HOLLIDAY'S HIGH NOON HONEYMOON:
Jesse - Run Away
After clearing the mouth of the canyon, Elizabeth studied the first cracks of dawn to decide the direction northwest. She nodded in agreement with her decision and spurred her horse into a gallop.
"Don't run away from me, Beth."
Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw Jesse leaning against the outside canyon wall, fisted hands on his hips as he watched her ride off. She leaned over the gelding's neck, urging him to sprout wings on his hooves.
After almost five miles, Elizabeth slowed her heaving mount to a brisk canter. A short time later she came upon a small pool of water and dismounted. She allowed her horse to drink and rest.
Elizabeth couldn't stop thinking about Jesse or the mystery surrounding him, his kindness and gentleness, his own breed of protection, less refined, rougher around the edges, a different brand of gentleman. Never had a man touched her in such a familiar manner like Jesse did perhaps innocently as a way of life, of offering physical protection, on the wild frontier. She couldn't even stop thinking about him advising her to ask Jesus into her heart, to heal her heart, to learn God's plan for her life.
This was her plan for her life, her timetable and race against death claiming her uncle before she could see him again. She'd received an urgent telegram from her uncle, telling her that he would hold on until he could speak with her again face to face. She had given up everything, all the way down to not acting like a proper lady by fleeing Boston to travel unescorted into the Wild West frontier. She had never cared for the genuine fakeness, the games, of hypocritical society, nor for the way a woman was not supposed to have an opinion, nevertheless voice it.
As she remounted her gelding, Elizabeth chased questions around in her mind. Her uncle certainly needed help, as did she. Even Jesse and Luke needed help. Did God really care enough to help them all? Still pondering the situation, she crested a rise and viewed an immense and impressive white mansion, a fine place to stop and learn directions to Glenwood Springs.
Just as she led her horse down the driveway, leading to the front door, from in front of her, Jesse jumped his stallion sideways to block her path.
His raven brows were set in a scowl, fathomless eyes cold and closed off. "Miss Holliday, you have no comprehension of the danger you nearly walked into here." He leaned over his horse's neck and growled, "This is where the big boss lives, the evil man manipulating life and death behind the scenes."
Over her momentary dumbstruck shock of seeing Jesse, Elizabeth grinned at him. "Hello again to you, too, Mr. Coleman. What a unexpectedly pleasant surprise to see you."
He blinked slowly as if processing her words. "Charm school talking again, or did you miss me, Beth?"
"Both," she giggled.
A white-haired man waved at them through the window, bidding them to come inside.
"Great," Jesse grumbled. Once he had helped her dismount, he leaned near her ear. "Keep your sassy mouth shut and go along with whatever happens in there; do exactly what I tell you to do." When she snorted ineloquently at his demands, Jesse pulled her to a stop by wrapping one large hand around her upper arm. "I mean it, Beth. You ran off, and this entire gang of men, from leader to lackey, believes in beating a woman for disobeying him. Don't make me blow my cover. Do as I say and I'll protect you."
"I can protect myself," she said in singsong voice as he hurried her toward the front door.
A butler swung open the entranceway, but before Jesse escorted her through the door, he growled low enough for her to hear. "Trust me, woman." Then he led her through a foyer, around a winding staircase, to a large shiny mahogany wood den where he shut the doors.
A man in his senior years turned toward them, silently inspecting Elizabeth. She had to keep her teeth clenched so her jaw wouldn't pop open. The elderly man was dressed like he had just stepped from a Boston society function. He cocked his head and lifted one bushy white brow, shocking her again with his gentlemanly manners. "Mr. Michael Woodson at your service, my lady. And you are?"
Jesse uttered a low groan then stepped in close to her side, sliding one brawny arm around her waist. "She's mine."
Although enough heat rose to her face to bake bread, Elizabeth held out one hand toward Mr. Woodson. "Miss Holliday, sir."
The gentleman clasped her fingers before raising the top of her hand to his mouth for a soft press of his lips. "My pleasure to meet you, Miss Holliday." Gray eyes narrowed, looking her up and down once. "If you'd like to wait upstairs while Mr. Coleman and I discuss business, my servants could draw you a bath and find you suitable attire for a lady?"
Elizabeth closed her eyes. Ah, a bath sounded glorious. If that included redressing in all the restrictive female trappings of high society, then she'd pass. Those days were history. Oh, but she did long for a bath and clean clothes.
