The Best Thing I Never Had

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind. ~ (Wm. Shakespeare).

After my mother's death my father sent me a few boxes of her things, including some letters I had written home, from school and elsewhere. I glanced over one or two, feeling mingled pity and embarrassment for the silly, self-important little baggage I once was. And then a thick envelope fell out of the bundle, addressed to my mother in a spiky, uncompromising script.

Cousin Alvirah Pettigrew. Even after so many years her name still had the power to make me wince. I opened the letter and her outraged phrases leapt off the page.

Unconscionable flirt – unsuitable associations – scandalous behavior - disgraceful & immoral, etc.

It all came back to me, then. The summer before I turned eighteen, I fell desperately in love, made a mortal enemy, and got myself entangled in one of the most ill advised schemes ever concocted by an unthinking pair of young idiots.

I was not surprised when my parents shipped me out West that year. Their hands were full with arrangements for my sister's approaching wedding, and I was very much in the way. Beautiful, charming Julia had been one of the most sought-after debutantes in the city and crowned her two glittering seasons with a betrothal to a successful young banker. I was sulky and resentful - what little sister wouldn't be?

And I was making such a nuisance of myself that everyone was glad to see me leave for the Wyoming ranch owned by one of my mother's many second-cousins-twice-removed. Cousin Alvirah was a schoolmistress before her marriage, and between the two of them, she and Mamma came up with a program that scheduled every minute of my time with needlework, wholesome outdoor exercise, and improving literature.

That was their plan. Mine was to find a completely unsuitable man, preferably an outlaw, and conduct a tempestuous and doomed love affair. I was uncomfortably aware that this would be easier said than done. Even though I had let my skirts down and put my hair up, as befitted a grown woman, I was small for my age, thin as a lath, and the wardrobe my mother carefully selected for the journey made me look, in my bitter estimation, like a child.

I traveled under the supervision of another family connection, a Bishop's wife on her way to join her husband in Billings, so the trip in addition to being dusty and uncomfortable was of course dull. I saw any number of unsuitable men but unfortunately they were also dirty and mostly intoxicated, and the only one who showed any promise - a handsome cowboy who boarded the train in Fort Hays - turned out to be missing his front teeth. I hoped that the selection would be better once I got to Wyoming Territory.

In Cheyenne I was handed over, with much fussing, to the care of the stagecoach company for the trip to Laramie. I dutifully waved my handkerchief as the vehicle swung into motion, and settled back to enjoy the ride. No one had warned me about sitting with my back to the driver.

By the time we reached the first relay station I was feeling distinctly unwell from the swaying, and after we pulled out of the second I was past caring what happened to me. The gentleman in the white waistcoat seated opposite must have noticed how ghastly my face was, for he took out a flask and offered it.

"Now, don't get your feathers in a twist, li'l lady," he said affably. "I got a gal at home about your age. One nip o' this'll settle that stomach."

I took a nip and almost choked but whatever it was in the bottle did calm my roiling insides, at least for a time.

As the journey progressed I sat huddled in my own private misery, hoping only to keep from disgracing myself in front of all those strangers. When we jolted to a stop at the next station the helpful gentleman in the white waistcoat insisted on my getting down.

He smelled of plug tobacco and bay rum but I leaned against him gratefully while he argued with the driver. I have no memory of exactly what my champion said, but the upshot of it was that a short time later the coach departed, with my trunks sitting on the porch of the stage stop and me being sick into a bucket held by a worried-looking young boy. After I finished bidding farewell to what seemed like every meal I had ever eaten in my entire life, he brought me a rag soaked in cold water.

"Are you goin' to be all right?" he asked anxiously. I mopped my face and neck and reassured him that now that I was on solid ground I felt much better. I introduced myself.

"I'm Georgiana van Alstyne." He looked a bit startled and I added quickly "But everybody calls me Georgie. What is this place?"

"My name's Andy - Andy Sherman. This is the Sherman Ranch and relay station. We're the last stop before you get to Laramie."

I looked around. Except for the two of us, it seemed to be empty.

"Are you all by yourself, Andy?"

"Usually my brother's here too but he went into town this morning. An' Jess is fixin' a gate in the south pasture." He helped me to my feet.

