NOTE FROM AUTHOR:This story has been re-worked so that all historical facts and copyrighted material no longer appear within the work. This work may not be duplicated without credit to its author. Any character or name resemblance to 'real' people currently living or dead is completely coincidental.
LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER:This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state, province or country in which you live please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
Northern Peace and Perils
17th February 1865
Partly hidden by the blizzard, the barely visible silhouette stumbled in the snow for the third time. Slender but strong fingers pulled the tattered furs tighter around the broad shoulders. Blue eyes scanned through the trees for any signs that would indicate someone following. At least, the tracks left behind were soon be hidden by the blowing snow. The shoulder and leg wounds were almost unbearable; only the numbness caused by the arctic cold helped. Though hurt, cold, hungry and tired, the fugitive got up once again on unsteady legs and, taking a ragged breath, continued on.
The darkness was quickly setting in and finding shelter was crucial. Dogs barked nearby; the sound being carried by the wind was closing fast. Looking around for any kind of weapon, the figure grabbed a solid piece of branch and held it in shaking hands. Why fight back anymore? The figure snorted at the absurdity of the situation. So far from home, no food, and no bullets left for the Colts. Regarding the piece of wood in hand, the fugitive laughed again, raised the weapon in the air, and shook it at the heavens. Surely, whatever gods were looking down would soon end their game.
Another kind of darkness then took over as the figure collapsed on the snow, fingers slowly releasing their grip on the branch.
I cant wait to get home, Michelle Laberge thought as she guided the dog team through the forest. It had been a long day, and the weather was getting worse. She had made her monthly trip to Mansonville, a little village some twenty miles west of her home. Mr. Jeffrey Cole, the general store's owner, had all of her supplies already packed when she arrived. She smiled as she remembered the elderly gentleman trying yet again to persuade her to leave her solitary life in the mountains and come live in the village. He considered Michelle a daughter, and he really didn't like having her so far away from civilization.
The young woman pushed her running dogs even more when she noticed the late hour, wanting to reach home before darkness fully fell. As she expertly guided the sled through the blowing snow, she suddenly noticed some movement to her right and saw a figure collapse to the ground. Stopping the team, she stepped off the sled and took her rifle in her hands, then carefully approached the unmoving person.
"Allô?" she called out in French, pushing her fur hat back slightly from her eyes so she could see more clearly. Receiving no answer, she walked closer and bent down, out of reach of whoever was lying on the snow, to look at the face. She was surprised to look upon the face of a woman. Michelle slowly reached and shook the inert shoulder but received no reaction. Pulling her left hand out of her mitten while cradling her rifle in her right arm, she reached down and touched the pulse point at the woman's neck. She let a sigh of relief escape her lips as she felt a faint heartbeat.
Looking around, Michelle tried to see if anybody else was nearby, but with this blizzard, it was hard to see and hear. The young woman brought her attention back to the still figure and brushed away the long, dark hair that covered the face. "As tu besoin d'aide?" she tried again in her native language, shaking the collapsed woman more forcefully.
She jumped in surprise as a hand shot out from beside the woman and grabbed at her furs, refusing to let go. The hostile gesture was quickly forgotten, however, when she saw the disoriented look on the stranger's face and was completely mesmerized by the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. The woman was a beauty, though she had a haggard look and was obviously weakened. High cheekbones and a strong jaw gave her a regal bearing. "Tu est blessée?" Michelle asked, helping the woman to sit up.
"Wa..." the woman croaked, her voice breaking.
"Wa?" Michelle frowned at the barely uttered word. "Wa Water! Yes, of course! I'm sorry." She ran back to her sled and returned with her canteen. Pulling the cork out, she bent down and brought the canteen close to the woman's mouth. "Here. Just take small sips."
The dark-haired woman suddenly grabbed again at Michelle's wrist, stopping her from getting too close. She took the canteen herself, drinking until she started to choke.
"Hey, careful," Michelle said as she took the canteen back. "Listen, daylight is almost gone. Can you walk?" she asked, and the woman shakily got up. "Good. I don't live too far away. Sit down on the sled, and I'll bring you to my place." She smiled as the woman nodded and slowly made her way toward the dogs. "What's your name?" No answer. "Do you speak English?" The woman turned to Michelle and raised an eyebrow at her. "Stupid question. Sorry." Once the dark-haired woman had settled onto the sled, Michelle mushed her dogs on their way, pushing as much as she could to help the animals deal with the extra weight.
The fugitive couldn't believe her luck. Alex, there must be someone looking out for you. She smiled to herself as she closed her eyes. Her shoulder was killing her, her wound having gone too long without care. The only thing that kept her from falling back into unconsciousness was the image of her rescuer.
Alex had caught a glimpse of golden hair that stuck out from under the fur hat, slid low to stop just above sparkling green eyes. She looks so young, Alex thought. And cute too, she added with a tired smile. Another time, another place, she might have enjoyed seducing the young woman, but now wasn't the time. She held her breath as another shock of pain shot through her body, and she clenched her jaw shut. She was about to demand that the young girl stop when the sled slowed down. Looking up, she saw through the blowing snow that they were approaching a log cabin.
Michelle stopped the team in front of the door, then gently shook the woman, whose eyes were closed. "We're here. I'll help you in and get the fire going again," she said in a loud voice to be heard over the wind. The stranger slowly stood up, and only then did Michelle notice that she was at least six feet tall. She pushed the door in and guided the woman to the left, toward the bed that was close to the fireplace, and helped her sit down.
"My name's Michelle. Michelle Laberge, but people call me Mick," she said with a smile as she put logs into the fireplace and blew on the embers to start the kindling alight. She watched briefly to make sure the fire was well started, then turned to look at the woman sitting on the bed. "I'll go get the dogs out of their harnesses. It won't take long. Will you be okay?" she asked but still didn't receive any answer.
She shrugged as she walked to a lamp and lit it, bringing it with her. Just before she went back out into the storm, she cast another look at the strange, beautiful woman on her bed. The older woman stared into the fire, her ragged furs still tightly closed around her. Mick shook her head with a sad smile and walked outside to care for her dogs.
Once the door closed, Alex shifted her eyes to where the young woman had stood. Michelle, wasn't that her name? Even though Alex had been uncooperative, the woman was still willing to give her shelter. The fugitive shook her head slightly. That kind of trust in people will get her killed someday. As the room warmed, she let her tattered furs slip off of her shoulders and winced when she moved her arm.
Looking around, Alex saw that the cabin was of good size. The main room seemed to serve as sleeping quarters as well as a work area. With the fireplace on her right and two rocking chairs directly in front of it, she turned her head left and spotted an old desk in the corner. Many books littered the top, along with a few loose papers, a pen, and a bottle of ink.
Trailing her eyes along the left side of the cabin, Alex saw two closed doors separated by shelves of books, the wall ending up in the kitchen. A square table was in the middle of the room along with four chairs. A wood-burning stove stood on the opposite wall from where she sat, and the right wall had a long work area for cooking with cupboards above it. The main door was located right between the kitchen counter and fireplace.
Alex nodded her head as she finished her visual tour of the place. Nice. She shakily stood and limped toward the kitchen, opening cupboards in search of food. She found some little cakes on the counter and quickly grabbed three of them, wolfing the first one and munching on the second. She wondered what lay behind the two closed doors.
After she finished taking care of the dogs, Mick quickly emptied the sled of its supplies, filled the storage room that was an extension of the log cabin, and brought the perishable items into the cabin with her. She opened the door as best she could and pushed it open the rest of the way with her boot. Aided by the wind, the wooden door slammed against the wall.