Jesse nudged her. "Someday I want to see you dressed like a female in a fancy dress." He winked and in the next instant dark eyes closed off, suddenly cold inky slits, turning to aim a hard glare at Woodson. "But you went for a little ride this morning, so you'll have to pass on Mr. Woodson’s kind offer. You certainly don't blend in with the males, but you'll dress as a boy for now. If you were ever to try to actually run away from me, woman, I'd disciple you with physical punishment, make no mistake about it." Then he dismissed her, the cold cut, pivoting away to walk toward the desk with Mr. Woodson.
Woodson thumped his finger down on the map. "Two days. The next secret night meeting, they'll all be gathered in one place. Fast and easy marks. Finish them off, so my takeover will be complete." He chuckled. "And you will be a very rich man."
"You want to send the last twenty-five ranchers to their Maker?" Jesse translated into crystal sharp clarity for Elizabeth.
Woodson rubbed his hands together as if in eager anticipation. "Bury a bullet in each man's heart, just as you did to Marshal Stone."
Then Woodson turned his head and studied Elizabeth intensely once more. "You look familiar to me somehow, Miss Holliday. Might I be so bold as to ask if you are the illegitimate daughter of Doc Holliday?" Ignoring her gasp, he continued, "I always heard Doc kept her tucked away somewhere safe."
Jesse slipped one arm around her shoulders, pulling her to lean on him even as she scanned her mind for an appropriate response. "Uh."
But before she could say more, think up a believable tale since no one needed to know anything about her at all, Woodson flicked one finger toward her leaning on Jesse. "No wonder why your mistress likes outlaws. She is one by blood. If your lady outlaw will be riding along with you on your final mission, waiting for you in the fringe of danger, Coleman, then I might be more inclined to ride along as you had asked."
Elizabeth spoke up first, pulling out every ounce of politeness drummed into her for years. "Please, Mr. Woodson, do join us in our adventure. May I ask you to be so kind as to keep me company while Mr. Coleman is otherwise occupied with his fast-gun endeavors?"
That must have been the straw that broke Jesse's temper though, because he ignored Woodson's agreement to meet them in two nights, and pushed her lower back, shoving her out the front door. He rushed her to her horse, tossed her into the saddle, and grabbed both horse's reins in his hand as he mounted his stallion. Looking like a dangerous outlaw, his obvious fury did not lend toward trying to have a conversation.
After ten minutes of the horses speeding across the countryside, Elizabeth wanted her reins back. If Jesse didn't want to speak to her, was angry about something, then she didn't want to ride beside him.
He pulled up short, outside a red rock cropping. In a few heartbeats, he had not only dismounted but also scooped her into his arms and was currently carrying her up the rock formation. At the top, she could see the crater-like center was filled with clear water. Just like that, Jesse flung her out of his arms to splash down and submerge in the water. "There's your bath, my lady. It may not be good enough or what a gentleman would offer you."
She sputtered and tossed her wet black Stetson to the shore. "I assure you no gentleman has ever touched me as familiarly, kissed me, or was so insufferably rude as to watch me bathe."
Making the most of the situation, actually soothed by the sun-warmed water, Elizabeth untied her ponytail and finger-combed her ultra long auburn tresses. She heard Jesse clear his throat as he topped the crater again. When she glanced up at him, his dark brown eyes heated to nearly black as he stared at her unbound hair, but he tossed her a bar of soap before spinning around to leave.
He ignored her, "Thank you ever so kindly," so she turned her back and shed her clothing, before washing first her clothing and then her hair.
In the end, she couldn't unknot the many layers of linen bindings around her bosom, wasn't too sure she'd truly ever tie them on again if she could pry them off her painfully squashed chest. Finished, Elizabeth raised her voice to ascertain he could still hear her. "What is your problem? I thought you wanted Woodson to come along? I was helping you, Jesse."
He didn't answer again, so she hurriedly redressed and left the water to retrieve her hat. She discovered Jesse sitting with his back against a ledge on the rock formation.
Finally his smooth baritone declared, "I may not be the type of gentleman you are accustomed to, Miss Holliday. I'm a God-fearing, Bible-reading, prayer-kneeling Christian man though, being used by God to battle against evil in the natural world. I'm also half Cheyenne blood and half white blood, but the man I am is a collection of the good in both cultures as opposed to one extreme or the other."
When she sat beside him, he held out both palms in her direction. A long wicked blade gleamed in one of his very large hands, a comb in the other.
Jesse captured her in his black fathomless orbs. "If you want to look male, and I'm telling you for the last time that your beauty is too delicate to ever be mistaken for a man's, then hack off a few feet of your gorgeous red hair. Either that, or cut the bindings around your bosom before you suffocate riding around with all that compression squeezing the air out of you. Make up your mind to complete your disguise, or end it. Outlaw or Miss Proper. I'd like to see you as female, Bethy, as the real woman somewhere between the two extremes."