"Who is Jess?"

"Jess Harper. He lives here with us, he works for my brother," my host explained.

I unpinned my bonnet and took off my gloves, and unwound the heavy plaits from around my head, letting them fall down my back. It was childish and undignified but there was no one around to impress, and besides it gave me less of a headache that way.

Andy was about the same age as my youngest brother and after I stopped being so ladylike we got along like a house on fire. He had a collection of pets that rivaled a small zoo, and I spent a happy half hour being introduced to a raccoon, a small dog of complicated ancestry, and several cats.

We were in the barn and I was admiring a pretty pinto pony when a wiry cyclone in a blue shirt burst through the door and grabbed my new friend by the belt.

"Gotcha, Andy!"

It was obviously a game of long-standing - Andy kicked out behind him and they rolled over in the dirt, legs flailing. The stranger hooked his arm around Andy's neck and was trying to flip him onto his face when he spotted me. He stopped but held tight to the wriggling boy.

"No fair! You didn't tell me we had comp'ny!"

"Aw, Jess, lemme go!"

The other laughed and rose to his feet.

So this was Jess Harper. While he was thrashing around on the ground with Andy I thought he might be about my age but on closer inspection he was older. Maybe even old enough to be interesting. I looked up at him through my eyelashes, fanning them languorously.

"You got somethin' in your eye?" He asked, straight-faced. I forgot that I was a sophisticated woman of the world and made a face at him.

From behind his back, Andy grinned broadly and dropped to his hands and knees. I'd seen my brothers pull that trick, and I obligingly gave the annoying Mr. Harper a good strong shove. He tumbled head over heels but quick as a cat was back on his feet.

"Oh, you two think you're smart. Real smart," he jeered at us, and lunged for the pole that was propping up a portion of the hayloft floor.

"Look out, Georgie!" Andy was scrambling rapidly away but it was too late and we went down under a small avalanche of loose hay.

The three of us were pelting each other with hay and screaming with insane laughter when Andy suddenly stopped.

"Hi, Slim," he said warily.

Two people stood at the open door. One was a woman, about thirty, dressed in elegant and very becoming half-mourning. The other was a man in a broadcloth suit and wide-brimmed Western hat.

"H'lo, Andy!" He stepped into the barn. The woman stayed where she was, drawing her skirts back slightly with a fastidious little frown on her face.

"I called at the stage depot in town, and the driver told me one of the passengers got sick and had to be dropped off here," the man said.

He was very tall, with a slow, upside-down smile that lit up his entire face. A completely suitable man, the sort my parents would invite to dinner. A nice man. My heart began to pound so loudly I was sure everyone there must be able to hear it and my dream of a dangerous bandit lover died without so much as a whimper.

"You must be Mrs. Pettigrew's little cousin, the one that's come out for the summer," he said, grinning down at me.

"H-how do you do," I stammered, silently vowing that the next time we met, I would be wearing my new bronze boots with the three-inch French heels, and two extra rows of ruffles pinned across my corset cover.

"Andy, will you introduce us?"

"Oh! I'm sorry. Slim, this is Georgie van Alstyne. Georgie, this is my brother Slim. And Mrs. Alix Mainwaring."

The woman smiled, her voice dripping with amusement. "So pleased to meet you, my dear. How nice it will be for Andy, to have a playmate living so close!"

At that moment, I knew that I would never hate anyone as much as I hated her. Jess caught my eye, and I realized with astonishment that he hated her too. I wondered why.

"Well, Miss Georgie, I sent a note out to your cousins' place - told them I'd find you and fetch you home. I see you're feeling better."

I blushed hotly and tried to brush the dust from my skirt. Mrs. Mainwaring smirked.

"I'll drive her, boss," Jess volunteered.

"No need, Jess. I've got Mrs. Mainwaring's buggy outside - I'm sure she won't mind giving our new neighbor a ride."

Mrs. Mainwaring looked as though she minded very much, but Jess intervened. "Ain't room in her rig for the young lady's gear. I'll get the buckboard ready, won't be a minute."

"And besides, you'll want to take Mrs. Mainwaring home," he added, pointedly.

