A/N: So here it is ten thousand years later! I'm so sorry it took so long, the lame excuse is, my computer crashed shortly after I put up the last chapter, erasing everything I had for the next one as well as my copies of the previous chapters. Once I finally got it back up and running I had the worst case of writer's block, completely unable to pick up the story where I had left it. I hope this new piece does the story justice, please let me know.
It was a little past midmorning when I slowed Jett down from his excited gallop, scanning the woods in front of me for the campsite. It wasn't too long after I had begun searching that I spotted a clearing near a little creek that fed into the river, there was a fire pit with the remains of last nights fire still wafting on the air. At long last I slid down from Jett for what I hoped would be a good long rest. My legs were rubbed raw from my frenzied journey to catch up to the boys. As I gingerly led Jett over to drink in the creek I heard the rest of the horses pull up behind me.
My guts twisted into a hard, nervous knot inside my body. I was afraid to turn around and actually face the boys now that all the excitement from Fidelity had ebbed away. As I was trying to muster up the courage to look at them, a hand roughly grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. I was disoriented as the spin pulled me around and down at the same time, and it wasn't until I felt the crack of Cole's hand, hard against my backside that I realized that he had pulled me around and swiftly over his knee.
I yelped when he hit me the first time, and as he continued to tan my hide, tears of anger, confusion and pain sprung up in my eyes. I squirmed against him trying to get away from the stinging blows but that just made him hit harder. I stopped fighting him, and lay slumped and sobbing over him, begging him to stop.
"Cole! Please, I'm sorry!" Came the flood of pathetic pleas from between my sobs. But he didn't seem to hear me, just continued to swarm my rear end with a barrage of swats. It hurt so badly but I didn't know what to do. Just then another pair of hands grabbed me by the shoulders, gently this time and pulled me away from Cole. I did not even see who it was but I clung to their chest as close as I could; now crying into the dusty flannel of their shirt.
"Jesse what are you doing?" Came the enraged voice of Cole. Just hearing him sent a shiver down my spine and I pushed against the body protecting me, Jesse, harder than ever.
"Dammit Cole, I'm not gonna stand here and watch you beat the living daylights out of her. She risked her life to save our hides, that doesn't mean you should tan hers!" Jesse shouted back.
"She deliberately disobeyed me, put herself in danger…"
"I KNOW!" Jesse shouted so loud that Cole stopped short in his list of accusations against me. I continued to keep my eyes averted but listened with all intensity to what Jesse would say in my defense.
"I know," he repeated much softer than before. "And I'm not saying that those things should go unpunished." At this I squirmed nervously against him, but he held me firmly to him, so I relented and stayed quiet under his arm.
"But," he continued "there should be a lesson taught in a punishment; you were doing nothing but hurting and scaring her."
"Since when do you have the right to tell me how to raise my little sister?" Cole spat back, the venom still in his voice.
"Since I was the one who took control of this here gang and everything that goes on in it."
"You think you tell Cole Younger when and where to ride? Remember that I was the one who outranked you during all those years in the war you runty little shit." Cole's voice was shaking with rage, I thought he might explode.
"And I was the one who saved your ass from swinging." Jesse shot back, quietly but just as deadly.
"And that's why you will both lead the gang." Came the firm voice of Frank, cutting through the building tension. "You both entered that bank, both took the money, you will BOTH, peacefully and equally make the decisions of this gang, understand?"
There was a silence in the clearing after Frank spoke his piece, and I was dreadfully afraid that the next thing to disturb it would be a gunshot.
"Do you boys agree?" Frank asked. From against his chest I felt the curt nod of agreement that Jesse gave to Cole.
"Yeah I reckon that's a good idea" Cole replied, his voice no longer had its biting edge.
"Ok then, Jesse you take Jaime over to the creek and get her cleaned up, Cole stay here and monitor the boys counting the money." At these words all of the boys started to move again, Jesse kept his arm wrapped around my shoulders and led me over to the creek. I walked slowly, partially because of my legs and rear were in no condition to hurry, and also because I was not quite sure what to say to Jesse.
As soon as we reached the creek Jesse turned to face me and instantly his hands went to my waist and started undoing my belt, with a wave of angry shock I slapped him, hard, hoping to pry his fingers off of my clothes.
"Dammit Jaime!" He said sounding very much like he did when he'd been yelling at Cole a few moments ago. "I'm trying to get your damn chaps off, not molest you!"
