs and then decided that they would have to go. He stripped them off and carried them out to hang them in front of the stove. He saw that Alex had already draped her unmentionables on the back of a chair, so he added his to them. The apron was great for covering the front, but let in a definite breeze from behind. He felt as if he was wearing a hospital gown and hoped that Alex was eating her heart out by the show he was putting on.

Alex felt her internal temperature rise as Walker turned his back to her to string up his briefs. She ran her fingers through her hair to separate it and help it to dry. Even with the stove on, the air was quite cold. She waited until her hair was nearly dry and then decided to figure out some method of sleeping. She went on another scavenger hunt and pulled off the seat cushions from several booths.

Dragging her find back into the kitchen, Alex lay the cushions down on the floor. They were covered in some kind of fake vinyl, but they would have to do. She then draped her clothes about the kitchen to dry and went to use the restroom before going to bed. She wished that Walker was talking to her, she would really like to cuddle up with him, but she knew that he was really ticked off at her this time and she decided that discretion was the better part of valor.

About half and hour after Alex lay down, Walker was certain that she had fallen asleep. He added a couple more cushions to her makeshift palette and lay down beside her. He knew that, anger aside; he was going to have to share his body heat with her if they were to get any sleep. It was too cold not to.

It didn’t take long for Walker to decide that sleeping on his back just wasn’t going to work. The bare skin of his butt cheeks kept gluing themselves to the vinyl bench cushions. He shifted and tossed and turned for over an hour and all the while, his anger at Alex grew. Here he was suffering a VERY uncomfortable night, and there she lay beside him, sleeping the sleep of the just. He always fought for justice… and this just wasn’t!

Had Walker known that Alex was deep into a disturbing dream, he might have felt just a little bit better. Soon after Alex fell asleep, she began to dream that she was living in the times of Hays Cooper. She was Althea Barnes and Walker was Hays Cooper, a Texas Ranger who had ridden into the small town of Bovine where she had lived her entire life.

The Barnes family had been one of the founding families of Bovine, Texas. They, along with other pioneering ranching families, had moved to the area looking for land to raise cattle. Jeb and Emily Barnes had settled in the desolate land and had defended that same land from Indian raiders and all manner of bandits. They welcomed the addition of their daughter, Althea, within a year of settling on their land. It was a difficult life and it took sacrifices. They lost two more babies after Althea was born and then Emily cut her hand while helping Jeb string fence line and died two weeks later from the infection that had spread throughout her body and overwhelmed her heart.

Althea had been nine when her mother had died. She was a mature nine; children grew up quickly on the harsh land they lived in. She had stepped into the role of woman of the house and did a more than adequate job of filling it. Her father was a successful rancher, making enough money to feed his small family, hire on a ranch hand and put money into the bank. Charlie, the ranch hand, became a part of the family and to Althea, he was a sort of uncle. What Althea lacked was a feminine role model and her father often lamented that no man would want to be saddled with the ‘tomboy’ his daughter had grown into.

One summer, a band of outlaws were reported to be hiding in the hills just beyond Bovine. The local sheriff had formed a posse and they had ridden out in search of the outlaw gang led by Dakota Ryan. Only one of the men had survived the encounter with the gang and ridden back to warn the town’s people. Jeb hadn’t joined the original posse, he was an older man with a ranch to run, but he told his daughter that he would be joining the next posse that went out after them; he’d lost several friends in the first.

Althea had begged her father not to go, but knew that nothing would change his mind. Three days later, two lone riders had returned to Bovine, her father wasn’t among them. Grief stricken, but determined to avenge her father’s death, Althea was interested in the news that two Texas Rangers were being dispatched to capture Ryan and his gang.

Knowing that no Ranger would allow a woman to join forces with them against the outlaws, Althea set about disguising herself. She left a note for Charlie who couldn’t ride for long distances anymore due to his bad knee. With her hair cut short and died a dark brown, Althea wrapped cloth around her chest to cover up her feminine assets and sewed shoulder pads into her shirt to make herself appear more masculine. She rode out to meet the Rangers and managed to track them to their camp a few miles outside of Bovine.

She rode up to the camp and kept her voice in a low octave when talking to the men. “I’m Al Barnes, I’m here to join up and kill those sons a bitches that killed my father.”

Hays Cooper watched the newcomer, but didn’t say anything. His partner, a black man named James Monroy, did most of the talking. “Look kid, this gang has already killed enough men. We don’t need to add another name to the list.”

“You’re right; they have killed enough, including my father. If you’re looking for help in Bovine, you won’t find any. The only men left are too old to ride or too young to hold a gun.”

“And just how did you survive?”

“My father forbade me from joining the posse, but now he’s dead.” This was actually not a lie. Althea had tried to convince her father to let her ride with him and the other men, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“Well kid, I sure don’t want to be responsible for your death. Go home and let us deal with this gang.”

“I know the land better than anyone in Bovine. I’ve grown up here and ridden in these hills hundreds of times. I found you didn’t I? It’s not like you were just sitting here waiting for someone to ride up and join you.”

“So you want to act like a scout?”

Althea thought that if being a scout would get her close enough to shoot the man who killed her father, then a scout she would be. “Yeah.”

Monroy looked over at his partner, “What do you think, Coop?”

Hays Cooper considered the young man. He knew what it was like to feel the need to avenge his parents’ death. He nodded, “You follow orders or I’ll tie you to a tree and leave you there.”

Althea gulped, believing the gruff man. She didn’t speak again, but merely nodded. Dismounting, she took the offered cup of black coffee and drank it gratefully. She preferred her coffee with cream and sugar, but she wasn’t about to tell them that.

It wasn’t long until they were on horseback and heading toward the hills where Ryan’s gang was reported to be. Althea was true to her word and led the two Rangers straight into the heart of their camp. The only problem was; they weren’t there. Realizing what this meant, Althea’s face turned chalky white and she swore. “Damn!” Turning her mount toward town, she leant as close to her horse’s neck as she could get and galloped at a dead run back toward Bovine.

The two Rangers followed her lead and just as she reached the outskirts of the town, Cooper told her to halt. She may have heard him, but his command didn’t process, she was so intent on her goal. Cooper reached forward and grabbed the rein, slowing FourBits down to a halt. Althea was nearly flung forward, but managed to hang on and then whirled around on the Ranger, wanting nothing more than to rip his head off. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“You think we can just gallop up Main Street and shoot them? They have the advantage; they’re inside with buildings to hide in. We go in after dark and on foot. We need a place to hide until then,” he said.

Realizing that he made a good point, she led them back to an old abandoned homestead with a rotting weathered barn. They took the horses inside and each untacked their horse and gave them a good rub down.

Monroy approached Althea and said, “That’s a great horse you’ve got there. There’s not many who can keep up with Blue and Navarro.”

“FourBits is a great horse. He was orphaned as a foal and I hand raised him.”

“FourBits? What kind of name is that?” Monroy asked.

“The night he was born, he was such a scrawny thing, Charlie, our ranch hand said, ‘I wouldn’t give four bits for that thing.’ It became his name, but he’s proven to be worth a whole lot more.”

“Yeah, Navarro here has saved my life more times than I can count.” He patted the great big paint on the shoulder and brought him some water.

Althea looked over to see that Cooper was also giving water to his big blue roan. The horse was in prime condition and was the kind of horse that caught attention. Even if the man wasn’t such a good-looking beast, his horse would have drawn the eye. Althea shook herself mentally, what was she doing looking at the man? She didn’t care about him other than that he was her best hope of avenging her father’s death.

Cooper spoke, startling Althea, “Al, you mentioned a ranch hand, Charlie, what about riding out and getting him to help ambush these guys?”

Althea shook her head, “Charlie’s past his prime. He’s got a bum knee and he can’t ride a horse anymore. Can’t shoot to save his life either.”

“What about you? Can you handle those six shooters you’ve got strapped on?”

Althea’s hand went to her hips, the silver guns felt cold and menacing, just the way they should. She pulled out the right one and aimed at an old rusted hand trowel lying on a beam. She squeezed the trigger and the trowel flew off the beam. She then pulled out her left gun and aimed at a bucket sitting on another beam, one shot knocked it off.

“You’ve got good aim, but it’s one thing to shoot a gun at a bucket, what about at something that shoots back?”

Althea shrugged, “We were raided by Indians when I was twelve, they were shooting arrows, but I managed to hit two of ‘em. They left and never returned.” She wasn’t bragging, she really had shot two Indians from a band of renegades.

“You don’t look like much, but you just may do,” Monroy told her with a grin. She liked the friendly black man who seemed to smile a lot. Cooper was another story. He was stern and quiet, rarely speaking and always looking as if he was in a foul mood. But there was something about him… She didn’t know what it was, but she was feeling feelings that she had only read about. She’d never felt her heart about to burst from her breast as she had read in that book she’d borrowed from Sally, the saloon girl who was two years younger than her, but worlds ahead of her when it came to men and women and all that went with that. Althea had been kissed once by Bobby Taylor, when she was sixteen. She’d given him a black eye. No boy had been brave enough to try since. At twenty-one, she was considered an old maid. But there was something about Cooper…

The three sat on the straw and planned their approach to the town. Althea used a stick to draw the town in the dirt. She told them where the men were most likely to be, the bank and the saloon. She advised them on places they could approach from and where they could get the best aim. As dusk fell, Monroy mounted Navarro and rode him into town. He planned to be a patron at the saloon to scope out the scene. Cooper and Althea left their horses tied in the barn and headed back to town on foot.