The lady gracefully turned her back to Mr. Sherman and gave Jess an icy glare. I could almost hear the sabers clashing.

"How kind of you to take the trouble for this child," she cooed.

"No trouble at all," he assured her, his face unreadable.

Mrs. Mainwaring laid a shapely little hand in a grey kid glove on Mr. Sherman's arm. "You were going to offer me some coffee?" she asked. He smiled that wonderful smile at her and allowed himself to be led away.

Jess and Andy glanced at each other and Andy snorted.

"Of all the - "

"Andy!" Jess' voice was sharp. "Let's hitch up."

I retrieved my things and tidied myself while they loaded my trunks onto the buckboard. Jess lifted me into the seat but before we left I gave Andy my hand and my warmest smile.

"Thank you for helping me while I was sick, Andy. And thank you for showing me your menagerie. I'd like to come back and see them, sometime."

I meant it, sincerely. Andy had been more than kind and even if he didn't have a brother who made me go all wobbly in the knees, I'd still want to visit him again.

"Thanks," Jess said quietly as we drove away.

I looked at him, curious.

"Andy kind of gets ignored, sometimes," he explained. "Thanks for bein' nice to him."

Enlightenment dawned. "Does Mrs. Mainwaring ignore him?" I asked.

"Andy ain't even in the same corral when that widow woman's around Slim. It's a shame her pretty face ain't got pretty manners to go along with it." He broke off and turned his attention to the horse, which was energetically trying to pull the buckboard into the ditch.

"Don't you take advantage of the fact that I can't cuss you out, now," he admonished the animal, steering it back onto the straight and narrow. "Y'know, you an' me ain't been properly introduced. Jess Harper, ma'am, at your service."

"Georgiana van Alstyne." I made a formal little bow.

"That name's bigger'n you are," he teased.

"You may call me Miss Georgiana, if you wish," I said with great dignity, fishing a piece of hay out of my ear.

Jess flashed a grin at me. "Think I'll call you Skeeter."

"Skeeter?" I gasped, outraged.

"Yep. You're kind o' small, but I reckon you're big enough to sting a man where it hurts."

I pondered that for a minute and decided it was a compliment. If he was going to call me Skeeter, though, I hoped he wouldn't do it in Mr. Sherman's hearing.

"There's a dance in town next week," he said, changing the subject. "You goin' t'be there?"

"I'm not out yet," I said glumly. Cousin Alvirah, from everything I had heard, was a stickler for the conventions.

"Out of what?"

"Out. I haven't made my debut. I can only attend small informal functions. Teas, and At Homes, and such."

Jess stared at me, puzzled. "That's the most tom-fool thing I ever heard. At whose homes?"

I proceeded to enlighten him on Eastern etiquette as it pertains to young ladies who have not been formally introduced to society. He was shocked.

"You need to start a rebellion or somethin'," he advised me. "Who decided that, anyways?"

"The leaders of fashion in London, New York and Boston, I suppose. Anyone with any pretensions to good breeding must obey," I informed him, quoting my mother.

"And the menfolks stand for it? I'd sure kick."

"Rules are essential to the smooth functioning of polite society," I said, again quoting my mother.

"You'd be surprised how little I take to rules, or them to me. One of us gen'rally gets broke before we part company," Jess remarked. Somehow I didn't doubt it.

He skillfully guided the horse through a gate and off the main road. "It's a wonder anybody back East ever manages to court a gal an' get married."

"Are Mr. Sherman and Mrs. Mainwaring going to be married?" I slid my hand under the fold of my dress and crossed my fingers.

"No, they ain't."

"They seem to be awfully good friends, though," I observed carelessly, watching him out of the corner of my eye.

Jess muttered something under his breath and it sounded quite rude but before I could delve deeper into the mystery of this animosity towards the lovely widow, the Pettigrew ranch house came into view.

Cousin Alvirah, tall and bony, had a face like an irritated bullmastiff and a trick of showing all her teeth when she spoke. One basilisk look from her and I turned into a ten year old, digging the toes of my boots into the dirt and completely tongue-tied. Harking back, I suppose it set the tone for the rest of the summer that when she first laid eyes on me, my clothes were dusty and rumpled, my hair was full of bits of hay, and I was being escorted by a man whose name was a local byword for unruly behavior, or so my cousin took pains to inform me later.