Alex was still looking around the kitchen when the door crashed open, and she spun around in surprise. The sudden move made her dizzy and she briefly lost her balance, causing her to lean precariously against the counter.
"Oh. Sorry," Mick exclaimed and almost let her parcels drop when she saw the woman on the verge of collapse. She quickly put the food on the table and grabbed at the woman's vest, walking her back to the bed. "Easy does it. You should have told me you were hungry. Lord knows I am," she said with a smile, spotting the half-eaten cake held tightly in the woman's right hand.
Now that the stranger was without her furs, Mick got a good look as she assisted her and quickly realized that the woman was not an ordinary one. She was dressed in black pants, with her tan suede shirt partly covered by a black leather vest. Her boots were so worn that Mick could see the holes, even from a distance. What drew Mick's immediate attention were the two gun belts that hung low on her hips, each holster carrying a Colt revolver. Mick stood up and smiled at the woman, choosing not to ask about the weapons. "How about if I heat some stew for us to eat?"
Now used to not receiving any replies, Mick headed for the small kitchen area to heat the stove and prepare their meal. Stealing a look at the gunslinger, she noticed the woman wince as she carefully lay down on the mattress and closed her eyes. She wished she could learn more about her silent and mysterious guest. Why is she carrying revolvers? Is she a criminal and perhaps even a thief or a murderer?
All those questions were giving Mick a headache. If she was a murderer... Her thoughts trailed off and she shook her head. She didn't quite understand, but she really believed that the older woman wouldn't harm her, let alone kill her. She smiled as she saw the woman's hand slowly slide from her thigh down to the mattress, still clutching the little cake.
Mick softly walked back toward the sleeping woman and was about to put a blanket on her when she noticed that the shirt under her leather vest was torn. Looking closer, she saw that the left shoulder had a nasty wound. It wasnt fresh, having probably been treated initially but neglected ever since.
Alex woke up, startled when she felt soft hands tugging gently at her shirt. Her strong hand captured Mick's and blue eyes flashed a warning, causing the young blonde to stop unbuttoning the tan shirt. "What are you doing?" she growled, not releasing her hold on the smaller woman's wrist.
"Your wound I was trying to clean it," Mick explained, swallowing hard as ice-blue eyes kept staring at her.
Mick frowned, confused. "What do you mean, 'why'?"
"Why are you nice to me when you don't even know who I am?" Alex said, letting go of the blonde woman's wrist.
Those were the first real words Mick had heard from the dark-haired woman. She suddenly wished she would say more. Though a bit strained, her voice held a rich tone that vibrated through Mick. "It won't make any difference to me to know who you are," she said with a disarming smile. "You're hurt, and I will take care of that wound, even if you don't want me to." She continued to unbutton the tan shirt, noting the stunned look on the gunslinger's face.
Alex mentally shook her head. Nobody dared to speak to her this way, and many had died for a lot less. But this diminutive woman had clearly taken over in deciding what was best for her. She watched as the blonde pushed the shirt away and cleaned the wound carefully, noticing with amusement that the green eyes slowly wandered over her nearly exposed breast.
Caught staring and then blushing furiously, Mick focused on the task at hand. What's gotten into me? Its true the older woman was a beauty, but that was no reason to gawk at her like a drunken sailor. I'm spending too much time alone in the woods. "Is the wound on both sides of your shoulder?" Mick put fresh bandages on the newly cleaned injury. The older woman shook her head no. "Was the bullet taken out?" A small nod. "Any other wounds I should know about?" Another shake of the head, and Mick closed her medical box and put it on the small table next to the bed. That was an interesting conversation.
Mick walked to the kitchen area and took two bowls from the cupboard. She filled them with hot stew, then brought one to the stranger along with a thick slice of bread. She watched in amazement as the food disappeared almost instantly. Blue eyes looked back at her with a smile so small that Mick almost missed it.
"Thanks," Alex mumbled as Mick took the bowl away. With some difficulty, she took off her gun belts and put them by her side on the bed. She took her boots off, wincing as another wave of pain shot down her left arm, then slowly she lay down on the soft mattress with a sigh of relief.
After coming back into the main area, Mick covered the still clothed woman with a warm blanket. "Try to get some rest. I'll be close by if you need anything." She smiled kindly and sat down in one of the chairs in front of the fireplace to eat her own bowl of stew.
Surprised by the soft voice of the gunslinger, Mick leaned closer. "Excuse me?"
The woman sighed. "You asked me my name. It's Alex," she said before she closed her eyes and soon fell asleep.
Mick smiled, watching the sleeping woman, and whispered, "Good night, Alex."
It had been a very hot day, and Alex was glad that the sun had finally set. The sweat on her body made the dust from the trail stick to her skin like glue. All she wanted once she got home was a beer and then a nice soak in the tub. She had spent most of the day in Kansas City, and the bustle from the hectic town got on her nerves. She much preferred the pace of a smaller town like Carson Pass, Kansas, where shed grown up and currently lived. But the trip had been worth the hassle. Her wagon was full of supplies needed for her parents saloon and small restaurant.
Another reason she wanted to get home as quickly as possible was that she had bought a gift for her lover, and she was looking forward to her reaction. Even though Alex hated to shop for clothes, the dress simply screamed Jodie's name and shed bought it without a second thought.
My lover. Alex smiled as she repeated the words. It had been a fairly new development in their relationship. She and Jodie had been friends since their school days, and now that they were adults, they had discovered that their feelings for each other were much deeper than simple friendship. Tomorrow would be their second anniversary as lovers.
They now shared a room above the business that Alex's parents owned. Jodie worked with Mama Carmichael during the restaurant's open hours while next door, Alex helped her father behind the bar when needed. Her main job, though, was making sure everybody behaved in the saloon. Her six-foot-tall and well-muscled frame was impressive enough, but if that didn't convince the newcomers to act in a civil manner, the fact that she was one of the best sharpshooters in the area did the trick.
Whistling, Alex guided her horses and wagon toward the saloon to unload the supplies and smiled, knowing that Jodie would be waiting for her there. She nodded as her regular customers and neighbors waved and smiled at her. As she made her way closer to her parents' business, she noticed that a crowd had gathered in front of the saloon and she frowned, thinking that maybe somebody was already making trouble.
"Alex!" a voice yelled, and she turned to see the general store's owner running down the steps toward her. "Wait!"
"Whoa!" she hollered as she pulled the reins back, stopping the horses. "What's up, Mr. Carson?"
"Please, stay calm," he called, out of breath. "We had some trouble earlier."
"What kind of trouble?" Alex frowned as she stepped off the wagon. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Mr. Carson shook his bearded head and took a deep breath. "But a bunch of soldiers made some trouble this afternoon. They were already drunk when they arrived in town. Your father asked them to leave the saloon, but they refused. A fight started and he got hurt."
"Damn!" Alex turned to head home but was quickly stopped by a solid hand on her arm.
"Wait, there's more." Mr. Carson swallowed nervously. He had known Alex all of her life, and he had seen her grow up into a beautiful woman. He also knew what she was capable of doing when she was in a rage, and he was afraid that what he was going to say would make her go on a rampage. But she should hear the news from a family friend rather than a stranger. "We found Jodie behind the saloon. Somebody beat her up pretty bad and..." The tall woman burst into a run, leaving behind Mr. Carson and the wagon and horses at the general store.
"Get out of my way!" Alex yelled as she shoved the curious onlookers out of her path. "Jodie?" she called out and took a quick look around the demolished saloon. Broken tables and chairs were strewn everywhere, the huge mirror behind the bar was smashed, and the floor was wet and littered with shattered alcohol bottles. "Papa?" Alex bolted outside, ran around the building, and took the steps that led to her room two at a time.