They approached the town stealthily. Althea pointed Cooper to the boarding house, the tallest building in town. He was going to climb up onto the roof and use it to shoot anyone trying to escape. Then, she went around to the back of the saloon and climbed up to the second floor. She had told the Rangers that she was familiar with one of the girls there and would get in through her room and try to warn the townspeople of what was going on before taking up her position between the bank and the saloon. Monroy had teased her about being so ‘familiar’ with the saloon girl, but she just had to take the ribbing, she couldn’t very well tell him that they were good friends and nothing more.

Althea managed to reach Sally’s window and heard sounds from inside. She looked into the window and got quite an education. Sally was bent over the bureau with a man standing behind her. To Althea, it looked as if two of the cattle at her ranch were mating. She felt slightly sick, wondering if this was how it usually was between a man and woman. Suddenly, the man groaned and then he stepped back from Sally and pulled up his zipper. He smacked her bare butt and then yanked the door open and hollered, “Next!” before heading on downstairs. 

Sally took a rag and cleaned between her legs and then pulled her skirts down. Althea had waited for her to be decent, wanting to spare her friend embarrassment. Just as she was reaching to knock on the window, another man came bursting in the door. He’d barely closed it behind him before he dropped his pants to the floor. He sat on the side of the bed and said something to Sally. Althea couldn’t hear, but Sally reluctantly got down on her hands and knees on the floor and took his erection into her mouth.

Althea nearly fell off of the window ledge when she saw Sally’s head bob up and down and finally the man moaned and Sally pulled back, letting his ejaculate spew across the room. He slapped her face and she went back to his deflating member and licked it. Althea didn’t know what he’d said to her, but he was mad about something.

The man pushed Sally roughly aside and then he too banged out of the room bellowing. Althea realized that the men were taking turns. There were three saloon girls and she wondered how long it would be before they were tired enough to give her a chance to talk to Sally. Clearly this wasn’t going to be the chance as Sally had just downed a gulp of whiskey from the bottle in her dresser drawer when another man came in, dropped his pants and lay flat on his back on the bed.

Althea watched with horror and morbid fascination as Sally climbed onto him and straddled him riding him like a bucking bronco. When this man moaned and left, he said something to Sally and then slammed the door, but didn’t bellow. Althea waited until Sally had again cleaned herself and adjusted her skirts. She was heading toward the door, obviously to go downstairs, when Althea knocked on the window.

Sally startled, but turned, and looked and went to the window opening it. “What the hell are you doing? Get out of here you lout!” she shouted at Althea.

“Sally, it’s me, Althea.”

“Althea? What are you doing? Come in, No! Wait! It’s not safe in here, that gang rode in and they’re really mean men. They killed Carol because she refused to service them. Jane and I have had to take them all on… well… a few of them have…”

“What? What is it?” Althea asked.

“They’ve raped some of the younger girls here in town. There are a couple who apparently like them young and inexperienced. Thank god you’re safe. What are you doing dressed up like a man? Are you hiding from them?”

“No, I’m here with two Texas Rangers. They’re here to arrest the men.”

“Good luck to them, but they don’t stand a chance. There are fifteen men in Ryan’s gang.”

Althea patted her hips, “Well, I’ve got twelve bullets right here… that’ll leave three for the Rangers.”

“Don’t get cocky Ally. I know they killed your pa, but they’re the kind that think killing is fun. Look, I’ve gotta go. They’ve been serviced and now they want to drink until they get ready for more.”

Althea had a thought, “Sally, do you think you can get them drunk?”

Sally looked at her with understanding. “I’ll tell the bartender to use the good stuff that hasn’t been watered down.”

“Okay, and there’s a man who came in, a black man. He’s one of the Rangers.”

“Crazy man,” Sally said with a shake of her head, but went down to start serving as many drinks as she could get them to drink.

Althea crept down the back of the building and then managed to get over to where Cooper was and climb up. “I talked to Sally. There’re fifteen men. They’ve killed one of the saloon girls and raped some of the young women in the town. They’re drinking now and Sally is going to make sure they get served the good stuff.”

“Good work, kid. Did you see any guards?” Cooper asked her.

“No, I think they’re feeling pretty confident.”

“Okay, you stay here, I’ll leave the rifle. I’m going to go have a look around myself. I’ll be back.”

Althea wanted to argue, but thought better of it. This was a man who knew how to deal with men like these. She’d follow orders… for now.

Cooper wandered around the town checking each building. He found a man who was raping a young girl in the feed store. He got behind the man and slipped his knife around his throat, killing him before he managed to pull him off the girl. He pulled the man by the boots to a feed bin and stuffed his body inside. Trials weren’t for men who did what this man was doing. Going back to the young girl, he took a grain bag and wrapped her in it and then escorted her over to the edge of town and hid her behind some buildings.

He found most of the townsfolk locked in the sheriff’s jail being guarded by one man. Cooper knocked this man unconscious with one blow to the back of the head. He freed the townspeople and organized them. The old men, women, and children he sent out to the barn where they had holed up that day. He told them where to find the girl he’d rescued. Then he divided the men up into groups of two. He gave them jobs, some were lookouts, some positioned at strategic places to shoot the gang members if they tried to leave town in either direction.

After doing all of this, he went to the saloon and found one man answering mother nature’s call. He knocked him unconscious and dragged him to join the other man, both bound and gagged on the floor of the feed store guarded by the grocer and the mayor of the town. He returned to the saloon and climbed up the back to enter through one of the bedrooms.

He managed to catch one man by surprise; the saloon girl had all of his attention. He knocked this man unconscious too and then tied him up. He looked up at the woman, “Any more coming up?”

“They go to the door and yell ‘next’ and then go on down.”

Cooper went to the door and yelled while Jane covered herself up. “You’re the Ranger Sally said was coming.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Your partner is downstairs. He claimed to be an outlaw and it looks like Ryan’s going to let him join the gang.”

“He’s good at acting bad,” Cooper agreed. He heard someone on the stairs and ducked down behind the dresser. Another man entered and started toward Jane. With his back to Cooper, he didn’t see the chamber pot swing down and knock him on the head.

Cooper looked at Jane, “We’ve got to get you out of here.”

“What about Sally?”

“I’ll take care of her,” Cooper promised and then tied up the two men and signaled his posse outside. He dropped each man, one at a time out of the window. The men on the ground bound and gagged them and hid them in the wood box. They then helped Jane down and they hurried her out of town under the cover of darkness. Cooper left the window open as he left so that it looked as if Jane had escaped by herself. He hoped that it took them a little bit longer to figure out that their numbers were dwindling. They were down from fifteen to ten, it didn’t even the odds, but they were looking better.

Cooper waited outside of the saloon to see what the response to the missing saloon girl was. After half an hour, two men were dispatched in search of her. He knocked them both out and signaled his posse to drag them on over to the jail to join their friends. Cooper decided that he’d pushed his luck as far as it would go. He returned to the roof of the boarding house where he’d left Al.

“It’s about time, what happened?” Althea asked.

“Most of the townspeople are out at the barn where we left the horses. I’ve got eight men and boys stationed around the town with strict orders to stay out of the line of fire. They’re guarding four men in the jail. There are two more bound and gagged and one dead.”

“You took out seven of Ryan’s men?!!”

“Yeah, but that leaves him with eight and it won’t be easy now. They’ll be on the alert. I think I want you to stay here and I’ll go down to wait between the bank and the saloon. Just keep your head below the roof line, got it?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Althea said sulkily. She wanted to be down in the middle of the action.

“Watch it kid, you pout like a woman.”

Althea hoped he hadn’t discovered her secret, but then realized that he hadn’t, he was just trying to embarrass her for her behavior.

Cooper left to take his place by the bank. It wasn’t long until four men came out of the bank guns drawn. Althea had a perfect shot, but there were four of them and she knew that she had to wait for Cooper’s cue. She heard his guns blaze and she fired the rifle, taking out the two Cooper hadn’t hit. All four men lay on the ground.

Monroy hadn’t had an easy time of convincing Ryan he should let him join up. He made up a story of running from the law and took on the name of a criminal he’d arrested two months earlier. He was a gunfighter with a reputation and Ryan had heard of him. Monroy knew enough details to convince Ryan that he was in fact Bart Adams. He made toasts and drank until the two men were sent out to look for Jane. He then went upstairs with Sally and helped her to escape out of the window. He wandered back downstairs and started drinking when another man went looking for her. He came back downstairs yelling that she was gone.

Ryan questioned him, but Monroy said that she’d been there when he’d finished with her. The man who’d discovered her missing said that the window was opened and she’d climbed out. Monroy was beginning to think that Ryan, although suspicious, bought his story until the sounds of gunfire could be heard outside. It didn’t take James Monroy long to react. His gun was drawn and he bested two of Ryan’s men after taking cover with the bartender behind the bar. Unfortunately, the third man managed to shoot him in the shoulder and he lay on the ground behind the bar with his gun in one hand and his other clamping his bleeding shoulder.

