HOLLIDAY'S HIGH NOON HONEYMOON:

Jesse - Shoot Him

When she walked her horse out of the canyon, before she spurred him forward in a gallop around one side, Elizabeth glanced back over her shoulder. "Oh no," she muttered.

Jesse, mounted without saddle, rounded the corner, walking his horse toward her, steering with long thick legs. He did not appear one iota pleased. In fact, he looked as dark and threatening as a gunslinger, the outlaw some people believed him to be.

Elizabeth kicked her horse, sending him into a full gallop.

Jesse followed, slowly gaining ground.

He was actually going to force her to shoot him to stop him from tracking her! "Thanks a lot, Jesse Coleman. I didn't want to shoot you." In the next instant, she turned, immediately aimed at the flapping fringe on his buckskin shirt, and squeezed the trigger. But he veered at an angle toward her; the bullet only meant to blow out a hole in the fringe instead pierced his buckskin.

When he slapped one hand over his ribs, tears pooled in her eyes and she spurred the horse faster. She had grazed him, hurt him; wounded him. She had shot Jesse.

Just like that, Elizabeth pulled hard on the reins to halt her horse, swing around, and ascertain Jesse was not wounded badly. Before she completely came to a stop, Jesse thundered past, snagging her from her horse to his lap. "You must shoot to kill, not wound out here." Then he jerked her Colt out of her hand. "Give me this!"

The pooling tears overflowed, streaming two by two down her cheeks as she cupped his handsome face between her hands. "Oh, Jesse. I'm so sorry!" Elizabeth dropped her gaze to his right side, gasping at the spreading crimson stain. With no thought to propriety, she pulled up his shirt to study his wound, an angry red and bleeding welt alongside his rib cage.

"Water is scarce here. I'm okay. You barely grazed me, Miss Holliday. If you keep touching me like that," he groaned quietly. "It might have been worth it."

"Silly man," Elizabeth sniffled. "Now you're delirious. I've never actually shot anyone before, yet I doubt my sincere apology would make you forgive me. I'm so very sorry, Jesse." Whether gratitude he was alive, or the churning emotional turmoil of that minute, she lifted her mouth and pressed a kiss where she had seen one of his incredible dimples earlier.

"Do you have any idea what you are doing to me, Bethy?" he rasped near her ear. Then he inhaled, breathing deeply between her hair and face. "Mmm." At that, he pulled his horse to a halt near a small pool of underground water. Before he dismounted, Jesse prayed aloud. "Give me strength, patience, and wisdom with this woman, Lord."

He no sooner jumped off the bareback horse, than Jesse swooped her down with one arm. After he set her upon her feet, he frowned. "Turn around before I affront your modest sensibilities."

Heat blazed up her face even as she whipped around, facing away from him. She heard water splashing, so Elizabeth pivoted and slowly walked toward him.

"You can't sneak up on an Indian, Miss Holliday."

She crouched to her haunches beside him. "I-I wanted to see if I could help." She scrubbed her hands under the water. Lifting a shaky wet hand toward his clean wound, focused, she about jumped out of her skin when Jesse suddenly grabbed her moving hand.

He held her hand still, an inch before touching him. "Sure you ought to do that?"

Frowning, she sighed. "I realize it may not precisely be the actions of a proper lady, but—"

"My blood is mixed, half white and half red. Some consider me tainted and surely not nearly good enough for a white woman to touch, a real lady to nurse. A stunning beauty at that."

That's ludicrous!" She studied him. "I have an idea."

"Should that scare me, Beth?"

"Don't turn around," she ordered then grunted several more times, pulling loose one of the knotted painful linen strips from her chest. After she re-buttoned her shirt, Elizabeth ripped off a small piece, wet it, and wiped out his wound. Then she took the other long strip and wrapped it over the wound, covered and protected, before knotting it at the other side. "How's that?"

"I forgive you," he said hoarsely as he stroked one knuckle over her cheekbone. Jesse slid one finger under her chin, tipping her face until she stared into warm chocolate eyes. "Where were you headed in such an all-fire hurry? Where are you running to?"

Elizabeth raked her top teeth over her bottom lip for a split second. "Uh."

Uh-oh. You are truly a poor liar, woman. Don't spin a tale. Tell me the truth, Beth."