"Jodie?" she called again as she pushed the door open. Her father was sitting at the small table, his left arm in a sling. Numerous nasty cuts and bruises covered his face, and his opened shirt showed his bandaged chest. Alex's mother was kneeling by her husband, and both looked up as their daughter entered the room. "Mama?"
"Honey, please, come here." Mama Carmichael stood up, opening her arms to her daughter.
"Where's Jodie?" Alex asked as she looked nervously around the small room, noticing Doctor Forbes for the first time. "Where is she?" she asked again, more forcefully.
"Please sit down, Alex," the doctor instructed and sighed when the tall woman refused to budge. "I'm sorry. There was nothing I could do," he said gently, glancing briefly at the closed bedroom door.
Fear took hold of Alex's body as she saw the sad faces of the people surrounding her. "No!" She took a few steps back as if punched, then headed toward her bedroom and opened the door in one swift motion. "Jodie?"
Somebody lay in their bed, the form covered by a blanket. Alex carefully approached the bed and knelt down beside it, reaching a shaking hand to grab at the cover. She held her breath and closed her eyes, slowly pulling the soft material away from the hidden face. She could feel her heart beating furiously against her chest; the sound of her blood racing in her veins was loud in her ears. Opening her eyes slowly, Alex looked down and saw the bruised face of her gentle lover.
Tears fell down her dusty cheeks as she gently brushed her shaking fingers on the once soft skin, now swollen and cut. "Jodie? Please wake up. I'm here now. I'm home." She spoke softly as she slowly shook her friend's shoulder. "Come on, Jodie. Wake up." She shook the petite woman more forcefully and looked up as a strong hand patted her shoulder.
"She's dead, Alex. I'm sorry." Doctor Forbes tried to make Alex stand up. A strong arm violently pushed him back, accompanied by a growl that sounded inhuman.
"Get away from me! Leave us alone," Alex barked at the doctor, her eyes swollen and red from the tears. "Get out!" she screamed. Turning her eyes to the immobile form before her, Alex's facial expression became soft and loving as she looked at her friend. "Jodie?"
"Please, Alexandra," her mother pleaded, her heart breaking at the sight before her. "Let her go."
"No!" Alex cried and looked up at her mother. "Please, Mama, do something."
"No," the dark-haired woman whimpered as she looked once more at the battered body of her lover. "NO!" she howled in pain and fury.
Alex woke up in a sweat. Her eyes were wide in fear as she looked around. Remembering where she was, she took a few deep breaths and tried to calm her racing heart. It had been four years since Jodie had been murdered, and it still felt like yesterday. All those years were spent trying to find her killers, her search unsuccessful. "I'm so sorry," she whispered to her friend, hoping that Jodie could hear her grieving thoughts and yet hoping that she hadn't witnessed the murderous rampage that had followed her death. "Will you ever forgive me for what I've done?"
The tall woman slowly turned on her side and stared at the dying embers in the fireplace. She knew that sleep wouldn't come easily now as guilt gnawed at her soul. People die in wars. You had a job to do and you did it well. But you weren't a soldier. The men you went after were killed in revenge for Jodie's death and, in fact, they had nothing to do with it. They were only guilty of wearing the same uniform as her killers. "I know that now," Alex affirmed to no one in particular and silently listened to the howling wind outside the cabin.
Mick woke up earlier than usual, the arctic cold having kept her awake most of the night. The small room in which she had slept had no heating; during the winter months, she kept it closed and stayed in the main area with the fireplace. At the moment, though, she had no other choice but to keep the injured woman close to the warmth of the fire. Mick dressed quickly and noiselessly. Walking out of the bedroom, she left the door open so the heat from the fire would warm it a little.
Checking on Alex, Mick saw that everything was all right; the woman was still asleep. She then put more logs into the fire and brought it back to life, warming the small room, and stayed just a few moments to warm her cold limbs. The only other fireplace was in the public section of the cabin, used when trappers and the occasional traveler stopped at the relay to rest and take shelter. Mick thought of preparing that room for Alex's use but opted to keep the injured woman within reach until she could fare better.
Opening one blue eye, Alex watched the young blonde. She was huddled in front of the fire, rubbing her arms and shivering. Alex pushed her blanket away and tried to sit up, causing more pain in her shoulder. She tightened her jaw as the muscles screamed in agony. A low growl escaped her lips, causing Mick to turn around.
"What are you doing?" Mick was quickly beside her and tried to make the older woman lie down again. "Just rest, and I'll check your bandage," she said, lifting the medical kit she had left close to the bed. With the light of day, she had a better view of the woman's injury and noticed also that her shirt and pants had several rips and holes.
"I have to leave," Alex mumbled as she tried to get up again, only to be held back by the blonde.
"You're in no shape to go anywhere," Mick said sternly. "Besides my stew and bread, have you eaten anything lately?" She didn't wait for an answer as she expected none. "And you have a nasty shoulder wound. So you're going to listen to me and do what I say." She suddenly stopped as the dark-haired woman's expression changed and her jaw muscles twitched with tension. Uh-oh. Have I gone too far?
A dark eyebrow shot up as Alex stared at the blonde. Either this woman is nuts, or she is one gutsy lady. And Im sure she isnt stupid. She watched as fear registered on Mick's face but was quickly masked by a defiant look. Alex did the only thing she could do right now. She laughed.
Relief washed over Mick with that chuckle, and the woman slowly sat back down on the bed. "How about I heat some water for you to take a bath? I'll check your wound after. But first, want some coffee? I do; I'm freezing." Mick walked over to the kitchen and prepared a pot to heat.
Aware that the young woman wasn't looking, Alex got up once again, unable to sit still. She moved to the doorway of the room Mick had left ajar and peered inside. She noticed a bed but realized that the room had no heating source, then remembered seeing the young blonde shiver in front of the fire just moments ago. Limping back to the fireplace, Alex gingerly knelt and stoked the fire. "Where did you sleep?"
"I slept in the small room. Why?"
"There's no heat in that room," Alex stated as she kept poking at the logs. "Tonight, I'll sleep on the floor here."
"Now listen," Mick started, "you're not going to sleep on the floor." The blonde shook her head. "You need to rest. The other room isn't so bad," she lied, then hesitated when the tall woman stopped poking at the logs and gave her a look. "Well, it's not bad in the summertime," she said, playing with the mug of coffee in her hands. She couldnt meet those direct blue eyes and didnt know why.
Holding back a grin, Alex stood up again. Despite the pain in her leg, she walked over to Mick. "I'm sleeping on the floor; you sleep in your bed. That's it."
"But--" Mick started and found a finger on her lips, the simple touch sending shivers down her body. She looked into the blue eyes staring back at her and lost herself in them.
"No arguing." Alex smiled slightly to take the edge off of her command. "If you get sick, who's going to take care of me?"
Did she just make a joke? Mick couldn't believe it. Less than twelve hours ago, she could barely say a word and now this. She smiled at the tall woman and nodded. "Okay. But during the day, you'll rest on the bed." She handed the coffee mug to Alex, put the water-filled buckets near the fireplace to heat, then turned to start breakfast.
Both of them ate in silence, but at least it wasn't the uncomfortable silence of the evening before. Having talked a little bit with Alex, Mick felt more relaxed now. She wished she knew the dark woman's story, but the last thing she wanted to do was push her to talk. If Alex wanted to say something, she would in her own time. As soon as the water was warm enough, Mick left the woman to her privacy and stepped outside to take care of her dogs.