Now Ryan and one of his men were the only outlaws left. They weren’t going to go quietly, even though Cooper shouted at them to drop their weapons and come on out. He was crouched down behind a water trough and he had his gun aimed at the swinging doors of the saloon. Nothing stirred and he inched forward and then darted back behind the water trough when bullets sprayed the dirt around him.

Althea wasn’t about to be left out of the final showdown with Ryan. She crept down from her post and used the buildings as cover to get back behind the saloon. Following the same path she’d taken earlier, she climbed up to Sally’s window and crept into her room. Althea managed to get to the stairwell and survey the scene. Monroy was behind the bar, losing blood from his wound and the bartender was cowering so far under the bar, he had nearly climbed through it. Ryan was next to the swinging doors, crouched down behind an overturned table, and his partner was behind another table near the window.

Knowing that their attention was focused on the street, they were aware that Monroy couldn’t shoot them unless they stood right in his line of sight; Althea began to creep down the stairs to get a better angle to shoot the two men. She’d just gotten Ryan’s partner in her sights when she stepped on a loose board in one of the stairs. In the tense silence, the board sounded like a shot. Ryan rolled forward out of the saloon, shooting his gun toward where Cooper was. His partner whirled and aimed for Althea. She got off a shot, but felt the hot burn as a bullet tore through her chest. Her one shot was true and the man fell dead on the floor.

Cooper was now in a face off with Ryan. Both men rained bullets at the other until they were forced to reload. Cooper was just a little bit faster, knowing that his partner would have come after Ryan if he was able and afraid that he might be mortally wounded. Cooper rolled and fired and managed to catch Ryan square in the chest. He lay in the dirt, his life’s blood seeping from him. “Who are you?” he asked.

Cooper stopped for just a moment, “Texas Ranger,” was his only answer as he waved to the men hidden behind the neighboring buildings to come deal with the dying outlaw while he rushed in to check on his partner.

Cooper didn’t see Althea’s body draped across the staircase when he came in. It was hidden by a large potted plant whose pot was shattered. Instead, he rushed to the downed outlaws and checked to see that all three were dead. Then he surveyed the room and saw a hand holding a six-shooter jutting out from behind the bar. “Monroy?” he shouted, warning his partner of his presence so that he wouldn’t shoot.

“Cooper?” Monroy answered.

Cooper rounded the bar and immediately knelt down on his knees to examine his friend’s shoulder wound. He took out his knife and cut the clothing away from the wound to examine it. “Bullet’s still in, hold on while I dig it out,” Cooper told him.

“Damn, I knew you were going to say that,” Monroy joked.

Cooper yanked the bartender out from his hiding place and told him to get him some whiskey and towels. After cleansing the wound and his knife with the whiskey, he lifted Monroy’s head up and let him take a good slug. He then handed Monroy a strap of leather to bite on while he dug the bullet out. He worked as quickly and carefully as he could and soon had the bullet free. He bandaged Monroy’s shoulder and then sat back and took a swig of the whiskey himself.

“Damn fine shootin’ James. You got three of ‘em,” Cooper said trying to cheer his partner.

“No, I only got two of ‘em. You got the third when you came down the stairs.”

“I never came down the stairs… Damn!” Coopers stomach clenched as his mind went to the kid, Al.

“I’m fine, Cooper, go check,” Monroy said.

Cooper left the bar and went to the staircase. Now that he was looking, he couldn’t believe he’d missed it. There was the boy’s body, lying at a bad angel about midway up the staircase. He rushed up and didn’t begin to breathe until he found a pulse. He lifted the body up and was surprised at how light the young man was.

Cooper carried the limp body down to the floor and laid it flat. He again took his knife and cut open the boy’s shirt. His chest was wrapped as if he was already covering a wound. Cooper couldn’t understand why, but didn’t have time to think about it. The wrappings were already blood soaked. He slid the blade of the knife under the bandage in the middle of the boy’s chest and slit it straight up the middle. Cooper was expecting to see a bullet hole and blood, but what popped out took him completely by surprise… breasts!!!

“What the hell?!!” Cooper exclaimed and stopped his ministrations, sat back on his boot heels, and just stared.

“How is he?” Monroy hollered from his spot behind the bar.

The sound roused Cooper and he resumed his examination of the wound. “Bullet is lodged in the breast bone,” he answered.

“Lucky kid, by rights, he should be dead, taking a bullet in the chest.”

“Yeah, well, he had some extra padding,” Cooper hollered back as he dug the bullet out while the young… woman… was still unconscious. It had also helped that the bullet had apparently gone through the planter, which had slowed it down. Cooper stood and walked over to the bar and grabbed another bottle of whiskey and clean bar rags. He poured the whiskey on the wound and then laid the bandages on top of the bullet hole while he applied pressure. His eyes continued to stray to the two round globes standing so proudly bare before his eyes. In some ways, he was relieved, at least it explained the instinctive tightening in his groin he’d experienced whenever he was close to… Al. He’d begun to worry about himself, but somehow his body had recognized that she was a woman, even though his mind hadn’t figured it out.

Cooper realized that there were two other men in the room and others were sure to be coming anytime. He needed to cover the woman up. He ran upstairs and went into Sally’s room. He found a length of cloth that he could use as a bandage and he borrowed one of her shirts as well. After returning downstairs, he bound Al’s chest and then dressed her in the shirt. He was just in time as several of the townsfolk poured into the saloon to check in with the Ranger.

The Mayor was the spokesperson and he reported in to Cooper. “We’ve got the six live ones locked up in the jail and it’s being guarded. The dead men will be seen to. Looks like you’ve got wounded in here, I’ll send a rider to the next town over, they’ve got a doc…” the Mayor’s eyes looked more closely at Althea and then looked again. “Dear god in heaven! Is that Althea Barnes? What’s her hair doing so short and.., dark?!! And she’s in men’s clothes… well…” he stopped after taking in the blouse she was wearing.

“She dressed as a man so that we’d let her ride with us. I didn’t know she was a woman. She’s been shot and I removed the bullet and bandaged her. She should be fine. My partner’s behind the bar. He has a shoulder wound, but I think he’ll be fine too. I’ve had a bit of experience with bullet wounds in my line of work.”

“I’m sure you have Ranger. I’ll send for the doctor anyway, we’ve got some other folks who can use his services and Jeb Barnes will come back to haunt me if anything happens to his daughter. I better figure out a way to get her home, although, it wouldn’t be proper to have Charlie tending her wound…”

Cooper noticed the Mayor had colored as he talked about Althea’s wound. He thought about the name Althea and decided that he could get used to it. “I think she should stay here for the night. I don’t know that she’s up to traveling.”

“You’re probably right. I’ll get Sally to tend to her tonight. She and Sally are friends, never could understand that pairing, but when I talked to Jeb about it, he said that she needed some kind of female influence. Don’t know that I’d want my daughter’s female influence to be from a whore, but Jeb has his own way of doin’.”

Cooper gently lifted Althea from the ground and carried her back upstairs. He took her into a room that had a bed that was made up and laid her on top of the bedspread and then, after removing her shoes, he covered her with a blanket. He thought that for propriety’s sake, he should not do anything further. He wished she would regain consciousness, but she seemed to be breathing all right.

The townspeople slowly trickled back into the town and began to go to their respective homes. A few carried dead bodies to the blacksmith’s where pine boxes would be built to bury them in. Cooper helped Monroy to a back room down in the downstairs of the saloon so he could get some sleep. He himself bunked down on the floor in the same room, near enough to be of help if his friend needed it.

Sally returned to the saloon and tended to Althea. She undressed her and bathed her, cleaning the blood from her body and rebandaged her wound once again. She couldn’t understand how she’d survived, but the Mayor told her that the Ranger had decided that the bullet had gone through the pot and dirt of the potted plant before hitting her, so it was slowed down enough to lodge in her bone rather than go on into her chest. Sally had found a large swelling at the back of her head though and thought that she’d probably hit her head on the edge of the stairs and was knocked out by that blow rather than by the bullet. Sally found a modest nightgown to dress Althea in and then she sat next to the bed, tending her through the night.

Cooper left town two days later to take the remaining members of Ryan’s gang to a town with a sheriff. They would be tried and ultimately hanged, but it was his duty to make certain they were turned over to the right people. He left his partner back in Bovine to recuperate and told him he’d be back for him in two week’s time.

Walker wondered when this interminable night was going to end. He pushed the button on the side of his watch and saw that it was barely 2:00 a.m. At this rate, the night really wouldn’t end. He noticed that Alex was having quite a dream. He didn’t know what it was about, but she kept tossing and turning on the cushions next to him. She moaned and he looked at her, watching her finely sculpted features frown and then even out. Damn but she was beautiful. He remembered the moment he had seen her head sink below the surface of the water in that swirling torrent in the sink hole. He’d thought he’d lost her and he was as scared as he’d ever been in his life. He knew that his anger was based in that fear. The loss of his truck didn’t help matters, but he’d lose a truck a day rather than lose Alex.

Walker sighed and then got up to check on their clothes that were strung about to dry. Alex’s silky panties were dry, but his cotton briefs weren’t ― another point against Alex. He turned the rest of the clothing and then pulled out another beer. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but after a night like this one, he thought he had good reason to start. He sat on a stool and sipped the beer, thinking about the tragedy they’d narrowly escaped. The beer went down faster than usual and he tossed the empty bottle and then headed back to the cushions. Maybe now he’d be able to doze a little.