Jess Harper was a brawler and a gunman, one step removed from an outlaw, and she was going to find out why my precious young person had been entrusted to this ne'er-do-well by an otherwise sensible and respectable man like Slim Sherman.

"That fellow is trouble from Stetson to spurs," her husband agreed. "Never could understand why Sherman's kept him on."

Learning that I had been in the company of such a disreputable miscreant cheered me up no end - and knowing that his kind and handsome boss was a close neighbor made the next two months seem not quite so bleak.

I was less happy by the end of the week, for my cousin was a conscientious woman and determined to live up to my mother's exacting requirements. My fingers were full of needle pricks and I was ready to bury Bacon's Essays in the bottom of a deep, deep hole. The only bright spot on the horizon was the knowledge that Cousin Pettigrew had over-ruled his wife's objections and I would be permitted to attend the Laramie dance.

"No sense standing on ceremony out here," he told her. "A little frolic won't hurt the girl."

And the blessed man held to this even when the gala day arrived and Cousin Alvirah came down with a headache; he arranged for me to attend with a neighbor's family.

I was delighted when Jess Harper appeared to hand me down from the buggy and whisk me away into the hall. It was noisy and hot, and the orchestra consisted of an old man with a fiddle, two guitar players, and a boy with a concertina. I didn't care. This was my first dance and I was going to enjoy myself.

Jess swung me immediately out onto the floor. It didn't seem to bother him when I stepped on his feet, nor did he appear to notice that I kept glancing toward the door. When the music ended he brought me a glass of punch and started regaling me with improbable tales about some of the other dancers.

There was a brief lull to the buzzing conversations, and I looked up to see that Mrs. Mainwaring had entered, accompanied by Slim Sherman. I may have hated her with the passion of a thousand burning suns, but even her worst enemy could not deny that she was bewitchingly attractive, with a stunning figure and flawless complexion. She wore a gown of black silk moiré with a square-cut neckline, and jewels gleamed in her glorious auburn hair.

I glanced down at my sprigged muslin with its girlish white fichu and wanted to cry. Alix Mainwaring was everything I longed to be and I suspected, from the mocking smile on her face when she saw me, that she knew it.

Jess put his hand under my elbow. "Outside, Skeeter," he said abruptly. "We need to talk."

He steered me out into the night and swung me around to face him. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded. "Here we was havin' a nice time. Then that woman comes in an' suddenly you look like you lost your last friend."

"I don't like her," I admitted.

"That makes two of us. What don't you like?"

"Her hair is perfect," I said unreasonably. "And her clothes are so beautiful. Maybe if I had a dress like that - "

"Not unless you had her shape to go with it." His hands sketched a suggestive parabola in the air. "Better stick to the duds you're wearin' now. Y'ain't too bad, y'know. In fact, you're kind of sweet."

"I don't want to be sweet! I want to be - "

"You want to be like Mrs. Mainwaring. Don't, Skeeter."

"Why not?"

"Two reasons." He was smiling but serious. "One, you ain't got a chance of ever bein' like her. And two, you don't ever want to be like her. She ain't a good thing to be."

I became uncomfortably aware that we were bathed in revealing moonlight and that he was standing very close. He lowered his voice and it must have looked like we were sharing an intimate conversation. "You like Slim a lot, don't you?"

"I think Mr. Sherman is very nice," I said primly.

Jess guffawed. "Oh, Skeeter. Come off it. Do you like him enough to help me get him out of that she-cat's clutches?"

My mouth dropped open. He went on. "I been watchin' her swing her loop ever since she got to Laramie. She's bad clear through."

"Bad? You mean…" I floundered, suddenly embarrassed.

"I mean there's a word for her kind of woman that I ain't goin' to use in front of you. She takes up with a man, winds him 'round her little finger an' makes a fool of him. Then she drops him like a hot stone. She's gone through four or five hombres here in town already and now she's got her eye on Slim," he said, and I could see the anger in his face.

"She's fixin' to hurt him bad an' I aim to see she don't get the chance. I got a plan but first I want to know if you're willin' to play along."

A little voice warned me that I was about to get in over my head but I ignored it. "How?"