"I have a family member in extremely bad health, been in bad health, even worse by reputation, for some time now. I need to see him again before he dies. He's in an institution northwest of here. Then I thought I'd figure out where I wanted to live, where I wanted to make my fresh start."

"See now, did that hurt to share?"

She grimaced. "A little. See, Jesse, I don't want anyone to know anything about me, nor about anyone or anything in my past. My new life can be created like artist strokes painted upon a fresh canvas with no hint of my history to color people's judgments."

He rubbed one finger down his jaw. "Hmm. You're traveling alone, still further northwest into the wild frontier to see this family member?"

She nodded and glanced away. What must he think of her? Not that she cared, she reminded herself silently. Elizabeth Holliday knew no truly decent and proper lady traveled alone.

"Stay with me, Bethy, until I can get away, till Luke and I have accomplished our mission. Then I'll escort you to Doc Holliday. How are you related to him?"

"He's my uncle. When Momma died, Uncle John raised me for four years starting when I was nine. My aunt took me from him, when I turned thirteen, moved me to Boston and into society."

"Raised by a gambling outlaw for a few years, huh? Explains your sassy mouth. And your confidence with a firearm."

"Not that I care," she growled and then glanced up into his dark eyes. "But you think less of me all ready, don't you?"

"Why would I, Beth? I was raised by the Cheyenne for thirteen years then moved into my father's household, into white society. Only God has the right to judge. It's not who you are or are not related to, you can be welcomed into the family of God where each person is equal. Each person is true to the person God created them to be, called them to be, in His plan for their life."

Then he took her hand in his, praying for her by name, praying for Luke, praying for God to place a protective hedge around each of them. She lifted her bowed head after he said, "Amen."

He hopped to his feet, pulled on his wet but blood-free shirt, and swung up on the bareback horse. "Come on. I need to get back, Holliday. People to do, things to see, that sort of thing."

She laughed and accepted his hand. Her feet lifted off the ground until she sat in front of him, bareback, on the horse. Jesse grabbed one of her legs and swung it over, sitting her astride in front of him. Elizabeth turned at the waist as he spurred the horse into a lope. "Jesse, are planning on telling anyone else what I privately revealed to you in confidence?"

He raised one hand like taking an oath. "Never, Beth. Your secrets are safe with me."

Elizabeth sighed and relaxed back against him until they walked the horse through the mouth of the canyon, returning to the den of cutthroats and outlaws. She shuddered then lifted her mouth toward Jesse's ear. "Does it sound crazy to say the air inside this canyon feels dark and oppressive?"

He squeezed one arm around her waist. "It's the battle of good and bad, both in the spirit world and the natural man warring against evil."

At that moment, the outlaw from the stage yesterday, Slim, called out to Jesse. "Good, found ya. The boss wants to talk to ya. Alone."

Jesse nodded.

Slim cocked one brow at Elizabeth. "Want me to keep your woman company while you're busy?" He lifted his hands in the air. "I know, touch her, I'm target practice and you never miss."

Elizabeth could feel the tension coiling tighter in Jesse as he sat behind her. "Thought you said I was with you, Mr. Coleman?"

"You are." He hopped down and saddled another horse. When he lifted her from his horse to hers, he said to Slim, "She's coming along." Then after he saddled his horse and mounted, Jesse leaned down to her ear. "Do exactly what I tell you to do this time. These men beat women who disobey them, Beth, and expect me to do the same as part of their gang."

After they galloped north for a few miles, Beth couldn't contain her thoughts to her head. Instead they came blurting out of her mouth. "You believe in beating women?"

"I have never raised my hand in anger to a woman and I never will. The Cheyenne have great respect for women; know how to treat them right. And then the Bible has plenty of instructions, including how a husband should treat his wife."

"So why are you here? Why are you doing this? What exactly is the this that you are doing?" She gasped before he could have replied, his words sinking into her mind. "Wife?" From between gritted teeth, she demanded, "Are you married, Jesse Coleman?"

"No. Not married. Not engaged. Not involved. How about you, Beth Holliday? Are you still betrothed to Steven Sterling?"

"The betrothal was broken."

"By whom?" he persisted.

"Does it really matter? It's history."

"Did he hurt you, Bethy?"