In Alex’s dream, it was two weeks later.

Sally had helped Althea wash out some of the dye from her hair so that it was now a mass of short light brown curls. It wasn’t her usual blonde locks, but it didn’t look too bad ―especially if she kept it covered, which she did as much as possible.

The town was slowly picking up the pieces and putting things back together. Already there had been a new family who had moved in and taken over the Johnson place. Mr. Johnson had been killed and Mrs. Johnson had moved back to Kansas where she had family to help her with their young children. Other families made similar arrangements and new people were expected to move in. It was generally a quiet town that supported the ranches that surrounded it. Althea knew that it would recover; she was determined to stay put and wait it out.

Both James Monroy and Althea’s wounds had gone a long way towards mending. Althea still got dizzy if she stood up too fast, but she no longer wore a bandage on her chest and the small bullet hole that had been widened by Cooper’s knife blade was healing nicely.

She was out on FourBits today, separating the fatted calves from their mothers. They’d been born in early spring and grazed all summer, but it was late fall and time to take them to auction. They’d bring a good price, she had over a hundred head and they were Texas Longhorn steers. The cows were pregnant again and she had enough hay stored to feed them over the winter, but the steers would have to go on to be sold. Her father usually drove them to San Antonio to auction them there, but this year, she was planning on driving them herself. Charlie would stay and tend the ranch and she’d hired two cowboys to help her.

Monroy, or James, as she now called him, was also insisting on riding along. He didn’t trust Mike and Dan, the two cowboys she’d hired. James had been staying out at the ranch while he recuperated. Charlie had taken a liking to him and had fixed it so that he could stay with him in his small cabin.

Althea was hot and dusty. She was back to wearing men’s clothing for the day while she helped separate the cattle. The steers were being herded into a holding pen while the cows were being driven up to the top pasture to graze until the weather turned. She’d sent the two cowboys to take the cows up while she and James corralled the steers with Charlie shouting orders at them.

“You’re gonna lose him! Confound it! Keep in tight. No, to the right, the right!” he yelled. 

Neither Althea nor James could hear him over the racket the cattle were making. They were bawling for their mommas even though they were plenty old enough to be weaned. A third rider joined the round up and they soon had them all corralled. Althea didn’t have time to look up until the last one was in and the gate closed and latched by Charlie. She pulled off the kerchief she’d tied over her mouth to block out some of the dust and looked up to thank the man. Her heart leapt up into her throat when she realized it was none other than Hays Cooper.

The two just stared at each other until Hays broke the silence asking, “Do you ever wear a dress?”

Althea blushed, knowing, or rather assuming, that he’d discovered she was a woman when he’d treated her wound. No man had seen that much of her since she was in diapers. She was embarrassed and completely tongue-tied.

“Leave the lady alone,” James chided his partner, “she’s forced to do a man’s work with her pa gone.”

Cooper rode over to Monroy and shook his hand, “How are you doin’ partner?” he asked.

“Shoulder’s a bit stiff, but considering who my doctor was, I’m just glad I’ve still got one,” he answered. The two men were close friends and it just wouldn’t do to go all soft and thank Cooper for possibly saving his life.

“Too bad I couldn’t cut out that attitude along with the bullet,” Cooper answered.

Charlie limped over to the two men, “You gonna chaw all day or you gonna introduce me?” he asked James.

“Hays Cooper, this is Charlie Gibson, orneriest man this side of the Colorado, course that was before you arrived. Charlie, my partner, Hays Cooper.”

Charlie stuck out his hand, “Pleased to meet you, I owe you a debt of gratitude for saving this young fools life,” he said as he waved his hand over to Althea. Then he turned to her and said, “Well darlin’, I reckon we men folk can finish up with this lot. Why don’t you go get pretty and fix us some dinner?”

Althea bristled, but as Charlie was more of an uncle than a ranch hand, she couldn’t very well tell him that it was her ranch and she was the one to give orders. She turned and rode on back to the house without a word.

A couple’s hours later, Althea was washed and dressed in her prettiest dress with the table set and dinner on the stove. The five men clomped in on the wood floors in their boots and she turned to look at them. “If you haven’t washed up, get back out there,” she said in the best imitation of her former schoolteacher that she could muster.

Cooper drawled, “I think I liked you better as a boy, you weren’t so bossy.” He followed the other men back out to wash up for dinner.

Althea was still stewing over the comment when they returned. She’d worked as hard as any man out there today and as soon as the hard work was done, they sent her off to cook for them all while they sat around and swapped stories. She slammed dishes down on the table and stormed around like a mad hen while the men sheepishly took their seats.

After everyone was seated, James tried to ease the tension by saying, “Althea, it smells like heaven in here, you’ve done it again.” He’d been eating her cooking for nearly two weeks now and he was well aware that she was a damn fine cook.

“Thank you, I just roasted those quail you shot yesterday,” she said graciously.

After Charlie said grace, the food was passed ‘round the table and disappeared in record time. Luckily, Althea had plenty of experience cooking for hungry cowboys. Her father had often had guests and this time of the year, they’d always hired on extra hands. After the dishes were emptied, she got up and came back over with a cherry pie she’d baked the night before. There wasn’t a crumb left and the fresh coffee she’d made to go with it disappeared as well.

The men sat and swapped stories while Althea got up and cleared the table and washed the dishes. As soon as she was done with this chore, she began cooking again. They were scheduled to leave in the morning at first light and she had to fix food the first couple of days on the trail. She’d already packed provisions to cook while they were out there, but she wanted to make some fresh bread and biscuits as well as cook up some stew to seal in jars for their first night on the trail. Her pa had taught her that it was the first night that set the tone for the whole ride and a hot meal went a long way toward making it a good one. She’d ridden with him the last several years, but always on the wagon with Charlie. Her father had always wanted her to be as much of a lady as possible, but this year, she’d be one of the men. There wouldn’t be a wagon either. Charlie was staying behind to mind the ranch, the neighbor who usually did so had been killed in the first posse’s raid on Ryan’s gang.

Eventually, the men finished talking and decided to go on to bed. Cooper noticed that Althea worked straight through and didn’t look close to finishing when they said goodnight. He had agreed to ride with them to San Antonio. He and Monroy had some down time and they could check in at headquarters there for their next assignment. The ride should take them about two weeks with the cattle and he agreed with Monroy’s assessment of the two cowboys. They knew their business, but he didn’t trust them out on the trail alone with Althea. He rolled out his bedroll and lay down under the stars and thought about Althea. He didn’t know what it was about her that had him so fascinated, but it seemed he’d done little else than think about her in the last two weeks. Seeing her again hadn’t helped the situation and she continually surprised him the more he got to know her. The next two weeks were going to be interesting indeed.

The next morning, all five men came into the house about half an hour before dawn. Althea had the table set and had cooked up a huge breakfast for them. There was fried ham and eggs and fresh biscuits along with homemade preserves and churned butter and fresh milk. Hays ate as he watched Althea scurrying about the kitchen, a biscuit in her mouth. She finished clearing everything up in the kitchen and then came back to clear and wash the dishes. The men ambled out to saddle the horses and Cooper checked to see that Charlie had saddled FourBits for Althea. He didn’t want one of the men to make a comment about having to wait for ‘the woman’ when he knew that she’d probably had an hour’s sleep the night before, if that.

Althea came out of the house and tossed the saddle packs over the back of her saddle. She fastened them on and then gave Charlie a quick hug and told him to take care before she mounted her horse. Charlie opened the gate and Althea covered her face with a kerchief as the cattle started to come out of the corral and kick up dust. They each took up a spot and were off.

They stopped midday for a quick bite to eat and to let the cattle drink from the river. Althea knew the route well and had planned where to stop and when, according to what her father had taught her. They’d been planning this trip before he was killed. It was difficult to be making it without him. Cooper watched her and wondered at the sadness that seemed to have enveloped her since leaving that morning. She barely spoke and he could only assume that it had something to do with her father.

That night, Hays built a camp fire while Althea took out the jars of stew she had packed. She poured them into the pot and hung it over the fire. Next, she took the biscuits out and placed them near enough to the fire to warm, but not to burn. Hays prepared coffee while she did this and she gave him a grateful smile for his help. Monroy had taken over the care of her horse after they had stopped and the two cowboys settled the herd and then rode in to have some dinner.

As expected, the men ate with gusto. It had been a long hard day and despite the lateness of the month, it had been hot. Just when they thought they’d eaten all that they could, Althea pulled out one last surprise, an apple pie she had stayed up baking well into the night. Again, this was attacked and the four men managed to eat nearly the whole thing. Althea had taken a small sliver, but as far as Hays could tell, this was nearly all that she’d eaten. He frowned at her when she began to clean up. “Leave it, Dan and Mike volunteered to wash up.”

The two cowboys shot him a surprised look, but they weren’t about to argue. They had spent a few nights at the saloon in Bovine and the story of how the two Rangers had bested Dakota Ryan and his gang was quickly becoming legend.