Jess locked his hands around the nape of my neck. "You can start by lookin' at me like I was him," he suggested.

I tried to pull away but he held me as easily as a cat holds a kitten. "I ain't joshin', Skeeter. I know Slim, he's my best friend, an' the way to keep his mind off Mrs. Mainwaring is to create a diversion, like they says in the Army. An' that's you."

"Do you think I could take him away from her?" I asked hopefully.

"Nope," he said with brutal honesty. "But you can give him somethin' else to worry about. Like maybe a innocent young female from the East that's gettin' a wagon-load of soft-soap from a local roughneck an' he decides he has to do somethin' about it."

"What local roughneck?"

"Me." He grinned ruefully. "I ain't what you might call a upstandin' citizen, Skeeter. I've had reward posters out on me. He—um, heck, I even spent time in jail. Your cousin's goin' to have a conniption fit when I come callin'."

"You mean you're going to court me?" I couldn't help but feel a little thrilled at the prospect, even if it was the wrong man doing the courting.

"I'm goin' to make it look that way," Jess said confidently. "We been out here almost fifteen minutes an' this is Laramie. Most of the people here tonight are talkin' about us already. I reckon after I stop by your cousin's place two, three times and maybe take you to next week's box social, everybody in the county'll have us fixin' to run off together."

"Should I ask if your intentions are honorable?" I inquired, half-seriously.

"Don't you worry - I swear to you I ain't never hurt a woman." He stopped and corrected himself. "Well, none that wasn't askin' for it. But you're safe with me, Skeeter."

We heard Slim's voice from the direction of the hall as he came out looking for us. Jess turned to me.

"We-ell," he drawled. "Reckon we've stayed out here long enough to give folks the wrong idea."

He tucked my hand into his arm. Slim caught sight of us as we strolled slowly out of the shadows, and the troubled look on his face made me feel a little bit guilty.

But only a little.

My cousin did have a conniption fit when she learned I had danced most of my dances with that horrid Harper person and was only slightly mollified by the fact that Slim insisted Jess and I drive home with him. Him and Mrs. Mainwaring, that is, something the lady didn't appreciate at all. She was too clever to let Slim see it, though, and managed to shoot several sweetly barbed comments in my direction. By the time we reached my cousins' I wanted so much to strangle her that I was willing to fall in with any ideas Jess might have for her comeuppance.

So when he held my hand a little bit longer than was necessary, and said, just loudly enough, "I hope to see you again soon. Real soon," I simpered at him in wide-eyed admiration before skipping up the porch steps.

True to his word, Jess arrived the following Saturday afternoon to call on me, and was sent off with a flea in his ear by Cousin Alvirah, who was furious at his audacity. I watched him leave from an upstairs window and smiled to myself, certain that the Pettigrew ranch hadn't seen the last of him.

This confidence was not misplaced; after church next day my cousin went to lie down and her husband rode off to tend to something important and cattle-related. I was sitting on a bench under the trees reading the Old Testament, one of the very few Sabbath activities permitted me, when sure enough Jess waved to me from the underbrush.

"Buggy's down by the gate," he called softly. I abandoned the Song of Solomon and we sneaked off together.

We ended up on the Sherman ranch, not far from the house where a small lake was tucked into the hills. My companion flung himself down on the warm grass and almost immediately went to sleep. I sat down cross-legged beside him and watched the slow rise and fall of his chest as he dozed. I had a lot to think about.

It was becoming clear to me that a mutual loathing between Jess Harper and the beautiful Mrs. Mainwaring was inevitable. They were both cutthroats, I reflected, throwbacks to some bold buccaneer breed and more than a little frightening in this tamer century. But although I could easily imagine Jess laying about him in berserker frenzy, it would be only to defend himself or someone he cared for. Alix Mainwaring hurt people because she could, and because she enjoyed it. It was just her bad luck that the victim she had her sights on now was this man's best friend.

Alix and Jess - two sides of the same coin. Fundamental, uncivilized, and unstoppable. I didn't underestimate the widow for one second, but in this fight my money was on the freebooter stretched out at my side.

The toe of Jess' boot hacked my ankle.

"Stop thinkin' about him," he grumbled sleepily.