The tub had been set in the corner of the room, right between the bed and the fireplace. Alex soaked her body, enjoying the hot water. With her eyes closed, she debated what to do next. She couldn't stay here too long. She had to keep moving. Still, the thought of spending more time with the young blonde was a pleasant one. It seemed like ages since she had been in the company of such a gentle woman.
She mentally shook her head. She was on the run, chased by a bounty hunter. The longer she stayed, the more she put Mick in danger. And the last thing she wanted to do was risk harming this gentle and caring woman. I'll only bring her trouble, Alex thought as she sat up and continued with her washing.
Having fed and checked on the dogs, Mick brought the rest of the supplies indoors and quietly closed the door behind her. Looking to make sure that Alex was all right, Mick saw her reach forward in the tub and gasped at the marks on her back. Long red scratches ran from her shoulders down into the water.
Hearing the sound, Alex turned to Mick, who still wore her coat and fur hat down almost covering her eyes. She picked up the soap and started washing herself. "You'd better take your coat off; it's warm in here," she said with a soft voice.
"Huh? Oh. Yes, I'd better," Mick mumbled as she put away her coat and hat, then took off her boots. "How are you feeling?" she asked as she opened the medical box. She took out what she needed to clean Alex's shoulder wound.
"Much better." Alex rinsed herself and stood up.
A small bottle slipped out of Mick's hands and went crashing on the table when she saw the vision before her. Water glided off Alex's body as she stood up, making no effort to cover herself--much to Mick's satisfaction and consternation. Quickly reaching for the bottle before it rolled off the table, she reluctantly tore her eyes away and continued to prepare her medical items.
"What happened to your back?" she asked as she looked again, hoping the woman wasn't facing her. Only then did she notice the other wound on Alex's thigh. "Goodness. What did happen to you?" she exclaimed as she approached the naked woman to take a closer look at the wound.
Alex chuckled to herself. Here I am, standing naked in a tub, but all Mick is looking at is a stupid injury. She tapped Mick gently on her shoulder to get her attention.
Looking away from the wound, Mick's green eyes trailed over the long legs and the muscular thighs. She glanced at the dark patch of curly hair and quickly looked away only to see well-toned abdominal muscles and then the full breasts that were in plain view. Swallowing hard, she felt her breathing quicken as her gaze lingered on the firm breasts, trailing the curves hungrily with her eyes. The blonde held her breath as a gentle finger lifted her chin and blue eyes looked back at her, causing her heart to beat furiously.
Alex slowly leaned closer, secretly enjoying the looks she was getting from Mick, and smiled. "Towel?" she asked in a soft voice.
Mick blinked as she realized that she had been staring and stepped back from Alex as if burned, blushing furiously. "I'm sorry...I I didn't mean to..." she stammered, reaching for the towel and giving it to the waiting woman still standing in the tub. "I'm sorry," she mumbled as she turned and left the woman to dry herself.
With a guilty feeling, Alex watched Mick leave the room. She hadnt wanted to make the young woman uncomfortable. The thought that Mick probably had never seen another woman naked hadn't even crossed her mind. But now she felt remorse for embarrassing the young blonde, which surprised her. Why do I care how she feels? Ever since Jodie's death, Alex hadn't felt emotionally close to anyone, having decided that love only brought pain once it was lost.
She gingerly stepped out of the tub and dried herself as best as her shoulder would allow, careful to not brush the deep scratches covering her legs and back. She then wrapped the large towel around her body. After slowly walking to the room Mick had entered, Alex peered inside and saw her sitting on the bed, both hands covering her face.
"Michelle Mick?" Alex called out softly, causing the young woman to quickly wipe her tears away and look up. She crossed the room and sat on the bed beside Mick. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you," Alex said. "It's just that I'm used to...I never had to..." A sigh escaped her lips. Why was it so hard to explain something that was so natural to her?
"No. I'm the one who should be sorry," Mick said, then took a deep breath. "I didn't mean to stare at you like that. That was improper of me."
"I didn't mind," Alex murmured, too softly for Mick to hear.
Seeing a shiver go through the older woman, Mick stood up and opened a drawer. She removed a long sleep shirt and handed it to Alex. "I think this will fit you. You're about the same size as my brother." She smiled shyly as she tentatively looked into the tall woman's eyes.
Alex nodded and took the offered shirt. "Thank you." Not knowing what else to say, she stood up cautiously and winced as the towel rubbed on her scratched back.
"Alex?" the young blonde asked. There were so many questions she wanted to ask now that Alex was talking a little more.
Alex turned and saw the gentle green eyes. "Yes?" It had been such a long time since anybody had looked at her this way.
"Are you uh " Mick hesitated and changed her mind about asking Alex a personal question. "Do you want me to check your shoulder?" she asked instead.
"I'd like that," Alex replied with a smile and limped out of the cold room.
Sitting on the bed close to the fire, she turned so that Mick could have an easier time changing the bandage. She could feel Mick's soft fingers working gently and remembered that Jodie had the same caring touch. She closed her eyes at the memory and bent her head down, her shoulders sagging slightly. How she missed her friend and lover.
"There, I'm all finished." Mick got up from the bed and closed the medicine box. "Are you okay?"
Alex stood up slowly and nodded. "I'm fine," she replied, not wanting to talk about her lost love. She slipped into the long sleep shirt and let the bath towel slip from under it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Smiling, Mick reached to take the towel and pointed to the bed. "Now get in bed and sleep for a while, okay? I have a few things to do."
An eyebrow cocked behind dark bangs as an amused Alex inquired, "Is that an order?"
"You bet. Im in charge here."
In normal times, Alex would have refused to obey, but she did feel tired and weak. Some rest would do wonders right now. "All right," she finally agreed and slipped under the blankets.
"I'll wake you up later to eat a little, okay?"
"Sure." Alex nodded and closed her eyes. Of all the rotten luck she had in the past month, how come things were slowly turning in her favor now? What or who had put Mick in her path? Whoever you are, thank you, she thought and quickly fell asleep.
The aroma of freshly baked bread teased Alex's senses, and she sleepily opened one eye, noticing that it was already dark outside. Slowly, she sat up in the bed and stretched, testing her shoulder as she did so. Her wounds were still painful, but she could see that her strength was coming back. Once she was strong enough, she needed to find a place to hide until things quieted down. Too many people wanted her dead, and staying here was too dangerous. She didn't want Mick to suffer for her actions.
Going home was out of the question for her. Branded as a traitor by some, a murderer by others, the tall, dark-haired woman had simply nowhere to go anymore. She closed her eyes and sighed softly, wondering when her life had become so complicated. Revenge will do that to people. A voice in her mind was always there to remind her of the things she had done. But I learned by my mistakes. I was wrong to do what I did. All I wanted was justice to be served. Alex shook her head slowly. How do I right all the wrongs?
"Alex? Are you okay?" Mick asked softly as she sat on the bed. She looked anxiously at the taller woman and gently squeezed her arm. "Are you in pain?"
"No. I'm fine," Alex replied. She rubbed at her eyes to get rid of the tears that threatened to fall. "Did you do all the things you wanted to do?"
"Oh yeah. I went a couple of times to check on the dogs, brought more wood in for the fire, and I filled the tub with snow. When it melts down, all I'll have to do is heat the water, and it'll be my turn to take a bath." Mick smiled as she described her afternoon. "I also made us a nice meal. Hope you're hungry."