Althea stood up to go get ready to sleep when she stumbled with dizziness. Cooper was up instantly steadying her. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Althea could feel his warm hand on her arm as if she was being burned. She had become unable to speak; the nearness of him wasn’t helping her dizziness. Finally, her head cleared enough to respond. “I’m fine; I just stood up too fast.”

“Maybe you should eat more, you didn’t eat enough to keep a bird alive.”

“I had my fill,” she said. “Now please, if you don’t mind, I’m tired.”

Cooper looked at her for a few more seconds and then let her go. That was most likely all that was wrong with her. She was more than likely exhausted. He let her arm go and stepped back to let her pass. Then he walked over to Monroy. “Has she been dizzy like that before?” he asked.

Monroy nodded, “Yeah, the doc said that she might be for awhile. That was some knock she took to the head when she fell and hit the stairs.”

“We need to keep an eye on her. And I don’t trust those two cowboys as far as I can throw them.”

“Me either, that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

“And the other?” Hays asked curious.

“She’s good people and she’s got it hard. With her pa gone, she’s gonna have to find a man to marry if she wants to keep that ranch going. Charlie isn’t going to be able to do it alone and I daresay she won’t be able to either.”

Hays nodded, but his stomach twisted itself as he thought of her with a husband. She’d probably find some young rancher she could rule and marry him just so that she could keep her parent’s ranch going. She needed a man stronger than her though… or at least one as strong. She deserved better. He didn’t admit that he had someone in mind. That night, the cowboys took turns minding the herd, but Monroy and Cooper took turns keeping an eye on Althea.

The next morning, Althea was the first up as she prepared breakfast for everyone. Cooper got up and fixed the coffee while she cooked on the open fire. She fried up eggs and cured bacon, the last of the fresh food with the exception of some butter and bread. They saddled and rode making good time to their next campsite.

Each day seemed like the last. The land sometimes flat, sometimes not, but the dust was always the same. The tension in the group was mounting though. Dan and Mike had lost some of their healthy respect for the Rangers and looked for any opportunity to get Althea alone. Cooper watched her like a hawk and Althea continued to be tongue tied around him. James Monroy just sat back and watched, knowing that it would all come to a head soon. He watched the thunderclouds chase them across the dry land and knew that the storm would be breaking over their heads soon.

One night, they were camped by a river and Althea made an excuse and went down to the river. Checking that she was alone, she laid out clean clothes and then stripped off the ones she’d worn for three days and dove into the chilly waters. She was a strong swimmer and she reveled in the feel of cool wetness on her skin after all the dry dust. Not paying attention to the time, she frolicked in the water for nearly an hour. When she finally emerged, she stood in the light of the full moon and dripped for a few minutes before reaching reluctantly for her clothes.

Hearing a noise in the bushes, she whirled and shouted, “Who’s there?” She waited, but no one showed themselves, so she began to pull on her clothes in a hurried fashion. She turned back to pick up her dirty clothes, intending to wash them in the river, when a hand clamped over her mouth and pulled her back to the bushes. Althea kicked and tried to scream, but, she was overpowered by the two men. They tore at her clothing and grabbed roughly at her flesh.

“Damn it Mike, hold her!” she heard Dan say. She kicked all the harder.

“Ouch, I’m trying, boy she’s a fighter. Come on, honey, you know you want it. Play nice now darlin’ Poor spinster lady like yourself, let us show you what you’ve been missin’.”

Althea felt sickened, not just by their touch, but by their words. She suddenly lay completely passive and waited until they thought she had given up. Then she came back fighting full strength and managed to elbow Dan in the eye and bite Mike’s hand. He pulled his hand back just long enough for her to get out one scream and then they began hitting her. Their goal now was not only to rape her but, to show her who was boss.

Neither man had the chance to accomplish their mission. Alerted by the scream, Cooper and Monroy came running. Each man grabbed one of the two cowboys and they began to beat them unconscious.

After both men had slumped down to the ground, Monroy looked and saw that Althea was barely covered with what was left of her clothes. “I’ll go get you something to wear,” he said as he headed back to the camp.

Hays slowly knelt down next to her and gentled her as if she was a wild doe. He spoke soothingly and when he touched her, it was cautiously to check her wounds. He slowly gathered her up into his arms and carried her back down to the water. He walked straight into it until it was over his waist and then lowered her into the river current.

Althea gasped as the cold water hit her bruised flesh. She had sunk into a shocked state and her mind began to function once again. She struggled, but Cooper held her in his arms and shushed her. “Just relax; I’m not going to hurt you.” He waited until she’d stopped struggling and then he took a piece of her torn shirt and bathed her face, cleaning the blood from her split lip.

Monroy laid the clothes on a tuff of grass near the bank and then he bound the hands of the two cowboys and dragged them to their feet. He walked them over to a tree and tied them to it so that they were sitting with their backs against it. He decided to let Cooper take care of Althea and he rode out to keep an eye on the herd.

Cooper brought Althea back to the bank and helped her to remove the tatters of her clothing and then to dress in the dry clothes Monroy had brought. He lifted her and carried her to the fire and sat her down near it, combing his fingers through her short curls until they were dry. After her hair was dry, he carried her to her bedroll and laid her on it, covering her with a blanket. “You’re safe now, I’ll keep watch. Get some sleep.”

Althea was tired beyond words. The fight and the shock combined with her injuries caused her to fall asleep as soon as she was prone. She did feel safe and protected. There was something about Hays Cooper that made her feel completely vulnerable and completely safe, all at the same time.

Hays watched her sleep for a long time, but finally, he went to the river and took his own bath. He washed out his clothes and hers that had been forgotten by the river. He wandered over to check the ropes of the two cowboys turned prisoners and then went to sleep himself.

When morning came, Cooper rode out to talk to Monroy. “I figure we’re about a half day’s ride from the nearest town.”

“Yeah and two days ride, maybe three, from San Antonio,” Monroy responded.

“You feel up to taking these two in by yourself?”

“Sure, but what are you going to do? You can’t herd these cattle alone and I doubt Althea is up to riding.”

“It’s a good place to stay a day or so. We’ll wait here until you get back.”

Monroy looked at the building thunderclouds, “You think we have time?”

“We’re going to get caught in it no matter what we do. We might as well weather it here where the cattle are boxed in this valley.”

“What if you get cattle rustlers come by and try and poach some of the herd?”

“I’ll handle it.”

The men nodded at each other, saying more without words than was said with. They hauled Dan and Mike up onto their horses, tied them to the saddles and Monroy headed off with them.

They were gone before Althea woke. She had a pounding headache and every muscle in her body screamed with each movement. She was bruised and she had a black eye and a swollen lip, but she didn’t have any broken bones and she would heal. She roused herself slowly and headed over to the fire where she smelled coffee.

Cooper handed her a cup and she accepted it gratefully, but kept her head down. She was embarrassed by how weak she’d been the night before and by the fact that he had once again been forced to rescue her. Still, manners won out and she thanked him. “Thank you for taking care of those… men last night and for… taking care of… me.”

The last was a mere whisper, but Cooper heard it. He knew that it had cost her a great deal to admit that she needed taking care of. “You’re welcome. How are you feeling today? Anything you think needs doctoring?”

“I’m okay, sore, but okay. Where are the others?”

“Monroy took them to the nearest town to have them jailed for assaulting a woman. He should be back by noon tomorrow. Do you think you’ll be ready to ride by then?”

Althea was just so grateful that she didn’t have to get into the saddle that day, she readily agreed.

The two spent a quiet day, Cooper riding around the perimeter of the herd and checking that they weren’t being followed by anyone and Althea sleeping and walking the stiffness off.

They spent another night alone together, but Althea felt completely safe. She didn’t understand it after what those other two men had tried to do, but she just knew that Cooper would never force her to do anything like that.

Monroy arrived at noon the next day and they sat down to eat the lunch he’d brought them from the town’s restaurant. They finished up and then saddled up to ride. Cooper took Monroy aside to tell him that they had picked up company, a band of four riders who were just behind them and waiting for them to move on. Cooper had Althea ride up near the front with Monroy pushing the herd from behind. He alternated between the two sides, bringing the cattle back in line and keeping an eye on the riders following them.

At dusk, the riders took their chance and advanced riding in with guns drawn. Cooper was ready and he whirled and shot down one before he’d gotten close enough to fire a shot. Monroy took out one more and the other two were soon deciding not to challenge this particular herd.

The weather had begun to worsen and lightening split the sky. The thunder rumbling after it was the last straw for the already frightened cattle. They began to run as hard and fast as they could. For a time, Althea was caught in the swarm and had to cling to FourBits as he whirled and ran and cut his way out of the stampeding herd. Once they were outside of the pack, he automatically went into herding mode and began to swirl around the steers, bringing them in closer together and turning them into a circle until they were turning back into each other. Althea stayed right with him, years of riding him around cattle made them a perfectly matched pair.

Cooper and Hays joined the round up as soon as they were certain they had scared off the rustlers. Navarro and Blue were good horses, but they weren’t the skilled cutting horse that FourBits was. Cooper watched, first in fear and horror and then in admiration as Althea and FourBits managed to control the stampede and bring the herd to a halt in a small valley with a lake at its bottom. Before they had time to dismount, the skies opened and dropped rain on them as if a dam had finally burst.