"He wanted to," she admitted on only a wisp of breath, more to herself than to him. She doubted he even heard her, him on his horse and she on hers. As they topped the next rise, an impressive mansion appeared in her line of sight.

Jesse lifted one hand and stopped under rare shade at the end of the driveway. "Stay here. Don't move. Plant yourself. Grow roots. Do I need to say more for you to understand me this time?"

She laughed. "I believe I caught the general gist of your meaning this time."

"And keep that oh so pretty but sassy mouth shut."

When he turned his head, his twin dimples and streak of straight white teeth gleaming against bronze skin stopped. Virtually before her eyes, Jesse closed off, appearing cold. Without thinking about it first, she stretched out one hand to rest on his back. "Be careful, Jesse Coleman."

He handed Elizabeth her Colt. "Don't shoot anybody, Holliday, while I'm gone." Jesse dismounted and walked to the front door.

When he disappeared inside, she sighed and dismounted. After tying the reins around the tree trunk, she paced small circles. Her gelding snorted, ears twitching, before Elizabeth heard the low murmur of male voices. Straining to listen, the murmur intensified as Jesse and an elderly man dressed like a gentleman straight off the Boston society ballroom strolled from around the back side of the massive white house. The gentleman spotted her and pointed.

Jesse fisted his hands on his hips for a moment, saying something in too low of a tone for her to overhear. Then he turned to her and crooked his finger.

Elizabeth grinned, crossed her arms, and sank to her seat beside the tree where he told her to grow roots. She smiled a little more when she heard him groan. The men approached her and for no apparent reason her heart began to pound within her chest.

The white-haired man cocked one bushy ivory brow as he smiled at her. "Mr. Michael Woodson at your service." He bowed slightly from the waist. "Why are you sitting here when you could have come inside and rested in comfort with us?"

"Jesse told me to."

"We were only finalizing a few minor details on a major plan. Maybe he'll end up taking you along at any rate. Think of all the spice to be had during such a dangerous adventure."

Ignoring Jesse's scowl, Elizabeth smiled at the older man and rose to her feet. "Ah then, Mr. Woodson, certainly a gentleman would enjoy them as well. Jesse makes me sit off in the fringe, in safety, and watch." Just as she had been taught in finishing school, Elizabeth focused the attention and conversation around the gentleman. In the coy way of society, she met his gray eyes briefly and smiled slightly. "Perhaps you might like to join us and be so kind as to keep me company while Jesse is otherwise occupied with the new gunslinging adventure?"

Woodson rubbed his hands together. "What do you think, Jesse? I wasn't inclined to accept your invitation to join you in this adventure, but your little woman here has changed my mind. Meet you in two days to watch you carry out the final takeover plan."

Jesse slipped one arm around Elizabeth's shoulders, pulling her tightly to his side. "You were right. She is mine."

The gentleman stepped back from her. "Jesse says he calls you Holliday, my lady. You look quite familiar. Would Doc Holliday happen to be your sire? I've always heard he had an illegitimate daughter tucked away someplace safe."

"No!" she rushed in a panic.

Jesse ushered her to her horse, then, as if effortlessly, lifted her into the saddle. He shot her a silent warning with his eyes before boldly leaving one hand on her waist and glancing at Woodson. "Don't believe that. She likes fast-gun outlaws. It's in her Holliday blood."

Although Elizabeth bristled, Jesse swung up on his horse. He had all but betrayed her exact confidence! If he lied about that, if his word was meaningless, then what else had he lied to her about? Maybe he was exactly like Steven after all?

Her imminent explosion must be plain to read because Jesse crooned by her ear, "Easy, sweetheart. Keep that sassy mouth shut."

After another betrayal? Keep silent once again as is proper? Or strike swiftly to burn him, too?

Mr. Woodson clasped his hands behind his back. "You bury a bullet in Marshal Stone's heart?"

Here was her chance. Jesse had not killed Luke. In fact, they were somehow in cahoots against the big boss Woodson.

"Well?" Woodson demanded when Jesse stared in silence at Elizabeth. "Is Marshal Luke Stone a dead man?"

"I took care of him," Jesse replied coldly.

Elizabeth cleared her throat to speak. Should she betray Jesse in turn? Or should she protect Jesse?

          Protect him?                       Betray Him?

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