"I'm not!"

"You're thinkin' about her, then. You got a scowl on your face, somethin' fierce."

"I was thinking about you," I retorted. "I was trying to decide what you were like."

"Come up with an answer?"

"Yes. You're a Barbary pirate."

He laughed. "You read too many books, Skeeter. Hey, somebody's comin'."

A man on a big red horse was riding up the draw.

"Looks like my partner." Jess picked up one of my hands and began toying with it. From a distance it must have seemed very lover-like. I could feel my face getting warm and thought hopelessly that my career as an adventuress was going to be a complete wash if I couldn't learn to stop blushing whenever Slim Sherman came into view.

Jess and I were able to carry on our sham flirtation for some time, hiding it carefully from Cousin Alvirah. It was only Slim we were trying to worry, after all. And we seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it, for Slim took to watching his partner nearly as closely as Cousin Alvirah was watching me. Whenever I managed to escape from my cousin's eagle eye to meet Jess, it seemed to be only a matter of time before Slim showed up, too.

Which didn't please Mrs. Mainwaring one bit. On the occasions when we ran into each other, it was difficult for her to hold her tongue, and once or twice her remarks brought a little puckered line to Slim's forehead.

If we could just keep her off-balance for a little longer, I thought, the time would come when she'd put her foot in it. The scales would miraculously fall from Slim's eyes and he'd see her for what she really was. Or so I kept telling myself as June made its way slowly into July.

It was a day when I actually had permission to be on the Sherman ranch, having mendaciously assured my cousin that Andy and I were going to go on a nature walk and collect botanical specimens for my scrapbook. So I had no reason to keep looking over my shoulder, especially since Andy was fishing at the lake and his absence was not likely to be detected by any adult authority. Jess and I climbed up to the hayloft where I could play with a new batch of kittens and we could plot at leisure.

Except that Jess was in a foul temper. I shrugged it off - maybe he had a toothache or something. I cuddled a kitten and brought up what had become my favorite topic, to whit, Slim Sherman and the tantalizing chance that he would ever find me attractive.

"Do you suppose if Mrs. Mainwaring gets fed up and starts looking for another conquest, then Slim would be free and maybe…I don't know…maybe he'd notice me?" I wondered.

"That'll be the day," Jess said contemptuously.

"Jess!" I dropped the kitten and it squeaked indignantly and waddled back to its mother.

"Oh, wake up, Skeeter! He thinks you're a kid." He gave me scornful glance. "You make me sick sometimes - a body'd think he was the only man in the world, to listen to you talk!"

I felt as though I'd been kicked by a hitherto trustworthy horse.

"Why are you being so mean?" I demanded.

"Why are you being such a dad-gummed fool?" Jess shot back. "You can't see what's right in front of you, can you? That woman could be on the moon an' Slim wouldn't look at you. I'm tellin' you this for your own good, Georgie - " he saw the expression on my face and broke off.

"What's the use? You ain't goin' to listen to a word I say."

He swung onto the ladder and climbed rapidly down to the ground.

I followed, my Irish up. If Jess Harper thought he could say such terrible things to me and just walk away he had another think coming. I got to the bottom of the ladder and when he put his hands on my waist to help me I brushed them aside and landed, very deliberately and quite hard, on his instep.

"Owww! You little - you done that on purpose!" He yanked me around to face him, simmering with rage. "Somebody needs to teach you not to go playin' with fire, little girl."

I looked into his eyes and was shaken by what I read there. Then my own temper boiled over and I pulled free.

"How dare you talk to me like that, you…you bully! I hope I hurt you!"

"You got no idea," he said harshly. He pushed me roughly away and we stood glaring at each other.

Suddenly the anger left him, gone like a blown-out candle.

"Ah, to hell with it." His voice was bitter and so quiet I almost couldn't hear him. He turned and limped out of the barn.

I was hunched over on the grain bin with my head down on my knees, wondering how things had gotten so out of hand, when Slim wandered in. He stopped short and looked at me with kindly concern.

"Is something wrong, Georgie?"