Alex frowned, thinking about the activity. All that work going on, and I didnt even wake up once. Either she was exhausted or she felt really safe in Mick's cabin; she wasn't sure which. One thing she knew, though, was that she never slept that deeply, even when her own family was around. Only Jodie had managed to make her relax a little, but not as much as being oblivious to everything.
"Hey." Mick nudged the taller woman teasingly. "Are you listening to me?"
"I said that the blizzard stopped some time ago. I cleared a path to the outhouse if you need to go."
"Oh, sorry," Alex mumbled and looked down at her nightshirt. "Yeah, that would be a good idea. Where did you put my clothes?"
"Well " Mick hesitated as she stood up. "Everything is in the small room, but your clothing is torn and ripped in many places. I wanted to repair it all, but it seemed pretty useless, especially with all the blood I found. What happened that you got hurt so much?"
Alex stared at the fire. She didn't want to lie to the young woman, and she owed some answers for this hospitality. But she knew that the truth would probably shock Mick or worse, scare her.
A small sigh escaped Mick's lips. Why did she expect Alex to answer her, and why did she want so much to know about what had happened to the blue-eyed woman? Was it just curiosity? Or was it because she cared? Maybe it was just a need to hear exciting things so it would spark her ordinary life. Then again, why should Alex answer her questions? She herself was a stranger to this dark-haired woman. So many questions.
Alex silently watched Mick walk into the small bedroom. She was about to say something when she heard the drawers open and close with Mick mumbling to herself. Nice going, Alex. She's upset at you. What harm would it do to tell a little bit about yourself?
"I hope you'll like this," Mick said from the other room, stopping Alex from saying anything. "I made it this summer for Pierre, but he said it wasn't practical where he worked. So " the voice trailed to more mumbling, then a loud thump was heard. "Got it!"
The young woman walked back into the main area carrying a bundle, which was wrapped and tied with a string as if for a gift. "It's yours if you want it." Mick smiled as she handed the package to Alex.
"What is it?" she asked and was surprised at its heavy weight.
"Open it. You'll see." Mick made her way to one of the fireplace chairs and sat down, watching Alex intently.
The older woman carefully unwrapped the parcel. Her trembling fingers stopped as she glimpsed a beautiful buckskin tunic with delicate beadwork. Pieces of leather and fine feathers decorated each shoulder, while the collar had a V shape that was embroidered with an intricate design on each side.
"I can't accept this," Alex exclaimed, stunned.
"Why not? You don't like it?" the younger woman asked softly, hurt evident in her voice.
"Well, of course I do. It's beautiful, but " Alex stared at the tunic, amazed at the beautiful piece of workmanship. "But wont your husband mind? You made it for him, right?"
A loud, relieved laugh sounded from Mick, causing the dark-haired woman to look up in confusion. "Pierre isn't my husband. He's my brother." She giggled and stood up, taking the tunic out of the wrapping so Alex could see it better. "Yep, I knew it would fit you. It will look better on you than Pierre, as a matter of fact. There're some pants in there, too. I hope the legs are long enough. My brother isn't as tall as you. Bigger, yes, but not as tall."
Speechless, Alex continued to look at the ensemble, not knowing what to do. Why would Mick give something like this away to somebody she didn't know?
As if reading her mind, Mick walked back to the bed and sat down next to Alex. "It would please me very much if you'd accept this. Besides, my brother doesn't seem to care much for it, and it's too big for me, so "
"You could sell it and make some money. It's really beautiful," Alex said softly.
"But if I did sell it, it wouldn't be as fun as seeing that look on your face right now." Mick gently patted Alex's arm. "Please, take it."
Alex stayed silent for a while as she fingered the soft buckskin tunic. "Thank you," she finally said and looked up to see a bright smile on the young blonde's face. "When is your brother coming back?"
"Pierre doesn't live here. He comes twice a year to check up on me and pester me to go back with him, but it never works. He wants me to act like a proper woman, but I like living in the mountains. The city life isn't for me."
Alex grinned. "Oh? And what don't you like about acting like a proper woman?"
"Getting married, for one," Mick replied. "If he asks me one more time why I don't get married, I'll scream."
"And why don't you want to get married?" Alex teased, laughing as she ducked the hand that was headed for her arm. God, it seems like years since I've laughed this way.
"Don't you start, too," Mick warned with a laugh of her own. "I have nothing against marriage. It's just not what I want. I'd like to travel and see exciting things. Be able to live adventures instead of reading about them. The city life was exciting, but " She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "People are friendlier here."
"I noticed." Alex smiled as she looked at Mick. She could spend hours just listening to her talk. The young woman was so gentle and honest in her caring for others. "I'm just surprised that you weren't more careful when you found me. People do dangerous things in times of war."
"What do you mean in times of war?" Mick asked, confused. The last war had been in 1812, way before either woman had been born.
Alex looked up and saw the look on Mick's face. "The war between the States. How long have you been living in the woods?" she asked, half seriously.
"Oh, that war. Well, we don't talk about it much since it doesn't really concern us. Politics never was an interesting subject for me, especially when it relates to another country."
Another country? Why is Mick talking as if she's Alex stopped thinking for a moment and closed her eyes, not daring to hope. "What's the closest city from here?" she asked suddenly.
"I usually get my supplies in Mansonville. Why?"
Not recognizing the name, Alex opened her eyes and frowned. "Mansonville?"
"Hang on." Mick walked over to the small library, pulled out a rolled map, and sat back down beside Alex. Holding the map in front of them, she indicated a small dot with her finger. "This is Mansonville. And this," she said as she pointed to a long lake east of the village, "is Lake Memphrémagog. We're about here." She tapped an area between the two locations, but closer to the lake.
Alex slid a finger on the map from the location of the cabin down the western coast of Lake Memphrémagog to end up at its very bottom, on a dot that indicated the town of Newport. I'm not in Vermont anymore! "I'm in Canada. I must have walked all the way through " Her voice trailed off as she stood up, the tunic forgotten on the bed.
"Yes, you're in Québec. Where did you think you were?" Mick joined the tall woman by the fire. She had assumed that Alex lived in the area. The past twenty-four hours played again in her mind as she thought about the injuries on Alex's body, the torn clothes, and the fact that she hadn't eaten in a few days. Mick looked up at the tall woman with wide eyes. "You're on the run, aren't you?" She swallowed as she saw the muscles tighten in Alex's jaw. "Don't worry. You're safe here."
Safe! Alex snorted. There are no safe places for you, Alex. You hurt too many people to deserve that. "How do you know you're safe here with me?" she asked more forcefully than she intended. "I could be a dangerous criminal running for her life or a murderer looking for another victim. What tells you that I won't hurt or kill you?"
Mick wanted to take a step back from the woman but felt that Alex was more hurt than angry. "Because if you had wanted to hurt me, you would have done it already." She gambled and, without flinching, held the blue eyes staring at her. "And if you're a thief, well, look around you. There's not much to take, but you're welcome to it."
Alex stared at the petite woman. People would make a mistake to judge her defenseless if they went by her delicate features. She sure knew how to confront people. "I'm not a thief, and I won't hurt you," Alex said softly and turned her head to stare at the flames. But I am a murderer.
For most of the past six months, Alex had spent her time in a futile search for her friend's murderers. She had followed all possible leads, hoping to find any of the five men, which only led her to more Union soldiers and trouble. Frustrated by her lack of success, she often found solace in saloons, finding pleasure only when provoking Union soldiers into fights or duels, which she always won.
The country had been plunged into armed combat a year ago. Battles between the Confederacy and the Union were always the topic of conversations, but Alex didn't care much for politics and had nothing truly in common with either side.