She snapped her gaping mouth shut and blinked at him in surprise. "I-I can't cut my hair." She scooted around and flung it over her shoulder to stream down her back. "You'll have to do it, Jesse."
He snorted, but did indeed grab a handful of her hair. Although she didn't really want to watch, couldn't bear to part with her one vanity, her super long wavy hair, Elizabeth turned her head and stared at Jesse. Instead of touching her hair with the knife, he lifted mahogany strands to his nose and inhaled.
"Mmm. No way I'm cutting off God's gift, the crown of a woman's glory." Then he dropped her hair and stared out over the horizon. "Your betrothed, Steven Sterling, would slit my throat for certain then."
Jesse turned toward her again, trailing one long calloused finger lightly down her nose. "A few freckles on this porcelain skin may not ruin you, but has it crossed your mind that your betrothed may take exception to you staying with me? Proper under the circumstances perhaps, but not by your Boston's society standards. A lady's association with a half-breed at all could leave your reputation in tatters maybe even here in the Wild West frontier. Not to mention a half-breed believed to be a gunslinger and outlaw."
"Half-breed is an ugly word, Jesse. And you are the most real gentleman I've ever had the pleasure of making an acquaintance." She grabbed the knife by the handle and rose to her feet. "Uncle John carried a long deadly blade like this in his boot, two guns down low on his hips and one in a shoulder holster."
Once again sheltered in the walls of the crater, she shed her shirt. The incredibly sharp blade instantly sliced through the water-tightened linen bindings. Elizabeth couldn't contain her moan, relief and pent-up pain when the ties fell to reveal angry red marks where the cloth had bit into her tender skin.
"You okay, Beth?"
She groaned as she pulled her shirt back on, but managed, "Breathing again is all." Frowning at how the buttoned front used to bag but now rounded out at her chest, she called, "I look considerably less male. This may not have been wise. I cut these bindings and wouldn't be able to pull them closed to retie. Might you have a linen sheet on you, Jesse, so I can try again? I'd cut my hair this time, too, to complete the disguise, to complete the transformation into the outlaw in my bloodlines."
"Are you decent, Beth?"
"As decent as I get," she giggled.
The deep timbre of his laughter broke off suddenly when she stepped down next to him. His eyes widened for a split second before he swung up his head to study the afternoon sky. "That had to hurt, woman, kinda like a corset in reverse. I never understood why women would wear those torture devices."
Obviously ready to try again, Jesse glanced at her face. "I'm glad I followed you this morning, before you landed in trouble like you nearly did if you had been alone and encountered Woodson, but where were you in such a flat-out hurry to ride to this morning?"
"Northwest. Are we playing another round of three questions, Jesse? I meant three ever. Not three every day."
He narrowed deep brown eyes on her and nodded. "Number one is, are you related to Doc Holliday, Beth?"
She sighed hugely. "He's my uncle. After my mother died, he raised me from age nine for four years. When I turned thirteen, my aunt and uncle took me away from him and locked me away in the proprieties of Boston's elite society. Uncle John is dying, Jesse. He's asked to see me before he does."
Certain Jesse regarded her differently already, not that it mattered she reminded herself, but Elizabeth couldn't resist tossing out, "And for your information, Mr. Coleman, it's too late to tell me not to play poker. I knew how a long time ago." When he still said nothing, she lifted her eyes to his and quipped, "What, no number two question? Understand now, why I didn't want to discuss my past and have any shadow of it touch my fresh start?"
"Living with a gambling fast-gun outlaw for a few years goes a long way toward explaining your sassy mouth and bold nerve. Ask Jesus to guide you, Miss Holliday, to be true to the real you. The best of blessings from both cultures in your life, He can help you. You don't have to choose either the Miss Proper Elizabeth or the sassy outlaw. The real Beth is a little of both, a true lady."
As she pondered his words seriously, Jesse stroked one hand down her hair.
A rumbling like thunder with no lightning blew along with the hot desert wind.
Jesse scooped her up and dropped her atop her horse.
Boom. Boom. Boom-boom.
Jesse nodded toward her Colt. "Shoot to kill, not wound. Rustlers coming this way with a stampede."
Elizabeth nodded once, mind racing as they spurred their horses in the direction of four thousand thundering hooves. This was it; either she behaved like an outlaw, or Miss Proper! Torn by the cavernous extremes, she shrieked her frustration. She knew no happy medium. She must choose to live as one or the other. Was one side of her blood, her upbringing, stronger than the other?
Should she shed the last social restrictions and choose to live as an outlaw, among Jesse and other outlaws like her uncle had sometimes been? Or should she strive to maintain society's rules for a true lady like her momma had, Miss Proper once more?
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