Georgie. Not Georgiana, or even Miss Georgie, and certainly not Miss van Alstyne. If I needed any confirmation of how Slim regarded me, there it was. Just plain Georgie. What had that Mainwaring woman once called me? A playmate for Andy. It was heartbreakingly clear that Slim, too, thought of me as closer to eight than to eighteen.

"Georgie?" He repeated.

"Nothing's wrong. Jess and I had a little disagreement, that's all," I lied.

"I was hoping I'd find you here - " I perked up "-because I wanted to talk to you. About Jess."

I subsided. Dutch uncle wasn't the role I hoped Slim would play, but it looked as though I was going to get another lecture whether I wanted one or not. I was getting fed up with the men in my life.

"Georgie," he began, seriously, "You think you know what you're doing. But you're not old enough to realize what kind of trouble you could get into. You and Jess - "

"Jess would never do anything to harm me," I objected.

"Not on purpose," Slim's voice was grave. "But you need to find a boy your own age to do your sweethearting with. Jess is just a little too - " he hesitated " - too experienced for you."

Stung, I fired back at him, "I'm not a child!"

"Compared to him, you're a babe in the woods." I could tell that he was trying hard to be patient with me. "Jess is a grown man. He's heard the owl and seen the elephant. And he's just not a suitable person for a young lady like you to -"

I couldn't believe my ears. "Are you saying Jess isn't good enough for me?"

"You know I'd never say that!" he said sharply. "But Jess - well, he's been some places and done some things that I don't think your folks would understand."

"I thought you were his friend!"

"I am -"

"Then I'm certainly glad I don't have any friends like you!" To my mortification I burst into tears.

"Oh, Georgie. " He sat down beside me on the bin. "Look, I wouldn't be telling you this if it weren't for your own good."

"Do you know how sick I am of people telling me things for my own good?" I sobbed.

Slim sighed, an exasperated, save-me-from-this-crying-woman sigh.

"I just don't want to see you get hurt," he told me.

His hand cradled my face and he bent his head towards mine. My vision blurred and my bones turned to water as he tipped my chin up and kissed me.

On the forehead.

"Why don't you go wash those tears off and I'll fix us some lemonade. Would you like that?" he asked. I made a strangled noise that could have been a "yes" and he gave my shoulder a sympathetic pat before heading for the house. If I didn't love him so much I would have kicked him.

It was so unfair, I thought crossly. There were other fish in the sea. Jess, for instance, who even if he did make me so mad I couldn't see straight, wasn't bad-looking and didn't treat me like a baby. If I had any brains I'd forget all about Slim Sherman.

That'll be the day, Jess' words echoed in my mind. I scrubbed my face and hands at the pump and sullenly trailed into the kitchen. It could have been worse. At least I was going to get a few moments alone with Slim.

Precious few, as it turned out, for he had just poured me out a glass of warm lemonade when a buggy drew up outside and Mrs. Mainwaring's voice called, "Oh, Mr. Sherman?"

Slim pushed his chair back with unflattering haste and went out to meet her. I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue at my glass, and visions of pistols and arsenic and poisonous snakes raced through my head.

"Pssst!"

I uncrossed my eyes. I don't know where he'd sprung from, but Jess was standing in the back door, and he had a folded towel in his hands, holding it carefully closed at the top.

"Why, it's little Miss Georgie!" Mrs. Mainwaring purred as she swept into the house. "Mr. Sherman, you didn't tell me you were babysitting."

"How do you do, Mrs. Mainwaring?" I rose to my feet, as was only polite in the presence of an elder.

The insult was subtle but she understood it and flushed, ever so slightly. Her quick eye took in Jess, hovering in the doorway. "And Mr. Harper, too. What a pleasant surprise." Her voice said it was anything but.

"Hello, ma'am," said Jess. "I wanted to show Georgie somethin' I caught for Andy."

He spread his hands. "Found it in the shed."

It was a bat. A very small bat, and terrified, but a bat nonetheless, and it swooped and darted around the kitchen in a panic only equaled by that of Alix Mainwaring.

"My hair!" She shrieked. "Keep it away from my hair!" And Jess, helpfully, ran around the room flapping the towel and somehow managing to get in Slim's way as he tried to capture the little creature.

Suddenly I knew what Jess must have guessed about Mrs. Mainwaring and her wonderful hair.