The only thing that drew her to the Confederacy was her hatred for the Union soldiers. It had nothing to do with politics or a wish for independence; her motivation was pure revenge. If she couldn't find the actual guilty men, she would kill as many Yankees as possible, as long as they wore that damn blue uniform. She just had to find a way to offer her services to the Confederacy.
Born in the Kansas territory in 1835, Alex grew up in a loving family atmosphere. Her mother, a very good healer, taught her daughter the art of healing and had a hope that maybe one day Alex would choose to work in the medical field. Wanting his only child to be able to survive on her own in the great Wild West and not have to depend on anybody for her welfare, Papa Carmichael had also taught Alex how to hunt and handle weapons. The young woman quickly became an accomplished sharpshooter and made her father proud when she started winning shooting contests, much to the dismay of many men in the town.
Having been told all of her life by her parents that she could do anything she wanted if she worked at it hard enough, Alex sought a position with the Confederate Army which would allow her to use her shooting skills. Her offers of serving as a soldier were all refused because she was female.
As she was about to leave town to find another army unit and again offer her skills, Alex came upon a small group of Confederate soldiers engaged in a precision-shooting contest. She halted her horse and looked on as men fired at the indicated targets. The contest was made even more difficult as the small balls were thrown into the air at weird angles. Not many men succeeded in hitting the targets.
Alex quietly dismounted and, leading her horse, walked up to the officer watching the group. "Not much luck in finding new recruits, huh?" She pointed to the failing shooters with her chin. "Very poor shooting, if you ask me."
Standing close to the officer, one of the men snorted. "And I suppose that you can do better, right?" He elbowed his friend in the ribs. "I know one thing she must be good at." He leered as he inspected the tall woman from head to toe. "One thing's for sure. You're not a better shot than me."
"Why don't we make a bet?" a bald soldier asked as he brushed his thick mustache. His green eyes twinkled mischievously. "Give the lady a chance, Johnson."
"Gordon's right," another man piped in as more soldiers surrounded Alex. "Let's see what she can do."
Alex watched in amusement as her plan worked perfectly. If you want to prove yourself, all you have to do is provoke somebody. "What's the bet?" she drawled as she crossed her arms over her chest and leaned gently on her horse.
"If I win," Johnson said, "you're mine for the night." He licked at his lips as he made his intention known. "And if you win--"
"If I win," Alex cut him off, "I get hired on your team."
Silence met the tall woman's words. The assembled men looked at each other, trying to figure out if she was serious or not. Johnson looked at the silent officer standing near them and waited for his answer.
"If she wins," the captain finally said, "she'll have earned a place with us. The position will not be won because of a bet."
"All right." Alex nodded and looked at Johnson. "You want me for the night if you win, right? Then, what I want if I win," she took her time while she looked at each and every member of the team, then rested her eyes back on Johnson, "is your pants."
The group burst out laughing as the soldier stared at the woman in disbelief. "My pants?"
"Yep. Is it a deal?"
"All right." Johnson grinned as he rubbed his hands together. "You've got yourself a deal, girlie. I go first." He knew there was no way a woman would beat him. He was the best sharpshooter in the unit.
Moving away from the small group, Johnson readied himself and watched as Gordon, the baldheaded soldier, took three balls and shuffled them in his hands. One at a time, the balls went into the air at different angles and were immediately hit with three clear shots of Johnson's pistol.
"See? Nothing to it." The soldier laughed. "See if you can do better."
Alex nodded. Leaving her post beside her horse, she walked to where Johnson had stood and waited. She wiggled her fingers next to her Colt revolver and kept her eyes on Gordon, who took another three balls.
"Ready?" the bald man asked with a grin. As soon as the woman made the slightest nod with her head, he quickly threw the first ball into the air at a 45-degree angle. Drawing her pistol out of its holster at her thigh, Alex easily hit the target. Smiling, she put her weapon back into its holster.
"You call that a throw, Gordon?" Johnson asked as he walked toward them. "Give me those," he growled and took the remaining two balls from the bald soldier. "Now we'll see what you're able to do." Taking one of the balls in his left hand, Johnson threw the ball horizontally at his right side, making it bounce back against the wooden fence.
Alex drew again, and again she hit the target as quickly as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Cheering greeted her shot, and Gordon smiled as he crossed his arms over his broad chest.
"Is that the best you can do?" Alex taunted with a wicked grin.
Frustrated that a woman seemed better than him, Johnson made a move to throw the third ball directly at his feet. But as soon as it left his fingers, Alex drew and shot the ball, missing his hand by mere inches. The soldier stared at her with wide eyes and open mouth.
"Damn, Johnson!" Gordon then snickered. "Tell me now that this young woman can't shoot. She beat you fair and square."
"The bet, Johnson. Pay up." The soldiers laughed. "The pants! The pants!"
Johnson shouted, "You must be joking!"
Alex quietly approached him and put her Colt back into its holster. Putting her hands on her hips, she looked at him with a smirk on her face. "Were you serious about wanting me for the night if I lost?"
"You bet your ass I was. If you think that--"
"Then I'm serious about wanting your pants."
Humiliated beyond belief and knowing that he had been beaten, the soldier angrily took his pants off and threw them at Alex's face. He stepped back as the officer approached the group. That woman will pay dearly one day, he raged internally as he walked away from the laughing men.
The dark-haired woman let Johnson's pants fall down to the ground, not bothering to catch them. What the hell would she do with a worn pair of dirty trousers? She had given him the chance to back out of the bet, but he had been too stupid to rephrase his wish.
"That was mighty impressive, Miss " the captain asked as he stood in front of the dark-haired woman.
"Carmichael. Alexandra Carmichael."
"Miss Carmichael." He tilted his head and tipped his hat. "My name is Captain Richard D. Beauregard. May I have a word with you?" he asked and started walking toward the saloon.
Seeing that the man everybody called Gordon took care of her horse, Alex silently followed the captain. She took a seat in a quiet corner and waited until the officer spoke first. She expected him to say something along the lines of how a young woman like herself should be home with her husband and family instead of wanting to play soldier. She had heard that story many times already and wasn't anticipating this time to be any different.
"Would you like something to drink?" Captain Beauregard asked.
"A beer, please."
Nodding to the barkeep and holding two fingers in the air, he then turned his attention to the sharpshooter sitting before him. "Kansas sure has women different from the ones I'm used to. Where did you learn to shoot that way, Miss Carmichael?" The bartender put two beers on the table and took the money the captain gave him.
"My father taught me," Alex replied.
"He did a very good job of it." The captain took his time drinking his beer. Looking at the woman who silently watched him, he smiled and leaned back in his chair. "What I would like to know now is why you want to be a part of my elite group here."
"Let's just say that I want to be a part of the war effort," Alex said as she took a sip of beer. "To have a job that's more fitting to my skills."
"And besides being a sharpshooter, what other skills do you have?"
The blue-eyed woman gave the officer a mysterious smile. "Oh, I have many skills." She watched as the captain shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "So, do I have a job or not?"
Aware of the intense gaze directed at him, the officer stared at his beer mug for a while, trying to compose himself. He had seen that look before, and those who wore it made the best soldiers he had ever had the pleasure to serve with. Whatever her reasons were for wanting to join them, the captain was not the type of man to let a perfect candidate get away for the simple reason that she was a woman.
"Have you ever killed a man, Miss Carmichael?" the captain asked, slowly lifting his eyes to look at her. He could see the barely controlled anger raging under the skin as her jaw tightened and her eyes squinted to mere slits.
"Not enough, if you ask me," she replied from between clenched teeth. "I'll never be able to kill enough Feds for them to pay for the pain they caused me."