The three humans stayed out in the rain until the cattle were settled, the stampede forgotten. They then pitched a make shift shelter and climbed under it, wet to the skin. They all needed to change into dry clothes, but it wasn’t until Monroy thought of stringing a blanket across the inside of the makeshift tent that they figured out how to do so. Althea stayed on one side, the two men on the other. They all had dry clothes in their packs and they put them on and then rolled out their bedrolls to sleep.

Monroy took his blanket back down and looked out to where the horses were grazing. “Let’s hope this doesn’t last past tonight,” he said.

His words were prophetic, the rain ended at dawn. The three ate a cold breakfast with no dry wood to start a fire. They mounted and continued on toward San Antonio. The trip had a different feel to it now. They were just three and so they had to work harder to keep the herd together. Cooper rode behind pushing the herd with Monroy and Althea on either side keeping them together. The mud made the going slow, but Althea was grateful for the lack of dust. That is until she’d slogged through the mud for two days. She was wishing she’d complained less about the dust after that.

They finally reached the outskirts of San Antonio before noon on the third day after the rain. The two men stayed with the herd while Althea rode in to make arrangements to corral them until the auction. Two hours later, she rode back and they drove the cattle onto a ranch just on the outskirts of town that had holding corrals. The three then went to check in at the hotel.

As they were parting at the landing of the staircase, Cooper said to Althea, “You dress like a lady tonight and I’ll treat you to dinner.”

As invitations went, it wasn’t exactly romantic; still, she beamed and agreed to meet him that evening at six. She spent the rest of the day bathing and pampering herself. She went to the local goods store and found a ready-made dress that suited her. She bought some cream for her face and a few other feminine things. She wasn’t skilled with these items, but she used them to good effect. Despite the shortness of her hair, she looked very feminine by the time Cooper knocked on the door of her room. Althea opened the door to see Cooper standing there dressed in a suit and with no hat. It was a first. He stood staring at her as if she had grown a second head. She waited for him to speak.

“You look… beautiful.”

Althea’s hand went to her hair self consciously, “Thank you, you look very nice yourself.”

Cooper held out his arm to her and she took it as he escorted her downstairs to the restaurant. They enjoyed a pleasant meal and talked about their lives, getting to know each other. Cooper glossed over the story of his parent’s massacre, but Althea was able to glean enough information to understand that the event had molded him into the man he was. It was the drive that made him such a good Ranger, but it also made him a lousy candidate for a husband. Althea didn’t care, she was enchanted.

After dinner, Cooper walked her to her room and at the door; he leaned in and placed the gentlest of kisses on her soft lips. Althea was sure that her heart was going to come bursting from her chest. She stepped into her room and closed the door in a daze.

Cooper was on the other side of the door cursing himself for the impulse to kiss her. If only he hadn’t done that, he might have been able to walk away. He didn’t really fool himself with that argument.

The next week was a very busy one and the Rangers rode out on an assignment while Althea arranged to sell her cattle at auction. She worked with a man her father had known for years and she let him do most of the arrangements as she knew that many of the cattlemen wouldn’t want to do business with a woman. She got a good price for her cattle and then debated on what to do. She waited two more days and then went to the Texas Ranger office and spoke to the Captain. She explained that she owed Monroy and Cooper a debt of gratitude and asked if they would be back anytime soon. He told her that he was fairly certain that they would be gone for at least another month. Despondent at the news, Althea made arrangements for herself and FourBits to catch the train back home. She figured that they had rushed off on a hurry, but surely Cooper could have come to at least say goodbye.

The train didn’t go all the way into Bovine, but within a day’s ride of it. She overnighted at the hotel and then rode hard to Bovine and Charlie and home. The winter was a harsh one and she worked herself hard, fiercely pining for word of Cooper, but there was none.

Walker got up again and this time, he found that his briefs were dry enough to put on. He checked his shirt and found that it too was dry. He took off the apron and put his shirt on and then turned his jeans yet again. Alex continued to sleep even though the fury of the storm worsened outside, but she tossed and turned and sometimes moaned slightly. He was tempted to lie down next to her and pull her into his arms. He knew that her dreams would quiet if he did, but there was still that little voice in his head that blamed her for their current situation. He wasn’t quite ready to forgive her even though he knew that all she would have to do is open her eyes and look into his and he’d be lost. As long as she was asleep, he was able to pretend to hold a grudge.

Spring came and went, new calves were born and they grazed alongside their mommas in the pastures filled with the green grass of early summer. Althea had hired on two hands during calving and then let one go when he made advances toward her. She still had the memories of the night Dan and Mike had attacked her, but more than that, she still had Hays Cooper in her heart.

It was midsummer, a hot day with the sun shining bright and the sky as blue as her eyes, when she saw a lone rider come up to the ranch house. She was out on FourBits surveying the herd and she turned to ride in to check on her visitor.

Her heart was beating fast and it stopped in utter disappointment when she saw that her visitor wasn’t Hays Cooper, but James Monroy.

“Hi there, Al!” he shouted to her.

Althea couldn’t contain the grin at his greeting. She didn’t think she’d ever live down the fact that she had masqueraded as a young man named Al when she’d first met him. Not that she looked that feminine now. She had taken to wearing men’s pants when out working the cattle. It was simply more practical. But her hair had grown out and Sally had helped her to cut off the dark hair, allowing her natural blonde locks to sparkle in the sunlight… when she took off her hat.

            She rushed at James who had dismounted and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh James, it’s so good to see you, how are you?”

After hugging Althea, James stood back and grinned at her. “I’m good, haven’t been shot since the last time I saw you…You?”

She grinned back, “I haven’t been shot either. And I’m doing fine. Come in and I’ll get you something cold to drink.”

The two went into the house and Althea made cold lemonade for them to drink. They went back out to sit on the porch and James regaled her with his adventures since he’d last seen her. “I’m sorry we went off so sudden like, but there was a problem down at the border, some Mexican’s coming over to rustle cattle and when we get sent, we have to go.”

Althea nodded, dying to ask about Cooper, but not sure how. James watched her and knew that his suspicion was correct; she was in love with his partner. Cooper had been impossible to live with since they’d left Althea and he knew that the feeling was mutual. “Cooper is out still on assignment.”

“Why aren’t you with him?” she asked.

“I brought in an outlaw we’d tracked and he went after the other one. I was so close; I thought I’d stop in.”

Knowing that Cooper wasn’t going to be joining him, Althea’s heart sank even deeper, but she didn’t let it show, or at least, she tried not to. She enjoyed his visit and then returned to the demanding life of running a ranch.

It was late fall and Althea had hired on another ranch hand. She and Bart had worked together for nearly a year and she knew she could trust him. The other man she hired was the young husband of the town’s new seamstress. They didn’t have any land of their own, but he wanted to earn money to buy a piece of land. His wife was expecting their first-born and he hoped to have a home for the baby to be born in.

The three set off much as the year before. They made good time and reached the river where Althea had been attacked by Mike and Dan. She was a different woman now, wiser, but as determined as ever. She decided that she needed to face her demons and so she told the men to stay close to camp and headed down to swim in the river.

Cooper stood on the bank, his horse, Blue, grazing near by. He watched as the long slim woman splashed and dove in the water. He admired so many things about her, her spirit, her determination, her body… She could have been a mermaid if he’d been standing on the ocean shore instead of on the riverbank. He gave into temptation and slipped his own clothes off, entering the water without making a sound.

Althea startled when something grabbed her foot and pulled her under the water. She opened her mouth to scream, but instead, inhaled a mouthful of river water. She came up spluttering and coughing and turned to do battle against her attacker. She stopped and stared in amazement when she recognized the bearded face of Hays Cooper. “C…C…Cooper?” she finally managed.

“Never thought I’d see you back in this river. You got guts woman, I’ll give you that.”

“I’m not going to let ghosts from the past keep me from swimming.”

“You’re not part fish are you?”

“You’ve been watching me?”

“It was hard not to.”

“Cooper, I… I don’t have any clothes on!”

“Well now, there’s a coincidence, neither do I.”

“But, what are you doing here?”

“Making time with a beautiful lady.”

Althea blushed, but wouldn’t be deterred. “What are you doing out here?”

“I swam out to talk to you.”

“Cooper!” she said in exasperation.

He finally relented and told her what she wanted to know. “I was concerned about you and I rode to Bovine to check up on you and to see if you needed any help. Charlie told me that you were out here with two men and I couldn’t believe my ears. Don’t you ever learn?”

“I’m perfectly safe. Bart is of Charlie’s generation and Joshua is married with a baby on the way.”

“So he knows how they’re made, that doesn’t mean he’ll respect your privacy out here swimming without any clothes on.”

“You mean like you did? I thought I could trust you,” she added as a challenge.

“You thought wrong,” he told her and snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her to him to silence her with a deep devastating kiss. When she finally broke free, Althea was panting and not sure what to think. “You had me going crazy with worry. Damn it, Althea! Why would you ride out here with two men?”

“I can take care of myself,” she claimed.

Cooper took up the challenge, “Really?” he asked as he reached for her again. This time, the kiss was no less demanding, but it was gentler, there was exploration and a question behind it.