"Look out!" I shouted. "It's right above you!"

She bolted in my direction. I clutched at those beautiful auburn tresses and Mrs. Mainwaring shrieked again, despairingly.

I had never seen a completely bald woman before, and from the look on his face I don't think Slim had, either. His expression was that of a man looking at the wrong end of a loaded shotgun. Even Jess was speechless. The bat flew into the chimney corner and clung there, shivering.

Mrs. Mainwaring spoke for five minutes without repeating herself and when she was done I felt very small. It is an ugly thing, to see another woman shaming herself in front of the man she has been leading around by the nose, and after she left I couldn't meet Slim's eyes. To his credit, Jess couldn't either. We slipped out of the house and got into the buckboard without speaking.

It wasn't until we were halfway to the Pettigrew's that I felt Jess' shoulders shaking. He began to snort, and then to laugh, and the two of us howled and pounded each other on the back and congratulated ourselves gleefully. We were still giddy with our triumph when we stopped in front of the house. Jess danced me up the steps, whooping like a wild Indian.

Cousin Alvirah was serving tea on the porch, to Mrs. Robertson the minister's wife, and Mrs. Bartlett who was married to the banker. They stared at us, horrified - and it dawned on me that my face was bright red and my hair was hanging down over my shoulders, and Jess' shirt had come un-tucked. He removed his arm from my waist but not quickly enough.

"Go inside, Georgiana," said my cousin, awfully. I went.

By eight o'clock that night I was locked in a room on the second floor of the Laramie hotel, with a ticket for Cheyenne on the bureau and my trunks in the hall. It was small comfort that Alix Mainwaring had left town and my darling Slim was safe from her scheming, for I was being sent away and would never see him again. I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

I awoke to someone shaking me by the shoulder. The room was dark, with moonlight still slanting through the open window and across the floor. I blinked drowsily and then sat bolt upright, hauling the bedcovers up to my chin. Standing next to the bed was Jess.

"Put somethin' on," he ordered. "I want to talk to you."

He ducked out onto the balcony and I got into my flannel dressing gown, wishing fervently it was a Paris negligée. Here I was, with a man in my bedchamber late at night, and all I had to wear was something that looked like Martha Washington would have churned butter in it. I consoled myself with the thought that it was only Jess and he didn't care.

He was sitting with his legs stretched out and his back against the wall, and I plumped myself down beside him.

"Your cousin," he began without preamble, "gave me an earful."

"If it makes you feel any better it couldn't have been half what she gave me," I said consolingly. I was still smarting from some of her remarks. Lot's opinion of the Cities of the Plain paled in comparison.

Jess shook his head. "She's got a tongue on her like a skinnin' knife - she accused me of bringin' you home drunk! She said I've ruint you forever an' your Ma was never goin' to forgive her. An' she called you a shameless hussy in front of them other two women."

I leaned over and took one of his hands in mine. "It doesn't matter, Jess, really it doesn't."

"Now she's packin' you off home. I never meant to get you into a fix like this, Skeeter. I'm truly sorry."

I tried to speak cheerfully. "At least we got rid of Mrs. Mainwaring!"

Jess chuckled. "You know, that woman was as wrong as last year's almanac about my partner. He'd have got over the wig, if she could've just kept her temper. But when she started in on you it surely put the nails in her coffin."

He lifted my chin and looked at me, and there was an unfamiliar softness to his voice.

"I reckon there's no chance your folks might send you back next summer?" His thumb moved across my cheek, gently wiping away the tear marks.

"I…I don't know. I rather doubt it, after they get Cousin Alvirah's letter." I shivered slightly, thinking of what my parents were going to say when I got home.

"Prob'ly just as well. Right now you're 'bout half-way between hay and grass - but once you're growed you'll be hard for a man to let go of," he said wistfully.

We said good-bye, and Jess slung his legs over the balcony rail and dropped to the ground. I watched his cocky gunfighter's stride as he crossed the street to where his horse was tethered. Then he was gone, headed back to the Sherman ranch with the gelding stretched out in a long, easy lope. I crawled back through the window and into bed and lay there, thinking of Slim.

But after I closed my eyes, it was another man's face that slipped in and out of my dreams.