So, it's revenge that's driving you, my dear woman, Captain Beauregard thought as he continued to watch her. "Even though I am an officer with the Confederacy, this unit isn't part of the regular Army. We're basically on our own. Our main mission is to cause the Union troops we meet as much trouble as possible." Not wanting to say too much too soon, the officer watched the mysterious woman for a reaction and saw none. "I'll let you participate in a few missions. If you work out all right, I'll include you in the special jobs we do."
Mick watched as Alex continued to stare silently at the fire. Sighing softly after she realized that the older woman wouldn't say anything more, she turned to leave her to her thoughts. She wondered how to let Alex understand that she wouldn't judge her for what she had done, no matter what it was. Everybody made mistakes, but how could they make up for them if they didn't have a second chance? Maybe coming to Canada was all that Alex needed to start her life again. There was so much pain behind those blue eyes that it tore at Mick's heart. If only Alex could just talk a little instead of bottling everything inside.
Alex bit her lip at the sudden sadness that gripped her as Mick left. Damn you, Alex. All she wanted to do was help. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before calling out, "I'm sorry." Mick stopped. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Walking back to stand beside Alex, Mick put her hand on the muscular arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I know. But I want you to know that if you ever want to talk, I'll listen, okay? No matter what it is that causes you so much pain, if I can help, I'll do it. You can trust me."
"Why would you want to help a total stranger? I don't understand this."
Sensing that Alex wasn't quite the evil person she made herself out to be, Mick shrugged and asked, "Before all your troubles started, would you have helped somebody in need?"
It seemed like such a long time ago that Alex had lived the simple life of a normal citizen, doing things like being a good neighbor and helping the community. Now, all she could remember was the past four years spent in seeking revenge.
Taking Alex's silence as agreement, Mick continued. "I don't go out of my way to help people, but when I see somebody in need, I don't ask questions. I offer everything I can to help. If I can make a difference in somebody's life, I'm happy." Rubbing the solid back under her hand, Mick smiled at the taller woman. "I hope you're hungry. I think I prepared too much food for us."
Alex watched the blonde head for the kitchen. Maybe talking about what happened would be the best thing for me to do. Maybe its time to let go of the horrors Ive seen and done during the war, and time to finally let you go, Jodie, and try to start my life all over again.
But that kind of trust didnt come within a few days of knowing somebody. Alex had nowhere to go and Mick had offered to give her shelter for as long as she wanted. Maybe staying at the cabin wasn't such a bad idea. She was a good distance away from where she had last seen her pursuer, and if she were honest with herself, she would love to spend more time with the younger woman and get to know her.
Still standing before the fireplace, Alex turned her head to look at the tub in the corner. The snow that Mick brought in had melted completely, and she remembered that the younger woman wanted to take a soak later in the evening. Wanting to do something nice for Mick, she filled the three buckets up with the cold water, then put them in the fire to heat.
"Dinner's ready," Mick said as she put the plates on the kitchen table. "Would you like some porter with--" She stopped abruptly as she saw Alex deposit the buckets in the fireplace. "Oh. Thanks, Alex. That's nice of you."
The tall woman shrugged and a small smile crossed her lips. "It's nothing. I just want to help a little if I'm going to spend some time here."
"You'll stay?" Mick exclaimed excitedly. "That's great." She smiled at the shy look on Alex's face. "Come on, let's eat. I'm hungry."
The rest of the evening went by quickly. Having taken her bath and emptied the tub, Mick brought a bed pallet from the summer bedroom and put it near the fireplace for Alex. If she was going to have the tall woman as a roommate, theyd have to come up with a better arrangement. To have Alex sleeping on the floor was simply not acceptable.
Alex had lain down for the night and seemed asleep already. Trying not to make too much noise, Mick put an oil lamp on the small table and sat in one of the chairs in front of the fire. She opened the book next to her and read for a while. Feeling as if she were being watched, she looked down at Alex and saw that she was wide awake, staring at her.
"Aren't you tired?" Mick asked and put her book aside. "Are you in pain?"
"I'm fine," Alex reassured the younger woman and shifted gingerly on her side to have a better look at her. "I was just thinking."
"About how somebody so young could live alone in the mountains."
Mick straightened in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, mildly insulted. "I'm twenty-five years old. I'm not that young."
Alex bit back a grin and then nodded with a serious look on her face. "Oh, my mistake. Sorry."
"I'll have you know that I've been on my own for almost ten years. Why does everybody assume that just because I look young, I can't take care of myself?"
Alex looked at Mick with a new sense of respect. "I wouldnt have thought that."
Mick sat back in her rocking chair and sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just that I'm tired of people thinking that I'm a helpless little girl."
"Don't apologize," Alex said with a small smile. "I never thought of you as helpless. I can see that you can handle yourself very well on your own." And most importantly, Mick didn't look as if she were starving. She looked around the well-kept cabin. "If you don't mind my asking, what happened to your family?"
The young blonde looked at the fire for some time, figuring out where to start with her story. "Ive lived here all of my life. My parents made the cabin into a relay for trappers and hunters in the area. Sometimes we even had a few travelers as they went from one town to another." Mick smiled as she remembered the evenings when the cabin was filled with exciting people, each telling their own stories of adventure. "My brother, who's much older than I am, decided some time ago that he wanted to live in the city. I stayed with Mom and Dad and helped with the chores."
Alex could sense that Mick needed to talk, and she wondered how long had she been without any company. She silently watched as Mick's gentle motion rocked the wooden chair.
"My father fell ill one winter and died. My mother followed the year after, having lost all will to live," Mick said simply as she stared at the dancing flames in front of her. "That was ten years ago. It was three years before my brother came back to the cabin, not knowing that our parents had died. Suddenly, he wanted me to do what he wanted and leave with him. I had survived all that time without his help, and there was no way that I was going to let him run my life."
Interested by Mick's story, Alex sat up on her pallet. "How did you get your food? Were you able to hunt?"
A small laugh escaped Mick's lips, and she smiled at Alex. "I'm not a very good hunter, but it's amazing what someone can do when they're hungry. There was enough food to last for some time. I'm just thankful that I listened to my mother and learned how to cook, or else I would have starved to death."
"I never did," Alex said softly.
"Never learned how to cook or never listened to your mother?" Mick asked with a grin.
"Learned how to cook." Alex smiled. "I had no choice but to listen to my mother, unless I wanted a good slap on the butt."
Mick laughed. "What was your mother like?"
"My mother." Alex smiled as she thought about the caring woman. "Mama is a good woman. She always told me to do what I thought was best for me. That's why she never pushed me to work with her in the restaurant my parents owned. I much preferred to work at the saloon with Papa. Jodie was the one who worked " Alex hesitated, surprised at the easiness of her conversation with the younger woman. Turning her head to look at the fire, she closed her eyes, her heart aching at the memory. She had spoken to no one about Jodie since her death and especially not to a stranger. "She used to work with my mother," she finished with a sad voice.
Mick moved to sit beside her on the pallet. "What happened to Jodie?" she asked softly, seeing the sad blue eyes.
Alex's jaw muscles twitched as she tried to keep her emotions under control. She thought of telling Mick about her friend but wondered how the younger woman might react to learning that Jodie had also been her lover. "She was killed by Union soldiers," Alex answered. "I learned later that they thought she was one of the working girls in the saloon. When she refused their offers, they got upset and beat her."
"That's awful," Mick breathed, horrified. "Did they attack you, too?"