Althea wasn’t sure of the question, but regardless, she knew the answer. Her body melted against Cooper’s and it felt as natural as breathing, although breathing was becoming increasingly difficult. When he lifted his head, Althea asked, “Are you here to stay?” She needed to know, not that she was going to stop things if he said ‘no’, but she needed to know what she was in for.

“I’m all yours,” was his simple and direct response.

“But the Texas Rangers…”

“I’ve spent my entire adult life avenging my parent’s deaths and I’ve spent the last year trying to forget you. I guess I’ve finally moved on from my anger and grief and I’m ready to begin again… I’d like to begin with you.”

“Oh Cooper,” she cried as she clung tightly to him and rained desperate little kisses all over his face.

He tried to shush her, but finally gave up and just kissed her over and over again. The kisses became deep and his tongue slipped into her mouth. She gasped at the invasion, but she didn’t pull back from it.

Althea was amazed at all of the new sensations rushing through her body. She felt something hard nudge her belly and felt a surge of warmth at the juncture of her thighs. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her, but she knew that she didn’t want it to stop. When his mouth left hers, she gave a little cry, but then his warm lips trailed down her neck and found the top roundness of her breast and then lower until he suckled her ripe nipple into his mouth. A feeling of such ecstasy surged through her, that Althea was certain she was going to die. “Oh Cooper, I love you, I love you,” she said as he moved to her other breast.

Cooper was certain that if it wasn’t for the coolness of the water, he would have already exploded. He wanted this woman more than he wanted life itself at this moment. He moved them into the shallows so that the water was at his chest. He lifted Althea up into the air and settled her down against him slowly. She instinctively wrapped her legs around him and strained against him, not knowing exactly what it was she was seeking, but knowing that only he could assuage the powerful aching need she felt.

“Althea… open your eyes… look at me,” he commanded her on short gasps of breath. She did as he commanded and he said, “I love you, I want you to marry me. Will you?”

She was robbed of speech in that moment and nodded her head yes with tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I’ll try not to hurt you, but tell me if you need me to stop,” he told her as he settled her weight down and she felt him nudging her opening and beginning his penetration. At first, she didn’t mind the pressure, it was pleasant and she knew that she needed more, but wasn’t sure what she needed more of. Slowly, cautiously, he settled her down more firmly onto his hard length and then she cried out as she felt tremendous pressure and felt a tearing.

“Stop, oh stop,” she cried.

Cooper used every ounce of self restraint he had and held still as her body tried to reject him and then slowly accepted him. “It’s okay, we’ll go slowly,” he promised.

Althea was in pain, but she was embarrassed as well. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do,” she said on a sob as her head dropped down to his shoulder.

“You’re doing fine. It won’t hurt like this anymore, it’ll be better next time, I promise,” he said as he kissed her neck and shoulder.

Althea couldn’t imagine ever wanting a next time. She remembered that night she’d waited outside of Sally’s window and thought how much pain she must have felt. She felt like a failure, she had realized her father’s worst fears, she wasn’t a real woman. She couldn’t please a man. Without her realizing it, Cooper had continued to allow her weight to complete his penetration of her. They were completely bound together and he pushed her back away from him so that he could once again kiss her lips, her neck, her breasts. His hands cupped her buttocks and then slid up to her back, causing her to press even tighter into him.

Without understanding what was happening, Althea felt a resurgence of the overwhelming need she’d felt before. Again, her body was crying out for something and she didn’t know what to do to satisfy it.

Luckily, Cooper did know and he began to thrust slowly in and out of her. The tissues that blocked his path tore completely and her body stretched to accept him. Faster he pumped until his entire body stiffened and he spilled his seed into her with a triumphant cry.

Althea stayed in his arms, completely bewildered by what had happened. She felt disappointment, but she didn’t even know why. And then Cooper was apologizing and lifting her off of him, but she didn’t want to be separated from him.

Cooper pulled her further into the shallows and splashed water between her legs, cleaning away the blood he’d caused and the semen he’d left. He walked her on up the bank and slowly dressed her. Althea stood watching as he too dressed and then he whistled for Blue and he grabbed her hand and walked with her slowly back to the camp.

Just before they got there, he stopped and turned to her, “It gets better, I promise. I’ll show you when we get to San Antonio.”

Althea didn’t know if she believed him or not, but she decided that she would have to trust him. He let go of her hand and sent her on into camp without him. Cooper took Blue and rode a ways away, not wanting the cowboys she had hired to know that they had spent time together.

Lying on her bedroll that night, Althea felt lonelier than she ever had. Spending the year wishing she had Cooper with her had been easier to bear than that night. She lay there believing that she was a failure and that he would soon decide to take back his proposal and move on. Each time she moved, she felt the soreness that their encounter had left behind.

The next morning, Cooper rode into camp and greeted them all as if he had just arrived. He acted surprised, but happy; to see Althea and he soon convinced the two ranch hands that he was a good guy. He offered to ride on into San Antonio with them as there had been reports of cattle rustlers in the next valley. He wasn’t lying, there had been reports of rustlers, but he and Monroy had dealt with them over two weeks ago. They were now in jail or in the graveyard.

The next two and a half days were torture for Althea. She was sore and riding didn’t help. But her physical discomfort was nothing compared to the ache in her heart. Cooper acted like an old friend she’d just happened to meet on the trail. He gave no indication that he wanted to spend any time alone with her and she was, if anything, more miserable than that first night.

Cooper for his part, held his tongue. He wasn’t about to make any moves toward Althea with the other two men looking on. He couldn’t keep his eyes from her though and he was fairly certain that they both knew that he was more than a little interested in her. Bart acted as if he was another uncle to her and even young Joshua was a protective older brother. It was clear that his worries had been for nothing, Althea was safe with these two. He wished with all his might that he’d been able to control himself and not made love to her in that river. He’d dreamt of it for a year now and when he saw her, all of his good intentions of wooing her slowly had just left him and the end result was that he’d rushed her into a relationship she clearly wasn’t ready for.

Once they reached San Antonio, Althea made arrangements once again to corral the horses on a rancher’s land until the auction. The two men went to bunk down at the boarding house and Althea checked into the hotel while Cooper went to check in with the Captain. Before he rode off, he told her, “Wear women’s clothes and I’ll take you out to dinner.”

That evening, when Cooper knocked on her door, Althea opened it dressed in a beautiful gown. Her golden curls framed her face and the rest of her hair was pulled up and piled skillfully on her head. Cooper was in a state of shock when he saw her. He knew that she was beautiful, but, for the first time, he was getting the full effect.

Down in the dining room, they had an elegant meal and then Cooper pulled something out of his pocket. “I bought this for you, I hope it fits.”

Althea looked down in amazement as he slipped a gold ring with a solitaire diamond onto her finger. “But… you still want to marry me?” she asked with tears glistening in her eyes.

“More than anything else in this world. I talked to the Captain today and I turned in my badge. I want to be your husband. As of today, I don’t carry a gun.”

“You don’t have to do that for me,” she protested.

“Yes, I think I do. I’ve seen other Rangers try to have a marriage and a career. It just doesn’t work. A Ranger is gone more than he’s home and the wife is always left behind to do all the work and worry if he’ll be coming home this time. I don’t want that kind of life for you. Anyway, Blue was very impressed by FourBits and his ability with cattle. He wants to learn a new trade too.”

“But do you think you’ll be happy, living on a ranch?”

“Only if I’m living there with you,” he answered.

The tears again welled in her eyes and she leaned forward to accept his kiss.

The next week was a whirlwind of activity. They sold the cattle and booked passage back on the train. Althea purchased a wedding dress and carried it back to Bovine to have Joshua’s wife alter it to fit her exactly. They invited the entire town to their wedding at the small church in town. Charlie gave away the bride and James Monroy was their best man.

Back at the ranch that night, Cooper came to Althea’s bed for the first time. He had been very careful since that night at the lake nearly a month before. He hadn’t touched her, wanting to make their next joining as perfect as possible. They had moved into what had once been her parents’ room and Althea changed it enough to make it their own room.

That night, Cooper came to the bed and pulled the covers back to reveal the beautiful nightgown that Joshua’s wife had sewn for her. There were ties down the front of it and he looped his fingers into them and slowly released them to expose her neck and then her breasts. “Oh god, but you’re beautiful,” he murmured as he bent down to taste her lips and then the rest of her skin.

Althea was emboldened by his obvious appreciation of her body and she set out to explore his as well. She ran her hands up his strong arms and then slowly unbuttoned his shirt. Her hands fluttered over his stomach and Cooper quickly pulled back and said, “No.”

Althea’s look of utter hurt made him bend down and gather her to him. “I’m sorry, I want you to touch me, but not now, not yet,” he tried to explain.

“I’m sorry; I don’t know how to please you.”

“It’s not that, I just need to go slow and make this right for you. I rushed you last time and I didn’t please you. You shouldn’t be left wanting. Tonight is for you.”

“But, it’s our wedding night, tonight should be for us.”

“It will be, just let me set the pace for now. I promise that after I show you how wonderful it can be between us, then you can try anything you want.”

Satisfied that she would remain quiescent, he began again to woo her. Her nightgown fell from her body and he gazed at her in the candlelight. “How did I ever think you were a man?” he asked rhetorically as the evidence that she was all woman lay before his eyes. He trailed his hand down to her belly and she cried out as his fingers grazed her stomach.