I looked down and realized that the belt was the one that held the leather chaps up, over my jeans. Sheepishly I raised my gaze back up to look at Jesse, who did not look happy.
"Sorry," I mumbled, "Just gun shy I guess…" It sounded stupid even as it left my lips but I had no idea what else to say. Why oh why did I actually believe he was doing anything dishonorable! But he actually smirked at my response.
"Well after such a whipping I guess that's understandable" he said and handed me a rag out of his back pocket. I proceeded to try and clean the dirt and tear stains off of my cheeks, while using the rag to hide my blush from him.
"Aw, now don't get embarrassed, we've all taken our turns over a parent's or sibling's knee, hell I can't tell you how many times Frank tanned my hide for the stupid things I did as a kid!" He said trying to be reassuring.
"I bet he never did it in front of a group of people though"
"Well, no… he never did."
"And do you think what I did was a stupid thing?" I asked. He gazed deep into my eyes at this which made me nervous.
"Forget it," I said quickly and turned away, making an effort to escape his gaze by lowering my aching legs and backside into the cool creek. I let out a sharp sigh as the cool water soaked through the denim and reached my skin, it burned at first but then felt so good. I relaxed into the creek side, trying to ignore the man standing behind me.
But he would not be ignored, splashing into the water, clothes and all; Jesse knelt so he was face to face with me once again. He placed his hands on my knees both for balance and to assure I could not wiggle away again.
"Jaime Younger, you are one of the most fool-hardy girls I know!" He began to fire at me with almost as much fierceness in his voice as Cole had a few moments ago. My heart started to beat fast and hard against my chest, but since I couldn't move I tried at least to avoid his angry eyes, staring at the surface of the water, wishing I could plunge my head in and drown him out. But again, he would not let me block him out.
"You will look at me when I'm talking to you." He said, not unkindly but definitely in a voice that should not be disobeyed. I reluctantly raised my eyes to look into his, and was shocked to see that they had a sparkle to them, as if tears were building up and he was doing all he could to keep them behind his lids.
"As I was saying, you are fool-hardy because you love these brothers, and friends of yours more than reason says you should. When you should stay home and warm and safe, you run out here and do everything you can to keep the ones you love alive. You are fool hardy not to realize that this very act, would anger and scare us all, because we love you just as much and to see you put yourself in harm's way is the one thing we are all fighting to avoid. And your fool hardy not to know how much more I love that you will fight just as hard as I will for what you believe in."
Jesse was panting hard after all of this came spilling out of him. I was frozen in shock. This was not the Jesse who had left me in Liberty, closed off and cold. And this is the last thing I thought he would ever throw at me, a confession, of his feelings and fears. At this very fragile moment, I couldn't help hide a smirk that was fighting to jump out onto my mouth, my conscious lost and the slight grin shone through.
"What?" he said obviously a little startled by my reaction. This caused my grin to widen.
"I thought you said only girls fight with their hearts?" His jaw went slightly slack at this, remembering our bitter night back at my place before the boys had taken flight.
"Well…when I'm out there this doesn't come into play at all… I mean it does, but not as much as now… But you…. You seemed pretty level headed, so maybe I was…." He tripped and mumbled over his answer. My grin finally burst out into a small laugh and I grabbed the baffled cowboy by the kerchief he had 'round his neck and pulled his fumbling lips to mine and silenced his explanations with a kiss.
After a long while, he wrestled his lips away from mine and took in a deep breath.
"Let's continue this some other time." He said "You still have to deal with an angry Cole, and I'm just guessing an unhappy twin and other older brother." I closed my eyes and took in a steadying breath. He was right, I would have to leave the comfort and safety of the creek soon enough and face them, and it wouldn't be easy to make things right with them.
"Ok, let's go." I said looking back up at him, noticing he now wore my impish grin. "Just give me more one more second to make sure everything feels alright." I pulled myself out of the creek, my jeans clinging to my legs in soaking heavy folds. I sat down gingerly against a tree, and found I could do it without it stinging too much.
"I'll go get you some dry clothes," Jesse said as he followed me out of the waters. "and some for me too I reckon." He smiled at me and began to pass me to go and fetch the clothes from the camp. As he passed by I took his hand in mine and gave it a brief squeeze.
"Thank you," I said softly "for rescuing me" he looked down at me, still with that grin on his face, and squeezed my hand back.
"Just returning the favor" He said, and then walked off.