Alex slowly shook her head. "No, they didn't. They were gone by the time I arrived from Kansas City." She could feel Mick's hand softly rub against her back and turned her head to see a look of compassion on the young blonde's face. "When I got up to our room, she was already dead. I was too late to save her."
Mick stayed silent for some time, not knowing what to say. Obviously, Alex cared a lot about the woman, who seemed to be more than just a friend. "You can't blame yourself for what happened, Alex," Mick finally said in a soft voice. "It wasn't your fault."
"But had I been there, maybe--"
"Listen, the worst thing you can do is live your life wondering how you could have done things differently," Mick said as she brushed a lock of dark hair away from Alex's face. "Believe me, I know. After my parents died, I spent so many years wondering what I had done to deserve this." Noticing the older woman's shaking hands, Mick took a chance and wrapped an arm around Alex's waist and gently pulled her close. "You loved her very much, didn't you?" she asked and felt the dark head nod slowly against her shoulder. "At least you got to know what it felt like to be in love." Ive never had that chance.
Both women stayed in a comfortable silence, each lost in her own thoughts. Mick was glad that Alex felt secure enough to talk about her past. She believed that there was a lot more to the story and hoped that Alex would trust her and continue to talk about it.
Its been such a long time since Ive done this. Alex kept her eyes on the burning logs in the fireplace. Mick didn't seem to be upset by her preference for women. In fact, Alex had been surprised at finding herself wrapped in a comforting embrace. If it had been any one else, she would have pulled away from the touch, but this simple gesture from Mick seemed so natural, so right.
"I think we should get some sleep," Alex said softly as she pulled away from Mick. "It's getting late."
Mick nodded with a smile and stood up. "Yeah, you're right. Are you going to be okay?"
"I'm fine." Alex smiled and lay back down on her pallet, bringing the blankets closer around her.
The younger woman stoked the fire one last time and added a big log for the night, then walked to her bed beside Alex. Sliding under the heavy wool covers, she reached for the oil lamp and extinguished it.
"Thanks for the talk," Alex said, missing the smile on the young blonde's face.
"Any time, Alex. Good night."
Mick woke up the next morning and became aware that the room was nicely heated. Opening her eyes, she saw that the fire had been stoked and that more wood had been added. She sat up in bed and noticed that Alex's pallet wasn't on the floor anymore and the blankets had been neatly put away, but the dark-haired woman was nowhere in sight.
After getting up, she walked into the summer bedroom and saw that the pallet was back on the bed. She quickly dressed, then put on her boots and opened the door to peek outside. "Alex?" she called. "Are you out there?"
The only sounds that answered her were the birds singing and the wind blowing lightly through the trees. Mick spotted some freshly made tracks in the snow, leading away from the cabin, and she frowned. What is Alex doing outside? She's still injured, and her full strength couldn't be back so soon. A sudden thought crossed her mind that maybe Alex had left to never come back. She knew that it would happen sometime, but wished that Alex could have at least said goodbye.
Taking the fur coat next to the door, Mick stepped outside and closed the door behind her. Life goes on. She sighed and went to feed her dogs. The animals felt her presence and started to yip in excitement. Smiling at the reception, Mick opened the door to her malamutes. Six big dogs greeted her as she walked in, and she bent down to scratch behind their ears. Wolfish faces looked at her as plumed tails wagged from side to side. "Hey guys, how are you doing?"
After preparing their food and making sure that they had fresh water, Mick let her sled dogs out of their pen to play awhile. She brushed the snow away from a fallen tree trunk, sat down, and smiled at seeing the dog's antics. Her thoughts drifted to Alex and she closed her eyes as her heart tightened in sadness. After their conversation the evening before, she had been so sure that Alex felt comfortable enough to want to stay. Hadn't she even said so?
Barking and growling brought Mick out of her reverie, and she turned to see what had excited the dogs. A huge smile crossed her features as she spotted Alex walking slowly back toward the cabin. "It's okay, boys. Shh, she's a friend." Mick stood up from her perch on the log and walked halfway to meet the tall woman. "Where have you been?"
"Hunting." Alex grinned and lifted the wild turkey that she had caught. "I thought that it would be a nice way to say thank you for what you have done for me."
"Great. Thanks." Now I'm really embarrassed, Mick thought as Alex stopped in front of her. And here I thought that she had left without saying goodbye. Spying a tan color through the tattered remains of what had once been a long fur coat, she pushed the lapels away and smiled as she saw what Alex was wearing. The buckskin tunic and pants fit her perfectly. "You look so good dressed this way."
Alex's raven hair was loose and fell over her broad shoulders. The color of the tunic was a nice complement to her already bronze-colored skin, and the ensemble almost made her look like a Native. Only the blue eyes proved that she wasn't--at least, not a full-blooded one.
"Oh?" Alex grinned. "And I didn't look good before?"
"Of course you did. I mean--it's just that--what I'm trying to say is "
"I'm just teasing you." Alex laughed, seeing Mick's cheeks slowly turn pink. "Did anybody ever tell you that you're cute when you blush?"
"I am not blushing. It's the cold outside," Mick stated, trying to get her emotions under control. Why could this woman make her react this way? One thing was sure, though; she was glad that Alex hadn't left. She looked up at the older woman and smiled.
"What?" Alex asked as she let the turkey fall in the snow and took her knife out of her right boot.
"I'm just happy to see that " Mick hesitated. That you decided to stay? That you didn't leave without saying goodbye? That I'll get the chance at knowing you better? "Well, that you're feeling better," she said instead.
Alex nodded. "I am, but Im disappointed at how fast I get tired."
"Then you should be in bed. Let me clean the bird." Mick made a move to pick up the turkey, but it was quickly moved aside and out of her reach.
"I'll clean it, you cook it. Deal? Besides, your dogs need attention," Alex said as she indicated the six malamutes staring at them.
"All right, it's a deal." Mick smiled and headed toward the animals.
Even though she loved her dogs, Mick hadn't played with them like this for a long time. Was it the bright shinning sun that made her act this way, or maybe the mild winter day? Or maybe it was the fact that she had somebody to keep her company for a while.
The turkey momentarily forgotten, Alex sat in the snow and wrapped her arms around her bent knees, her eyes never leaving the young blonde. She watched Mick play with her dogs, chasing them around. She seemed so carefree and happy.
Mick stole a glance at the blue-eyed woman and was surprised to find Alex watching her, a crooked smile on her face. What a beautiful woman, Mick thought as she took in the angular face and high cheekbones. Alexs dark hair was blown back by the soft wind and gently caressed her broad shoulders. Looking at her large hands and strong fingers linked around knees, Mick wondered how soft those hands could be. Lost in her thoughts and caught staring, she missed noticing one of her dogs barreling toward her and lost her balance as the big malamute put his strong paws on her chest, making her crash on the snow with a muffled thud.
"Mick!" Alex got to her feet as quickly as her injuries would allow and knelt beside the stunned woman. "You okay?"
Mick nodded as she tried to catch her breath and gently pushed her dog away from her. "Got caught daydreaming."
"I'd like to know what put that interesting smile on your face," Alex teased, helping Mick stand up.
"I was just " Mick cleared her throat and bent down to brush the snow off her coat, feeling herself blush furiously again. "I think I should bring the dogs back in their pen," she mumbled and quickly left the older woman behind, hoping she wouldn't notice.
Watching Mick round up her sled dogs, Alex wondered what had made her blush that way. How many times so far? Twice? The only person she had seen have a similar reaction had been her lover, Jodie, and that was only because of the things Alex had whispered in her ear when other people were around. Shaking her head with a smile on her lips, Alex turned back to plucking the turkey.
To be continued
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