Althea felt hot all over and she began to writhe on the bed as his hands continued to explore and touched her in the most intimate place of all. She gasped as he inserted a finger into her moist depths and then cried out in shocked delight as his tongue swirled over that secret place. She never knew that anything could feel this wonderful and she had reached a point where she was begging for release, but still not sure what it would bring.

Positioning himself over her, Cooper spread her legs further apart and settled down in between them. He made sure that she was wet and ready for him and he eased down into her depths inch by inch. He waited until he was certain that the pressure she felt wasn’t painful and then he began to move his hips, smiling to himself when he felt her pick up the rhythm with her own hips.

Althea knew only touch and taste and was bombarded with sensations as her body craved more and more of him. It was with complete surprise that she tumbled over into a land where fireworks lit the skies and she floated up among them. She fainted for a brief moment with the intensity of emotion and sensation she felt. When she resurfaced, she felt a surge of warmth as Cooper thrust into her one last time and spilled his seed deep into her body.

Once she’d regained her breath, she said, “Thank you, I would have never believed…”

Cooper smiled and moved to lie next to her, cupping her head against his shoulder and stroking her silky hair. “You can touch me now, anywhere you like.”

Althea tilted her head to look up at him and saw him smile at her. She eagerly began to explore his hard body, sliding her hands over his sweat-slicked skin and marveling at how wonderful it felt. She watched with amazement as he became hard again and long. With daring, she touched him in the place she was most curious about and then leaned forward to taste him with her tongue. He gasped and jerked back and she looked up thinking she’d done something wrong. “It’s okay, you just surprised me,” he reassured her and then placed gentle pressure on the back of her head to guide her back to him.

Cooper allowed her to pleasure him with her lips and tongue until he was unable to stand anymore. He lifted her up to urge her to straddle him and Althea placed him at her entrance and then rode him as she’d once seen Sally do. Cooper’s hands went to her most sensitive spot and minutes later, they were both gasping for breath collapsed on the bed.

Once she had regained her breath enough to speak, Althea tilted her head from where it lay on Cooper’s chest and said into his eyes. “I like being married.”

He smiled in return, “So far, I like it too,” he said.

“So far?”

“Well, you haven’t nagged at me yet.”

Althea pinched him and laughed as he rolled her so that she lay pinned beneath him. He kissed her breathless and then rolled back so that she was cradled against him. “Go to sleep, we’ve got our whole lives ahead of us and I have a feeling they’re going to be anything but restful.”

“Good, restful sounds boring.”

“And one more thing,” he threatened causing her to look up into his eyes again. “You will dress like a woman!”

“Of course, when I’m not out on the back of a horse,” she agreed.

Cooper wanted to argue, but looking into her eyes, he saw the stubbornness there and he knew that this was a battle he’d lose. “But always when you’re in bed with me,” he compromised.

Althea ran her bare leg up Cooper’s bare leg and said, “Always, if I’m wearing anything at all.”

Alex woke to find her head nestled against Walker’s chest in her usual sleeping position. Her leg was entangled in Walker’s legs as if she’d been running her leg up his. She realized that she was wearing very little and he was wearing far too much. She didn’t remember much else at the moment as reality blurred with a dream she’d been having about… she couldn’t remember. She looked up to find Walker looking down at her as if challenging her. She gazed back at him and the passion in her eyes quickly created a response in his eyes.

‘Damn!’ Walker thought, ‘she’s done it. And I wanted to stay mad at her long enough to tell her off.’ He frowned and then bent his head in surrender as her lips beckoned him to her.

Alex saw the answering passion light in his eyes and she smiled a triumphant smile that only had Walker cursing his own weakness all the more. Alex slid up his body, making sure to make plenty of contact and set about kissing this wonderful, sexy, man she was lying on.

Walker made a show at resisting her, but one thing he’d learned, there was no resisting Alex Cahill’s charm, especially when so much of her charm was showing. Alex’s dream swam into her mind as she began shedding what little clothing she wore and helped Walker do the same. She faintly remembered that the woman in her dream was awkward and unsure at first when making love, but that feeling soon vanished. She remembered her own uncertainty and awkwardness with Walker when they first became lovers, but that had definitely vanished as well.

Walker moaned as Alex’s mouth closed over his nipple. She nipped him with her sharp teeth and then soothed the hurt with her warm tongue. Her hands were reaching down until he felt her close them around him and she made a satisfied sound deep in her throat to find that he didn’t need any extra encouragement from her, he was ready.

Alex wouldn’t have minded a little extra work, but she was glad that Walker was as turned on as she was. Something about that dream she’d had had left her wanting this man like there was no tomorrow. Without pause, she shifted so that she straddled him and holding him up to her entrance; she moistened him and then sank down onto him. She cried out with pleasure as he hit bottom and filled her completely. She paused a moment, just reveling in the feel of him deep inside her and then she leaned forward and began to establish a rhythm designed to bring them both intense pleasure.

Walker forgot all about his truck, the rain, the deposition, the cold miserable night, every single reason he had to be mad at Alex was swallowed up, just as he had been swallowed by her warm body. He lay there allowing her to take the lead, enjoying her confidence in their lovemaking. He looked into her eyes and found that hers were fixed on his face. Their eyes met and locked and they communicated without words. Each knew the pleasure they gave and the pleasure they received. Walker watched as Alex pupils dilated slightly, letting him know that her orgasm was at hand. He reached his hand down between them and stroked his thumb across her sensitive nub and tried to smile as she fell forward, arching her back in rhythm with the orgasmic waves that coursed through her body, but he couldn’t smile because his own face had stiffened with his own release.

Alex felt the pulsing of him deep inside her as he spilled himself and waited for him to relax again. Once he did, she lowered herself onto him and promptly fell asleep.

Walker lay there wondering how it was that Alex had fallen asleep on top. Now he was forced to lie on the uncomfortable vinyl. If it wasn’t for the soft warmth that covered his front side, he’d shift and make her lay on the sticky cushions with a bare bottom. His hand stretched down of its own volition and soon he was caressing her bare bottom and decided that it should never be forced to touch the vinyl cushions. Alex shifted slightly, snuggling into him and he forgot about how uncomfortable his backside was as his front side was definitely in heaven.

The sun made its way through the clouds the next morning after nine. Walker woke up and decided that he was going to have to get up and relieve himself. The two beers he’d had the night before had gone through him. He shifted Alex to the side and got up, padding over to the bathroom. When he returned, he pulled on his clothes, which were finally all dry, and then began to make breakfast.

Alex awoke to the smell of bacon frying and coffee perking. She smiled as she lay listening to Walker clang around in the kitchen and then realized that she shouldn’t be able to hear him in the kitchen if she was in his bedroom… or hers. The events of the previous night flooded her brain and she looked up to survey her surroundings. She sat up and then stood and gathered her clothing. She wanted a few minutes in the bathroom before facing Walker.

When Alex emerged, she found Walker scooping eggs, bacon and toast onto two plates. Alex returned the cushions from their makeshift bed to their appropriate booths and then perched herself on a stool at the counter.

Walker slid her plate in front of her and followed it up with a cup of coffee, already doctored the way she liked it. The two ate in companionable silence and then Alex swallowed her coffee, took a deep breath and began the little speech she’d rehearsed in the bathroom.

“Walker, I’m really sorry. I know that I made some bad choices yesterday and I shouldn’t expect you to come behind me and clean up my messes. And to lose your truck… I know how much your truck meant to you. I don’t know what I can…”

Walker leaned in and kissed her, effectively ending her apology. “Hush, I don’t care about the truck, not really. It’s just when your head went underwater in that sinkhole, it really scared me. If I ever lost you…”

It was Alex’s turn to lean in and kiss him. “You won’t. God watches out for fools and drunks and since I’m not much of a drinker…”

Walker grinned at her, “You’re not a fool either… a little blonde maybe…”

“Oh… you…” she spluttered and pinched him on the arm. “You don’t show your Irish temper often, but you definitely have the traits of a redhead when you get your dander up.”

Walker pinched her back, only his arm accidentally slipped and he ended up gently pinching her breast instead. One thing led to another and both having forgiven each other, were ready to make up. The kisses became deep and heated and the rest of the world ceased to exist. That is until it came barging back in with the arrival of the local Sheriff’s department who was out looking for stranded motorists now that the storm had subsided somewhat.

It was hours later that a weary Alex and Walker made it to her apartment. They had rented a car and stopped by to gather some of her belongings. She was going to spend the weekend at the ranch… she’d promised to go truck shopping with Walker and she still had some making up to do. They entered her apartment and Walker swept her up into his arms and carried her straight back into her bedroom, dumping her into the shower stall. He turned the water on as he quickly shed his clothing and then hers.

Alex stood in shock as the water rained over their heads. “You’re all wet,” she told him.

“I’ve been dying to kiss you in a rainstorm, but I never got around to it last night. This’ll have to do until I can get the weather to cooperate again.”

Alex opened her eyes wide and then closed them as his mouth closed over hers and she stood in his embrace feeling the water cascading over her body. She decided not to tell him, but she thought this was actually better than a rainstorm. At least the water was warm… and so was the body pressed intimately against hers. Not to mention the fact that her bed was only about ten feet away and she knew that this would end up there. Not that she was complaining. Not one bit.

The End